1851: a year of political unrest and social inequality, industrial progress and artistic innovation, it is also a turbulent year in the private life of Charles Dickens, as he copes with a double bereavement and a home in danger of falling apart.
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.
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.
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.