More than thirty years have elapsed since the death of Charles Dickens. The time which shaped him and sent him forth is so far behind us, as to have become a matter of historical study for the present generation; the time which knew him as one of its foremost figures, and owed so much to the influences of his wondrous personality, is already made remote by a social revolution of which he watched the mere beginning. It seems possible to regard Dickens from the stand-point of posterity; to consider his career, to review his literary work, and to estimate his total activity, as belonging to an age clearly distinguishable from our own.
When Queen Victoria came to the throne Charles Dickens was twenty-five years old. To say that he was twenty in the year 1832 is to point more significantly the period of his growth into manhood. At least a year before the passing of that Reform Bill which was to give political power to English capitalism (a convenient word of our day) Dickens had begun work as a shorthand writer, and as journalist. Before 1837 he had written his Sketches, had published them in volumes which gave some vogue to the name of "Boz", and was already engaged upon Pickwick. In short, Dickens's years of apprenticeship to life and literature were those which saw the rise and establishment of the Middle Class, commonly called "Great" -- of the new power in political and social England which owed its development to coal and steam and iron mechanism. By birth superior to the rank of proletary, inferior to that of capitalist, this young man, endowed with original genius, and with the invincible vitality demanded for its exercise under such conditions, observed in a spirit of lively criticism, not seldom of jealousy, the class so rapidly achieving wealth and rule. He lived to become, in all externals, and to some extent in the tone of his mind, a characteristic member of this privileged society; but his criticism of its foibles, and of its grave shortcomings, never ceased. The landed proprietor of Gadshill could not forget (the great writer could never desire to forget) a miserable childhood imprisoned in the limbo of squalid London; his grudge against this memory was in essence a class feeling; to the end his personal triumph gratified him, however unconsciously, as the vindication of a social claim.
Walter Scott, inheriting gentle blood and feudal enthusiasm, resisted to the last the theories of '32; and yet by irony of circumstance owed his ruin to commercial enterprise. Charles Dickens, humbly born, and from first to last fighting the battle of those in like estate, wore himself to a premature end in striving to found his title of gentleman on something more substantial than glory. The one came into the world too late the other, from this point of view, was but too thoroughly of his time.
A time of suffering, of conflict, of expansion, of progress. In the year of Dickens's birth (1812) we read of rioting workmen who smash machinery, and are answered by the argument of force. Between then and 1834, the date of the Poor Law Amendment Act, much more machinery is broken, power-looms and threshing-engines, north and south; but hungry multitudes have no chance against steam and capital. Statisticians, with rows of figures, make clear to us the vast growth of population and commerce In these same years; we are told, for instance, that between 1821 and 1841 the people of Sheffield and of Birmingham increased by 80 per cent. It is noted, too, that savings-bank deposits increased enormously during the same years: a matter for congratulation. Nevertheless, with the new Poor Law comes such a demand for new workhouses that in some four-and-twenty years we find an expenditure of five millions sterling in this hopeful direction. To be sure, a habit of pauperdom was threatening the ruin of the country -- or of such parts of it as could not be saved by coal and steam and iron. Upon the close of the Napoleonic wars followed three decades of hardship for all save the inevitably rich, and those who were able to take time by the forelock; so that side by side we have the beginnings of vast prosperity and wide prevalence of woe. Under the old law providing for the destitute by means of outdoor relief, pauperdom was doubtless encouraged; but the change to sterner discipline could not escape the charge of harshness, and among those who denounced the new rule was Dickens himself. Whilst this difference of opinion was being fought out, came a series of lean years, failure of harvests, and hunger more acute than usual, which led to the movement known as Chartism (a hint that the middle-class triumph of '32 was by no means a finality, seeing that behind that great class was a class, numerically at all events, much greater); at the same time went on the Corn-law struggles. Reading the verses of Ebenezer Elliott, one cannot but reflect on the scope in England of those days for a writer of fiction who should have gone to work in the spirit of the Rhymer, without impulse or obligation to make his books amusing. But the novelist of homely life was already at his task, doing it in his own way, picturing with rare vividness the England that he knew; and fate had blest him with the spirit of boundless mirth.
There are glimpses in Dickens of that widespread, yet obscure, misery which lay about him in his early years. As, for instance, where we read in Oliver Twist, in the description of the child's walk to London, that "in some villages large painted boards were fixed up, warning all persons who begged within the district, that they would be sent to jail". And in his mind there must ever have been a background of such knowledge, influencing his work, even when it found no place in the scheme of a story.
In a rapid view of the early nineteenth century, attention is demanded by one detail, commonly forgotten, and by the historian easily ignored, but a matter of the first importance as serving to illustrate some of Dickens's best work. In 1833, Lord Ashley (afterwards Lord Shaftesbury) entered upon his long strife with stubborn conservatism and heartless interest on behalf of little children who worked for wages in English factories and mines. The law then in force forbade children under thirteen years of age to engage in such labour for more than thirteen hours a day; legislators of that period were so struck by the humanity of the provision that no eloquence could induce them to think of superseding it. Members of the reformed House of Commons were naturally committed to sound economic views on supply and demand; they enlarged upon the immorality of interfering with freedom of contract; and, when Lord Ashley was guilty of persevering in his anti-social craze, of standing all but alone, year after year, the advocate of grimy little creatures who would otherwise have given nobody any trouble, howling insult, or ingenious calumny, long served the cause of his philosophic opponents.
Let anyone who is prone to glorify the commercial history of nineteenth-century England search upon dusty shelves for certain Reports of Commissioners in the matter of children's employments at this time of Lord Ashley's activity, and there read a tale of cruelty and avarice which arraigns the memory of a generation content so infamously to enrich itself. Those Reports make clear that some part, at all events, of modern English prosperity results from the toil of children (among them babies of five and six), whose lives were spent in the black depths of coal-pits and amid the hot roar of machinery. Poetry has found inspiration in the subject, but no verse can make such appeal to heart and conscience as the businesslike statements of a Commission. Lord Ashley's contemporaries in Parliament dismissed these stories with a smile. Employers of infant labour naturally would lend no ear to a sentimental dreamer; but it might have been presumed that at all events in one direction, that of the Church, voices would make themselves heard in defence of "these little ones". We read, however, in the philanthropist's Diary: "In very few instances did any mill-owner appear on the platform with me; in still fewer the representatives of any religious denomination". This quiet remark serves to remind one, among other things, that Dickens was not without his reasons for a spirit of distrust towards religion by law established, as well as towards sundry other forms of religion -- the spirit which, especially in his early career, was often misunderstood as hostility to religion in itself, a wanton mocking at sacred things. Such a fact should always be kept in mind in reading Dickens. It is here glanced at merely for its historical significance; the question of Dickens's religious attitude will call for attention elsewhere.
Dickens, if any writer, has associated himself with the thought of suffering childhood. The circumstances of his life confined him, for the most part, to London in his choice of matter for artistic use, and it is especially the London child whose sorrows are made so vivid to us by the master's pen. But we know that he was well acquainted with the monstrous wickedness of that child labour in mines and mills; and, find where he might the pathetic little figures useful to him in his fiction, he was always speaking. consciously, to an age remarkable for stupidity and heartlessness in the treatment of all its poorer children. Perhaps in this direction his influence was as great as in any. In recognizing this, be it remembered for how many years an Englishman of noble birth, one who, on all accounts, might have been thought likely to sway the minds of his countrymen to any worthy end, battled in vain and amid all manner of obloquy, for so simple a piece of humanity and justice. Dickens had a weapon more efficacious than mere honest zeal. He could make people laugh; and if once the crowd has laughed with you, it will not object to cry a little -- nay, it will make good resolves, and sometimes carry them out.
It was a time by several degrees harsher, coarser, and uglier than our own. Take that one matter of hanging. Through all his work we see Dickens preoccupied with the gallows; and no wonder. In his Sketches there is the lurid story of the woman who has obtained possession of her son after his execution, and who seeks the aid of a doctor, in hope of restoring the boy to life; and in so late a book as Great Expectations occurs that glimpse of murderous Newgate, which is among his finest things. His description of a hanging, written to a daily paper, is said to have had its part in putting an end to public executions; but that was comparatively late in his life; at his most impressionable time the hanging of old and young, men and women, regularly served as one of the entertainments of Londoners. Undoubtedly, even in Dickens's boyhood, manners had improved to some extent upon those we see pictured in Hogarth; but from our present stand-point the difference, certainly in poorer London, is barely appreciable. It was an age in which the English character seemed bent on exhibiting all its grossest and meanest and most stupid characteristics. Sheer ugliness of everyday life reached a limit not easily surpassed; thickheaded national prejudice, in consequence of great wars and British victories, had marvellously developed; aristocracy was losing its better influence, and power passing to a well-fed multitude, remarkable for a dogged practicality which, as often as not, meant ferocious egoism. With all this, a prevalence of such ignoble vices as religious hypocrisy and servile snobbishness. Our own day has its faults in plenty: some of them perhaps more perilous than the worst here noted of our ancestors; but it is undeniably much cleaner of face and hands, decidedly more graceful in its common habits of mind.
One has but to open at any page of Pickwick to be struck with a characteristic of social life in Dickens's youth, which implies so much that it may be held to represent the whole civilization in which he was born and bred. Mr. Pickwick and his friends all drank brandy; drank it as the simplest and handiest refreshment, at home or abroad; drank it at dawn or at midnight, in the retirement of the bed-chamber, or by the genial fireside; offered it as an invitation to good-fellowship, or as a reward of virtue in inferiors; and on a coach-journey, whether in summer or winter, held it among the indispensable comforts. "He", said Samuel Johnson, "who aspires to be a hero, must drink brandy"; and in this respect the Pickwickians achieve true heroism. Of course they pay for their glory, being frequently drunk in the most flagrant sense of the word; but to say that they "come up smiling" after it, is to use an inadequate phrase -- however appropriate to those times; he would indeed have been a sorry Pickwickian who owned to a morning's headache. If such a thing existed, unavowed, there was the proverbial remedy at hand -- "a hair of the dog". It is conceivable that, in an age to come, a student of Pickwick may point, as an obvious explanation of the marvellous flow of vitality and merriment among the people of Dickens's day, to their glorious beverage, doubtless more ethereal and yet more potent than any drink known to later mortals -- the divine liquor called brandy.
Amid this life of the young Century -- cruel, unlovely, but abounding in vital force -- there arose two masters in the art of fiction. To one of them was given the task of picturing England on its brighter side, the world of rank and fashion wealth, with but rare glances (these, however, noteworthy than is generally recognized) at the populace below. The other had for his that vast obscurity of lower town life which till then had never been turned to literary uses. Of the country poor, at a somewhat earlier date, admirable presentment had been made in the verse of Crabbe, a writer (in truth the forerunner of what is now called "realism") whose most unmerited neglect may largely be accounted for by the unfortunate vehicle of his work, the "riding-rhyme", which has lost its charm for the English ear; but poverty amid a wilderness of streets, and that Class of city population just raised above harsh necessity, no one had seriously made his theme in prose or verse. Thackeray and Dickens supplement each other, and, however wide apart the lives they depict, to a striking degree confirm each other's views of a certain era in the history of England. In their day, both were Charged with partiality, with excessive emphasis. Both being avowedly satirists, the charge can be easily understood, and to a certain point may be admitted. In the case of Dickens, with whom alone I am here Concerned, it will be part of my endeavour to vindicate him against the familiar complaint that, however trustworthy his background, the figures designed upon it, in general, are mere forms of fantasy. On re-reading his work, it is not thus that Dickens's characters, on the whole, impress me. With reserves which will appear in the course of my essay, I believe him to have been, what he always claimed to be, a very accurate painter of the human beings, no less than of the social conditions, he saw about him. He has not a wide scope; he is always noticeably at his best in dealing with an ill-defined order of English folk, a class (or classes) characterized by dulness, prejudice, dogged individuality, and manners, to say the least, unengaging. From this order he chose the living figures of his narrative, and they appear to me, all in all, no less truly representative than the persons selected by Thackeray to illustrate a higher rank of life. Readers of Dickens who exclaim at the "unreality" of his characters (I do not here speak of his conduct of a story) will generally be found unacquainted with the English lower classes of to-day; and one may remark in passing that the English people is distinguished among nationalities by the profound mutual ignorance which separates its social ranks.
One often hears it said that Dickens gives us types, not individuals; types, moreover, of the most abstract kind, something like the figures in the old Moralities: embodied hypocrisy, selfishness, pride, and so on, masking as everyday mortals. This appears to me an unconsidered judgment. Dickens's characters will pass before us and be attentively reviewed; speaking of them generally, I see in them, not abstractions, but men and women of such loud peculiarities, so aggressively individual in mind and form, in voice and habit, that they for ever proclaim themselves the children of a certain country, of a certain time, of a certain rank. Clothed abstractions do not take hold upon the imagination and the memory as these people of Dickens did from the day of their coming into life. The secret of this subtle power lay in the reality of the figures themselves. There are characters in Dickens (meant, moreover, to be leading persons of the drama) which have failed thus to make good their being; their names we may remember, but all else has become shadowy; and what is the reason of this vanishment, in contrast with the persistence of figures less important? Simply that here Dickens has presented us with types, abstractions. The social changes of the last sixty years are not small; but to anyone who really knows the lower middle class in London it will be obvious that many of the originals of Dickens still exist, still pursue the objectionable, or amusing, tenor of their way, amid new names and new forms of ugliness. Sixty years ago, grotesques and eccentricities were more common than nowadays; the Englishman, always angular and self-assertive, had grown flagrant in his egoism during the long period of combat with menacing powers; education had not set up its grindstone for all and sundry; and persons esteemed odd even in such a society abounded among high and low. For these oddities, especially among the poorer folk, Dickens had an eager eye; they were offered to him in measure overflowing; nowadays he would have to search for them amid the masses drilled into uniformity, but there they are -- the same creatures differently clad. Precisely because his books are rich in extravagances of human nature is Dickens so true a chronicler of his day and generation.
A time of ugliness: ugly religion, ugly law, ugly relations between rich and poor, ugly clothes, ugly furniture. What would Charles Dickens have made of all this had his genius been lacking in the grace of humour? Yet it is not his humour alone that will preserve him for the delight of young and old, no less than for the instruction of the studious. In his work there is a core of perpetuity; to find it we must look back upon the beginnings of his life, and on the teaching which prepared him for his life's endeavour.
