Biography is a literary craft that, in the hands of gifted practitioners, rises to the level of art. Yet even its most exemplary practitioners are frequently left behind, like hunters on the trail of elusive prey, in the tracking of genius. Claire Tomalin’s biography is likely to be one of the definitive Dickens biographies in its seamless application of “the life” to “the art”—and what a perilous balancing act it is, in which, just barely, Dickens’s art isn’t lost amid a smothering welter of facts. “This may be more detail than one normally wants about anyone’s life,” Tomalin acknowledges. And indeed there is an inordinate amount of detail in this biography, particularly in regard to Dickens’s frantically busy social life, his scattered interests, and his grinding public career. (How many reading tours Dickens embarked upon before, finally, his “last farewell to the London reading public” in 1870! The reader begins to be as fatigued as Dickens.)
The problem with such assiduously recorded lives of great artists is that one is drawn to an interest in the artist’s life because of his or her accomplishments, primarily; the “life” in itself is of interest as it illuminates the work, but if the often banal details of the life detract from the work, the worth to the biography is questionable. Even an ordinary life, cataloged in every detail, will bloat to Brobdingnagian girth, distorting the human countenance. Only a very few encyclopedic biographers—Richard Ellman most illustriously, in his long yet never dull biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde in particular—transcend the weight of their material, and make of it an intellectual entertainment commensurate with its subject.
[Photo Credit: Cecilia Majzoub via Film is God]