When was the first time you were aware of Charles Dickens? Before I can remember – my mother was a Dickens reader, and her mother (born in 1861) claimed to remember when they waited for the next instalment of his current book to be delivered in Liverpool- it must have been ‘Edwin Drood’!
Which was the first Charles Dickens book you read? ‘David Copperfield’ – a very early favourite, re-read more times than I can remember.
Which are your favourite books by Charles Dickens? ‘David Copperfield’, of course, and ‘Great Expectations’, and ‘Bleak House’, ‘Little Dorrit’, ‘Our Mutual Friend’, which I think of as his London trilogy.
What do you admire most about Charles Dickens? His prodigious energy, as a writer, as someone who enjoyed the world, as someone who wanted to make it better.
What inspired you to write this book? Having written about Ternan, with Dickens in a walk-on part, I came to think I should give him a whole book of his own.
What were some of the most important moments when writing this book? Realizing the importance of Forster in his life, as friend, as helper, as biographer. Realizing how much Dickens loved France and admired the French, for their republicanism, for the respect they showed for writers and artists, for their lack of hypocrisy about social problems such as prostitution, for their food and their joie de vivre. Realizing the extent of the break in his life in 1858 – just about everything changed. Realizing how much he drank, although never drunk after his youth – but that cellar list for Gad’s Hill – and his denial of having gout, which he clearly had.
What was the best thing about writing this book? Immersing myself in the letters, the novels, the stories, the journalism.
Do you have a favourite museum or art gallery? British Museum, National Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum. Louvre, Uffizi, Prado – of course lots of small ones – the town hall in Bordeaux has wonderful pre-WWI murals. Toulouse has a superb collection of Bonnard paintings in the Hotel d’Assezat. &c
What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? That my ambition throughout my childhood and teens was to be a poet. I must have written hundreds of sonnets and several long narrative poems – all lost, I’m glad to say.
What are you working on next? A memoir of sorts.
Read my review of ‘Charles Dickens; A Life’ here.