James Riding

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst on The Turning Point: A Year That Changed Dickens and the World


Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Magdalen College. His books include Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist, which won the Duff Cooper Prize, and The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland, which was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award. His latest book, The Turning Point: A Year That Changed Dickens and the World, was published in September by Jonathan Cape.

It follows the twists and turns of 1851: a year of radical change in Britain, crystallising in the Great Exhibition, as well as a turbulent time in the life of Charles Dickens, where he copes with a double bereavement and begins writing his masterpiece Bleak House.
I spoke to Robert about how he recreates the possibility and uncertainty of a year in the life of Dickens, the challenges of writing about such a slippery and multifaceted writer, and what makes Bleak House a pivotal novel in Dickens’s career.

What was your first encounter with Dickens?

I won a school prize when I was about 16, and I was given fifty pounds to spend on books. I went to a second-hand bookshop to see what I could get for my fifty pounds, and I noticed there was a complete set (or what I thought was a complete set, but turned out not to be entirely complete) of Dickens. And I thought, “well, that’ll be a nice way of taking up a metre of shelf space.” So I bought it, and then I started dipping in and rummaging, and then the rummaging became slightly more dedicated readings. Then I started writing a dissertation as an undergraduate on Dickens, and then I never really stopped.

So I suppose it was serendipity that led to obsession, which sounds like two bad Calvin Klein perfumes. Although interestingly, I remember the second house I ever lived in as a child was in a place called Dickens Drive. Pickwick Close was just around the corner, and so was Copperfield Way. These were new mock-Georgian houses in Chislehurst in Kent. It’s not a reason why I became interested in Dickens, but it’s part of the atmosphere the generated that interest, because it shows that Dickens is one of those writers that’s never gone away. The tentacular reach of his influence still penetrates even things like town planning, then, in the 1970s. So, if not inevitable, then it was always likely that he was a writer who would grab me.

How do you find new ways to write about Dickens?

It’s a real challenge, but then Dickens himself is a real biographical challenge. Leigh Hunt famously said that his face has the life and soul of fifty human beings in it. As I say in the book, Dickens knew perfectly well he was a bundle of different people who happened to share one skin. He was a social campaigner, a novelist, a short story writer, a bad poet, a public speaker – the list goes on and on. He’s peculiarly slippery as a writer.

In the book, I’ve described him as an escape artist: just when you think you’ve managed to pin him down, he slips free and runs away. The reason that I find him challenging is not just because he’s so elusive, but because he also challenges. He challenges the world around him, he challenges his contemporaries, he challenges writing itself. And his writing is always reinventing itself, from novel to novel and also even from instalment to instalment. For all those reasons, I find him a peculiarly attractive, awkward, recalcitrant, appealing writer to try and pin down in a book.

Can you give a sense of what your research process is like?

I’d love to say it was a process, which sounds methodical and organised. The way I tackle this book is much more in line with, I hope, the way that Dickens was living his life at the time. In other words, it’s a mixture of deliberate research and happy chance. There are certain things which I needed to look into, like the Great Exhibition. So I read up on that, both within the original press reports and the catalogues and contemporary responses and so on. But if you are researching something you find that, a bit like a ball in a pinball machine, the ricochets take you in unexpected directions, and you follow them and see where they take you. Then you see if those ricochets build up into an interesting pattern. And if, then, there are blank spots that need to be filled in to flesh out the world that you’re trying to create.

I suppose it’s a way of trying to recreate the world as it would have been understood at the time, which involves blind spots and uncertainties as much as it does knowing everything. What you don’t want to be as a biographer or as a historian, I think, is an omniscient narrator, who knows far more about the world than the people in it knew about it themselves. What you want to do is to recapture that sense of possibility and uncertainty and surprise which was felt at the time. If I had a process, it’s to try and put myself in the shoes of the people of the time, and try and understand the world as they might have understood it themselves.

How do you go about turning your research into a narrative? What are the key disciplines that stop it from becoming a muddle?

Maybe it doesn’t stop being a muddle from time to time – maybe, in fact, there are moments that have to be muddles, that have be messy, to capture that sense of confusion and uncertainty. The analogy I often make is with the Radio Four panel show Just A Minute, where the contestants have to tell a story without any repetition or hesitation or deviation. That’s what biography in theory should do as well. It should tidy up the business of living until it is orderly and neat and patterned, so that every sentence in a biography becomes more like an arrow winging its way toward a target. Everything adds up.

If I have a thought behind what I’m doing it’s to, as far as possible, try and tell it without the benefit of hindsight, so that all the pieces don’t all fall into place like a big jigsaw puzzle. So instead of telling a story that has a neat beginning, middle and end, it’s a way of trying to reintroduce the sense of uncertainty and clutter and loose ends: in other words, to make someone’s life lifelike. Not mastering someone else’s life, but trying to respond to it on its own terms. That’s what I try and do.

I agree that the challenge, then, is to try and do that in a way that makes it not just nothing but a mess, that has some sense of continuity and order. So the principle I chose here, which I know Jim Shapiro also did in his book 1599, is to follow the seasons: to think about it in blocks of time and to move within those blocks, but all the time thinking about those blocks as being more or less coherent and self-sufficient, like the big steps on a game board.

