The Intriguing “Mr Popular Sentiment”

This is my review of Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin.

This is very much in the mould of Claire Tomalin's biographies: very detailed and well-researched yet highly readable, revealing with honesty, empathy and wry humour the complexity of Dickens's personality, warts and all.

We gain a sense of the huge, perhaps manic, energy which made him so prolific a writer, known to work on two great novels at the same time. Walking for miles most days gave him time to observe people and to form ideas. Tomalin tells us that he needed to pace the streets – the limited scope of the Swiss countryside (despite its beauty!) only frustrated him. It is a shock to realise that he died in his late fifties – probably at least partly as a result of the smoking and heavy drinking which must also have contributed to his outbursts of explosive anger and emotion.

I was impressed by his precocious determination to overcome adversity. Forced when barely in his teens to leave the school where he excelled to work in a blacking factory because his father was in jail for debt, Dickens divided his meagre weekly earnings into seven piles, to make sure he did not overspend. Despite the lack of a university education and disrupted schooling, this clearly very intelligent young man rapidly became a self-made success, as first a journalist and then an exceptionally popular author. His charisma and dramatic skills (he wanted initially to be an actor) assisted him in promoting his work through his readings – the murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes was a possibly overdone favourite theme.

The author shows how Dickens made positive use of every aspect of his life in his writing. His childhood in Kent gave him a great love for that area, and became the setting for "Great Expectations" which Tomalin regards as in some ways his most "perfect book". His father's chronic debt helped shape the attitudes of Mr Micawber, but also scenes for Little Dorrit set in the Marshalsea Prison.

Tomalin describes how he produced his stories largely in monthly episodes, which required remarkably little rewriting, although his approach may account for some of the overwrought and "hammy" passages in his books, which she freely acknowledges, together with his rather bland female characters. It seems that he followed an overall plan, particularly in the later works.

Although sociable and gregarious, which might suggest easy-going, Dickens was a man of strong principles in certain respects. He was a staunch republican – one reason why he admired the French so much – and gave many readings of his works to highlight the parlous conditions of the poor.

Of course, one area in which his morality fell short was in his callous treatment of his long-suffering but probably rather dull wife. He may have married too young, settling for safe domesticity after the failure of a passionate love affair. However, in successful middle age he embarked on his long relationship with the actress Nelly Tiernan, covered so well in another of Tomalin's biographies. The enforced secrecy of this liaison may have added to some of its appeal. I was also intrigued to learn of the strong friendship between Dickens and his sister-in-law, which Tomalin believes to have been platonic on his side, one of blind loyalty and admiration on hers.

As further evidence of his capricious and unpredictable emotional responses, we learn how Dickens was often hard on his sons, but even after being let down many times by his feckless father, found him a job and praised him in extravagant terms on his death.

This blend of biography, literary comment and evocation of the Victorian world has certainly inspired me to take another look at Dickens's work. I have always admired his intentions as a social reformer, but found many of his characters too caricatured the general tone too sentimental.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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