The Turning Point Review – How Charles Dickens Built Bleak House | Biography books

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TThe problem with most biographies is that they tend to have only two rhythms. There is the heaviness of episodic accounting, one thing after another; parallel to this is the gallop which makes the years disappear in the pages. The momentum can develop, and it can stall, depending on the life under study, but this double speed is the halter whose biographical writing has difficulty breaking.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is not an innovator by limiting its scope to a specific period of time – Alethea Hayter’s book in 1965 A sensual month set the standard – but he was surely the first to understand Charles Dickens’ life that way. The year 1851 was momentous both in the personal situation of the writer and in the life of the nation and the rebound of ideas between the two allows Douglas-Fairhurst to define his own narrative rhythm, at the same time compelling. and disturbing. Turning sees Dickens as a product of his time, “a living embodiment of his energy and ambition”, and identifies the book he was about to write, Dark house, not only as the “greatest fictional experience of his career”, but as an indicator of the future of the novel itself. Typical of the eclecticism of the magpie of this book is that it notes the “turning point” as a phrase that is gaining ground in mid-Victorian English.

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

At 39 in February, Dickens is in a agitated mood (when wasn’t he?), Editing his weekly magazine, Household words, consulting her friend Angela Coutts on the management of Urania Cottage, her London refuge for “fallen” women, trying to create a literary guild for needy writers and, perhaps closest to her heart, organizing a production of his friend Edward Bulwer- Lytton’s play Not so bad as it looks for a charity gala. Dickens might have once become an actor – a cold had thwarted his hearing years ago – but he was now surpassing himself as an actor-manager, leader, cajoling, inspiring, controlling. 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 made his gardener, Joseph Paxton, available to oversee the staging at Devonshire House.

Paxton’s name this year was almost as famous as Dickens’, because in May his famous Crystal Palace in Hyde Park opened and the Great Exhibition was underway. “A giant architectural exclamation point,” in the words of Douglas-Fairhurst, this vast cathedral of glass and iron divides opinions. While some saw him as a symbol of progress and a singular feat of engineering, others like Ruskin found him cold and lifeless. Dickens himself was not a fan, preferring buildings on a human scale. As a person to whom “order” was sacred, he also lamented the jumbled profusion of the exhibit – it should be noted that even he sometimes found too much. On another visit in July, he was further impressed by the sight of 100 schoolchildren wandering the premises. He later found out that one of them had gotten lost and ended up in Hammersmith. After spending the night in a work house, the boy was picked up by his mother; he was supposed to have asked her when it was all over. “It was a Great Exhibition,” he said, “but he thought about it for a long time.” You can hear Dickens’ laughter in this line.

As always, the family was close to her heart and nerves. In March, his father passed away after excruciating groin surgery, a death that likely reignited his lifelong ambivalence towards the unsatisfying parent. Recast it to Micawber in David Copperfield, Dickens could rejoice in his recklessness, but in real life John Dickens had been a devastation and a drain on his resources. Less than two weeks later his baby daughter Dora passed away suddenly, the news he broke to his wife, Catherine, staying in Malvern, in a letter that gently tried to cushion the shock, as if she could to be a child herself. Supple and plump, Catherine had given him nine children in 13 years, during which the vibrations of her impatience and dissatisfaction with her had intensified. Douglas-Fairhurst observes that the Bulwer-Lytton example would have warned Dickens about how a bad marriage can pollute life, but the parallel does not really hold: Rosina Bulwer-Lytton was a vengeful fury who led a public campaign against her husband, while Catherine Dickens simply became an unfortunate burden. A recently uncovered cache of letters reveals that in the years leading up to their separation, Dickens attempted to have her declared insane, a ploy worthy of the most mature Victorian melodrama.

Author Robert Douglas-Fairhurst:
Author Robert Douglas-Fairhurst: “clairvoyant on Dickensian failures”. Photography: John Cairns

Douglas-Fairhurst is clairvoyant about Dickens’ failures, not only in his treatment of Catherine, but in his reactionary attitudes towards class, race, and women’s liberation. The new fashion for bloomers in 1851 caused its ridicule – women in trousers, or the pants, was an outrage to social order, he argued in printed matter, specifying that any activity beyond the management of the house should be discouraged. He organized his own household rigorously, recreating an almost double of his old home when he moved the family to a new home in Tavistock Square. He liked to keep everyone. Yet for all the restrictions on his character Turning is more admiring than berated and the way he gradually builds towards Dark house, the great project that had fermented in his head all year, made it a very satisfying finale. A handwritten page of the novel, dense with erasures and corrections, is reproduced as proof of Dickens’ meticulous creative process. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst went to great lengths 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 support the Guardian and Observer order your copy on guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


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