Charles Dickens in 1850: Hell was always just round the corner
The difficulty of writing a writer's biography is that, almost by definition, once someone becomes a full-time writer he or she stops living, as writing involves a good measure of removing yourself from the world. Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life is mostly devoted to charting Dickens's massive output as a novelist and journalist, a job she does with clarity and vim. For me, the best biography is one where the biographer steps back and lets the cast speak for themselves: Tomalin succeeds admirably in avoiding fruitless speculation or laboured interpretation of Dickens's behaviour.
Two modern terms came to mind reading about Dickens: bipolar and hyperactive. Oddly for someone whose job involved him sitting still for long periods of time, Dickens was pathologically restless (he famously walked from London to Rochester on one occasion), constantly prowling the streets on foot and changing addresses as if he were in a competition to live in every town in Britain. He takes on publishing contract after publishing contract, charity gig after charity gig, reading tour after reading tour, and then moans incessantly about his workload.
In her dedication to this new biography, Tomalin lauds her mother and her French grandmother, who were both ardent fans of Dickens. Is Dickens's readership safe in our e-world, I wondered? One of the most consoling texts I know as a writer is George Orwell's essay "Bookshop Memories", recounting his experiences selling second-hand books in north London in the 1920s, an era when there was very little electronic temptation to divert British citizens from the written word. The golden age wasn't that golden. His customers didn't want to read Dickens or Austen, Orwell plainly states; they wanted Ethel M. Dell and Warwick Deeping, they wanted pulp.
Although Dickens was immensely popular in his day, my guess is that a lot of his success was due precisely to the elements in his work which now seem inert or dated: the preposterous sentimentality, the melodrama, the "Victorian" morality (although, as Tomalin shrewdly points out, Dickens grew up in the afterglow of Georgian rakery).