Counterfactual Dickens

Not to be snobbish or melodramatic, but without Dickens many common words might have been confined to the dustbins of history. He might induce boredom in junior high students, but his career, spectacularly narratable and the subject of numerous biographies, brought a number of words from the messiness of orality into the messiness of print. Words like snobbish, melodramatic, dustbin, boredom, spectacularly, narratable, and messiness. These are just a few of those that Robert Douglas-Fairhurst lists on the last page of Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist (Harvard UP, 2011). Without Dickens, Douglas-Fairhurst writes, “The English language would quietly contract, losing more than two hundred words and phrases Dickens brought into print for the first time” (336).

2012 marks the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’s birth, and the last few years have produced many good books about him. Michael Slater’s compendious Charles Dickens (Yale UP, 2009) and Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life (Penguin, 2011) are detailed biographies taking a fairly traditional approach, with Tomalin focusing rather more on Dickens’s marriage and his affair with Nelly Ternan. (The links are to Guardian reviews, meant to indicate these books’ popular appeal). But since the basic details of Dickens’s life are relatively well-known, a few critics have taken more interesting approaches to writing his biography. Rosemarie Bodenheimer’s Knowing Dickens (Cornell UP, 2010) asks, “What internal shapes recur in the various forms of writing and acting that make up this life? To what extent is it possible for us to know what and how Dickens knew?” (2). Part biography and part critical work, Bodenheimer’s book draws on Dickens’s novels, letters, and journalism to answer this question.

Juliet John doesn’t call Dickens and Mass Culture (Oxford UP, 2010) a biography, but we can think of it as a kind of biography of the “Dickens” who exists in the popular imagination. (I reviewed this book in more depth for Review 19). John is interested in “the origins and after-effects of Dickens’s attempts to ‘speak to the great ocean of humanity’ at a time when mechanical reproduction had made it increasingly possible to do so” (1-2). Splitting the book into two parts — “Dickens in His Day” and “Afterlives” — John explores the ways in which the reading public viewed Dickens, whose person and personality were nearly as important as the stories he wrote. John makes it clear that Dickens himself was a commodity: when he first visited America a barber sold of locks of his hair (80-1).

While Juliet John emphasizes Dickens’s reputation in the 175 years since the publication of Oliver Twist, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst focuses on Dickens’s reputation in the first 25 years of his life. When — and this is the point — he didn’t really have much of a reputation. The phrasing of the quotation above, that “the English language would contract,” indicates the counterfactual approach Douglas-Fairhurst takes throughout his book. Early in his career Dickens claimed that he “might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond.” How did this child, asks Douglas-Fairhurst, become the novelist Charles Dickens? In order “to understand why Dickens made such an impact on the period, and why the aftershocks of this impact continue to reverberate, we need to unlearn much of what we know about his career” (4).

The picture Douglas-Fairhurst paints of the young Dickens is emphatically not the picture Juliet John paints, the famous novelist whose hair itself is a salable commodity. When he discusses Dickens’s relationship with Maria Beadnell, Douglas-Fairhurst makes the case that in 1832 Charles Dickens was not a particularly good catch — and Maria would have had no reason to think he would become one. When reading biographies of successful men we often get the sense that “their most embarrassing early failures are subject to the gravitational pull of their later successes. They are doomed to fame” (6). Through such a lens, Dickens’s time in Warren’s Blacking was merely a test he had to pass through in order to write David Copperfield. But what gives the episode meaning is expressly that Dickens was not necessarily “doomed to fame” — that he could well have spent his whole life pasting labels on bottles.

Dickens later portayed himself as “self-made,” but Douglas-Fairhurst argues convincingly against this idea: like all successful men and women, Dickens was the beneficiary of nepotism — his family and friends arranging his job at the Morning Chronicle — and of chance friendships with men like William Harrison Ainsworth and John Forster. Forster’s effect on Dickens’s career is no secret, and his Life of Charles Dickens did much to promote the view of the novelist that Dickens wanted promoted. But in the 1830s Forster supported many novelists, becoming, as Douglas-Fairhurst puts it, “a one-man literary agency” (233). They met fortuitously at Ainsworth’s house on Christmas 1836, Forster having reviewed Dickens’s operetta The Village Coquette.

While Becoming Dickens contains some excellent readings of the novels and interesting personal details about Dickens’s life, the book’s strength is how well Douglas-Fairhurst historicizes the story he tells, both at the macro-scale, setting the political and journalistic scene in the years leading up to the first Reform Bill, and at the micro, showing Dickens hard at work on The Village Coquette and the memoir of Joseph Grimaldi. It’s one thing to know that Dickens had considered being an actor or a playwright, and that he edited the memoirs of a clown. It’s another to consider a young writer trying his hand at various genres, unsure of which would ultimately become a career, or if he would continue producing hack work for multiple publishers at once.

The last chapter of Becoming Dickens ends with Dickens signing his own name to Oliver Twist, leaving “Boz” behind: “What had started as a satirical sketch on workhouses was now being retrospectively claimed as a novel worthy of carrying his name” (327). Dickens would become a careful plotter, planning out the narratives of his novels. We sometimes forget that his own life was not a narrative, and retrospectively claim episodes from his childhood as worthy of the writer he would become. Becoming Dickens helps us to forget.

Works Cited

  • Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. Knowing Dickens. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007.
  • Douglas-Fairhurst, Robert. Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • John, Juliet. Dickens and Mass Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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