The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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January 2, 2012

'...he was not a good man, but he was not a fast man, but he was wonderful!'

That's a quotation from Charles Dickens' daughter Katey, written down in the 1920s by a woman she asked to record her impressions of her parents.  I think it's a good reflection of how Dickens comes across in Claire Tomalin's wonderfully written, engaging, suspenseful, and very, very good new biography.  You can almost get the sense that she admires and respects a man she is not quite ready to like.  There's another quotation from Katey in the biography's final pages that does the same work:  'We like to think of our great geniuses as great characters -- but we can't.'

I put this book on my reading list for roundabout reasons.  I became more interested in Dickens after reading Jenny Uglow's biography of Elizabeth Gaskell, and learning about his role, and his entrepreneurial side, as her editor and publisher. So it was interesting (and maybe a little disappointing?) that he featured so strongly in her life but she is only mentioned in passing, once or twice, in his.  I had also read, and liked, Claire Tomalin's biography of Jane Austen, as so many people have, and I'm always ready to sink into a good literary biography.

I found that I liked the way she inserted herself editorially into the writing -- not often, not too personally, but enough to show how much she was engaged with her subject. {One example:  'You want to avert your eyes from a good deal of what happened during the next year, 1858.'}  There's clear admiration for some aspects of his life and character, including his early job-hunting skills. his lifelong friendships, and his unflagging support for many charitable efforts, and even-temperedness on his worst aspects {his treatment of his wife; his willingness to cut people off, mercilessly, when they displeased him; his disappointment in his children; and his very strange relationships with women}. There's so much oddness in Dickens' life that it becomes suspenseful, and I think Claire Tomalin did a masterful job of capturing that.

This is, for me, the very best kind of reading ... a great book to finish and start a year with.


Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I have both the Dickens and Austen bios on my WishList for 2012...can't wait :)

A Bookish Space said...

This sounds like a fascinating biography. I don't really know much about Dickens' life, but it sounds eventful to say the least. Over Christmas I watched a documentary about Dickens' wife, and was appalled with the way that he treated her. Poor woman!

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