Thursday, October 11, 2012

Charles Dickens - a life

I finished Claire Tomalin's magnificent Charles Dickens, a life, last night.  Magnificent primarily in the amount of sheer detail that's provided, and which must have taken vast hours of research to put together.  The book deals with the whole Nelly Ternan saga with considerable insight, and manages to take the cover off some of the matters that had been hidden for many years.  It helps that Tomalin has already worked over this particular bit of ground before, in her book, The Invisible Woman: the story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. 

Dickens, as is generally well-known, was a great mix of a man - hardly unusual, especially in those who can be classed as geniuses - but there are aspects of his life that are puzzling to say the least.  His rejection of his wife, Catherine, after they had had ten children together, and his negative attitude to most of his sons whom he regarded with less and less favour as they grew and proved to be not geniuses like their father, are more than sad, and these attitudes lost him some friendships completely and curtailed others.  His favouring of his daughters and his two sisters-in-law was also curious, given that he spent a great deal of his adult life in the company of other men, behaving like a unattached bachelor.

While he could be harsh on members of his family, or contrary, or dismissive, he formed friendships with some males that endured through all manner of ups and downs.  Forster is the prime example; he could upset Dickens, but never for long, and Forster himself could be hurt by Dickens, but always came back for more.

Then there was the way he drove himself constantly.  Some of this might be attributed to his upbringing by a father who couldn't keep out of debt and Dickens' sense that if he didn't work hard enough he might end up in poverty like the old man. Yet that can only be part of the reason: the incredible walks (twelve miles was nothing, and sometimes he walked through the night from one place to another); the endurance tests of the public readings which increased his ill-health; the striving to do several things at once and managing to do so 99 times out of 100; the insistence on taking on far more than the ordinary mortal could manage; the restlessness of shifting houses and even countries; his self-assurance that he could cure people by what can only be regarded as approaches verging on quackery; and on and on.

But then there was the other side of Dickens: the generous, compassionate, public-spirited man, the man who genuinely cared for the poor (he might have been more sympathetic to his family if they had been poor!), the man who financially supported the widows and fatherless children of old friends, who paid off his father's debts - and those of his siblings - time and again even though it made him angry; the man who fought those who dismissed the poor as being beneath their contempt; the man who mocked the legal systems and brought changes through his writings; the man who celebrated life continually with endless birthday parties, Christmas parties, dinners for friends, dinners for other writers and men (sometimes women) of renown, jaunts hither and thither and yon; the man who fell passionately in love not only with the woman he didn't marry in his youth, but with his sister-in-law, with other lesser-known women and, finally, with Ellen Ternan.  Only one of these relationships ever became a sexual one (Ternan's) but there was more passion in the other relationships than many men have in their whole lives.

And then of course there was the writing: it could make him ill at times, could drive him mad, and sometimes he was troubled that it wasn't good enough.  He could write two novels at one time, and besides the works for which he is famous, he wrote countless other pieces: stories, articles, plays and tirades.  His Christmas stories almost all sold on the basis of the one really excellent one, A Christmas Carol; some of them weren't very good, and the ones he wrote late in his life were pretty awful.  He could write scenes that were pure melodrama, and scenes in which the women behave in the way they would on the stage (acting and stage directing and playwriting were all fitted into his frenetic life) but not in real life (or even in a novel), and he could write scenes that hummed along and couldn't be put down by the reader.  Some of his characters were pure sentiment, some were pure evil.  His best female characters were never heroines, or children, or young girls - all of these suffered from overwrought writing and bland characterization.  Some of his heroes weren't much better, but the best of them are real in a way only characters written by a master craftsman are real.

Besides these, there were the host of people who really do stick in our memories, and they are so many that to name them would take pages.  Not only are there the famous ones who are so well-known that they might have been real people, there are the innumerable characters who appear for a few sentences and still come completely alive.

I've read more than one book on Dickens and his life, but this one seemed more balanced and honest.  Furthermore it gave other people in the story room to breathe.

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