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Charles Dickens: A Life - How Claire Tomalin Captures the Complexity and Richness of a Great Writer

Charles Dickens: A Life - A Biography by Claire Tomalin

Charles Dickens is one of the most famous and beloved writers of all time. His novels, such as A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities, have been adapted into countless movies, plays, and musicals. His characters, such as Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield, have become part of our cultural heritage. But how much do we know about the man behind the stories? What was his life like? What inspired him to write? What challenges did he face? And what legacy did he leave behind?

charles dickens a life claire tomalin 2011 epub mobi

In this article, we will review a biography of Charles Dickens written by Claire Tomalin, a renowned British author and journalist. The book is called Charles Dickens: A Life, and it was published in 2011 by Penguin Press. We will explore who Charles Dickens was, what the book is about, why it is worth reading, and what we can learn from it.


Who was Charles Dickens?

Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England. He was the second of eight children of John and Elizabeth Dickens, a lower-middle-class family with aspirations of social mobility. His father was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, but he was also a spendthrift who often got into debt. His mother was a cheerful and affectionate woman who encouraged her son's love of reading and storytelling.

Dickens had a happy childhood until he was 12 years old, when his family moved to London and his father was imprisoned for debt. Dickens was forced to work in a blacking factory, where he pasted labels on bottles of shoe polish. He later described this experience as "the most wretched time" of his life, which left him with a sense of humiliation and abandonment. He also developed a sympathy for the poor and oppressed, which would influence his later writings.

Dickens eventually resumed his education at a private school, where he excelled in English and history. He also taught himself shorthand and became a reporter for various newspapers and magazines. He soon discovered his talent for writing fiction, and published his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, in 1836-37. The book was a huge success, and made him famous overnight.

What is the book about?

Charles Dickens: A Life is a comprehensive and detailed biography of Charles Dickens written by Claire Tomalin. Tomalin is an award-winning author who has written biographies of other famous figures such as Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Hardy, and Mary Wollstonecraft. She has also written about her own life in her memoir A Life of My Own.

The book covers the entire life of Dickens, from his birth to his death, and explores his personal and professional achievements, challenges, and controversies. It also provides a vivid portrait of the Victorian era, with its social, political, and cultural changes. The book is based on extensive research and draws on many sources, such as letters, diaries, newspapers, and memoirs. It also includes illustrations, photographs, maps, and a family tree.

The book is divided into four parts: The Inimitable, which covers Dickens's childhood and early career; The Bebelle Life, which covers his marriage, family, and travels; Secrets, Mysteries, and Lies, which covers his affairs, separations, and scandals; and The Chief, which covers his final years and unfinished work. Each part consists of several chapters that focus on different aspects of Dickens's life and work.

Why is it worth reading?

Charles Dickens: A Life is worth reading for several reasons. First of all, it is a well-written and engaging book that captures the complexity and richness of Dickens's character and genius. Tomalin does not shy away from showing both the virtues and the flaws of Dickens, and she balances his achievements with his failures. She also gives voice to the people who were close to him, such as his wife, his children, his friends, and his lovers.

Secondly, it is a informative and insightful book that reveals many facts and details about Dickens's life and work that are not widely known or appreciated. For example, Tomalin shows how Dickens was influenced by his childhood experiences of poverty and injustice, how he used his fame and influence to campaign for social reforms, how he struggled with his creative process and his health problems, how he managed his finances and his business affairs, how he dealt with his fame and his critics, how he maintained his privacy and his secrets, and how he coped with his death.

Thirdly, it is a inspiring and enjoyable book that celebrates the legacy and the influence of Dickens. Tomalin shows how Dickens created some of the most memorable characters and stories in literature, how he invented new forms and genres of writing, how he shaped the English language and culture, how he entertained and educated millions of readers around the world, and how he remains relevant and popular today.

The life of Charles Dickens

Childhood and early struggles

The blacking factory and debtors' prison

One of the most traumatic events in Dickens's life was when he was sent to work in a blacking factory at the age of 12. His father had been arrested for debt and taken to the Marshalsea prison, along with his mother and five siblings. Dickens was left alone in a boarding house near the factory, where he worked for 10 hours a day, pasting labels on bottles of shoe polish. He earned six shillings a week, which he sent to his family to help pay for their food.

