The Two People Inside Us

Reviewing Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s book Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist, Michiko Kakutani writes:

In a remarkable account of a meeting he had with Charles Dickens in 1862, Dostoyevsky recalled that the British novelist told him: “All the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity toward those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. ‘Only two people?’ I asked.”

Dickens’s ability to project aspects of himself into dozens of vividly rendered characters, combined with his fierce reportorial eye and restless, prodigal imagination, resulted in teeming fictional worlds as populous as Shakespeare’s and some of the best-loved novels in English literature.

* * *

Mr. Douglas-Fairhurst’s “Becoming Dickens” turns out to be a considerably more revealing and groundbreaking study, which succeeds by focusing, narrowly, on the early years in Dickens’s career as a writer in the 1830s when he was trying “to come to terms with the events that had made him into the person he was, and to work out what kind of writer he might yet become.” In his younger years, we are reminded, Dickens toyed with a variety of possible careers — in law, theater, journalism — before settling down to be a novelist, a vocation that would eventually enable him to explore all the roads not taken, to imagine the many what-ifs surrounding his precarious childhood.

* * *

In becoming a novelist Dickens had found a vocation “that was capacious enough to accommodate all the other possible identities, all the abandoned stories and apocryphal selves, that would be squeezed out of his own future,” Mr. Douglas-Fairhurst says. “And he is still changing. Not even death has stopped him, as generations of later readers have gone on enjoying his work, revising what it means, repeatedly returning to a writer who seems as reluctant as ever to say goodbye. He is still becoming Dickens.”

– “Two-Sided Man Gets Two New Biographies” (New York Times)


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