The inimitable (redux)

Hello, friends. I’ve been enjoying Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life so very much, and I was deliberately slowing down towards the end so as to spin it out a bit longer. (Anybody else do that?) But I finished it last night with an immense sigh of satisfaction. And I’ve been thinking about Dickens’s reckless, utterly driven pace of life and death.

It was clear that his death was approaching. He’d had a stroke, was increasingly weak, and unable to walk at times, but he persisted in keeping up a demanding schedule of public appearances. In his last, dying days, Dickens:

– met with Queen Victoria, rather reluctantly, and fumed about her “preposterous” book, Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, behind her back

– gave a final series of public readings, in which he couldn’t pronounce “Pickwick”. It came out, variously, as Pickswick, Pecknicks, and Pickwicks

– dined with the American ambassador and Disraeli, and breakfasted with Gladstone

– advised his daughters in an amateur theatrical they were putting on

– supervised extensive renovations to his country house at Gad’s Hill

– made an inventory of the spirits consumed at Gad’s Hill House: rum, sherry, brandy, and “Very Fine Scotch Whiskey”

– and, of course, worked on his last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

As Tomalin points out, there’s a huge amount of contradiction here. Even as Dickens acknowledged his mortality with a farewell reading tour and getting his will and other papers in order, he was also renovating his house, worrying about how much whiskey remained in the cellar, and writing instalments of another full-length novel.

His last days stand in sharp contrast to those of Jane Austen, who also knew she was dying. Austen’s priority (apart from her family) was to finish her last, masterful novel, Persuasion, and I’ve always been convinced by arguments that Persuasion ends so rapidly because Austen was working against time.

Tomalin’s final paragraph is a brilliant compression of the major themes and ideas she develops through the book. It’s too long to quote here, but if you’re at all interested in Dickens as a writer, I urge you to read this bio. It does everything a good biography should: expanded and enhanced my appreciation for the subject, inspired me to read more about people and things related to Dickens, and galvanized me to start re-reading the novels.

I think I shall begin with Great Expectations.

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3 Responses to “The inimitable (redux)”

  1. Mara A. says:

    I only in recent years started reading Dickens’s great masterpieces myself (my dad used to read them out loud, so I always had an appreciation for them). Right next to Jane Austen, he’s my absolute favorite. A truly brilliant man; I don’t know how he did it. I’m reading “Martin Chuzzlewit” right now – the “America part” is hilarious! – and hope to start “Great Expectations” as well once I’m done with it. I’ll have to see if I can find this biography; I’ve been trying to find a good one on Dickens, and this sounds ideal. :)

  2. MelodyJ says:

    I read that Dickens came to my hometown. They practically rolled out the red carpet for him. When he when back home he talked negatively about the place. He disapproved of slavery. No matter how well they treated him he couldn’t get past how badly others were treated. I know the man wasn’t perfect but I really respect that.

    A lot of US schools systems have students read Great Expectations in the 9th grade. That was my favorite high school English class. That’s a great place to start. Believe it or not I’ve never read A Christmas Carol.

  3. Ying says:

    Mara, I think you’ll really enjoy Tomalin’s bio. She’s such a sensitive, nuanced interpreter. Peter Ackroyd’s bio (1990) is also very authoritative, but Tomalin and Dickens differ greatly on a major aspect of Dickens’s life (his relationship with a young actress, Ellen Ternan), and I find Tomalin much more convincing on that subject. And MelodyJ, yes! Dickens represents a large segment of English society who were outraged by slavery and campaigned against it. His dislike of the States had a self-interested element, too: there was no such thing as international copyright, so there were pirated editions of all his novels for sale in the US, for which he was never paid a penny.

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