Needless to recount in detail the biography of Charles Dickens. Living, he was regarded with a warmth of personal interest such as no other English writer ever inspired; all the facts of his life which could rightly become public property (and some with which the public had no concern) were known to every contemporary reader; and as yet they seem in no risk of being forgotten.
By accident he was not born a Londoner, but his life in London began while he was yet a child. His earliest impressions, however, were received at Rochester and Chatham, where he went to what was called a school, and in the time at his own disposal began to educate himself in his own way by reading the eighteenth-century novelists. A happy thing for Dickens, and for us, that he was permitted to pass these few years of opening life elsewhere than in London. He speaks of himself as "not a very robust child sitting in by-places near Rochester Castle, with a head full of Partridge, Strap, Tom Pipes, and Sancho Panza"; better from every point of view, than if he had gained his first knowledge of English life and fiction amid the brick walls of Camden Town. Dickens always had a true love of the country, especially of that which is near to picturesque old towns of historic interest; and this most precious characteristic, to which we owe some of the sweetest, freshest pages in his work, might never have developed in him but for the early years at Rochester. Very closely has he linked his memory with that district of Kent, -- nowadays, of course, like most other districts easily accessible from London, all but robbed of the old charm. At Rochester begin the adventurous travels of Mr. Pickwick; near Rochester stands the house of Gadshill; and it was Rochester that he chose for the scene of his last story, the unfinished Edwin Drood.
With London came unhappiness. David Copperfield has made universally familiar that figure of the poor little lad slaving at ignoble tasks in some by-way near the River Thames. David works for a wine-merchant, cleaning bottles; his original had for taskmasters a firm of blacking-makers. We know how sorely this memory rankled in the mind of the successful author; he kept the fact from his wife till long after marriage, and, we are told, could never bear to speak to his children of that and the like endurances. This I have seen mentioned as proof of a kind of sensitiveness not to be distinguished from snobbery. Dickens would not, like Josiah Bounderby in Hard Times, proclaim from the house-tops that he had been a poor boy toiling for a few shillings a week, and assuredly he would have preferred to look back upon a childhood like to that of his friends and neighbours; but much of his shrinking from this recollection was due to the fact that it involved a grave censure upon his parents. "It is wonderful to me", he writes, in the fragment of autobiography preserved by Forster (Life, Bk. I, chap. 2), "how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age. It is wonderful to me that, even after my descent into the poor little drudge I had been since we came to London, no one had compassion enough on me -- a child of singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily or mentally -- to suggest that something might have been spared, as certainly it might have been, to place me at any common school. Our friends, I take it, were tired out. No one made any sign. My father and mother were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so, if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a Grammar School, and going to Cambridge." In this passage the tone of feeling is unmistakable; as the boy had suffered from a sense of undeserved humiliation, so did the man feel hurt in his deepest sensibilities whenever he reflected on that evil time. His silence regarding it was a very natural reserve.
In middle age we find Dickens saying about his father, that the longer he lived, the better man he thought him. To us the elder Dickens is inevitably Mr. Micawber, and who shall say that he has no affection for that type of genial impecuniosity? To his father, no doubt, the novelist owed the happy temperament which had so large a part in his success; plainly, he owed little more. Of his mother, only one significant fact is recorded: that when at length an opportunity offered for the boy's escape from his drudgery in the blacking warehouse, Mrs. Dickens strongly objected to any such change. An unpleasant topic; enough to recognize in passing, that this incident certainly was not without its permanent effect on the son's mind.
The two years of childish hardship in London (1822-1824), which have resulted in one of the most picturesque and pathetic chapters that English literature can show, were of supreme importance in the growth of the novelist. Recollections of that time supplied him with a store of literary material upon which he drew through all the years of his best activity. In the only possible way he learnt the life of obscure London: himself a part of it, struggling and suffering in its sordid welter, at an age when the strongest impressions are received. It did not last long enough to corrupt the natural sweetness of his mind. Imagine Charles Dickens kept in the blacking warehouse for ten years; picture him striving vainly to find utterance for the thoughts that were in him, refused the society of any but boors and rascals, making, perhaps, a futile attempt to succeed as an actor, and in full manhood measuring the abyss which sundered him from all he had hoped; it is only too easy, knowing the character of the man so well, to conceive what would have resulted. But at twelve years old he was sent to school, and from that day never lost a step on the path of worldly success. In spite of all, he was one of fortune's favourites; what he had undergone turned to his ultimate advantage, and the man who at twenty-four found himself the most popular author of his time and country, might well be encouraged to see things on the cheery side and to laugh with his multitudinous public.
Dickens's biographer makes a fanciful suggestion that the fact of his having observed low life at so tender an age (from ten to twelve) accounts for the purity of tone with which that life is treated in the novelist's works. In its proper place I shall take a different view of Dickens's method in this matter; it is not to be supposed for a moment that the boy, familiar with London on its grimiest side, working in cellars, inhabiting garrets, eating in cookshops, visiting a debtor's prison (his father was in detention for a time), escaped the contamination of his surroundings. London in all its foulness was stamped on the lad's memory. He escaped in time, that was all, and his fortunate endowment did the rest.
The year 1825, then, saw him at a day-school in North London: the ordinary day-school of that time, which is as much as to say that it was just better than no school at all. One cannot discover that he learnt anything there, or from any professed teacher elsewhere, beyond the very elements of common knowledge. And here again is a point on which throughout his life Dickens felt a certain soreness; he wished to be thought, wished to be, a well-educated man, yet was well aware that in several directions he could never make up for early defects of training. In those days it was socially more important than now to have received a "classical education", and with the classics he had no acquaintance. There is no mistaking the personal note in those passages of his books which treat of, or allude to, Greek and Latin studies in a satirical spirit. True, it is just as impossible to deny that, in this particular field of English life, every sort of insincerity was rampant. Carlyle (who, by the by, was no Grecian) threw scorn upon "gerund-grinding", and with justice; Dickens delighted in showing classical teachers as dreary humbugs, and in hinting that they were such by the mere necessity of the case. Mr. Feeder, B.A., grinds, with his Greek or Latin stop on, for the edification of Toots. Dr. Blimber snuffles at dinnertime, "It is remarkable that the Romans --", and every terrified boy assumes an air of impossible interest. Even Copperfield's worthy friend, Dr. Strong, potters in an imbecile fashion over a Greek lexicon which there is plainly not the slightest hope of his ever completing. Numerous are the side-hits at this educational idol of wealthy England. For all that, remember David's self-congratulation when, his school-days at an end, he feels that he is "well-taught"; in other words, that he is possessed of the results of Dr. Strong's mooning over dead languages. Dickens had far too much sense and honesty to proclaim a loud contempt where he knew himself ignorant. For an example of the sort of thing impossible to him, see the passage in an early volume of the Goncourts' Diary, where the egregious brothers report a quarrel with Saint-Victor, a defender of the Ancients; they, in their monumental fatuity, ending the debate by a declaration that a French novel called Adolphe was from every point of view preferable to Homer. Dickens knew better than this; but, having real ground for satire in the educational follies of the day, he indulged that personal pique which I have already touched upon, and doubtless reflected that he, at all events, had not greatly missed the help of the old heathens in his battle of life. When his own boys had passed through the approved curriculum of Public School and University, he viewed the question more liberally. One of the most pleasing characters in his later work, Mr. Crisparkle in Edwin Drood, is a classical tutor, and without shadow of humbug; indeed, he is perhaps the only figure in all Dickens presenting a fair resemblance to the modern type of English gentleman.
There is no use in discussing what a man might have done had he been in important respects another man than he was. That his lack of education meant a serious personal defect in Dickens appears only too plainly throughout the story of his life; that it shows from time to time as a disadvantage in his books there is no denying. I am not concerned with criticism such as Macaulay's attack upon Hard Times, on the ground that it showed a hopeless misconception of the problems and methods of Political Economy; it seems to me that Dickens here produced a book of small merit, but this wholly apart from the question of its economic teaching. One feels, however, that the faults of such a book as Hard Times must, in some degree, be attributed to Dickens's lack of acquaintance with various kinds of literature, with various modes of thought. The theme, undoubtedly, is admirable, but the manner of its presentment betrays an extraordinary naïveté, plainly due to untrained intellect, a mind insufficiently stored. His work offers several such instances. And whilst on this point, it is as well to remember that Dickens's contemporaries did not join unanimously in the chorus of delighted praise which greeted each new book; now and then he met with severe criticism from the graver literary organs, and in most cases such censure directed itself against precisely this weakness. It was held that Dickens set himself to treat of questions beyond his scope, and made known his views with an acrimony altogether unjustified in one who had only prejudice, or, at best, humane sentiment, to go upon. Some of his letters prove how keenly he felt this kind of criticism, which of course had no effect but to confirm him in his own judgments and habits of utterance. In truth, though there were numbers of persons who could point out Dickens's shortcomings as a thinker, only one man could produce literature such as his, enriching a great part of the human race with inestimable gifts of joy and kindness. He went his way in spite of critics, and did the work appointed him.
Of the results of his neglected boyhood as they appear in the details of his life, something will be said hereafter. It would have been wonderful if from such beginnings there had developed, by its own force, a well-balanced character. In balance, in moderation, Dickens was at times conspicuously lacking, whether as man or artist. Something more of education, even in the common sense of the word, would assuredly have helped to subdue this fault in one so largely endowed with the genial virtues. He need not have lost his originality of mind. We can well enough conceive Charles Dickens ripening to the degree of wisdom which would have assured him a more quietly happy, and therefore a longer, life. But to that end other masters are needed than such as pretended to, and such as really did, instruct the unregarded son of the navy pay-officer.
If one asks (as well one may) how it came to pass that an uneducated man produced at the age of three-and-twenty a book so original in subject and treatment, so wonderfully true in observation, and on the whole so well written as Sketches by Boz, there is of course but one answer: the man had genius. But even genius is not independent of external aid. "Pray, sir," asked someone of the elder Dickens, "where was your son educated?" And the parent replied, "Why, indeed, sir, -- ha! ha! -- he may be said to have educated himself!" How early this self-instruction began we have already had a hint in that glimpse of the child sitting by Rochester Castle "with a head full of Partridge, Strap, Tom Pipes and Sancho Panza". Sancho Panza, it may perhaps be presumed, is known even to the present generation; but who were those others? Indeed, who knows anything nowadays of the great writers who nourished the young mind of Dickens? Smollett, Fielding -- perhaps, after all, it is as well that these authors do not supply the amusement of our young people. When eight or nine years old, Charles Dickens read them rapturously, all but got them by heart, and he asserts, what may be readily believed, that they did him no jot of harm. But these old novelists are strong food: a boy who is to enrich the literature of the world may well be nourished upon them; other boys, perchance, had better grow up on milder nutriment.
The catalogue of his early reading is most important; let it be given here, as Dickens gives it in David Copperfield, with additions elsewhere supplied. Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, Robinson Crusoe, The Arabian Nights, and Tales of the Genii; also volumes of Essayists: The Tatler, The Spectator, The Idler, The Citizen of the World, and a Collection of Farces edited by Mrs. Inchbald. These the child had found in his father's house at Chatham; he carried them with him in his head to London, and there found them his solace through the two years of bitter bondage. The importance of this list lies not merely in the fact that it certifies Dickens's earliest reading; it remained throughout his whole life (with very few exceptions) the sum of books dear to his memory and to his imagination. Those which he read first were practically the only books which influenced Dickens as an author. We must add the Bible (with special emphasis, the New Testament), Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Sterne; among his own contemporaries, Scott and Carlyle. Therewith we may close this tale of authors whom he notably followed through his youth of study and his career as man of letters. After success came to him (and it came so early) he never had much time for reading, and probably never any great inclination. We are told that he especially enjoyed books of travel, but they served merely as recreation. His own travels in Europe supplied him with no new authors (one hears of his trying to read some French novelist, and finding the dialogue intolerably dull), nor with any new mental pursuit. He learned to speak in French and Italian, but made very little use of the attainment. Few really great men can have had so narrow an intellectual scope. Turn to his practical interests, and there indeed we have another picture; I speak at present only of the book-lore which shaped his mind, and helped to direct his pen.
To this early familiarity with English classics is due the remarkable command of language shown even in his first sketches. When I come to speak of Dickens's style, it will be time enough to touch upon faults which are obvious; vulgarisms occur in his apprentice work, but the wonder is that they were not more frequent; assuredly they must have been, but for the literary part of that self-education which good fortune had permitted him. A thorough acquaintance with the books above mentioned made him master of that racy tongue which was demanded by his subject, and by his way of regarding it. Destined to a place in the list of writers characteristically English, he found in the works of his predecessors a natural inheritance, and without need of studious reflection came equipped to his task. Ê
No, they are not read nowadays, the old masters of the English novel; yet they must needs be read by anyone who would understand the English people. To the boy Dickens, they presented pictures of life as it was still going on about him; not much had altered; when he himself began to write fiction, his scenes, his characters, made a natural continuance 6f the stories told by Smollett, Fielding, Sterne, and Goldsmith. To us, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Nicholas Nickleby tells of a social life as far away as that described in Roderick Random; yet in another respect these books are nearer to us, of more familiar spirit, than the novel -- whatever it may be -- newest from the press and in greatest vogue. They are a part of our nationality; in both of them runs our very life-blood. However great the changes on the surface of life, England remains, and is likely to remain, the same at heart with the England of our eighteenth-century novelists. By communing with them, one breaks through the disguises of modern fashion, gauges the importance of "progress", and learns to recognize the historically essential. Before the end of this essay, I shall have often insisted on the value of Dickens's work as an expression of national life and sentiment. Born, of course, with the aptitude for such utterance, he could not have had better schooling than in the lumber-room library at Chatham. There he first heard the voice of his own thoughts. And to those books we also must turn, if the fury of to-day's existence leave us any inclination or leisure for a study of the conditions which produced Charles Dickens.
His choice of a pseudonym for the title-page of his Sketches is significant, for, as he tells us himself, "Boz" was simply a facetious nasal contraction, used in his family, of a nickname "Moses", the original Moses being no other than the son of Dr. Primrose in the Vicar of Wakefield. There is a peculiar happiness in this close link between Goldsmith and Dickens, spirits so much akin in tender humanity. Indeed, Dickens had a special affection for the Vicar of Wakefield. When thinking of his first Christmas book (and who could more have delighted in the Carol than Oliver Goldsmith?), he says that he wishes to write a story of about the same length as The Vicar. One could easily draw a parallel between the two authors; and it is certain that among the influences which made Dickens, none had more importance than the example of Goldsmith's fiction.
