Claire Tomalin's latest book is Charles Dickens: A Life.
From her Q & A with Bill Tipper at The Barnes & Noble Review:
The Barnes & Noble Review: You open the book with a scene reconstructed from an experience Dickens had as part of a coroner's jury, when he was a still-young novelist. Although you give us the scene in a style of your own rather than as Dickens himself, there is something instantly recognizable in the vision of the world -- a crowded scene of everyday tragedy, but with an almost comic sensibility emerging at points in the details. The juxtaposition of light and dark –both in his writing and in his emotional life – is a theme you return to several times in this book.Learn about Claire Tomalin's "five most important books."
Claire Tomalin: What I intended in starting the book as I did was to present Dickens, adult, in 1840, in the flush of his success, as he appeared to his friends. I've always been fascinated by this small episode, which is documented in The Times as well as in Dickens's own writings. It so perfectly encapsulates his particular concern with the lowest people in English society - working girls, often workhouse born, nameless, without family or support of any kind. Just such as one is 'the Marchioness' in The Old Curiosity Shop, which he was about to write - a little slavey literally enslaved, half starved and doing all the work of the household, and held prisoner in her employers' basement in her case. In his last finished novel he drew another bottom-of-the-heap child worker in 'Jenny Wren' [or Fanny Cleaver], severely physically handicapped, motherless, with an alcoholic father, but who nevertheless thinks up a way of earning her living by making dolls' clothes.
Only when I started to look into this did I realize that the workhouse where Dickens went as juror was just a few streets west of the grand house he had just moved into in Devonshire Terrace, south of Regent's Park. A map of London in the 19th century is a very useful adjunct to Dickens studies: the workhouse dated back to the previous century, when that was open ground, and had simply grown and grown over the years.
You are right in seeing how, in describing the preliminaries to the inquest, Dickens could not resist making a gruesome joke about the dead baby. Dead babies were...[read on]