a curious Yankee in Europe's court

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Surveying genius: “Charles Dickens A Life” by Claire Tomalin

Posted on the January 26th, 2013

Cover of “Charles Dickens A Life” by Claire Tomalin (Penguin Books)

Just finished reading Claire Tomalin‘s lengthy biography “Charles Dickens A Life” (2011). Much recommended for anyone interested in learning more about the work, ideas, passions and human frailties of the great English novelist.

I particularly appreciated the hyper-abundance of details Tomalin lays out about the personal, professional and creative aspects of Dickens’ life. This mass of details of events great and small allows the reader to form his or her own view of Dickens, as well as receiving the particular perspective offered by the biographer.

From 417 pages, plus almost 100 more of Notes and extras, a vivid portrait-photograph emerges. It reveals a blazingly unique human being, passionate, compassionate, often generous and, at times, less than saintly in his relationships.

Click on the video screenshot below to see a short interview with Tomalin about the book.


Reader Comments (2) - Comments are closed
  1. Sam said, on January 26th, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    What did a young Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens think of Dickens?

    “I only heard him read once. It was in New York, last week. I had a seat about the middle of Steinway Hall, and that was rather further away from the speaker than was pleasant or profitable.
    Promptly at 8 P.M., unannounced, and without waiting for any stamping or clapping of hands to call him out, a tall, “spry,” (if I may say it,) thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense, especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in his button-hole, gray beard and moustache, bald head, and with side hair brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came! He did not emerge upon the stage — that is rather too deliberate a word — he strode. He strode — in the most English way and exhibiting the most English general style and appearance — straight across the broad stage, heedless of everything, unconscious of everybody, turning neither to the right nor the left — but striding eagerly straight ahead, as if he had seen a girl he knew turn the next corner. He brought up handsomely in the centre and faced the opera glasses. His pictures are hardly handsome, and he, like everybody else, is less handsome than his pictures. That fashion he has of brushing his hair and goatee so resolutely forward gives him a comical Scotch-terrier look about the face, which is rather heightened than otherwise by his portentous dignity and gravity. But that queer old head took on a sort of beauty, bye and bye, and a fascinating interest, as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it, the complex but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake! I almost imagined I could see the wheels and pulleys work. This was Dickens — Dickens. There was no question about that, and yet it was not right easy to realize it. Somehow this puissant god seemed to be only a man, after all. How the great do tumble from their high pedestals when we see them in common human flesh, and know that they eat pork and cabbage and act like other men.” (and he goes on with description of the remainder of the event)

  2. Jennifer said, on January 26th, 2013 at 11:00 pm

    Let me be the first to congratulate you on finishing such an epic tome. And thank you for allowing us (and me personally) to benefit from what you’ve gleaned from Ms. Tomalin’s thorough study. I’ve really benefited from hearing more details about the “work, ideas, passions and human frailties of (this) great English novelist.”