The Inimitable

Hello, friends. Yesterday, I began reading Claire Tomalin’s latest biograpy, Charles Dickens: A Life. I had extremely high hopes for this book, so much so that I worried that my hopes were unreasonably high and I might inevitably be disappointed. But it begins beautifully, and this week I just want to share some of my glee with you.

The biography starts with three maps and a Cast List – essential in a book as jammed with places and personalities as this one. One of the reasons I love this kind of front matter and pore over it for ages before launching into the actual book is because they reveal so much about the author’s interests. Her voice is as strong there as anywhere else in the book, and diving into a list like that is a perfect way to get acquainted (or reacquainted, in this case). I’ll show you what I mean:

On the map called Dickens in Central London, the Garrick Club is described thus: “Dickens a member from 1837, resigning and rejoining frequently”. A perfect window into the man, in four words!

Here are a couple of the extremely varied people he associated with:

“Cooper, Louisa… sent to Cape, returned 1856, bringing D[ickens] an ostrich egg…”

“Elliott, Frances… heiress with rackety marital history… persuaded D to intervene in her difficulties in 1860s, questioned him in vain about his private life”

And Tomalin’s judgement on others:

“Morson, Mrs Georgiana… matron of Miss Coutt’s Home [for reformed thieves and prostitutes] from 1849 to 1854 when she remarried. A pearl.”

“Townshend, Chauncey Hare… rich, Cambridge-educated hypochondriac… dedicated poems to D, who dedicated Great Expectatiosn to him, gave him manuscript – huge reward for foolish friend”

Also, Dickens gave his kids really florid names! They often seem to be modified versions of the names of famous people, as in “Walter Landor” (why skip the “Savage”?) and Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson (really? He chose to interrupt Alfred Tennyson’s name with “D’Orsay”?). Other times, he went for the full homage, naming two of his sons “Henry Fielding” and “Edward Bulwer Lytton”.

I’m hooked.

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