Becoming Dickens deals with the novelist’s first 26 years, during which time the future Victorian patriarch was a skinny, hyperactive youth with the pent-up energy of the newly invented steam engine. In an age of comic pseudonyms such as Phiz or Elia, he was Boz, and his first book, published when he was 24, was Sketches by Boz, a collection of London scenes observed with an eye for comedy and melodrama.
London, with its sociability and its loneliness, remained at the center of Dickens’ novels. By the end of the century it was twice the size of New York, with a population bigger than the next 10 UK cities put together. It was home to every imaginable occupation, from the “mud larks” who picked over the mud uncovered by the Thames at low-tide, to the sham-genteel newly-rich, such as the Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend. Murderers jostled with prostitutes in the dirty, dangerous streets, and one of Dickens’ first jobs was as newspaper reporter, going everywhere in the city and seeing what he could find.
He’d tried out other work, such as parliamentary reporting (for which he learned shorthand), clerking in a lawyer’s office and acting. The first was well paid, but only for the 142 days annually when parliament was sitting. The last you might even have to lay out money yourself for — there were theaters where you had to pay for the chance of acting a famous role. So Dickens also tried his hand at scripting plays, something he continued to do into middle age.
But this inveterate freelancer always had more than one task in hand, continuing to turn out penny-a-line articles while in the middle of his second book, Pickwick Papers. But half of London’s struggling writers were much the same, sketching out stage versions of Oliver Twist even before the printed monthly installments had come to an end. They simply imagined ingenious endings, challenging the real author, of course, to come up with one even more ingenious of his own.
BECOMING DICKENS: The Invention of a Novelist
By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
It was all hand-to-mouth and the survival of the fittest. Copyright laws, like the police, were in short supply, and, as the rural unemployed crowded into London, everyone did what they could to make ends meet. Sometimes it wasn’t enough, and when Dickens’ father had to take up residence in a debtors’ prison, the Marshalsea (later to feature in Little Dorrit), the 11-year-old boy famously worked sticking labels onto jars of black shoe-polish. Very early on he saw what happened if you couldn’t pay your bills, and plenty of such unfortunates were later to populate his pages.
Dickens, however, was soon managing more than just well. By 26, when this book ends, he had been elected a member of London’s very prestigious Athenaeum Club, and in addition owned a four-floor house where his brother and his wife’s sister also lived. Pickwick Papers had been hugely successful, with the first installment having a print run of 400, but the last ones something approaching 40,000.
This, then, is the world described in Becoming Dickens. The book ends with the coronation of Queen Victoria (who, though no great novel-reader, found Oliver Twist “excessively interesting”). Some have considered the years up to 1838 a mere extension of the 18th century, with the great Victorian themes of industry, empire, evangelicalism, reform and railways still to get properly in their stride. Dickens was to be the greatest chronicler of those coming decades, calmly and modestly (as his rival Thackeray was to note) taking his place “at the head of English literature.”