BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Dickens: the early years
, December 10, 2011
The Invention of a Novelist
by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press)
Hardcover: 360 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
Four of the biographies of George Orwell on my bookshelf were published in 2003, the centenary of his birth. Now it is the turn of Charles Dickens.
In his case it is a bicentenary, and does not fall until next year, but biographers are jumping the gun, and (to mix the metaphor) the first trickle of what is sure to become a torrent of Lives is already appearing.
Actually, this book is not a comprehensive biography, but is Douglas-Fairhurst’s analysis of the process by which Dickens emerged by 1838, at the age of 26, as a committed and successful writer.
We tend to assume that a talent as prodigious as Dickens’s meant that his rise to the position of greatest author of the Victorian Age (even if Queen Victoria’s apotheosis occurred after his death) was inevitable.
Douglas-Fairhurst points out that, on the contrary, there was a succession of “what if” junctions in his early life, which could have seen him set on the path to a quite different destiny.
The family disruptions caused by his father’s fecklessness and imprisonment for debt might have resulted in Charles’s becoming a barely literate vagabond and criminal or, at best, a business figure in the blacking trade.
Even after he was fortuitously enabled to escape the emotionally scarring experience of the blacking factory, and resume his education, he could have finished up as a head clerk, a senior reporter or a playwright.
The publication of Pickwick Papers made him famous in 1836, but even that book had a hesitant and uncertain gestation.
It was commissioned as a series of prose accompaniments to a set of humorous sporting prints (by an artist who soon after committed suicide), and the first few issues of its serialisation nearly flopped, before Sam Weller entered the narrative and rescued it.
Dickens’s reputation was consolidated by the publication in 1838 of Oliver Twist, the story of a boy who also confronts a set of possible life routes, false starts and reverses of fortune.
These include his near-apprenticeship to a chimney-sweep, his brief time with the undertaker, Sowerberry, and his decision to run away toward, rather than from, London.
Douglas-Fairhurst deals competently with the tumultuous — and formative — emotional events of Dickens’s early adulthood, namely his hopeless love affair with Maria Beadnell, his eventually unsuccessful marriage to Catherine Hogarth, and his mysterious protracted grief over the death of her teenaged sister, Mary.
He then moves from Dickens’s inner life, to deal just as deftly with the political, economic and cultural developments of the 1820s and 1830s.
Against a backdrop of industrialisation and urbanisation — including the unstoppable spread of London — the railways (which excited Dickens) proliferated across the country to replace the stage-coaches (for which he retained a nostalgic affection).
This was the England which saw the upheaval and promise of the 1832 Great Reform Bill.
It also saw the expansion of literacy and newspapers, and the emergence of the cult of the celebrity writer.
Here is a random sample of three generations of Dickens commentators.
G.K. Chesterton, born in 1874 just four years after Dickens’s death, revered him, but also perceptively criticised his failures, such as his summary disposal of troublesome characters in David Copperfield.
George Orwell, born just a few years before the publication of Chesterton’s biography of Dickens, despised Chesterton, but was likewise an admirer and, at the same time, acute critic of Dickens.
Writing in 1939, he famously described him as “a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls”.
And Christopher Hitchens, Orwell’s disciple and biographer, and born the year before Orwell died, greatly appreciates Dickens, but attacked him in a book review last year (2010) for his alleged racism, and sympathy with sadistic colonialist oppression.
In other words, there are as many Dickenses as there are Dickens readers, and we shall meet more of them in 2012.
Douglas-Fairhurst, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of early 19th-century Britain, builds up to a wonderful conclusion with the young Dickens at the top of his form and hopes.
This is just the book for reacquainting ourselves with Dickens during that period of his life before the lengthening shadows of a disintegrating marriage, disappointing children, and ultimately lethal overwork, began to blight his existence.