Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday Freebie: Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin

Congratulations to Libby Kessman, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: My Father's House by Ben Tanzer.

This week's book giveaway is Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin.  I could think of no better time to offer up this big beautiful biography than this season of gifting.  Dickens loved All Things Christmas and eventually commercialized his own literary nook of the holiday.  A Christmas Carol, the first of Dickens' "Christmas Books," is much more than the quaint Yuletide artifact we've turned it into; it's also one of the author's most powerful social sermons.  As Tomalin writes in the biography:
The book went straight to the heart of the public and has remained lodged there ever since, with its mixture of horror, despair, hope and warmth, its message--a Christian message--that even the worst of sinners may repent and become a good man; and its insistence that good cheer, food and drink shared, gifts and even dancing are not merely frivolous pleasures but basic expressions of love and mutual support among all human beings.
Dickens--the man, the novelist, the family scalawag--has enough facets to his personality to be the subject of half a dozen separate biographies (and, indeed, the number of books about him is well over 10 times that number), but Tomalin seems to have bottled his lightning quite nicely in this one volume:
Everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens. The child-victim, the irrepressibly ambitious young man, the reporter, the demonic worker, the tireless walker. The radical, the protector of orphans, helper of the needy, man of good works, the republican. The hater and the lover of America. The giver of parties, the magician, the traveler. The satirist, the surrealist, the mesmerist. The angry son, the good friend, the bad husband, the quarreler, the sentimentalist, the secret lover, the despairing father.
In his review for TIME magazine, Lev Grossman writes:
I didn’t read Tomalin’s biography because I’m a Dickens guy, although I like his novels well enough. I read it because Dickens was an alien, or at least an extreme human outlier, and thus inherently interesting. His brain just didn’t work like other people’s. It’s ironic, or at least strange, that his work has come to stand as a kind of baseline, middle-C of mainstream Victorian melodrama, because he himself was not a mainstream individual. Not at all.
And what of the biography itself?  In The Observer, William Boyd praised it with all the enthusiasm of a Fezziwig jig:
What is so valuable about this biography is the palpable sense of the man himself that emerges. Tomalin doesn't hesitate to condemn Dickens when his behaviour demands it, yet she writes throughout with great sympathy and unrivalled knowledge in the most limpid and stylish prose. She has the gift of being able to set a scene and a time with compelling vividness. This is a superb biography of a great writer – and is a beautifully produced book, it should be said, with copious illustrations.
I have a new hardback copy of Charles Dickens to put in the hands of a reader this Christmas season.  So if you've harbored great expectations for reading Tomalin's biography, now is your chance.  All you have to do is this:

Tell me the name of your favorite Dickens novel (or, if you've never read any of his books, then the one you think you'd enjoy the most).

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 8--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 9.


  1. You saw this, right?

    I do not need another book to sit on my nightstand that I don't have time to read, so no contest for me, but I do (as a lawyer) much admire Bleak House.

  2. Nice idea, but I'm not sure the design works as well as they think it does. At first glance, I thought it was a map of Great Britain, not the profile of CD.

  3. This is a brilliant biography but be warned: the Kindle edition, except for a few small maps, does not include the many pages of illustrations found in the hardcover edition. How I wish Amazon would give such information in the Product Details; it would save me the trouble of returning the item for a refund.