Reading anything by or about Charles Dickens is a year-round pleasure for many readers, but it's especially difficult not to associate him and his world with the holidays thanks to "A Christmas Carol." In Claire Tomalin's new biography, "Charles Dickens: A Life," the author (whose other books include lives of Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen) suggests, in the following excerpt adapted from "Prologue: The Inimitable 1840," why Dickens the man — not just his books — presents such a feast for any biographer.
Charles Dickens had been observing the world about him since he was a child, and reporting on what he saw as a journalist and then as a novelist. Much of it amused him, but more of it upset him: the poverty, the hunger, the ignorance and squalor he saw in London, and the indifference of the rich and powerful to the condition of the poor and ignorant. Through his own energy and exceptional gifts he had raised himself out of poverty. But he neither forgot it, nor turned aside from the poverty about him.
Dickens was twenty-eight in February 1840, and had another thirty years ahead of him. He was living in a country that had been at peace for a quarter of a century. Dickens was still a young man. His grammar could be shaky, his clothes too flamboyant — "geraniums and ringlets" mocked Thackeray — his hospitality too splendid, his temper fierce, but his friends — mostly artists, writers and actors — loved him, and their love was reciprocated. When he went out of London in order to have peace to write, he would within days summon troops of friends to join him. He was a giver of celebratory parties, a player of charades, a dancer of quadrilles and Sir Roger de Coverleys. He suffered from terrible colds and made them into jokes: "Bisery, bisery," he complained, or "I have been crying all day … my nose is an inch shorter than it was last Tuesday, from constant friction." He worked furiously fast to give himself free time. He lived hard and took hard exercise. His day began with a cold shower, and he walked or rode every day if he could, arduous expeditions of twelve, fifteen or twenty miles out of town, often summoning a friend to go with him. He might be in his study from ten at night until one in the morning, or up early to be at his desk by 8:30, writing with a quill pen he sharpened himself and favoring dark blue ink. He was taking French lessons from a serious teacher. He was also doing his best to help a poor carpenter with literary ambitions, reading what he had written and finding him work.