even supposing

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst – Becoming Dickens

It's doubtless to John Carey's The Violent Effigy that we owe our deepened, richer, less complacently knowing sense of Dickens the novelist. Carey tartly sandbagged the sociological Dickens, the jacobinical Dickens, the Dickens that Friedrich Engels would have acknowledged as a fellow traveller – the Dickens who somehow became associated with the Condition of England novel, and for whom each book was a polemical Tract for the Times: in short, the public Dickens. Carey drew our attention instead to the riptides of imaginative energy that surged beneath the surface of the text, the obsessive fondling of certain images, the unruly, contrary instability of Dickens's creative practice – the 'maelstrom of oddity', as John Bayley has it. Certainly the young Dickens was a brilliant improviser, assembling his skits and sketches with a harum-scarum energy. He was compelled to forge a style on the wing. (The critic James Wood recently complained that the “..big contemporary novel is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, and these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion.” Wood also decries 'the pursuit of vitality at all costs': but isn't this a just account of Dickens's writing, and the earliest work a fortiori?) 
          The poetry of his fiction – language vigorously destabilised, unresting and impossible to corral; the way Dickens's mind repeatedly returns to its fund of pictures and scenes and 'stage properties': Carey privileged an aspect of his work seldom attended to by more sober-sided critics. Indeed he freed us to think of Dickens as less Mr Popular Sentiment (in Thackeray's jaundiced formulation) than as a writer who – at certain moments and in certain moods – was possessed by almost a Beckettian tournure d'esprit. A kind of unholy violence seizes his work, something demonic in its antinomian pitch. Clubbable, genial Dickens conceals within himself a murderous vagabond, and Carey presented this new perspective in his slim, pointed critical study. G.K. Chesterton and Humphrey House became yesterday's men, critically speaking, at a stroke. (“Dickens,” Carey says at the outset, “is infinitely greater than his critics.”)

Doubtless, too, that Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has been a great gainer from Carey's influence. (There are faint chimes, deliberate or no, at sentence-level - “The fragmented vision results in both nightmare and farce. Naturally enough since farce is only nightmare of which we are no longer afraid.” (Carey) “Getting laughs out of childhood poverty allowed him to transform his hidden fears into nightmare's comic alternative: farce.” (Douglas-Fairhurst).) The critical donnée established by Carey – that Dickens's imagination took flight under the impetus of things seen and felt, that biography subvents creativity to an unremitting degree – is one Douglas-Fairhurst subscribes to. Becoming Dickens essays a close-reading of the period in Dickens's life when art and circumstance settled on a decisive course, and the young clerk succeeded in transforming himself into the celebrated novelist. Douglas-Fairhurst bases his study on the conceit that things could very much have been otherwise, that it was at this point that – if you wish to put it this way – the quantum multiverse split and branched into one stream of possibility, ghosted nonetheless by the alternatives: “Footfalls echo in the memory/Down the passage which we did not take.” Counter-lives throng Dickens fiction. One of his deep themes is the question of the vast complex of event that brings us to where we are, to what we are – and the insistent speculation that goes with it: how precarious our current fortunes, if so little depended on our choices and our determined will. Dickens's rise, of course, was a marvel of creative and professional entrepreneurialism. He was borne along by extraordinary energy and audacity. But he was sharply conscious also that his success had an alarming element of hazard about it – and his fiction often features elaborations of those aborted selves, some of whom remained impoverished copy-clerks or orphaned children. (David Copperfield might be read as a refracted autobiography, for instance: Dickens experimentally massaging and modifying his own life history – the net effect comes perilously close to naked self-aggrandisement.)
          In the course of a decade Dickens was engaged in a rigorous project of self-fashioning. Here, the young man of indeterminate social status – his family always seemed distinctly degringolade, always on the verge of tumbling another rung down the scale – husbanded his considerable resources and undertook to break onto the metropolitan literary scene. Douglas-Fairhurst examines the early magazine work with a scrupulous care seldom devoted to it and normally reserved for the major novels and stories. And he shrewdly cautions us: “Of course, reading Dickens's early sketches as windows that open onto his future risks falling into a form of critical doublethink, in which the early writing is praised as promising, but only because we know that its promise was subsequently fulfilled.” The sketch-writing and parliamentary reporting was elaborated – in an astonishing brief period of time – into the narrative bricolage of Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers, works whose governing principle was one of insuperable forward motion, the format of monthly instalments imposing on Dickens the need to respond with each number to the fluctuations of his readership's mood. Douglas-Fairhurst seizes throughout this study on 'biographical tipping points', where Dickens's life could have taken any of a number of different paths. One such moment was the suicide of Robert Seymour, an illustrator and caricaturist of a peculiarly neurasthentic disposition. Dickens had been commissioned to add text to an album of Seymour's satirical sketches of sporting life – a subordinate role for the fledgeling writer. But Dickens's rambunctious egoism prompted him to make criticisms of Seymour's work that – and no one can be quite sure what the causal link might have been – radically undermined the man, leading him to take his own life with his 'fowling-piece'. This allowed Dickens to wrest control of the project, out of which grew The Pickwick Papers and the onset of literary fame. And again: it was only the invention of Sam Weller in the fourth instalment that secured the ultimate critical and commercial success of the venture. Another 'tipping point', another crux at which things could have been very different. As Pip observes in Great Expectations:

That was a memorable day for me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

It's Douglas-Fairhurst's contention that Dickens was throughout his career hag-ridden by this sense of alterity, of other possible lives that might have been his had chance not interposed itself. (Henry James's late tale 'The Jolly Corner' is a reprise of the theme – the narrator is haunted literally by a version of himself who hadn't fled America, and had grown monstrous and degenerate.) Fiction became for Dickens an occult form of self-mastery, by which he dragooned the multiplicity of selves, real and virtual, that inhabited him. The singular merit of Douglas-Fairhurst's critical biography is that – not being a cradle-to-grave narrative – the contracted timeframe affords him the scope to concentrate in greater depth on largely neglected work that, scrutinised in a certain slant of light, further enhances our understanding of this formative period

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