Charles Dickens: A Life covers some of the same material as The Invisible Woman, Claire Tomalin’s excellent book about Dickens’ affair with Nelly Ternan, but it is broader in scope and provides more information about his life. Of course, The Invisible Woman was in a way ground-breaking, because it brought out into the open a relationship that was concealed for many years. In fact, the Dickens biography by Peter Ackroyd, which came out in 1991, the same year as The Invisible Woman, dismissed the affair as an improbability.
I much preferred this biography to Ackroyd’s. While Ackroyd practically falls all over himself telling us what a genius Dickens was, Tomalin is not afraid to examine the whole person, warts and all. Certainly, Dickens was charming, energetic, lots of fun for his friends, and the possessor of a serious social conscience. He was also one who ruthlessly cut ties to some friends and family, occasionally for trivial reasons; who treated his wife shamefully when he separated from her after 22 years of marriage (insisting, for example, that his children take his side and cut off ties to her); who made a young girl from a financially struggling family his mistress when he was more than twice her age. I feel that his fame was not good for him—that it gave him an inflated sense of his own importance and made him think he was infallible. Of course, he was probably the most famous person of his time. We have no modern equivalent.
Those interested in Dickens’ life and works will enjoy this biography. Dickens’ story is unique. He certainly had a difficult early life and worked hard for his success. He also started out as a much nicer person than the man he became, so during most of the book he is very likable. In fact, it’s easy to see why he was so loved by most of his friends and family. He was one of those charming people who are loved whether they deserve it or not. And in many ways, he did deserve it.
The book is extremely well written and very well researched, with more than 100 pages of notes and bibliography. Although more than 400 pages long (not counting the back matter), it moves along nicely and is entertaining. There are three insets of pictures and photos to illustrate the discussion along with a few interspersed drawings.
Just a small comment on my recurring theme of the quality of publishing. My copy of the book was bound upside down. Yes, the cover is on upside down, which I found rather disconcerting as I was always picking it up to read upside down. Unfortunately, I had it too long before opening it to return it for another copy.