A word is called for by the two books, among those mentioned above, which are least connected with English traditions and English thought. The Arabian Nights and Tales of the Genii were certainly more read in Dickens's day than in ours; probably most children at present would know nothing of Eastern romance but for the Christmas pantomime. Oddly enough, Dickens seems to make more allusions throughout his work to the Arabian Nights than to any other book or author. He is not given to quoting, or making literary references; but those fairy tales of the East supply him with a good number of illustrations, and not only in his early novels. Is it merely fanciful to see in this interest, not of course an explanation, but a circumstance illustrative, of that habit of mind which led him to discover infinite romance in the obscurer life of London? Where the ordinary man sees nothing but everyday habit, Dickens is filled with the perception of marvellous possibilities. Again and again he has put the spirit of the Arabian Nights into his pictures of life by the river Thames. Some person annoyed him once by speaking of his books as "romances", and his annoyance is quite intelligible, for a "romance" in the proper sense of the word he never wrote; yet the turn of his mind was very different from that exhibited by a modern pursuer of veracity in fiction. He sought for wonders amid the dreary life of common streets; and perhaps in this direction also his intellect was encouraged when he made acquaintance with the dazzling Eastern fables, and took them alternately with that more solid nutriment of the eighteenth-century novel.
The Essayists must have done much for the refining of his intelligence; probably his reading of Addison and Steele came nearer to education, specially understood, than anything else with which he was occupied in boyhood. Long afterwards, when he had thought of a periodical publication (which was to become Household Words), he wrote about it to Forster: "I strongly incline to the notion of a kind of Spectator (Addison's) -- very cheap and pretty frequent". How strange it sounds to our ears! What editor would nowadays dream of taking Addison as his model? But Dickens was so much nearer to the age of graceful leisure, and, on one side of his personality, had profited so well by its teaching.
Of Sir Walter Scott he does not seem often to have spoken, though there is evidence in one of his American speeches that he truly admired that greater spirit. And it seems to me that Scott's influence is not to be mistaken in the narrative of Barnaby Rudge.
One artist there was, an artist with the brush and burin, of whom it may be said that Dickens assuredly learnt, though I cannot see a possibility of comparing their work, as Forster and others have done. The genius of Hogarth differed widely from that of the author of Pickwick, but it was inevitable that his profound studies of life and character should attract, even fascinate, a mind absorbed in contemplation of poverty and all its concomitants. Added thereto was the peculiar interest in the artist's name, which resulted to Dickens from his marriage at the age of twenty-four with Miss Hogarth, this lady claiming descent from her great namesake. Both men were strenuous moralists, but it would be hard to show any other point of resemblance in their methods of presenting fact. As to their humour, I am unable to find anything in Hogarth which can for a moment be compared with that quality in Dickens. Hogarth smiles, it is true, but how grimly! There prevails in him an uncompromising spirit of which the novelist had nothing whatever. Try to imagine a volume of fiction produced by the artist of Gin Lane, of The Harlot's Progress, and put it beside the books which, from Pickwick onwards, have been the delight of English homes. Puritans both of them, Hogarth shows his religion on the sterner side; Dickens, in a gentle avoidance of whatsoever may give offence to the pure in heart, the very essence of his artistic conscience being that compromise which the other scorned. In truth, as artists they saw differently. Dickens was no self-deceiver; at any moment his steps would guide him to parts of London where he could behold, and had often beheld, scenes as terrible as any that the artist struck into black and white; he looked steadily at such things, and, at the proper time, could speak of them. But when he took up the pen of the story-teller, his genius constrained him to such use, such interpretation, of bitter fact as made him beloved, not dreaded, by readers asking, before all else, to be soothingly entertained. On this point I shall have more to say presently. Enough here, that the great limner undoubtedly helped to concentrate the young writer's mind on subjects he was to treat in his own way. Evidence, were it needed, is found in the preface to Oliver Twist, where, after speaking of the romantic types of rascality then popular in fiction, he declares that only in one book has he seen the true thief depicted, namely, in the works of Hogarth.
With one artist of his own time Dickens was brought into close relations. The Sketches were illustrated by George Cruikshank; so was Oliver Twist, and a foolish bit of gossip, troublesome at the time, would have it that Oliver's history had come into being at the suggestion of certain drawings of Cruikshank's own. For my own part, I can enjoy only a few of the famous etchings in these early books; it appears to me that a man of less originality than Cruikshank's, the late Fred Barnard, has done better work in his pictures to the novels, better in the sense of more truly illustrative. But in their leaning to the grotesque, Dickens and Cruikshank were so much alike that one can at all events understand the baseless story which Dickens took all possible trouble to refute. Some years afterwards, when Cruikshank published his picture called The Bottle, intended as a blow in the cause of temperance, Dickens spoke and wrote of it with high admiration, though he had fault to find with the manner in which its lesson was conveyed. There could not but exist much sympathy between these workers on lines so similar in different arts; but beyond the fact of Dickens's liking for the artist's designs from the beginning of his own career, nothing, so far as I know, can be advanced in proof of his having been guided or prompted by Cruikshank's genius.
It was in imitation of his father's example that Dickens, by learning shorthand, prepared himself to become, first a reporter in one of the offices in Doctors'-Commons (the remarkable region so well known from David Copperfield), and after that in the gallery of the House. Thus far had he got at nineteen. With the vivacious energy which was always his leading characteristic, he made himself, forthwith, a journalist of mark in the sphere to which he was restricted. Prior to this, whilst earning his livelihood as a clerk in an attorney's office, he had somehow read a good deal at the British Museum, and had devoted most of his evenings to the theatre. It may safely be said that the evening amusement was much more important in its results than any formal study he undertook; unless, indeed, -- a not improbable conjecture -- he, like Charles Lamb, sought the reading-room of the Museum chiefly for dramatic literature. At this time of his life, Dickens had resolved upon a theatrical career; whether as dramatist or actor he did not much mind, feeling equal to either pursuit. His day's drudgery, however thoroughly performed, was endured only in the hope of release as soon as he found his chance upon the stage. Of course he would have succeeded in either capacity, though with a success far less brilliant than fate had in store for him. He did in the end become, if not strictly an actor, at all events a public entertainer whose strongest effects were produced by the exercise of melodramatic talent; as an amateur, he acted frequently throughout his life. His attempts at dramatic authorship -- The Strange Gentleman, a farce played in 1836; The Village Coquettes, a libretto, produced in the same year; and The Lamplighter, a farce written in 1838, but never acted -- gave no serious proof of his powers in this direction; they were hurriedly thrown off at the time when his literary fame was already beginning. But in the year or two before he wrote his Sketches, when the consciousness of vague ability and high ambition made him restive in his mechanical calling of shorthand writer, he applied to the manager of Covent Garden Theatre for an opportunity of showing what he could do. The accident of illness interfered with an appointment granted him, and, owing to advance in journalism, the application was not renewed. Plainly Dickens came very near indeed to entering upon the actor's life, and so close throughout U is his connection with the theatrical world, that one cannot glance at this incident as a mere detail in the story of his youth. It declares a natural bent of mind, not the passing inclination which is so often felt by lads more or less gifted.
When, in the full enjoyment of his power, Dickens amused himself and served charitable ends by getting up dramatic performances, we note a significance in his selection of a play. He chose Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, himself taking the part of Bobadil. How early he read Ben Jonson, I am unable to say; I should like to be assured that it was in those hours spent at the British Museum, when all his work yet lay before him. One can well imagine the delight of Dickens in a first acquaintance with rare Ben. Forster gives an excellent description of the zeal and gusto with which his friend entered into the character of Bobadil; how for some weeks he actually became Bobadil, talking him and writing him on every opportunity. What more natural than his enjoyment of the sterling old writer whose strength lay in the exhibition of extravagant humours! Dickens had no such life about him as the Elizabethan; in comparison, his world was starved and squalid; but of the humours of the men he knew -- humours precisely in Jonson's sense -- he made richer use than anything in that kind known to English literature since the golden age. All Dickens might be summed in the title of Jonson's play; no figure but is representative of a "humour", running at times into excesses hardly surpassed by Ben himself. On several occasions (1845-50) he acted in this comedy, and one can hardly doubt that it helped to confirm his tendency to exuberance of grotesque characterization.
So much, then, for that part of his self-education which came from books. Meanwhile life had been supplying him with abundant experience, which no one knew better than Dickens how to store and utilize. Theéphile Gautier, an observer of a very different type, says somewhere of himself: "Toute ma valeur, c'est que je suis un homme pour qui le monde visible existe"; in Dickens this was far from the sole, or the supreme, quality; but assuredly few men have known so well how to use their eyes. A student is commonly inobservant of outward things; Dickens, far from a bookish youth, looked about him in those years of struggle for a livelihood with a glance which missed no minutest feature of what he saw. We are told that his eyes were very bright, impressing all who met him with a sense of their keenness. Keen they were in no ordinary sense; for they pierced beneath the surface, and (in Lamb's phrase) discerned the quiddity of common objects. Everything he looked upon was registered in his mind, where at any moment he could revive the original impression, and with his command of words, vital, picturesque, show the thing to others.
His work as attorney's clerk lasted for not quite two years (1827-28); his reportership in the courts of Doctors'-Commons seems to have been of even shorter duration; but in this time he probably acquired most of his knowledge of the legal world, which was shown first of all in Pickwick, and continued to appear, in one form or another, throughout his books. For exactitude of observation, this group of professional figures, from office-boy up to judge, is the most valuable thing in Dickens. It strikes one as noteworthy, on the other hand, that he never cared to use his experience of journalism. Practically, he once attempted to resume his connection with the press, and became editor of The Daily News -- for not quite three weeks (1846); but the novels (unless we take account of the caricatures in Pickwick) have no concern with that side of literary life. Within limits the picture is supplied by Thackeray. But Dickens might have put to wonderful service his memories of the time when he reported for the True Sun, the Mirror of Parliament, and the Morning Chronicle (1831-36). He told the story, long afterwards, in one of the best and brightest of his speeches, that given at the dinner of the Newspaper Press Fund in 1865; when, speaking to a generation which travelled by steam, he recalled how he had been upset in almost every description of vehicle known in this country, and had carried reports to his editor in the teeth of difficulties insuperable by any man of merely common energy and resource. What use he made of his experiences in travel by highway and byway, we know well, for these are among his characteristic pages. Never is Dickens more joyously himself than when he tells of stage-coach and posting-vehicles. He tried his hand at a description of the railway, but with no such gusto, no such success. His youth belonged to the pre-locomotive time, the time of jolly faring on English roads -- jolly in spite of frost and rain, and discomforts innumerable. All this he has made his own, and he learned it as a newspaper reporter.
For the acquiring of knowledge of his own country he could hardly have been better placed. Hither and thither he sped, north and south, east and west, to report the weighty words of orators now long forgotten. He saw most English towns; he marked with pleasure the hamlets and villages; of inns, great and small, he learnt all that man is capable of learning. And in that old England, there was more of the picturesque, more of the beautiful, than we see to-day. I have insisted upon the ugliness of the life of that time; indeed, it can hardly be exaggerated; but there is another aspect of Dickens's England, one which might be illustrated with ample detail from all his better books. Side by side with the increase of comfort (or of luxury), with that lightening of dark places which is surely good, goes on the destruction of so much one would fain preserve. Think, for instance, of Yarmouth, as seen in David Copperfield, and the Yarmouth of this year's railway advertisements. What more need be said!
Not only, then, in London, but through the length and breadth of the land, Dickens was seeing and studying his countrymen. Nothing that he learnt embittered him, any more than had his own hardships in the years happily gone by; but he noted many a form of suffering, with the tyranny, great or small, the hypocrisy and the thickheadedness which were responsible for it; and when his time came, he knew how to commend these things to the sympathy, the indignation, the mirth of larger audiences than any author had yet controlled. Overflowing with the enjoyment of life, he naturally found more sunshine than gloom, whether in crowded streets, or by the wayside with its scattered wanderers. Now, as always, he delighted in the amusements of the people, in fairs and shows, and every sort of humble entertainment. A conjurer, a fortuneteller, a shabby acrobat, a cheap-Jack -- one and all were irresistible to him; he could not pass a menagerie, a circus, a strolling troop of players; the squeak of Punch had as much charm for him as for any child. Merely to mention such folk is to call up a host of reminiscences from the books which bear his name. He had not the vagabond nature which we see, for instance, in George Borrow; he is a man of the town, of civilization; but the forms of vagabondage which arise amid a great population, quaint survivals, ragged eccentricities, laughter-moving incarnations of rascality and humbug, excited his unfailing interest. He lived to take his place in a society of wealth, culture, and refinement; but his heart was always with the people, with the humble-minded and those of low estate. Among these he had found the material for his genius to work upon, and, most important of all, among these he learnt to make himself the perfect mouthpiece of English homeliness.
In Oliver Twist we come upon a casual mention, quite serious, of "continental frivolities". The phrase is delightfully English, and very characteristic of Dickens's mind when he began to write. Ten years later he would not have used it; he outgrew that narrowness; but it was well that he knew no better at five-and-twenty. Insularity in his growing time was needful to him, and must be counted for a virtue.
A year before Queen Victoria's accession, appeared, in two volumes, Sketches by Boz, illustrative of Everyday Life and Everyday People, a collection of papers which had already seen the light in periodicals. This book came from a 'prentice hand, but it contains in germ all the future Dickens. Glance at the headings of the pages; here we have the Beadle and all connected with him, London streets, theatres, shows, the pawnshop, Doctors'-Commons, Christmas, Newgate, coaching, the River; here we have a satirical picture of Parliament, fun made of cheap snobbery, a rap on the knuckles of sectarianism. Hardly a topic associated with Dickens in his maturity is missing from the earliest attempts. What could be more prophetic than the title of the opening chapters -- Our Parish? With the Parish a large one, indeed -- Dickens to the end concerned himself; therein lay his force, his secret of vitality. He began with a rapid survey of his whole field; hinting at all he might accomplish, indicating the limits he was not to pass.
