What the Dickens! On reading Claire Tomalin’s Biography of Charles Dickens

We are almost through the Bicentenary of Charles Dickens birth and here at The Velvet Nap, we are only half way through our intended reading of the Inimitable as he liked to call himself.  From the beautiful and moving prologue, of Dickens saving a workhouse girl charged with killing her child, to the quick fast paced chapters, Tomalin’s book is intriguing and the perfect antidote to the editing tornado that I have become.

There are two things that strike me so far, that I find my mind wandering over at inopportune times :

One is his output – which was incredible – he was writing ‘pieces’, books in sections that had unmovable deadlines and were printed promptly on completion, which gave Dickens no chance to revise or edit. What we read of him is what we get – when it works, his writing really flies, when it doesn’t work, one wishes he had the chance to edit. However, somehow I can’t imagine the Inimitable, submitting or pausing for such things, as he was always pressing forward.

The other thing that rankles is his relationship with his wife Catherine and his children. There is the wonderful Dickens dressing in chinese dress to perform magic tricks at his son’s birthday and the tender letters written ‘To my dear Kate’, but there is a disconcerting edge to these relationships that I find unsettling. On his trip to America in 1842 he took his wife, but not his children, leaving them in the care of nurses, friends and a young aunt, the youngest child Walter being close to a year old. And the growing ambivalence of Catherine’s regular pregnancies, I can see leading to the drama that has come to us in legend, of his acrimonious separation from her.

Can’t wait to read more about this complicated, creative, twitchy, many faceted man.

ps. ‘What the Dickens’ is a quote from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives if Windsor – i.e. ‘what the devil’, somehow I think like Lucifer, Dickens will live up to this – shining like an angel and then the dazzling fall…

Illustration Andre Carrilho / Vanity Fair Magazine

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