When Charles Dickens died in 1870, The Times of London successfully campaigned for his burial in Westminster Abbey, the final resting place of England's kings and heroes. Thousands flocked to mourn the best recognized and loved man of 19th-century England. His books had made them laugh, shown them the squalor and greed of English life, and also the power of personal virtue and the strength of ordinary people. In his last years Dickens drew adoring crowds to his public appearances, had met presidents and princes, and had amassed a fortune.
Like a hero from his novels, Dickens trod a hard path to greatness. Born into a modest middle-class family, his young life was overturned when his profligate father was sent to debtors' prison and Dickens was forced into harsh and humiliating factory work. Yet through these early setbacks he developed his remarkable eye for all that was absurd, tragic, and redemptive in London life. He set out to succeed, and with extraordinary speed and energy made himself into the greatest English novelist of the century.
Years later Dickens's daughter wrote to the author George Bernard Shaw, "If you could make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me." Seen as the public champion of household harmony, Dickens tore his own life apart, betraying, deceiving, and breaking with friends and family while he pursued an obsessive love affair.
Charles Dickens: A Life gives full measure to Dickens's heroic stature - his huge virtues both as a writer and as a human being - while observing his failings in both respects with an unblinking eye. Renowned literary biographer Claire Tomalin crafts a story worthy of Dickens's own pen, a comedy that turns to tragedy as the very qualities that made him great - his indomitable energy, boldness, imagination, and showmanship - finally destroyed him. The man who emerges is one of extraordinary contradictions, whose vices and virtues were intertwined as surely as his life and his art.
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A great biography brilliantly read
Claire Tomalin is one of the finest biographers working today. This is the fourth biography by her that I have read, and I have found only one--her book on Katherine Mansfield--less than superb. The complaints that the novels are not summarized or analysed in detail are absurd. Who goes to a genuine literary biography for plot synopses? The quibbling remarks about syntax are laughable. Tomalin is an extremely lucid and careful writer. The so-called slips are not based on current grammatical rules (and I taught English for years). I loved listening to this book as I am no longer able to read the print in most books. I do own this biography however and could at least follow along, mark my place, and look at the illustrations. I found the reading impeccable.
The book can be compared only to other great literary biographies, such as Claire Tomalin's book on Thomas Hardy and the biographies of Michael Holroyd.
Alex Jennings, a great actor, is represented by many titles in the Audible catalogue. There is a good reason for this--he has a pleasing, resonant voice that the listener never tires of. It is a strong, sympathetic, manly, British voice that is perfect for reading a book about Dickens. I will seek out other recordings that Jenning has made.
Heavens no. I spent two weeks on this book. Though not overlong, it is packed with information and insight, especially into Dickens's marriage and his friendships. I have read a great deal about Dickens, but I learned much more from taking my time in reading this volume.
- C. Randall Curb
erudite and well researched