If the fictional characters created by Charles Dickens are so vividly drawn that they seem almost real, then it is also true that their originator often appears to stand on the shadowy borderline between reality and fiction. Dickens could so easily have been a character in his own works; it is easy to imagine him sharing tales with Mr Pickwick, casting a protective eye over young Oliver Twist, or sitting in the court room in the interminable case of ‘Jarndyce vs Jarndyce’ in Bleak House. Indeed, ‘Charles Dickens’ is as much a part of literary mythology and fable as his imaginary inventions. The mythology of Dickens is due in no small part to his genius in presenting his readers with scenes and people so authentic and memorable that they embed themselves in the consciousness. Of course, Dickens worked from real life; he was the ‘eye’, the ‘camera’, turning his lens upon nineteenth century England and peopling it with heroes, heroines and strange, mysterious, even monstrous figures, which might have been larger than life, but which never strayed into the unbelievable. As an author, he invested so much of himself in his novels that he cannot be separated from the fictional worlds and people that sprang from his imagination.
The task of a Dickens biographer is, therefore, something of a double-edged sword. Yes, there is a wealth of material to be had: suffering, tragedy, drama, secrets and scandal, but there is a fine and delicate balance to be reached between acknowledging the genius of Dickens the author and accepting that he could be a calculating and cruel man in his personal life. This has to be achieved without diminishing his astonishing literary achievements, his kindness and his campaigns to improve the living conditions and life chances of the poor. It is to Claire Tomalin’s credit that she moves beyond the myth and finds Dickens the man, faults and all. She roundly condemns his misbehaviour and peculiar coldness towards those to whom he had once been close and who he perfunctorily dismissed from his life. She is particularly harsh on his treatment of his wife, Catherine, banished from the family home after twenty two years of marriage, and denied the company of her children, whilst Dickens untruthfully insisted that she was a bad mother who had no love for her sons and daughters. To her credit, Catherine remained quiet and dignified. Dickens’s passion for the eighteen year old Ellen (‘Nelly’) Tiernan, turned him into a monster, and destroyed his family life. Tomalin can barely bring herself to describe his behaviour: ‘The spectacle of a man famous for his goodness and his attachment to domestic virtues suddenly losing his moral compass is dismaying’, she writes (Tomalin 2011: 293).
Dickens never lost the obsessive drive and ambition which was the founding stone of success and fame. In his later years his personal life was in tatters; he was disappointed in most of his children, who seemed to lack his incredible energy and desire to succeed, and he suffered from ill health which prematurely aged him (due in no little part to the huge amounts of alcohol that he consumed daily). Yet, as Tomalin demonstrates, he was a powerhouse with a work ethic and a daily schedule that would have driven others to a breakdown. He produced novels to very tight deadlines for their serialisation in various journals; he set up and edited his own magazines (Household Words among them); with the help of the extraordinarily rich Miss Coutts he set up a home for young prostitutes in Shepherd’s Bush, and took an active role in its operation (when Dickens ceased to play a role in the running of the home, it very soon closed down); he wrote articles, short stories and travelled extensively, all the while supporting his growing family and dealing with his father who was constantly in debt and an embarrassment to Dickens. Add to this his participation in acting and the generosity of spirit which saw him raising funds for widows and children, and it builds a picture of a man who never wasted a single second of his life but also one who drove himself into the grave aged only fifty eight.
‘He left a trail like a meteor, and everyone finds their own Charles Dickens’ writes Tomalin (416). This biography is an emotional journey as we sympathise, admire, dislike and feel dismayed at this incredible paradox of a man who appeared like a comet in the sky, until, one day, his genius burned up and he lay still at Gad’s Hill, a solitary tear running down his cheek as he took his final breath. Tomalin has produced a beautifully written and intricately researched biography of a man she describes quite simply as ‘a national treasure, an institution’ (414). Read it, because it gives us the true breadth and depth of the genius who was also very much a man with weaknesses, faults and failures. His daughter Katy, the child to whom he was the closest, must be given the final words on the turbulent soul that was her father: ‘I loved my father better than any other man in the world … I loved him for his faults’ (Tomalin 415*).
(*Originally published in Dickens and Daughter (London 1939) by Gladys Storey, a friend of Katey Dickens).
Karen Devlin is the author of nineteenthcenturystuff - a fascinating, academic site that publishes essays, comment and reviews about the literature, art and culture of the 1800's.