This is a full scale biography of Dickens, warts and all. As well as the traditional story of his rise from rags to riches, from working in the blacking factory with a father imprisoned for debt, ashamed, his intelligence and ambition seemingly frustrated, to national institution, Tomalin shows how his boundless drive led him to dominate his family, to destroy his marriage and tempted him into bitter enmities with those he once had loved.
It is also the story of his books. He published serials, often writing the next installment only days before the deadline, sometimes writing two at once. Because of this he could not reflect upon the work and revise it. He was stuck with where he'd got to. Perhaps because of this, each book is flawed. His plots are (necessarily because of the need to keep people purchasing the next installment) very complicated and usually flawed. Most of them veer close to melodrama. When he is sentimental he can go over the top, certainly by the standards of today but even for some of the contemporary critics.His characters are often caricatures. But his energy is overpowering and the wonderful grotesques and the sense of place and the comic dialogue and the rampant fight for the common man. As Tomalin points out, he writes about ordinary people as if they are important. Dwarfs and cripples are not always villains; villains are often villains for a reason. Although no book is unflawed and his heroines are often soppy, every book has moments of brilliance.
Unlike many of his contemporary authors, such as Wilkie Collins who kept two mistresses by one of whom he fathered children but who never married, Dickens attempted respectability. It was only after his poor wife, never really loved and grown enormous after ten pregnancies, was ditched in favour of Ellen Ternan that Dickens flouted convention and even then he kept Nelly hidden and secret and was never open about her. Even in the famous railway disaster when he was travelling with Nelly and her mum (back from the continent where Nelly had given birth to and lost his child) Dickens ensured that they were away from the scene before rendering the help for which he took a hero's credit.
But Dickens was remarkable simply because of his industry. A monthly novel required him to write 7,500 words each month. Some novels, such as Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, overlapped so he was writing 15,000 words per month then. He also did journalism, edited magazines and read aloud on public tours. He worked because he was so afraid of poverty: these were the days before and social welfare safety net. Later, when he had enough money for himself, he wrote because he needed to pay for an ever-larger army of dependents, from his extravagant father to his feckless sons, his unmarried daughters, his brothers and sisters and their broods once orphaned, his mistress and her family etc. At the same time he organised charitable funds for friends and acquaintances who had fallen upon hard times. He was a driven whirlwind.
This book pays a remarkable tribute to a remarkable man. May 2013; 417 pages.
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57