A while ago I blogged about how much I enjoyed John Mullan’s book about Jane Austen. I followed that up by reading HOW NOVELS WORK by the same author. This too is hugely enjoyable and I found a lot of food for thought both as a reader and a writer. I knew I was in for a treat when I read this on the first page: ‘When the novelist William Thackeray first dined with Charlotte Brontë, he discomposed her by quoting from memory, as he smoked an after-dinner cigar, some cigar-smoke-inspired lines from JANE EYRE – lines that lead us to the heroine’s meeting with Mr Rochester in the garden of Thornfield, and to his first declaration of love for her. “Sweet-briar and southernwood, jasmine, pink and rose have long been yielding their evening sacrifice of incense: this new scent is neither of shrub nor flower – I know it well – it is Mr Rochester’s cigar.” Thackeray had been gripped by Brontë’s novel, first reading it right through in a single day, and then returning to savour it.’ Discomposed she may have been, but what a compliment, too, particulary coming as it did from a writer older and much better established. I love this story, which Mullen uses to illustrate the power of particular passages of literature to stay in the mind. The book’s divided into sections: beginning, narrating, people, genre, and so on, right through to – naturally – endings. That makes it sound a bit dry, but actually it’s full of fascinating insights and there are categories that you don’t normally find in a work of criticism. I especially enjoyed a section on ‘Meals’ in Mullen remarks that ‘Dickens perfected the art of the meal as a fictional set-piece’ and gives as an example of ‘the chill privilege of mean luxury’ the meal at the christening party in DOMBEY AND SON: ‘a cold collation, set forth in a cold pomp of glass and silver, and looking more like a dead dinner lying in state, than a social refreshment.’That made me laugh out loud. Mullen’s book has made me want to go back to favourite writers like Dickens and enjoy them all over again, and he’s alerted me too to some that I haven’t yet read. His reference, for instance, to Conrad’s ‘wonderful novella YOUTH about not being young any more’ has whetted my appetite and that’s now on my reading list.
Second only to the pleasure of reading a great novel is the pleasure of reading a great biography. I read Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens over Christmas and I felt a sense of loss when I’d finished it. For over 400 pages I’d been immersed in someone else’s life and though Tomalin tells us what happened to all the other characters it still wasn’t enough. Like Oliver Twist I wanted more! No reflection on the writer: if there’s too much detail then the narrative gets bogged down. I felt she got the balance right. Maybe it was the sense of a life cut short: he wasn’t even sixty when he died.
However it isn’t just the selection of detail and a compelling narrative that makes this such a good biography. Tomalin is so judicious and her moral judgements are so sound. The relationship between biographer and subject is such a close one that it can be all too easy for the biographer to let her subject off the hook. Tomalin doesn’t do that. She is clear that Dickens behaved appallingly to his wife Catherine when after twenty years of marriage and ten children he fell in love with Ellen Ternan, a young actress twenty-seven years his junior. I was fascinated by her account of Dickens’s secret menage and was convinced by her suggestion that Dickens had a son by Ellen and that their son died in infancy. He established Ellen in a series of out of the way locations, including Linden Grove in Peckham, which I was fascinated to realise is not far from where I used to live myself.
Poor Catherine: a married life of more or less continous child-bearing interspersed with an occasional miscarriage and then to be thrown off in such a public fashion – to be blamed even for the failure of the marriage and to have so little chance of redress. Reading this I was more than ever glad not to have been a woman in the nineteenth century. And yes, Dickens was a genius whose works have given me very great pleasure over the years, but to read about the way that he forced his children to choose between himself and his wife . . .
Ah well, it will be clear from this that Tomalin’s book succeeded in doing what a biography should do: bringing the subject completely to life for the reader. I think this is as close to actually meeting Dickens as I will ever get.