Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist

Written by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Published by Belknap/Harvard University Press

372 pages

Review by Meredith Allard

 

After I read Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Charles Dickens I thought there was nothing left to say. Every known fact about the great author has been examined, pulled apart, glued back together, pulled apart again, examined under stronger microscopes, mused over, challenged, rearranged, pulled apart again… What makes Becoming Dickens a different sort of biography is the way Douglas-Fairhurst concentrates on Dickens’ early years as a writer. How did Dickens become, well, Dickens? Douglas-Fairhurst does his best to answer that question.

I admit it took two running leaps for me to get into this biography. Douglas-Fairhurst begins with a prologue about a Victorian Age that didn’t exist (with technology that wasn’t available then) and then explains how there’s this book called The Difference Engine that reimagines the 19th century. Then he explains how “the absence of Dickens is surprising” (3). I understand Douglas-Fairhurst’s point–that Dickens is too important to the Victorian Age to leave out–but I was put off by this roundabout beginning and I set the book down…for months. Finally, I was rereading Sketches by Boz and I was curious how Boz ever came to be considering the circumstances of Dickens’ early life. I picked the book up a second time, held my nose while I waded through the prologue, and then this book became what it should be from word one, a critical account of Dickens’ early years as a writer.

I don’t think Douglas-Fairhurst adds any new information to the literary canon of Dickens biography. I don’t think there are any more facts to uncover about Dickens. But the reason I ultimately enjoyed this biography is because it focuses in depth on the years most biographers skim–the years when Dickens didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He tried out the law as a clerk, he thought about becoming an actor, he considered immigrating to the West Indies, he learned shorthand to become a court reporter, and then he became a journalist. One of my favorite early Dickens stories is how he had written a letter to the manager of a local theater asking for an audition. He was granted the audition but became ill when the day arrived and had to cancel. He had the intention of rescheduling, but never did. And thank goodness. Imagine what an emptier world this would be without his stories.

As a writer who has been heavily influenced by Dickens, I appreciate how Douglas-Fairhurst shows Dickens’ creative influences. Dickens did not write in a vacuum, and he was influenced by comic actors as well as other authors. I wish Douglas-Fairhurst had added even more in this respect.

Anyone who is a Dickens fan and has more than a passing interest in his life, especially in his formative years, will enjoy this book. And perhaps you’ll like the prologue more than me.

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Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

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