Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Delving Deep into the Life of the Celebrated Dickens; Charles Dickens' First Biographer Came from Newcastle and the Latest Visited the City This Week. DAVID WHETSTONE Spoke to Claire Tomalin

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Delving Deep into the Life of the Celebrated Dickens; Charles Dickens' First Biographer Came from Newcastle and the Latest Visited the City This Week. DAVID WHETSTONE Spoke to Claire Tomalin

Article excerpt

Byline: DAVID WHETSTONE

BIOGRAPHER Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life came out recently and now she is doing what Dickens would have understood only too well - travelling to promote the book.

In this Dickens bicentenary year, interest in the great Victorian novelist is intense. But it seems a trip to Newcastle University to give a free lecture was no hardship for the author whose previous subjects have included Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Samuel Pepys.

"It's a city I admire greatly," she said. "Last summer we had a holiday that we'd meant to take for a long time - two weeks in Northumberland. It was the best holiday I've ever taken.

"We were very lucky with the weather and we visited Holy Island and the Roman Wall." Dickens was a visitor too, drawing enthusiastic crowds to his readings around the North East.

Tomalin's handsome Dickens biography has earned some glowing reviews with critics appreciating its vivid descriptions of Victorian life.

It sounds as if it was a labour of love. Tomalin, who is married to playwright Michael Frayn, said: "I started reading Dickens as a small child. My mother was very keen on him and my French grandmother, when she was in Grenoble in the 1880s, read David Copperfield in English."

Both these ladies, the composer Muriel Emily Herbert and Franceline Jennaton Delaverans, are commemorated in a dedication at the front of Tomalin's book.

She added that her mother had once told her that her own grandmother, who lived in Liverpool, could remember eagerly awaiting the next installment of Dickens' novels, first published in serial form in magazines.

Like her grandmother, it was David Copperfield she read first. The man and also his life and times came to fascinate Tomalin, but it was his affair with a young actress, Nelly Ternan, which first moved her into print.

Tomalin's The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens was published in 1991, revealing the lengths to which Dickens went to keep the affair out of the newspapers. Tomalin said Dickens was writing at a time when you had to be careful what you wrote.

"He said, for instance, in a letter to his friend John Forster, 'You can't give a real account of a young man's life and his growing up'.

"I think he was particularly talking about sexual experiences, but it is a factor you have to think of in considering Dickens - there were things he couldn't say.

"Forster wrote the first great biography of Dickens and he didn't mention once that he had set up a place for homeless women - actually young prostitutes. …

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