Book Review: Charles Dickens

By John Gardner

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Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin
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Book cover of Charles Dickens: A Life. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Charles Dickens: A Life. Photo / Supplied

We have the idea that the celebrity cult is a modern phenomenon. But when Charles Dickens visited America in 1842 he was surrounded by cheering crowds whenever he tried to go for a walk and ladies tried to snip bits from his fur coat and sought locks of his hair. Civic deputations waited on him and he was pursued by painters and sculptors. He and his wife had to spend two hours a day shaking hands with the visiting throng.

Where Dickens differs, perhaps, from some of today's celebrities is that he was possessed of a gigantic talent. Two hundred years after his birth his reputation remains as high as ever. His characters have become immortal and, with the help of a never-ending flow of television and film adaptations, are familiar to thousands who have never actually read him.

But, as Tomalin's superb biography illustrates, Dickens was as compelling a character as any he created and considerably more complex. Writers can be unrewarding subjects for biographers with their lives restricted to sitting scribbling, but Dickens was a torrent of energy and activity. His productivity as a novelist was prodigious and he was a journalist and campaigner of enormous drive and commitment, an amateur theatre performer and organiser whose efforts were on a professional scale, the centre of a convivial social life, including the literary and artistic lions of his time, and an exercise fanatic who thought nothing of 20km walks and rowing long stretches of the Thames.

You can almost hear Tomalin gasping for breath as she lists some of his schedules and she is not exactly lacking in energy herself as her output demonstrates.

The broad outlines of Dickens' life are well known. His father was charming but financially incompetent, spending time in debtors' prison and Charles had to work in a blacking factory when he was 12, a humiliation which lingered throughout his life. His formal education ceased when he was 15. He became a parliamentary reporter, turned to writing and by the time he was 25 had established a public reputation which continued to grow throughout his life.

Tomalin fleshes out the bones of this life with a wealth of detail, all telling and relevant, and she exercises a keen critical eye on the strengths and weaknesses of his writing, not sparing the lash on his many potboiler works but with an enthusiast's appreciation of his qualities.

But she is at her best in tackling Dickens' convoluted private life. He married Catherine Hogarth young and fathered 10 children before casting his blameless wife aside and concentrating his emotional life on a teenage actress, Nell Ternan, and his sister-in-law, Georgina. Whether his relationship with Ternan was physical remains controversial, although Tomalin, whose life of the actress is another biographical triumph, is firmly and convincingly of the belief that they were lovers and that Ternan bore him a son who died.

Whether or not the affair was consummated, his infatuation with Ternan dominated his later years and contributed to his appalling treatment of Catherine, behaviour so heartless it can only be read with astonishment.

His private callousness was not restricted to Catherine - those of his children and friends who upset him were cast into the darkness of ostracism with no hope of reprieve. And yet this was a man who for years supported a host of families who had fallen on to hard times.

Like his contemporary Gladstone he took an interest in the plight of London's prostitutes and set up an exemplary non-judgmental institution to help them, which he oversaw in every practical detail. But his concern did not stop him using prostitutes himself or suggesting to a friend where he might find them.

The mainspring of Dickens was his art and he was still devotedly writing his last, unfinished, novel at the end of his life, suffering under a burden of chronic and severe ill health, probable alcohol dependence and emotional burdens that would have stilled the pen of most men.

There are shelves full of works about this fascinating, paradoxical man but there can be few to equal this absorbing, intelligent book.

John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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