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BECOMING DICKENS by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

BECOMING DICKENS

The Invention of a Novelist

By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Pub Date: Oct. 17th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-674-05003-7
Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

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.