I had great plans for this post, which I formulated as I was reading the first quarter of Claire Tomalin’s hefty new biography of Charles Dickens, published to coincide with the bicentenary of his birth. I had heard Tomalin discuss this book at the Cambridge Winter Wordfest, and she gave a cracking talk, full of interesting and amusing anecdotes about Dickens’s eccentricities and indefatigable energy, but addressing the darker side of his life with equal vigour, underlining his cruelties to his wife, his children, and his mistress without trying to excuse them. As readers of this blog know, I hate Dickens and all his works (David Copperfield is possibly the worst book I have ever read, if obvious trash is excluded), but as a product of his time, I find him fascinating, and I was looking forward to a similar reading experience to Tomalin’s excellent biography Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, which turned me from a critic of Hardy into someone who now enjoys many of his novels, and much of his poetry – with reservations. I wasn’t expecting to undergo a similar reversal with respect to Dickens – his writing is too poor and his life too black to change my mind – but I had hoped to gain a greater appreciation of the good sides to him, his strong sense of social justice, perhaps, or his philanthropic endeavours, and maybe, I’d even be inspired to read more of his novels. I decided that I would call this fair-minded post Know thy enemy, and emphasise how I had now rethought Dickens while still disliking him.
Unfortunately, this post has not come to pass – because unlike her Wordfest talk, Tomalin’s biography tries to whitewash Dickens insofar as it possibly can, which had the effect on me of making me hate him ever more. Perhaps my planned post was never going to work – perhaps reading Gaynor Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress first ruined it. Of course, that novel is not a factual account of Dickens’ life – Dickens isn’t even called Dickens in it – but, reading this biography, I felt the same sense of outrage at Dickens’ actions as I felt while reading Arnold’s novel. This is a man who abandoned his wife at a time when she could hope for no other role other than as a wife, a role she had devoted herself to for decades – but not only that, forbade their children from seeing her, made vicious public remarks in print about her failings, drank too much, and essentially found every excuse to blame everybody but himself for his turbulent private life. Tomalin – who wrote an earlier biography of Nelly Ternan, Dickens’ mistress, called The Invisible Woman, which I haven’t read – might have been expected to be a sympathetic narrator for the women in Dickens’s life. Instead, she writes sentence after sentence that might have been intended to be scrupulously fair but made me gasp in outrage. Nelly gets short shrift, but it is Catherine Dickens who is particularly shafted.
I could give numerous examples, but will focus on one, which, to my mind, exemplifies the tone that Tomalin takes throughout – a tone that sounds fair but is actually biased towards Dickens’ point of view, Dickens’ desires and Dickens’ needs. This particularly weird paragraph pops up after Dickens has an emotional affair with a married woman, Madame De La Rue, whom he tries to mesmerise and was clearly obsessed with for some time, although there is no suggestion that they consummated the affair physically. Catherine, understandably, objected. Tomalin writes – the paragraph is such a bizarre mixture of sympathy and condemnation that it has to be quoted in full – : ‘A saintly wife might have put aside whatever dislike and disapproval she felt about his behaviour and the De La Rues’ part in it. Catherine, pregnant, away from home, faced with her husband’s obsession with his charming female patient, felt vulnerable and showed that she was cross with him. She may have remembered how she had been cross during their engagement, and how he reproached her sternly for it and warned her not to repeat the performance. If his behaviour rankled with her, hers also rankled with him, so much so that he still held it against her and reproached her with it eight years later.’ The second sentence of this paragraph is the only one that is wholly sympathetic towards Catherine, and bookended as it is with a suggestion of what she should have done, had she been ‘saintly’, and a suggestion that she had done wrong in the past, much of the sympathy is lost. The final sentence is the weirdest of all, suggesting as it does that Catherine and Charles somehow hold equal responsibility for the discord in their marriage at this point in time – although there is no fair reading of the situation that could conclude that. Overall, the paragraph gives the impression of sympathy for Catherine, but actually places the reader on Charles’ side – like much of the other comments on their marriage throughout this biography.
Aside from his personal life, I was also left with an unfavourable impression of Dickens’ philanthrophic endeavours, which, again, Tomalin gilds to the extent that I found myself distrusting the whole enterprise. One project that receives particular attention is his setting up of a home for young prostitutes to guide them back to respectable lives, but I did not feel that Tomalin analyses this project, its intentions, methods, and goals, with the scholarly scrutiny it necessitates. The opening to her discussion of Victorian prostitution, and Dickens’ attitude to it (it seems likely that he used prostitutes) is troubling in itself. Tomalin writes, in approving tones: ‘He was compassionate but not simple-minded, and he could be strictly realistic about prostitutes and men’s experiences of them and need for them: for example, he defended Samuel Rogers when he was publicly accused of corrupting girls who became prostitutes by saying they had certainly been willing partners, and commented in a letter, “good God if such sins were to be visited upon all of us and to hunt us down through life, what man would escape!”’ To me, this goes beyond trying to understand Dickens’s point of view on the matter and reads as if Tomalin is condoning his viewpoint. She goes on to describe the way he ran his Home, which she claims was run on liberal lines, not as a place where young women felt they had to ‘exipate their sins’ – but nevertheless, each woman was told that ‘no one would ever mention her past to her’ and ‘advised not to talk further about her own history to anyone else.’ From my own research on Dr Barnardo’s Girls’ Village Home for ‘orphan’ girls, set up in 1874, where this policy was also in place, I know how psychologically damaging such a rule could be for the girls, creating the very sense of shame and guilt that Tomalin claims Dickens was trying to avoid.
Tomalin’s general attitude to Dickens’ failings could be excused as an attempt to read him as a man of his time, to see his side of things and present his case, but ultimately, I don’t believe this argument holds water. It would have been possible, for example, to note that Dickens’ use of prostitutes was certainly not unusual for a well-off Victorian gentleman, while still condemning his hypocrisy, or to argue that nothing in his education would have equipped him to understand Catherine’s point of view, while still realising that he was in the wrong. Of course, at times, Tomalin does write a sentence or two that condemns Dickens, but the way she introduces his faults into the narrative, cleverly sandwiched – as in the De La Rue affair – with justifications for his actions, reduces the impact of these criticisms considerably. I felt that not only Nelly, but Catherine, Georgiana, the women in Dickens’ Home, had become invisible – only his daughter Katey escapes. Because of this, I was very disappointed by this biography, especially when I’d had such high hopes for it. Feminist critiques aside, it’s also not nearly so well-written as The Time-Torn Man – particular chunks, such as Dickens’ childhood or the sketchy details of his affair with Nelly, are gripping, but much of the book simply meanders along in a repetitive manner, with no vivid anecdotes, quotes, or stories to hold the reader’s attention. In the end, I felt that I’d been told a lot about the incredible impact of Dickens as a man and as a writer – but shown very little.