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Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

Charles Dickens: A Life

by Claire Tomalin

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  1. 00
    David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (hazzabamboo)
    hazzabamboo: David Copperfield is partly autobiographical, and it's fascinating to compare it to Tomalin's fascinating, shrewd biography.

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Claire Tomalin has authored multiple biographies of well known authors: Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy,Katherine Mansfield, Samuel Pepys,Mary Wollstonecraft. In 2012, she turned her focus on Charles Dickens just in time for the 200th centenary of his birth. This book has been rattling around my wishlist ever since. Whether you love him or hate him, there is no denying his ongoing popularity and impact on the literary world. Tomalin summed up the man as thus:

"...He left a trail like a meteor and everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens. The child victim, the irrepressibly ambitious young man, the reporter, the demonic worker, the tireless walker, the radical, the protector of orphans, helper of the needy, man of good works, the republican, the hater and the lover of America, the giver of parties, the magician, the traveler, the satirist, the surrealist, the mesmerist, the angry son, the good friend, the bad husband, the quarreler, the sentimentalist, the secret lover, the despairing father, the Francophile, the player of games, the lover of circuses, the maker of punch, the country squire, the editor, the chief, the smoker, the drinker, the dancer of reels and hornpipes, the actor, the ham, too mixed to be a gentleman, but wonderful,the irreplaceable and unrepeatable Boz, the brilliance in the room, the inimitable, and --above and beyond every other description -- simply the great hardworking writer who sets 19th century London before our eyes, and who noticed and celebrated the small people living on the margins of society."

Tomalin's magisterial work raises up each of these aspects of the man. The man accomplished a great deal in his 68 years and perforce this books may seem exahustive in covering his many comings and goings. In addition to covering the details of his personal and professional life, Tomalin does a remarkable job of presenting and reflecting on his many literary efforts.

A few random thoughts: I never thought I would feel sorry for a publisher, but Dickens treated his many publishers horribly, reneging on contracts, selling the same work to multiple parties, constantly dropping one for another.

What a small world 19th century England was -- Dickens seemed to have met and interacted with just about everyone worth knowing at the time.

Tomalin is good at explicating the special authorial challenges in writing in serial form. Dickens was still writing the latter chapters of a book when the first were being published. He had to have the plot and characters well thought out before he started because there was little chance to going back to change. Tom Wolfe, who serialized Bonfire of the Vanities in Rolling Stone Magazine some 100 years later spoke of similar issues.

I've never been a fan of Dickens treatment of his female litarary characters. On one hand are the vapid, one-dimensional helpless lasses, on the other are the more intersting but largely venal characters. Dickens similarly treated the women in his real life. His cruel dismissal of his wife Catherine is particularly distressing.

A closely guarded secret during and immediately after his lifetime, Dicken's affair with the shockingly youg actress, Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, has become largely accepted as fact. Tomalin goes a step further in hypothesizing Dickens fathered a child with Ternan. This is more controversial, but Tomalin does a fine job in setting forth the basis of this hypothesis for the reader's own judgment.

Well worth the effort to read. I will happily read more of Ms. Tomalin's work. ( )
  michigantrumpet | Feb 28, 2014 |
Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin.
London: Penguin, 2012.

Lynn chose the book because “she really has a thing about biographies” but she was generally disappointed in it.
The small print was unfortunate because of the effort required to keep reading. Too much detail made reading the text a challenge. It started off as quite interesting but then became tedious and even boring.
Claire Tomalin is obviously an excellent researcher but that doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting read.
The book is thorough and very detailed and she prides herself in her meticulous research.

Lynn has enjoyed the Dickens novels she has read. The profile has been raised by 2012 being the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth.
He appears to be a complex man who both worked and played hard: a prolific writer who was money driven. His commitment to social causes and his theatre work counterpoints his lack of commitment to his wife and family
Writing a novel-length story in serial form on a weekly basis would have been difficult to achieve.
An interesting point is his parents’ interest in fostering his sister Fanny’s musical career at the expense of Dickens’ education – highly unusual for the time to prefer a daughter over a son. 7/10
Jenny A
Commented that she felt the book needed a good editing to reduce the amount of detail and help emphasise important points.
Dickens is full of his own importance in spite of (or perhaps because of) receiving no support from his parents.
Agreed the research was meticulous but it the book is not readable. 2/10

Pam agreed it was well researched but difficult to read. She was grateful to discover the wide raft of talents which Dickens had. He appears to be a genius and dogged by the failings of genius. Dickens obviously had great failings.
All male writers of the time had a core group of male friends with whom to discuss ideas.
Claire Tomalin is highly thought of as a biographer in Britain.
Pam was glad she had read the book in spite of the difficulties. No score

There was more information than she could cope with at present. No score as hadn’t read it. Same from Barbara.

