New biography of Charles Dickens, in time for his bicentennialCharles Dickens published his first story in a London monthly at age 22. Although he wasn’t paid and it appeared without his name, he was so overcome with joy and pride it took him half an hour to recover. When he died of a stroke 36 years later, he had earned a fortune many times over and had been hailed as the greatest novelist of the 19th century.
The story of how Dickens rose to such heights from a modest background, forced to leave school at 15 by his parents, who could no longer afford the fees, is no less epic than his sprawling novels. Now, a splendid history by the noted English biographer and journalist Claire Tomalin has been published, just months before the bicentennial of Dickens’ Feb. 7, 1812, birth.
“Charles Dickens: A Life” (The Penguin Press) is a tale of two Dickens: the tenderhearted social critic with a soft spot for prostitutes, orphans and the disabled, and the raging egomaniac, who dumped the wife who bore him 10 children because she was fat and dull and he had fallen hard for an actress, Nelly Ternan, 27 years his junior.
Scholarly but accessible, the book vividly conjures the idyllic countryside outside London, where Dickens spent his boyhood, and then the sooty districts of the rapidly industrializing city, where he set himself on the path to becoming a writer.
Tomalin skillfully presents the chief trauma of Dickens’ young life - being sent to work in a factory at age 12 after his father was imprisoned for debt - and suggests the ways it left a lasting mark, from his sympathy for the working class to his towering ambition and Herculean work ethic.
Though Tomalin, whose previous work includes a prize-winning biography of Ternan, rightly celebrates Dickens’ genius, she is clear-eyed about his faults, as a writer and a human being. She quotes his daughter Katey: “He was not a good man .?.?. but he was wonderful!”
Among his sins, the creator of Tiny Tim and Little Nell neglected his own children. Of the 10, only two forged anything like an independent path to success. It didn’t matter much; Dickens knew what his legacy would be. His will stipulates no memorial. “I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works,” he wrote.
And he was right to do so. Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger, Fagin - these and so many other unforgettable characters he created will live forever in our imagination.