Day 839: Charles Dickens: A Life

Cover for Charles DickensCharles 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.

Related Posts

The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan

Charles Dickens

Jane Austen: A Life

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13 thoughts on “Day 839: Charles Dickens: A Life

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review January 26, 2016 / 12:10 pm

    I started Ackroyd’s biography but couldn’t get through the whole thing. This looks more approachable, and I really liked Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • whatmeread January 26, 2016 / 12:12 pm

      I thought Ackroyd’s biography was horrible, to be honest. It had sentences that went on for half the page. Tomalin is starting to be one of my favorite biographers of literary subjects.

  2. The Paperback Princess January 26, 2016 / 12:51 pm

    It was bound upside down?! That’s annoying.

    I so agree with you about this biography – it was meticulous and by the end you really feel like you got to know the REAL Dickens. I do think it would have been even better had I read more of his work!

    • whatmeread January 26, 2016 / 12:54 pm

      Yes, isn’t that aggravating? Is anyone doing quality checks of printed books anymore? Literally every time I picked it up, I was holding it upside down. Yes, I think it helps a little to have read the works. One reason I’m putting off reading Nabokov’s auto-biography is I’ve only read one of his books. It’s a good biography for anyone, though.

      • The Paperback Princess January 26, 2016 / 12:56 pm

        One time I read 968 pages of War and Peace only to discover that pages 969-1016 were MISSING. That was 3 years ago and I haven’t finished the damn book. It seems so harsh to have to go and re-read that entire thing because of a publishing oversight.
        Must have been fun for people to watch you reading it though – “why is she reading upside down???”

      • whatmeread January 26, 2016 / 12:57 pm

        Oh, my gosh! I’ve had a few pages missing before, but not 50 pages of the book!

  3. Helen January 26, 2016 / 2:46 pm

    I enjoyed this book too, though when I read it I had only actually read a few of Dickens’ novels. I would probably get more out of this biography if I read it again now that I’ve read more of his work. Have you read Claire Tomalin’s book on Samuel Pepys? I thought that one was fascinating.

    • whatmeread January 26, 2016 / 2:48 pm

      No, I haven’t read that one yet, just The Invisible Woman and her biography of Jane Austen. I bet that one is interesting. I tried reading his diary once, but at least at the beginning I found it too boring.

  4. Carolyn O January 26, 2016 / 3:25 pm

    This sounds really good–I like your point in the comments, though; I think I’ll wait til I’ve read a few more of his books.

  5. Naomi January 26, 2016 / 5:25 pm

    This reminds me that I want to read her biography of Thomas Hardy very badly. But, really I want to read about all these people she’s written about. She has good taste in subjects!
    Love this review, warts and all! 🙂

    • whatmeread January 27, 2016 / 7:27 am

      Oh, that’s another one I’d be very interested in! Thanks!

  6. Geoff W January 27, 2016 / 7:10 am

    Ugh – not a fan of Dickens in anyway. But I love the quirkiness of publishing mistakes! I’d hold on to the upside down binding, generations from now people might get a kick out of it.

    • whatmeread January 27, 2016 / 7:27 am

      They won’t if they try to read it!

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