Dickens felt abandoned by his parents, especially by his mother, who wanted him to stay at the factory even after his father was released from prison. He later wrote that this experience "blighted my life" and "made me what I am". He also developed a lifelong hatred of debtors' prisons, which he depicted in many of his novels.

Education and journalism

Dickens was eventually rescued from the factory by his father's relatives, who paid for him to attend a private school called Wellington House Academy. There he received a basic education in English, Latin, history, geography, and mathematics. He also developed a love of reading books by authors such as Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, and William Shakespeare.

Dickens left school at 15 and became a clerk in a law office. He soon realized that he hated the legal profession and wanted to pursue a career in journalism. He taught himself shorthand and applied for a job as a reporter for the Mirror of Parliament, a newspaper that covered the debates in the House of Commons. He impressed the editor with his speed and accuracy, and was hired in 1831.

Dickens worked as a parliamentary reporter for several years. He also wrote articles for other newspapers and magazines under various pseudonyms. He gained a reputation as a talented writer who could capture the essence of people's speech and behavior.

Success and fame as a writer

The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist

Dickens's first major success as a writer came with The Pickwick Papers, a comic novel that was published in monthly installments from 1836 to 1837. The novel tells the adventures of Samuel Pickwick England. The novel was originally intended to be a series of sketches to accompany illustrations by Robert Seymour, but Dickens soon took over the project and made it his own. He created a cast of memorable characters, such as Mr. Pickwick, Sam Weller, Mr. Jingle, and the Fat Boy. He also introduced elements of satire, social criticism, and sentimentality. The novel was a huge hit with the public, and sold over 40,000 copies. Dickens followed up his success with Oliver Twist, a novel that was published in monthly installments from 1837 to 1839. The novel tells the story of Oliver Twist, an orphan who escapes from a workhouse and joins a gang of thieves in London. The novel exposes the harsh realities of poverty, crime, and injustice in Victorian society. It also features some of Dickens's most famous characters, such as Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes, and Nancy. The novel was controversial for its portrayal of the Jewish Fagin as a villain, but it was also praised for its realism and humanity. Travels, dreams, and social issues

Dickens was a restless and curious person who loved to travel and explore new places. He visited many countries in Europe, such as France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. He also made two trips to America, in 1842 and 1867-68. He was fascinated by the culture and politics of the New World, but he was also disappointed by some aspects of it, such as slavery, racism, and corruption. He wrote about his impressions and experiences in books such as American Notes and Pictures from Italy.

Dickens was also a visionary who had vivid dreams and imaginations. He often used his dreams as sources of inspiration for his novels. For example, he dreamed of a child who died young and became an angel in heaven. He used this dream to create the character of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. He also dreamed of a ghost who visited him on Christmas Eve and showed him scenes from his past, present, and future. He used this dream to write A Christmas Carol, one of his most popular and influential works.

Dickens was also a social reformer who used his novels to raise awareness and sympathy for the plight of the poor and oppressed. He wrote about topics such as child labor, education, prisons, debtors' courts, prostitution, domestic violence, and industrialization. He also supported various causes and charities that aimed to improve the lives of the disadvantaged. He founded a home for fallen women called Urania Cottage, a weekly magazine called Household Words, and a theatrical company called The Guild of Literature and Art.

Personal life and relationships

Marriage and family

Dickens married Catherine Hogarth in 1836, when he was 24 years old and she was 21. They had 10 children together: Charles Jr., Mary, Katey, Walter, Francis, Alfred, Sydney, Henry, Dora, and Edward. Dickens loved his children dearly and often played with them and wrote stories for them. He also provided them with a comfortable and luxurious lifestyle.

However, Dickens's marriage was not a happy one. He and Catherine grew apart over the years and had little in common. Dickens felt that Catherine was dull, lazy, and incompetent as a wife and mother. He also resented her for having so many children and blamed her for his financial troubles. He became increasingly cold and distant towards her and sought solace in his work and friends.

Affairs and separations

Dickens had several affairs during his marriage, some of which were kept secret and some of which were public scandals. One of his earliest affairs was with Maria Beadnell, his first love whom he met when he was 18. They rekindled their romance in 1855, when Dickens was 43 and Maria was married to another man. However, the affair soon ended when Dickens realized that Maria had lost her beauty and charm.

