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.
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