An audio download of Claire Tomalin’s brilliant lecture can be found at:
October 31st 2012
It is especially appropriate that Ms.Tomalin should deliver this Roscoe Lecture on the life of Charles Dickens –not simply because it is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth but also because of Claire Tomalin herself.
The subject of her first book, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, was the eighteenth century writer, philosopher and advocate of women’s education and rights, Mary Wollstonecraft who was a good friend and correspondent of William Roscoe.
After Wollstonecraft died of septicemia, in 1797, her memory was perpetuated by poems written by Robert Browning and William Roscoe. One, entitled, “Wollstonecraft and Fuseli” (Henry Fuseli, painter, who visited Roscoe at his home at Allerton Hall) includes these words:
Hard was thy fate in all the scenes of life
As daughter, sister, mother, friend, and wife;
But harder still, thy fate in death we own,
Thus mourn’d by Godwin with a heart of stone
Roscoe’s literary reputation was greatly enhanced when, in 1796, after pursuing detailed research, he published his Life of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Claire owns an original first edition of that work.
Born in London in 1933 to a French father and an English mother, the Liverpool born composer Muriel Herbert. Her mother won a Liverpool scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1917, which set her on her path as a composer of songs.
Claire read English at Cambridge, graduated from Newnham College in 1954 and is now an Honorary Fellow of the college.
She worked in publishing and journalism, becoming Literary Editor of the New Statesman and later The Sunday Times before devoting herself to writing full time in the late 1980s.
Her first husband, the journalist Nicholas Tomalin, was killed reporting the Yom Kippurwar in 1973.
She has three children and three grandchildren.
She does occasional broadcasting and television, and made a South Bank Show film about Thomas Hardy with Melvyn Bragg. She has also organised exhibitions, one on Mrs Jordan at Kenwood, another on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley at the National Portrait Gallery, where she was a Trustee for ten years.
She has honorary doctorates from the following universities: Cambridge, UEA, Birmingham, The Open University, Greenwich, Goldsmiths and Roehampton.
She is married to the playwright and novelist Michael Frayn.
Claire’s connections with Roscoe and Liverpool and further underlined by the venue and the topic for tonight’s lecture.
Dickens was only 19 when Roscoe died in 1831 but he would have been very much aware of Roscoe’s role of as the father of Liverpool culture as he spoke in Liverpool several times, especially for the Mechanics’ Institute – one of whose founders was William Roscoe.
The year before his death, in 1870, Dickens came to Liverpool and was given a gala dinner here in St.George’s Hall, in April 1869.
In a letter which is dated April 4th, 1869, Dickens wrote from the Adelphi Hotel, where he was staying, to Miss Hogarth. He gives a touching account and is delighted by the warmth of the reception given to him by Liverpool people. He writes that “the town is full of festival”…and that “All the Liverpool notabilities are to muster.” He gives a list of others who will speak in his honour and they include Anthony Trollope. But it is the people of Liverpool who really take his fancy:
“One of the pleasantest things I have experienced here this time, is the manner in which I am stopped in the streets by working men, who want to shake hands with me, and tell me they know my books. I never go out but this happens. Down at the docks just now, a cooper with a fearful stutter presented himself in this way. His modesty, combined with a conviction that if he were in earnest I would see it and wouldn’t repel him, made up as true a piece of natural politeness as I ever saw.”
However, Dickens also complains about the length of the civic dinner and about the acoustics at St.George’s Hall (so some things never change!)
As a girl, and at some point during the war, Claire recalls staying at the Adelphi at some point during the war, when her great-aunt Clara Hornby used to live there for half the year. She was the widow of the man who invented Meccano. Claire says: “they were the rich side of the family, my mother’s side was poor but more interesting!”
In his street encounters we can see the raw material upon which Dickens relied for his brilliant novels.
With his extraordinary powers of observation he had the genius to transform everything he observed into both a cracking yarn and a transformative manifesto for social and personal change.
In this bicentenary year of his birth without doubt the best new biography of the life of Charles Dickens life is by Claire Tomalin. It is a deft and magisterial account which gives us new insights into the childhood traumas which shaped Dickens’ character and which he would overcome through his own efforts, passionately believing as Claire Tomalin puts it that “everything was possible to the will that would make it so” – itself a manifesto for modern citizenship and the desire to overcome the difficult things which life throws at us.
Who better and where better, then, to explore the life of one of our greatest English writers?