Given that Dickens’s life has been written to death, it is surprising and admirable how fresh Mr. Douglas-Fairhurst’s concentration on a single year turns out to be. He is convincing in pointing to the effect the Great Exhibition had on Dickens’s mounting preoccupation with social injustice and in showing how his many other pursuits fed into this. But one has to wonder at the book’s hackneyed and misleading subtitle. Eighteen fifty-one may have marked a change in Dickens’s work, but in the world? No. This fine book itself merits a change of title.
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst isn’t an innovator in restricting his scope to a specific time-frame, but he is surely the first to compass the life of Charles Dickens this way ... Douglas-Fairhurst is clear-sighted about Dickens’s failings, not merely in his treatment of Catherine but in his reactionary attitudes to class, race and women’s liberation ... Yet for all the strictures on his character The Turning Point is more admiring than admonishing and the way it builds incrementally towards Bleak House, the great project that had been fermenting in his head all year, makes for a very satisfying finale. A manuscript page of the novel, dense with crossings-out and emendations, is reproduced as evidence of Dickens’s painstaking process of creation. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has taken pains of his own and this wonderfully entertaining book is the result.
Douglas-Fairhurst...takes up a single year in Dickens’s life and walks us through it virtually week by week. The year is 1851, which Douglas-Fairhurst calls 'a turning point for Dickens, for his contemporaries, and for the novel as a form.' He never quite nails the claim. It’s not a hundred per cent clear why 1851 is a key date in British history, or why Bleak House, the book Dickens began to write that year, is a key work in the history of the novel. But Douglas-Fairhurst realizes his intention, which is to enrich our appreciation of the social, political, and literary circumstances in which Dickens conceived Bleak House. And, as advertised, The Turning Point is granular. You learn a lot about life in mid-century England, with coverage of things like the bloomer craze—a fashion of short skirts with 'Turkish' trousers worn by women—and mesmerism.
Douglas-Fairhurst explores a form of biography in which the life is not a discrete entity but deeply embedded in its dizzying, granular context. When that life is that of such an extraordinary individual as Dickens — whose mercurial energy made him such a complex actor in and commentator on those times — this approach is more than apt ... Taking his cue from that novel, Douglas-Fairhurst uses a fascinating range of interconnected sources, side-plots and telling details to dramatise the complex social and imaginative web out of which it came ... At the end, he offers no pat conclusion but a brilliant analysis of the famous opening of Bleak House ... The jaunty subtitle of Douglas-Fairhurst’s book — A year that changed Dickens and the world — does not quite do justice to the sophistication and subtlety of his technique. He gives us history not as grand narrative or teleology but as total immersion and multiplicity. As such, he invites us to feel what it felt like to be Dickens in 1851.
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 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 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.
The Turning Point...is doubtless something you’ll find interesting. Keyhole histories like this, looking at one thin slice of a famous person’s life...can often combine the best elements of biography and monograph. Douglas-Fairhurst’s book certainly does that ... Douglas-Fairhurst does a very readable, very energetic job narrating all the day-by-day things going on in the great author’s life during that year—a full-length biography of Dickens by this biographer would be a thing to behold—but he scarcely even seems to remember his titular theory, much less substantiate it ... this book reminds [us]...how infinitely interesting Dickens was, how oddly elusive for such an attention-seeker, how multifaceted despite his constant bustling. The Turning Point won’t convince many readers that Charles Dickens—much less the world—was changed in 1851, but it’ll convince them of something maybe more important: that more Dickens books by Douglas-Fairhurst will always be welcome.
Slow biography, perhaps, but this whizzes along, keeping pace with its subject who walked more than 20 miles in a day. One might wish it 40 pages shorter, but Dickens himself didn’t exactly do pithy. Douglas-Fairhurst is a shrewd, amusing and original guide. He is critical, acerbic, I might even say tart ... I was going to say that Turning Point is an Old Curiosity Shop: a motley collection of episodes, incidents and anecdotes from Dickens’s life and from the wider world. Perhaps a better metaphor is that of the Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton’s great, glass, omnium gatherum grand bazaar, more than three times as long as St Paul’s Cathedral, which opened in Hyde Park in the spring of 1851 ... Douglas-Fairhurst gives you fascinating facts, facts, facts ... The last quarter of the book is a brisk and brilliant analysis of Bleak House which inspired me to download the full 43-hour audiobook read by Miriam Margolyes.
