Culture Street

Books

Charles Dickens A Life by Claire Tomalin

On February 17, 2012


For the last two weeks I have seen London through the eyes of Charles Dickens. At night he walked for hours observing the underbelly of London’s dark, grim streets. They are richly described throughout many of Dickens’ novels.

Claire Tomalin’s biography of this literary superstar is gripping. It coincides with the bicentenary celebrations for Charles Dickens, celebrated across the world.

He was a much-loved author during his life, the love affair continues today. He was the champion of the working class. Many of his memorable characters lived in abject poverty.

Dickens was keen for his stories to be read by the poorer folk. He created his own weekly magazine. First Household Words and then All the Year Round. He worked tirelessly, writing for hours through the day followed by hours of walking. He put pressure on himself to meet the deadlines a weekly magazine demanded.  Dickens laid out the principles behind Household Words in the first edition:

“We aspire to live in the Household affections, and to be numbered among the Household thoughts, of our readers. We hope to be the comrade and friend of many thousands of people, of both sexes, and of all ages and conditions, on whose faces we may never look. We seek to bring to innumerable homes, from the stirring world around us, the knowledge of many social wonders, good and evil, that are not calculated to render any of us less ardently persevering in ourselves, less faithful in the progress of mankind, less thankful for the privilege of living in this summer-dawn of time.”

The weekly magazine made it possible for the working class to read his stories. They could afford the weekly publication and many carefully read each story Dickens printed. The Pickwick Papers was one of the favourites to be serialised in this way.

Dickens not only worked tirelessly as a writer, but also hankered after a career as an actor. He championed the author tour and was passionate about traveling throughout England, Europe and America sharing his work with new audiences. He was widely adored for his speaking tours. His performances were carefully crafted. Dickens wrote scripts combining many of his favourite characters into one brilliant performance. His ‘readings’ were always well received, but took their toll on his health.

His private life was not as successful as his literary life. He was separated from his wife and disappointed in most of his children. At the end of his life many depended on him. He worked hard to support his dependents.

Tomalin’s book sheds light on Dickens’ childhood, a formative part of his life in which poverty reared its ugly head. Many of the characteristics of the children he wrote about were based on his own memories of childhood.

Charles Dickens A Life is a fascinating read. A book that will definitely inspire the aspiring author.

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