Becoming Dickens: The invention of a novelist is a really good book. I don’t normally come out and say something like that right from the start, but this book is elaborately researched, perceptive, intriguing, and very well written. The Charles Dickens who appears here is something of a haunted, insecure but at the same time dogged and brilliant figure. Yes, he was damaged as a child by his father’s multiple insolvencies, but yes, he also was a resourceful law clerk, journalist, essayist, playwright, and of course, novelist. In fact, he became the major English-language novelist of his day.
Without psychologizing, Douglas-Fairhurst portrays someone who was a great mimic, a comedic personality and an exceptionally evasive figure. Douglas-Fairhurst has the good sense to understand why Dickens (and others) ultimately chose to write fiction: because you can live better in fiction than you can in life, because the characters you meet are funnier, sadder, more provocative…and because “the world” is replete with articulated moods and details, things that slip past notice unless you are preying upon them with your curiosity and vocabulary and sense of literary “possibility.”
I had no idea how hard Dickens worked as a fledgling journalist and satirist before The Pickwick Papers made him a national figure in England. He covered parliament, elections, the courts, the prisons, and the social life of his times. Douglas-Fairhurst knows those times well, and he has an extraordinary ability to cite just the right passage from Dickens’s writings to illustrate a point…but not only that…he also excels in drawing on the writings of others–Thackery, for instance, or diarist/memoirists that only a specialist in 19th century British social history would know.
At the same time, I wasn’t familiar with how many plays Dickens wrote, or how often he took on roles himself, or how unhappy he clearly was in his marriage…something Douglas-Fairhurst attributes to Dickens having chosen the wrong sister to marry…and then watched the younger one die a sudden, early death.
The Pickwick Papers was the first Dickens novel I read. I was eleven. I suppose I understood 60% of what was going on. Then came Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and Bleak House–a novel I read in college and still regard as one of the most astonishing books written since Shakespeare. Dickens had a plastic personality–meaning that he adapted to circumstances if he had to (he didn’t like it, but he did it)–and that marvelous plastic style, capable of rendering low-lifes, aristocrats, children, barristers, cabbies, thieves and entire cities and landscapes in quick, powerful fashion.
Ultimately, Douglas-Fairhurst doesn’t really pin Dickens down. One can tell he was “a case” and there probably was some kind of psychological disorder at the heart of his drive and imagination, but the point made here is that Dickens kept on inventing himself as he invented his stories.
Again, a good book.
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