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Reviews: 200 years after Charles Dickens' birth, two biographies examine the author's fame, secrets

Adoring crowds swooned at his public appearances. Politicians and royals sought his acquaintance. He owned fine houses, summered in France, traveled often, entertained lavishly.

He made oodles of money — but never enough. His children were mostly disappointments, his marriage a disaster, his very public life bracketed by secrets he did everything to hide.

Charles Dickens was the greatest writer of the Victorian Age, and, it can be argued, second only to Shakespeare as a beloved and influential British writer.

He was also perhaps the first superstar celebrity — and the first to struggle to keep his private life private.

Tuesday is the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth, which will be celebrated with events all over the world, many culminating this week. (See below.)

Dickens' 20 novels (the last, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was left unfinished when he died of a stroke at age 58) have sold millions of copies and never been out of print. Even if you are not a lover of literature, you probably couldn't graduate from high school without reading at least one of them. And you don't even need to be literate to know his best-loved work, A Christmas Carol, which has been made into more than three dozen TV and movie versions, starring everyone from George C. Scott to the Muppets.

Dickens dominated the literary world of his day; his admirers included Poe, Tolstoy and Freud, not to mention Queen Victoria. More than 140 years after his death in 1870, his influence on contemporary writers is everywhere, from literary lights such as John Irving, Thomas Pynchon and Jennifer Egan to popular authors like J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and Alexander McCall Smith.

Yet, although we may know A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield and Great Expectations, many of us don't know much about the man beyond the image of the bewhiskered, waistcoated gent peering soberly at us from their book jackets.


Two biographies take very different approaches to introduce us to the man who called himself, only somewhat jokingly, the Inimitable.

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin is a full-fledged biography, basing its lively narrative of the author's public and private life on a wide variety of sources. Tomalin, who is British, is a noted biographer of such writers as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy.

Jane Smiley's book of the same title, Charles Dickens: A Life, was originally published a decade ago but has been reissued for the 200th anniversary. Smiley, an American, is best known as a novelist, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres as well as Moo, Horse Heaven and Ten Days in the Hills — all books that reflect Dickens' influence. Her book is a critical biography, focusing insightfully on Dickens' novels and drawing connections between them and his life.

Both biographers emphasize the impact of Dickens' unprecedented fame. "If we see him," writes Smiley, "as a man whose work made him rich and famous, as close to a household name as any movie star is today — then we can also see him as the first person to become a 'name brand.' "

Dickens found that success quite early. After a few years as a journalist (a profession he would continue all his life), he published his first work of fiction, Sketches by Boz, in 1836, followed the same year by The Pickwick Papers. Both were first published, like all his novels, in serial form, and Pickwick became a phenomenon when he introduced the Cockney philosopher Sam Weller in the 10th chapter.

People stood in line to buy each new installment and passed them from hand to eager hand. Tomalin writes, "Judges and politicians, the middle class and the rich, bought them, read them, and applauded; and the ordinary people saw that he was on their side, and they loved him for it. . . . It was as though he was able to feed his story directly into the bloodstream of the nation."

Dickens was all of 24 years old. The next year, he published Oliver Twist, and his fame soared even higher. From the beginning, his fiction was a unique melding of comedy and drama, a rich exploration of every class and caste of English society, a vehicle for passionate social and political critique, a vibrant combination of sharply observed realism and unfettered imagination.

Dickens shaped the novel in his own image, for he was as complex as any of his books. Tomalin and Smiley return, over and over, to his almost unbelievable energy. For example, he wrote Pickwick and Oliver at the same time — chapters of one in the morning, the other in the afternoon, totaling about 80 pages a week — while he was also working as the editor of a magazine, marrying Catherine Hogarth and becoming a father.

He kept up that level of work most of his life, complementing it with daily walks or horseback rides of 10 to 20 miles, without which he said he could not concentrate.

He also led a prodigious social life. Tomalin prefaces her book with a dramatis personae, a list identifying the people who will be important in Dickens' story — a list 16 pages long. He had many close friendships and was a familiar face in London's clubs, restaurants and theaters. He adored performing (he briefly considered acting as a career) and was frequently involved in amateur and professional plays as an actor, playwright or other role behind the scenes.


That skill as an actor helped make him a star as an author. His appearances to read from his works drew audiences in the thousands. Tomalin writes that on his first tour of the United States and Canada in 1842, "he and Catherine began to wilt under the requests for autographs and letters inviting them to visit every part of the country, the deputations, the cheering crowds that gathered when he went out in the afternoon, the ladies who tried to snip bits off his fur coat and ask for locks of his hair."

