September & Dickens

My summer reading bonanza produced two stand-out favourites: Elizabeth Strout's

  • The Burgess Boys and Colum McCann's Transatlantic.  (I am glancing at them now, sitting in the books-I-have-loved bit of my bookshelf, looking worn and warm, old friends, begging to be revisited.  Do I need to offer any other reason why, for me, a Kindle still holds no appeal?!)

But now it is September and the days are shorter and cooler and I have started on Claire Tomalin's biography of Dickens, which has been gathering dust in the pile next to my bed since last Christmas.  I don't know what I expected.  I thought I knew something about Dickens.  Of course, I must do.  I have read (nearly) all his novels, written essays on them, studied their tragicomic genius and the sometimes imperfect effect of a writer trying to balance a social conscience with his artistic integrity ... ... ard Times would be the best example of that). I have discussed TV adaptations of them round dinner tables and merrily promoted the notion of Dickens as our earliest 'Soap Opera Writer', a master at keeping his audiences on tenterhooks for each weekly instalment (the bulk of Dickens' novels were written in serial form).  So maybe I was hoping for some sort of grand overview, the joining up of a few loose dots.

Instead, I find that I am gripped - thanks to Claire Tomalin's skill - by the light cast on the day-to-day tensions of Charles Dickens as a writer. I do not mean to sound presumptuous, but I am only too familiar with these tensions. When readers ask me what it is like to write novels I always confess that it is mostly... horrible: a roller-coaster of hope and despair, trial and error, insecurity and confidence, interlaced with occasional - very occasional - patches of sublime, flowing, joy.  Then there are the money worries, which never sit happily next to creativity; not to mention the ups and downs of one's personal life - a sea of interruption against which I throw ineffectual sandbags every day.

Somehow, I hadn't expected Charles Dickens, prolific genius, globally successful in his own time, to have gone through the same daily hurdles.  But he did.  His writing stressed him out constantly - the deadlines, the need to be at his best, the demands of publicity, which were quite as intense as those thrown at many celebrities today.  Added to which, his personal life was mired in problems, from his bankrupt sponging father to a wife who, through no fault of her own, could not given him the spark of intimate reciprocity for which he longed.  And yet he produced the work that he did, at the rate that he did, achieving the quality that he did.  It makes the achievement all the more extraordinary.