Monday, March 7, 2022

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's "The Turning Point"

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is a professor of English literature at the University of Oxford, and a fellow of Magdalen College. His books include Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist, which won the Duff Cooper Prize, and The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland, which was short-listed for the Costa Biography Award and was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. He writes regularly for publications including The Times (London), The Guardian, TLS, and The Spectator. Radio and television appearances include Start the Week and The Culture Show, and he has also acted as the historical consultant on TV adaptations of Jane Eyre, Emma, and Great Expectations, the BBC drama series Dickensian, and the feature film Enola Holmes. In 2015 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in Oxford, England.

Douglas-Fairhurst applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Turning Point: 1851--A Year That Changed Charles Dickens and the World, and reported the following:
Most of page 99 in my new book is taken up by lists. There is a selection of the items found in a London lost property warehouse in 1850, which according to a piece published in Household Words, the magazine then being edited by Charles Dickens, included “A pair of hair-brushes; a chart and tariff of fares of the Austrian Lloyd’s Steam-Boats Company; a small jar of preserved meat beside a pot of bear’s-grease”, together with a random collection of other objects including an Italian playbill, a comb, and a case of toothpicks. There are the contents of a junk shop that Dickens had previously written about in 1834: a broken flute, a pair of curling irons, “several locks, an old earthenware pan, full of rusty keys” and “two or three gaudy chimney-ornaments—cracked, of course”. Most importantly, there is an attempt in the Illustrated London News on 1 March 1851 to itemise some of the “wagon-loads of goods” that were just starting to arrive in Hyde Park for the forthcoming Great Exhibition, to be held in the soaring glass structure of the newly built Crystal Palace: “pillars of polished granite – fountains – colossal statues – gigantic masses of coal – ” and much more besides, where the journalist is so excited his dashes look more like a set of gasps.

Lists were important in 1851, because for many people they were the only way to make sense of the sheer scale and variety of the Great Exhibition when it finally opened its doors to a gawking public. They were also important to Dickens, for whom they reflected the ramshackle unpredictability of life while also allowing him to keep it safely under control.

My book The Turning Point looks at this year as a crucial pivot in both global history and the life of the world’s most famous novelist at the time. And although page 99 doesn’t consider any of the personal reasons that would make this year such a memorable one for Dickens, it does suggest why he responded by writing perhaps his greatest novel, Bleak House. At a time of unprecedented clutter and confusion, fiction could sift events for significance; ordinary life could be reassembled in language and made meaningful. And after 1851, it wasn’t only Dickens’s life or the life of his readers that would never be the same again. Nor would the novel as a form that created important lines of communication between them.
Learn more about The Turning Point at the publisher's website.

My Book, The Movie: Becoming Dickens.

The Page 99 Test: Becoming Dickens.

My Book, The Movie: The Story of Alice.

The Page 99 Test: The Story of Alice.

--Marshal Zeringue