|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]