He treats at once of the lower middle class, where he will be always at his best; with the class below it, with those who literally earn bread in the sweat of their brows, he was better acquainted than any other novelist of his time, but they figure much less prominently in his books. To the lower middle class, a social status so peculiarly English, so rich in virtues yet so provocative of satire, he by origin belonged; in its atmosphere he always breathed most freely, and had the largest command of his humorous resources. Humour is a characteristic of Boz, but humour undeveloped, tentative; merely a far-off promise of the fruit which ripened so rapidly. There is joking about the results of matrimony, a primitive form of facetiousness which belongs to the time and the class, and which it took Dickens a good many years to shake off. Vulgarity was, of course, inseparable from his subject, and that the young author should have been himself involved in the charge is easily understood. A vulgar expression may be here and there discovered (I mean, of course, in the author's own words), but the tone of the whole work is as far from vulgarity as that of the eighteenth-century sketches and meditations of which we are occasionally reminded. As for the form, it strikes one as more original than that of the subsequent books. No one, indeed, had ever made such use as this of materials taken from the very dust-heap of decent London life; such common paltry stuff of the town, yet here so truthfully described, with such intimate touches, such glimpses of mirthful motive, as come only from the hand of the born artist. Veracity I take to be the high merit of these sketches. Dickens has not yet developed his liking for the grotesquely original; he pictures the commonplace, with no striving for effect, and admirably succeeds. Some of these descriptions of the town in its various aspects, day and night, he never surpassed; they abound in detail, yet never by any chance admit a false note. His persons live and move; you may encounter nearly all of them to-day, affected by the course of time, but still recognizable from his fine portraiture. It was no slight achievement for a youth of four-and-twenty, this putting on record once for all of so large and significant a portion of English life.
Therewith ended Dickens's apprenticeship. He had stored his material, was on the point of attaining full command of his powers. When next he sat down to write he produced a masterpiece.
A glance over the literary annals of the time during which Dickens was apprentice to his craft shows us, in fiction, the names of Disraeli, Peacock, Mrs. Norton, Bulwer, Ainsworth, and Marryat. One and all signify little to the coming master, though he professed a high esteem for the romances of Lord Lytton, and with Captain Marryat shared the tradition of the eighteenth-century novelists. Tennyson had already come forth; Browning had printed a poem; Sartor Resartus had "got itself published", and was waiting for readers. In another sphere, Tracts for the Times were making commotion; regarding which matter the young student of life doubtless had already his opinion. It is of more interest to note that in 1832 were established Chambers's Journal and Knight's Penny Magazine; indicative of the growth of a new public, a class of readers which no author had hitherto directly addressed, and which was only to be reached by publication in the cheapest form. From the preface to Oliver Twist we learn that romances of highwaymen had much vogue, of course among the populace, and about this time Ainsworth responded to the demand with his Jack Skeppard. Against this prevalent glorification of rascality Dickens directed his first novel, properly so called.
Pickwick cannot be classed as a novel; it is merely a great book. Everyone knows that it originated in the suggestion of a publisher that the author of Sketches by Boz should write certain facetious chapters to accompany certain facetious drawings; it was to be a joke at the expense of Cockney sportsmen. Dickens obtained permission to write in his own way. Of the original suggestion there remains Mr. Winkle with the gun; for the rest, this bit of hackwork became a good deal more than the writer himself foresaw. Obviously he sat down with only the vaguest scheme; even the personality of his central figure was not clear to him. A pardonable fault, when the circumstances are known, but the same defect appears in all Dickens's earlier books; he only succeeded in correcting it when his imaginative fervour had begun to cool, and in the end he sought by the artifices of an elaborate plot to make up for the decline of qualities greatly more important. In considering Dickens as an artist, I propose first of all to deal with the construction of his stories. Let it be understood that in the resent chapter I discuss the novels solely from this point of view, postponing consideration of those features of the master's work which are his strength and his glory.
However ill-constructed, Pickwick, I imagine, was never found uninteresting. One may discourse about it in good set terms, pointing out that it belongs to a very old school of narrative, and indicating resemblances with no less a work than Don Quixote -- Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller being in some degree the antitypes of the Knight of La Mancha and Sancho. Intrigue there is none (save in the offices of Messrs. Dodson and Fogg). The thing is aimed at the reader's diaphragm, and, by ricochet, touches his heart. Lord Campbell declared that he would rather have written Pickwick than be Chief Justice of England; yet here we have simply the rambles and accidents and undignified escapades of certain Londoners, one of them accompanied by a manservant, whom he picked up as boots at an inn; we have a typical London landlady, a breach-of-promise case, and a debtors' prison. What unpromising material, in the year 1837, for any author but the one who knew how to make immortal use of it!
As in the Sketches we found the germ of all Dickens, so in this second book, not yet a novel, may we mark tendencies soon to have full development. The theme itself admitting no great variety of tone, we have the time-honoured device of episodic stories; one of them shows that melodramatic bent which was to be of such importance in future books; another, the tale of Gabriel Grub, gives, thus early, a hint of the Christmas fantasies which so greatly strengthened their author's hold on the popular admiration and love. The close gives us our first example of Dickens's resolute optimism. Everybody (or all but everybody) is to be made happy for ever after; knavish hearts are softened by gratitude, and those of the good beat high in satisfied benevolence. This is the kind of thing that delights the public, and lucky would be the public if it were often offered to them with a rich sincerity like that of Dickens. With Oliver Twist we take up the tradition of English novel-writing; at once we are reminded of the old books in the library at Chatham. Scenes and people and tone are new, but the manner is that long ago established. As for construction, there is a little, and a very little, more of it than in Pickwick; it is badly managed, so badly, that one seeks to explain the defect by remembering that the early part of Oliver and the last part of Pickwick were in hand simultaneously. Yet not in this book alone did Dickens give proof of an astonishing lack of skill when it came to inventing plausible circumstances. Later, by sheer force of resolve, he exhibited ingenuity enough, often too much for his purpose; but the art of adapting simple probabilities to the ends of a narrative he never mastered. In his plots, unfortunately, he is seldom concerned with the plain motives of human life. (Observe that I am speaking of his plots.) Too often he prefers some far-fetched eccentricity, some piece of knavishness, some unlikely occurrence, about which to weave his tale. And this, it seems to me, is directly traceable to his fondness for the theatre. He planned a narrative as though plotting for the stage. When the necessities of intrigue did not weigh upon him -- as happily was so often the case in his roomy stories -- he could forget the footlights; at the first demand for an "effect", gas and limelight are both turned on. Cannot we often hear the incidental music? Dickens's love for the stage was assuredly a misfortune to him, as author and as man.
In the idle mysteries which are made to surround Oliver, and in the incredible weakness of what is meant to be the darkest part of the story, we have pure stage-work. Chapter XVII contains a passage ridiculing the melodrama of the time, a tissue of mediæval villanies; what Dickens himself did, in these worst moments of his invention, was to use the motives of standard melodrama on a contemporary subject. Even the dialogue occasionally proves this. "Wolves tear your throats!" growls Bill Sikes, fleeing from his pursuers -- a strange exclamation for a London burglar. And again, when brought to bay after the murder he calls one of the horrified thieves "this screeching Hell-Babe" -- phrase natural enough on the boards of the Adelphi Theatre, but incongruous in a London slum. That part of the book in which Rose Maylie and her lover appear smacks rather of the circulating library than of the stage. We read of Rose in distress that "a heavy wildness came over her soft blue eyes". I cannot remember that Dickens was ever again guilty of such a phrase as this; but the theatric vice appears in his construction to the end.
In the years 1838 and 1839 he did far too much. Nicholas Nickleby was begun long before the end of Oliver Twist, as Oliver was begun before the end of Pickwick. Ill-considered engagements so pressed upon him that in February, 1839, we find him appealing to his publisher for patience, and expressing an opinion that "the conduct of three different stories at the same time, and the production of a large portion of each every month, would have been beyond Scott himself". It came as a natural result of his sudden and great success. Finally, he put himself at ease by a simple refusal to be bound by his undertakings; an extreme step, but one which has to be balanced against the interested calculations of a shrewd publisher.
It is plain that Nickleby suffered from these circumstances of undue stress; in spite of its popularity, and of merits presently to be recognized, it is the least satisfactory of the group of books written before Dickens's first visit to America. Five books in five years, from Pickwick in 1837 to Barnaby Rudge in 1841-a record nothing like that of Scott, but wonderful as the work of a man with only half Scott's length of experience to draw upon. Nickleby being much longer than its predecessor, the faulty construction is more felt, and becomes a weariness, an irritation; that is to say, if one thinks of the matter at all, which one never should in reading Dickens. Again we are involved in melodrama of the feeblest description; towards the end of the story there are wastes of stagey dialogue and action, unreadable by any but the very young. All this is quite unworthy of the author; but, following upon Oliver, it indicated the limits of his power as a novelist. Dickens never had command of "situation", though he was strong in incident. A great situation must be led up to by careful and skilful foresight in character and event -- precisely where his resources always failed him. Thus, scenes which he intended, and perhaps thought, to be very effective, fall fiat through their lack of substance. A mature reader turns away in disgust, and, if he belong to a hasty school of modern criticism, henceforth declares that Dickens is hopelessly antiquated, and was always vastly overpraised.
Here, for the last time, we have episodic stories; admissible enough in a book which, for all its faults, smacks so of the leisurely old fiction. In The Old Curiosity Shop, which came next, there is more originality of design: one does not smell the footlights, but has, instead, delicious wafts of freshness from the fields and lanes of England. Of course we find an initial vice of construction, inseparable from Dickens's habit at that time of beginning to write without any settled scheme. Master Humphrey opens with talk of himself, enters upon a relation of something that befell him in his wanderings, and of a sudden -- the author perceiving this necessity -- vanishes from the scene, which is thenceforth occupied by the figures he has served to introduce. In other words, readers of the periodical called Master Humphrey's Clock having shown some impatience with its desultory character, Dickens converted into a formal novel the bit of writing which he had begun as sketch or gossip. Nowadays it would be all but impossible for a writer of fiction, who by any accident should have written and published serially a work with such a fault of design, to republish it in a volume without correcting the faulty part; a very slight degree of literary conscientiousness, as we understand it, would impose this duty; nay, fear of the public would exact it. But such a thing never occurred to Dickens. Conscientious he was in matters of his art, as we shall have occasion to notice, but the art itself was less exacting in his day; a multitude applauded, and why should he meddle with what they had so loudly approved? In the same way we find Walter Scott coming one fine day upon an old manuscript of his own -- two or three chapters of a romance long ago begun and thrown aside. He reads the pages, smiles over them, and sits down to complete the story. In reading the proofs of Waverley, if not before, Scott must have been well aware of the great gap between its two portions, of the difference of style, the contrast of tone: the early chapters so obviously an experiment, the latter mature and masterly. It would have taken him a very few hours to rewrite the beginning; but why? The whole thing was done for his amusement. The public, in its turn, was something more than amused. And our grave Art of Fiction, a stern task-mistress, had nothing to do with the matter.
For the rest, The Old Curiosity Shop is greatly superior from this point of view to the previous novels. The story has more of symmetry; it moves more regularly to its close, and that close is much more satisfying; it remains in one's mind as a whole, with no part that one feels obtrusive or incongruous or wearily feeble. In writing the last portion, Dickens was so engrossed by his theme that he worked at unusual hours, prolonging the day's labour into the night -- never, of course, a habit with a man of his social instincts. The book gained thereby its unity of effect. It is a story in the true sense, and one of the most delightful in our language.
Last of this early group -- product of continuous effort through five of the happiest years that man ever lived -- comes Barnaby Rudge, which is in part a story of private life, in part a historical novel. The two portions are not well knit together; the interest with which we begin is lost in far wider interests before we end; nevertheless Barnaby is free from Dickens's worst vices of construction. Granting the imperfection of the scheme, it is closely wrought, and its details are not ill-contrived. One defect forced upon our attention is characteristic of Dickens: his inability to make skilful revelation of circumstances which, for the purpose of the story, he has kept long concealed. This skill never came to him; with apology for so disrespectful a word, he must be held to have bungled all his effects of this kind, and there can be no doubt that the revealing of the mystery of Edwin Drood would have betrayed the old inability. Permit Dickens to show us the life he knew in its simple everyday course, and he is unsurpassed by any master of fiction; demand from him a contrived story, and he yields at once to the very rank and file of novelists.
A peculiarity of this book is the frequent opening of a chapter with several lines of old-fashioned moralizing, generally on the compensations of life. Later, Dickens found a happy substitute for this kind of thing in his peculiar vein of good-humoured satire, which had a more practical if a narrower scope.
The year 1842 was a turning-point in his career. He paid his first visit to America, and came back with his ideas enlarged on many subjects. After publishing American Notes, and the first of his Christmas books, the Carol, he completed, in 1844, what is in some respects the greatest of his works, Martin Chuzzlewit. The fact that such a judgment is possible shows how little the characteristic merit of Dickens's writings has to do with their completeness as works of art; for a novel more shapeless, a story less coherent than Martin Chuzzlewit, will not easily be found in any literature. Repeated readings avail not to fix it in one's mind as a sequence of events; we know the persons, we remember many a scene, but beyond that all is a vague reminiscence. I repeat, that one can only feel astonishment at the inability of such a man as Dickens to scheme better than this. Had he but trusted to some lucid narrative, however slight! Misled by the footlights, he aims at a series of "effects", every one void of human interest, or, at best, an outrage upon probability. He involves himself in complications which necessitate leaps and bounds of perverse ingenuity. And at last, his story frankly hopeless, he cuts through knots, throws difficulties into oblivion, and plays up his characters to a final rally; so sure of his touch upon the readers' emotions that he can disregard their bewilderment. The first chapter, a very dull, long-drawn piece of ridicule directed against the supposed advantages of "birth", has nothing whatever to do with the story; the book would gain by its omission. Dickens in a splenetic mood (a rare thing) is far from at his best. Chuzzlewit surpasses all his novels in the theatrical conventionality of its great closing scene -- its grand finale (see Chapter LII). Around old Martin (at the centre of the stage) are grouped all the dramatis personæ, whether they have any business there or not; Mrs. Gamp, Poll Sweedlepipe, and young Bailey coming in without rhyme or reason, simply to complete the circle. It is magnificent: the brilliant triumph of stage tradition. But it does not suffice; something more is needed that the reader's appetite for a cheerful ending may have entire satisfaction; therefore, before the book closes, who should turn up in the heart of London but that very family of miserable emigrants whom Martin and Tapley had left behind them in the wild west of America! Here they are, at the foot of the Monument, close by Todgers' -- arrived on purpose to shake hands with everyone, and to fill the cup of benevolent rejoicing. What man save Dickens ever dared so much; what man will ever find the courage to strike that note again!
