Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Dickens by Claire Tomalin

Claire Tomalin's biography of Charles Dickens is full of what George Orwell, speaking of Dickens' strengths, called the “telling detail”. There's the irony of this so-English author who called himself a citoyne of France. As so often, the reality is richer and more interesting than the myth. And there's a great deal of myth around Dickens.

As Simon Callow observed last year (the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth),
“Dickens the domestic monster has become part of the intellectual landscape, along with some increasingly lurid speculations about his sex life.”
Callow spells out the evidence to the contrary, but Tomalin sticks to the "domestic monster" version, and details how the master of prose was expert at weaving convenient fictions round his misdeeds. A fantasist who treated those around him as if they were his own creations, it reads as a warning about the ego of writers.

Tomalin seems to like Dickens for his role in social reforms and she also appreciates some of his (male) characters, but generally she finds his work overwrought. The sense is that his books have been spoiled for her because of what she knows about his life.
“You want to avert your eyes from a good deal of what happened during the next year, 1858.”
And yet I felt Tomalin was sometimes just as guilty as Dickens of massaging facts to suit a moral purpose. She indulges in conspiracy theories about Ellen Ternan – not merely whether Ternan and Dickens has sex, but whether Ternan had a son by Dickens (Tomalin spells out a tragic supposition where the child dies in France), and whether she was with Dickens when he suffered his last stroke. Tomalin presents what scant evidence exists for and against these claims, though makes her own beliefs plain - I thought not wholly convincingly. The truth is that we don't know: the evidence is too poor and a lot of it merely circumstantial. But having raised the possibility of a child with Ternan – and listed the historians who disagree – Tomalin then treats it as fact.

She is also rather shocked at his ruthlessness to family, but he's given these people multiple chances and hand-outs, and generally they abuse his kindness and sense of duty. I felt more sympathy for a man whose relatives continually expect him to rescue them financially and abuse his patience. His struggles with money, and his need for an appreciative audience, struck a chord with this particular writer.

I wonder at Tomalin's own perspective as the wife of a famous novelist and playwright. There's no sense of the strange relationship with readers – for example that writing is painfully slow and lonely, yet a reader who responds will find the work immediate and intimate. I'd have liked more on his method: the volume of words per day, the number of revisions, his planning and ability to adapt his plans as a book progressed. It doesn't especially explain what made Dickens' work so different or appealing – either in his own time or today.

A BBC documentary last year dared suggest that Dickens' work invented the forms of early cinema. Given Tomalin's assessment of Dickens' amateur dramatics, I think its truer to say early film used lots of the forms of theatre, which was also an influence on him. His rich characters ache to be performed, his plots creaking under their strain. That often leads to actors hamming them up, but in the books themselves and the best adaptations, the more these larger-than-life people are played absolutely straight, the more effectively we will feel for all that they are put through. (That's why I think The Muppet's Christmas Carol is the best ever adaptation of Dickens: Muppets playing out a kitchen-sink drama absolutely straight is a perfect match for Dickens.)

Rather, Tomalin concentrates on conjuring the man himself, and it's a vivid and distinctive portrait. She paints Dickens as a hypocrite – the generous, jolly, social reformer is a predatory bully and bore. I think that's a little unfair on a hard-working man who lifted himself out of poverty and tried to help others too. That drive and purpose also makes this a difficult read: a man so full of energy and things to say withers away page after page, so many of his friends and family dying poor and prematurely. The story doesn't end with Dickens' death in 1870: Tomalin continues to explore his legacy and the damage wrought by his affair up until 1939, and the deaths of the last of his children. It's the shadow of a monster, not a cause of celebration. So it's a captivating book, but not a joy, and the monster not wholly convincing.


Jonny Morris said...

Haven't read this, as I absolutely loved Peter Ackryod's biography and couldn't see the point of repeating the experience. But regarding Dickens character; surely the point is to judge people by the morals and standards of their time? Judging them by the standards of our time is just as absurd as if we were judging our society in terms of Victorian values. I suppose it makes for a more salacious and commercial biography to go down the BBC 4 biodrama 'everyone you've ever liked on television was really a bastard' route. We seem to live in an age which is uncomfortable with the idea of success; and in our way, we're even more judgemental and puritanical than the Victorians.So Dickens wasn't a saint and had marital problems because he made the mistake of marrying the wrong woman in a fit of grief? How does that devalue his work? And, in his situation, in his time, what else could he have done?

0tralala said...

I'm not sure Tomalin's judging Dickens by today's standards. And there are bits of evidence that don't exactly do him any favours - his public letter explaining why he can no longer live with his wife is really difficult to forgive.

Le Mc said...

Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Review of Books seems to give a thumbs-up to this book--with a much different tone. "Biography is a literary craft that, in the hands of gifted practitioners, rises to the level of art. Yet even its most exemplary practitioners are frequently left behind, like hunters on the trail of elusive prey, in the tracking of genius. Claire Tomalin's biography is likely to be one of the definitive Dickens biographies in its seamless application of 'the life' to 'the art' . . . Admirable as it is, warmly sympathetic and often eloquent, Tomalin's CD frequently moves like a vehicle with concrete wheels set beside, for instance" Jane Smiley's and Ackroyd's biographies. FYI.