Friday, December 9, 2011

Charles Dickens: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

It is telling that a third of the way through this, I wanted to buy everything Tomalin has ever written. Although, if this book is indicative of her other works, it probably wouldn't be worthwhile to read a biography of hers unless you knew all about the subject's works. She does not give plot summaries of Dickens' books in this, and assumes you know the characters, especially the minor ones. This makes sense given her argument that Dickens' minor characters are the most interesting, and I agree with that argument (though she dismisses Uriah Heep, to my surprise), so I was cool with the couple of times I had to go back to a book and find a forgotten character ("the Marchioness"? the what now?).

Tomalin, however, states that Great Expectations is his greatest novel, because apparently anyone discussing Dickens is contractually obligated to say so, but my lack of interest in GE is precisely because it is so deficient in the fantastic supporting casts and the sprawling multiples of improbably interlocking plots which his other books feature. Why would you push GE as his best if you agree that his gift lay not in heroes, heroines, or even main villains? And yes, GE is the most tightly-plotted and compact of his books, but some of us read Dickens for the sprawl and the spectacle. Why say that the best of his books is the one that is nothing like the others, and yet still claim that he is an amazing writer? I have never understood this, and was disappointed that Tomalin bought into it.

(If you want my opinion, which of course you do, it's Bleak House, with Our Mutual Friend a very close  second. And everyone in the world should read Jack Maggs, Peter Carey's astonishing spin-off of Great Expectations.)

A good deal of this book is devoted to Dickens' affair with Ellen Ternan and his appalling treatment of his wife (Tomalin previously wrote a entire book just about the affair). I was surprised but pleased to learn that even contemporary critics tore into Dickens for his inability to write female characters. As they should have - I remember once trying to think of a single verb attributed to Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities which isn't some variation of "faint" or "weep", and couldn't do it.

What Tomalin brings up but cannot explain is the fact that Dickens married a woman who was as close to his heroines as could probably have been found in real life, almost immediately regretted the marriage, and yet kept this type of woman firmly in mind as the ideal object of desire. After he killed off Dora and gave David Copperfield someone more mature and competent (albeit still unrealistically saintly), one might have expected him to change his stock heroine. But he kept writing self-sacrificing girls with wide eyes, tiny hands, and fluttering hearts. He kept writing Doras, though he usually made them slightly less "near-imbecile", as Tomalin puts it (not by a lot; Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend is a fairly dim bulb). And yet his marriage to a docile, self-sacrificing woman who let him have all the spotlight he could have wished made him miserable and vicious. Tomalin cannot reconcile this, and perhaps no one could. (Dickens also, puzzlingly, was upfront about only wanting three children and yet had ten, though methods of birth control were not unknown at the time and he had many friends who practiced them.)

He treated his wife abominably when he fell in love with another woman, and to an extent before that. No one can deny that; even his most sycophantic friends tried to talk him out of the viciousness he exhibited toward Catherine. He made her pay a social call on his mistress' family in an attempt to quell rumors; once they had finally separated he took out advertisements in the papers explaining how wretched she had made him until he had no choice but to leave; he spoke nastily of her the rest of his life and told everyone he knew that their children had never loved her, nor she them.

These are the actions of an entitled man, who has let his bitterness over his childhood and the later adoration of strangers convince him that he deserves everything he wants and that anything which stands in his way does so out of spite. Thus, his wife's existence as such is a situation she has created out of pure spite to keep him from his true love, even though she became his wife three years before said true love was even born. And she must be punished for it. (Close to home right now? Just a little bit.)

These are also the actions of a man who doesn't like women. Dickens exerted a mysterious control over many women with whom there are no indications of any inappropriate behavior: the things going on with Catherine's sisters, one of whom stayed with him after the separation as his housekeeper / hostess and did not speak to her sister again until after Dickens' death, are weird. No one ever believed that there was a sexual relationship with anyone but Ellen Ternan, but he clearly enjoyed having women in his thrall. And yet, as Catherine found to her grief, there was a delicate line to be walked in terms of compliance and obedience, though we will never know exactly what he wanted or why she couldn't provide it.

In one line, Tomalin gave me more of Catherine than I have ever encountered before, by saying that her contributions to the family merriment were deliberately terrible puns, delivered completely deadpan. This made her suddenly a real person to me, and the treatment of her that followed was therefore all the more wrenching.

Tomalin leaves us with a deeply troubled, egotistical, and often cruel man who preferred to do good works for strangers rather than show love to family members, whose writing was flawed and sentimental and amazing, and who may not be lovable to us but who created characters we cannot help but love. It's an impressively researched, infuriating, and excellent biography.

Next up: Hell is Empty, by Craig Johnson.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds great! Poor Catherine. (GE is totally my top favourite Dickens, tho, heh.)