Becoming Dickens – reviewed by Lauren

‘Becoming Dickens': A Talk by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst,

Aye Write! Festival 2012, the Mitchell Library, Glasgow

‘Why Dickens?’ This seemingly straightforward question was the premise of the excellent talk given by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, who is one of the many fantastic authors to speak at this year’s Aye Write! Festival in Glasgow.

First, if you’re not familiar with Dickens, and you have been effectively living with people of the largely agrarian persuasion in a very remote region (and, I’m afraid, this still won’t pass for much of an excuse as yes, he is that famous), I’ll sort you out later.

Second, it you’ve not yet heard of the Aye Write Festival, might I suggest you make tracks immediately to Glasgow’s Mitchell Library to check out the Aye Write! Festival where not only Scottish but authors from all over the world come to town and talk about their work.  This year’s festival takes place from Friday, March 9th until Saturday, March 17th, and yes, as of Sunday, March 11, as I write, there’s still time and perhaps even tickets.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst appeared at the Aye Write! Festival on Saturday, March 10th at 5pm in the beautiful Burns Room at the Mitchell and spoke about his latest book Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist. To return to my first issue of bumbledom, for those of you who are indeed Arcadian agronomists, Charles John Huffam Dickens, born 200 years ago this year, is considered one of the world’s most famous writers, and, arguably, one of its finest. Even in his own lifetime, he was known internationally and became what we currently define as a celebrity, his name and those of his characters becoming household names across the world. But it wasn’t always so, and, as Douglas-Fairhurst explores in his new book, Dickens’ own progression, from his early career as a law clerk, then a reporter, to his eventually becoming one of the world’s most famous writers, wasn’t by any means inevitable.

In his talk, Douglas-Fairhurst quickly makes clear that in Dickens’ life, as in any life, there were numerous possibilities, both for the good and for the bad; there was always the possibility of a different development for Dickens’ career, and also the very real possibility of failure. So then, why did Dickens, the young boy whose own father spent time in the Marshalsea for debt, who spent about a year as a child labourer in a blacking factory, who never went to college, who, in early pictures we see as a slim, clean-shaven, pensive looking young man with wavy locks, of relatively obscure professional aspirations to become the man we all readily picture with moustache, long beard, grizzled face and world-weary eyes, end up far-surpassing most other known and feted writers of his time? The answer, according to Douglas-Fairhurst, is that he happened to be the right person at the right place at the right time.

Robert spoke about the process of writing about a person. A writer has the benefit of hindsight, but when one is living one’s life, the ending is anything but inevitable. Different choices lead to different roads. A lot of life is chaotic and seemingly random; it is only with the benefit of hindsight does it look clear, and, dare we say, inevitable. Dickens inherently understood this himself as he explored, through his characters in all his work, all the ‘roads not taken’.

The question was also posed ‘why Dickens – why do we revere him today?’ The answer is that now, as then, Dickens’ writing was personable; he wrote as if you were a personal friend, and spoke about things that you yourself might have seen in your own life, but he showed it to you in a new way, and presented it often in a humorous light. His characters are people that we might recognise in our own lives – we might even have met our own Pecksniffs, Gradgrinds and Uriah Heeps. The feelings he evokes in his novels are universal, and felt just as fresh 200 years ago as they do now. That is, in small part, why Dickens is the much revered writer that he is today, as Robert Douglas-Fairhurst nicely summed up. And surely one can’t say that every author can thus be immortalised with their very own action figure action figure whose plastic presence graced our speaker’s stand.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s talk proved him an inimitable Dickens scholar, and  his  knowledge and insight into Dickens the man made for a entertaining and informative evening.