Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist

For the artist formerly known as Boz, success was no foregone conclusion, writes Valerie Sanders

October 13, 2011

As the title suggests, this is a biography of the young Charles Dickens: Dickens in the making or on the make, depending on how one looks at it. And perhaps it's no coincidence that the title picks up on a recent fashion for early lives - including Lynne Vallone's Becoming Victoria (2001), or even the 2007 Austen biopic, Becoming Jane - complete with flirting and love affairs, if no actual elopements. Certainly the older Dickens, bearded and furrowed, seated and writing, looks very different from his eager fresh-faced self as he shakes off early shades of the debtors' prison house and plunges into the career that will first be the making and then the killing of him.

As Robert Douglas-Fairhurst indicates, however, Dickens' success was by no means a foregone conclusion. The story may have been told before, but not with so great a sense of all the might-have-beens, the roads not taken, on the way to becoming the author of the complex multiplot social novels by which we now best know him.

The early Dickens was essentially a sketch-writer with hankerings after the stage; his specialist subject the lodging-house world of Pooterish young clerks with names such as Horatio Sparkins and Watkins Tottle (although as Douglas-Fairhurst points out, quite a lot of them were also called Charles or Dick, in ironic self-reference).

The direction he did take made Dickens a household name by the age of 26. Douglas-Fairhurst abandons him in 1838, which is as good a moment as any: the year of Oliver Twist, when he emerges from behind his pseudonym of "Boz" (previously "Tibbs") and "comes out" as Charles Dickens. By any standards this was a meteoric rise, inviting comparison with our own culture's appetite for the true-life stories of under-30s celebrities. The difference is that Dickens stayed focused, eschewing temptation of all but the most harmless kinds: a hopeless infatuation for a banker's daughter, Maria Beadnell, and a few jolly dinners, at which he might be persuaded to sing The Dandy Dog's-Meat Man and Sweet Betsy Ogle (the latter a song of his own making).

How did he do it? With minimal support from his family, Dickens told his sons, and a combination of sheer hard work and versatility. Douglas-Fairhurst disputes this, supplying details of a useful uncle and a succession of professional connections. Dickens would have thrived in today's networking world, given the fortuitous combination of planning and chance that quickly propelled him from writing facetious accounts of dinner parties and illustrated sporting sketches towards the serialised novel with its memorable characters and interlocking plots.

What Douglas-Fairhurst shows in this book is Dickens endlessly reinventing himself, like a wriggling escapologist. If Mr Pickwick had "corklike buoyancy", so had Dickens: however unpromising the circumstances, up he pops again with a new set of sketches, a new illustrator or editor, or another version of the London street scene. If an illustrator killed himself (as sadly happened), he quickly replaced him with another.

Having invented Mr Pickwick, he paired him with Sam Weller and sales boomed; having exhausted the possibilities of Pickwick, he invented Oliver Twist. If feeble plays and unmemorable sketches fell by the wayside, it hardly mattered. If his first hopeless love affair failed, the Hogarths were there to console him, with plump Catherine (whom he married) and faultless, doomed Mary, who died in Dickens' arms at 17, inaugurating a line of impossibly virtuous heroines. Whatever the odds, Dickens overcame them, as if by sheer force of personality, leaving the other popular names of the time (Harrison Ainsworth, Pierce Egan) floundering towards oblivion.

But it could have been otherwise. What fascinates Douglas-Fairhurst, and ultimately the reader, is all the "biographical tipping points", as he calls them: all those moments where the see-saw of opposites that characterised so much of Dickens' life could so easily have come down heavily on the wrong side.

As Douglas-Fairhurst puts it, "it is a sign of Dickens's greatness that there is almost nothing one can say about him of which the opposite is not also true...No author enjoyed greater success; no author was more terrified of failure." Dickens' life, like those of so many of his characters, consisted of interrupted stories: hence the perfect meshing in this biography of all the recurrent themes. The risk of everything unravelling dogs the apprentice Dickens, much as it does Oliver Twist, the instinctively gentle middle-class orphan who shuttles back and forth between the two extremes of Fagin and Mr Brownlow. Given Dickens' unpromising start, his lifelong restless energy indicates a man never completely satisfied with what he has, always experimenting and questioning, and often doubting himself.

A case in point is Dickens' alleged love of domesticity and home (or more properly, Home). Although, as Douglas-Fairhurst concedes, it is hard for the modern reader to accept the "chirping crickets and humming hobs", Dickens' picture of the Victorian family is full of holes and secrets. For every wonderful wife who makes pies and babies with equal dexterity, there is someone gnawing their knuckles in fear and shame. Even Christmas, that most Dickensian of feasts, is never without the suggestion of something preparing to sabotage it, whether the predicted death of Tiny Tim or the incursion of soldiers hunting convicts in Great Expectations. "Sentence by sentence," says Douglas-Fairhurst, "Dickens was building towards the final image of a happy home and then knocking it down again" - as of course he would do with his own household 20 years later, when after fathering 10 children, he banished the hapless Catherine from both his home and his life.

Once Dickens marries, the pace of this book slows down, in keeping with the more even tenor of his life, allowing Douglas-Fairhurst to wonder whether Dickens married the right Hogarth sister, given his desperation to be buried in Mary's grave and her subsequent haunting of his dreams. Notwithstanding Lillian Nayder's 2010 biography of Catherine Dickens, the shadowy wife remains somewhat opaque in this book, as she does in so many versions of Dickens' life. As soon as they were engaged he started ordering her about, and it is hard to know how much of the rather unlikely-sounding, pre-Beeton cookery book, What Shall We Have for Dinner?, allegedly by Lady Maria Clutterbuck (alias Mrs Dickens), was actually written by her. "Her inner life is largely a blank to us," Douglas-Fairhurst admits, as indeed it might be, given her husband's self-obsessed melodramatics over her sister's death. Her silence possibly says much for her tolerance, discretion and dignity in the face of so much domestic uproar.

Douglas-Fairhurst's previous book was Victorian Afterlives: The Shaping of Influence in Nineteenth-Century Literature (2002). In many ways this is a fitting companion, a book about the beginnings of a literary phenomenon, not the aftermath. If Dickens' early life is somewhat makeshift and shabby-genteel, then Douglas-Fairhurst makes an entertaining yet scholarly story of it.

The fully researched details of articles, journals, sketches and editors never swamp the pushily determined figure at their centre: the man Maria Beadnell's mother kept stubbornly calling "Mr Dickin" before he finally made his name.

The Author

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, who has been a tutorial Fellow in English literature at Magdalen College, Oxford since 2002, grew up convinced that he would be an actor. Only when he reached the University of Cambridge as an undergraduate did the trajectory of his life change. "That wasn't because I missed an audition through illness, like Dickens, it was because I was rubbish."

Three things were key to his career: having inspirational schoolteachers who eschewed box-ticking for discussion; reading John Carey's book on Dickens and seeing that literary criticism didn't have to be "worthy but dull"; and having as his PhD supervisor Eric Griffiths, who "scattered ideas like gifts in conversation - I simply tried to catch as many as possible."

In another world, Douglas-Fairhurst says, he might have been an architect: "It would be fun to construct something other than sentences."

The recent recipient of an ice-cream maker, he is indulging a culinary passion by experimenting with "palate-jarring flavour combinations, such as chilli and chocolate and coconut curry". As an armchair fan, he follows both cricket and Liverpool Football Club. His guilty pleasure is "trashy TV, the top two being The Simpsons and Glee".

Chloe Darracott-Cankovic

Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist

By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 400pp, £20.00

ISBN 9780674050037

Published 3 October 2011

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