Dickens Biographer Digs Deep for Hidden Affair, Secret Child: Book Review

The bicentennial of Charles Dickens’s 1812 birth is getting an early toast at the Morgan Library & Museum. Displays show a clearly legible handwritten page from “The Pickwick Papers,” which Dickens began at age 24, and the unreadable scrawl of a leaf from “Our Mutual Friend,” started 28 years later.

As Claire Tomalin recounts so well in “Charles Dickens: A Life,” the intervening years brought fame and ever-mounting expenses -- a huge, needy family, many homes, a 13-year fling -- that gobbled his fortune, making penmanship a low priority.

Tomalin is a highly readable British biographer whose books include “Jane Austen,” “Thomas Hardy,” “Samuel Pepys” and, of relevance here, “The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.”

Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, to a mother who knew Latin and liked music and books, and a father who earned a good salary in the Navy Pay Office yet burned through it with extravagant habits. Debts drove the family to move often, and wealth would allow the adult writer to do the same. Where Tomalin illustrated the ambit of Pepys and Hardy with one map each, Dickens gets three -- charming pen-and-ink drawings following by a four-page key to locations, mostly addresses.

Source: Penguin Group via Bloomberg

The cover jacket of "Charles Dickens: A Life" by Claire Tomalin. Close

The cover jacket of "Charles Dickens: A Life" by Claire Tomalin.

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Source: Penguin Group via Bloomberg

The cover jacket of "Charles Dickens: A Life" by Claire Tomalin.

After pleasant boyhood years outside London, Dickens moved to the city, where his father was “pursued by creditors with increasing ferocity” and finally landed in debtor’s prison. Dickens at 12 was pawning beloved books and family furniture, dreaming impossibly of Cambridge while he worked in a “blacking factory,” covering and labeling containers of boot polish.

Debt, Fear, Bailiffs

“All these experiences -- of debt, fear, angry creditors, bailiffs, pawnbrokers, prison, living in freezing empty rooms and managing on what can be borrowed or begged -- were impressed on his mind and used again and again in his stories and novels,” Tomalin writes.

His first published fiction was a sketch that ran anonymously in 1833 while he worked as a journalist. The collection “Sketches by Boz,” his pen-name, began to stoke a reputation when it appeared right after his birthday in the busy year of 1836. In March he began monthly installments of “The Pickwick Papers,” which found a broad audience; episodes “were passed from hand to hand, and butchers’ boys were seen reading them in the streets,” Tomalin writes.

He found time a month later to marry, which was “for him at least a solution to the problem of sex,” Tomalin notes with wry economy. The following February he began installments of “Oliver Twist” before “Pickwick” was done, and he had “to work like a juggler to keep both spinning” during the 10 months when they overlapped.

Whirlwind Days

Dickens in time would father 10 children with his wife and 15 mostly long novels. He would spend 10 years closely involved with a home for wayward women and countless hours on the stage for profitable public readings. He worked in theater, journalism, social welfare and politics and took 12-mile walks almost daily.

As a writer he was an industry before death turned him into one for academics and trinketeers. Chapters of “Little Dorritt” earned him 600 pounds a month, which Tomalin reckons at about 42,000 pounds in 2011 money, or $65,660, while his monthly expenses were as much as $82,000.

At one point, he was maintaining three households: one for his estranged wife; another for his mother and a widowed sister- in-law; and the last for Nelly Ternan, her mother and two sisters. Tomalin dwells on Dickens’s relationship with Nelly, which soured his marriage, stretched his budget and perhaps again solved the problem of sex.

Another Child?

Tomalin doesn’t show Dickens in flagrante, though it’s not for want of trying, even conjecturing a child who died in infancy and an alternative final act that puts Charles with Nelly just before he died in 1870.

Peter Ackroyd, in his 1,195-page “Dickens” (1990), finds no evidence of a sexual affair and disparages scholars’ “constant game of ‘hunt the baby.’” Appearing the same year as her “Invisible Woman,” Ackroyd’s dismissal might have spurred Tomalin to tackle a life so often chronicled, as it would entail a fuller account of the affair. It could also be that despite her own pride of literary lions, she just found it hard to avoid adding a trophy like Dickens.

Fitting nicely between Ackroyd’s doorstop and Jane Smiley’s 212-page work of 2002, her biography is an agreeable package, manageable in size while offering diverting illustrations and photographs, the helpful maps, and a story well told of a whole man, if not a paragon.

“Charles Dickens: A Life” is published by Penguin Press (PSON) in the U.S. and Viking in the U.K. (527 pages, $36, 30 pounds). To order the book in North America, click here.

(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Jeffrey Burke in New York at jburke21@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for the story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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