It is necessary to bear in mind that these novels appeared in monthly parts -- twenty of them -- and that the author began publishing with only three or four parts completed. Such a mode of writing accounts for many things. Dickens admitted certain disadvantages, but always held that this was the best way of pursuing his art. Of course the novel became an improvisation. In beginning Chuzzlewit, he had no intention whatever of sending his hero to America; the resolve was taken, suddenly, when a declining sale proved that the monthly instalments were not proving so attractive as usual. Impossible ever to make changes in the early chapters of a story, however urgently the artist's conscience demanded it; impossible, in Dickens's case, to see mentally as a whole the work on which he was engaged. What he had written, he had written; it had to serve its purpose. One can only lament that such were the defects of his inimitable qualities.
The next great book was not finished till 1848; meanwhile there had been travel and residence on the Continent -- a bright chapter in Dickens's life, but without noteworthy influence on his work. His Italian sketches are characteristic of the man; one cannot say more. Among the Alps he wrote Dombey and Son, not without trouble due to the unfamiliar surroundings. "You can hardly imagine", he declares to Forster, "what infinite pains I take, or what extraordinary difficulty I find in getting on fast. . . . I suppose this is partly the effect of two years' ease, and partly of the absence of the streets and numbers of figures. I can't express how much I want these. It seems as if they supplied something to my brain, which I cannot bear, when busy, to lose." In truth, away from London he was cut off from the source of his inspiration; but he had a memory stored with London pictures. He tells us, and we can well believe him, that, whilst writing, he saw every bed in the dormitory of Paul's school, every pew in the church where Florence was married. In which connection it is worth mentioning that not till the year 1855 did Dickens keep any sort of literary memorandum-book. After all his best work was done, he felt misgivings which prompted him to make notes. A French or English realist, with his library of documents, may muse over this fact -- and deduce from it what he pleases.
Dombey is the first of the novels which have a distinct moral theme; its subject is Pride. Here there is no doubt that Dickens laid down the broad outlines of his story in advance, and adhered to them; we feel that the book is built up with great pains, with infinite endeavour to make a unity. The advance is undeniable (of course we have lost something, for all that), but one cannot help noticing that with the death of Paul ends a novel which is complete in itself, a novel more effective, I think, than results from the prolonged work. Dickens tells, in letters, of the effort it cost him to transfer immediately all the interest of his story from the dead boy to his sister Florence; the necessity for it was unfortunate. As usual, we have loud melodrama side by side with comedy unsurpassed for its delicate touches of truth and fancy. The girl Alice and her disreputable mother, pendants to Edith Dombey and Mrs. Skewton, are in mid-limelight; perhaps Dickens never so boldly defied the modesty of nature as here, both in character and situation. An instance of farfetched and cumbrous contrivance, with gross improbability added to it, is Mr. Dombey's discovery of the place to which his wife has fled. Nothing easier than to bring about the same end by simple and probable means; but Dickens had an "effect" in view -- of the kind that so strangely satisfied him. His melodrama serves an end which is new in Dombey, though afterwards of frequent occurrence: that of bringing together, in strangely intimate relations, figures to delight in this. His best use of the motive representing social extremes. Dickens came is in Bleak House; and a striking instance occurs in the last pages he ever wrote.
It was whilst telling the story of little Paul, a victim of excessive parental care, that, perhaps by force of contrast, the novelist looked back upon his own childhood, and thought of turning it to literary use. We learn from Forster (Book i, chap. 2) that in the year 1847 was written a chapter of reminiscences which Dickens at first intended to be the beginning of an autobiography. Wisely, no doubt, he soon abandoned this idea; but the memory of his own sad childhood would not be dismissed, and it made the groundwork of his next novel (1850), David Copperfield. Dickens held this to be his best book, and the world has agreed with him. In no other does the narrative move on with such full sail from first to last. He wrote from his heart; picturing completely all he had suffered as a child, and even touching upon the domestic trouble of his later life. It is difficult to speak of David Copperfield in terms of cool criticism, but for the moment I am concerned only with its form, and must put aside the allurement of its matter. Once more, then, combined with lavish wealth of description, character, pathos, humour, we meet with poverty of invention, abuse of drama. All the story of Emily (after her childhood) is unhappily conceived. (Of course this part of the book was at once dramatized and acted.) Such a subject lay wholly beyond Dickens's scope, and could not be treated by him in any but an unsatisfactory way. The mysteries surrounding Mr. Wickham, the knaveries of Uriah Heep, have no claim upon our belief; intrigue half-heartedly introduced merely because intrigue seems necessary; even Mr. Micawber, in all his robust reality, has to walk among these airy figments, and play his theatrical part. In the scene between Emily and Rosa Dartle (Chapter L) the orchestra plays very loudly indeed; every word has its accompanying squeak or tremolo. But enough; one has not the heart to dwell upon the shortcomings of such a book.
It may be noted, however, with what frankness Dickens accepts the conventionality of a story told in the first person. David relates in detail conversations which take place before he is born, and makes no apology for doing so. Why should he? The point never occurs to the engrossed reader. In Bleak House, where the same expedient is used (in part), such boldness is not shown, though the convention still demands abundant sacrifice of probability in another way. Finally, in Great Expectations we have a narrative in the first person, which, granting to the narrator nothing less than Dickens's own equipment of genius, preserves verisimilitude with remarkable care, nothing being related, as seen or heard, which could not have been seen or heard by the writer. This instance serves to show that Dickens did become conscious of artistic faults, and set himself to correct them. But, in the meantime, he had touched the culmination of his imaginative life, and a slight improvement in technical correctness could not compensate the world's loss when his characteristic strength began to fail and his natural force to be abated.
Bleak House (1853) is constructed only too well. Here Dickens applied himself laboriously to the perfecting of that kind of story he had always had in view, and produced a fine example of theatrical plot. One cannot say, in this case, that the intrigue refuses to be remembered; it is a puzzle, yet ingeniously simple; the parts fitting together very neatly indeed. So neatly, that poor untidy Life disclaims all connection with these doings, however willingly she may recognize for her children a score or so of the actors. To be sure there are oversights. How could Dickens expect one to believe that Lady Dedlock recognized her lover's handwriting in a piece of work done by him as law-writer -- she not even knowing that he was so employed? What fate pursued him that he could not, in all the resources of his brain, hit upon a device for such a simple end more convincing than this? Still, with an end not worth attaining, the author here wrought successfully. The story is child's play compared with many invented, for instance, by Wilkie Collins; but in combination with Dickens's genuine powers, it produces its designed effect; we move in a world of choking fog and squalid pitfalls, amid plot and counterplot, cold self-interest and passion over-wrought, and can never refuse attention to the magician who shows it all.
I have left it to this place to speak of the sin, most gross, most palpable, which Dickens everywhere commits in his abuse of "coincidence Bleak House is the supreme example of his recklessness. It seems never to have occurred to him, thus far in his career, that novels and fairy tales (or his favourite Arabian Nights) should obey different laws in the matter of incident. When Oliver Twist casually makes acquaintance with an old gentleman in the streets of London, this old gentleman of course turns out to be his relative, who desired of all things to discover the boy. When Steerforth returns to England from his travels with Emily, his ship is of course wrecked on the sands at Yarmouth, and his dead body washed up at the feet of David Copperfield, who happened to have made a little journey to see his Yarmouth friends on that very day. In Bleak House scarcely a page but presents some coincidence as glaring as these. Therein lies the worthlessness of the plot, which is held together only by the use of coincidence in its most flagrant forms. Grant that anything may happen just where or when the interest of the story demands it, and a neat drama may pretty easily be constructed. The very boldness of the thing prevents readers from considering it; indeed most readers take the author's own view, and imagine every artificiality to be permitted in the world of fiction.
Dickens was content to have aroused interest, wonder, and many other emotions. The conception of the book is striking; the atmosphere could hardly be better; even the melodrama (as in '(rook's death by spontaneous combustion) justifies itself by magnificent workmanship. No doubt the generality of readers are wise, and it is pedantry to object to the logical extremes of convention in an art which, without convention, would not exist.
One wishes that Esther Summerson had not been allowed to write in her own person -- or rather to assume, with such remarkable success, the personality of Charles Dickens. This well-meaning young woman, so blind to her own merits, of course had no idea that she was a great humorist and a writer of admirable narrative; but readers (again the reflective few) are only too much impressed by her powers. Again one closes his eyes, and suffers a glad illusion. But for the occasional "I" one may easily enough forget that Miss Summerson is speaking.
I must pass rapidly over the novels that remain. Of Little Dorrit (1855), as of Martin Chuzzlewit, who can pretend to bear the story in mind? There is again a moral theme: the evils of greed and vulgar ambition. As a rule, we find this book dismissed rather contemptuously; it is held to be tedious, and unlike Dickens in its prevalent air of gloom. For all that, I believe it to contain some of his finest work, some passages in which he attains an artistic finish hardly found elsewhere; and to these I shall return. There were reasons why the book should be lacking in the old vivacity -- never indeed to be recovered, in so far as it had belonged to the golden years of youth; it was written in a time of domestic unhappiness and of much unsettlement, the natural result of which appeared three years later, when Dickens left the study for the platform. As a narrative, Little Dorrit is far from successful; it is cumbered with mysteries which prove futile, and has no proportion in its contrasting parts. Here and there the hand of the master is plainly weary.
More so, however, in the only other full-length novel which he lived to complete. None of his books is so open to the charge of tedious superfluity as Our Mutual Friend (i865); on many a page dialogue which is strictly no dialogue at all, but mere verbosity in a vein of forced humour, drags its slow length along in caricature of the author at his best. A plot, depending on all manner of fantastic circumstances, unfolds itself with dreary elaboration, and surely delights no one. Yet I have a sense of ingratitude in speaking thus of Our Mutual Friend; for in it Dickens went far towards breaking with his worst theatrical traditions, and nowhere, I think, irritates one with a violent improbability in the management of his occurrences. The multiplication of wills, as Dickens insisted in reply to criticism, need not trouble anyone who reads the newspapers; at worst it lacks interest. With anything, however, but gratification, one notes that the author is adapting himself to a new time, new people, new manners. Far behind us are the stage-coach and the brandy-drinkers; the age, if more respectable, has become decidedly duller. Even so with Dickens; he feels the constraint of a day to which he was not born, and whilst bending himself to its demands, succeeds only in making us regret the times gone by.
For new schools of fiction have meanwhile arisen in England. Charlotte Brontë has sent forth her three books; Kingsley is writing, and Charles Reade, and Anthony Trollope; George Meredith, and, later, George Eliot, have begun their careers. We are in the time of "The Origin of Species". A veteran in every sense but the literal, Dickens keeps his vast popularity, but cannot hope to do more than remind his readers (and his hearers) of all that he had achieved.
Of Hard Times, I have said nothing; it is practically a forgotten book, and little in it demands attention. Two other short novels remain to be mentioned (the Christmas books A belong to a class that does not call for criticism in this place), and one of them, Great Expectations (1861), would be nearly perfect in its mechanism but for the unhappy deference to Lord Lytton's judgment, which caused the end to be altered. Dickens meant to have left Pip a lonely man, and of course rightly so; by the irony of fate he was induced to spoil his work through a brother novelist's desire for a happy ending -- a strange thing, indeed, to befall Dickens. Observe how finely the narrative is kept in one key. It begins with a mournful impression -- the foggy marshes spreading drearily by the seaward Thames-and throughout recurs this effect of cold and damp and dreariness; in that kind Dickens never did anything so good. Despite the subject, we have no stage fire -- except around the person of Mr. Wopsle, a charming bit of satire, recalling and contrasting with the far-off days of Nickleby. The one unsatisfactory feature is the part concerned with Miss Havisham and Estella. Here the old Dickens survives in unhappy fashion; unable to resist the lure of eccentricity, but no longer presenting it with the gusto which was wont to be more than an excuse. Passing this, one can hardly overpraise the workmanship. No story in the first person was ever better told.
Of the Tale of Two Cities (1859) it is impossible to speak so favourably. Like Barnaby Rudge a historical novel, it is better constructed than that early book, but by no means so alive. In his two novels dealing with a past time, Dickens attacks the two things he most hated in the present: religious fanaticism and social tyranny. Barnaby is in all senses a characteristic book. The Tale of Two Cities can hardly be called so in anything but its theme. The novelist here laid a restraint upon himself; he aimed deliberately at writing a story for the story's sake; the one thing he had never yet been able to do. Among other presumed superfluities, humour is dismissed. To some readers the result appears admirable; for my part, I feel the restraint throughout, miss the best of my author, and, whilst admitting that he has produced something like a true tragedy, reflect that many another man could have handled the theme as well, if not better. It leaves no strong impression on my mind; even the figure of Carton soon grows dim against a dimmer background.
In the autumn of 1867 Dickens left England on his second voyage across the Atlantic, to give that long series of public readings which shattered his health and sent him back a doomed man. Upon this aspect of his public life something will be said in a later chapter. The spring of i868 saw him return, and before the end of the year he had entered upon a series of farewell readings in his own country. Defiant of the gravest physical symptoms, -- it was not in the man's nature to believe that he could be beaten in anything he undertook, -- he laboured through a self-imposed duty which would have tasked him severely even in the time of robust health, and finally took leave of his audience on the 5th of April, 1870. Meanwhile (in a few months of rest to which he was constrained by medical advice) he had begun the writing of a new book, which was to appear in twelve monthly numbers, instead of the old heroic twenty; its name, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Six numbers only were finished. As an indication of the disturbance of mental habit caused by the author's life as a public entertainer, Forster mentions that Dickens miscalculated the length (in print) of his first two parts by no less than twelve pages: ominous error in one who had rarely found his calculation in this matter wrong even by a line. Beyond the sixth part, only a disjointed scene was written. He worked in his garden house at Gadshill -- the home endeared to him by Shakespearean associations -- till the evening of the 8th of June, and an hour or two later was seized by fatal illness. The next day he died.
Edwin Drood would probably have been his best-constructed book: as far as it goes, the story hangs well together, showing a care in the contrivance of detail which is more than commonly justified by the result. One cannot help wishing that Dickens had chosen another subject -- one in which there was neither mystery nor murder, both so irresistibly attractive to him, yet so far from being the true material of his art. Surely it is unfortunate that the last work of a great writer should have for its theme nothing more human than a trivial mystery woven about a vulgar deed of blood. For this, it seems to me, his public readings may well have been responsible. In the last series he had made a great impression by his rendering (acting, indeed) of the death of Nancy in Oliver Twist. The thing, utterly unworthy of him in this shape, had cost him great pains; his imagination was drenched with gore, preoccupied with a sordid horror. Casting about him for a new story, he saw murder at the end of every vista. It would not have been thus if he had lived a calmer life, with natural development of his thoughts. In that case we might have had some true successor to David Copperfield. His selection of scene was happy and promising -- the old city of his childhood, Rochester. The tone, too, of his descriptive passages is much more appropriate than the subject. But Dickens had made his choice in life, and therefrom inevitably resulted his course in literature.
