If 1851 was a great year for Charles Dickens, perhaps 2022 will be for me - Ian McMillan

We’re not far into January yet so it’s difficult to tell if 2022 is going to be a momentous year or not; maybe we’ll see the back of the pandemic, maybe there will be some amazing scientific breakthrough that nobody could have foreseen.

Ian McMillan is hoping to take inspiration from Charles Dickens. (YPN).

Artistically there might be an absolute blockbuster of a novel that shakes up the very idea of what a novel could be and what it might become, so that in the as-yet-unwritten history books the year 2022 will be described as a turning point.

The reason I’m thinking in these epic terms about the near future is that I’ve just been reading a very interesting and thought-provoking book by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst called The Turning Point: A Year That Changed Dickens and the World.

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It’s an examination of Charles Dickens’s amazingly busy private and public life set against the backdrop of the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London. The book suggests that indeed 1851 was a turning point because of the way that people began to look at themselves and the world around them, and for Dickens it was the year he began Bleak House, which can be seen to be one of his more experimental novels that in some ways predicted the modernist novels of the 20th century.

And I guess that’s one of the sticking points when trying to decide if a year is going to be a momentous one; you need to have a look at all the years around it to see if this particular year sticks up like a skyscraper and you can do that only once you can place it in context, not only with the ones that came before, which are easy to check on, but with the ones that haven’t happened yet, which is, of course, very difficult.

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The fact that the Great Exhibition was happening in 1851 gave it a head start in the Momentous Year stakes; people from all over the world would be visiting London, as well as visitors on trains from across the United Kingdom, many of whom had never been out of their towns or villages before.

If this is the background, then the foreground is Dickens rushing around trying to do too many things at once and succeeding by being really well organised. I like to have lots of projects on the go at the same time and I like to walk everywhere like he did but there the similarities between me and Charles Dickens grind to a halt.

He had lots of children. He was writing plays and performing in them. He was setting up a guild for writers. He was editing a magazine called Household Words and writing for it. And then, towards the end of 1851, he began to put the words on paper that would become Bleak House.

This could be the year I start my novel, then. This could be the year I startle the Booker Prize judges.

Or it could just be the year I sit down and read all Dickens’ novels. Or some of them, anyway. Now that sounds momentous enough for me!