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Crackling with Mischief

The Turning Point by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

I began reading this intriguing book last October but other business forced me to put it down. I took it up again in that strange province of suspended animation between Boxing Day and Epiphany and devoured it along with the mince pies, the stollen cake, the chocolates, the madeira and champagne – and this was appropriate because the book is a feast of good things.

What kind of book is it? Hard to say. It is not included in Polonius’ catalogue certainly. It is a genre-buster, a syncretic cornucopia of biography; of social, political, literary and technological history; of literary analysis and criticism. It is a history of Dickens the man, of revolutions, quiet or otherwise, in England (and London in particular), in Britain and the Empire. It examines ways in which those histories changed Dickens and how Dickens changed history. 

The brilliant conceit of the book is to make the task tractable by limiting its remit to the year 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition and the year in which Dickens begins one of his greatest works, Bleak House. The book’s subtitle is The Year That Changed Dickens and the World, and the words ‘turning point’ run through the book like a leitmotif. In Dickens’ work it appears in David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Douglas-Fairhurst has opened a rich seam for what is a revolution etymologically but a turning point?

London. The book’s first verbless utterance mirrors the opening of Bleak House where mud and fog become extended metaphors for the obscurantism and procrastinations of the High Court of Chancery. The fact that there is no active verb in the novel until the fourth paragraph enacts the inertia at the heart of institutions that are meant to serve the public. The threads of the plot go on to weave with such complexity that it seems that there is no way out; not for nothing is Lady Dedlock at the heart of things. But as Douglas-Fairhurst points out: ‘Dickens had created a world where hidden secrets would always be brought to light.’ There is a dénouement of course, and it is interesting to find Dickens characterised as an escapologist. This corresponds with his constant reinvention of himself. We are told that he liked to play with his name as if it were plural and that he gave himself inventive nicknames such as ‘Gaslight Boy’ and ‘Robert Flexible.’

Dickens’ work is concerned, not only with the leaden-headed obstructiveness of institutions, but with all the injustices that beset the poor and the dispossessed. Relief, he believes, can only come from – wait for the magic word – progress. It is amusing to note that he considered the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood as ‘backward’. In this he is in tune with the zeitgeist, championed by Prince Albert, and whose outward and visible sign is the Great Exhibition. I enjoyed learning that Charles Kingsley preached in a sermon that the exhibition was ‘one of the proofs of the Kingdom of God’; that Ruskin, on the other hand, thought it was nothing more than a giant greenhouse, while a seventeen-year old William Morris was so distressed by the vulgar materialism of the spectacle that he rushed outside and threw up in the bushes. It is spicy morsels like this that make the book so enjoyable to read.

It seems that Dickens himself was ambiguous in his response to the momentous event. He found it bewildering: ‘I don’t say there’s nothing in it,’ he wrote in a letter, ‘ – there’s too much,’ and, while the world was marvelling at the glass cathedral of ‘clutter’ and the global transformations that it represented –  with an increasingly industrialised Britain at its hub, Dickens was trying to effect progressive transformations on a smaller scale.

In keeping with the philanthropic currents of the age, we learn, for example, that Dickens was trying to establish an organisation for the relief and support of struggling authors: the Guild of Literature and Art. To promote the enterprise he devised and mounted a production at Devonshire House of a play called: ‘Not As Bad As We Seem’. Douglas-Fairhurst gives us a very funny account of the sometimes farcical mishaps in the performance which was attended by the Queen and Prince Albert. Later her Majesty confided to her diary that the play was ‘full of cleverness but rather too long’. Despite the prodigious energy that Dickens put into trying to institute the Guild, it never really took off, perhaps partly due to the antipathy of his rival, Thackeray,  who claimed that it threatened ‘to make literature a chronic beggary.’

For Dickens, it was more important that progress have a moral as well as a material direction and impetus. He set up, at his own expense, Urania Cottage, a refuge for ‘fallen women’. Its inmates were mostly former prostitutes and thieves. It was run strictly but kindly and Dickens visited regularly to oversee its smooth running and to ensure that the girls and women were treated according to his precepts. There were disappointments and relapses, but many inmates were saved from the workhouse and worse. Of course, the venture provided the literary omnivore with much potential material, but his primary purpose seems to have been genuinely charitable.

The Turning Point is not a hagiography, but one cannot help but be impressed by Dickens’ exceptional energy as he walks briskly about London, affecting an air of preoccupation but, in reality, imaginatively alert, missing nothing that might be grist to his fictive mill and which, though ordinary and everyday in itself, will undergo a transformation into something fresh and original. London’s population offered him characters of every class and complexion, from the supercilious rich to the indigent and abandoned, along with all the social stations in between. Not only do his daily walks take him all over the city, but he is given to walking many miles at night too. ‘I suppose, Sir, that I know London better than any one other man of all its millions,’ and as Douglas-Fairhurst observes: ‘He needed to be surrounded by life in order to recreate it on the page.’

Though not essentially a book of literary criticism, there is a good deal of it, both in passing and in more extended passages too. It is always astute and enlightening – and very readable too. Not for this writer the portentous obfuscations of far too much literary criticism of the past decades. His writing has the vigour of that of his subject; he describes Dickens’ style as ‘heartfelt but crackling with mischief’ – like a  merry fire. This might be an appropriate description of Douglas-Fairhurst’s own style – ‘crackling’ is a favourite word. 

He writes, for instance, of ‘the characteristic double-helix of [Dickens’] style’ – an intertwining of instruction and entertainment. Or take this:

The seaside was a place where he could enjoy words behaving like waves, dividing and rejoining in ever new combinations.

Or this:

[Dickens] writes scenes in which he briefly jerks buildings into life, producing doorknockers that leer or windows that glare glassily down the street.

This is prose worthy of Dickens himself (especially that ‘glassily’).

This is a scholarly work, bold in conception, encyclopaedic in its range of reference, and incisive in its analyses, and yet it is immensely readable, packed with stylistic felicities and keen wit. One might say, with conviction, that it does indeed crackle like a merry fire.