Before Charles Dickens was “Dickens,” he was “Boz,” or “Boz!” with an exclamation point. But one of the great novelists of the 19th century didn’t spring spontaneously from the streets of London; he came from somewhere. That “somewhere” is the subject of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist (2011).
It’s been a long time since I’ve been this enthralled with a literary biography. I admit to a deep admiration for Dickens, but Becoming Dickens is a cut well above standard biographies.
Douglas-Fairhurst takes a deep dive into the context of who Dickens was and the times he lived. It’s not only that Dickens was forced as a child to work in a blacking factory, pasting labels on jars to bring some income to his family in debtor’s prison; it’s the explosive population growth London was experiencing and what could happen to families and children as a result. It’s not only that Dickens worked for a time as a clerk in law office, but what the law and the courts were like and what work clerks actually performed. It’s not only that Dickens worked as a Parliamentary reporter and then a general reporter; it’s what was happening and changing in Parliament and how newspapers were binding the rising literate class into the British nation. It’s not only the rise of the literary class that Dickens was a part of; it’s how he embraced and then transcended that class.
It’s the context of Dickens that’s the subject here, in addition to the writer himself. Douglas-Fairhurst pulls details from Dickens’ articles, essays and novels that illustrate and illuminate the author’s work, life and experiences.
Sketches by Boz helped Dickens gain a foothold; the national (and international) success of The Pickwick Papers catapulted him to a fame that endured the rest of life and into the 21st century. Douglas-Fairhurst explains, in meticulous and highly readable detail, how both of those publications happened, and how Dickens was able to capitalize on a number of converging trends and movements in both publishing and British public life to achieve what he did.
Douglas-Fairhurst is a lecturer and tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford, and a specialist in 19th century literature. He has a special focus on the work of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Dickens, and is working on a biography of Lewis Carroll. He’s also served as the historical advisor to the BBC for its productions of Jane Eyre, Emma, and Great Expectations. He brings a well of knowledge to this work of the early life of Dickens.
Becoming Dickens provides a picture of what Dickens the man was like, pouring out what seemed a tidal wave of words, articles, reports and serialized books; undertaking the writing of plays; reporting on various news events; marrying Catharine Hogarth; and more. The life of Dickens is the life of a dynamo, and yet he was a dynamo shaping and being shaped by the dynamo of the city and times he lived in. This biography brings it to vivid life.