- The Turning-Point: A Year that Changed Dickens and the World by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
“Here is God’s plenty,” wrote Dryden of Chaucer, and the phrase, suitably adapted for a post-pious age, might surely be applied to this, the successor to Douglas-Fairhurst’s acclaimed study of the first phase of the novelist’s writing career, Becoming Dickens. It is difficult to imagine any Dickensian not gaining pleasure and profit from a reading of this book, so rich and copious and various is the material on offer in its pages. In the school of Dickens erudition of which Michael Slater is the undoubted present-day doyen, Douglas-Fairhurst shows himself a worthy successor, providing not only a wealth of familiar and unfamiliar detail about Dickens but also a cornucopia of material relevant to 1851 and the Great Exhibition.
But can one have too much plenty? James Shapiro, the author of comparable books about significant years in the life and literary career of Shakespeare, enjoys the inestimable advantage of a relative documentary dearth, which makes it far easier to assemble a coherent, if at times speculative overview of his subjects. Another, essentially laudatory phrase from Dryden on Chaucer – “there is such a variety of game springing up before me, that I am distracted in my choice, and know not what to follow” – could be applied to this book, again largely in a positive manner, except perhaps, as we shall see, when it comes to its title and ostensible central argument.
The motto from Milan Kundera that is chosen as a prefatory headnote to the entire book – “the novelist demolishes the house of his life and uses its bricks to construct another house: that of his novel” – can be taken in one respect as a description of its method. What is on offer is very much an assembly of bricks – or, to vary the metaphor, of tesserae, as in the construction of a mosaic, with copious deployment of photographic images as markers in the course of the construction – rather than a sustained argument in favor of any leading idea. Structure is provided by the sequence of the seasons between winter 1850–51, the period in which Bleak House was conceived, before writing began in the autumn, and winter 1851–52, when the first instalment was published in February. More or less simultaneously, [End Page 95] the Great Exhibition opened its doors in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in London in May 1851 for a six-month period.
A major aspect of Douglas-Fairhurst’s aim in his book is to explore the connection between the novel and the exhibition, in part of course by tracing in exhaustive detail the history of Dickens’s reactions to the latter. He concedes that these were largely negative, or even hostile, the novelist calling for a contemporary counter-demonstration of that which was unseen in the fairy-tale palace devoted to the celebration of the light shining forth from contemporary industry. Anticipating Brecht in the Dreigroschenoper (man siehet die im Lichte, die im Dunkel sieht man nicht), he advocated a corresponding “dark exhibition” of the social horrors consequent upon laissez-faire capitalist industrial development.
Douglas-Fairhurst offers some persuasive speculative psychological causes for Dickens’s attitude towards this and “exhibition” in general, tracing it back to Warren’s warehouse and his position there in a window visible for all to see at his menial work pasting labels on earthenware bottles of blacking. But he does not take the obvious route, of approaching Bleak House itself as that “dark exhibition,” as does Robert Tracy in his brilliant essay “Lighthousekeeping: Bleak House and the Crystal Palace,” relegated here to a footnote. To do so would have created obvious difficulties for the book’s main objective, for as a result the claim that 1851 was a simultaneous “turning-point” in Dickens’s career as a novelist and in the history of Victorian Britain could only be taken as an index of incommensurate trajectories, towards critical...