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Dickens

I noticed a woman on the elliptical reading a well-worn Penguin classic. Unusual as it is these days to read paperbacks, I asked her what she was reading and, between breaths, she said “Trollope.” I had never read Trollope—this was a few years ago—though he was on my list of authors I “should” read. My husband’s cousin in Seattle belongs to a “Trollope Club,” of which Trollope himself would have approved, except that there are women members. (They don’t wear crinolines, however.) The club studies all of Trollope’s 47 novels and his nonfiction (like Dickens, he traveled to America). The books are read in rotation, themes for discussion are assigned, biographies—new and old—perused. (The best is by Victoria Glendenning. ) Though nearly exact contemporaries, Dickens may or may not be mentioned; Trollopians consider him the lesser writer, and the lesser man. What they meant by this, I did not know, until I read Claire Tomalin’s riveting biography of Nelly Ternan, “The Invisible Woman,” now an inconsequential film directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes as Dickens.

Nelly Ternan was Dickens’ mistress of thirteen years, the woman for whom he persecuted and exiled his wife, and tormented his nine children. She was an actress, all of 18 when Dickens was first smitten, who gave up her career to become a well-kept woman, could never admit her benefactor/lover, probably did not love Dickens very much, and died without revealing their secret. Dickens' wife, Catherine, was equally enslaved, and then cruelly diminished, in a screed published by Dickens in London to wide circulation.

Strange, or perhaps not so strange, that I have never been able to read a Dickens novel with any pleasure or admiration, whereas Trollope satisfied instantly. Dickens’ women are Victorian stereotypes, for starters. Though unconventional and defiant in his personal and political life, and a man with a strong social conscience, Dickens was unable to release his women from their separate sphere into full personhood. Trollope’s women, on the other hand, are fully characterized in the most modern way. It was evident that he loved women, understood them, and experienced them as equals.

That all said, here is a writer—Charles Dickens—his name so well known it is iconic, a writer prolix and imaginative to the point of genius, the most famous, revered, best-selling author of his time, and beyond. Two of his books— “Great Expectations” and “A Tale of Two Cities,” a failed novel—are very often on the literature curriculum in the United States, well-placed in the classical canon, if we can believe in such a canon, which is questionable.

Had Claire Tomalin treated him fairly in her biography of Nellie Ternan? Yes and no. Are the man and the work inseparable? Yes and no. These questions surfaced as I was finishing the Nelly Ternan biography. Now its author has written a biography of Dickens himself. Obviously Tomalin had gathered a lot of material, but what else might have motivated her? Perhaps the issue of fairness, the challenge of understanding Dickens better, and the opportunity to give him voice and space in a re-assessment. It’s a touching effort especially when she describes his fulminating, fierce, afflicted temperament. He walked for miles and miles every day to release his tensions. He was a frantic worker, unable to settle in one home, always traveling and reveling, gregarious to exhaustion. And he was a performer; he loved the crowd.

Tomalin even reframes Dickens’ infatuation with Nellie. Was it a breakdown of sorts? It certainly seems that way as he never recovered from his furtive addiction. Even his appearance changed—his eyes and cheeks sunken, his brow furrowed. It was a sad ending to a fascinating life, and he died too young. Trollope, in contented domesticity, a kind man and equally prolix writer, outlived him by twelve years.

According to Tomalin, Dickens wrote three masterpieces: “David Copperfield,” “Bleak House,” and “Great Expectations.” The first two are psychically and factually autobiographical, narrated in the first person, close to Dicken’s heart and the wounded childhood he survived. They are much more than his usual money-making serialized entertainments, and I plan to return to them.

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