In his landmark 1939 essay on Charles Dickens, the critic Edmund Wilson noted that the Victorian great had received scant attention in his own country from biographers, scholars and critics. There were valuable commentaries by George Gissing and GK Chesterton, as well as George Bernard Shaw, but little else dotted the critical landscape.
How things have changed. Today, when a veritable mountain of Dickensiana towers over us, it is impossible to imagine the time Wilson was writing of. Now, the secondary literature on Dickens is vast. There are some 90 biographies and counting. Deluxe editions of his novels litter bookstore shelves. And the commentary is ceaseless: there have been books about Dickens and London; Dickens and crime; Dickens and women; Dickens and the police; Dickens and politics. You get the point.
And there is much more to come. Next year - February 7, 2012, to be exact - marks the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth, and Dickensians everywhere are gearing up for 12 months of commemoration. Biographers are already doing their bit. Michael Slater, the dean of Dickens studies, struck first last year with a detailed biography that showcased his mastery of his subject's literary dealings and career as a professional author.
Claire Tomalin now enters the fray with her own valuable account of Dickens's life. Remarkably lean at 400 pages of reading text, her book strikes a nice balance between scholarly acumen and brisk readability, and the private man and public figure. She gives fine glosses on the novels, and soundly relates Dickens's creative genius to his lived experience. Then, Tomalin, a veteran literary journalist and author of lives of Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys and others, is a biographer's biographer: in other words, a pro. Tomalin has few axes to grind: she likes Dickens, in spite of his profound flaws, about which she is unstinting.
Dickens was possessed by a kind of demonic energy, which he channelled into a frenzy of literary activity - there were the vast novels, of course, like Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend; but also essays, short stories, journalism, a voluminous correspondence; he also found the time (how?) to run several magazines and launch a newspaper - but it could also be turned against his family. Dickens had a cruel streak, and behaved ruthlessly to his wife, who bore him 10 children. Tomalin also shows off her speculative daring, especially with regards to Dickens's mistress, Ellen Ternan, about whom there has been much controversy over recent years.
Tomalin doesn't tinker much with the biographical form - this is, first and foremost, a birth to death account. Her book begins with a charged vignette, which sets the tone for what follows. Dickens has come to the inquest for a servant girl, who was charged with murdering her newborn child. Dickens persuasively argues for her innocence; she is spared the death penalty. He gets her a barrister, and sends her food. A powerful benefactor coming to the rescue; a fallen woman one step from the workhouse; a dead infant. It is a scenario right out of, well, a Dickens novel. For Tomalin, the episode highlights Dickens's essential decency, but it also points backwards to his own fraught youth as the son of a chronic debtor and his time working in a shoe-blacking factory.
All of Dickens's biographers have pinpointed this harrowing fall from middle-class respectability as a decisive moment in the writer's life. Dickens later recalled his time toiling away on the warehouse floor: "No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sank into this companionship ... the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position ... My whole nature was penetrated with grief and humiliation." He never forgot the time and wrote compassionately about the poor and downtrodden.
From then on, Dickens ploughed ahead. His searing experiences fuelled his rise. His formal schooling ended at 15 - but his education was nonetheless profound in its way. Turns as an office boy in a legal firm and then as a parliamentary reporter exposed him to worldly institutions (the law would be a favourite target for Dickensian satire)