You mentioned James Shapiro – which other authors have most directly influenced your writing?

In the case of this book, actually, it’s not 1599. It’s a book called A Sultry Month by Alethea Hayter, who was the first person to do this idea of small biographical slices. She takes a few summer months in 1848 and individual life stories, like the elopement of the Brownings or the suicide of Benjamin Robert Haydon, and weaves those into the larger stories, social and economic and political, of the time, and shows how the small scale and the large scale feed into and inform each other. It’s not just that individual lives are shaped by the world around them, it’s that the world is itself shaped by the way those lives press back against it. That was either the model or an inspiration: that idea of the reciprocal pressures of the individual life and the larger life of the culture.

You share Dickens’s penchant for lists. Are you inspired by any other fiction writers?

The cheap answer would be that everything we read, in some ways, is an influence or a shaper or an interferer in the way that we write. I’m quite a fan of the big, baggy, ramshackle novels of people like Peter Ackroyd – who, of course, is also a biographer of Dickens – in which it’s never entirely clear which is the significant detail and which is just insignificant clutter. What Dickens does, and what other good novelists do, is provide you with too much information to take in all at once. It’s only later do you look back and realise that there are single and specific moments which turned out to be the key that unlocks the plot to what’s going to come next.

I like that in fiction; I like that idea of giving you too much to take in all at once – a bit like biography, I suppose – but then still having hands on a tiller that guide you through all the choppy waters of lists and circumambient detail and take you somewhere. So you feel as if you’re not just drowning, you are actually travelling.

This is your second biography of Dickens, and this time you’re focusing on the middle-aged author who’s at the height of his powers and popularity. Did that make it easier or more challenging to write than Becoming Dickens?

In some ways, this is a development or even a huge postscript to Becoming Dickens. Becoming Dickens is a book about the many roads that a writer could follow, or that anyone could follow, and how often the choices we make are haunted by all the alternatives we didn’t take instead: that sense of lost opportunities or frustrated potential, which Dickens then turns into a lot of his stories. What this book is doing to develop that is to suggest that there are, though, moments – sometimes quite big moments, like a year – where decisions are taken that have ramifications not just for individual lives, but for the life of a nation or a culture at large, or science, or other big narratives. It was about the relationship between those things that really interested me.

What sense do you get of Dickens the man after your research? You’re quite clear-sighted about his prejudices and the coldness of his behavior towards his wife. Do you feel “an attraction of repulsion”, as Dickens’s biographer Forster put it?

Absolutely – he was a monster in many ways. But a really intriguing monster, because a lot of his monstrosity came out in private. It wasn’t performed. It’s not that there were two Dickenses, the private and the public. There were many, many, many Dickenses, as if his name was a plural noun, and he hopped around between them. That’s why he needed fiction: to exercise all those personalities; exorcise those personalities.

What fiction also gave him was a way to produce extreme versions of himself that he could rehearse, act out, get rid of, on the page. The benevolent side of Dickens becomes extraordinarily bountiful in writing. The slightly mealy-mouthed version of him becomes extraordinarily prim and prudish. So it’s not just that Dickens’s writing is full of exaggeration. His writing is a kind of exaggeration of Dickens himself. That’s why I find it so fascinating, and also interestingly odd.

How important is it that Dickens professed to be rather baffled by the Great Exhibition and didn’t claim to enjoy it much?

In some ways, because it was like a parody of one of his own novels. Just overwhelming plenitude – but no plots, nothing to organise itself around, apart from an idea. No story, apart from the bigger story of Britain’s emergence as the great industrial power. I suppose for him it would have been like rummaging around inside his own brain, surrounded by too many raw materials but without the power to organise them in some way. This mixture of materials and impotence, which for him, I imagine would have been, if not baffling, then really challenging.

And statues of characters from his own novels.

It’s not the only time he would have seen versions of his stories outside the covers of a book. But the fact that these statues, and indeed photographs of Dickens himself, were on display for a gawping public, without him having any say in it at all, I think it went to the heart of his need to control. Which is a reason why he liked theatre so much, because theatre was a way in which he could put himself on display but in a way that was absolutely within his own control. What the Great Exhibition did was take fragments of his imagination in the form of his characters, and put them on display without any input from him whatsoever.

Dickens writing Bleak House forms the conclusion of your book. You argue that it’s a pivotal moment in Dickens’s career, as well as being a huge hit with the public. But why is it that this turning point of a novel is so much about paralysis and inaction?

Because that’s what he saw all around him. You’re absolutely right – there is a paradox, in that I’m talking about a turning point, which suggests motion and developments and progress, and yet the novel that carries those ideas forward is one which is packed with impotence, and paralysis, and inaction, almost as if Dickens is writing a novel against narrative itself. Narrative keeps things going, it asks you to move forwards to a conclusion. What he plays around with in the novel itself are scenes in which people and ideas and institutions are stuck in a rut.

