three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
57-Mar-Apr-2012
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A Life

A-Charles-DickensClaire Tomalin has penned biographies of Thomas Hardy (Thomas Hardy, 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2007), Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys, and Charles Dickens's mistress, the actress Nelly Ternan (The Invisible Woman [1991]), among others. In Charles Dickens: A Life, Tomalin examines the different sides of the 19th century's most famous writer.

The Topic: "If you could make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch," Charles Dickens's daughter wrote to playwright George Bernard Shaw after her father's death, "you would greatly oblige me." Still a household name nearly a century and a half after publishing his last novel, Dickens drew on his own early life for much of his material. His father having been sent to debtors' prison, the young Charles was forced to work in a factory. Spurred by that mean upbringing and an eye for the gritty details of 19th-century city life, Dickens honed his craft on London's infamous Fleet Street and became one of the great and prolific chroniclers of Victorian England--as well as a rock star in America. In Charles Dickens: A Life, Claire Tomalin makes that autobiographical connection clear and introduces the author's lesser-known dark side, a world of depression, betrayal, and deception rivaling any imagined by the author in his many novels.
Penguin. 576 pages. $36. ISBN: 9781594203091

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars"Claire Tomalin ... manages a very un-Dickensian book about a man who lived a dizzyingly full life. The book moves at a fast clip as Tomalin condenses years at a time into short chapters." Anne Trubek

Salon 4 of 5 Stars"No writer better mastered the novel's delicate calculus of art and entertainment than Charles Dickens. ... ‘The whole world knows Dickens, his London and his characters,' writes Claire Tomalin in her new biography of the author, but the portrait she paints is of a man who, to his sorrow, did not always know himself." Laura Miller

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars"Tomalin brings Dickens to life by following his own method: She provides choice details, superintends many characters, and welcomes both humor and pathos. ... Tomalin's is not the definitive Dickens--it's too concise for that--but if you plan to read only one biography of the most popular Victorian writer, it should be this one." Michael Sims

Globe and Mail (Canada) 3.5 of 5 Stars"With so much now known, biography becomes a matter of tone, accent and point of view. ... [Tomalin's] biography is not so astonishing, merely pointed and suave." Adele Freedman

Chicago Sun-Times 3 of 5 Stars"[Tomalin] adopts a straightforward, meticulously linear approach that sometimes gets mired in minutiae between the big events. Far too much time is spent on the details of house purchases, travel arrangements, where the kids stayed, etc." John Barron

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars"Mr. Ackroyd's bloated, self-indulgent Dickens did little to capture the inner life of the protean Dickens, and Fred Kaplan's 1988 biography, while informative, felt oddly bloodless. The same thing is unfortunately true of Ms. Tomalin's long-awaited book. The author of exemplary studies of Samuel Pepys (a figure certainly as vital and as full of contradictions as Dickens) and Jane Austen, Ms. Tomalin oddly seems to have written this Dickens biography on automatic pilot." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

As her work on some of the major British literary figures of the last three centuries attests, Claire Tomalin is a capable guide through the parlors and back alleys of Victorian England. This is a relatively condensed life of Charles Dickens. Yet even though the text of the book checks in at more than 400 pages, Tomalin never loses her grasp on the narrative threat. The indulgent asides mostly serve to admirably detail the contradictions of Dickens's life. Writing on a life as large and well-lived as Dickens's, is of course, a demanding balancing act: leave out too much, and the book has a quality of being written on "automatic pilot" (New York Times); run too far into the weeds, and the story "gets mired in minutiae between the big events" (Chicago Sun-Times). But credit Tomalin for cataloging the flaws that, ironically, allowed Dickens to create his art. She never shrinks from them: nor does her analysis detract from an evenhanded reading of the work or, in the end, her admiration for Dickens's particular talent and boundless energy.