‘I owed it to Dickens to look at the whole of his life’

AUTHOR Charles Dickens
AUTHOR Charles Dickens
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Famous biographer Claire Tomalin wants to share her passion for one of English literature’s greatest icons – just as he’s about to turn 200.

Tomorrow the former literary editor of the New Statesman and Sunday Times will be at this year’s Portsmouth BookFest to discuss her latest book, Charles Dickens: A Life (Viking, £30).

The 78-year-old is already the author of award-winning portraits of diarist Samuel Pepys and writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Now she has pulled back the curtain on her most challenging subject yet.

As the 200th anniversary of the great author’s birth approaches, interest in Victorian Britain’s most famous chronicler has never been higher.

But even for such an acclaimed writer as Claire – who has tackled Dickens before – writing a full account of his life was daunting.

‘I wrote a book about his relationship with this woman, actress Nelly Ternan, who just seemed invisible in all the biographies about him,’ she says.

‘But I thought I owed it to him to go back and look at the whole of his life.’

And with numerous celebrations and events planned for next year to commemorate 200 years since the great man was born in Portsmouth, did she consider this anniversary when choosing her subject?

‘It didn’t actually enter my mind, I didn’t connect the two things,’ she says.

‘But my publisher certainly did. I think it can be good to get away from the Dickens industry sometimes and really get back to the man himself.’

That is certainly what she has done with her latest work, which reveals a man of limitless generosity and sometimes surprising callousness.

As well as publicly leaving his wife for the 18-year-old Ternan, who was 23 years his junior, Claire describes how Dickens often regarded his 11 children with contempt.

She says: ‘Writing it wasn’t easy because his life was so complex and energetic. It was like writing five biographies or putting a giant in a matchbox.’

‘I also don’t think Dickens is easy to write about because he was a very complex character,’ she adds.

‘Someone like Samuel Pepys offered himself to readers in his diaries, but Dickens didn’t do that, and he lived in a time when things were very closed down.

‘Dickens himself was an extraordinarily great and gifted man who set out to do good, through his writing and in his life, but like everybody he found it wasn’t as simple as that.

‘His private life was complex and despite what people think he was no saint. He struggled to do the right thing just like all of us.’

Claire says she thinks this depth and occasional darkness of character informed some of Dickens’s best traits as a writer.

‘He has wonderful villains,’ she says. ‘And they are always very funny.

‘His books became darker and contained more characters as time went on but he never lost that rich sense of humour.’

Claire adds that the 200th anniversary celebrations in 2012 meant it was a good time to revisit her subject. She says: ‘After Shakespeare, Dickens is the writer whose books and characters have most passed into language and are most known all over the world.

‘Characters like the Artful Dodger have become iconic and his novels are read everywhere.’

Asked whether she supports the erection of a statue in the city to honour the great writer, Claire replies: ‘Well it’s a funny thing because Dickens did say he didn’t want any memorials.

‘But I think it’s great that people in Portsmouth want to build one.

‘He might only have been born in the city and mostly lived elsewhere, but I support any move to recognise his legacy.’

The biographer – who won the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year for her account of Samuel Pepys’s life – also has praise for festivals such as BookFest which celebrate reading.

‘It is amazing in my lifetime how much book festivals have grown in popularity,’ she says.

‘Which is wonderful because reading is one of the great pleasures of life.

‘Through reading you actually learn about the world and you learn about people.’

She adds: ‘I also enjoy researching my books very much because you are trying to pass on what you’ve learned to others.’

· Claire will speak at the Menuhin Theatre, in Portsmouth Central Library, tomorrow at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £5, from (023) 9268 8685.