... a ‘slow biography’ that lingers on details and in doing so illuminates a very specific period of Dickens’s life. Its limitation is that, in focusing so tightly on a single year (one that saw Dickens start but certainly not finish Bleak House), it doesn’t examine its aftermath. What followed his decision to sharpen his focus on social commentary, for example? The Turning Point asks the reader to make their own connection between the events of 1851 and subsequent ones. Still, this is a minor quibble. The book is a fascinating biography that ultimately brings fresh insight to the life of Charles Dickens and his work as a novelist.
Douglas-Fairhurst calls his new book a ;slow biography;. Instead of speeding through his subject’s life from birth to death, like the manic flickering of a silent film, he stops the clock at a single frame. It is a useful strategy for approaching a writer whose life is by now well known, and who was exceptionally attuned to the cultural and political currents of the day. The articles Dickens selected for Household Words, which Douglas-Fairhurst reads astutely, creatively index what was going on in London that Exhibition year and how Dickens felt about it all (as well as how he wanted his readers to feel) ... Douglas-Fairhurst’s research is impeccable, and The Turning Point is interwoven with many curious facts and people ... Occasionally I felt lost, as one path veered into another ... Douglas-Fairhurst does not march in a straight line. Some readers, too, may ask if there were not more significant 'turning points' in Dickens’s personal life (I nominate 1857). But no matter: this biography is less concerned with Dickens’s inner world than with the busy, changing world he lived in – the world he remade in his imagination, like no other novelist before or since.
Douglas-Fairhurst sensibly structures his book by season — winter of 1850-1851, followed by the four seasons of 1851. Despite his aim to focus on a single year, references to happenings before and after inevitably seep in to offer context or suggest how the year’s events affected the future ... Reading this book as a biography in the traditional sense would leave a lot of questions for anyone not already familiar with the outlines of Dickens’ life ... Douglas-Fairhurst is particularly skillful at describing the scenes of Dickens’ multitasking.
This new book, by contrast, fixes on a single year, 1851, and concentrates on Bleak House, which, it asserts, was 'a turning point for Dickens, for his contemporaries, and for the novel as a form'. No evidence is forthcoming to support these large claims and identifying a book that really changed “the novel as a form” would be challenging ... To point to the weakness of some of Douglas-Fairhurst’s claims, however, is by no means to invalidate his new book. His method, which he calls 'microhistory' or 'slow biography', is to examine with great care the 'twists and turns' of 1851 as they affected Dickens. To this end he has read, it seems, a year’s worth of various periodicals as well, of course, as Household Words, the weekly paper that Dickens launched in March 1850. He shows, too, how closely Dickens monitored its contents, often rewriting the efforts of other contributors to create what Douglas-Fairhurst aptly calls the 'relentlessly buoyant' Household Words style ... This is not a book for newcomers to Dickens. Microhistory, it turns out, necessitates many pages of detail that, if you are chiefly interested in Dickens as a writer, may seem extraneous ... Dickens addicts will be grateful for this sort of thing, but a far better way of getting it is to read the corresponding bits of the magnificent Pilgrim edition of Dickens’s letters, where you get it in his own words. What Douglas-Fairhurst does usefully emphasise, though, is Dickens’s obsessive need to control other people
Douglas-Fairhurst takes an unusual and entertaining approach to biography in this look at a single, monumental year in the life of Charles Dickens ... Douglas-Fairhurst brings Victorian England to vivid life, recounting Dickens’s commute through a smoke-drenched London and Prince Albert’s closing of the Great Exhibition in October, and makes a convincing case that the year was pivotal in the writer’s life. A ceaselessly surprising study of Dickens and the era in which he lived, this will be a treat for literature lovers.
Douglas-Fairhurst’s history is positively Dickensian. His own words in response to Orwell’s quote are an apt mirror: Like Dickens’ novels, this book is the work of 'an overflowing imagination that piled ideas on top of each other with a generosity that could be overwhelming' ... An untethered literary history that reaches great heights.