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Becoming Dickens tells the story of how an ambitious young Londoner became England’s greatest novelist. In following the twists and turns of Charles Dickens’s early career, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst examines a remarkable double transformation: in reinventing himself Dickens reinvented the form of the novel. It was a high-stakes gamble, and Dickens never forgot how differently things could have turned out. Like the hero of Dombey and Son, he remained haunted by “what might have ...
Becoming Dickens tells the story of how an ambitious young Londoner became England’s greatest novelist. In following the twists and turns of Charles Dickens’s early career, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst examines a remarkable double transformation: in reinventing himself Dickens reinvented the form of the novel. It was a high-stakes gamble, and Dickens never forgot how differently things could have turned out. Like the hero of Dombey and Son, he remained haunted by “what might have been, and what was not.”
In his own lifetime, Dickens was without rivals. He styled himself simply “The Inimitable.” But he was not always confident about his standing in the world. From his traumatized childhood to the suicide of his first collaborator and the sudden death of the woman who had a good claim to being the love of his life, Dickens faced powerful obstacles. Before settling on the profession of novelist, he tried his hand at the law and journalism, considered a career in acting, and even contemplated emigrating to the West Indies. Yet with The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and a groundbreaking series of plays, sketches, and articles, he succeeded in turning every potential breakdown into a breakthrough.
Douglas-Fairhurst’s provocative new biography, focused on the 1830s, portrays a restless and uncertain Dickens who could not decide on the career path he should take and would never feel secure in his considerable achievements.
A convincing portrait of budding genius.
— Bryce Christensen
The great tide of Dickensiana, to celebrate the bicentenary of the author's birth in February 2012, has already begun to appear in the shops. While much of the attention will be focused on Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life, my own favorite is Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist.
— D. J. Taylor
A brilliant job. Becoming Dickens wittily illuminates the early career (clerk, reporter, magazine hack) of a writer who—like Sherlock Holmes—could pluck a man's life-history from the tilt of his umbrella.
— Miranda Seymour
Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens ponders the question of how this phenomenal man happened. He identifies a series of self-defining moments in the process...Douglas-Fairhurst has all of Dickens, it seems, at his fingertips and his ear is cocked for every significant echo...What is extraordinarily fresh in Becoming Dickens is Douglas-Fairhurst's ability to support [his] arguments by sensitive explication de texte...Robert Douglas-Fairhurst reads Dickens the author with brilliant acuity. If [this book is a] harbinger of what is to come in the bicentennial year, 2012 will be a memorial fully worthy of the great Boz.
— John Sutherland
[A] revealing and groundbreaking study, which succeeds by focusing, narrowly, on the early years in Dickens's career as a writer in the 1830s.
— Michiko Kakutani
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist is quite possibly the best piece of Dickens criticism since John Carey's The Violent Effigy—a series of minute investigations into the way Dickens projected elements of his early life into the fiction that followed it, full of arresting historical detail and sharp-eyed deductions.
— D. J. Taylor
[A] perceptive and original study.
— Jenny Uglow
We learn why Dickens wrote the way he did and why it resonated so much with readers of the time. And though this is closely tied to social change in the industrial age, Douglas-Fairhurst neatly sidesteps tired, modern-day rants about class tension, diving right to the human element of the matter...Douglas-Fairhurst's immersive approach to Dickens has one striking effect: scattering Dickensian plot notes all over the place like gumdrops, he makes you want to read Dickens's original text. For those who never found Dickens the most compelling of authors, even of nineteenth-century authors (yours truly included) Douglas-Fairhurst provides plenty of reasons to take a second look...The Douglas-Fairhurst biography is, if nothing else, a brilliant vindication of textual analysis...Douglas-Fairhurst [is writing] the story of the writer—but in probing the novelist's writings, Douglas-Fairhurst might wind up getting closer to the man than the traditional biographer does; conceivably, to understand an artist's life and humanity, you're better off going straight to his art.
— Heather Horn
[A] lively and detailed book...Douglas-Fairhurst serves as a sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, yet sympathetic tour guide to the young Dickens's strange world and equally strange sensibility.
— David Gates
Brilliantly original, stylishly written, thoughtful, measured and altogether exhilarating...It is Douglas-Fairhurst's triumph that he helps us understand how the textures of 19th-century life generally, and Dickens's life in particular, were reformulated into works of art that continue to resonate two centuries later. Becoming Dickens is itself a work of art. Incidents that have been written about hundreds of times before are made fresh...Throughout, we are given just the right amount of historical background, so that we understand the context Dickens was operating in without being overwhelmed by unnecessary detail. But, ultimately, it is the keen psychological insights that make Douglas-Fairhurst's book so rewarding.
— Judith Flanders
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens looks at Dickens's roots, the choices before him, the choices he made, making the familiar unfamiliar and showing us how the novelist was constructed out of sheer willpower and bits of this and that. How did a law clerk cum journalist cum parliamentary reporter with a rackety background become the literary colossus who embodied the Victorian era and invented Christmas?
