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The Year That Transformed Dickens (or Did It?)

There were some dramas in Charles and Catherine Dickens’s domestic life that year. Eighteen fifty-one saw the death of Dickens’s father, an event that raised ambivalent emotions in the son; he had remained loyal and supportive of the old man despite having brutally caricatured him as Mr. Micawber in “David Copperfield.” A baby daughter, Dora, also died. Most large families at that time lost one or two children, but this was still a trauma for both parents. And in 1851 the family moved into a large house in Bloomsbury — a move, and an extensive renovation, whose minutest detail Charles oversaw with obsessive attention.

In the life of the British nation, 1851 was most notable for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held in the enormous Crystal Palace that Paxton had erected in Hyde Park for the purpose. Prince Albert, the organizer of the exhibition, idealized this display of scientific and technological achievement as a step toward the inevitable “realization of the unity of mankind,” but not everyone saw it this way; William Morris, appalled by what he interpreted as the crass materialism of the spectacle, vomited into the bushes. In the New Year’s edition of Household Words Dickens asked whether the nation should not instead be uniting for another sort of exhibition — “a great display of England’s sins and negligences, to be, by a steady contemplation of all eyes, and steady union of all hearts and hands, set right!”

Once the exhibition had opened, Douglas-Fairhurst admits, Dickens made only “scanty” references to it in letters, expressing a vague disapprobation: “I have always had an instinctive feeling against the exhibition, of a faint, inexplicable sort.” Yet Douglas-Fairhurst focuses “The Turning Point” insistently on the exhibition and its meaning to Dickens, building a connection between the exhibition and the novel he would begin serializing in March of the following year, “Bleak House,” that can only be called tenuous. “What a novel like ‘Bleak House’ could do was to transform this confusion” of the exhibition “into something more coherent. Simultaneous events could be turned into sequences; the babble of a crowd could be concentrated into conversations between identifiable individuals; the seemingly random events of life could be rearranged into a plot. And in doing this Dickens would not only alter the direction of his own career as a novelist, he would change the future of the novel.”

This really makes no sense, and neither does Douglas-Fairhurst’s other major claim, that with “Bleak House” Dickens introduced a new theme — also, somehow, influenced by the exhibition — that everyone and everything is connected together in a vast network. This is true of “Bleak House,” but it is also true of other novels. Douglas-Fairhurst follows the critic Lionel Stevenson’s judgment that Dickens’s “dark” novels began with “Bleak House,” but surely that is a question of degree rather than quality; “David Copperfield,” completed in 1850, had been pretty dark, as had “Dombey and Son” (1846-48). Even way back in 1837 “Oliver Twist,” Dickens’s second novel, had been dark, with only a few characters (and of those not the most memorable) achieving happy endings.

Douglas-Fairhurst writes elegantly if diffusely, and has clearly spent many hours trawling among the ephemera of the period. Most of this has turned up only unnecessary details, although there are a few gold nuggets — the scrapbook kept during the amateur theatricals by the Duke of Devonshire, for example. The problem is that Douglas-Fairhurst’s contention that 1851 was a special turning point in Dickens’s life is in no way persuasive. And his book tells us very little we don’t already know about Dickens from previous biographies.

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