Monday, 21 October 2013

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

Charles Dickens has been hot the last year, mainly since 2012 was the 200 anniversary of his birth, but also because after all this time his books are still read and admired. The book about his life that I have read is a brick stone of around 500 pages written by Claire Tomalin. Claire Tomalin is a new acquaintance to me but she will become a close friend in the future. This is an excellently written biography and when you look at the list of books by the same author you have a very interesting list of biographies that she has written. Can't wait to read about Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelly, Katherine Mansfield, Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys and Thomas Hardy.

Back to this book. It is a very thorough and very detailed book. It really must cover most aspects of his life. It covers his younger years, the beginning of his carrier as a journalist, his marriage to Catherine Hogart, his carrier as a writer, his travels (America, Italy, France) his friends, family and monetary problems etc etc. Dickens must have been a man out of the extraordinary considering his energy and his production. It seems he was never still always on the move. His working capacity was above everyone else in his surroundings.

It seems he was a man with a conscious. He often walked the streets of London and not only the fancy streets but the poorer ones. He could see in what misery people lived. His own background where his father was put in jail and the family had to come there to live with him gave him a scar for life. He himself had to start working as a teenager and although he did get an education he was more or less a self made man.

Dickens was one of the most popular writer during the Victorian time.
His books are still known and read today; The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and many many more. I think most of them have been filmed several times and some of the have been made into musicals. His legacy is still alive today.




What about the man then? This is the most interesting part of a biography. Dickens seems to have been worshipped as almost a god in those day. Maybe something similar to our movie or music stars today. He was there for everyone. Except...it seems, his family. Catherine and he go 10 children of which 9 survived. Catherine was a very calm, almost shy person in love with Dickens like everyone else. However, he soon realised that she could not match himself intellectually and the marriage was strained for many years (in spite of the 10 children) until he separated or divorced her. Can not have been common in those days.

Dickens was very interested in the theatre and also put up plays in which he performed himself. In this circle he ran into Nelly Tiernan a young actress of which he became slightly obsessed. He stayed with Nelly for the rest of his life (although the visits were so discreet so for many years outsiders were not sure whether they were lovers or not), bought her a house and took care of the whole family; her mother and her two sisters.

Dickens father was a man who could not control money and Dickens had to help him out most of his life. Dickens brothers were more or less the same. He frequently had to come to the rescue. His own family and his life stile also cost money so he was frantically trying to earn money his whole life. This lay as an extra stress on him. Furthermore, of all his 10 children only one managed to pursue a successful carrier!

My own opinion after reading the book is that Dickens must have been a very self absorbed man. He was treated like a god of his friends and fans and I think it would be difficult for anyone to have a say around him. He dictated the rules and everyone had to follow. If he didn't like something a friend did this could be the end to their friendship. His popularity probably also spoiled him.

As far as his production one must really admire the man. I think it is difficult through history to find someone with that energy, that pathos, that goal to achieve what he wanted. On top of that he was a gifted writer. He wrote for the people, he wrote of the situation in the country, he wanted to improve things for the poor. He has created so many unforgettable characters but one thing were he lacked was the possibility to create a true female characters. According to the biography the female characters are very stereotyped. Maybe he just did not understand women and did not see them as they were but as a fiction in his fantasy.

A fantastic book and a must read for any Dickens fan!

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