Cover: Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist, from Harvard University PressCover: Becoming Dickens in PAPERBACK

Becoming Dickens

The Invention of a Novelist

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$19.50 • £15.95 • €17.50

ISBN 9780674072237

Publication Date: 05/13/2013


400 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

28 halftones

Belknap Press


A brilliant job. Becoming Dickens wittily illuminates the early career (clerk, reporter, magazine hack) of a writer who—like Sherlock Holmes—could pluck a man’s life-history from the tilt of his umbrella.—Miranda Seymour, The Sunday Times

In a year of striking biographies, the most striking of all—due to its erudition, empathy and freshness of approach—is Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens. Biography tends to be written, and read, backwards, in the full certainty of the subject’s achievement, but Douglas-Fairhurst asks us to forget that Dickens became the most famous writer in the world and to look instead at the choices he made at the uncertain beginnings of his career. Focusing on the 1830s, Douglas-Fairhurst gives us the pre-‘Dickensian’ Dickens, one of many ambitious beardless youths scraping a living in London while wondering how and who to be. Opting for the life of a writer rather than that of an actor or stage manager or clerk was his greatest gamble, and inventing himself as a novelist Dickens also reinvented the novel. Similarly, this subtle and suggestive examination of muddle, mess and missed opportunities will doubtless play a part in the reinvention of biography.—Frances Wilson, The Times Literary Supplement

The best and the most fine-fingered of the many books published to coincide with the bicentenary of the novelist’s birth.—Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

[A] lively and detailed book… Douglas-Fairhurst serves as a sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, yet sympathetic tour guide to the young Dickens’s strange world and equally strange sensibility.—David Gates, The New York Times Book Review

[A] sharp-eyed biography.—Ihsan Taylor, The New York Times Book Review

[Douglas-Fairhurst] devotes 336 thoughtful and lively pages to several formative years from the 1830s, in which Dickens grew from an unknown shorthand reporter in Parliament to the famous author of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. The resulting close-up portrait is fascinating… Douglas-Fairhurst has a gift for apt and surprising description…with style and wit he explores how Dickens went about growing and nurturing the voice and vision that is, after all, the only reason we remember him or care to read about his life.—Michael Sims, The Washington Post

[A] perceptive and original study.—Jenny Uglow, The Guardian

Exhilarating.—Judith Flanders, The Sunday Telegraph

We learn why Dickens wrote the way he did and why it resonated so much with readers of the time. And though this is closely tied to social change in the industrial age, Douglas-Fairhurst neatly sidesteps tired, modern-day rants about class tension, diving right to the human element of the matter… Douglas-Fairhurst’s immersive approach to Dickens has one striking effect: scattering Dickensian plot notes all over the place like gumdrops, he makes you want to read Dickens’s original text. For those who never found Dickens the most compelling of authors, even of nineteenth-century authors (yours truly included) Douglas-Fairhurst provides plenty of reasons to take a second look… The Douglas-Fairhurst biography is, if nothing else, a brilliant vindication of textual analysis… Douglas-Fairhurst [is writing] the story of the writer—but in probing the novelist’s writings, Douglas-Fairhurst might wind up getting closer to the man than the traditional biographer does; conceivably, to understand an artist’s life and humanity, you’re better off going straight to his art.—Heather Horn, The Atlantic online

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… 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, The Boston Globe

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s new work on Dickens is too agile and supple to be called anything as stuffy as ‘masterful,’ but it is certainly very welcome as an important and original contribution to the already monumental library of books about Dickens. Even at a time when we have perhaps all heard a little too much about Dickens, this book manages to arrive fresh, as if Dickens were indeed a young writer just efflorescing onto the literary scene and this was our first view of him…That Dickens is funny and a playful writer seems to have entirely escaped many literary critics, and it is one of the pleasures of Becoming Dickens that it never escapes Douglas-Fairhurst. But even as it celebrates the gleeful energy of Dickens’s writing, this book also reveals the risk and the fear that fuelled the novelist’s mercurial facility with words… When we arrive at Dickens’s writing, Douglas-Fairhurst proves himself the closest of close readers… This is a book to read fast in pleasurable admiration of its own swiftness of intelligence.—Clare Pettitt, Cambridge Quarterly

