Few writers have embodied the values and virtues of their time as thoroughly as Charles Dickens. The story of his life is, in many ways, the story of the Victorian era.
In “Becoming Dickens,’’ author Robert Douglas-Fairhurst charts the writer’s rise from debtor’s son to London literary sensation, and shows how the rapid cultural, economic, and technological changes of the time enabled his transformation. He also muses on the uncomfortably large role that chance plays in success, postulating that mere circumstance could have easily doomed Dickens to a life as a clerk or journalist, thus depriving the world of a great artist. As Dickens himself wryly noted when looking back over his life, “I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond.’’
In England, the early 19th century was, in Dickens’s words, “a moving age,’’ churned up by the growing industrial economy and the emergence of a new and powerful demographic - the middle class. For the first time, one’s station in life was not determined solely by breeding and pedigree; social mobility, the chance to raise oneself up through hard work and innovation, was attainable.
This was good news for the young Charles Dickens. His father, John, was a notorious spendthrift, whose profligacy got him evicted from countless flats and thrown into debtor’s prison. At age 12, Charles was forced into factory work to help his family. Despite such difficulties, John still aspired to respectability, even going so far as to steal a familial heraldic crest design from an entirely unrelated family of Dickenses, in an attempt to piggyback on their good reputation. He saw the world changing and wanted his son to be a part of it.
It was Charles’s mother, Elizabeth, however, who found him a position as a junior clerk and set him on the path to success. “Such defining moments,’’ says Douglas-Fairhurst, “rarely announce themselves at the time.’’ Though not especially compelling work in its own right, the clerkship gave Charles access to opportunities that factory work could never have provided. He caught his first glimpses of a world in which having a way with words could be valuable. The job also granted him another luxury - the time and energy to dabble in other pursuits, like journalism, acting, and composing short stories.
Douglas-Fairhurst explores how Dickens’s evolution from impoverished child to middle-class professional shaped his artistic development and gave him unique insight into the Victorian zeitgeist. Characters like Oliver Twist and David Copperfield are windows into the vibrant, tumultuous period that made Dickens possible. Their triumphs and travails feel real because they mirror the author’s own difficult adolescence.
Dickens’s keen sense of the times was not enough to make him a commercial sensation all by itself. “The availability of cheap paper and new printing technology such as steam-powered presses contributed to this success,’’ writes Douglas-Fairhurst. Without such advances, it would not have been possible to offer serialized installments of Dickens’s first novel, “The Pickwick Papers,’’ at the low, one-shilling cover price that facilitated its brisk sales. Such affordability made Dickens’s work available to middle- and lower-class consumers looking for entertainment to fill the new leisure time afforded to them by the Victorian economy. They now had the leverage to make one of their own a star.
“Becoming Dickens’’ is not just the biography of a man; it’s about the birth of a particular way of life, which provided fertile ground for artistic triumphs that still resonate today. It’s a reminder that talent, however great, cannot thrive in a world in which the avenues of growth are reserved for the privileged.Michael Patrick Brady is a freelance writer living in South Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.