I'm hoping everyone is braced and ready for wall-to-wall Dickens centenary celebrations in 2012. I'm preparing in advance but I'm also hoping for some great books and some good media coverage through next year.
Years ago I bought a nice hardback edition of Claire Tomalin's biography Katherine Mansfield - A Secret Life from a second-hand bookshop. To my delight, tucked inside the book was a hand-written card from Claire Tomalin dated 1991 and sent to the previous owner of the book who had obviously done what I said I was going to start doing and had written to the author. I seized upon this little token as if it were my own, as if I had somehow inherited the goodwill in Claire Tomalin's really lovely reply...
'Thank you for your lovely letter, quite undeserved but so nice of you. I went abroad for three weeks, hence my delay in answering...'
And somehow I've always felt an affinity with Claire Tomalin ever since. I moved heaven and earth to hear her talk about Thomas Hardy The Time-Torn Man when she came to Plymouth University a few years ago and so it has been a seamless endeavour to move straight onto her new biography Charles Dickens - A Life in the wake of my recent read of Helen Rappaport's Magnificent Obsession. I feel so bathed in the nineteenth century I now can't wait to start on our read of Middlemarch which I think we will launch on November 22nd, George Eliot aka Mary Ann Evans 192nd birthday (better check the maths someone... 1819)
The first point to make is that as long as books remain the thing of beauty that Charles Dickens - A Life is, then the Kindle will always be a handy Fisher-Price-like reading device for travel purposes (and I would be lost without mine) but never a complete replacement for the real book-lover, the book as object will remain supreme. A printed hardcover with a half slip band dust jacket in fetching shades of sepia and eau de nil combined with superior weight and quality paper make this volume a real joy to hold and to read, which with a £30 price tag is a good thing. Whilst book prices have steadily increased I haven't always seen the paper quality improve accordingly, there will be no foxing of this book in years to come you can be sure of that.
I am not as big a fan of Charles Dickens' novels as I would like to be so this needs to be interesting. I have a few firm favourites and usually because I have been made to read them for study and ended up admiring them (Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations, Dombey ....) but so many of the books I pick up under my own steam, and then start and stop and start and give up on, so it is quite refreshing to read a very honest appraisal of each one, as Claire Tomalin weaves her narrative of Dickens's life around the novels as they happen. Perhaps a sign of the best biographies is neither hint of craven idolatory nor out and out dislike, and thus far Claire Tomalin achieves a disinterested and very balanced critical approach to the life of a man who perhaps undoubtedly remains the greatest novelist in the English language.
The book reads as a novel and I think I can promise that if you settle down to read it you will be drawn into the life of Charles Dickens in the most intimate and endearing way. But with it came for me a real resurgence of enthusiasm to give it another go, to pick up yet another Dickens' novel over yet another Christmas and promise myself a read. I have decided to plump for the one that Claire Tomalin might raise above the rest in her estimation and I am wondering which it might be as each comes under her meticulous scrutiny. David Copperfield seems to be winning so far, but it is only 1850 and some lesser know works are also coming to light which I should like to explore too.
And not only the novels, but the life and with it a real appreciation of the bench mark that Dickens set himself and the pressure incurred by having to write for serialisation. Week in week out he had a deadline to meet, a story to concoct, imagination to find, but alongside it rest all his flaws, and I am wondering quite how I will emerge from the traumas ahead.
Poor Catherine, 'pregnant again' seems to be a recurring chorus, Nelly Ternan is about to enter stage left and I can hardly bear it, because despite knowing the general gist of what is to come, I decided to start the book with an open mind. Thus far I have warmed to this manically busy, clever, imaginative man with a philanthropic heart beating in there somewhere, but alongside this book another little Dickens volume has arrived... Dickens' Women by Miriam Margolyes and Sonia Fraser, and published by Hesperus.
This is a transcript of Miriam Margolyes's one woman show of the title's name, and reading her introduction I am getting a sense of the strength of opinion that abounds ...letters from Dickens about Catherine described as ' a tissue of self-serving lies,' whilst Miriam Margolyes states quite baldly and assertively 'I cannot forgive him,' damning Dickens as the abused turned abuser. Valid but subjective opinions, and so I am intrigued to see how Claire Tomalin walks this particular biographer's tightrope.
I'm wondering what you all think about Dickens and his treatment of his wife... and I wonder how I'm going to feel?? Will I forgive him in the grander scheme of things ... I can't wait to find out, and of course I will report back.