Original and elegant…Douglas-Fairhurst, who has every line ever written by Dickens at his fingertips, inhabits them; he shows us the internal process of the writing, revealing the hidden jokes, the coded messages, the ways in which ‘the most central and eccentric literary figure of the age’ wove his other selves into his texts.—Frances Wilson, The Daily Telegraph

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst gives a new twist to the genre of Dickens biographies. He chooses to focus his thoroughly researched work on the 1830s, the decade that saw Dickens achieve international fame ‘before he needed to start shaving.’ And he raises intriguing questions; what potential selves did the young Dickens murder when he chose to be a novelist rather than an actor, a clerk, a stage-manager or journalist?The Daily Telegraph

One of the best literary biographies ever written about Dickens.—Amanda Craig, The Independent

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst sets out to counter what he sees as the literary man-of-destiny version of Dickens, to recover the uncertainty, muddle and loose ends… Douglas-Fairhurst covers much ground, but one of his central ideas is Dickens’s pervasive sense of what might have been. He sees it in the false trails and shadow plots (take Great Expectations, where Pip imagines himself in one story though is really in another), in his doublings among characters and in his jostling possibilities and competing outcomes (for instance in A Christmas Carol). Becoming Dickens is an ingenious, playful and often brilliant analysis as much as it is a narrative.The Economist

The great tide of Dickensiana, to celebrate the bicentenary of the author’s birth in February 2012, has already begun to appear in the shops. While much of the attention will be focused on Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life, my own favorite is Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist.—D.J. Taylor, The Independent

Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens ponders the question of how this phenomenal man happened. He identifies a series of self-defining moments in the process… Douglas-Fairhurst has all of Dickens, it seems, at his fingertips and his ear is cocked for every significant echo… What is extraordinarily fresh in Becoming Dickens is Douglas-Fairhurst’s ability to support [his] arguments by sensitive explication de texte… Robert Douglas-Fairhurst reads Dickens the author with brilliant acuity. If [this book is a] harbinger of what is to come in the bicentennial year, 2012 will be a memorial fully worthy of the great Boz.—John Sutherland, Literary Review

Where the progress of a famous person’s narrative can take on a retrospective air of inevitability, Becoming Dickens restores the sheer unlikeliness of Dickens’s achievement, showing how easily it all might not have happened… [Douglas-Fairhurst] shows how his subject’s vividly imagined characters have the ring of truth because their creator knows that he could well have been among their number. Dickens’s work, we’re shown, can be read as a series of what-if scenarios, explorations in fiction of paths not taken in life. We didn’t need a new reason to revisit those deathless novels, but now we have one.—Ian McGillis, The Montreal Gazette

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist is quite possibly the best piece of Dickens criticism since John Carey’s The Violent Effigy—a series of minute investigations into the way Dickens projected elements of his early life into the fiction that followed it, full of arresting historical detail and sharp-eyed deductions.—D.J. Taylor, New Statesman

‘Why did Dickens spend his entire life writing stories?’ [Virginia] Woolf wondered. ‘What was his conception?’… Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens is the freshest and most insightful book I have read on this great theme since my first schoolboy reading of [Humphry] House]’s The Dickens World]… It is hard to imagine a better book on Dickens than Douglas-Fairhurst’s appearing in the coming months. I shall treasure it… Harvard University Press has produced, for Douglas-Fairhurst, a fine volume in the best tradition of American bookmaking: nice paper, elegant dust wrapper and binding, a volume to keep on your shelf forever.—A.N. Wilson, New Statesman