It is a thankless task to write of such a man as Dickens in disparaging phrase. I am impatient to reach that point of my essay where I shall be at liberty to speak with admiration unstinted, to dwell upon the strength of the master's work, and exalt him where he is unsurpassed. But it is necessary to clear the way. So great a change has come over the theory and practice of fiction in the England of our times that we must needs treat of Dickens as, in many respects, antiquated. To be antiquated is not necessarily to be condemned, in art or anything else (save weapons of slaughter); but as the result of the last chapter we feel that, in one direction, Dickens suffers from a comparison with novelists, his peers, of a newer day, even with some who were strictly his contemporaries. We have now to ask ourselves in what other aspects his work differs markedly from our present conception of the art of novel-writing. It will be seen, of course, that, theoretically, he had very little in common with the school of strict veracity, of realism -- call it what you please; the school which, quite apart from extravagances, has directed fiction into a path it is likely to pursue for many a year to come. Hard words are spoken of him by young writers whose zeal outruns their discretion, and far outstrips their knowledge; from the advanced posts of modern criticism any stone is good enough to throw at a novelist who avows and glories in his moral purpose; who would on no account bring a blush to the middle-class cheek; who at any moment tampers with truth of circumstance, that his readers may have joy rather than sorrow Well, we must look into this matter, and, as Captain Cuttle says, take its bearings. Endeavouring to judge Dickens as a man of his time, we must see in what spirit he approached his tasks; what he consciously sought to achieve in this pursuit of story-telling. One thing, assuredly, can never become old-fashioned in any disdainful sense; that is, sincerity of purpose. Novelists of to-day desire above everything to be recognized as sincere in their picturing of life. If Dickens prove to be no less honest, according to his lights, we must then glance at the reasons which remove him so far from us in his artistic design and execution.
Much fault has been found with Forster's Biography, which is generally blamed as giving undue prominence to the figure of the biographer. I cannot join in this censure; I prefer to echo the praise of Thomas Carlyle: "So long as Dickens is interesting to his fellow-men, here will be seen, face to face, what Dickens's manner of existing was". Carlyle, I conceive, was no bad judge of a biography; as a worker in literature he appreciated this vivid presentment of a fellow-worker. I should say, indeed, that there exists no book more inspiriting and fortifying to a young man beginning his struggle in the world of letters (especially, of course, to the young novelist) than this of Forster's And simply because it exhibits in such rich detail the story, and the manner, of Dickens' s work; showing him at his desk day by day, recounting his hidden difficulties, his secret triumphs; in short, making the man live over again before us the noblest portion of his life
One thing to be learnt from every page of the biography is the strenuous spirit in which Dickens wrought. Whatever our judgment as to the result, his zeal and energy were those of the born artist. Passages numberless might be quoted from his letters, showing how he enjoyed the labour of production, how he threw himself into the imaginative world with which he was occupied, how impossible it was for him to put less than all his splendid force into the task of the moment. A good instance is the following. He writes to tell his friend Forster of some private annoyance, which had threatened to upset his day's work. "I was most horribly put out for a little while; for I had got up early to go to work, and was full of interest in what I had to do. But having eased my mind by that note to you, and taken a turn or two up and down the room, I went at it again, and soon got so interested that I blazed away till nine last night; only stopping ten minutes for dinner. I suppose I wrote eight printed pages of Chuzzlewit yesterday. The consequence is that I could finish it to-day, but am taking it easy, and making myself laugh very much." (Forster, Book iv, chap. 2.) Year after year, he keeps his friend minutely informed by letter of the progress he makes with every book; consults him on endless points, great and small; is inexhaustible in gossip about himself, which never appears egoistic because of the artistic earnestness declared in every syllable. With no whit less conscientiousness did he discharge his duties as editor of a magazine. We find him writing to Forster: "I have had a story -- "accepted from an imperfectly qualified contributor -- "to hack and hew into some form for Household Words this morning, which has taken me four hours of close attention". Four hours of Dickens's time, in the year 1856, devoted to such a matter as this! -- where any ordinary editor, or rather his assistant, would have contented himself with a few blottings and insertions, sure that "the great big stupid public", as Thackeray called it, would be no better pleased, toil how one might. To Dickens the public was not everything; he could not rest until the deformities of that little bit of writing were removed, and no longer offended his eye.
Even so. On the other hand, having it in mind to make a certain use of a character in Dombey and Son, he seriously asks Forster: "Do you think it may be done, without making people angry?"
Here is the contradiction so irritating to Dickens's severer critics, the artistic generation of to-day. What! -- they exclaim -- a great writer, inspired with a thoroughly fine idea, is to stay his hand until he has made grave inquiry whether Messrs. Mudie's subscribers will approve it or not! The mere suggestion is infuriating. And this -- they vociferate -- is what Dickens was always doing. It may be true that he worked like a Trojan; but what is the use of work, meant to be artistic, carried on in hourly fear of Mrs. Grundy! Fingers are pointed to this, that, and the other Continental novelist; can you imagine him in such sorry plight? Why, nothing would have pleased him better than to know he was outraging public sentiment! In fact, it is only when one does so that one's work has a chance of being good!
All which may be true enough in relation to the speakers. As regards Dickens, it is irrelevant. Dickens had before him no such artistic ideal; he never desired freedom to offend his public. Sympathy with his readers was to him the very breath of life; the more complete that sympathy, the better did he esteem his work. Of the restrictions laid upon him he was perfectly aware, and there is evidence that he could see the artistic advantage which would result from a slackening of the bonds of English delicacy; but it never occurred to him to make public protest against the prejudices in force. Dickens could never have regarded it as within a story teller's scope to attempt the conversion of his readers to a new view of literary morals. Against a political folly, or a social injustice, he would use every resource of his art, and see no reason to hesitate; for there was the certainty of the approval of all good folk. To write a novel in a spirit of antagonism to all but a very few of his countrymen would have seemed to him a sort of practical bull; is it not the law of novel-writing, first and foremost, that one shall aim at pleasing as many people as possible.
In his preface to Pendennis Thackeray spoke very plainly on this subject. He honestly told his readers that they must not expect to find in his novel the whole truth about the life of a young man, seeing that, since the author of Tom Jones, no English writer had been permitted such frankness. The same thing is remarked by Dickens in a letter which Forster prints; a letter written from Paris, and commenting on the inconsistency of English people, who, living abroad and reading foreign authors, complain that "the hero of an English book is always uninteresting". He proceeds: "But O my smooth friend, what a shining impostor you must think yourself, and what an ass you must think me, when you suppose that by putting a brazen face upon it you can blot out of my knowledge the fact that this same unnatural young gentleman (if to be decent is to be necessarily unnatural), whom you meet in those other books and in mine, must be presented to you in that unnatural aspect by reason of your morality, and is not to have, I will not say any of the indecencies you like, but not even any of the experiences, trials, perplexities, and confusions inseparable from the making or unmaking of all men!" (Forster, Book xi, chap. i). This he clearly saw; but it never disturbed his conscience, for the reason indicated. Thackeray, we may be sure, thought much more on the subject, and in graver mood; and as a result, he allowed himself more liberty than Dickens -- not without protest from the many-headed. There existed this difference between the two men. Thackeray had a kind of strength not given to his brother in art.
Only in one way can the public evince its sympathy with an author -- by purchasing his books. It follows, then, that Dickens attached great importance to the varying demand for his complete novels, or for the separate monthly parts at their time of issue. Here again is a stone of stumbling for the disinterested artist who reads Dickens's life. We may select two crucial examples.
After the first visit to America began the publication of Martin Chuzzlewit, and it was seen at once that the instalments from month to month were less favourably received than those of the earlier books. The sixty thousand or so of regular purchasers decreased by about two-thirds. "Whatever the causes," says Forster, "here was the undeniable fact of a grave depreciation of sale in his writings, unaccompanied by any falling off either in themselves or in the writer's reputation. It was very temporary; but it was present, and to be dealt with accordingly." (Book iv, chap. 2.) Dickens's way of dealing with it was to make his hero suddenly resolve to go to America. Number Four closed with that declaration, and its results were seen, we are told, in an additional two thousand purchasers. Forster's words, of course, represent Dickens's view of the matter, which amounts to this: that however thoroughly assured an author may be that he is doing his best, a falling-off in the sale of his work must needs cause him grave mental disturbance; nay, that it must prompt him, as a matter of course, to changes of plan and solicitous calculation. He is to write, in short, with an eye steadily fixed upon his publisher's sale-room; never to lose sight of that index of popular approval or the reverse. That phrase "to be dealt with accordingly" is more distasteful than one can easily express to anyone with a tincture of latter-day conscientiousness in things of art. As I have said, it can be explained in a sense not at all dishonourable to Dickens; but how much more pleasant would it be to read in its place some quite unparliamentary utterance such, for example, as Scott made use of when William Blackwood requested him to change the end of one of his stories!
It sounds odd to praise Scott, from this point of view, at the expense of Dickens. As a conscientious workman Dickens is far ahead of the author of Waverley, who never dreamt of taking such pains as with the other novelist became habitual. We know, too, that Scott avowedly wrote for money, and varied his subjects in accordance with the varying public taste. But let us suppose that his novels had appeared in monthly parts, and that such an experience had befallen him as this of Dickens; can we easily imagine Walter Scott, in an attitude of commercial despondency, anxiously deliberating on the subject of his next chapter? The thing is inconceivable. It marks the difference not only between two men, but two epochs. Not with impunity, for all his generous endowments, did Dickens come to manhood in the year 1832 -- the year in which Sir Walter said farewell to a world he no longer recognized.
The other case which I think it worth while to mention is that of Dickens's first Christmas story, the Carol. In those days Christmas publications did not come out three or Tour months before the season they were meant to celebrate. The Carol appeared only just before Christmas Eve; it was seized upon with enthusiasm, and edition followed edition. Unluckily, the publisher had not exercised prudence in the "cost of production"; the profits were small, and as a consequence we have the following letter, addressed to Forster in January, 1844: "Such a night as I have passed! I really believed I should never get up again until I had passed through all the horrors of a fever. I found the Carol accounts awaiting me, and they were the cause of it. The first six thousand copies show a profit of £230! and the last four will yield as much more. I had set my heart and soul upon a thousand clear. What a wonderful thing it is that such a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment! My year's bills, unpaid, are so terrific, that all the energy and determination I can possibly exert will be required to clear me before I go abroad." (Book iv, chap. 2.) Now this letter is very disagreeable reading; for, at so early a stage in its writer's career, it points already to the end. Those "terrific" bills -- had they been less terrific, say, by only one quarter, and had they been consistently kept at a point below the terrifying -- how much better for Dickens himself and for the world! It could not be. The great middle class was growing enormously rich with its coal-mines and steam-engines, and the fact of his being an artist did not excuse a member of that class from the British necessity of keeping up appearances. So we have all but the "horrors of a fever" because a little book, which Thackeray rightly called "a national benefit", brought in only a certain sum of money! In his perturbation Dickens does himself injustice. He had not "set his heart and soul" on a thousand pounds; he never in all his life set his heart and soul on wealth. "No man", he said once, in talk with friends, "attaches less importance to the possession of money, or less disparagement to the want of it, than I do"; and he spoke essential truth. It would be quite unjust to think of Dickens as invariably writing in fear of diminishing sales, or as trembling with cupidity whenever he opened his publishers' accounts. To understand the whole man we must needs remark the commercial side of him; but his genius saved him from the worst results of the commercial spirit.
It was not only of money that he stood in need. Remember his theatrical leanings, and one understands without difficulty how important to him was the stimulus of praise. From the early days, as has often been observed, the relations between Dickens and his public were notably personal; in his study, he sat, as it were, with hearers grouped about him, conscious of their presence, happily, in quite another way than that already noticed. Like the actor (which indeed he ultimately became), his desire was for instant applause. Dickens could never have struggled for long years against the lack of appreciation. In coldness towards his work he would have seen its literary condemnation, and have turned to a new endeavour. When the readers of Martin Chuzzlewit fall oft he is troubled, first and foremost, by the failure of popular sympathy. He asks himself, most anxiously, what the cause can be; and, with a touching deference to the voice of the crowd, is inclined to think that he has grown less interesting. For observe that Dickens never conceives himself, when he aims at popularity, as writing down to his audience. Of that he is wholly incapable; for that he has too much understanding of the conditions of literary success. Never yet was great popularity, in whatsoever class, achieved by deliberate pursuit of a low ideal. The silliest story which ever enjoyed a vast vogue among the silliest readers was a true representation of the author's mind; for only to writing of this kind -- sincere though in foolishness -- comes a response from multitudes of readers. Dickens might alter his intention, might change his theme; but he never did so with the thought that he was condescending. In this respect a true democrat, he believed, probably without ever reflecting upon it, that the approved of the people was necessarily the supreme in art. At the same time, never man wrought more energetically to justify the people's choice.
How does this attitude of mind affect Dickens's veracity as an artist concerned with everyday life? In what degree, and in what directions, does he feel himself at liberty to disguise facts, to modify circumstances, for the sake of giving pleasure or avoiding offence?
Our "realist" will hear of no such paltering with "truth". Heedless of Pilate's question, he takes for granted that the truth can be got at, and that it is his plain duty to set it down without compromise; or, if less crude in his perceptions, he holds that truth, for the artist, is the impression produced on him, and that to convey this impression with entire sincerity is his sole reason for existing. To Dickens such a view of the artist's duty never presented itself. Art, for him, was art precisely because it was not nature. Even our realists may recognize this, and may grant that it is the business of art to select, to dispose -- under penalties if the result be falsification. But Dickens went further; he had a moral purpose; the thing above all others scornfully forbidden in our schools of rigid "naturalism".
Let it not be forgotten that he made his public protest -- moderate enough, but yet a protest -- against smooth conventionalism. In the preface to Nickolas Nickleby he defends himself against those who censured him for not having made his hero "always blameless and agreeable". He had seen no reason, he says, for departing from the plain facts of human character. This is interesting when we call to mind the personality of Nicholas, who must have got into very refined company for his humanity to prove offensive. But the English novel was at a sorry pass in that day, and doubtless Dickens seriously believed that he had taken a bold step towards naturalism (had he known the word). Indeed, was he not justified in thinking so? Who, if not Dickens, founded the later school of English fiction? He who as a young man had unconsciously obeyed Goethe's precept, taking hold upon the life nearest to him, making use of it for literature, and proving that it was of interest, could rightly claim the honours of an innovator.
