Charles Dickens: A Life, Claire Tomalin, The Penguin Press, 2011, 417 pp
I am in the world's smallest reading group. One other person and me. We read books that don't get picked by the other reading group we are in. We discussed this book for three hours over lunch at a Cuban restaurant.
Though it seemed to take forever to read it, I am so glad I did. Charles Dickens was one of the first authors to become a superstar in the way that Neil Gaiman is a superstar. Because he wrote many of his novels initially in magazine serial form, affordable by the "common" people, he was beloved by hordes of English folks.
Also he wrote about the "common" people, another reason they loved him. He gave them a voice and exposed what life was like for poor people in English cities. Not many authors wrote about such things in the 19th century.
I was surprised to realize that I've only read four of his 14 major novels: David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations. Each one made such a huge impression on me that I felt I was well-read as far as Dickens went. Now I am determined to read the rest. Yes, he was melodramatic and sentimental, but who cares?
Of course, he was a human being and had his failings. Claire Tomalin reveals all side of the man. I had no idea how much energy this man had, how active he was in so many areas.
As a biography, the book becomes quite tedious at times and especially slows down just past the middle but picks up again in the last sections. He had so many children and most of them were a disappointment to him, as eventually was his wife. As far as I can tell, he put most of his life into his novels in one way or another, so you could just read the novels and skip all the literary criticisms by Tomalin.
Most surprising of all, even though I knew he would die at the end, I cried when he did. Charles Dickens gave so much impetus to modern fiction, he left a record of 19th century English life drawn on by many writers who followed him, and he showed that good fiction is for all readers, not just the snooty educated types. He always recognized that people like to be entertained when they read.
(Charles Dickens: A Life is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)