Thursday 5 January 2012

Book Review: "Charles Dickens: A Life" by Claire Tomalin

Twenty years ago biographer Claire Tomalin put out a book about the relationship between Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens. It was called The Invisible Woman (1991). That book focused on the love affair between the young actress Nelly Ternan (she was eighteen when they met in 1857), and the middle-aged author (he was forty-five).

Charles Dickens at the age of 49 by the London portrait photographer George Herbert Watkins.

Her new book, Charles Dickens: A Life, gives us the whole story of his remarkable life. It is a modest account. Ms. Tomalin doesn’t attempt to be exhaustive in her account of this very busy public-figure; her book clocks in at just over 400 pages.

But it’s a comprehensive book, despite the size. In addition to the 420 pages of text, it includes a set of maps, a “Cast List”, three sets of photographs, full notes and a detailed index. The maps show Gad’s Hill and its Rochester environs, and detailed maps of central London and North London, which show the many houses that Dickens and his family lived in, and other buildings important in the writer’s life. Four pages of notes provide information about the maps. The three eight-page sections of photographs are spread through the book and there is a detailed set of notes providing the sources of each image. And the “cast list” contains mini biographies (three or four lines each) about 150 main figures in Dickens’s life. Surprising omissions, though, are a bibliography of Dickens’s works and a chronology, or time-line, of his life. So, the book is well organized, handsomely designed and put together – and it has an impressive photographic image of Dickens filling the front cover.

And what of the text inside? It’s an interesting read. Of course, it’s hard not be readable when you’re writing about a man who is so brilliant and compelling. One is staggered by the on-going energy and drive of the man. In that white-hot phase of the first five years of his writing success, he wrote five large novels, writing and publishing usually in twenty monthly parts – and for most of that five years he was writing two novels simultaneously.

Claire Tomalin, author of Charles Dickens: A Life

Ms. Tomalin writes well and she adopts a measured, tolerant view of her subject. She is good at providing an interesting balance between the story of his life and the treatment of his writings. Her critiques of the books are reasonable and I found myself agreeing with most of her critical judgments (I’ve read nine of his fourteen novels, so far). And she doesn't ignore the negative aspects of Dickens's character - and the disaster that was his classic mid-life crisis.

What stands out for me in this book is the important relationship between Dickens and his friend John Forster (who went on to write a seminal, three-volume biography of Dickens's life). They were very close for all of Dickens's professional life. Forster received drafts of most of Dickens writing - before they went to print - and offered helpful and encouraging advice.

This is a book I heartily recommend. I learned a lot about Dickens and enjoyed the three days I was immersed again in the life of one of England’s greatest novelists. And , as should be, the experience impells me to read more Dickens. And so, I will!

[Next – Sketches by Boz]


  1. Great review Clive. I'm reading it too. I'll tell you what I think when I've finished it.
    All the best,

  2. Nice to hear you have enjoyed Tomalin's book on Dickens - I have it on my TBR pile - right next to the Ackroyd I also found in a secondhand bookshop and have not yet read either! - I loved Tomalin's The Invisible Woman on Ellen Tiernan and of course her Austen biography is my favorite... as is her work on Hardy. She brings her subjects to life, doesn't she?

    Thank you for the impetus to read this! -
    And good luck with your blog! [your chum Tony Grant alerted me to you!]
    Deb at

  3. Hi Clive. I'm a friend of Tony Grant's. Live in AZ. I'm also reading this book. I'm finding it a long, hard slog. Although I know where Dickens was for nearly every day of his life, the essence of the man is missing. There are exceptions, e.g., his interactions with Miss Coutts and his friendship with Forster. I want to meet the man who created Mr. Micawber. But I'm in the minority on this.

  4. Hi Clive! Welcome to the blogging world! Your review of Claire Tomalin's book about Charles Dickens made me want to go out and purchase the book. I was a huge Dickens fan in college and never lost my interest in his works. As for Ms. Tomalin, her biography of Jane Austen is outstanding. Her style is so readable, and yet she has done her homework. I'm glad Tony sent me your way! Vic

  5. Anyone here interested in Jean Rhys?

    The Blue Hour is a very readable book on her life.