A "Boz Ball" in New York City sold 3,000 tickets to a boisterous crowd that feasted on a menu that included 50,000 oysters, then danced until even the indefatigable Dickens was worn out. When he returned to America in 1867, he had begun — after much soul searching — to charge for his appearances. He earned the equivalent of a million dollars.

But despite the public adulation he craved, Dickens strove to keep some of his life hidden. The first, and most formative in his fiction, was his childhood.

His early years were happy, but when Charles was 12, his father, John Dickens, was arrested for debts. John was sent to Marshalsea debtors' prison, where the rest of the family joined him — except for Charles. His mother, Elizabeth, found him a job in a boot-blacking factory. The boy who had hoped to go to Cambridge University found himself pasting labels on shoe polish bottles in a window facing the street. Child labor was extremely common then, but the young Dickens was utterly humiliated by his circumstances and what he saw as his family's rejection. It was an experience that marked him for life — and one he concealed.

Although Dickens couldn't hide his ne'er-do-well family — they sponged off him all his adult life — he never spoke of the particulars of his childhood. He made millions weep with his descriptions of Oliver Twist, Tiny Tim, Little Nell and other misused and forlorn children his experience informed, but he wrote of himself as a child only in notes he passed along to his most trusted friend and future biographer, John Forster, to be used only after Dickens' death.


Dickens' other most significant secrets were not so well hidden. His domestic arrangements engendered gossip when, not long after he married Catherine, her 16-year-old sister, Mary, moved in with them. By all accounts, Dickens' intense relationship with the younger girl was a meeting of the minds only — but when Mary died suddenly about a year later, he was so distraught he expressed the wish to be buried in the same grave.

Within a few years another Hogarth sister, 15-year-old Georgina, moved in and, for the rest of her life, ran the Dickens household to the author's exacting standards. (He was known to rearrange the furniture in hotel rooms, and loved to shop for lamps and linens for his many homes.) Like Mary, Georgina seemed to be a companion he could talk to and rely upon.

The same was not true of his wife. Catherine was pretty and passive when he married her, but soon he was grousing to friends in letters that she was fat and in poor health and not much fun — apparently not considering that having 10 babies and several miscarriages in 15 years might make a woman tired.

He also groused about the children. He doted on his daughters, Katey and Mamie (a third, Dora, died in infancy). But the writer who so tenderly evoked the lonely boyhoods of David Copperfield and Pip cheerfully sent most of his seven sons off to boarding school at age 7 or 8, then found them military or business slots at the ends of the earth — India, Australia, Canada — before they were out of their teens. Only one, Henry, became a success, as a lawyer.

But strict fatherhood was nothing to be ashamed of among the Victorians. Dickens' deeper secret was a young woman named Ellen Ternan, whom he called Nelly. In 1991, Tomalin published a book titled The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. In it, she pieced together the evidence for a long-rumored relationship, and she makes use of it in this biography as well.

Dickens met Ternan in 1857, when she performed with him in a play. Dickens was 45, Nelly a lovely 18, and she brought his dissatisfaction with his marriage to a boil. Soon, he was arranging a legal separation from the bewildered Catherine, fighting ferociously with her family members (except Georgina, who sided with him). Daughter Mamie, Tomalin writes, said later "that there was misery at home and that he behaved like a madman," coldly cutting off anyone who disagreed with him, including some of his oldest friends. Yet he never went public about his relationship with Nelly, even though, Tomalin writes, there is considerable evidence he lived with her off and on for the rest of his life.

But no one knows for certain. Smiley, who is less sure of Nelly's role than Tomalin is, writes, "While the events are interesting, and would be even more so if we knew what they were, what is really interesting is how they brought out Dickens' secretiveness, something that was in part imposed upon him by both celebrity and the nature of Victorian society . . . but was also evident as a feature of his personality from the beginning, in the remoteness that alternated with his conviviality, in his love of disguise, in his solitary ramblings . . . in the way in which he kept his early life to himself."

Tomalin posits that even the nature of Dickens' death may have been kept secret. The standard version is that he died of a stroke at Gad's Hill, his beloved country home, dropping to the floor in the dining room in front of the horrified Georgina.

Or perhaps, Tomalin says, he collapsed several hours away, at Windsor Lodge, a house where he had installed Nelly. She, long taught to protect his legend and her own reputation, spirited him, with the help "of her maids, of the good-natured caretaker of the church opposite — sworn to secrecy — and of a hackney cabman" back to Gad's Hill, where she and Georgina came up with a respectable version.

It's a good enough ending for a Dickens novel.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.

Charles Dickens: A Life

By Jane Smiley

Penguin Lives, 212 pages, $14

Charles Dickens: A Life

By Claire Tomalin

Penguin, 527 pages, $36

Reviews: 200 years after Charles Dickens' birth, two biographies examine the author's fame, secrets 02/04/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 4, 2012 3:30am]
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