I didn’t read Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life because I’m a Dickens guy. I’m not a Dickens guy. In grad school I had to take at least one course on the Victorians, so I took The Later Dickens, because that was what there was. That’s the only reason I’ve read as much Dickens as I have, to wit: Bleak House, Hard Times (the short one!), A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, a significant percentage of Our Mutual Friend, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. (If you, unlike me, are a Dickens guy, you will notice the absence of Little Dorrit from this list. The professor noticed too.)
So I didn’t read Tomalin’s biography because I’m a Dickens guy, although I like his novels well enough. I read it because Dickens was an alien, or at least an extreme human outlier, and thus inherently interesting. His brain just didn’t work like other people’s. It’s ironic, or at least strange, that his work has come to stand as a kind of baseline, middle-C of mainstream Victorian melodrama, because he himself was not a mainstream individual. Not at all.
The fuel that fed the furnace of Dickens’ mind was his memories of his crap childhood. His father, John Dickens, worked in the Navy Pay Office and earned a decent salary, but he was pathologically irresponsible with money, and the family was constantly in debt. When Dickens was 12, his father was sent to debtor’s prison, and Charles spent a year working in a blacking factory (blacking is basically shoe polish) covering and labeling the jars of blacking. Dickens—a show pony even at that tender age—was put in the window so people could watch how insanely fast he covered and labeled. When the family’s finances recovered, his childhood picked up where it left off, but he seems never to have felt quite safe again.
Dickens grew up to be a man of demonic energy: it’s like he was bitten by a radioactive scrivener that gave him superpowers. As a working writer who, like Dickens, writes novels and journalism, I can only read about his output with awe. He wrote his books as serials, published in monthly installments, and he sometimes went two at a time—he wrote The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist simultaneously, punching them both out in 7,500 chunks. When he finished Pickwick he started Nicholas Nickleby, while never dropping a stitch of Oliver. Sometimes, after an especially intense writing jag, he would dunk his head and hands into a bucket of cold water, then keep right on going.
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Writing novels didn’t seem to burn off enough energy, so Dickens wrote essays on the side, and put on amateur theatricals of high enough caliber that they were performed for the Queen. He founded and ran newspapers and magazines without seeming to notice it—Master Humphrey’s Clock, The Daily News, Household Words, All the Year Round. He set up and then micro-managed a genuinely useful home for fallen women. He fathered ten children. He thought nothing of dropping everything and going to America or Italy or Paris for 6 months or a year. His social life was frenetic—as Tomalin points out, “He entirely lacked the romantic writer’s need to be alone.” As much as he decried the evils of the industrial revolution (in Hard Times—which I read!), he appears to have had his own version of a dark satanic mill running inside him at all times.
When all this wasn’t enough he was known to go on 10 or 12-mile walks to soothe his fevered soul. “If I couldn’t walk fast and far,” he wrote late in life, “I should just explode and perish.” The weird energy that possessed him comes through in contemporary descriptions of Dickens, of which there are some eloquent ones—Dickens was fortunate in his describers. John Stuart Mill said he had “a face of dingy blackguardism irradiated with genius.”
Dickens’ character was a cocktail of empathy and cruelty that would test any biographer’s mettle. He had no end of sympathy for London’s poor and unfortunate—of whom there were boundless numbers—on whose behalf he agitated and politicked endlessly. His letters to his male friends are passionate right up to the brink of homoeroticism. He felt for his characters as well, deeply. The death of Little Nell shook him to his foundations: “I am slowly murdering that poor child, and grow wretched over it,” he wrote to a friend. “It wrings my heart. Yet it must be.” (Tolstoy felt the same way. He once said of Dickens, “All his characters are my personal friends.”)
But the closer people were to him, real people, the less he seemed to care about them. As Tomalin points out, Dickens spoke out against “cheap distant schools, where neglected children pine from year to year,” but he packed his sons off to a mediocre boarding school in Boulogne where they remained for 10 months a year, starting at the age of 7. As a husband he was a world-class bastard. His wife was a mild individual born Catherine Hogarth, whom he was fond enough of at the beginning, but the woman he was absolutely obsessed with was Catherine’s sister Mary, who died suddenly at 17. He wore Mary’s ring his whole life, praised her in the most exalted terms, and insisted he wanted to be buried with her.
Catherine was a woman of great, but not inexhaustible, patience. Dickens was an amateur mesmerist—another hobby—and he exercised his powers on the wife of a friend, a Mrs. De La Rue, in an attempt to treat her psychiatric problems. Dickens and patient became obsessed with each other, and he practiced his arts on her constantly and at all hours for a full year, with her confiding her secret fantasies to him in what was, rather strikingly, a kind of proto-psychoanalysis. There’s no hard evidence that they had a physical affair, but Catherine was livid with jealousy.
The whole business is typical of Dickens’ utter inability to moderate his whims. “The intense pursuit of any idea that takes complete possession of me,” he wrote, “is one of the qualities that makes me different—sometimes for good; sometimes I dare say for evil—from other men.” (He was many things, but Dickens wasn’t stupid—he had his own number.) The marriage lasted 22 years, declining into antipathy and finally ending in a bitter divorce, followed by Dickens’ rather spectacular late-life affair with a pretty actress 27 years his junior named Nelly Ternan. (In 1991 Tomalin published a biography of Ternan—something of a preparatory study for this one.)
The question that haunts every Dickens biography, Tomalin’s included, is this one: was Dickens an asshole? It’s to Tomalin’s credit that her book only complicates the question, rather than answering it. In 1923 Dickens’ daughter Katey had a friend take down her recollections of her famous father, which were later published as a book, and they make wonderful if incoherent reading, riven as they are by her passionate ambivalence. Her father was not, she insisted, “a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and bowl of punch.”
Katey’s amanuensis declined to publish another of her gems, which Tomalin dug up from the woman’s notes.“My father was not a gentleman,” she apparently said. “He was too mixed to be a gentleman.” But not too mixed, as it turned out, to be a genius.