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Review of ‘The Turning Point’: A year-old Dickens


This year marks the 210th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the most famous English author not named Shakespeare. It’s impossible to say how many biographies of the man have been published, but there have already been two large-scale works since 2009 and at least two smaller, or at least different, ambitions. Among them is Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s ingenious “Becoming Dickens: A Novelist’s Invention”. The author examines the paths taken by Dickens early in his life, but either escaped or gave up to become the writer we know. He then goes on to show how the many jobs and people Dickens was involved with were incorporated into his fiction. Now, a decade later, Mr. Douglas-Fairhurst gives us “The Turning Point: 1851 – A Year That Changed Charles Dickens and the World”, another partial biography, again with a specific focus.

Eighteen fifty-one seems, at first glance, a curious choice for such a large claim. Admittedly, the year was marked by a few events in England that could be considered significant for Britain, if not the world. Most notable for the country and beyond was the mounting of the Great Exhibition of Industrial Works of All Nations. It was held in Joseph Paxton’s gleaming Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park and attracted 827,000 visitors from around the world. Dickens had been fascinated by the construction of Crystal Palace and, as a friend of Paxton, was happy that he had denied the predictions of skeptics, who had promised that it would collapse.

The turning point: 1851, a year that changed Charles Dickens and the world

By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst



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But on visiting the exhibit itself, he was repelled and baffled by the excess and “the rich assortment of objects piled up in helpless confusion.” It clashed with a sense of order for which he had an almost neurotic passion, a consequence no doubt of his horribly disordered youth. More than that, however, he was disappointed and disgusted that workers had been left out of planning and exhibitions. They were, after all, the ones who had undertaken the hazardous task of making the glass plate, not to mention the construction of the building itself. In a January 1851 essay, he proposed the idea of ​​holding “another exhibition – for a great exhibition of the sins and neglects of England” – in the hope that it would bring people together to fix the things. The novel he started that year, “Bleak House,” had that, in part, as its mission.

Charles Dickens, photographed by Antoine Claudet ca. 1852.


Library Company of Philadelphia

That year, the passage of the Ecclesiastical Titles Act in response to the fact that Pius IX had, the previous year, re-established the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England was also of some significance – much to the horror of a Protestant nation. This concerned Dickens, as did the growing High Church movement of the 1840s, about which he had written to a friend in 1843: “I am writing a little history of England for my boy. . . for I don’t know what I would do if he got hold of conservative ideas or the High Church. It was surely the added threat of rampant popery that now spurred him into action, and he began serializing “A Child’s History of England” in his new weekly magazine, Household Words, an organ, writes M . Douglas-Fairhurst, “which aimed to tackle some of the most pressing issues of the day. Whatever the true aim of the book, not all the key figures in the Church of England got the endorsement of Dickens. Mr. Douglas-Fairhurst generously conveys his famous description of the founder of the Church of England, Henry VIII, as “a most intolerable rogue, a disgrace to human nature, and a stain of blood and grease on the history of England”. while James I – who had the Bible translated into English in its most famous form – was “cunning, greedy, wasteful, idle, drunk, covetous, filthy, cowardly, a great swearer and the most vain man on earth”.

But how was 1851 a turning point for Dickens? It seems unlikely that this year will be considered pivotal for this man. Much more appropriate, on the face of it, would be 1857, the year he met his future mistress, Ellen Ternan, or 1858, when he publicly banished his wife, Catherine. Still, Mr. Douglas-Fairhurst is right: 1851 stands out when it comes to Dickens’ writing – which, after all, is why he lives on and on.

Mr. Douglas-Fairhurst observes that “David Copperfield”, published in 1850, had raised a number of questions in the author’s mind: “How do we become the people we are? can the past ever be escaped? is it possible to write a happier future for ourselves? These questions crept into what became “Bleak House” as it germinated and grew in its author’s imagination throughout 1851. Eventually he began to put it down on paper at the end of the year. (The novel began to appear in installments in Household Words in March 1852, running through September 1853.)

‘Bleak House’ marked a departure from the author’s previous work – which had moved from sketches and vignettes to picaresques and Bildungsromans – and is generally recognized as the first of the ‘noir’ novels. They were dark, writes Mr. Douglas-Fairhurst, “not because they were dark (in some ways they were the funniest novels Dickens had ever written) but because they reflected his growing sense of a serious social mission and his understanding of the kind of narrative that would be needed to bring him justice.In “Bleak House”, England’s “sins and neglects” are exposed in the chancery’s dead hand, the illegitimate birth of Esther Summerson, Mrs. Jellyby’s selfish disregard for her children, Joshua Smallweed’s rapacious money lending, Mr. Tulkinghorn’s blackmail and, most shockingly, in the scenes of the slum called Tom-All-Alone’s and the Miserable Life and the death of poor Jo, the street sweeper.