[A] revealing and groundbreaking study, which succeeds by focusing, narrowly, on the early years in Dickens’s career as a writer in the 1830s.—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Superbly attuned to his subject, Douglas-Fairhurst’s approach is a risky one, but it pays off. By boring deeply into this crucial time in Dickens’s life, his early and mid-20s, he identifies the point where experience could really become a crucible of artistic creation. And he shows also how easily Dickens could have gone in a different direction, as he explored journalism, lawyering and even acting as avocations… Douglas-Fairhurst’s fascinating exploration of what-ifs makes us appreciate what Dickens gave us as a writer all the more.—Martin Rubin, The San Francisco Chronicle

Instead of trying to cast the whole life in crisp relief, [Douglas-Fairhurst] takes a piece—from the beginning to Pickwick—and turns it slowly in the light. His idea is that if we draw on all we’ve come to know about Dickens, we might capture the density of self-in-society, especially this blooming self in this bristling society. So we often move a day or an hour at a time in Becoming Dickens, watching the twitchy uncertain discovery of a vocation and then the thrill when this writer realizes he’s a genius. Douglas-Fairhurst has a clever idea that also happens to work: As the young Dickens moves through London, the biography collects fictional episodes that correspond to the life-stage. So when Dickens is thrown to the blacking factory, Becoming Dickens gathers the tales of lost and abandoned children that will unspool through the career. When he’s an apprentice in a law office (and a career as a writer is still notional), we meet the tribe of clerks who stumble through the novels’ pages. It could have felt like clunky machinery, but the approach deftly shows how much of the future writer lives within the present journalist and the would-be actor. Douglas-Fairhurst lingers over phrases that echo back from the end of the career to the beginnings. He sees life and work as one work; and by slowing everything down, he comes closer than anyone before to cracking the mystery of the erupting young Dickens: the mix of frantic self-making and joyous cordiality.—Michael Levenson, Slate

Brilliantly original, stylishly written, thoughtful, measured and altogether exhilarating… It is Douglas-Fairhurst’s triumph that he helps us understand how the textures of 19th-century life generally, and Dickens’s life in particular, were reformulated into works of art that continue to resonate two centuries later. Becoming Dickens is itself a work of art. Incidents that have been written about hundreds of times before are made fresh… Throughout, we are given just the right amount of historical background, so that we understand the context Dickens was operating in without being overwhelmed by unnecessary detail. But, ultimately, it is the keen psychological insights that make Douglas-Fairhurst’s book so rewarding.—Judith Flanders, The Spectator

Throughout, the book is alive to [the] ways in which Dickens recycled his own experience and obsessions… In very Dickensian fashion, the book continually shimmies between subjects… From clerks and clothes we move to the idea of costume and performance, seamlessly conjuring up Dickens’s passion for amateur theatricals and his early experiments with farce. And no sidestep is misplaced. The influence of the theatre proves essential for understanding the young writer, with the book charting the death of Dickens the playwright as much as the birth of Dickens the novelist… [Douglas-Fairhurst’s] quirky approach brings color to scenes that too often exist only in black-and-white. For a vivid introduction to a writer and an age, I can think of few better places to begin.—Matthew Richardson, The Spectator

[A] subtle and searching book… Dickens is immortal and inexhaustible, and there will be more books in the lead-up to the 200th anniversary of his birth next year. If any of them outshine [this one] we shall be luckier than mere mortals deserve.—John Carey, The Sunday Times

Becoming Dickens gives a remarkable insight into the conditions that allowed Dickens to emerge as the foremost Victorian novelist… Becoming Dickens gives a particularly rich analysis of the author’s earliest writings, including the parliamentary reports from his days as a reporter.—Grace Moore, The Sydney Morning Herald

