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Review: ‘Dickens: A Life’ by Claire Tomalin

As noted this phofrom 'Charles Dickens: A Life' author “disliked being photographed but he put up with it sitting his

As noted in this photo from "Charles Dickens: A Life," the author “disliked being photographed but he put up with it, sitting at his desk, quill pen in hand ­— inimitable as ever.”

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By Claire Tomalin

Penguin, 495 pages, $36

Updated: January 23, 2012 4:39AM

This book made me want to nap. Every 30 pages or so.

No, it’s not boring or dull at all. But this Charles Dickens guy is the most exhausting character you’re likely ever to find. You’re winded just trying to keep up with him.

Biographer Claire Tomalin admirably hangs very close to him in Charles Dickens: A Life. Published to coincide with the bicentennial of Dickens’ birth next February, the book brings a new, if stalwart, kick to the familiar arc of the novelist’s story.

Born in less-than-well-to-do circumstances, the boy’s childhood was marred by frequent downwardly mobile moves. His profligate father landed in debtors prison, and 12-year-old Charles ended up working in a blacking factory.

From there, however, he remarkably embarked on compiling an ever-expanding resume that found him clerking in a law office, covering parliamentary proceedings, preparing to be an actor and eventually writing vibrant sketches of city life for magazines that brought him his first fame as “Boz.” By the time he started writing, Dickens could draw on a storehouse of experience culled from the London streets and offices. Those early memories left him with an unwavering, unapologetically sentimental compassion for the common man. That connection turned him into a Victorian superstar.

The early sketches quickly yielded to novel writing of the most demanding sort. The serial format demanded that an author deliver up a complete set of chapters each month (or week). It yielded no time for revision nor for setting up the intricacies of a plot ahead of time. What you started with had to mesh with where you went and how you ended up. Dickens’ first foray, The Pickwick Papers, proved so successful that he contracted, midstream, to write another novel simultaneously. That book was Oliver Twist.

And then they came one after the other. Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge. Amazingly, all before he was 30. He then wrote five Christmas books in six years (the best was the first, A Christmas Carol).

While all this writing (and endless weekly proofing) was going on, Dickens also briefly edited a newspaper, founded a home for “wayward” women, traveled extensively, fathered 10 children, toured America while defending the need for international copyrights, discovered his talent for giving lucrative staged readings of his work, and further muddied his personal life by engaging in a great later-life affair with the actress Ellen Ternan.

Through it all, they kept coming: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and Bleak House (among others). All written under constant pressure. Dickens was dead at 58, having done battle on the page with just about every ill of the age.

Tomalin tautly describes and assesses the novels. Honest and far from fawning (stay away from Martin Chuzzlewit and Barnaby Rudge), she elicits a thirst to pull them off the shelf and dive (back) in.

Tomalin, a noted biographer of Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys and Thomas Hardy, offers a steady hand in trying to get this torrent of life and creativity into order. She adopts a straightforward, meticulously linear approach that sometimes gets mired in minutiae between the big events. Far too much time is spent on the details of house purchases, travel arrangements, where the kids stayed, etc.

A beautiful set piece opens the book, showing Dickens, the bright young writer, serving as a juror in the trial of a poor servant accused of killing her baby. The Dickens who immersed himself in the welter of London life is here. You can almost feel him soaking in the scene with his imagination buzzing, storing everything for future use. And the Dickens whose pathos drenched his books is here, defending the young woman. Alas, those sweeping depictions of character and scene are too infrequent in a narrative that never strays far from an almost diary-like recitation. With such a protean protagonist, though, even a diary can be quite stimulating.

Not quite Dickensian in length, Charles Dickens — thanks to Charles Dickens — is a fast read. It would be quicker if you didn’t have to make as many rest stops.

John Barron is the publisher of the Sun-Times.

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