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Charles Dickens: A Life, By Claire Tomalin

Dickens wanted to be a Little Nell, but in his heart he was Bill Sykes

Dickens is a rich subject for a biographer, as Claire Tomalin remarks in her new account: "The quiet concentration found nec-essary by other writers was not a feature of Dickens's working life." He also had his fair share of secrets, including his relationship with the actress Nelly Ternan, about which Tomalin speculated in the acclaimed The Invisible Woman.

Tomalin notes that Dickens could be a "showman" in his writing and the same might be said about her. This book succeeds brilliantly, like so much of Tomalin's work, in its set-piece scenes. The prologue, for example, movingly dramatises Dickens's work as a juror in an 1840 inquest into the death of a newly born baby. Tomalin notes that this "allows us to see him in action" – his characteristic mode.

Tomalin's tone is measured and sometimes cool. She is sceptical about the positive reports of Dickens's acting ("amateur theatricals are always more exciting to take part in than to watch") and dry-eyed about his ambivalence towards his 10 children: "When he said he found it hard to show his feelings for them perhaps he meant it was hard to have the feelings he was expected to have for so many unwanted offspring." When his sister Fanny was dying, Dickens kept his distance. Tomalin suggests that "patience, so necessary in caring for the sick, was not one of his virtues".

But she can be cruel about those who suffered at the margins of his life. Her account of Dickens's wife Catherine, for example, seems infected with his unkindness: "So little of her personality appears in any eyewitness account that it seems fair to say there was not much more there to describe." Oddly, Tomalin shows little curiosity about this other "invisible" woman.

Other lives, including Ternan's, yield more sympathy. There is a superb chapter on a home that Dickens set up for prostitutes, Tomalin weaving together suggestive detail and speculation and doing justice to Dickens at his most generous.

We also gain valuable insights into how Dickens saw himself. Dostoevsky recalls that, in 1862: "He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, like Little Nell ... are what he wanted to have been, and the villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless ...."

Dickens "kept going by taking on too much", Tomalin notes, and there is a risk that a biography might mirror the life in this respect. Key events are narrated briskly. John Dickens, the author's father, dies and is buried in a few sentences, doing justice to the frenetic pace of Dickens's life but not to the impact of the death. Those passages narrating the work of several years can be dull and one feels Tomalin's impatience in them.

Towards the end, Dickens is lauded as "a national treasure, an institution, a part of what makes England England". Such rhetoric is suggestive of an essentially conservative biography. There are few fresh insights into Dickens's work and this is a less radical interpretation of the life than Tomalin achieved in her earlier book on Ternan. Yet the contradictory impulse to both tell and subvert the conventional reading of the life may in itself reveal something about the novelist. As his first biographer, John Forster, wrote, in a warning that Tomalin takes as an epigraph: "It will not do to draw round any part of such a man too hard a line."