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Becoming Dickens

Becoming Dickens

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Becoming Dickens
    Book Description:

    This provocative biography tells the story of how an ambitious young Londoner became England’s greatest novelist. Focused on the 1830s, it portrays a restless, uncertain Dickens who could not decide on a career path. Through twists and turns, the author traces a double transformation: in reinventing himself Dickens reinvented the form of the novel.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06276-4
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Prologue: Somebody and Nobody (pp. 1-18)

    London, 1855. The old city is being swallowed up by change. Underfoot the ground trembles as excavation machines carve out new subway tunnels, adding a dull, thudding bass to the city’s soundtrack and belching their fumes into the thick yellow air. Sleek steam-gurneys chug their way past a backdrop of nodding cranes and buildings furred with scaffolding. Shops hum with activity, as assistants key each customer’s personal identification number into a credit machine, and then pull on the ebony handle to print out a receipt. Inventors gather to whip up public interest in the latest must-have gadgets: devices for crimping...

  4. CHAPTER ONE Lost and Found (pp. 19-42)

    “When I was a very small boy indeed,” Dickens recalled in his 1853 essay “Gone Astray,” “I got lost one day in the City of London.” It is hardly an unusual childhood memory, especially at a time when the churning crowds of Britain’s cities made it all too easy for individuals to lose their moorings and be set adrift in a sea of strangers. In 1849, commenting on the number of children “left inefficiently attended” in Manchester, the journalist Angus Reach claimed that every year “more than 4,000 go annually astray and get ‘lost’ in the streets,” while newspapers like...

  5. CHAPTER TWO The Clerk’s Tale (pp. 43-68)

    The school John Dickens chose for his son had a predictably grand name: Wellington House Classical and Commercial Academy. The reality was, equally predictably, only a shabby imitation of what such a name promised. Housed in a small building on the Hampstead Road, it was run by a podgy, bullying schoolmaster named William Jones, whose pleasure in beating the weaker and poorer pupils was matched only by his skill at fawning over the wealthy. In later years Dickens was briskly dismissive of the whole operation, describing Jones as “by far the most ignorant man I have ever had the pleasure...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Up in the Gallery (pp. 69-90)

    “In spite of Dickens’s assertion that he had no friend or companion to help him when he commenced literature,” James Friswell observed shortly after the novelist’s death, “the lonely and unaided young author seems to have been peculiarly happy in the number and influential character of his friends.”¹ Friswell’s assessment is strangely thin-lipped, especially coming from a writer whose own pages reverberate with the steady thud of names being dropped. It also fails to point out that Dickens’s happy fortune started much closer to home. Dickens was undoubtedly good at making friends, and equally good at making the most of...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Mr. Dickin (pp. 91-110)

    It is not known who introduced Dickens into the Beadnell family circle; possibly the connection was made by his friend Henry Kolle, a bank clerk who was courting another of the daughters, Anne, at the time. What is certain is that by the second half of 1831 he was intimate enough with the family to have been invited to a dinner party at their house on Lombard Street. Dickens’s way of thanking them was to perform a long piece of doggerel, “The Bill of Fare,” loosely based on Oliver Goldsmith’s poem “Retaliation,” which he made by sticking together a series...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE “Here We Are!” (pp. 111-134)

    Anyone who picked up the December 1833 issue of theMonthly Magazineand turned to “A Dinner at Poplar Walk” on pages 617–624 would have been forgiven for scanning it quickly and moving on. At first glance, there was little to suggest that a major talent was being incubated in these eight compact pages. Even after Dickens had secured his reputation, the story remained largely unread, creating a pattern of neglect that has continued to the present day. “A Dinner at Poplar Walk” is the ugly duckling of Dickens’s career. But it is worth examining carefully, not only for...

