The Turning Point: 1851 — A Year That Changed Charles Dickens and the World
By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
(Knopf, 368 pages, $30)
1851 was not only a pivotal year in the professional and personal life of the legendary writer Charles Dickens, but it was also one of monumental significance for the entire world. That is the titular raison d’être for Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s new book The Turning Point: 1851 — A Year That Changed Charles Dickens and the World.
Douglas-Fairhurst, a professor of English literature at Magdalen College at the University of Oxford and the author of Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist (2011), knows his subject matter. He cites the London-based 1851 Great Exhibition as the catalyst for the aforementioned transformation of the Victorian author and the global community. Championed by Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, the Great Exhibition was originally conceived as a celebration of the industry of “all nations.” Situated in London’s Hyde Park, the much-heralded event was attended by over six million people during its six-month duration. English architect Joseph Paxton’s spanking new Crystal Palace was the primary attraction. Paxton’s marvel, which measured 1848 feet long by 456 feet wide, was “a giant glass bubble wrapped around a cast-iron skeleton” which gave the appearance of an “experimental skyscraper gathering its strength for a final push upwards.”
The Great Exhibition, which notably coincided with the recent expansion of the railway, which facilitated countrywide travel to London, was trumpeted as the dawn of “a new age of national prosperity and international cooperation.” Moreover, for the attendees, the presence of so many multinational products and cultural renderings enabled the imagining of a world without borders. Although Douglas-Fairhurst does not expressly label it as such, the Great Exhibition can arguably be understood as an early harbinger of globalism. While publications such as the Parlour Magazine of the Literature of All Nations were quick to celebrate the exhibition as an example of international creative collaboration and harmony, other publications lampooned the global handholding and poked fun at the public’s broader concerns about an influx of foreigners. For instance, George Sala’s “The Foreign Invasion” satirized the public’s fears that Great Britain was going to be infiltrated by an unwashed mob supporting “revolutionary ideas” and “unruly facial hair.”
Douglas-Fairhurst observes that Dickens was also skeptical of the utopian promise and, like others of his time, had reservations about the practical considerations of widescale immigration. He saw the exhibition as a distraction from Great Britain’s large impoverished population and the country’s urgent need for social and political reform. The author additionally posits that Dickens, who started working on Bleak House (1852) in 1851, conceived this darkly fatalistic tale of poverty and corruption in reaction to the excessive extravagance of the exhibition.
Considered to be one of Dickens’ finest novels. Bleak House centers around Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, a legal case involving a disputed will that has been bottlenecked in the Chancery Court for several generations while simultaneously dragging the large cast of interested parties into financial and emotional ruin. Douglas-Fairhurst classifies Bleak House as a “turning point” in Dickens’ evolution as a writer. The cavernous novel of over 800 pages not only showcases his mastery of social chronicling, but also demonstrates his skillful deployment of a multilayer plot, dual narration, and impactful imagery.
The Turning Point is an engaging read and Dickens’ fans will appreciate the anecdotes from his personal life and the insight into his creative process. The book also includes coverage of Dickens’ other projects, including Urania Cottage, a home dedicated to the social rehabilitation of prostitutes, and the Guild of Literature and Art, a philanthropic effort in support of struggling writers and artists.
The book’s weakness is that it fails to live up to the promise of its bold title. Although 1851 was the year Dickens penned Bleak House and buried his 8-month-old daughter, Dora, Douglas-Fairhurst provides no evidence that 1851 was a transformative year for the world at large. Furthermore, he dedicates significant text to the 1851 Great Exhibition without fully articulating its broader significance. Although his detailed description of the event and its contemporaneous media coverage suggest the beginning of the globalist movement, he fails to connect the dots. While perhaps this was a deliberate style choice, the reader is left wondering why Douglas-Fairhurst is presenting evidence for an argument that he never makes.
The Turning Point: 1851 — A Year That Changed Charles Dickens and the World is a highly readable albeit uneven book that provides a window into the life, creative process, and social and political milieu of Charles Dickens. Douglas-Fairhurst is to be commended for his unique approach to bringing attention to this master storyteller.
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