Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life is a magnificent achievement. It is a service to all who already love that writer's work and to others who would like to find out whether they do or just to learn about who he was. Every person is a figure of some complexity, but it is perhaps more true of Dickens than of anyone that, like his novels, his life encompassed so much, was so full of energy and activity, of people and words, family, friends, enjoyments and arguments, that no brief sketch can truly capture what he was. It takes the story of the whole life to do it. 'He left a trail like a meteor', Tomalin says, and her biography has done the job of giving us all the facets and contradictions of Dickens's character and holding them in fair-minded balance. She deserves the reader's gratitude as well as admiration.
However much one may know it as a generality, the energy of Charles Dickens and the amount he managed to fit into the years of a single, not very long, lifetime are truly breathtaking. The writings alone - the novels, the stories, the journalism, the letters - are voluminous; but on top of them, the acting, the readings, the long-distance walking, the friendships and conviviality, the exuberance, the game-playing, the loyalties and disloyalties, the humane initiatives and the reforming zeal - one needs to see it all laid end to end to be able to digest its full range and extent.
Then there is the story of Dickens within his family - both the sorrows and the joys of this; and the mundane comings and goings, the entertainments, the low-level frictions and impediments. Tomalin is especially well-placed to recount this side of the story, not only because of her judicious way with familial matters, but also because she has already written of Dickens's relationship with Nelly Ternan. Here again, the combination in Dickens of great humanity, both in the literary and in the more general sense, with the unkindnesses and even cruelties he could visit upon those close to him is skilfully handled by Tomalin. It is all part of the same picture and convincingly shown to be so, with due judgement but without caricature: the unhappy fate meted out by him upon Catherine, his wife and the mother of his ten children; and the varying relationships with those children themselves.
His was a life to leave one stunned - simultaneously in wonder at the heights to which humankind can rise, and saddened by the transience, and the costs, of individual genius. Tomalin writes:
Claire Tomalin's biography will add its own excellent weight to the love of Charles Dickens's work. It is the kind of book of which one wants not to miss a single detail. I was sorry when I reached the final page.
In his will he had expressed his wish to have no memorial. Instead, he said, 'I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works, and to the remembrance of my friends upon their experience of me.' Nothing could have been better. He was, and he continued to be, a national treasure, an institution, a part of what makes England England; and he continues to be read all over the world.