In the world of “Bleak House”, the characters are gradually revealed to be part of a complex and, at first, invisible web. A fog rolling over the first page of the novel has the metaphorical effect of obscuring this canvas, concealing the secrets of birth, the sins of deception, and the machinations of the Court of Chancery, which turn petitioners into paupers and suicides. It is fitting that the fog is densest near the Court of Chancery, which hangs over everything in the book and suffocates the life of anyone (aside from a lawyer) careless enough to be caught in its spirals. Its evil is institutional and inhuman, like other institutions and organizations in Dickens’ novels: like the heartless Parliament, or the workhouse system, or the Circumlocution Office in “Little Dorrit,” or, indeed, the missionary society foreigner to whom Mrs. Jellyby devotes herself, neglecting her more or less wild children. Regardless of their existence, his “beautiful eyes.” . . had a curious habit of seeming to look away.

The great question addressed in “Bleak House” is posed by the disembodied narrator: “What connection could there have been between many people in the countless histories of this world who, on either side of great gulfs, have yet were very curiously reunited! “In this book, connections are everywhere, often made invisibly by blood, disease and money – hoped for, paid for, due and lost. One of the most powerful and melancholic bonds was forged by Jo, not only by infecting Esther and her maid with what appears to be smallpox, but in her bond, somehow , with everyone. Dickens wants his readers to understand that this is not just a plot, but rather that the misery he lives in Tom-All-Alone’s reflects the real bonds that exist in English society:

“Not a drop of Tom’s corrupted blood spreads infection and contagion anywhere. He will pollute the choice stream this very night. . . of a Norman house, and His Grace will not be able to say no to the infamous alliance. There is not an atom of Tom’s drool, not a cubic inch of pestilential gas he lives in, not an obscenity or degradation about him, not an ignorance, not a malice, not a brutality in his act, who does not produce his punishment through all the orders of society to the proudest of the proud and the highest of the high. . . defile, plunder and spoil.

As “Bleak House” came to life in Dickens’ imagination, two deaths in the family darkened his mood: that of his father and his beloved 8-month-old daughter, Dora. Although he was in mourning, he nevertheless embarked on a daunting number of projects that year, which Mr. Douglas-Fairhurst tells us about in detail. Two were projects undertaken with Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The couple hoped to establish a Guild of Literature and Art which would provide both financial support and accommodation for poor artists and writers. Dickens believed, in the words of Mr. Douglas-Fairhurst, “that increasingly modern writers were going to be people like him – bubbly with ambition but situated outside the traditional class system – rather than figures like Thackeray socially refined.”

In order to raise funds for the guild, the two received permission from the Duke of Devonshire to use his large London household to stage the royal premiere of a play, “Not So Bad as We Semem”. The production was threatened with disaster: Rosina, Bulwer-Lytton’s unhinged wife, promised to dress up as an orange seller and throw rotten eggs at the audience, a particularly gruesome prospect given that Queen Victoria and Albert would be present. Despite being troublesome in virtually every other way, Rosina was unsuccessful, possibly because Dickens had put her detective-hero Charles Field (fictitious as Inspector Bucket in “Bleak House”) on the case.

Dickens’ role that year also included working with wealthy philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts in running Urania Cottage, a shelter for former prostitutes in Shepherd’s Bush. Their approach to good works was the reverse of that of Mrs Pardiggle, who in “Bleak House” rushed upon the poor, “applying benevolence to them like a vest of strength”. At Urania Cottage, women received domestic training, colorful clothing and a cheerful atmosphere.

Throughout the year Dickens continued to edit and contribute to the weekly Household Words. If that wasn’t enough for a mortal, he took it upon himself to move his family to a larger residence, the imposing but decrepit Tavistock House. He set to work to refurbish it, involving himself, as Mr. Douglas-Fairhurst shows, in every detail and enduring all the obstructions and delays that have marked such projects throughout the human history.

Given that Dickens’ life was written to death, it’s surprising and admirable how fresh Mr. Douglas-Fairhurst’s focus on a single year turns out. It is compelling in pointing out the effect the Great Exhibition had on Dickens’ growing concern with social injustice and showing how his many other activities contributed to it. But one must wonder about the hackneyed and misleading subtitle of the book. The year 1851 may have marked a change in Dickens’ work, but in the world? No. This beautiful book itself deserves a change of title.

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