Becoming Dickens

Not only was England's best-loved novelist a genius, he had an astonishing capacity for hard work and concentration.
Francis Phillips | Dec 12 2011 | comment  



Next year it will be the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens in 1812. As he is one of our finest novelists (though it took the great critic, F.R. Leavis, some time to work this out) the date is causing predictable excitement and a flurry of books. Claire Tomalin, a veteran biographer, has published a very well-received biography, Anne Isba has produced a slighter work, Dickens’s Women, and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, an Oxford don, has now written this stimulating and original book. I found it informative and absorbing and learnt much more about the processes of creativity than I would have done from a conventional study of Dickens’s life.

Douglas-Fairhurst’s sub-title, “The Invention of a Novelist” tells us his perspective: essentially this is to answer the question, “What makes a genius?” The Romantic view suggests they are born; the more accurate view is that innate and inherited talents (Dickens’s mother, Eizabeth, was said to have been a gifted mimic and relater of comical anecdotes) are shaped by the circumstances of life. In the case of the exceptionally lively, sensitive and impressionable boy who, by the early age of 26 in 1838, was the foremost literary personality in London, his childhood and youth provided a rich and complex backdrop for the growth of his gifts.

The author, whose familiarity with the writings is evident everywhere, and who ends his account in 1838, when Dickens had already published The Pickwick Papers and was deep into simultaneous monthly instalments of Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, describes the fortuitous twists and turns that helped propel Dickens towards his hugely successful career: his father’s imprisonment for debt; his degrading period at the blacking factory aged 12 – an experience that darkened his imagination for good; his time as a solicitor’s clerk; the sojourn spent as a House of Commons shorthand writer; his connection, aged 22, with the Morning Chronicle; his failed courtship of Maria Beadnell which gave him the spur that “lifted me up into that newspaper life and floated me away over a hundred men’s heads.”

In later life Dickens, reminiscing about his life, remarked, “I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond.” Douglas-Fairhurst shows that he might also have taken the path of acting, or light journalism or even emigrated to the West Indies – all ideas Dickens toyed with. “His fiction teems with surrogate selves”, observes the author. London, where his family moved to several addresses during his father’s precarious financial condition, provided a wonderful background to the inner theatre of Dickens’s imagination “as he discovers how to make the most ordinary parts of life seem magically strange.”

Through Harrison Ainsworth, then a highly popular author, now wholly forgotten, the young man had the good fortune, while still only 24, to meet John Macrone, his first publisher, Cruikshank, his first illustrator and John Forster, his future biographer. Forster noted in 1836, the invincible self-belief and “spirited” expression, the eyes that were “wonderfully beaming with intellect and running over with humour and cheerfulness.”

Yet even then another aspect was noted, by Jane Carlyle, wife of Thomas Carlyle, who thought Dickens had a face “as if made of steel.” The colossal energy and determination that would balance the demands of a voracious public, a large family, a public position as reformer and philanthropist, came at a cost – not least to Dickens’s long-suffering wife, Catherine, with whom it seems he was temperamentally and mentally at odds from the beginning of their marriage. Douglas-Fairhurst also discusses the circumstances of the suicide of Dickens’s early collaborator over Pickwick, Robert Seymour. From Seymour’s point of view, his young collaborator “must have seemed like a cuckoo in the nest”, with his dominating personality and instinctive need to monopolise the stories. Dickens “wasted no time mourning”, soon teaming up with the illustrator Hablot Knight Browne, or “Phiz”.

As an afterthought, the author reminds us that if Dickens had died in 1828, at the outset of his writing career, over 200 words would have been lost to the English language, including “butter-fingers”, “devil-may-care”, footlights”, “slow-coach”, “snobbish”, “melodramatically”, “funky”, “paper-chase” and “seediness”. Even this brief list provides its own pointer to the vividly theatrical slant of Dickens’s imagination; it comes as no surprise to learn that one of his favourite devices as a child was a toy theatre. The author has done the master-storyteller proud with this very erudite and entertaining book.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK. 



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