Not a book for over the summer holidays. Too much detail. Read reviews and selections of the text.
More than she ever wanted to know about Dickens. 3/10

Had read every 10th page or so. Agreed too much detail and information. Like a text book rather than a book to read for pleasure.
Will choose the Bible for Lynn to read next time. 1/10

Dickens was very self-indulgent. She would finish the book but can’t yet. 7/10

Read ½ of it. Agreed that he was a very difficult man and on the difficulties involved in reading the book.
Astonished at the amount of travel done by people in the book.
The mesmerism episode with Mrs De La Rue is astonishing in that someone would allow a friend without medical training to treat his wife. 7/10

The biography is a good insight into the man. He was certainly not socially inept but highly sociable.
The backtracking in the book is irritating and adds to the difficulty of reading it.
She enjoyed the accurate descriptions of areas around Rochester as this is where her family come from. 4/10

Fantastic research. Will dip into it. 9/10

Jenny Mac
Couldn’t be read as a novel, more as a text book.
As a Book Club Book, gives it 0/10: For author’s efforts gives it 7/10.

The book can be judged on 2 levels:
As a popular book
As a contribution to the literary market.
Could be that the 200th anniversary meant that literary works were released into the popular market that wouldn’t normally have been.

2 members did not score it.

Average score 4.5/10.
  Warriapendibookclub | Apr 11, 2013 |
It's hard to say something new about an author like Dickens, especially if you limit yourself to 400 pages. Some occasional sparks of insight. I was impressed with the decision to start with Dickens' grandparents and go all the way to the end of the lives of his friends and family, though. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
Like young David Copperfield, Charles Dickens was forced to work at a tender age, after his father was imprisoned. There are other similarities to one of Dickens most beloved creations and the author himself, in this wonderful, stirring and impeccably researched biography. Dickens is an endlessly fascinating artist and an impressive humanitarian to boot.
Tomalin expertly follows Dickens through his life, his friends, his tumultuous marriage to Catherine, his many children, his connection with other artists of that period and of course his books, which she gives a detailed account. My only regret is that I had not read more of his work, so I could have made a better connection with her spot-on analysis of each title. My goal is to read one or two of this books a year until I catch up. Love him or hate him, this is a highly recommended bio! ( )
1 vote msf59 | Dec 23, 2012 |
Not only is this great book a superlatively researched and constructed biography, but its account of what came to light about Dickens years after his death is of huge interest. After having ten children with his wife Dickens cast his wife aside and took up with an 18-year-old woman and in great secrecy had a child with her and saw her often in the years before he died. The account of Dickens rise to early fame is told well and one has to be amazed by how much he did in an eage where so mcuh time had to be spent just gettint arounf. His accomplishments are truly unbeleivable. So, though as a man he is often a deplorable person the hard work and industry he displayed all his life long makes for a fascainting story. ( )
  Schmerguls | Aug 22, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
While it neither offers much in the way of new insights nor replaces classic studies of Dickens, Tomalin's entertaining book deserves to be the go-to popular biography for readers new to Boz and his works.
added by Christa_Josh | editLibrary Journal, Morris A. Hounion (Oct 15, 2011)
...what is so valuable about this biography is the palpable sense of the man himself that emerges. Tomalin doesn't hesitate to condemn Dickens when his behaviour demands it, yet she writes throughout with great sympathy and unrivalled knowledge in the most limpid and stylish prose. She has the gift of being able to set a scene and a time with compelling vividness. This is a superb biography of a great writer – and is a beautifully produced book, it should be said, with copious illustrations. It is worthy to stand beside Richard Ellmann on Joyce, Donald Rayfield on Chekhov and Jean-Yves Tadie on Proust – all three writers who deserve that rarest of accolades, genius. Like Dickens, they were complicated and often extremely difficult and demanding individuals. The more we learn about them as people – paradoxically – the greater their art resonates with us.
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My sister and I first realised Mr Dickens himself... as a sort of brilliance in the room, mysteriously dominant and formless. I remember how everybody lighted up when he entered.

- Annie Thackery writing in 1913
I suppose that for at least five-and-twenty years of his life, there was not an English-speaking household in the world... where his name was not as familiar as that of any personal acquaintance, and where an allusion to characters of his creating could fail to be understood.

- George Gissing in 1898
The life of almost any man possessing great gifts, would be a sad book to himself.

- Charles Dickens in 1869
It will not do to draw round any part of such a man too hard a line.

-John Forster, friend of Dickens, in his biography
I dedicate this book to the memory of two remarkable women :
my mother, the composer Muriel Emily Herbert, 1897-1984,
who shared with me her enjoyment of Dickens when I was a child ;
and my French grandmother, a schoolteacher, Franceline Jennaton
Delavenay, 1873-1906, who in about 1888, when she was at boarding
school in Grenoble, read David Copperfield in its entirety in English,
and loved Dickens ever afterwards.
First words

14 January 1840, London. An inquest is being held at Marylebone Workhouse, a muddled complex of buildings spread over a large area between the Marylebone Road and Paddington Street.
Charles Dickens was born on Friday, 7 February 1812, just outside the old town of Portsmouth in the new suburb of Landport, built in the 1790s.
“He [Dickens] told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.”
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Chronicles the life of the nineteenth-century literary master from the challenges he faced as the imprisoned son of a profligate father, his rise to one of England's foremost novelists, and the personal demons that challenged his relationships.

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Penguin Australia

Two editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0670917672, 0141036931

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