Thoughts on Claire Tomalin’s biography

Dear Charlie,

If it’s true that you should never meet your heroes, then it’s equally true that you should never read their biographies.


Charles Dickens: A Life

I realize now, my friend,  that I’ve had you on a bit of a pedestal. Sure, I knew about your affair, and sure, I knew about your sometimes odd behavior as a father, but it wasn’t until I finished Claire Tomalin’s biography the other week that I got a more complete sense of how your writings and your sometimes messy personal life intersected. And I gotta confess, I feel less like fangirling over you and more like nodding sagely and a bit sadly now that I know that you could be a pretty big jerk, as well as being a wonderful and perceptive author.

The biography itself, however, is brilliant. I don’t want to imply that my vague sense of disappointment is in any way a product of bad writing. Tomalin has done a phenomenal amount of homework, and she writes with an engaging style that conveys a wealth of detail without ever getting bogged down in it. She has a fantastic talent for weaving together your books and their significance into the larger fabric of your busy life filled with family, friends, publishers and travel. And although she never takes you out of the spotlight for long, there’s a very real sense of sympathy for your long-suffering and oft-pregnant wife, and an interesting focus on the influence the women in your life had on you.

I really enjoyed reading about your childhood and family life – I never realized just how often you moved houses as a kid. I maaaybe am revealing too much when I tell you I used Tomalin’s handily provided addresses of your former residences and Google maps to take a peek at some of the places you used to live that are still standing. I’m especially glad that Gad’s Hill is still around.


Do I feel a bit stalker-y skulking around your former homes using Google Maps? Maybe just a little…

Part of me didn’t want to read about your relationship with Ellen Ternan, or the last years of your life, partly because of the way that Dan Simmons had already made me feel like you were quite manic and out of control. Tomalin, however, presents a much less creepy picture (thank goodness). You’re certainly busy (juggling writing and public readings while trying to keep an affair secret and battling of-course-it’s-not-gout-it’s-frostbite-no-really in your foot), but it’s a much more realistic view.

One of the most shocking parts of the bio was learning the true circumstances surrounding your “Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices.” Because I read the story early on in the year, I envisioned two very young men, excited to be out on their own and enjoying the freedoms and entertainments of youth. Instead, I learn that the trip was a rather flimsy cover for a definitely NOT young you to go chasing like a lovesick schoolboy after frickin’ Nelly Ternan, who “just happened” to be in the same area. Yeah, right. There’s my happy and innocent little vision blown to smithereens.

I’m also pissed off at you for burning your correspondence. Seriously. Don’t you know how difficult you make it to poke into your private life when you do that?

I have a funny mental image of a ghostly you, reading over Ms. Tomalin’s shoulder as she was writing your biography, wringing your hands and pulling your hair in embarrassment that she’s revealing so much about your private life. And then I imagine you ineffectually trying to stuff her into a wardrobe or trunk to prevent her from sending the manuscript to her publishers. I hope, Charlie, that death has mellowed you a little, and that you’re able to look back on yourself and realize that maybe you could have overreacted less, and done some things differently. Like finish Edwin Drood.


I wish I knew what you saw in these ugly, cheerful things, but this one is now mine. :-/

Because after all the heartache you caused in your latter years, Charlie, and your often crazy-defensive attitude to anyone who suggested you might be handling the situation badly, reading about your death was still painful, whatever the actual circumstances (and wasn’t the hypothesis fascinating, that maybe you didn’t die at home like everyone said?), and made me realize again how very attached to you I’ve become. Dammit, I even bought a red geranium at the garden center last week because they were your favorite flower. And I have hated red geraniums my entire life. I hope you appreciate the quasi-weird things I do for you.

It’s only my first biography of you and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but I feel I’ve come to know you in a much more human and comprehensive way. And Tomalin has set the Charles Dickens biography bar pretty high.

I’m afraid I’m still going to remain friends with you, Charlie, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.