Sunday, December 18, 2011

Five top books on life in the Victorian age

Judith Flanders's first book, A Circle of Sisters, the biography of four Victorian sisters, was published to great acclaim, and nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. In 2003, The Victorian House (2004 in the USA, as Inside the Victorian Home) received widespread praise, and was shortlisted for the British Book Awards History Book of the Year. In 2006 Consuming Passions, was published. Her most recent book, The Invention of Murder, was published in 2011. Her book Dickens’ London: Everyday Life in a Victorian City will be published in 2012.

One of her five top books on life in the Victorian age, as told to Toby Ash at The Browser:
Becoming Dickens
by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

This leads us neatly on to the first of your five books. A huge number of books have been written about Dickens – why did you choose this one?

Envy, mostly. I would love to have been able to write this book. It focuses on the first half decade of Dickens’s writing life, from his beginnings to Oliver Twist. Yet at the same time it ranges widely. The author suggests that, because we know Dickens was a great novelist, we don’t imagine that in 1833 that was not the case – he might just as easily have become something else. And the book is an exploration of the circumstances, both external and internal, that created the writer we know. So the past and the future is not ignored – it is really, “What made Dickens, what was he made of, and what did he make of it?” How did he use his experiences – the childhood trauma of the blacking factory and his father’s imprisonment for debt, his scanty schooling, his young life as an impoverished clerk, his career as a journalist? These experiences, which could have taken him on lots of routes, led him to be the writer we know. Douglas-Fairhurst examines both how and why.

He is an amazingly close reader of the novels and a terrific stylist. He’s also dryly funny. So it’s the perfect book. It told me new things about a subject I thought I knew well, it made even the things I knew about already consistently interesting, because of a really original point of view, and it made me laugh.

Douglas-Fairhurst has said that few people lead as many lives as Dickens – novelist, playwright, actor, social campaigner, journalist, editor, philanthropist, amateur conjurer, celebrity – and that trying to pin him down is like putting your thumb on a blob of mercury. Do you agree?

Absolutely. There are many Victorians who are absolutely exhausting to read about – it’s perfectly clear they must have found days with more than 24 hours in them to do what they did – but Dickens is perhaps the most exhausting. He just never stopped, and each thing was different, and each done with amazing energy. I have focused on Dickens as an observer of London, as a city walker – 15-mile walks were routine for him, several times a week. But it would have been just as possible to do a different half-dozen Dickenses.

Next year will be Dickens’ bicentenary year. Perfect timing for your book.

Indeed. I just hope everyone isn’t sick to death of him by then.
Read about the other books Flander's named at The Browser.

My Book, The Movie: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens.

The Page 99 Test: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens.

--Marshal Zeringue