  9. [Illustrations] (pp. None)
  10. CHAPTER SIX Becoming Boz (pp. 135-162)

    Early reviews of Dickens’sMonthly Magazinestories ranged from warm (“a capital quiz”) to tepid (“a choice bit of humour, somewhat exaggerated”), while some critics hedged their bets by resorting to terms of praise—“clever” was the choice of theSunreviewer—that looked more like insults in disguise.¹ The British may admire intelligence, but they have always been suspicious of anyone thought to be “clever,” and theSunreviewer’s comment that Dickens was “too ambitious of saying smart things … too much on the strain” sounded like the reproach of a teacher telling the class clown to stop showing...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN The Moving Age (pp. 163-186)

    Sketches by Bozwas not the only title Dickens contemplated for his first book. A letter to his publisher John Macrone, written in October 1835, showed him trying out alternatives that would suit the volume’s miscellaneous contents and sit invitingly on the page:

    —What do you think of

    Sketches by Boz


    Cuts by Cruikshank


    Etchings by Boz


    Wood Cuts by Cruikshank.

    I think perhaps some such title would look more modest—whether modestyoughtto have anything to do with such an affair, I must leave to your experience as a Publisher to decide.¹

    Dickens’s deferential tone...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT “Pickwick, Triumphant” (pp. 187-216)

    Two-thirds of the way through thePickwick Papers,Mr. Pickwick looks at his friends with “a good-humoured smile” and observes: “The only question is, Where shall we go to next?” While this gives him the perfect opportunity to display his trademark twinkle—“a sparkle in the eye which no spectacles could dim or conceal”—it is also a knowing wink from Dickens to the reader. “Where shall we go to next?” is a question at the heart of all picaresque fiction, a form of writing that gives the pleasure of wandering a narrative shape; and few novels revel in their...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Novelist Writer (pp. 217-240)

    Soon after Sam Weller is taken on by Mr. Pickwick, he is “transformed” by a new set of clothes: “a grey coat with the ‘P.C.’ button, a black hat with a cockade to it, a pink striped waistcoat, light breeches and gaiters, and a variety of other necessaries.” He is far less sure what he has been transformed into: “I vonder whether I’m meant to be a footman, or a groom, or a game-keeper, or a seedsman,” he ponders as he takes his seat on the coach. “I looks like a sort of compo of every one on ’em.” The...

  14. CHAPTER TEN Dickens at Home (pp. 241-264)

    On May 15, 1836, Dickens’s sister-in-law Mary Hogarth sent an upbeat letter to her cousin reporting on a “most delightfully happy month” spent with the newly married couple at their lodgings in Furnival’s Inn. Catherine was “as happy as the day is long,” she observed; “they are more devoted than ever since their Marriage if that be possible,” and Dickens is “such a nice creature and so clever.”¹ The picture is reassuringly optimistic, even when we make allowances for the distortions created by such a wide-eyed view. The more pessimistic alternative was dramatized a few months later in Dickens’s one-act...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN Is She His Wife? (pp. 265-294)

    In the early hours of June 20, 1837, the great bell at Windsor began to toll, and the next day theTimesreported that “shortly thereafter the streets were filled with groups of persons discussing the merits and lamenting the loss of the good old king.”¹ As the affectionate tone of this account indicates, “good old” William IV, who had died “like an old lion” after failing to shake off his annual attack of asthma, was mourned far more sincerely than the fat and dissolute recluse he had succeeded.² Assessing William’s prospects in 1830, Charles Greville had briskly summed him...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE Being Dickens (pp. 295-328)

    More evidence that a career as a novelist was starting to emerge from the chrysalis ofPickwickcame in July 1837, when Dickens was the subject of a long and thoughtful article in John Stuart Mill’sLondon and Westminster Review. Like other prestigious quarterly journals, theWestminstercarefully guarded its reputation as a publication written chiefly by and for intellectuals, so it rarely wasted its book reviews on what most people were actually reading. Charles Buller’s article broke from this pattern, by assembling generous extracts fromSketches by Boz(first and second series),PickwickNos. 1–15, andBentley’sNos....

  17. Postscript: Signing Off (pp. 329-336)

    Dickens hated goodbyes. According to his daughter Mamie, he had “such an intense dislike for leave-taking that he always, when it was possible, shirked a farewell,” and “knowing this dislike, [we] used only to wave our hands or give him a silent kiss when parting.”¹ Only once did George Dolby, the manager of his final public reading tour, hear him say “good bye” rather than his “usual parting words” of “good day” or “good night,” expressions which were “always followed quickly by an appointment for our next meeting.”² It was as if he were trying to give his life the...

  18. Notes (pp. 339-370)
  19. Acknowledgments (pp. 371-372)
  20. Index (pp. 373-389)