— Ian Bostridge
Instead of trying to cast the whole life in crisp relief, [Douglas-Fairhurst] takes a piece—from the beginning to Pickwick—and turns it slowly in the light. His idea is that if we draw on all we've come to know about Dickens, we might capture the density of self-in-society, especially this blooming self in this bristling society. So we often move a day or an hour at a time in Becoming Dickens, watching the twitchy uncertain discovery of a vocation and then the thrill when this writer realizes he's a genius. Douglas-Fairhurst has a clever idea that also happens to work: As the young Dickens moves through London, the biography collects fictional episodes that correspond to the life-stage. So when Dickens is thrown to the blacking factory, Becoming Dickens gathers the tales of lost and abandoned children that will unspool through the career. When he's an apprentice in a law office (and a career as a writer is still notional), we meet the tribe of clerks who stumble through the novels' pages. It could have felt like clunky machinery, but the approach deftly shows how much of the future writer lives within the present journalist and the would-be actor. Douglas-Fairhurst lingers over phrases that echo back from the end of the career to the beginnings. He sees life and work as one work; and by slowing everything down, he comes closer than anyone before to cracking the mystery of the erupting young Dickens: the mix of frantic self-making and joyous cordiality.
— Michael Levenson
[Douglas-Fairhurst] devotes 336 thoughtful and lively pages to several formative years from the 1830s, in which Dickens grew from an unknown shorthand reporter in Parliament to the famous author of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. The resulting close-up portrait is fascinating... Douglas-Fairhurst has a gift for apt and surprising description...With style and wit he explores how Dickens went about growing and nurturing the voice and vision that is, after all, the only reason we remember him or care to read about his life.
— Michael Sims
Douglas-Fairhurst explores how Dickens's evolution from impoverished child to middle-class professional shaped his artistic development and gave him unique insight into the Victorian zeitgeist. Characters like Oliver Twist and David Copperfield are windows into the vibrant, tumultuous period that made Dickens possible. Their triumphs and travails feel real because they mirror the author's own difficult adolescence...Becoming Dickens is not just the biography of a man; it's about the birth of a particular way of life, which provided fertile ground for artistic triumphs that still resonate today. It's a reminder that talent, however great, cannot thrive in a world in which the avenues of growth are reserved for the privileged.
— Michael Patrick Brady
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst [brings] the eye-popping allusiveness and quicksilver gear shifts of his lecturing style to Becoming Dickens.
— Leo Robson
Becoming Dickens gives a remarkable insight into the conditions that allowed Dickens to emerge as the foremost Victorian novelist...Becoming Dickens gives a particularly rich analysis of the author's earliest writings, including the parliamentary reports from his days as a reporter.
— Grace Moore
Superbly attuned to his subject, Douglas-Fairhurst's approach is a risky one, but it pays off. By boring deeply into this crucial time in Dickens's life, his early and mid-20s, he identifies the point where experience could really become a crucible of artistic creation. And he shows also how easily Dickens could have gone in a different direction, as he explored journalism, lawyering and even acting as avocations...Douglas-Fairhurst's fascinating exploration of what-ifs makes us appreciate what Dickens gave us as a writer all the more.
— Martin Rubin
There will be numerous publications and celebrations to mark the bicentennial of Charles Dickens—he is often described as our greatest novelist—but [this] weighty book sets a very high standard. [Becoming Dickens] has original insights and observations to add to our knowledge of the "Great Inimitable."
— Robert Giddings
Where the progress of a famous person's narrative can take on a retrospective air of inevitability, Becoming Dickens restores the sheer unlikeliness of Dickens's achievement, showing how easily it all might not have happened...[Douglas-Fairhurst] shows how his subject's vividly imagined characters have the ring of truth because their creator knows that he could well have been among their number. Dickens's work, we're shown, can be read as a series of what-if scenarios, explorations in fiction of paths not taken in life. We didn't need a new reason to revisit those deathless novels, but now we have one.
— Ian McGillis
Readers familiar with the entirety of Dickens will find this book a remarkable achievement. Those who know the early works and the great biographies...will find it a revelation...Putting to rest the myths of Dickens as an overnight sensation or a traumatized child who secretly mastered his past, Douglas-Fairhurst brings into clear view the singular improbability of Dickens's becoming a novelist.
— N. Lukacher
A literary biography of Charles Dickens focused on his life and work during the 1830s.
Douglas-Fairhurst (English/Magdalen Coll., Oxford; Victorian Afterlives: The Shaping of Influence in Nineteenth-Century Literature, 2002) writes that reviewers of the great author's early work in the Monthly Magazine found his stories to be "a choice bit of humour, somewhat exaggerated" and "clever," which was a backhanded compliment from the British press. These comments apply to Becoming Dickens as well. Douglas-Fairhurst frequently makes clever connections of dubious significance to his overall argument. In his otherwise useful examination of "A Dinner at Poplar Walk," Dickens' first published story, he pauses on the line "an appalling creaking of boots," which he admits "has nothing to do with the main thrust of the story." But he insists the word "boots" is important: "The notion that somebody's personality resides in his boots is closely connected to Dickens's interest in theater, where an actor trying to establish a character might decide to work from the bottom up but not get much further than choosing the right kind of footwear." This kind of close reading permeates the book, often slowing the narrative momentum, but the author's central argument, about the ways in which events in Dickens' life shaped his fiction, is a worthy one. While writing later in life about a near-brush with acting, Dickens remarked, "See how near I may have been to another sort of life." Douglas-Fairhurst shows demonstrates how the idea that a person could have just as easily ended up a clerk or a thief as a writer preoccupied Dickens and found its way into his fiction. The biographical concerns connect strongly and effectively to the literary material.
An insightful argument occasionally marred by somewhat tangential and glib analysis.