Review 1321: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

Cover for Samuel PepysYears ago, I attempted to read Samuel Pepys’s diary, but I didn’t make much headway. However, I was reading it without any context. Now that I’ve read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Pepys, I am interested in trying it again.

For one thing, I was not aware that Pepys worked his way up, by his great energy and organizational skills, from a poor beginning to an eminent position in the British admiralty. He was responsible for setting up many of the procedures used today. In the diary’s beginning, he is just a lowly clerk who seems to go out drinking a lot.

But Tomalin’s admiration is for Pepys’s unstinting truthfulness, even when it makes him look bad, as well as the literary and historical value of the diary. In short, he was a marvelous writer who documented significant events in a tumultuous period of British history.

Tomalin’s talent as a biographer is in giving her readers a true feeling for the personality of her subject. Pepys was a pleasure seeker, a womanizer, and not always an honest man, but he was curious, cultured, highly intelligent, dedicated, and faithful to his patrons. Although he had a poor opinion of both Charles II and James II, he served them faithfully, even when it was against his best interests. Pepys turns out to be a very interesting person.

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Day 1101: Thomas Hardy

Cover for Thomas HardyThomas Hardy has long been one of my favorite Victorian writers, so when I learned that Claire Tomalin had written his biography, I set about getting a copy. Tomalin has made a career of writing interesting and readable but meticulously documented biographies of mostly literary figures and has become one of my favorite biographers.

Tomalin shows that Hardy was a contradictory man—shy but eager to socialize in intellectual circles, resenting early snubs but nevertheless a snob himself, an inner-living man who still welcomed all who came to see him. Hardy was the son of an uneducated builder and a house servant, both of whom encouraged him in his efforts to gain an education and better himself. But in those days this was difficult, and he never achieved his dream of a Cambridge education. Instead, he went to work at 16 in an architect’s office.

Above all else, Hardy became a writer who challenged conventional attitudes toward women, sex in literature, and religion. Almost from the beginning of his career, while still writing formula novels, he ran into trouble with editors wanting to censor his work. His publication of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, with its subtitle “A Pure Woman,” caused an uproar. Although I have read many of his novels, it was fascinating to read about them in terms of events going on in his own life.

What I had not read much of is his poetry. Hardy always considered himself a poet rather than a novelist, and at the height of his career, after publication of Jude the Obscure, he caused another furor by quitting his novel-writing career to concentrate on poetry. Tomalin is obviously a fan of his poetry, and although I am not much of a poetry reader, the snippets she reproduces are musical and beautiful, and the context she gives them fascinating.

Tomalin begins her book with the story of Hardy’s regret after his first wife’s death that they had grown apart. The story of that relationship, as well as that with his second wife, is also very interesting.

Tomalin has a gift for breathing life into her subjects so that you feel as if you understand them, at least a little. If you have any interest in Thomas Hardy, you’ll find this a compelling book.

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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.

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Day 550: The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan

Cover for The Invisible WomanThe Invisible Woman is the interesting story of the relationship between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan, the true nature of which is still being debated. Although Dickens’ reputation was jealously guarded by himself during his life and by his friends and family after his death, Claire Tomalin shows convincing evidence that the two had an affair during the last 13 years of his life.

They met when Nelly was just 18 and he was at the height of his fame at 45. She and her mother and two sisters were struggling, hard working but respectable actresses, or as respectable as actresses could be during the Victorian era. It is possible that Dickens at first thought he had latched onto a bird of a different feather as he befriended the family.

Although Nelly was excited by the attention of such a famous man, it seems clear that she succumbed to him only reluctantly. He offered her a chance at a life free from the worries of poverty but one in which she could not be a member of society.

This is a fascinating story, particularly because of the lengths Dickens went to protect his own image even while shedding his wife Catherine in a cruelly public way and telling lies about it. The actions of his sister-in-law at this time toward her own sister seem almost inexplicable. Also interesting is how Nelly managed to reinvent herself after Dickens’ death.

This book is an engrossing, well written, carefully researched account of events in Dickens’ life that were hidden for years. Only a few years ago I read another biography of Dickens that glossed over this friendship, alternately suggesting that it was perfectly innocent and that Nelly was a gold digger while never actually committing itself about the nature of the relationship. Although there were rumors even at the time of the affair, the cover-up was so pervasive that details are still being uncovered.

Day 479: Jane Austen: A Life

Cover for Jane Austen: A LifeIn Jane Austen: A Life, noted biographer Claire Tomalin has handily accomplished a difficult task. Because most of Jane Austen’s letters and papers were destroyed by well-meaning relatives, very little first-hand information about her life is available. As a 19th century unmarried woman, her experience was circumscribed, so the events of her life are ordinary ones. Descriptions of a life like this could be thin and lifeless, but Tomalin manages to provide us with a biography that is full of interest and lively and creates a convincing idea of Austen’s character.

From records, letters, the remaining few of Austen’s papers, and accounts of her by relatives, friends, and neighbors, Tomalin reconstructs the story of not only Austen’s life but of those who were important to her. Tomalin acquaints us with the members of Austen’s family and the bustling environment in the Steventon Rectory, where Jane’s father ran a small boys’ school. She describes friendships and visits to neighboring families. Even though Austen never used her own neighborhood in her books, it is easy from them to imagine the daily social calls and the housewifely tasks with which she and her female relatives were engaged.

It is not too hard to imagine the relationship between Jane and her sister Cassandra as close to that of Lizzie and her sister Jane in Pride and Prejudice, although Tomalin never mentions that either of these characters were based on real people. Still, the two sisters were extremely close.

Unlike Lizzie and Jane, though, both Jane and Cassandra were disappointed in love, Cassandra because her fiancé died, and Jane because her suitor needed to marry a woman with money. Tomalin makes the points that a married Jane Austen would probably have been too busy or too distracted to produce a body of literature and that later in life she seemed to understand some of the benefits of remaining single. As to the first point, it is certainly true that being removed without warning and against her will from Steventon because of the retirement of her father, and her family’s failure to settle anywhere for ten years afterward, completely cut off Austen’s literary production for that time period.

It seems that Austen’s status as a spinster with no money of her own gave her no control at all in her life about such questions as where she would live and even in one case when she could return home from a family visit. That is, she had no control until her late thirties, when she began to publish her novels. Even then, she ultimately earned very little money from them but enough to give her a small amount of autonomy.

Although most of the events of Austen’s life were relatively small, Tomalin’s book provides an absorbing account. I did not always agree with her interpretations of Austen’s novels, but I feel that this book allows me to know Austen and her family and friends a little better.