I've been gazing longingly at this biography since it came out but, apart from anything else, I wanted to boost my knowledge of Dickens's fiction first. After reading and reviewing Oliver Twist, Bleak House and The Old Curiosity Shop since the beginning of this year I thought I was ready. I knew Claire Tomalin to be an excellent biographer after reading her examination of Katherine Mansfield but Charles Dickens: A Life surpassed all my expectations.
One of the problems of writing a Dickens biography are the number of people - family members, friends - who are constantly on the periphery of his life. Tomalin combats this by including a 'Cast List' at the beginning of the book, some sixteen pages long. This comes in very useful throughout, as do the three maps which illustrate where Dickens spent much of his time. These maps are particularly enlightening when considered in the light of things he wished to keep secret, primarily his relationship with actress Nelly Ternan. There are also generous notes at the back of the book meaning that people who only have a cursory knowledge of Dickens will still be able to follow his life with ease.
Tomalin's balanced tone is notable throughout the book. Although it's obvious she is fascinated by her subject, this never translates to hero-worship: she is equally critical of both his actions in his person life and the flaws in some of his novels. However, she highlights the small events in his life which demonstrate the inner man, the two which stick in my head are the meeting on a train with a young girl and the inquest of the death of a baby which Tomalin chooses as her prologue. There are numerous instances of Dickens's compassion throughout but there are also many instances of his stubborn, and sometimes vindictive, nature. As Tomalin writes of his separation from his wife: 'You want to avert your eyes from a good deal of what happened during the next year, 1858.' (p294) You do but you can't. The Dickens who treated his wife so abominably is still the Dickens who created Our Mutual Friend and the tantalising unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The man and his works are linked and, actually, you can see fragments of his life and experiences reflected in all his novels and other works. A fuller understanding of the events of Dickens's life can lead to a more pleasurable reading of his fiction.
Ultimately, Tomalin paints a portrait of a flawed genius. Her descriptions of him, using just the right amount of detail, never verge on boring and she draws on numerous sources along with conjecture to summarise the secretive aspects of the author's life. This book is worth reading for the pages leading up to his death alone. They are compelling pages, intricately detailed and sympathetically written. Then again, so is the whole book. I'd sum this up as a very satisfying biography of a great man.