The Turning Point Review – how Charles Dickens built the Bleak House | Biography books

TThe problem with most biographies is that they typically only have two tempo settings. There is the mess of the episodic one-by-one calculation; parallel to this is the gallop that makes the years disappear page by page. Depending on the life studied, a dynamic can build up and stall, but this double speed is the holder from which the biographical writing is difficult to break.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is not an innovator when it comes to narrowing its scope to a specific time frame – Alethea Hayter’s 1965 book A sultry month set standards – but he is certainly the first to frame the life of Charles Dickens in this way. The year 1851 marked both the writer’s personal circumstances and the life of the nation, and the exchange of ideas between the two enables Douglas-Fairhurst to set his own narrative rhythm, irresistible and ominous at the same time. The turning point sees Dickens as a product of his time, “a living embodiment of his energy and ambition,” and identifies the book he was preparing to write, Gloomy house, not just as “the greatest fictional experiment of his career”, but as a guide to the future of the novel itself. Typical of the Elster eclecticism of this book is that it mentions “turning point” as a sentence that gains importance in Middle Victorian English.

Tavistock House in central London where Dickens and his family lived from 1851 to 1860. Illustration: Getty Images

Dickens turns 39 in February and is in an uneasy mood (when was he not?) Household words, consulted with his friend Angela Coutts about running Urania Cottage, his London haven for “fallen” women, tried to found a literary guild for writers in need, and organized, perhaps heartily, a production by his friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play Not as bad as we seem for a charity gala. Dickens might once have become an actor – a cold had thwarted his audition years ago – but now he surpassed himself as an actor-manager who directed, flattered, inspired, controlled. He even managed to persuade the Duke of Devonshire to lend him his grand London mansion as the venue for the play’s royal premiere. The Duke also hired his gardener Joseph Paxton to oversee the staging at Devonshire House.

Paxton’s name was almost as famous as Dickens’ that year, as his much-lauded Crystal Palace in Hyde Park opened in May and the Great Exhibition was underway. “A huge architectural exclamation mark,” in Douglas-Fairhurst’s words, this huge glass and iron cathedral divided opinions. While some saw it as a symbol of progress and a unique feat of engineering, others like Ruskin thought it was cold and lifeless. Dickens himself was not a fan and preferred buildings on a human scale. As someone to whom “order” was sacred, he also complained about the colorful abundance of the exhibition – it was striking that even he sometimes found too much. On another visit in July, he was more impressed by the sight of 100 school children wandering through the town. He later discovered that one of them was lost and ended up in Hammersmith. After spending the night in a workhouse, the boy was picked up by his mother; he should have asked her when it was all over. “It was a big show, he said, but it held for a long time.” On this line you can hear Dickens’ laughter.

As always, the family was close to his heart and on his nerves. In March, his father died after an excruciating operation on his groin, a death that likely revived his lifelong ambivalence towards this unsatisfactory parent. Appoint him as Micawber in David Copperfield, Dickens could be happy with his swooning, but in real life John Dickens had been a nuisance and a drain on his resources. Less than two weeks later, his young daughter Dora died suddenly, a letter he shared to his wife Catherine, who lived in Malvern, who gently tried to cushion the shock as if she were a child herself. Sleek and plump, Catherine had given birth to nine children in 13 years, and during that time the vibrations of his impatience and dissatisfaction with her had grown stronger. Douglas-Fairhurst notes that the Bulwer-Lytton example would have warned Dickens about how a bad marriage could ruin life, but the parallel doesn’t quite hold: Rosina Bulwer-Lytton was a vengeful rage who led a public campaign against her husband whereas Catherine Dickens simply became an unfortunate burden. A cache of recently discovered letters reveals that in the years leading up to their breakup, Dickens tried to get them declared insane, a ruse worthy of the most mature Victorian melodrama.

Author Robert Douglas-Fairhurst:
Author Robert Douglas-Fairhurst: ‘Clearly About Dickens’ Mistakes’. Photo: John Cairns

Douglas-Fairhurst is clear about Dickens’ faults, not only in his treatment of Catherine, but also in his reactionary attitude towards class, race and women’s liberation. The new fashion for bloomers from 1851 provoked his ridicule – women in pants or just the Pants was an outrage against the social order, he argued in print and made it clear that one should be discouraged from anything that goes far beyond house management. He rigorously organized his own household and created an appearance almost similar to his previous residence when he moved the family to a new home in Tavistock Square. He liked to keep everyone with it. But despite all the limitations of his character The turning point is more admiring than admonishing and the way it gradually evolves Gloomy house, the great project that has been fermenting in his head all year, brings a very satisfactory conclusion. A manuscript page of the novel, dense strikethroughs and corrections, is reproduced as evidence of Dickens’ careful genesis. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has tried hard and this wonderfully entertaining book is the result.

Klopp: My Liverpool Romance by Anthony Quinn is published in paperback by Faber

The turning point: a year that changed Dickens and the world by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is published by Jonathan Cape (£ 25). To the . to support Guardian and observer Order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply

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