From The Guardian:
The problem with most biographies is that they tend to have only two pace settings. There is the plod of the episodic, one-thing-after-another accounting; parallel to that is the gallop that makes years vanish in pages. Momentum may build, and it may stall, depending on the life being investigated, but that dual speed is the halter that biographical writing struggles to break from.
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst isn’t an innovator in restricting his scope to a specific time-frame – Alethea Hayter’s 1965 book A Sultry Month set the standard – but he is surely the first to compass the life of Charles Dickens this way. The year 1851 was momentous both in the writer’s personal circumstances and in the life of the nation and bouncing ideas between the two enables Douglas-Fairhurst to set his own narrative rhythm, at once irresistible and ominous. The Turning Point sees Dickens as a product of his age, “a living embodiment of its energy and ambition”, and identifies the book he was preparing to write, Bleak House, not only as the “greatest fictional experiment of his career” but as a signpost to the future of the novel itself. Typical of this book’s magpie eclecticism is that it notes “turning point” as a phrase gaining currency in mid-Victorian English.
Turning 39 in February, Dickens is found to be in restless mood (when was he not?), editing his weekly magazine, Household Words, consulting with his friend Angela Coutts on the running of Urania Cottage, his London refuge for “fallen” women, trying to set up a literary guild for needy authors and, perhaps closest to his heart, organising a production of his friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play Not So Bad As We Seem for a charity gala. Dickens might once have become an actor – an untimely cold had thwarted his audition years ago – but he now excelled himself as an actor-manager, directing, cajoling, inspiring, controlling. He even managed to persuade the Duke of Devonshire to loan him his grand London mansion as venue for the play’s royal premiere. The duke also made available his gardener, Joseph Paxton, to supervise the staging at Devonshire House.
Paxton’s name this year was almost as famous as Dickens’s, for in May his much-vaunted Crystal Palace in Hyde Park opened its doors and the Great Exhibition was under way. “A giant architectural exclamation mark”, in Douglas-Fairhurst’s words, this vast cathedral of glass and iron divided opinion. While some regarded it as a symbol of progress and a singular feat of engineering, others like Ruskin thought it chilly and lifeless. Dickens himself was not a fan, preferring buildings on a human scale. As one to whom “order” was sacred, he also deplored the exhibition’s higgledy-piggledy profusion – it’s notable that even he sometimes found things too much. On another visit in July, he was more taken by the sight of 100 schoolchildren wandering about the place. He later discovered that one of them had got lost and ended up in Hammersmith. Having spent the night in a workhouse, the boy was retrieved by his mother; he was supposed to have asked her when it would all be over. “It was a Great Exhibition, he said, but he thought it long.” You can hear Dickens’s laughter in that line.
As ever, family was close to his heart and to his nerves. In March, his father died after agonising surgery on his groin, a death that probably revived all his lifelong ambivalence towards this unsatisfactory parent. Recasting him as Micawber in David Copperfield, Dickens could make merry with his fecklessness, but in real life John Dickens had been a pest and a drain on his resources. Less than two weeks later, his infant daughter Dora suddenly died, news that he broke to his wife, Catherine, staying at Malvern, in a letter that gently tried to cushion the shock, as if she might have been a child herself. Pliant and plump, Catherine had borne him nine children in 13 years, during which time the vibrations of his impatience and discontent with her had grown stronger. Douglas-Fairhurst observes that the example of Bulwer-Lytton would have warned Dickens of how a bad marriage could pollute one’s life, but the parallel doesn’t quite hold: Rosina Bulwer-Lytton was a vengeful fury who pursued a public campaign against her husband, whereas Catherine Dickens simply became an unhappy encumbrance. A cache of recently discovered letters reveals that in the years prior to their separation Dickens tried to have her declared insane, a stratagem worthy of the ripest Victorian melodrama.
. . . .
The new fashion for bloomers in 1851 provoked his ridicule – women wearing trousers, or indeed the trousers, was an outrage against the social order, he argued in print, making clear that their doing anything much beyond home-management ought to be discouraged. He organised his own household with rigour, recreating a near-lookalike of his previous domicile when he moved the family to a new home in Tavistock Square.
Link to the rest at The Guardian
About the OP, PG asks, “Why can’t we accept historic figures as individuals who were shaped by the times and places they inhabited?”
The OP mentions Dickens’ “reactionary attitudes to class, race and women’s liberation.”
Those who are applying 21st century moral strictures to 19th century figures are failing to understand the completely-accepted social mores that shaped the historical figures because of when they were born, how they were raised and what they were taught.
Speaking of women’s liberation, here’s a photo of the Guardian’s Editorial, Financial and Wire Room staff members in 1921:
Does anyone wish to speculate concerning the gender of the bosses and and the tasks that the women performed? And the relative paychecks of the genders?
The Guardian opposed the creation of the National Health Service in 1951 as it feared the state provision of healthcare would “eliminate selective elimination” and lead to an increase of congenitally deformed and feckless people.
PG can assure one and all that “attitudes to class, race and women’s liberation” were different in 1960 than they are today. He will also predict that “attitudes” toward all sorts of things will be much different in 2121 than they are today. (And, yes, that includes attitudes at The Guardian.)
Such contemporary attitudes toward those long-dead also assume that societal norms have only advanced toward greater absolute good over time.
Was the Germany of 1935, ruled by Adolf Hitler, morally superior to the Germany of 1835, ruled by Ferdinand I, Emperor of Austria?
End of rant. PG feels much better now.