I’ve just finished Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens, which came out a couple of years ago and had been sitting on my nightstand in a TBR stack. I was really looking forward to seeing what Tomalin had to say about Dickens, especially since I’d recently finished “Little Dorrit” and had also read Tomalin’s masterpiece of biographical sleuthing and deduction, “The Invisible Woman,” her biography of Nelly Ternan, Dickens’s much younger mistress.
Tomalin delivered some fascinating insights into the great author in highly readable form. Still, there were a few references that bothered me.
First, in chapter 16, she writes that after the death of their nine-month-old daughter Dora in 1851 “Another Highgate funeral had to be planned and carried out, and [Dickens’s wife] Catherine brought to London and comforted.”
For me, Tomalin’s phrasing leaves much to be desired. As a friend observed, it conveys that Catherine was – horrors – NEEDY, as great a sin 160 years ago as it is today, at least when we’re talking about those in the circle of a Very Important Person with an ego to match his (or her) ability. No matter that Catherine’s CHILD HAD JUST DIED.
Based on sympathetic references to Catherine elsewhere in her book, I don’t really think Tomalin meant to suggest anything unkind about her. However, I would have liked some additional information and commentary here about Dickens’s and Catherine’s relationship and the impact of their child’s death on both of them individually and on their relationship, which had deteriorated badly by that time. Dora was Dickens’s child, too; did he not also grieve, even though, as Tomalin notes elsewhere in her book, he said on more than one occasion that he regretted having more than three children? Even a statement that there is no information, or that Dickens made no reference to Dora’s death in his surviving contemporaneous correspondence with his close friends, if that was the case, would be insightful.
Second, in chapter 25, Tomalin refers to Dickens’s daughter Katey’s marriage to Charles Collins, 12 years her senior and an invalid, as “not much of a marriage.” Again, though I realize a biographer has to make some hard choices about how much information to include about members of her subject’s circle, I would have liked a few more details to support her conclusory description. Plenty of happy couples, after all, have similar differences in age, and it’s hard to imagine greater devotion and commitment than that of one whose spouse is so disabled as no longer to be capable of being a partner. Tomalin asserts earlier that Katey decided to marry Collins (the brother of the writer Wilkie Collins, Dickens’s friend) “without love” and “to get away from home” (chapter 21). A supporting quotation or two would have benefited these conclusions; the endnotes do not make the bases for Tomalin’s assertions clear.
I don’t remember reading biographies this critically before I became a lawyer. Though lawyers get a bad rap for writing obscurely, the characteristics of good legal writing are the same as good general writing and include clarity and, for nonfiction, documentation. If you write a brief – a document in which you make your best argument for your client – you need to support every assertion with authority. So when I read a work of nonfiction, for every single assertion I want to know on what primary sources the author relied and what in them warrants the author’s conclusions.
As has already been reported, Tomalin was taken in by an academic fraud: she recounts as fact a meeting that supposedly took place between Dickens and Dostoevsky in London in 1862. The purported meeting never happened, though the academic hoax was accepted for years. (I believe the error has been corrected in later editions of Tomalin’s biography). The lessons? First, as journalism students have long been taught, even under deadline pressure and even with a seemingly unimpeachable source, “check it out.” Second, even tremendous writers and scholars like Tomalin can make mistakes, which should actually be heartening for all of us.