Tom Williams

The year of living decisively: The Turning Point, by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, reviewed

Dickens was not originally a novelist but it was in 1851, a tumultuous year in many respects, that he discovered his true purpose: to use fiction to comment on the state of the nation

The year of living decisively: The Turning Point, by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, reviewed
A scene from Bleak House, which Dickens began writing in 1851. Credit: Getty Images
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The Turning Point: A Year that Changed Dickens and the World

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Cape, pp. 256, £25

We tend to think of turning points as single moments of change — Saul on the road to Damascus or Bob Dylan performing with an electric guitar. The change is identified as a discrete moment for which there is a distinct before and after. But this is not always the case and, as Robert Douglas-Fairhurst argues, a turning point can trace a wider arc and evolve over longer periods. These turning points are clear only in hindsight once the details have softened and the ripples outward have stilled. His latest book examines one such period in the career of Charles Dickens, surveying the artefacts of his life to track his development over the year 1851.

This is not the first time Douglas-Fairhurst has applied his macro lens to Dickens. His book Becoming Dickens was a careful examination of the novelist’s earliest years and showed that, despite the popularity of Oliver Twist, Dickens’s ultimate success in fiction was far from guaranteed. He had many paths he could have pursued — he loved to act, he was a talented journalist, he harboured an ambition to practise the law — and his decision to focus on fiction was not necessarily the obvious one. It was consequential, though, for both the man and for the form he chose to work in.

The Turning Point pursues this further, arguing that in 1851 Dickens discovered his true purpose: to use fiction to comment on the state of Britain. It was then that he started to develop a ‘sense of a serious social mission, and… of the kind of narrative that would be required to do it justice’.

It was a fascinating year in Britain. The country had avoided the revolutions that roiled Europe in the late 1840s but still contended with its own tensions. Towards the end of 1850 Dickens lamented that thousands of children in London were ‘hunted, flogged, imprisoned but not taught’. He held out hope, however, for‘a great display of England’s sins and negligence to be, by steady contemplation of all eyes and steady union of all hearts and hands, set right’. This was an allusion to the Great Exhibition — an event that takes up a good portion of The Turning Point’s narrative. It was, after all, transformative for Britain. As Douglas-Fairhurst writes: ‘It was the national equivalent of Clark Kent entering a phone booth and exiting as Superman.’

And it would likewise be transformative for Dickens. The year was a characteristically busy one (the great challenge for any biographer of Dickens is to convey convincingly his furious energy). Among other things he edited and contributed to Household Words, his weekly magazine; micro-managed Urania Cottage, a charity he had set up to help sex workers find a new life in Australia; and moved to a grand house in Tavistock Square, overseeing the minutiae of the renovation work. Also, his father and youngest daughter died within two weeks of one another.

This would be a lot for any person, but for Dickens it was typical and it generated much material. Douglas--Fairhurst has sifted through all this activity to excavate key moments. For example, he identifies source material for several characters in Bleak House, such as Jo the crossing sweeper and Mrs Jellyby and her philanthropy; he shows how proto-feminism (women were wearing new, more practical clothes while they pushed for positions outside the home) annoyed Dickens. He goes on to show how Bleak House became a kind of fictional version of the Great Exhibition, one that told a story about the nation that was home to such a variety of people and events:

What a novel like Bleak House could do was to transform this confusion [of contemporary life] into something more coherent. Simultaneous events could be turned into sequences; the babble of a crowd could be concentrated into conversations between identifiable individuals; the seemingly random events of life could be rearranged into a plot.

The result is a ‘slow biography’ that lingers on details and in doing so illuminates a very specific period of Dickens’s life. Its limitation is that, in focusing so tightly on a single year (one that saw Dickens start but certainly not finish Bleak House), it doesn’t examine its aftermath. What followed his decision to sharpen his focus on social commentary, for example? The Turning Point asks the reader to make their own connection between the events of 1851 and subsequent ones. Still, this is a minor quibble. The book is a fascinating biography that ultimately brings fresh insight to the life of Charles Dickens and his work as a novelist.