The question that haunts every Dickens biography, Tomalin’s included, is this one: was Dickens an asshole? It’s to Tomalin’s credit that her book only complicates the question, rather than answering it.

Lev Grossman Reviews Claire Tomalin’s New Charles Dickens Biography | Entertainment |

Dickens came to hate his wife Catherine for being pregnant so often — by him, of course — and without telling her in advance had carpenters come to their bedroom and divide it in half so he wouldn’t have to sleep with her. He regularly mocked and belittled her in front of friends and company. When he decided to abandon her and pursue life with his mistress, he ordered his children never to see their mother. He even ordered Catherine’s own sister to have nothing to do with her. Tomalin herself has said that his behavior towards Catherine was “unforgivable.”

Grossman oddly ignores all this, saying only that “The marriage lasted 22 years, declining into antipathy and finally ending in a bitter divorce” — as though the hostility were mutual, instead of being generated almost wholly by Dicken’s hatred of Catherine.

If Charles Dickens was not an asshole, then no one ever was. Of course, that it not all he was. He was also, for example, a genius. But assholes don’t come any bigger or more evident than Dickens.