Dickens revealed in biography


Everyone reveres Charles Dickens without knowing much about his life.

From Claire Tomalin’s thorough biography, the reader can learn that his miserable childhood informed his rich novels about London’s neglected poor and its grimy streets. Put to work as a child, made to feel unloved by parents who would treat him that way and who obviously preferred his sister, he demonstrated early his strong character by rising above his beginnings.

His first love jilted him, and that, combined with his mother’s callous sending him to work in a dreary factory, may have colored his whole life in making it hard for him to be affectionate. He had difficulty showing affection to his wife and children, though he could write tender passages in his novels.

Wanting to be an actor, he succeeded all his life dramatizing his work himself. But his first job was as a journalist, his eventual profession of writing. Besides novels, he wrote children’s books and short articles and started periodicals. He published many of the novels in periodicals. He had been warned against serial publication, but he proved the advisers wrong.

He made many friends, mostly male because the culture of the time left women out of the clubs and societies. His principal female friend was a philanthropist whom he advised about her subjects because he was so knowledgeable about the poor and needy.

The biography has three parts, the last of which deals with his disastrous decision to leave his wife for an 18-year-old. The worst aspect of it was his lying about his wife, saying that the breakup of the marriage was her fault, because she was so unpleasant. She was really just as good a person as when he loved her, he just lost his head in middle age and made a fool of himself in front of his family and friends. Keeping it secret from most people, he did not lose his public.

The biographer says, “The man is one of extraordinary contradictions whose vices and virtues were intertwined as surely as his life and his art.”

Well, after that I had to read his favorite, David Copperfield. David is the usual badly treated boy child till he rebels and runs away to find his aunt. A wonderful touch is that she was disappointed when he was born a boy, but she forgives him and mothers him and sends him to a good school instead of the cruel school where his wicked stepfather had sent him.

Dickens includes a tender love story in the novel. David falls in love with Dora, a sweet, loving, but hopeless and helpless woman, who can’t cook, sew, keep house, keep books or do anything wifely. They have to hire help, and David has to do a lot, but they are a devoted pair.

Two characters have taken on lives outside literature, Micawber and Uriah Heep. Micawber is most famous for saying “if anything turns up.” Thank goodness, something good often does turn up for him to restore our confidence in life. Uriah Heep, who is humility personified, also lives on outside the novel. We all come to despise him as much as David does, but of course Dickens needed such a wicked person for contrast.

The young adult choice for this time is “Warriors in the Crossfire,” by Norma Bo Flood. She tells about two young boys on the Japanese island of Saipan at the end of World War II, Joseph, a native islander, and Kento, Japanese. Despite Japanese discrimination against natives, they remain friends. Wise in the ways of islanders, Joseph is able to find food and water, but Kento knows what the soldiers are doing and can warn Joseph. Kento wants them to trade expertise. After Japanese guards beat Joseph’s father to death, Joseph is the head of the family. His father had shown him a secret cave where he could hide his mother, sister, and young nephew. He succeeds in leading them there though the rain has made the path slippery and the climb is hard for his mother.

When Joseph leaves the uncomfortable cave to find herbs to soothe his sister and nephew, an American soldier (one of those who eat children) finds him and befriends him. You can imagine how happy they all are to find that the war has ended.


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