The Turning Point: 1851—A Year That Changed Charles Dickens and the World by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s title begs several questions, for there were many turning points in Dickens’s life. The first came in 1824 when his father was incarcerated in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. Dickens’s mother and younger siblings moved in with his father, but Dickens, aged 12, was sent to work among, as he recalled, “common labouring boys” in Warren’s blacking warehouse. It was a humiliation he never forgot or forgave, and the dilapidated, rat-infested warehouse came back to him in nightmares all his life.

As a junior clerk in a law firm he was crazy about the theater and yearned to be an actor. In 1832 the manager of Covent Garden Theatre agreed to give him an audition, but on the fateful day he developed a sore throat and had to cancel, so he decided to be a writer instead.

Another turning point had come two years earlier when he fell madly in love with a young woman called Maria Beadnell. But her wealthy parents disdained the match and sent her to school in Paris. So Catherine Hogarth, whom he married — disastrously as it turned out — in 1836, was at best his second choice, or perhaps his third of fourth. For Dickens was deeply attracted to Catherine’s younger sister Mary, who died in his arms aged 17, and another of Catherine’s younger sisters, Georgina, became, so gossip had it, Dickens’s mistress, though officially she joined the family to help with household management and make up for Catherine’s clumsiness and incompetence.

His turning point as a writer came with The Pickwick Papers (1837), which was also the first great British publishing phenomenon, with bootleg copies, theatrical performances and spin-offs such as Pickwick pies and playing cards and Sam Weller joke books.

Many of these developments were touched on in Douglas-Fairhurst’s subtle and searching study of Dickens’s early life, Becoming Dickens (2011). This new book, by contrast, fixes on a single year, 1851, and concentrates on Bleak House, which, it asserts, was “a turning point for Dickens, for his contemporaries, and for the novel as a form”.

No evidence is forthcoming to support these large claims and identifying a book that really changed “the novel as a form” would be challenging. A candidate might be Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which is not mentioned by Douglas-Fairhurst, but is often hailed as the first picaresque novel, and which clearly influenced The Pickwick Papers, with Sam Weller playing Sancho Panza to Pickwick’s Quixote.

Charles Dickens’s turning point as a writer came with The Pickwick Papers (1837), which was also the first great British publishing phenomenon.

To point to the weakness of some of Douglas-Fairhurst’s claims, however, is by no means to invalidate his new book. His method, which he calls “microhistory” or “slow biography”, is to examine with great care the “twists and turns” of 1851 as they affected Dickens. To this end he has read, it seems, a year’s worth of various periodicals — Punch, The Morning Chronicle, The Times — as well, of course, as Household Words, the weekly paper that Dickens launched in March 1850. He shows, too, how closely Dickens monitored its contents, often rewriting the efforts of other contributors to create what Douglas-Fairhurst aptly calls the “relentlessly buoyant” Household Words style.

For most people 1851 was the year of the Great Exhibition, an enormous display of “the Works of Industry of All Nations” situated in Hyde Park and housed in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. Douglas-Fairhurst writes about it at length, and his title page reference to A Year That Changed the World presumably alludes to the exhibition, reflecting the hopes of its organizers. He quotes Prince Albert as saying, “We are living in a period of most wonderful transition,” and prophesying that the exhibition would promote the “unity of mankind”.

However, as Douglas-Fairhurst points out, it did nothing of the sort, and Dickens did not think it would. He saw the Crystal Palace as “a giant glass bauble” that would distract people’s attention from the campaign for political reform and social justice that he was mounting in Household Words. So perhaps it would have been wiser not to trumpet 1851 as A Year That Changed the World in the title, since Dickens did not think it was and nor does Douglas-Fairhurst.

On the other hand, recording different responses to the vast display in Hyde Park produces some of Douglas-Fairhurst’s liveliest writing. Charles Kingsley wept when he saw it and declared in a sermon preached four days later that it was a “proof of the Kingdom of God”, whereas a 17-year-old William Morris was so appalled by the exhibition’s vulgar materialism that he staggered out and was sick in the bushes.

This is not a book for newcomers to Dickens. Microhistory, it turns out, necessitates many pages of detail that, if you are chiefly interested in Dickens as a writer, may seem extraneous — the Dickens family’s move to a house in Devonshire Terrace, the extensive building work it entailed, the family’s summer holiday in Broadstairs, Mrs Dickens’s water cure at Malvern, Dickens’s new shower bath, and so on. Dickens addicts will be grateful for this sort of thing, but a far better way of getting it is to read the corresponding bits of the magnificent Pilgrim edition of Dickens’s letters, where you get it in his own words.

What Douglas-Fairhurst does usefully emphasize, though, is Dickens’s obsessive need to control other people. He organized a company of amateur actors, with himself as actor-manager, toured the provinces with them and rehearsed them mercilessly. With Miss Burdett-Coutts’s money he set up Urania Cottage, a home for “fallen women”, and ran it with autocratic fervor, choosing what the inmates should wear (“plainly cut clothes in bright fabrics”) and instructing the matron to award each woman a mark for her behavior during the day.

This rage for orderliness may, Douglas-Fairhurst suggests, somehow relate to Dickens’s relish for violent destruction in his fiction — Quilp, for example, in The Old Curiosity Shop or the Gordon rioters in Barnaby Rudge. Interestingly, there is no such character in Bleak House.

John Carey is a U.K.-based critic and professor of literature. He is the author of numerous books, including A Little History of Poetry, The Unexpected Professor, and What Good Are the Arts?