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Becoming Dickens, By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Harvard, £20

In January 1827, an unemployed law writer called Robert Bowles starved to death in a freezing London apartment.

Plagued with vermin, he had scratched the skin from his body so that sheets and bed “were nearly soaked with blood”. A few feet away stood the “editor's box” of The Monthly Magazine. In 1833, a drifting former law-clerk and reporter – one among hundreds of literary wannabes – dropped a story into it. Five years later, he had neither starved nor sunk back into obscurity. Rather, as William Thackeray put it, Charles Dickens “calmly and modestly came and took his place at the head of English literature”.

The trouble with the bicentenary party now in full swing is that it tends to broadcast the myth first shaped by Dickens's best friend and first biographer, John Forster: of the unstoppable ascent of a genius propelled to ever greater heights by the setbacks of his early life. That cosy determinism gives Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's outstanding book a special relevance, beyond the keenness of its judgements and the pleasures of its prose. At any point before the wild success of Sketches by Boz and Pickwick Papers in 1836-1837, Dickens could have drowned in adversity, as so many rivals did. There was nothing predestined about his rise.

Switching with assurance between life and work, Douglas-Fairhurst zooms in on the might-have-beens of Dickens's youth. His astute blend of criticism and biography ends in December 1838, with the new superstar shining and all the “abandoned stories and apocryphal selves” of his apprentice mishaps united in the figure of the Novelist. Not only did young Charles dodge many alternative futures. He planted an awareness of forking paths and variable outcomes in his plots and characters, from the fatal “ Twists” in little Oliver's tale to the twin endings of Great Expectations.

Read this zestful and agile book to meet a young contender stripped of the “even sheen of inevitability” that later veneered his career. Read it to grasp how drastically chance can sway destiny, in fiction or life. And read it, as Dickens would have wished, to feel how thin the membrane is that separates the progress of a national hero from that of “a little robber or a little vagabond”.