Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s new biography, Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist, focuses on the 1830s, when a young, restless Londoner was just becoming the novelist who would define an era. Douglas-Fairhurst’s approach to the book was to make the reader feel all of the insecurity that the young Dickens felt by avoiding the usual biographer’s tendency to telegraph his subject’s eventual success. In the exchange below we ask Douglas-Fairhurst to explain that approach, and whether his book should change the way we read Dickens.
Q. You’ve referred to Becoming Dickens as something of an experiment, in that it’s driven by a counterfactual approach that most biographers and historians would typically avoid. What led you to embrace that approach for this book?
The inspiration for this book was the realization that life-writing often seems to be strangely at odds with life itself. However much we try to organize the future – from making New Year resolutions to taking out life insurance – everyday existence is alarmingly good at resisting our attempts to give it a shape. As the old joke has it, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” However, you wouldn’t know that from reading most biographies. In the biographer’s hands, every part of their subject’s life becomes just another piece in a neat jigsaw-puzzle; every stray detail is shuffled into a meaningful pattern. Because the biographer already knows how their story will end, every sentence starts to resemble an arrow whooshing towards its target. And that can be comforting to read: biographies allow us to entertain fantasies of a world in which everything happens for a reason; chance is mastered by destiny.
What I wanted to do in Becoming Dickens was to restore the experience of the writer’s early years – a period in which every decision he took, and every sentence he wrote, was a set of forking paths. My aim was not just to follow in Dickens’s footsteps, but to put the reader in his shoes, as he confronted the early crises that helped to shape his character, and also the smaller decisions that helped to create his reputation: What should I write about today? Which word comes next?
Q. So for you the story of Dickens’ rise is one of contingency, and you show us just how tenuous his early years must have felt. How do you think that power of contingency manifested itself in Dickens’ plots? And should our new awareness of its role in his life change the way that we read him?
Critics have long been aware of the pressures created by Dickens’s chosen mode of serial publication – a monthly or weekly narrative rhythm that meant each novel remained invitingly open-ended until the final sentence was hammered into place. Inevitably this has led to two rival ways of reading him, one of which stresses his powers of organisation while the other observes that his writing revels in muddle and mess. Both are true. If Dickens sometimes enjoyed thinking of himself as a weaver at a loom, there was also a good deal of fellow-feeling in his description of a lunatic asylum inmate who was busy studying a piece of matting and trying to find a pattern in its fibres.
What interests me is how Dickens developed this approach to writing in his earliest work, some of which was planned in advance, but all of which was thrillingly vulnerable to going off at unexpected tangents. From sharp little sketches to Oliver Twist, Dickens was learning how to be a novelist, and if one of the pleasures of this early work was his developing sense of what he could do on the page, another was his understanding that he was living at a time when everything else – from technology to the nature of literary celebrity itself – seemed to be equally open to change. To follow Dickens as he becomes a novelist is to become aware of how the period he was living through would become what we now know of as the Victorian age. It is also to become aware of how much risk and doubt, how many failed blueprints and rejected drafts, would need to be grappled with before this future could come into being.
Q. You give us a young Dickens full of insecurity, always unsure of what he’d do or write next. Do you think he ever got over that?
I don’t think Dickens ever felt that he had arrived. Although I end my book with a freeze frame in which he seems to have achieved everything he set out to achieve – wealth, fame, status – he never stopped looking for the loving security he had craved as a child and alternately yearned for and flinched from as an adult. Sometimes he sought this in the company of his readers, as when he embarked on the series of public readings that almost certainly hastened his death; more often he sought it in the company of his characters, who were like a huge extended family he could tease, bully and cajole into his stories. Occasionally these stories were optimistic fantasies of the life he could have led – happy families, cheerfulness, jokes by the score – but more often they were dark and brooding shadows of the life he felt that he had narrowly escaped. In a novel like Oliver Twist they were both at once. And ultimately that is why I wanted to write this book – to explore what lay behind the restless, driven Dickens we know from later in his life, who could often be spotted pacing the streets of London, covering ten or twenty miles at a stretch, and wrote as if he was scratching an incurable itch. It is an attempt to understand what it was like to be a writer who never stopped trying to work out who he was or where he was going.