Magazine article The Spectator

The Brilliance in the Room

Magazine article The Spectator

The Brilliance in the Room

Article excerpt

Philip Hensher welcomes this account of the moralist, but misses the humorist

Charles Dickens: A Life

by Claire Tomalin

Viking, £30, pp. 576,

ISBN 9780670917672

It is difficult to conceive of a writer more passionately loved by his audience than Dickens was. It went on for a very long time, too. We learn from the historian David Kynaston that, immediately after the second world war, Dickens was one of the five most borrowed authors from public libraries. My grandmother was probably a typical reader of Dickens: she left school at 14 before the first world war, yet had a cheap set of Dickens in the house (I think it was a promotional giveaway by the Daily Express at some point in the 1930s. ) I have the set - the typeface and the acid paper nearly make your eyes and fingers bleed. And yet she read most of them a lot more than once:

the copy of David Copperfield falls apart as you open it. A century after thousands of ordinary admirers filed past Dickens's coffin in Westminster Abbey, 'bringing' (as Claire Tomalin says) 'the heartfelt, useless notes they had written for him, and offerings of flowers that filled up and overflowed the grave', many thousands of ordinary, not very educated readers still loved him and thought of him as their own. Undergraduates nowadays find him much more of a challenge. But 200 years after he was born, he still looks, to many, like the author of the five greatest novels in the English language, and perhaps even, too, what Tolstoy called him, the greatest novelist of the 19th century; a greatness not founded in cold esteem, but passionate adoration. He still looks like what one of his contemporaries called him, 'the brilliance in the room'.

Dickens has been much biographied, from his friend Forster's excellent account onwards. There is the mythology, of course - the blacking factory, the early death of Maria Beadnell, the versions of his parents in his novels, the adult purchase of the boyhood dream of Gad's Hill, the railway crash which almost killed Dickens and destroyed the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend, and the public readings which really did kill him.

Much of this, Dickens wrote about himself.

There is the sense of the wonderful personality - the performer, the joker at the dinner table, the actor manque. There are, too, the more private matters of the failure of Dickens's marriage to Catherine Hogarth in the 1850s and his children, most of whom failed in life, much more like his slapdash father than like Dickens himself. And then, emerging long after Dickens's death and the death of most of those who had known him, there was the story of his late attachment to the actress Ellen 'Nelly' Ternan.

Both Dickens and Nelly did their best to cover up their traces. Nelly lied about her age, even to the man she later married, so as to make it seem that she could only have been a child when she knew Dickens. Any letters between them were burnt. In reports of the railway accident of 1865, Dickens was said to be alone - in fact he was travelling with Nelly and her mother. There may have been a son born to them, and Tomalin conjectures that Dickens may actually have died of apoplexy in her house, Nelly and Dickens's housekeeper/sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth conspiring to remove the body back to Gad's Hill.

Claire Tomalin is in the unusual position of having approached a biography of Dickens before writing this full-dress one. Her life of Ellen Ternan, The Invisible Woman, is a classic of biographical investigation. In that, she pieced together a life from hints and scraps, from a historical record which had been determinedly assaulted. Many readers of Dickens had firmly believed that there was no truth in stories of him and the young actress, including his most recent major biographer, Peter Ackroyd. After The Invisible Woman, it became much harder to argue that.

The other controversy in Dickens's life is in his treatment of his wife, Catherine. …

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