[A] spirited account of Dickens’s early years… Dickens’s restless energy makes him an untidy and sometimes paradoxical subject, but it is what gave his writing its lasting power. The strength of Douglas-Fairhurst’s book Becoming Dickens lies in its exploration of these contradictions as they are embedded in early Victorian culture. He is especially sharp on the tensions of social class.—Dinah Birch, The Times Literary Supplement

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst [brings] the eye-popping allusiveness and quicksilver gear shifts of his lecturing style to Becoming Dickens.—Leo Robson, The Times Literary Supplement

There will be numerous publications and celebrations to mark the bicentennial of Charles Dickens—he is often described as our greatest novelist—but [this] weighty book sets a very high standard. [Becoming Dickens] has original insights and observations to add to our knowledge of the ‘Great Inimitable.’—Robert Giddings, The Tribune

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens looks at Dickens’s roots, the choices before him, the choices he made, making the familiar unfamiliar and showing us how the novelist was constructed out of sheer willpower and bits of this and that. How did a law clerk cum journalist cum parliamentary reporter with a rackety background become the literary colossus who embodied the Victorian era and invented Christmas?—Ian Bostridge, The Wall Street Journal

[A] scintillating study… Douglas-Fairhurst…sets out to establish how Dickens became the type of writer (and, by extension, the type of man) he was. The result is an exercise in anti-teleology that, rather than showing how each step along the path of his apprentice years led to eventual triumph, explores how the roads not taken still leave their ghost trail in Dickens’s art… Douglas-Fairhurst’s trick…is to take the various stages of Dickens’s pre-authorial life (‘lost child,’ clerk, parliamentary reporter) and show how he projected them into his books, creating a series of ‘refracted self-images’ that give nearly everything he wrote an ominous personal significance… Becoming Dickens is a high-class critical study of Dickens’s technique.—D. J. Taylor, The Wall Street Journal

A convincing portrait of budding genius.—Bryce Christensen, Booklist

Readers familiar with the entirety of Dickens will find this book a remarkable achievement. Those who know the early works and the great biographies…will find it a revelation… Putting to rest the myths of Dickens as an overnight sensation or a traumatized child who secretly mastered his past, Douglas-Fairhurst brings into clear view the singular improbability of Dickens’s becoming a novelist.—N. Lukacher, Choice

Douglas-Fairhurst’s acute and incisive analysis of the contemporary reception of Dickens’s journalism and then his first serialized fiction reveals how Dickens’s keen observations and storytelling talent allowed him to rise above his station, as he forged his experiences into fiction…A perceptive and speculative biography.—Lonnie Weatherby, Library Journal

This book captures the chameleon Dickens as a product of his era before he became its creator.Publishers Weekly

Rightly rejecting familiar accounts of Dickens’s life, Douglas-Fairhurst’s biography shows us the forlorn and driven young Dickens, restless and uncertain, who could not yet choose what was to become his inevitable mode of composing fiction. I recommend it highly.—Harold Bloom

Becoming Dickens never takes Dickens for granted, but helps us to be surprised—shocked even—that he existed, worked and wrote in the way that he did. This counterfactual emphasis gives the book breathing space and a sense of play that is too often missing from more orthodoxly organized biographies.—John Bowen, University of York

Douglas-Fairhurst offers an original perspective on Dickens’s early life and writing as Dickens works through the choices before him in pursuit of a voice and style he could confidently claim as his own…a fresh and insightful study, moving and exceptionally well-written… a book to be valued by a range of readers, and one certain to stand the test of time.—David Paroissien, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Awards & Accolades

  • An Elle Decoration [UK] “Best of Dickens” Selection, 2014
  • A Choice Outstanding Academic Title, 2012
  • An Irish Times Book of the Year, 2011
  • A Library Journal Best Book of 2011
  • A New Statesman Book of the Year, 2011
  • A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, 2011
  • A Sunday Times Best Book of 2011
  • A Telegraph Best Book of 2011
  • A Times Literary Supplement Best Book of 2011
  • A Wall Street Journal Book of the Year, 2011
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