There were dramas in the domestic life of Charles and Catherine Dickens that year. 1851 saw the death of Dickens’ father, an event which stirred up ambivalent emotions in the son; he had remained loyal and supportive of the old man despite having brutally caricatured him as Mr. Micawber in “David Copperfield”. A baby girl, Dora, also died. Most large families at that time lost one or two children, but it was still traumatic for both parents. And in 1851 the family moved into a large house in Bloomsbury – a move and extensive renovation, the smallest details of which Charles oversaw with obsessive attention.
In the life of the British nation, 1851 was most notable for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held in the enormous Crystal Palace which Paxton had erected in Hyde Park for the purpose. Prince Albert, the organizer of the exhibition, idealized this display of scientific and technological achievements as a step towards the inevitable “realization of the unity of mankind”, but not everyone saw it. in this way ; William Morris, appalled at what he interpreted as the show’s crude materialism, vomited into the bushes. In the New Year’s edition of Household Words, Dickens asked if the nation should not instead unite for another kind of exposition – “a great exposition of the sins and neglects of England, which will be, for constant contemplation with all eyes and constant union of all hearts and hands, straighten up!
Once the exhibition opened, Douglas-Fairhurst admits, Dickens made “few” references to it in letters, expressing vague disapproval: “I always had an instinctive feeling against the exhibition, of a sort weak and inexplicable. Still, Douglas-Fairhurst focuses emphatically in “The Turning Point” on the exhibit and its meaning for Dickens, linking the exhibit to the novel he would begin serializing in March of the following year, “ Bleak House”, which can only be called tenuous. “What a novel like ‘Bleak House’ could do was turn that confusion ‘of exposition’ into something more cohesive. Simultaneous events could be turned into sequences; the chatter of a crowd could be concentrated in conversations between identifiable individuals; life’s seemingly random events could be rearranged into a plot. And in doing so, Dickens would not only change the direction of his own career as a novelist, he would change the future of the novel.
It really doesn’t make sense, and neither does Douglas-Fairhurst’s other major claim, that with “Bleak House” Dickens introduced a new theme – also, in a way, influenced by the exposure – that everyone and everything is connected in a huge network. That’s true for “Bleak House,” but it’s also true for other novels. Douglas-Fairhurst follows critic Lionel Stevenson’s judgment that Dickens’ ‘dark’ novels began with ‘Bleak House’, but that is surely a matter of degree rather than quality; ‘David Copperfield’, completed in 1850, had been quite dark, as had ‘Dombey and Son’ (1846-48). Even in 1837, “Oliver Twist”, Dickens’ second novel, was dark, with only a few characters (and some of the not the most memorable) achieving happy endings.
Douglas-Fairhurst writes elegantly if diffusely, and clearly spent many hours perusing the ephemera of the time. Most of it revealed unnecessary detail, although there were a few golden nuggets – the album kept during amateur theaters by the Duke of Devonshire, for example. The problem is that Douglas-Fairhurst’s claim that 1851 was a particular turning point in Dickens’ life is by no means convincing. And his book tells us very little that we didn’t already know about Dickens from previous biographies.