Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

May 13, 2013

Summary (from the publisher): Award-winning author Claire Tomalin sets the standard for sophisticated and popular biography, having written lives of Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, and Thomas Hardy, among others. Here she tackles the best recognized and loved man of nineteenth-century England, Charles Dickens; a literary leviathan whose own difficult path to greatness inspired the creation of classic novels such as Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Hard Times.

From his sensational public appearances to the obsessive love affair that led him to betray, deceive, and break with those closest to him, Charles Dickens: A Life is a triumph of the biographer’s craft, a comedy that turns to tragedy in a story worthy of Dickens’ own pen.


Although Charles Dickens is one of my favorite authors, I’d never read a true biography of him until now. I’d read historical fiction that covered some of his life events, so I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with what was presented here, but this was my first in-depth venture into the man behind the famous works. For the most part, it was an interesting journey.

The first thing that struck me about this book is that Tomalin seems to have been a very careful and conscientious researcher. She cites her sources and often reminds the reader that certain aspects of Dickens’ life may only be inferred or speculated upon because of lack of hard evidence. She makes her own speculations clear, so there’s never any confusion on that point. Not all biographers take the trouble to do this.

Second, this biography is rather thorough. It’s a long book that touches on Dickens’ childhood of poverty and labor, two themes that he would address again and again in his future works. Then Tomalin carries the reader through Dickens’ early career, which was launched via his Sketches by Boz; his marriage to Catherine Hogarth; their family life; and all subsequent stages of his writing career and personal affairs.

I found most of the book to be highly engrossing. I especially liked the analyses of Dickens’ books and how some of the characters, events, or overarching themes were lifted directly from his life. I also loved reading about some of the contemporary reaction to his fiction — not all of which was positive. And of course the whole Nelly Ternan affair was riveting. I only knew bits and pieces about Nelly before picking up Tomalin’s book, but now have a much clearer picture than ever of what really went on.

The final chapter was a great touch as well. It provided a nice bit of closure by telling the reader what ultimately became of some of the major players in Dickens’ life, including his children, Nelly, Catherine, and dear friend (and official biographer) John Forster.

If I had to pick something to dislike about Tomalin’s book, I’d say that she has a tendency to focus on mundane things for long stretches. Dickens’ household accounts or constant worry about earning enough money to support all those dependent on him might be interesting to some folks, but bored me to tears. In fact, I ended up putting this book aside for several weeks after getting bogged down around the halfway point. Once I started up again, I was ready to plow through to the end, but it did take some effort.


Before rendering my rating for Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, I feel I should point out that I’m not a Dickens scholar and am not familiar with any other biographies about him. I’m sure there are better ones out there, just as I’m sure there are worse. My rating is based solely on how I, as a casual reader, responded to this book as an isolated work. As I stated above, Tomalin was thorough, conscientious, and mostly interesting. I thought she lost her way now and again, but that’s nothing new with lengthy biographies. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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