Two giants of the 19th-century English novel, William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens, were born within a year of each other, in 1811 and 1812, but only Dickens has been the subject of international bicentenary commemorations.
Dickens’s long hold on the public imagination is due to the many memorable literary characters he created, each one seeming to embody elements of the best or the most venal, if not the worst, of the human species: Tiny Tim and Scrooge, Pecksniff, the Artful Dodger, Mr. Gradgrind, Sam Weller, the Podsnaps and Veneerings, to name a few. In the foibles and heroics of these characters, 19th-century readers seemed to recognize themselves. Above all, these portraits speak to our desire for courage, contentedness, and sociability, even in the meanest conditions. Think of the shared cups of brandy before the fire in The Pickwick Papers or the Christmas feast at the Cratchit household. And no one, says George Orwell, ever wrote better about childhood, a rare skill in a time when it was not good to be a child.
If the novels are dependent on melodrama, they also contain scenes that, as Orwell also writes, you remember to your dying day. That these scenes had resonance for Dickens himself can be seen in the readings he gave in the latter part of his career, in cities all over England, bringing thousands of spectators to tears, fits of fainting, and even hysteria with his enactment of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes. Dickens was one of the original mega-celebrities, unlike poor Thackeray, who wrote only one great book and failed to achieve anywhere near the same kind of following.
Although Dickens was working in a venerable Western literary tradition — besides Shakespeare, the outsized characters in Rabelais and Cervantes come to mind, not to forget Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, and Tristram Shandy — a new element emerges in his later novels, reflecting what some think was the desire of Dickens to be not just a popular but also a “serious” writer. He thus created indelible portraits that are less positive about the human condition, symbolizing everything that was felt to be wrong about England: the railway locomotive in Dombey and Son, the fog in Bleak House, the uncovered coal pit in Hard Times. The attitude behind them is very hard and bitter indeed. Dickens seemed actually to know little about some of the targets against which he railed. Macaulay, for instance, said that Dickens did not understand the utilitarian economics he criticized in Hard Times. Here, too, however, Dickens reflected the sentiments of ordinary people: Like most of us, he believed politicians and “great minds” were humbugs and distrusted their solutions.
In 1860, Dickens burned all of his private correspondence, saying his books would speak for him. Nevertheless, biographies and even critical studies of Dickens generally locate the roots of the optimist and the scourge in the life and the personality, originating in Dickens’s fierce youthful ambition to rise from the downward mobility of his parents and the limitations of his background. Peter Ackroyd, in one of the best recent biographies (albeit a rather long one), does justice to this approach. Orwell saw in the portraits of contentedness a reflection of Dickens’s cockney origins and the rise of consumer culture in London in the early 19th century. Edmund Wilson, in an essay subtitled “The Two Scrooges,” offered a nifty interpretation of the entanglement of the good and the bad (later explored in Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, who acknowledged Dickens’s influence on him) in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, on which Dickens was working when he died in 1870. Wilson suggests that the double life of choirmaster John Jasper, an opium addict who (it is conjectured) kills his nephew on Christmas, is a masked portrait of Dickens himself.
Dickens has been subject to hero worship, to debunking, to psychological analysis; Claire Tomalin’s method, in this new biography, is to explore Dickens’s life as lived, literally from week to week. Tomalin — the author of biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft, Katherine Mansfield, Jane Austen, and Thomas Hardy — knows her Dickens, having written a book on his relationship with Ellen Ternan, the young actress for whom he abandoned his wife. (Tomalin takes the minority view that the relationship not only was consummated but also resulted in a child, who died shortly after birth.) Every new work on Dickens builds on earlier research, and Tomalin has benefited from these previous labors. Something goes missing, however, when a biographer piles on an accumulation of data in the following manner: