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The making of Dickens
Matt Pickles | 07 Feb 12
Having been born 200 years ago today, Charles Dickens remains one of England’s most celebrated authors. But, as Dr Robert Douglas-Fairhurst of Oxford University’s English Faculty explains, Dickens himself never felt that he had ‘made’ it as a writer.
Dr Douglas-Fairhurst, who wrote the book Becoming Dickens: the Invention of a Novelist which was published by Harvard University Press last year, said: ‘I don’t think Dickens ever felt that he had arrived. Although 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.’
Dr Douglas-Fairhurst believes this craving for affection may have hastened his death, which came in 1870 at the age of 58, as Dickens embarked on an exhausting series of public readings.
But Dr Douglas-Fairhurst says the main effect of Dickens’ desire for loving security was on his prolific literary output. ‘His characters were like a huge extended family he could tease, bully and cajole into his stories,' he explains. '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.’
Images - top: Dickens and his characters by William Holbrook Beard. Bottom: the cover page of Oliver Twist's first novelisation in 1838, with Dickens' name appearing as 'Boz' )