Another affair that Dickens had was with Ellen Ternan, a young actress whom he met in 1857. She was 18 years old and Dickens was 45. They fell in love and began a relationship that lasted until Dickens's death. Dickens was so obsessed with Ellen that he tried to erase any traces of their affair from the public eye. He also separated from his wife in 1858 and forced his children to choose between him and their mother. He publicly announced his separation in a letter to the Times, in which he accused Catherine of being mentally ill and unfit for marriage.

Death and legacy

The final years and unfinished work

Dickens's health began to decline in the 1860s, as a result of his overwork, stress, and bad habits. He suffered from gout, insomnia, headaches, and strokes. He also had a near-fatal railway accident in 1865, which left him traumatized and shaken.

Dickens continued to write novels until the end of his life, such as A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. However, he was unable to finish his last novel, which remained a mystery to his readers and critics. He also continued to perform public readings of his works, which were very popular but also very exhausting.

Dickens died on June 9, 1870, at his country home in Gad's Hill Place, Kent. He was 58 years old. He had a stroke and fell unconscious on his couch. He never regained consciousness and died the next day. His last words were "Be natural, my children. God bless you!"

The impact and influence of Dickens

Dickens's death was mourned by millions of people around the world. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, the final resting place of England's kings and heroes. His funeral was attended by thousands of people, who paid their respects to the best recognized and loved man of nineteenth-century England.

Dickens's legacy and influence are immense and lasting. His novels have been translated into many languages and read by generations of readers. His characters have become part of our cultural heritage and have inspired many adaptations and adaptations. His themes and messages have resonated with many people and have sparked social changes and reforms.

Dickens is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time, and one of the most important figures in English literature and history. He is celebrated for his humor, his imagination, his realism, his humanity, and his genius.


Summary of the main points

In this article, we have reviewed a biography of Charles Dickens written by Claire Tomalin, called Charles Dickens: A Life. We have learned about who Charles Dickens was, what the book is about, why it is worth reading, and what we can learn from it. We have also explored the life of Charles Dickens, from his childhood and early struggles, to his success and fame as a writer, to his personal life and relationships, to his death and legacy.

Evaluation of the book

Charles Dickens: A Life is an excellent book that offers a comprehensive and detailed account of Charles Dickens's life and work. It is well-written and engaging, informative and insightful, inspiring and enjoyable. It captures the complexity and richness of Dickens's character and genius, and reveals many facts and details that are not widely known or appreciated. It also provides a vivid portrait of the Victorian era, with its social, political, and cultural changes. It is a book that will appeal to anyone who is interested in Charles Dickens, literature, history, or biography.

Recommendations for further reading

If you want to learn more about Charles Dickens, here are some recommendations for further reading:

  • The Complete Works of Charles Dickens. This is a collection of all the novels, short stories, essays, letters, speeches, and other writings by Charles Dickens. You can find them online or in print editions.

  • The Annotated Christmas Carol by Michael Patrick Hearn. This is a book that explains the historical, literary, and cultural context of A Christmas Carol, one of Dickens's most popular and influential works. It also includes illustrations, photographs, maps, and notes.

It also includes illustrations, photographs, maps, and quotations.

  • Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor by Ruth Richardson. This is a book that explores the connection between Dickens and the workhouse, a notorious institution that housed and exploited the poor in Victorian England. It also reveals the location of the workhouse that inspired Oliver Twist, one of Dickens's most famous novels.

  • The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin. This is another biography by Claire Tomalin, which focuses on the secret affair between Dickens and Nelly Ternan, a young actress whom he met in 1857. It tells the story of their relationship, which lasted until Dickens's death, and how it affected their lives and careers.


Here are some frequently asked questions about Charles Dickens and his biography:

  • How many books did Charles Dickens write?

Charles Dickens wrote 15 novels, 5 novellas, hundreds of short stories and essays, and several non-fiction books. He also edited several magazines and journals.

  • What was Charles Dickens's real name?

Charles Dickens's real name was Charles John Huffam Dickens. He sometimes used pseudonyms for his writings, such as Boz, The Uncommercial Traveller, and The Sparkler of Albion.

  • What was Charles Dickens's favorite book?

Charles Dickens had many favorite books, but he once said that David Copperfield was his "favourite child". He also said that A Tale of Two Cities was "the best story I have ever written".

  • Where can I find more information about Charles Dickens?

You can find more information about Charles Dickens on various websites, such as The Charles Dickens Museum, The Dickens Society, and The British Library.

  • Where can I buy or download Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin?

You can buy or download Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin from various online platforms, such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Penguin Random House.



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