Title: Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

I just finished listening to Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin on Audible.  I will talk about the book in a moment, but first I want to talk about the voice of the book, Alex Jennings.

Alex Jennings is one of those English actors that you’ve seen a million times, but never remember.  His list on IMDB is long and varied as is the list of his theater work in London.  A search for his name on Audible brings up 68 titles.

(An aside… Is it just me or does it seem that British actors work a lot harder than American actors. When an American becomes a famous actor, it seems they get a pass to put their feet up, feast on caviar and champagne and wait for brilliant roles to fall in their lap. The more famous a British actor becomes, the harder they seem to work.  It is as if they take their jobs a lot more seriously than our actors do.)

There is nothing particularly remarkable about Mr. Jennings voice, but it is most decidedly male.  You’d think it shouldn’t matter that a man reads a book written by a woman about a man, but it does.  Every once in a while the tone of the words being said and the voice saying them become discordant.  It knocks the listener right out of the flow of narrative and into a sort of nether realm where you think, for a moment, that the English language has shifted slightly and left you behind.  (Did you ever see the Twilight Zone episode where that happens?  Scary.)  This mostly occurs towards the end of the book, when Ms. Tomalin’s real obsession comes clear.

You see, I believe that the whole reason Ms. Tomalin wrote the book just so that she could gossip about Dickens’ affair with Nelly Ternan.  Am I exaggerating a little…  Maybe.  (Ms. Tomalin did write another whole book about Nelly after all.)  The part about Nelly Ternan is the only part where the author shows any passion about her subject. And that is where the voice/words weirdness comes in.  She wrote that part of the book like gossip over a fence, “so and so said this, but so and so said that, and who knows what really happened, wink wink,” but when read by a renowned British actor, in that polished english accent, it sounds absurd.

I know, I am really awful at these reviews.  I did enjoy the book – I listened to the whole thing.  I’ve only read a few of Dickens’ books, I mostly find them dull, (the only book I really like is Nicholas Nickleby but I do like all the movies made from his works.) but Dickens did have a truly interesting life.  Should you read this book?  I don’t know – do you like hearing about the intimate details of the life of a writer who died a hundred and forty years ago?  I did.  But I’m weird like that.

Luckily for me, so is Claire Tomalin.  I think I will read her book about Jane Austen next.