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Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelistby Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Synopses & Reviews
Becoming Dickens tells the story of how an ambitious young Londoner became England's greatest novelist. In following the twists and turns of Charles Dickens's early career, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst examines a remarkable double transformation: in reinventing himself Dickens reinvented the form of the novel. It was a high-stakes gamble, and Dickens never forgot how differently things could have turned out. Like the hero of Dombey and Son, he remained haunted by "what might have been, and what was not."
In his own lifetime, Dickens was without rivals. He styled himself simply "The Inimitable." But he was not always confident about his standing in the world. From his traumatized childhood to the suicide of his first collaborator and the sudden death of the woman who had a good claim to being the love of his life, Dickens faced powerful obstacles. Before settling on the profession of novelist, he tried his hand at the law and journalism, considered a career in acting, and even contemplated emigrating to the West Indies. Yet with The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and a groundbreaking series of plays, sketches, and articles, he succeeded in turning every potential breakdown into a breakthrough.
Douglas-Fairhurst's provocative new biography, focused on the 1830s, portrays a restless and uncertain Dickens who could not decide on the career path he should take and would never feel secure in his considerable achievements.
"Rightly rejecting familiar accounts of Dickens's life, Douglas-Fairhurst's biography shows us the forlorn and driven young Dickens, restless and uncertain, who could not yet choose what was to become his inevitable mode of composing fiction. I recommend it highly." Harold Bloom
"A convincing portrait of budding genius." Library Journal
"Robert Douglas-Fairhurst sets out to counter what he sees as the literary man-of-destiny version of Dickens, to recover the uncertainty, muddle and loose ends...Douglas-Fairhurst covers much ground, but one of his central ideas is Dickens's pervasive sense of what might have been. He sees it in the false trails and shadow plots (take Great Expectations, where Pip imagines himself in one story though is really in another), in his doublings among characters and in his jostling possibilities and competing outcomes (for instance in A Christmas Carol). Becoming Dickens is an ingenious, playful and often brilliant analysis as much as it is a narrative." Booklist
"Original and elegant...Douglas-Fairhurst, who has every line ever written by Dickens at his fingertips, inhabits them; he shows us the internal process of the writing, revealing the hidden jokes, the coded messages, the ways in which "the most central and eccentric literary figure of the age" wove his other selves into his texts." Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
"[A] lively and detailed book...Douglas-Fairhurst serves as a sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, yet sympathetic tour guide to the young Dickens's strange world and equally strange sensibility." Heather Horn, The Atlantic online
"Throughout, the book is alive to [the] ways in which Dickens recycled his own experience and obsessions....In very Dickensian fashion, the book continually shimmies between subjects....From clerks and clothes we move to the idea of costume and performance, seamlessly conjuring up Dickens's passion for amateur theatricals and his early experiments with farce. And no sidestep is misplaced. The influence of the theatre proves essential for understanding the young writer, with the book charting the death of Dickens the playwright as much as the birth of Dickens the novelist...[Douglas-Fairhurst's] quirky approach brings color to scenes that too often exist only in black-and-white. For a vivid introduction to a writer and an age, I can think of few better places to begin." David Gates, New York Times Book Review
"[Douglas-Fairhurst] devotes 336 thoughtful and lively pages to several formative years from the 1830s, in which Dickens grew from an unknown shorthand reporter in Parliament to the famous author of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. The resulting close-up portrait is fascinating...Douglas-Fairhurst has a gift for apt and surprising description....With style and wit he explores how Dickens went about growing and nurturing the voice and vision that is, after all, the only reason we remember him or care to read about his life. Michael Levenson, Slate
"[A] spirited account of Dickens's early years....Dickens's restless energy makes him an untidy and sometimes paradoxical subject, but it is what gave his writing its lasting power. The strength of Douglas-Fairhurst's book Becoming Dickens lies in its exploration of these contradictions as they are embedded in early Victorian culture. He is especially sharp on the tensions of social class." Michael Patrick Brady, Boston Globe
A brilliant job. Becoming Dickens wittily illuminates the early career (clerk, reporter, magazine hack) of a writer who — like Sherlock Holmes — could pluck a man's life-history from the tilt of his umbrella. Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle
This provocative biography tells the story of how an ambitious young Londoner became England's greatest novelist. Focused on the 1830s, it portrays a restless, uncertain Dickens who could not decide on a career path. Through twists and turns, the author traces a double transformation: in reinventing himself Dickens reinvented the form of the novel.
About the Author
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is Fellow and Tutor in English, Magdalen College, Oxford.
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