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Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (review)
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In chapter 31 of David Copperfield (1849–50), the eponymous narrator reflects on his extreme reluctance to speak of Little Emily’s absconding with Steerforth: “I cannot bear to think of what did come, upon that memorable night; of what must come again, if I go on. It is no worse, because I write of it. It would be no better, if I stopped my most unwilling hand. It is done. Nothing can undo it; nothing can make it otherwise than as it was” ([Clarendon Press, 1981], 382). The irony here is so weighty that it threatens to crush the narrative frame. For the narrating David can “make it otherwise than as it was”—at least for his readers—simply by dropping the Emily plotline and letting her slip out of his narrative the way we allow characters in real life to slip out of our own. And we know equally well that Charles Dickens can “undo” just as he pleases. Yet even in our most committed suspensions of disbelief—in our supposing, as David does here, that whatever passes for historical fact in a novel can never be altered—we also hold it to be true (in novel reading, as in life) that all that is “done” can easily be imagined “otherwise.” This need to imagine alternatives to what is accounts not only for our immense pleasure in storytelling, but also for what, in an optimistic mood, we refer to as progress.

Imagining things to be otherwise provided Dickens with a phenomenally successful career. It also constitutes the central conceit of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist, a musing on the life and work before Dickens had achieved name recognition, at a time when it was far more likely that he would have made his living as a journalist, or even as a professional actor, than as the most celebrated living author of his day. Douglas-Fairhurst reminds us in his prologue that the course from birth to death is neither clear nor direct, that our common final destination is arrived at uniquely, by a path so thicketed with happenstance and the consequences of our choices, large and small, as to be virtually unmappable, even in hindsight. This is hardly news, though it is a truism we tend to forget, especially when reading biography, where literary conventions—superimposed upon the data or debris of a life so as to make it narratable—form a pattern of putatively causal relations that we mentally process (as we do the fate of Little Emily) as fundamentally true, if not destined.

Considering the residual effects, the psychic afterlife, of opportunities neglected or never forthcoming, of efforts abandoned, of decisions made differently, turns out to be a very suggestive way to think about life in general or a life in particular. Military historians and philosophers have always thought counterfactually (What if Pericles hadn’t died in the plague? What if apples were oranges?), and recently a number of literary critics have discovered the power of thinking otherwise. Although Douglas-Fairhurst gives a slight nod to Andrew H. Miller’s essay “Lives Unled in Realist Fiction” in the important Representations forum on “counterfactual realities” (98.1 [2007]), he curiously ignores the counterfactual work of others (Catherine Gallagher and Paul K. Saint-Amour, to name only two, whose work also appears in the Representations forum), thereby encouraging us to infer that his own work is perhaps more trailblazing than it is. Douglas-Fairhurst is indeed the first, to my knowledge, to think specifically about how Dickens’s personal history was shaped as much by the life choices he didn’t make as by those he did, by “the things that never happen,” as David Copperfield puts it, as by “those that are accomplished” (David Copperfield, 701). But I wish he had acknowledged more fully or generously the scholarly contributions of those who share his interests and his methods of investigation.

Appropriately, I suppose, in a study that highlights Dickens’s habit of “encouraging us to imagine the likely outcome of a line of thought and then giving it an unexpected twist” (157), Douglas-Fairhurst at times veers off topic. This leads...



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