Obituary: Monica Dickens

MONICA DICKENS struck me as a remarkable and a remarkably nice woman when I met her, which was sadly not until the last phase of her life, writes Claire Tomalin. She had courage, energy, a forthright tongue and great warmth of character.

'I do like success, don't you?' was one of her remarks to me; on the same occasion, as we were doing the dishes after lunch, she suddenly gave me a squeeze and said, 'I knew I should like you, lovey,' a gesture of maternal approval I found deeply touching. She was curious to hear about people's lives, as writers tend to be, and frank about her own. Her writing showed a breadth of understanding and an ability to create and sympathise with odd, marginal characters that recalled an aspect of her great-grandfather Charles's work.

She wrote me a strikingly generous letter after reading my book on Dickens and Ellen Ternan, saying she found it entirely convincing, and suggesting we should meet. At the time she was already ill with cancer, and our meeting was postponed while she underwent hospital treatment. During this period she was also, characteristically, writing one book and researching another, as well as preparing an article on the experience of being a cancer patient, for the Reader's Digest; she was a firm believer in reaching a wide audience. Preoccupied as she was, she did not forget her invitation, and in April 1991 I went to visit her in her Berkshire cottage - a beautiful place, though it seemed remote for a frail person living alone.

Not that she gave the impression of frailty; her talk was of ideas for future books, of driving to the station to catch the London train for a day's research, dashing back to entertain friends, visits expected from her daughters, meetings with publishers and with her old friend Chad Varah. She was as lively as a girl, her strong face framed in glossy hair; her rooms full of books, her garden bright with flowers, everything neat and shining.

She was the granddaughter of Charles Dickens's most intelligent son, who became a lawyer (Sir Henry Dickens). I asked her whether she had ever discussed with him his father or his childhood memories. 'No,' she said, 'I never thought of it - he was a remote, imposing figure, always formal, sitting in his armchair - not someone you could put questions to.' She was proud of the genius of Dickens, and deeply knowledgeable about his work; but she had her own views about the legend of his sanctity preserved by the family. 'Oh the Dickens men . . .' she said, shaking her head and laughing.

But I thought Charles would have approved of everything about her: her open-mindedness, her fighting spirit, her practical sense, her hospitable and generous nature, and the tremendous success she made of her career as a popular writer.

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