Sunday, March 11, 2012

CHARLES DICKENS: A LIFE - Tomalin - Book Review

Claire Tomalin knows how to write a biography, that's a fact. If you haven't read Tomalin's Jane Austen and Samuel Pepys biography, I hope you will.  Both were excellent.  Tomalin's books are well-researched, thoughtful, and she's good at putting all the pieces together.  But Charles Dickens A Life was a bit painful and I think it was because frequently Dickens was a monster (Samuel Pepys was no boy scout but I didn't have any expectations that he was). Dickens could also be more generous than anyone in his position.  Meaning he wasn't landed gentry, had a wife and ten kids to feed, parents and siblings to assist, yet he was always looking to help or mentor others when he wasn't being vindictive or cruel.

If you have this warm fuzzy picture of Charles Dickens in your mind and you don't want that to change, then don't read this or any other of his biographies.  The less known the better. The facts aren't pretty but they are very interesting. I'm sure you've heard people say, "you either love him (or her) or hate him", but in this case lots of people both loved and hated Dickens including his own children. 

What I liked was knowing how many failures Dickens had yet he kept writing.  Some books were genius (Great Expectations) others considered terrible, and still others considered half good, half worthless.  But he was good at his craft, believed in his ability, and so kept on going to produce some of the greats in English Literature. That's a good lesson for all of us attempting anything we believe worth doing.

His daughter, Katey, said to Bernard Shaw "that she wished someone would correct the prevailing view of Dickens as 'a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch'." This book takes care of that wish.

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