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The Brilliance in the Room

Philip Hensher welcomes this account of the moralist, but misses the humorist

8 October 2011

4:00 PM

8 October 2011

4:00 PM

Charles Dickens: A Life Claire Tomalin

Viking, pp.576, 30

It is difficult to conceive of a writer more passionately loved by his audience than Dickens was. It went on for a very long time, too. We learn from the historian David Kynaston that, immediately after the second world war, Dickens was one of the five most borrowed authors from public libraries. My grandmother was probably a typical reader of Dickens: she left school at 14 before the first world war, yet had a cheap set of Dickens in the house (I think it was a promotional giveaway by the Daily Express at some point in the 1930s.) I have the set — the typeface and the acid paper nearly make your eyes and fingers bleed. And yet she read most of them a lot more than once: the copy of David Copperfield falls apart as you open it. A century after thousands of ordinary admirers filed past Dickens’s coffin in Westminster Abbey, ‘bringing’ (as Claire Tomalin says) ‘the heartfelt, useless notes they had written for him, and offerings of flowers that filled up and overflowed the grave’, many thousands of ordinary, not very educated readers still loved him and thought of him as their own. Undergraduates nowadays find him much more of a challenge. But 200 years after he was born, he still looks, to many, like the author of the five greatest novels in the English language, and perhaps even, too, what Tolstoy called him, the greatest novelist of the 19th century; a greatness not founded in cold esteem, but passionate adoration. He still looks like what one of his contemporaries called him, ‘the brilliance in the room’.

Dickens has been much biographied, from his friend Forster’s excellent account onwards. There is the mythology, of course — the blacking factory, the early death of Maria Beadnell, the versions of his parents in his novels, the adult purchase of the boyhood dream of Gad’s Hill, the railway crash which almost killed Dickens and destroyed the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend, and the public readings which really did kill him. Much of this, Dickens wrote about himself. There is the sense of the wonderful personality ­­— the performer, the joker at the dinner table, the actor manqué. There are, too, the more private matters of the failure of Dickens’s marriage to Catherine Hogarth in the 1850s and his children, most of whom failed in life, much more like his slapdash father than like Dickens himself. And then, emerging long after Dickens’s death and the death of most of those who had known him, there was the story of his late attachment to the actress Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan.

Both Dickens and Nelly did their best to cover up their traces. Nelly lied about her age, even to the man she later married, so as to make it seem that she could only have been a child when she knew Dickens. Any letters between them were burnt. In reports of the railway accident of 1865, Dickens was said to be alone — in fact he was travelling with Nelly and her mother. There may have been a son born to them, and Tomalin conjectures that Dickens may actually have died of apoplexy in her house, Nelly and Dickens’s housekeeper/sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth conspiring to remove the body back to Gad’s Hill.


Claire Tomalin is in the unusual position of having approached a biography of Dickens before writing this full-dress one. Her life of Ellen Ternan, The Invisible Woman, is a classic of biographical investigation. In that, she pieced together a life from hints and scraps, from a historical record which had been determinedly assaulted. Many readers of Dickens had firmly believed that there was no truth in stories of him and the young actress, including his most recent major biographer, Peter Ackroyd. After The Invisible Woman, it became much harder to argue that.

The other controversy in Dickens’s life is in his treatment of his wife, Catherine. Certainly, the 19th century was extremely shocked by the way Dickens abandoned her, and many of his children understandably took her side in the separation. Tomalin agrees, and talks of his ‘ill-treatment’ of her. It may be possible to think that even a Catherine Dickens was not necessarily as passive as all that. Elsewhere in the biography, Dickens’s sexual demands are presented as overwhelming, and women as its victims: ‘he wanted his own blissful proceedings, and it seems he got them,’ Tomalin writes of his relations with Nelly, where she ‘succumbs’ and ‘gives him what he desired so ardently and needed so badly’. Might she not have had desires of her own? I find it odd, too, that writing of a brief period when Catherine was not pregnant, Tomalin can only interpret this in terms of ‘the affectionate delicacy of [Dickens’s] self-imposed abstinence’, as if she could ever know who was in charge when the Dickens’s bedroom door was shut. On the contrary, I think that one can easily deduce from Bella Wilfer and Dora Spenlow that those silly, pretty little women were quite powerfully in charge in private circumstances. I find it quite hard to condemn Dickens, in general rather than in small instances, over Catherine. He fell seriously out of love with her: she sounds, in all accounts, dim, silly and affected, and by the end, they were obviously making each other extremely unhappy. He made a moral decision, and never lampooned her in public afterwards. It is easy to see, too, why
Georgina Hogarth stuck with her wonderful brother-in-law rather than go back to the awful Hogarths and life as a spinster.

This is a scrupulous and often well-considered biography, alert to detail and accurate in its sense of period mores. Tomalin, too, can be a sensitive reader of Dickens — she reminds us of the unforgettable moment when David Copperfield, about to be expelled from her garden by his aunt Betsey Trotwood, puts out one finger and touches her. (‘Anyone who has lived with a timid child recognizes that gesture.’) Her failure, however, is in underestimating the centrality of Dickens’s humour. It permeates his books, and everyone who knew him talks about the marvel of his talk, able to set a table in a roar, and an eye for the absurd which could reduce him to hilarity at a single sentence. Those running jokes are marvellously preserved in the novels when the Fat Boy in Pickwick declares that ‘I wants to make your flesh creep’, or the nameless young man at the Veneerings leans forward and says merely ‘Esker’.

There is very little of this in Tomalin. There is a tiny glimpse of it when we see Dickens acting as a conjuror and explaining to his children that he had bought one ‘from a Chinese Mandarin, who died of grief immediately after parting with the secret’. (‘You can see what fun he could be as a father,’ Tomalin mildly observes.) You would not guess from Tomalin’s account what a very funny novel Our Mutual Friend is. What we get is Dickens the moralist. But in Dickens, humour and morality are inextricable; his great moments occur when a moral point is being made as the reader laughs — Betsey Trotwood threatening to knock Miss Murdstone’s bonnet off, or Esther confronting Skimpole, or Pip lying about what he saw at Miss Havisham’s. At the end of her book, Tomalin says ‘everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens,’ and lists 50 possibles — ‘the radical, the protector of orphans, helper of the needy, man of good works, the republican’ — the list goes on and on, like the names of Miss Flite’s birds. But nowhere in this list is the joker or the humorist, the thing which, above all, made Dickens loved. At one point, talking about Orlick’s plot in Great Expectations, Tomalin says that ‘it would be horrific were it not weakened by being made theatrical’. In my view, a biographer who can regard theatricality as a weakness in Dickens, rather than the core of his splendour, may have missed the point somewhat. Peter Ackroyd remains the biographer to beat.


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