Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly described Flora Finching as a character in “Dombey and Son.” She is a character in “Little Dorrit.” This version has been corrected.
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.
Tomalin brings Dickens to life by following his own method: She provides choice details, superintends many characters, and welcomes both humor and pathos. Dickens walks off the page, and the pace never flags. Tomalin accomplishes this resurrection in a mere 417 pages of text, supplemented by dozens of illustrations, several maps of Dickens’s London and a helpful dramatis personae. Her only narrative shortcoming is a frustrating habit of forecasting upcoming events — even at one point summarizing the decade ahead — before proceeding through them. This pitfall of biographers undermines suspense and encourages readers to forget that, like us, these people did not know what was going to happen next.
Tomalin’s is not the definitive Dickens — it’s too concise for that — but if you plan to read only one biography of the most popular Victorian writer, it should be this one. If you seek detailed analysis of the writings in literary and historical context, choose Michael Slater’s comprehensive 2009 biography. If you prefer a life story as imaginative, exhaustive and grotesque as one of Dickens’s own novels, turn to Peter Ackroyd’s 1990 opus, which is half again the length of “Bleak House.” Tomalin’s goal isn’t to rehash everything known about Dickens; it’s to bring him to life. She succeeds admirably.
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, in “Becoming Dickens,” has a much shallower depth of field; his subtitle is “The Invention of a Novelist.” He devotes 336 thoughtful and lively pages to several formative years from the 1830s, in which Dickens grew from an unknown shorthand reporter in Parliament to the famous author of “The Pickwick Papers” and “Oliver Twist.” The resulting close-up portrait is fascinating, at least for someone already preoccupied with Dickens. Douglas-Fairhurst’s Dickens is not the bearded celebrity who conjured up the dark poetry of “Little Dorrit.” During this almost innocent early period, in contrast, an uncertain fledgling experiences his first love affair and breakup, with the flighty Maria Beadnell, whom he will caricature many years later (as Flora Finching in “Little Dorrit”) for the sin of not living up to his memories. He marries and begins to father a parade of sons and daughters. He serves as a magazine editor, develops the pugnacious character that will prove the scourge of publishers and turns toward becoming an activist for the poor and ignored.
Douglas-Fairhurst has a gift for apt and surprising description. When, early on, the boy’s deadbeat father once again wrecks the family finances, “the luxuries they could no longer afford included young Charles’s childhood.” On Dickens’s christening of his first-born son: “It was standard practice to name your first son after yourself, and over the rest of the century it chimed with a growing sense that children were not so much miniature versions of their parents as opportunities to put right the mistakes of the past.” Jo, the crossing sweeper in “Bleak House,” “is like an emanation of his environment, a clump of dirt brought to cringing life.”
Douglas-Fairhurst also has a welcome sense of humor. “No other writer,” he remarks, “is quite as good at making marriage vows about remaining together ‘till death us do part’ sound more like a suicide pact.” With style and wit he explores how Dickens went about growing and nurturing the voice and vision that are, after all, the only reasons we remember him or care to read about his life.
By Claire Tomalin
Penguin Press. 527 pp. $36
The Invention of a Novelist
By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Belknap/Harvard Univ. 389 pp. $29.95