Charles Dickens: A Life

I’ve decided that I don’t like Tomalin as a biographer. She does very little in this book to get across the essence of Dickens, but maybe I’m too hard on her because primary sources are at a minimum. Dickens burned all his letters in 1860 and didn’t keep the type of journal that Woolf has delighted us with in her posthumous era. Tomalin works with what she has—mostly letters and the texts that D published—to pull off a quick 400+ page biography that conveys above all else that he was an extraordinarily energetic man besides being hugely talented. D kept his finger in every pie he got hold of, dictating the household arrangements and summertime escapes, charitably caring for random orphans and prostitutes and strangers he met along the way, enthusiastically carrying on with a large set of male friends (and having a shadow household of sister-in-law Georgy plus the mysterious Nelly/Ellen once he separates from Catherine). Early on you get a weird feeling about him, his going ga-ga over the death of his other sister-in-law (Mary) at age 16, the favored pet of his household later replaced by Georgina. When Mary Hogarth’s brother unexpectedly died, D was reportedly upset “not because he know George well but because he had been expecting to be buried beside Mary…”

He makes two trips to America, and in the first is overwhelmed by crowds swooning over his celebrity (and pushing for international copyright law b/c he saw zero money from U.S. publications). He loved Cincinnati: “a very beautiful city: I think the prettiest place I have seen here, except Boston. It has risen out of the forest like an Arabian-night city; is well laid out; ornamented in the suburbs with pretty villas… has smooth turf-plots and well kept gardens.”

I liked this photograph of him from 1850:

Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life

What a relief it is to be able to pick up a book again after two days of being committed to activities that forbade it. I read Tomalin’s biography of Katherine Mansfield with my copy of Virginia Woolf’s Vol 1 Diary close at hand, to revel in Woolf’s dismissal of Mansfield’s hubby Murry and delight in Woolf’s enthusiasms about KM herself. (April 1919: “I had tea with Katherine yesterday & Murry sat there mud-colored & mute… The male atmosphere is disconcerting to me. Do they distrust one? despise one? & if so why do they sit on the whole length of one’s visit?” VW also includes an amusing anecdote about hearing Murry drone on and on about his own accomplishments but VW fearing she’d be late for dinner interjects a brief comment about her own novel, which sends Murry spiraling back to earth … “d’you know I must be going.”) VW and KM famously shared high opinions of each other’s work, and the biographer grants credit for VW’s shift away from the traditional novel structure to KM’s review of Night and Day, who called it “Jane Austen up-to-date.”
In the intro, Tomalin calls out

Her life was essentially a lonely one. She traveled too far outside the boundaries of accepted behavior for her family to feel she was one of them, but she did not find herself at home in any other group, nor did she make a family of her own. The particular stamp of her fiction is also the isolation in which each character dwells. Failure to understand or to be understood is endemic in Mansfield… Family life may have a complacent surface, but beneath it fear and cruelty stalk. In one of her most memorable images a good wife imagines giving her husband little packets with her feelings in them, and his surprise as he opens the last packet to find it full of hatred. Hatred was her favorite emotion.

Mansfield escaped her girlhood home of New Zealand and made her way bravely as a writer in London, although also supported by a modest allowance by her wealthy father. She lived large, free, and shacked up with various men. After becoming pregnant, she hastily married another man whom she then ignored and had an affair with another man who gave her gonorrhea, a disease that would eventually kill her through weakened immune system via tuberculosis. She inexplicably ends up with John Middleton Murry, a flop of a writer whom none of her talented friends ever really liked (including DH Lawrence). Upon the outbreak of war, Murry hurried to enlist, only to change his mind on the bus ride home, going then to his doctor to get an excuse about TB. All in all, this was a lovely biography of a writer whom we’ve all more or less turned our backs on this century.