So I read it and loved it and it's weeks since I finished it, but I haven't stopped thinking about Clare Tomalin's magnificent Charles Dickens - A Life.
I doubt a day goes by at the moment without some reference to the Dickens 200 and the website is well worth exploring if you don't want to miss any of it. I'm back in London in March and have a list of exhibitions to see including a visit to the house in Doughty Street and the Museum of London's Dickens and London which I have on good authority is excellent, and a must-see.
Has anyone else seen it yet...or planning a visit??
And I am poring over the Christmas schedules to make sure I don't miss anything, especially the new BBC three part adaptation of Great Expectations currently being advertised to the music of Leontovych's Carol of the Bells, completely haunting and catching my attention every time I hear it, so it might as well catch yours too...
And might Great Expectations be my favourite Dickens' book after Our Mutual Friend??
I'm still not sure I have read enough of them to decide but I did read Claire Tomalin's book with an idea that I would see if I could tell which her favourite might be, but true to Hilary Mantel's observation on the back cover..
'Claire Tomalin is the finest and most disinterested of biographers.'
...well I couldn't second guess so I'm relieved to have seen a television interview where I'm sure Great Expectations snatched Claire Tomalin's vote.
There is no idolatory here, no judgement passed and the whole felt sufficiently non-directive to allow space for the reader to think for themselves too, perhaps draw a few conclusons of their own which I like a biography to allow me to do. An excellent well-balanced journey through the life of undeniably our most famous author whose bi-centenary we are celebrating... and yet for all his gifts and my admiration for the novels I just can't help but have misgivings about the man.
I sensed ultimately a fear of entrapment. Every employment situation that required commitment led to eventual extrication so little wonder that the entrapment of serial writing caused such stress in his life. Whilst two more aspects struck me as disingenuous, the first, the obvious hot potato about Dickens' behaviour towards his wife Catherine and his children. Catherine permanently pregnant and discarded when prettier young blooms in the shape of Nelly Tiernan arrived, but also the children. The poor children who seemed to have a performer for a father, one who was writing like crazy to keep his family afloat, but alongside emerged the impression of Dickens as the extrovert who needed to be the centre of attention with all he did and with everyone he knew.
Eventually no one but no one stole Charles Dickens' limelight.
Worse, and no matter how hard I try to bury it I can't help but sense that his philanthropy was of that slightly self-serving variety, charity that needed to be noticed. So the more extreme and seemingly insurmountable the cause the better for all the attention it would draw ..like the fallen women of London, or the plight of the city's children.
I'm feeling bad for making such a call, especially given that I trained at the hospital he helped to found, and where he may still be mentioned in reverential tones, but it has all been sufficient to make me want to reappraise some student nurse brain-washing and read Jules Kosky's book again... Mutual Friends - Charles Dickens and Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in the light of my new knowledge.
Emotionally labile, impulsive, one moment effusive, the next withdrawn, driven by a work ethic that would keep him at the centre of a world that revolved around him, a childlike trait that Charles Dickens seems to have cultured for his entire life, a man who needed to be needed, and needed to be loved, and by as many people as possible. An audience was required 'to nourish his spirit'.
Claire Tomalin is nothing but frank and honest and very much on the case as Nelly moves into the picture...
'... the darkest part of his character was summoned up. He was ready to be cruel to his wife. A raging anger broke out at any opposition to his wishes. He used lies as weapons of attack and defence. His displays of self-righteousness were shocking. He was determined to be in the right about everything. He must have known he was not but he had lost his judgement. The spectacle of a man famous for his goodness and his attachment to domestic virtues suddenly losing his moral compass is dismaying.'
All I can sense is that this was barely concealed all along and it's interesting to speculate quite what opprobium the media of today would rain down on such behaviour... would Charles Dickens be a national treasure??
So thanks to Claire Tomalin I have a renewed perspective on Charles Dickens, one still laced with the utmost respect for the writing and its legacy, and much respect for the skills of a biographer who may have wanted to cry as she wrote...
'In September 1860 he performed a ritual act. ridding himself of the past by burning thousands of letters accumulated over the years on a bonfire at Gad's Hill. His appointed biographer, Forster, was not consulted.'
Dickens had much to hide it would seem, perhaps much of which he was ashamed, and much we will never quite know for sure, including events on the day of his demise which I had quite thought was the stroke on the sofa finale. In fact Claire Tomalin suggests that Dickens may well have been taken ill at Nelly's home, was bundled unconscious into a two-horse brougham and sent home to die at Gad's Hill.
If the eyes have it, this single picture expresses more than a million words in my mind....there is kindness but there is a self-reflecting sadness too, a pleading sort of melancholy.
Eventually buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey apparently against his wishes (which seems very out of character with the Dickens I had come to know throughout this book) and with just fourteen mourners present, no singing, no eulogy, just the words of the burial service. A tragically strange and underwrought departure at odds with the man who loved to be centre stage and worshipped, and all sufficient to make me wonder whether perhaps in his ending and his clear instructions for how it would be managed, Dickens was finally facing up to and acknowledging to himself the truth about his flaws. Did he see himself as ultimately undeserving of the respect and the audience he had sought and courted all his life, thus denying any opportunity for the public displays of mourning which his death would surely engender??
I am so pleased that I have read this book before the Dickens 200 really swings into action because I suspect I may have been drawn into the myth which as Claire Tomalin argues, Dickens had desecrated himself by his own behaviour. I have two feet firmly on the ground, romantic notions dispelled, and remarkably reading Charles Dickens - A Life has left me mad keen and wanting to launch yet another attempt on the mountain upon which I have been left impaled and floundering at base camp for about the last four Christmases.
Yes it's time to rope up for Bleak House Summit Attempt No 5, and this time I'm quietly hopeful. I have already passed all those heaps of previously discarded equipment and moved on from Tulkinghorne - Dedlock base camp, stared up at the North Wall of the Jarndyce and have just traversed the Jellyby crevasse. I'm roped up and on my way and the conditions seem favourable.