Book excerpt: ‘Charles Dickens: A Life’

Reading anything by or about Charles Dickens is a year-round pleasure for many readers, but it’s especially difficult not to associate him and his world with the holidays thanks to “A Christmas Carol.” In Claire Tomalin’s new biography, “Charles Dickens: A Life,” the author (whose other books include lives of Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen) suggests, in the following excerpt adapted from “Prologue: The Inimitable 1840,” why Dickens the man — not just his books — presents such a feast for any biographer.

Charles Dickens had been observing the world about him since he was a child, and reporting on what he saw as a journalist and then as a novelist. Much of it amused him, but more of it upset him: the poverty, the hunger, the ignorance and squalor he saw in London, and the indifference of the rich and powerful to the condition of the poor and ignorant. Through his own energy and exceptional gifts he had raised himself out of poverty. But he neither forgot it, nor turned aside from the poverty about him.

Dickens was twenty-eight in February 1840, and had another thirty years ahead of him. He was living in a country that had been at peace for a quarter of a century. Dickens was still a young man. His grammar could be shaky, his clothes too flamboyant — “geraniums and ringlets” mocked Thackeray — his hospitality too splendid, his temper fierce, but his friends — mostly artists, writers and actors — loved him, and their love was reciprocated. When he went out of London in order to have peace to write, he would within days summon troops of friends to join him. He was a giver of celebratory parties, a player of charades, a dancer of quadrilles and Sir Roger de Coverleys. He suffered from terrible colds and made them into jokes: “Bisery, bisery,” he complained, or “I have been crying all day … my nose is an inch shorter than it was last Tuesday, from constant friction.” He worked furiously fast to give himself free time. He lived hard and took hard exercise. His day began with a cold shower, and he walked or rode every day if he could, arduous expeditions of twelve, fifteen or twenty miles out of town, often summoning a friend to go with him. He might be in his study from ten at night until one in the morning, or up early to be at his desk by 8:30, writing with a quill pen he sharpened himself and favoring dark blue ink. He was taking French lessons from a serious teacher. He was also doing his best to help a poor carpenter with literary ambitions, reading what he had written and finding him work.


He was an obsessive organizer of his surroundings, even rearranging the furniture in hotel rooms. He smoked cigars, and often mentions his wine-dealers in letters, and the brandy, gin, port, sherry, champagne, claret and Sauternes delivered and enjoyed; and although he was very rarely the worse for drink, he sometimes confessed to feeling bad in the mornings after overindulging the night before. Raspberries were his favorite fruit, served without cream, and he was very fond of dates in boxes. He belonged to the Garrick Club and the Athenaeum, and he knew and frequented all the theatres in London and could ask any of their managers for a box when he wanted one. Eating out, going to the theatre, adventuring through the rough areas of London with a friend or two were habitual ways of spending his evening. He also walked the streets by himself, observing and thinking. He was passionately interested in prisons and in asylums, the places where society’s rejects are kept.

He saw the world more vividly than other people, and reacted to what he saw with laughter, horror, indignation — and sometimes sobs. He stored up his experiences and reactions as raw material to transform and use in his novels, and was so charged with imaginative energy that he rendered nineteenth-century England crackling, full of truth and life, with his laughter, horror and indignation — and sentimentality. Even one of his most hostile critics acknowledged that he described London “like a special correspondent for posterity.” Early in his writing career he started to call himself “the inimitable”: it was partly a joke with him, but not entirely, because he could see that there was no other writer at work who could surpass him, and that no one among his friends or family could even begin to match his energy and ambition. He could make people laugh and cry, and arouse anger, and he meant to amuse and to make the world a better place. And wherever he went he produced what, much later, an observant girl described as “a sort of brilliance in the room, mysteriously dominant and formless. I remember how everyone lighted up when he entered.”

From “Charles Dickens: A Life” by Claire Tomalin. Published by arrangement with the Penguin Press. Copyright (c) Claire Tomalin, 2011.