Reflections on the difficulty of writing biographies after reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens

Reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens caused me to reflect on the difficulty of writing a biography. At many points in the biography it seemed to degenerate to a list of what Dickens did that day or that week. Much of the time it was the same things: wrote, walked, travelled to London, lunched and dined with friends, did a reading, and danced. Somehow the biography was too granular, lacked narrative.

Most lives do not have a compelling narrative, especially when seen too close up. But at the same time we all have the same narrative: born, grow up, wonder what to do, do something, fade away, die. The structure is too familiar, and reading biographies we often have to plough our way through accounts of forebears, childhood, and a confused adolescence before we get to what interests us. This wasn’t true of Dickens in that his early life—experiencing debtors’ prison and a dead end job—was more interesting than the end of his life and provided much of the material for his books.

The temptation must be to impose a narrative, recognising that it will take you away from the “real life,” which does consist a lot of one day after another. But the biographer cannot know the “truth,” and condensing a life into even a thousand pages means leaving out most of what happened. So there has to be invention, so why not make it compelling?

My brother recognised the problem of the structure of biographies (or was it autobiographies?) and was rude about them before he was commissioned to write one for a handsome advance. He got round the problem by writing four chapter ones, one of which is built around an autobiography he wrote when 12; another is my father’s account of him being born, while a third is the story of him nearly dying in his late 40s.

It is surely impossible now to write a biography where you begin with an account of forebears or the birth of the subject. Tomalin avoided them by beginning with an account of Dickens attending an inquest where he helped a young woman accused of murdering her baby. We saw the caring side of him immediately and learnt later that it didn’t extend to his wife and most of his children.

Tomalin did delve into the mystery of whether Dickens and Nelly Ternan had a child who died; she does it dutifully, concluding that we can’t know for sure but thinking it probable that they did. She doesn’t give us a compelling picture of Dickens’s relationship with his mistress—perhaps because she’s already written a book on that subject and has said what she has to say or hopes that we might buy and read it too.

Indeed, few women in the book are as strongly drawn as the many men, perhaps reflecting that, as his daughter said at the end of her life, Dickens didn’t understand women and couldn’t write convincing female characters. Dickens was happiest with men.

The best part of the book was the last paragraph, particularly the last two sentences:

“He left a trail like a meteor, and everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens. The child-victim, the irrepressibly ambitious young man, the reporter, the demonic worker, the tireless walker. The radical, the protector of orphans, helper of the needy, man of good works, the republican. The hater and the lover of America. The giver of parties, the magician, the traveller. The satirist, the surrealist, the mesmerist. The angry son, the good friend, the bad husband, the quarreller, the sentimentalist, the secret lover, the despairing father. The Francophile, the player of games, the lover of circuses, the maker of punch, the country squire, the editor, the Chief, the smoker, the drinker, the dancer of reels and hornpipes, the actor, the ham. Too mixed to be a gentleman – but wonderful. The irreplaceable and unrepeatable Boz. The brilliance in the room. The inimitable. And, above and beyond every other description, simply the great, hard-working writer, who set nineteenth-century London before our eyes and who noticed and celebrated the small people living on the margins of society – the Artful Dodger, Smike, the Marchioness, Nell, Barnaby, Micawber, Mr Dick, Jo the crossing sweeper, Phil Squod, Miss Flite, Sissy Jupe, Charley, Amy Dorrit, Nandy, hairless Maggie, Sloppy, Jenny Wren the dolls’ dressmaker. After he had been writing for long hours at Wellington Street, he would sometimes ask his office boy to bring him a bucket of cold water and put his head into it, and his hands. Then he would dry his head with a towel, and go on writing.”

I took few other quotes from the book, which I took to be a bad sign. But here are those I took.

Foolish little women are more often presented as sexually desirable in his writing than clever, competent ones.

The ordinary people saw that he was on their side, and they loved him for it. He did not ask them to think but showed them what he wanted them to see and hear.

At fifteen he wrote ‘A Few Thoughts in Vindication of the Stage’, expressing his view that it is ‘where the human heart, upon the rack of the passions, confesses its slightest movements; where all masks, all disguises disappear, and truth, pure and incorruptible, shines in open day’.

“When I [Pip] loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible. Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.’







One thought on “Reflections on the difficulty of writing biographies after reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens

  1. Pingback: Fact and fiction in a biography of Shelley | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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