My latest acquisition is a book that I’ve been eagerly anticipating for some time: Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life. Why such excitement over a new biography of a figure as well known and much written about as Charles Dickens? I concede that I’m not expecting any grand new revelations on the eve of the 200th anniversary of his birth. But I’m something of a connoisseur of literary biography, and despite having delved into a number in my recent research on Dickens (you may recall that he’s the subject of a chapter in my book-in-progress on writers’ lawsuits), I haven’t yet found one that strikes quite the right balance for me. I’m hopeful that Tomalin’s new book will prove to be just what I seek.
What is it that I look for in literary biography? There are those who contend that writers’ work is all that matters, that their life stories are irrelevant, indeed, that knowledge of their lives may well impede rather than enhance appreciation of their work. I have some sympathy for that view. Certainly I would always put the work first. But, both as a writer and a reader, I’m deeply interested in process, in how the work that we value so highly was created. What were the material conditions within which the work was produced? How did the subjects develop as writers? Which authors and what books did they read along the way? Did they have collaborators, supporters, detractors, helping or hindering their work? If they drew on their lives in their work, how did they transform their experiences into literature? (On that last point, I hasten to add that I have little patience for simplistic quests to identify which real person a fictional character was based on, and so on. I believe that most writers find fodder for writing in their lives, but that good fiction is seldom a direct representation of experience but rather a transformation of it into something else, independent of its origins.) Thus whether or not learning about writers’ lives enhances my appreciation of their work very much depends on where biographers’ emphases lie in their explorations of those lives.
Based on Claire Tomalin‘s track record, I have high hopes that her biography of Dickens is just the sort that I would like to read. (Of her many highly-lauded biographies, her most recent, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, was a particular favourite of mine.) Certainly the reviews in the UK, where the Dickens biography has been out for a few weeks now, are promising. In the Telegraph, Judith Flanders writes that “Tomalin’s psychological analysis is acute, isolating that elusive something that made Dickens great [...] and when it comes to analysing the novels, she is magisterial.” In the Guardian, William Boyd concurs and elaborates: “The work remains and endures – and Tomalin analyses the novels with great acuity – but what is so valuable about this biography is the palpable sense of the man himself that emerges.” In the Independent, Boyd Tonkin opines: “Even dedicated Dickensians will know, and understand, much more about the novelist after reading Tomalin’s close-packed but free-flowing narrative,” then concludes: “For the moment, she has captured Dickens, in sun and shadow, with all the full-hearted exuberance, generosity and keen wit that he merits.”
I’ll share my own views here once I’ve read it. In the meantime, if you fancy learning more about the book, click here to read an excerpt, and here to watch an interview with Tomalin about it. And below, you can find Penguin’s video introduction to the book in which Tomalin provides her own answer to the question of why another biography of Dickens seemed worth doing: