‘I don’t say “there’s nothing in it” – there’s too much,’ remarked the 39-year-old Charles Dickens of the Great Exhibition in July 1851. This was after months of watching Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace take shape in Hyde Park, and discussing the pros and cons and likely results of the project in the pages of Household Words, the weekly magazine that he part-owned, part-wrote and completely edited. The exhibition opened in May and stayed open until October. By July the visitor numbers had already exceeded expectations and the exhibition had been hailed as a huge success. And yet how unsurprising to discover that discerning visitors took a dimmish view. John Ruskin was dismayed and William Morris was sick in the bushes; the Carlyles were mocking and Dickens was ambivalent. He sometimes praised the Crystal Palace in public speeches, describing it as an ‘enduring temple … to the energy, the talent, and the resources of Englishmen’, yet in private he admitted to an ‘instinctive feeling’ against it ‘of a faint, inexplicable sort’.
The Turning Point is in many ways a companion volume to Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s 2011 book, Becoming Dickens, which depicted the young Dickens at work as a reporter, lawyer’s clerk, actor and stage manager, and showed how all this fed into the making of The Pickwick Papers, the immediate