The preface to Oliver Twist, in defending his choice of subject, strikes the note of compromise, and at the same time declares in simple terms the author's purpose. After speaking of the romances of highwaymen then in vogue, which he held to be harmful, because so false to experience, he tells how he had resolved to give a true picture of a band of thieves, seeing no reason "why the dregs of life (as long as their speech did not offend the ear) should not serve the purpose of a moral". Here, then, we have it stated plainly that we are not to look for complete verisimilitude in the speech of his characters, and, again, that he only exhibits these characters in terrorem, or, at all events, to induce grave thoughts. When I come to discuss in detail Dickens's characterization I shall have to ask how far it is possible truthfully to represent a foul-mouthed person, whilst taking care that the words he uses do not "offend the ear". Here I wish only to indicate the limits which Dickens imposed upon himself. He, it is clear, had no misgiving; to him Bill Sikes and Nancy and Charley Bates were convincing figures, though they never once utter a vile word -- which, as a matter of fact, they one and all did in every other breath. He did not deliberately sacrifice truth to refinement. Moreover, he was convinced that he had done a moral service to the world. That both these ends were attained by help of unexampled buoyancy of spirit, an unfailing flow of the healthiest mirth, the kindliest humour, should in consistency appear to us the strangest thing of all -- to us who strive so hard for "atmosphere ", insist so strongly upon "objectivity" in the author. But in this matter Dickens troubled himself with no theory or argument. He wrote as his soul dictated, and surely could not have done better.
Admitting his limits, accepting them even gladly, he was yet possessed with a sense of the absolute reality of everything he pictured forth. Had the word been in use he must necessarily have called himself a Realist. This is one of the biographical commonplaces concerning Dickens. Everyone knows how he excited himself over his writing, how he laughed and cried with his imaginary people, how he all but made himself ill with grief over the death-bed of little Nell or of Paul Dombey. This means, of course, that his imagination worked with perfect freedom, had the fullest scope, yet never came into conflict with the prepossessions of his public. Permission to write as Smollett and as Fielding wrote could in no way have advantaged Dickens. He was the born story-teller of a certain day, of a certain class. Again, he does not deem himself the creator of a world, but the laboriously faithful painter of that about him. He labours his utmost to preserve illusion. Dickens could never have been guilty of that capital crime against art so light-heartedly committed by Anthony Trollope, who will begin a paragraph in his novels with some such words as these: "Now, if this were fact, and not a story. . . ." For all that, Trollope was the more literal copier of life. But his figures do not survive as those of Dickens, who did in fact create -- created individuals, to become at once and for ever representative of their time.
Whilst at work, no questioning troubled him. But in speaking of the results, he occasionally allows us a glimpse of his mind; we see how he reconciled art with veracity. The best instance I can recall is his comment upon "Doctor Marigold", the Cheap-Jack, of whom he drew so sympathetic a picture. He says, "It is wonderfully like the real thing, of course a little refined and humoured". Note the of course. Art was art, not nature. He had to make his Cheap-Jack presentable, to disguise anything repellent, to bring out every interesting and attractive quality. A literal transcript of the man's being would not have seemed to him within his province. But it is just this "refining" and "humouring" which many in our day hold traitorous; the outcome of it is called Idealism.
At times Dickens's idealism goes further, leading him into misrepresentation of social facts. Refining and humouring, even from his point of view, must have their limits; and these he altogether exceeded in a character such as Lizzie Hexam, the heroine of Our Mutual Friend. The child of a Thames-side loafer, uneducated, and brought up amid the roughest surroundings, Lizzie uses language and expresses sentiment which would do credit to a lady in whatsoever position. In the same way, the girl called Alice Marlow, who plays so melodramatic a part in Dombey and Son, represents a total impossibility, the combination of base origin and squalid life, with striking mental power, strikingly developed. This kind of thing is permissible to no artist who deals with the actual world. Using a phrase germane to our subject, it is morally mischievous. Many a novelist has sinned in this direction; above all, young authors misled by motives alien to art, who delight in idealizing girls of the lower, or lowest class. Dickens had outgrown that stage of pardonable weakness when he wrote Our Mutual Friend. He wished, of course, to contrast the low-born Lizzie Hexam with persons, in the same story, of what is called good birth and breeding, and to show her their superior; a purpose which aggravates his fault, the comparison being so obviously unfair. In this connection I recall a figure from Thackeray: the uneducated girl with whom Arthur Pendennis forms a perilous acquaintance. Fanny Bolton is one of the truest characters in all fiction, -- so unpleasantly true, that readers ignorant of her class might imagine the author to have drawn her in a spirit of social prejudice. Never was his hand more admirably just. Fanny Bolton is one of the instances I had in mind when I alluded to Thackeray's power in describing other modes of life than that with which his name is associated.
Here Dickens idealized to please himself. In the end, it came to the same thing when we see him hesitating over a design of which he doubted the popular acceptance. Walter Gay, in Dombey and Son, whose career is so delightfully prosperous, seemed at one moment about to be condemned to a very different fate. "I think", writes Dickens in a letter, "it would be a good thing to disappoint all the expectations this chapter seems to raise of his happy connection with the story and the heroine, and to show him gradually and naturally trailing away from that love of adventure and boyish light-heartedness, into negligence, idleness, dissipation, dishonesty, and ruin. To show, in short, that common, everyday miserable declension, of which we know so much in our ordinary life." (Forster, Book vi, chap. 2.) Here, indeed, is a suggestion of "realism"; but we know, in reading it, that Dickens could never have carried it out. He adds, "Do you think it may be done, without making people angry?" Certainly it could not; Dickens knew it could not, even when the artist deep within him brooded over the theme; he gave it up almost at once. Forster points out that something of the same idea was eventually used in Bleak House. But Richard Carstone, though he wastes his life, does not sink to "dissipation, dishonesty, and ruin". The hand was stayed where the picture would have become too painful alike for author and public -- always, or nearly always, in such entire sympathy. The phrase about "making people angry" signifies much less than it would in a novelist of to-day. It might well have taken the form: "Can I bring myself to do this thing?"
To return for a moment to Our Mutual Friend, I never look into that book without feeling a suspicion that Dickens originally meant Mr. Boffin to suffer a real change of character, to become in truth the miserly curmudgeon which we are told he only pretended to be. Careful reading of the chapters which bear on this point has confirmed my impression; for which, however, there is no support that I know of; in Forster or elsewhere. It may well have been that here again Dickens, face to face with an unpleasant bit of truth, felt his heart fail him. Again he may have asked, "Will it make people angry?" If so -- on this I wish to insist -- it was in no spirit of dishonest compliance that he changed his plan. To make people angry would have been to defeat his Own prime purpose. Granting two possible Mr. Boffins: he who becomes a miser in reality, and he who, for a good purpose, acts the miser's part; how much better to choose the Mr. Boffin who will end in hearty laughter and overflowing benevolence!
Avoidance of the disagreeable, as a topic uncongenial to art -- this is Dickens's principle. There results, necessarily, a rather serious omission from his picture of life. Writing once from Boulogne, and describing the pier as he saw it of an evening, he says, "I never did behold such specimens of the youth of my country, male and female, as pervade that place. They are really in their vulgarity and insolence quite disheartening. One is so fearfully ashamed of them, and they contrast so very unfavourably with the natives." (Forster, Book vii, chap. 4.) But Dickens certainly had no need to visit Boulogne to study English "vulgarity and insolence"; it blared around him wherever he walked in London, and, had he wrought in another spirit, it must have taken a very large place in every one of his books. He avoided it, or showed it only in such forms as amused rather than disgusted. The Boulogne pier-walker, a significant figure of that day, deserved his niche in fiction; Dickens glanced at him, and passed him by.
Two examples dwell in my memory which show him in the mood for downright fact of the unpleasant sort. More might be discovered, but these, I think, would remain the noteworthy instances of "realism" in Dickens; moments when, for whatever reason, he saw fit to tell a harsh truth without any mitigation. One occurs in the short story of Doctor Marigold. We have seen that the figure of the Cheap-Jack was "refined and humoured"; not so that of the Cheap-Jack's wife, the brutal woman who ill-uses and all but kills her child. This picture is remorseless in everyday truth; no humour softens it, no arbitrary event checks the course of the woman's hateful cruelty. The second example is George Silverman's Explanation, another short story, which from beginning to end is written in a tone of uncompromising bitterness. Being told by Silverman himself; its consistent gloom is dramatically appropriate and skilful. Here we have a picture of pietistic virulence the like of which cannot be found elsewhere in Dickens; hard bare fact; never a smile to lighten the impression; no interference with the rigour of destiny. Anything but characteristic, this little story is still a notable instance of Dickens's power. Were the author unknown it would be attributed to some strenuous follower of the "naturalist" school.
From his duty, as he conceived it, of teaching a moral lesson, Dickens never departs. He has an unfailing sense of the high importance of his work from this point of view. Not that it preoccupies him, as was the case with George Eliot, and weighs upon him as he writes; naturally and calmly, without suspicion of pose, without troublous searching of conscience, he sees his subject as a moral lesson, and cannot understand the position of an artist to whom such thought never occurs. And his morality is of the simplest; a few plain ordinances serve for human guidance; to infringe them is to be marked for punishment more or less sensational; to follow the path of the just is to ensure a certain amount of prosperity, and reward unlimited in buoyancy of heart. The generality of readers like to see a scoundrel get his deserts, and Dickens, for the most part, gives them abundant satisfaction. No half-measures. When Pecksniff is unmasked, we have the joy of seeing him felled to the ground in the presence of a jubilant company. Nor does this suffice; he and his daughter Cherry, both having forfeited all the sympathies of decent folk, come to actual beggary, and prowl about the murky streets. Nothing more improbable than such an end for Mr. Pecksniff or for his daughter -- who was very well able to take care of herself; and obviously a deeper moral would be implied in the continued flourishing of both; but Dickens and his public were impatient to see the rascal in the dirt, the shrew beside him. Sampson Brass and his sister, whose crime against society is much more serious, pass their later years in the same squalid defeat; yet we feel assured that the virile Sally, at all events, made a much better fight against the consequences of her rascality. Lady Dedlock, having sinned in a manner peculiarly unpardonable, is driven by remorse from her luxurious home, and expires in one of the foulest corners of London. Remorse alone, however poignant and enduring, would not seem an adequate penalty; we must see the proud lady, the sinful woman, literally brought low, down to the level of the poor wretch who was her accomplice. Ill-doers less conspicuous are let off with a punishment which can be viewed facetiously, but punished they are. It is all so satisfying; it so rounds off our conception of life. Nothing so abhorred by the multitude as a lack of finality in stories, a vagueness of conclusion which gives them the trouble of forming surmises.
Equally of course, justice is tempered with mercy. Who would have the heart to demand rigour of the law for Mr. Jingle and Job Trotter? We see them all but starved to death in a debtors' prison, and that is enough; their conversion to honesty gives such scope for Mr. Pickwick's delightful goodness that nothing could be more in accord with the fitness of things. Squeers or Mr. Brass we will by no means forgive; nay, of their hard lot, so well merited, we will make all the fun we can; but many a pleasant scamp who has shaken our sides shall be put in the way of earning an honest living. Profoundly human, however crude to an age that cannot laugh and cry so readily. Good sound practical teaching, which will help the soul of man long after more pretentious work has returned to dust.
Ah, those final chapters of Dickens! How eagerly they are read by the young, and with what a pleasant smile by elders who prize the good things of literature! No one is forgotten, and many an unsuspected bit of happiness calls aloud for gratitude to the author. Do you remember Mr. Mell, the underpaid and bullied usher in David Copperfield, -- the poor broken-spirited fellow whose boots will not bear another mending, -- who uses an hour of liberty to visit his mother in the alms-house, and gladden her heart by piping sorry music on his flute? We lose sight of him, utterly; knowing only that he has been sent about his business after provoking the displeasure of the insolent lad Steerforth Then, do you remember how, at the end of the book, David has news from Australia, delicious news about Mr. Micawber, and Mrs. Gummidge, and sundry other people, and how, in reading the colonial paper, he suddenly comes upon the name of Dr. Mell a distinguished man at the Antipodes? Who so stubborn a theorist that this kindly figment of the imagination does not please him? Who would prefer to learn the cold fact: that Mell, the rejected usher, sank from stage to stage of wretchedness, and died lamentably in the street or the workhouse?
It was not by computing the density of the common brain, by gauging the force of vulgar prejudice, that Charles Dickens rose to his supreme popularity. Nature made him the mouthpiece of his kind, in all that relates to simple emotions and homely thought. Who can more rightly be called an artist than he who gave form and substance to the ideal of goodness and purity, of honour, justice, mercy, whereby the dim multitudes falteringly seek to guide their steps? This was his task in life, to embody the better dreams of ordinary men; to fix them as bright realities, for weary eyes to look upon. He achieved it in the strength of a faultless sympathy; following the true instincts which it is so unjust -- so unintelligent -- to interpret as mere commercial shrewdness or dulness of artistic perception. Art is not single; to every great man his province, his mode. During at least one whole generation, Charles Dickens, in the world of literature, meant England. For his art, splendidly triumphant, made visible to all mankind the characteristic virtues, the typical shortcomings, of the homely English race.
The familiar objection to Dickens's characters, that they are "so unreal" (a criticism common in tolerate downright verity in fiction), is in part the mouths of persons who would be the last to explained -- in part justified -- by the dramatic conduct of his stories. What unreality there is, arises for the most part from necessities of "plot". This may be illustrated by a comparison between two figures wherein the master has embodied so much homely sweetness and rectitude that both are popular favourites. The boatman Peggotty and Joe Gargery the blacksmith are drawn on similar lines; in both the gentlest nature is manifest beneath a ruggedness proper to their callings. There is a certain resemblance, too, between the stories in which each plays his part; childlike in their simple virtues, both become strongly attached to a child -- not their own -- living under the same roof, and both suffer a grave disappointment in this affection; the boatman's niece is beguiled from him to her ruin, the blacksmith's little relative grows into a conceited youth ashamed of the old companion and the old home. To readers in general I presume that Peggotty is better known than Joe; David Copperfield being more frequently read than Great Expectations; but if we compare the two figures as to their "reality", we must decide in favour of Gargery. I think him a better piece of workmanship all round; the prime reason, however, for his standing out so much more solidly in one's mind than Little Emily's uncle is that he lives in a world, not of melodrama, but of everyday cause and effect. The convict Magwitch and his strange doings make no such demand upon one's credulity as the story of Emily and Steerforth, told as it is, with its extravagant situations and flagrantly artificial development. Pip is so thoroughly alive that we can forget his dim relations with Satis House. But who can put faith in Mr. Peggotty, when he sets forth to search for his niece over the highways and by-ways of Europe? Who can for a moment put faith in Emily herself after she has ceased to be the betrothed of Ham? As easily could one believe that David Copperfield actually overheard that wildly fantastic dialogue in the lodging-house between the lost girl and Rosa Dartle.
