A Life of Two Parts

Daniel did brilliantly yesterday: his Graphics tutor said that the work he showed her was as good as that of her AS level students, though sadly he will have to start with GCSE first.  Other subjects – GCSE in Photography and English, Maths and something else (I forget what) at entry level.  He came home a different person – much more confident and outgoing – with his college pass and a list of subjects.  Induction will happen next Monday and then he will know his timetable.

Good stuff.

So: the Dickens biography.  It’s not an easy thing, being a biographer: first you have to gather your information, then you have to decide which sources are reliable and which may not be; then you have to put it all together in a readable way and without letting your own personality and opinions cloud the subject.  Then the final product has to be readable and engaging as well as fair-minded.  Claire Tomalin seems to me to do a pretty damn-near perfect job on Dickens: without trying to get inside him, she takes a walk all round him and examines his life and work from all points of view.  She also avoids the other temptation, which is to judge him too harshly according to modern standards.  Naturally she points out that his abandonment of his wife and taking on a mistress was hardly a Good Thing, but she doesn’t castigate him as much as even I would have wished.  Such things are an indulgence, though – and even though Dickens was a feminist nightmare, he was also a feminist hero.  And there’s the rub: he treated his wife badly but did not abandon his children: he took a mistress but gave a lot of practical and financial help to prostitutes.  He did some bad stuff and some good stuff – and surely that’s how most of us are?

One or two things surprised me: not that he bore grudges and once people were out of his life they stayed out; nor that his family life was far from the cheery, harmonious scenes in his writing; nor that his children (some, at least) looked upon him with a jaundiced eye, nor that he was unfair to his wife.  No – what surprised me is that this most eminent of Victorians was actually rude to the Queen, refusing her first invitation to an audience and making less-than-courteous comments when they did eventually meet.  I don’t know whether to honour him for this or to deplore his rudeness, but I think in the end he is to be applauded for upholding his republican sentiments.

As the Guardian review (below) points out, there is a lot of insight here into Dickens’ financial affairs: though his childhood experiences of debt and working in a blacking factory are well-known, it is less well-known how many family members and friends he supported once he became rich.

There’s so much I could say about this book – and about Dickens’s life, but I shall content myself at the moment by a strong recommendation that you get out there and either buy a copy or borrow it from the library before someone else does:


Are you Neanderthal-ist?

Had an argument with Mark this morning in which he claimed that to call something (or someone) Neanderthal is racist.  Whereas it’s obvious to the rest of us that the adjective ‘Neanderthal’ is merely shorthand for ‘primitive’ or ‘uncivilised’, Mark takes up the cudgels on behalf of this race of people who, he claims, were wiped out by genocide and deserve a far better press than they get today.  I can get on board with that: what I can’t fathom is the depth of his feeling about it.  He says it’s like anti-Semitism!

‘But that’s not comparing like with like,’ I objected.  ‘There are Jewish people around today and anti-Semitism has an effect on them and on those around them.  How many Neanderthals do you know?’

‘Ok then’, he said, turning round to face me (always a Bad Sign) ‘so if you were anti-Semitic in a few hundred years’ time that would be OK would it?’

‘I can’t possibly imagine what things would be like then,’ I said.  ‘Anyway, it’s not the same case.’

The argument rumbled on and didn’t get resolved.  Do you use the adjective ‘neanderthal’?  If so, what do you mean by it?

Seriously.  I want to know.  If only so I can show Mark and go ‘ha!’

Kirk out