His own writing sometimes seems to sympathetically echo those moments. You mentioned lists earlier: lists are a grammatical feature in which you can enjoy the plenitude of the world, and yet the world itself seems to be paused for that moment. Lists don’t progress a story: they flesh it out, they don’t move it forward. That tension has always been a part of all of Dickens’s novels. If you go right back, the picaresque stories like The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist involve a hero bouncing around the world from episode to episode. Yet each of those episodes often fixes on a moment of theatrical arrest, which is then captured in the illustrations; what was often called ‘the point’ in Victorian theatre, where characters freeze into a tableau and then the action continues.

That is the double helix of a lot of Dickens’s writing; that tension between narrative process, moving things forward, and the moments where things fix and freeze and ask you to admire them or be appalled by them, or at least recognise them as high points in the story. I suppose what happens in Bleak House is that those moments become the story, or they become central to the problem that the story is trying to address, which is a world that is stuck in a rut of its own making.

You quote a point in the novel where Lady Dedlock is compared to the ghost in Hamlet, another text that’s all about inaction. Is Bleak House Dickens’s Hamlet?

It’s certainly a novel that’s full of ghosts. Sometimes they are referred to explicitly, like The Ghost’s Walk in Chesney Wold. Sometimes they are ghosts of old stories, which we hear through echoes and allusions. And sometimes it’s ghosts that Dickens generates himself, by having moments in the story which linger and lurk, and then come back.

Dickens is very interested in things that come back without you wanting them to, or being able to control how they come back. It’s central to the way he writes: partly because of serialisation, meaning that certain elements have to be repeated in order to attune your reader month by month to what they might have forgotten in the intervening weeks. But it’s also because he is obsessed with patterns, which are sunk into history and into individual lives. It’s why he is really attracted to curses, and plots involving revenge, and secrets that come to light. These are all stories in which what has been done is not done with, but instead rises back and troubles the present.

It’s also about coincidences and bringing people together. That’s where the moral heft of the novel comes in, because it insists that we are all connected: Jo the crossing sweeper is connected to the house in Lincolnshire, and so on.

Absolutely. That great question which he asks partway through the novel, “What connexion can there be…?” In that case, it’s between the great house and the crossing sweeper, by which he means also the moneyed and the poor. But he also means the distanced and the near, and he means the past and the present. And he also means you, the reader, and me, the novelist. It’s a novel which is forever exploring different kinds of connection and then producing them in its own texture, its own repetitions and its own echoes. It’s a little model of how interconnected the world is – as well as simply telling us, he shows us. It makes real those connections in itself.

How fast or slow is a turning point? Even within that phrase, there’s a tension: the present tense of ‘turning’, implying something still in process, and the shortness and sharpness of ‘point’.

I don’t have an answer to that question, but I think it is an important question that the Victorians themselves were asking. If this is going to be the great age of development, how long is that development going to be? How intensive is it going to be? How far can specific cultural moments like a Great Exhibition be seen to change the direction of the culture? Although I don’t go into this too much in the book, the first example of a ‘turning point’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1836, which is the year of The Pickwick Papers. I don’t make much of it because there are earlier examples that the OED doesn’t take up, but all the later examples are again from the nineteenth century. It is a particularly Victorian obsession: how far historical developments proceed in a single steady train, or how far, like the invention of the train, it involves sudden ruptures and gear shifts, where things suddenly look and sound and behave differently.

And Bleak House has it both ways, because it oscillates between the present tense and the past tense, the omniscient narrator and the first-person narrator.

It’s a novel which is much concerned with how far we can know or control the world around us. We know that because even the so-called ‘omniscient’ narrator isn’t – it is a narrator, but it’s not omniscient. His own account is full of little blind spots, which I think is Dickens’s way of suggesting that in an increasingly complicated, interconnected world, nobody has that vantage point that Inspector Bucket imagines, of climbing up a ladder to see the whole world spread out before you. There is no ladder which is both high enough to see everything but also close enough to the ground to see everything.

What a novel can do, though, is switch lenses, a bit like an optician when you’re having your eyes tested, from very local closeups to broad-angled, wide view lenses, and ask you to think about the relationship between those different ways of looking at the world.

Thinking about it, it’s not even just blind spots, it’s outright lies, like “Lady Dedlock (who is childless)”.

Or if not a lie, it’s a misdirection. Certainly, it’s a way of suggesting that we don’t yet know when the narrator is going to be using touches of free indirect discourse to ventriloquise the thoughts of characters like Lady Dedlock and the people around her. It turns out later on that is an example of free indirect discourse: “who is childless” means ‘who is understood to be childless by everyone, and it’s the story she tells other people about herself.’ But we don’t yet know that. So it’s more of a narrative masquerade than a lie.

It’s a way of doing what you’ve talked about trying to do: bringing back some of the possibilities and the uncertainties of a story still in progress, rather than being recounted by a narrator who knows exactly what’s going to happen.

Exactly. It’s a way of bringing some power or responsibility back to the reader. Instead of presenting them a set of facts and conclusions, it’s asking the reader to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions, and reminding them that they are indeed part of this world that’s being described. They are responsible for part of this world that’s being described. It’s not up to them simply to be a distant, dispassionate observer of it. They are in it.

To buy The Turning Point: A Year That Changed Dickens and the World, click here

Words by James Riding.

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