Charles Dickens is still selling out halls of hundreds of seats 200 years after his birth, as his most recent biographer Claire Tomalin proved today at Bath Lit Fest.
People still want to know about the man who has produced some of Britain’s most British literature – he was London’s most devout profiler thanks to his philanthropic personality and efforts to give a voice to the city’s most squalid, impoverished inhabitants.
Tomalin told the Independent’s John Walsh that her idea of profiling Dickens manifested when she bought a first edition of his first biography, written by his best friend John Forster. She said that they are now “basically disintegrated” from use. When Walsh asked what she thought she could bring to Dickens’s life that hadn’t been covered by any of his previous biographers, Tomalin said it was indeed his friendship with Forster, which had never really come up before.
“One doesn’t need an excuse to write about someone whom one greatly admires,” she told Walsh; and it seemed like she still greatly admires the author despite discovering a few home truths. She slammed Ackroyd’s claim that it was ‘inconceivable’ that Dickens consummated his affair with the teenage Nellie Ternan, whom he left his wife and ten children for. “Maybe it’s inconceivable to Peter Ackroyd,” she quipped.
It was certain, Tomalin said, that a child was borne of Dickens and Ternan, and that it died – two of his children with whom he kept in contact confirmed it. In fact, 1858 was Dickens’s annus horribilis – “a middle-aged man meets a pretty teenge girl and decides he’s no longer happily married,” Tomalin shrugged. The ironic thing, she said, was his position as the editor of Household Words magazine – a magazine which advocated the perfect domestic life, and which he continued to write for. He did, however, “remain true” to Ternan for the rest of his life, but this had a sour edge as it meant he completely relinquished contact with his wife Catherine Hogarth – even when one of their sons died after their separation, he didn’t offer his condolences.
Despite having such turbulent relationships with the women in his life, Tomalin admitted that she doesn’t think Dickens is “good at women – particularly young women” in his novels. “They’re always characterless, pretty, whimsical things.” Likewise, his portrayal of prostitutes was not synonymous to real life – Dickens knew and befriended prostitutes, having founded a home for fallen women in the leafy suburb of Shepherd’s Bush, with “gardens and music and books and nice clothes” for the women to try and show what they could have if they rejected their livelihood. Tomalin said his writing of prostitutes is “theatrical”; “he enjoyed cheap Victorian melodrama.” Nancy in Oliver Twist was in fact a character drawn from real life, but reads like an actress, she said.
“People said [Dickens] was a very good actor and people would hear him speaking or pulling faces as he wrote…his energy was tremendous,” she said. But it must have taken some tremendous energy on her part to write the 576 pages the extraordinary Charles Dickens: A Life is made up of. Walsh asked what she was doing next; Tomalin's reply: “I’m having a rest.” And well deserved, too.
Charles Dickens: A Life is out now, published by Penguin.