Following the recent demise of my beloved Mini*, I found myself housebound during the school holidays.
Happily though, this coincided with my children discovering the joys of audiobooks and lego, which meant that I was able to spend a blissful week curled up with Charles Dickens – A Life by Claire Tomalin.
Though I am a big fan of biographies, I have to confess that I had never been the greatest admirer of Dickens’ work.
(My only previous encounter was being forced to read A Tale of Two Cities in Miss Taylor’s English class about twenty years ago – not exactly top of my teenage To Do list…)
In fact, I hadn’t even planned to buy this book but found myself in an ‘I urgently need something to read!’ situation (bookless in Starbucks) and this was the book that found its way into my hands.
And though I’d heard good reviews of it, I didn’t have any great expectations. (Sorry, couldn’t resist….).
I loved it!
Tomalin has created a captivating, intimate, yet balanced portrayal of the legendary writer – bringing to life his genius and his brilliance, as well as his darker qualities.
And it is an absolute joy to read.
Yet the narrative is as engaging as a novel and the research is woven effortlessly into this fascinating story.
It is such an easy and enjoyable read that it’s hard to imagine the Herculean research task Tomalin must have undertaken to be able to create such a convincing and comprehensive account.
It is undoubtedly an outstanding achievement for the author.
But such efforts are not a concern for the reader.
We just get to sit back and enjoy the fruits of her ambitious undertaking.
We get to enjoy the ringside view of Dickens life performance, from his boyhood home in Kent, to his love/hate affair with London, as well as his many global travels and adventures.
And we get to meet the supporting cast of his life, a rich and varied troupe of players, many of whom stayed loyal to Dickens throughout his life – despite his many flaws and failings.
Undoubtedly the most intriguing character and storyline is the mysterious Nelly – the love of Dickens’ life.
(You’ve got to admire a woman who endures great loss and public ostracism, only to reappear, reinvented, knocking 14 years off her age – something her children only discovered after her death. Tomalin clearly agrees as she has just released The Invisible Woman, devoted to Nelly’s story.)
Obviously Dickens’ work also plays a central role in the book and anyone interested in writers and their craft will find much of interest, as Tomalin reveals the stories behind the stories – the origins of Dickens’ books and fictional characters.
Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of his career – certainly the root of his prodigious output – was his impressive work ethic.
The man never stopped!
Tomalin claims that keeping busy, taking on so much/too much, was Dickens’ coping mechanism.
But while the tale of his prolific and stellar career is fascinating, his success came at a cost and we are given a balanced insight into the price he paid, in terms of his friends, his family and his physical and mental health.
It was also enlightening to learn that even the greats are prone to blaming unfavourable conditions as an excuse for procrastination.
As the father of 10 children, Dickens would frequently bemoan the noise, particularly of the boys (I can relate to that) – this despite the luxury of nannies and governesses (I wish I could relate to that…).
But being committed to his art, Dickens wasn’t averse to desperate measures in a bid to create the peace in which to write – dispatching his many offspring to French boarding schools or encouraging them to emigrate!
(This is maybe a bit extreme for me but I was envious of his other tactic – building a writing chalet at the bottom of the garden.)
The people, the places, the books and writings, the study of Dickens’ complicated character – all combine in Tomalin’s expert hands and make for an absorbing insight into one of our greatest, most-loved writers.
By the end of the book, I felt that I had come to know well the world of Charles Dickens, and slightly bereft to have to leave it.
So whether you’re interested in Dickens in particular, or writers in general, or even just human nature and the story of an extraordinary life, this enthralling tale of the original Dickensian life is a great read.
And, like the finest work of Mr Dickens himself, it lingers long after the final page.
PS I was encouraged to find that I have something in common with the great writer: Dickens was a lifelong devotee of long walks. He favoured twelve-mile midnight jaunts through the seedier streets of London and saw these as essential to his writing, claiming:
“If I couldn’t walk fast and far,
I should just explode and perish.”
I’m fascinated by this link between creativity and wellbeing and I’ll be delving more deeply into this in an upcoming project. (If a writing and wellness combo sounds like your thing, you can get more details here.)
Also by Claire Tomalin
*My Mini No3 perished when I valiantly took on a flood-puddle (fluddle?)…and lost.