Charles Dickens: A Life

Written by Claire Tomalin

Published by The Penguin Press

417 pages

Review by Paula Day

 

I was skeptical when I picked up this biography but Claire Tomalin does manage to breathe new life into the information known about Charles Dickens. Tomalin seems particularly fascinated by Dickens’ alleged affair with actress Ellen Ternan. Maybe they did or maybe they didn’t. According to Tomalin, there is enough evidence, from Dickens’ own daughter no less, that they did and even had a son who died in infancy.

The saddest part of this book is the story after Dickens dies and how his children struggled through the rest of their lives. Dickens was a strict, demanding, at times aloof parent, and each of his children suffered to some degree from it. Most of Dickens’ ten children died young and largely destitute, with the exception of his son Henry who made a success of his law career.

It’s fair to say that Dickens was not a great man, as Tomalin takes great pains to point out. He was awful to Catherine, his wife, whom he separated from as meanly as it’s possible to do. He was prone to depression and irritability, and he often seemed more interested in his fictional characters than in his real life children. But Dickens was a great writer who gave us some of the best novels ever written, and in the end, for us at least who read his novels in the twenty-first century, that is enough. Dickens had a fascinating life, and as a fan of his novels it was interesting to see what was happening when he was writing those great stories.

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Paula Day is the Review Editor for The Copperfield Review and the Managing Editor of Copperfield Press. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

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