Perhaps Charles Dickens thought of himself as a realist. As Claire Tomalin demonstrates in her vivid and moving new biography, Dickens’s own life was rich in the attributes we call “Dickensian” — shameless melodrama, gargantuan appetites, reversals of fortune. He had secrets worthy of Lady Dedlock in “Bleak House,” and his father demonstrated character development as unlikely as Mr. Dombey’s in “Dombey and Son.” The inimitable Boz, as Dickens called himself early in his literary career, even survived a train wreck, in which his car literally hung in midair off a bridge, and he behaved heroically — once he had spirited away his young mistress. It’s true that his real life offered no divinely virtuous women, but there were several he imagined that way. We can say of Dickens what he said of a colleague: “He is a live caricature himself.”
Surely few writers have been blessed (or cursed) with as much restless energy as Dickens. He became adviser to a rich philanthropist and explored midnight London slums with a police escort. He dragged his family through Switzerland and Italy and all over England while writing 800-page novels. Winding down from a bout of composition, he would walk many miles during the night. To encompass this frenzy, Tomalin keeps the story racing. She brings Dickens to life in all his maddening contradictions. As the first author to make street urchins his heroes, and as the founder of a home for prostitutes, he seems to have demonstrated sympathy for every Victorian except his own long-suffering wife. Her existence was a march of pregnancies and disregard until Dickens infamously separated from and publicly slandered his supportive mate of 22 years. Next came a long-running, secret affair with a woman less than half his age.