Charles Dickens: A Life

CHARLES DICKENS was a phenomenon. Perhaps the greatest novelist in the English language, the creator of characters who live immortally in the English imagination, Sam Weller, Mr Pickwick, the Artful Dodger, David Copperfield, Little Nell, Lady Dedlock, Mrs Gamp, Pip, Miss Havisham and many more. He was also a demonically hard-working journalist, father of ten children, indefatigable walker and traveller, and tireless in his support of liberal social causes. At the age of twelve he was sent by his affectionate but feckless parents to work in a blacking factory. By the time of his death in 1870 he drew adoring crowds to his public appearances, had met princes and Presidents on both sides of the Atlantic, and had amassed a fortune. He was truly 'the inimitable', as he jokingly described himself. When he died, the world mourned, and he was buried - against his wishes - in Westminster Abbey. The energy and brilliance concealed a complex and divided character. A republican, he took strongly against America when he visited the country; sentimental about the family in his writings, he cast his wife into outer darkness after taking up with a young actress; often generous with his time and money, he cut off his more impecunious children and siblings; loyal to his friends in the theatre, he treated his publishers appallingly. After his death his own daughter wrote to Bernard Shaw, 'If you could make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me.' Charles Dickens: A Life is the examination of Dickens we deserve. It gives full measure to his heroic stature - his huge virtues both as a writer and as a human being - while observing his failings in both respects with an understanding but unblinking eye. Twenty years ago Claire Tomalin's award-winning The Invisible Woman convincingly traced the relationship between Dickens and Nelly Ternan, in a triumph of sympathetic scholarship. Now she has written a full-scale biography of the writer, a story worthy of Dickens' own pen: a comedy that turns to tragedy as the very qualities that made him great - his indomitable energy, boldness, imagination, showmanship and enjoyment of fame - finally destroyed him.
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