Like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens (1812–1870) was an overachiever of genius, and his life was as eventful, dramatic and character-filled as any of his novels. This rich new biography brilliantly captures his world.
Acclaimed biographer Tomalin (Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, 2007, etc.) has always hunted big literary game (Hardy, Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, etc.), and here she goes after one of the biggest and most complex. Dickens once told a visiting Dostoevsky that his heroes and villains came from the two people inside him: “one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite.” However, there were many more dimensions to Dickens’ character. Besides being a tireless writer of long, complicated novels and hundreds of articles, an editor of a succession of magazines and a frustrated actor whose public readings became standing-room-only events, he was ebullient, charming, radical, instinctively sympathetic to the poor, generous to friends but unforgiving once you got on his bad side. At home, he was a domineering husband to his long-suffering wife and a distant father to his ten children. Dickens certainly would have appreciated Tomalin’s keen eye for scene, character and narrative pace. Ever the deft critic, she notes how the characters in Martin Chuzzlewit are “set up like toys programmed to run on course,” and that Hard Times “fails to take note of its own message that people must be amused.” Having written previously on Dickens’ disastrous late-life affair (The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, 1991), Tomalin also displays considerable detective work to bolster the possibility that Dickens and his other woman had a secret child who died in infancy.
Superbly organized, comprehensive and engrossing from start to finish—a strong contender for biography of the year.