Law and Conversation

August 17, 2013

Charles Dickens, Claire Tomalin, and backing it up

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.

July 8, 2013

Progress report: Dickens down and articles published

Recently, after a couple of years of spending way too much time thinking and talking about it, I finally buckled down and read another Dickens novel. The reason it took me so long to get around to it is that most novels by Dickens are SOOOOO long – editing was a lot different in the 19th century, if there even was any – and I knew it would take me a few weeks before I’d be able to finish it and add it to my list of books read, so I would not get the quick (though superficial) gratification that would come with finishing several shorter books and watching my numbers grow. My lovely Folio Society edition of “Little Dorrit” weighed in at 2 or 3 pounds, I’m guessing, and over 800 pages. But it was such a pleasure to read, both for the story and for the attractive edition, that I toted it along on long and short trips while I was in the middle of it. Definitely more satisfying than reading 800 pages of several not-so-great novels!

Reading a Dickens novel was on my list of New Year’s resolutions, so I feel especially pleased about finishing it. And because I enjoyed it so much, I’ve decided to reread “The Pickwick Papers,” which is a total delight, and also, finally, make headway in Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens, which I’ve had on my nightstand for a couple of years. Learning more about the real-life details of Dickens’ life that inspired his plots, themes, and characters brings even more meaning into the novels for me. And, of course, it’s neat to learn a bit about the law offices where he worked briefly. Proving Nora Ephron’s observation that everything is copy, Dickens put his experiences and observations there to excellent use in his fiction.

I have more thoughts on Dickens and “Little Dorrit” that I’ll post another day. In the meantime, you can read 2 articles that I wrote last month for the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual On Professional Conduct on the ABA website, one on a blogging lawyer and the other on the death and dissolution of law firms.

February 25, 2011

Mistresses in history and literature

Having posted on passion and probate law earlier this week, it seems timely to note that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “The Book Show” featured a Canadian writer and academic, Elizabeth Abbott, speaking to host Ramona Koval about her book, “Mistresses:  A History of The Other Womanon February 24. Abbott’s book is part of a nonfiction trilogy:  she’s also published a history of marriage and one of celibacy.

History and literature have provided Abbott and others with plenty of material on the topic. Charles Dickens, who worked briefly as a law clerk and wrote many a good story having to do with lawyers and legal matters, went to great lengths to keep his mistress a secret. Writer Claire Tomalin took mere scraps Dickens left behind as clues to create a masterful narrative in her book, “The Invisible Woman:  the Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.”

Speaking of Canadian professors, Dickens, and the law, Associate Professor Kate Sutherland of Osgood Hall Law School at York University in Toronto has started a new blog, law.arts.culture, in which she explores the intersection of law and the arts. Sutherland described Dickens’s 1844 copyright suit over “The Christmas Carol” earlier this month.  Follow her on Twitter for fascinating tweets on law and literature from her handles @lawartsculture, @LawandLit, and @katesbookblog.

On a different front, Joel Stickley’s blog, “How To Write Badly Well,” is great fun for readers and writers alike.  I particularly enjoyed his post on allowing autonomy to body parts.  Check it out!

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