Many such examples might be adduced of excellent, or masterly, characterization spoilt by the demand for effective intrigue. We call to mind this or that person in circumstances impossible of credit; and hastily declare that character and situation are alike unreal. And hereby hangs another point worth touching upon. I have heard it very truly remarked that, in our day, people for the most part criticise Dickens from a recollection of their reading in childhood; they do not come fresh to him with mature minds; in general, they never read him at all after childish years. This is an obvious source of much injustice. Dickens is good reading for all times of life, as are all the great imaginative writers. Let him be read by children together with Don Quixote. But who can speak with authority of Cervantes who knows him only from an acquaintance made at ten years old? To the mind of a child Dickens is, or ought to be, fascinating -- (alas for the whole subject of children's reading nowadays!) -- and most of the fascination is due to that romantic treatment of common life which is part, indeed, of Dickens's merit, but has smaller value and interest to the older mind. Much of his finest humour is lost upon children; much of his perfect description, and all his highest achievement in characterization. Taking Dickens "as read", people inflict a loss upon themselves and do a wrong to the author. Who, in childhood, ever cared much for Little Dorrit? The reason is plain; in this book Dickens has comparatively little of his wonted buoyancy; throughout, it is in a graver key. True, a house falls down in a most exciting way, and this the reader will remember; all else is to him a waste. We hear, accordingly, that nothing good can be said for Little Dorrit. Whereas, a competent judge, taking up the book as he would any other, will find in it some of the best work Dickens ever did; and especially in this matter of characterization; pictures so wholly admirable, so marvellously observed and so exquisitely presented, that he is tempted to place Little Dorrit among the best of the novels.
Again, it is not unusual to seek in Dickens's characters for something he never intended to be there; in other words, his figures are often slighted because they represent a class in society which lacks many qualities desired by cultivated readers, and possesses very prominently the distasteful features such a critic could well dispense with. You lay down, for instance, Thackeray's Pendennis, and soon after you happen to take up Dombey and Son. Comparisons arise. Whilst reading of Major Bagstock, you find your thoughts wandering to Major Pendennis; when occupied (rather disdainfully) with Mr. Toots, you suddenly recall Foker. What can be the immediate outcome of such contrast? It seems impossible to deny to Thackeray a great superiority in the drawing of character; his aristocratic Major and his wealthy young jackass are so much more "real", that is to say, so much more familiar, than the promoted vulgarian Bagstock and the enriched whipper-snapper Toots. A hasty person would be capable of exclaiming that Dickens had plainly taken suggestions from Thackeray, and made but poor use of them. Observe, however, that Dombey and Son appeared, complete, in 1848; Pendennis in 1849. Observe, too, the explanation of the whole matter: that Bagstock and Toots represent quite as truthfully figures possible in a certain class, as do Thackeray's characters those to be found in a rank distinctly higher. If Thackeray (who needed no suggestions from others' books) was indeed conscious of this whimsical parallel, we can only admire the skill and finish with which he worked it out. But assuredly he dreamt of no slight to Dickens's performance. They had wrought in different material. Social distinctions are sufficiently pronounced even in our time of revolution; fifty years ago they were much more so. And precisely what estranges the cultivated reader in Bagstock and Toots, is nothing more nor less than evidence of their creator's truthfulness.
A wider question confronts one in looking steadfastly at the masterpieces of a novelist concerned with the lower, sometimes the lowest, modes of life in a great city. Among all the names immortalized by Dickens none is more widely familiar than that of Mrs. Gamp. It is universally admitted that in Mrs. Gamp we have a creation such as can be met with only in the greatest writers; a figure at once individual and typical; a marvel of humorous presentment; vital in the highest degree attainable by this art of fiction. From the day of her first appearance on the stage, Mrs. Gamp has been a delight, a wonder, a by-word. She stands unique, no other novelist can show a piece of work, in the same kind, worthy of a place beside her; we must go to the very heights of world-literature, to him who bodied forth Dame Quickly, and Juliet's nurse, for the suggestion of equivalent power. Granted, then, that Mrs. Gamp has indubitable existence; who and what is she? Well, a so-called nurse, living in Kingsgate Street, Holborn, in a filthy room somewhere upstairs, and summoned for nursing of all kinds by persons more or less well-to-do, who are so unfortunate as to know of no less offensive substitute. We are told, and can believe, that in the year 1844 (the date of Martin Chuzzlewit) few people did know of any substitute for Mrs. Gamp; that she was an institution; that she carried her odious vices and her criminal incompetence from house to house in decent parts of London. Dickens knew her only too well; had observed her at moments of domestic crisis; had learnt her language and could reproduce it (or most of it) with surprising accuracy. In plain words, then, we are speaking of a very loathsome creature; a sluttish, drunken, avaricious, dishonest woman. Meeting her in the flesh, we should shrink disgusted, so well does the foulness of her person correspond with the baseness of her mind. Hearing her speak, we should turn away in half-amused contempt. Yet, when we encounter her in the pages of Dickens, we cannot have too much of Mrs. Gamp's company; her talk is an occasion of uproarious mirth; we never dream of calling her to moral judgment, but laugh the more, the more infamously she sees fit to behave. Now, in what sense can this figure in literature be called a copy of the human original?
I am perfectly aware that this inquiry goes to the roots of the theory of Art. Here I have no space (nor would it be the proper moment) to discuss all the issues that are involved in a question so direct and natural; but if we are to talk at all about the people in Dickens, we must needs start with some understanding of what is implied when we call them true, lifelike, finely presented. Is not the fact in itself very remarkable, that by dint (it seems) of omitting those very features which in life most strongly impress us, an artist in fiction can produce something which we applaud as an inimitable portrait? That for disgust he can give us delight, and yet leave us glorying in his verisimilitude?
Turn to another art. Open the great volume of Hogarth, and look at the several figures of women which present a fair correspondence with that of Mrs. Gamp. We admire the artist's observation, his great skill, his moral significance, even his grim humour; then -- we close the book with a feeling of relief. With these faces who would spend hours of leisure? The thing has been supremely well done, and we are glad of it, and will praise the artist unreservedly; but his basely grinning and leering women must not hang upon the wall, to be looked at and talked of with all and sundry. Hogarth has copied -- in the strict sense of the word. He gives us life -- and we cannot bear it.
The Mrs. Gamp of our novel is a piece of the most delicate idealism. It is a sublimation of the essence of Gamp. No novelist (say what he will) ever gave us a picture of life which was not idealized; but there are degrees -- degrees of purpose and of power. Juliet's Nurse is an idealized portrait, but it comes much nearer to the real thing than Mrs. Gamp; in our middle-class England we cannot altogether away with the free-spoken dame of Verona; we Bowdlerize her -- of course damaging her in the process. Mrs. Berry, in Richard Feverel, is idealized, but she smacks too strongly of the truth for boudoir readers. Why, Moll Flanders herself is touched and softened, for all the author's illusive directness. In Mrs. Gamp, Dickens has done his own Bowdlerizing, but with a dexterity which serves only to heighten his figure's effectiveness. Vulgarity he leaves; that is of the essence of the matter; vulgarity unsurpassable is the note of Mrs. Gamp. Vileness, on the other hand, becomes grotesquerie, wonderfully converted into a subject of laughter. Her speech, among the basest ever heard from human tongue, by a process of infinite subtlety, which leaves it the same yet not the same, is made an endless amusement, a source of quotation for laughing lips incapable of unclean utterance.
Idealism, then: confessed idealism. But let us take another character from another book, also a woman supposed to represent a phase of low life in London. Do you recall "good Mrs. Brown", the hag who strips little Florence Dombey of her clothes? And do you remember that this creature has a daughter, her name Alice Marlow, who -- presumably having been a domestic servant, or a shop-girl, or something of the kind -- was led astray by Mr. Carker of the shining teeth, and has become a wandering nondescript? Now in Alice Marlow we again have idealism; but of a different kind. This child of good Mrs. Brown, tramping into London on a bitter night, is found on the roadside and charitably taken home by Mr. Carker's sister, neither being aware of the other's identity; and having submitted to this kindness, and having accepted money, the girl goes her way. That same night she learns who has befriended her, and forthwith rushes back (a few miles) through storm and darkness, to fling the alms at the giver. Outlines of a story sufficiently theatrical; but the dialogue! One fails to understand how Dickens brought himself to pen the language which -- at great length -- he puts into this puppet's mouth. It is doubtful whether one could pick out a single sentence, a single phrase, such as the real Alice Marlow could conceivably have used. Her passion is vehement; no impossible thing. The words in which she utters it would be appropriate to the most stagey of wronged heroines -- be that who it may. A figure less lifelike will not be found in any novel ever written. Yet Dickens doubtless intended it as legitimate idealization; a sort of type of the doleful multitude of betrayed women. He meant it for imagination exalting common fact. But the fact is not exalted; it has simply vanished. And the imagination is of a kind that avails nothing on any theme. In Mrs. Gamp a portion of truth is omitted; in Alice Marlow there is substitution of falsity. By the former process, true idealism may be reached; by the latter, one arrives at nothing but attitude and sham.
Of course omission and veiling do not suffice to create Mrs. Gamp. In his alchemy, Dickens had command of the menstruum which alone is powerful enough to effect such transmutation as this; it is called humour. Humour, be it remembered, is inseparable from charity. Not only did it enable him to see this coarse creature as an amusing person; it inspired him with that large tolerance which looks through things external, gives its full weight to circumstance, and preserves a modesty, a humility, in human judgment. We can form some notion of what Mrs. Gamp would have become in the hands of a rigorous realist, with scorn and disgust (inevitably implied) taking the place of humour. We reject the photograph; it avails us nothing in art or life. Humour deals gently with fact and fate; in its smile there is forbearance, in its laugh there is kindliness. With falsehood -- however well meant -- it is incompatible; when it has done its work as solvent, the gross adherents are dissipated, the essential truth remains. Do you ask for the Platonic idea of London's hired nurse early in Queen Victoria's reign? Dickens shows it you embodied. At such a thing as this, crawling between earth and heaven, what can one do but laugh? Its existence is a puzzle, a wonder. The class it represents shall be got rid of as speedily as possible; well and good; we cannot tolerate such a public nuisance. But the type shall be preserved for all time by the magic of a great writer's deep-seeing humour, and shall be known as Mrs. Gamp.
For a moment, contrast with this masterpiece a picture in which Dickens has used his idealism on material more promising, though sought amid surroundings sufficiently like those seen in the description of Kingsgate Street. The most successful character in his stories written to be read at Christmas is Mrs. Lirriper. She belongs to a class distinguished then, as now, by its uncleanness, its rapacity, its knavery, its ignorance. Mrs. Lirriper keeps a London lodging-house. Here, in depicting an individual, Dickens has not typified a class. He idealizes this woman, but finds in her, ready to his hand, the qualities of goodness and tenderness and cheery honesty, so that there is no question of transmuting a subject repulsive to the senses. Mrs. Lirriper is quite possible, even in a London lodging-house; in the flesh, however, we should not exactly seek her society. Her talk (idealized with excellent adroitness) would too often jar upon the ear; her person would be, to say the least, unattractive. In the book, she has lost these accidents of position: we are first amused, then drawn on to like, to admire, to love her. An unfortunate blemish -- the ever-recurring artificiality of story -- threatens to make her dim; but Mrs. Lirriper triumphs over this. We bear her in memory as a person known -- a person most unhappily circumstanced, set in a gloomy sphere; but of such sweet nature that we forget her inevitable defects, even as we should those of an actual acquaintance of like character.
In looking back on the events of life, do we not see them otherwise than, at the time, they appeared to us? The harsh is smoothed; the worst of everything is forgotten; things pleasant come into relief. This (a great argument for optimism) is a similitude of Dickens's art. Like Time, he obscures the unpleasing, emphasizes all we are glad to remember. Time does not falsify; neither does Dickens, whenever his art is unalloyed.
Let us turn to his literary method. It is that of all the great novelists. To set before his reader the image so vivid in his own mind, he simply describes and reports. We have, in general, a very precise and complete picture of externals -- the face, the gesture, the habit. In this Dickens excels; he proves to us by sheer force of visible detail how distinct was the mental shape from which he drew. We learn the tone of voice, the trick of utterance; he declared that every word spoken by his characters was audible to him. Then does the man reveal himself in colloquy; sometimes once for all, sometimes by degrees, in chapter after chapter -- though this is seldom the case. We know these people because we see and hear them.
In a few instances he added deliberate analysis; it was never well done, always superfluous. Very rarely has analysis of character justified itself in fiction. To Dickens the method was alien; he could make no use whatever of it. In the early book which illustrates all his defects, Nicholas Nickleby, we have some dreary pages concerned with the inner man of Ralph Nickleby; seeing that the outer is but shadowy, these details cannot interest; they show, moreover, much crudity and conventionality of thought. Later, an analysis is attempted of Mr. Dombey -- very laborious, very long. It does not help us in the least to understand Paul's father, himself one of the least satisfactory of Dickens's leading persons. One may surmise that the author felt something of this, and went out of his wonted way in an endeavour to give the image more life.
It results from Dickens's weakness in the devising of incident, in the planning of story, that he seldom develops character through circumstance. There are conversions, but we do not much believe in them; they smack of the stage. Possibly young Martin Chuzzlewit may be counted an exception; but there is never much life in him. From this point of view Dickens's best bit of work is Pip, in Great Expectations: Pip, the narrator of his own story, who exhibits very well indeed the growth of a personality, the interaction of character and event. One is not permitted to lose sight of the actual author; though so much more living than Esther Summerson, Pip is yet embarrassed, like her, with the gift of humour. We know very well whose voice comes from behind the scenes when Pip is describing Mr. Wopsle's dramatic venture. Save for this, we acknowledge a true self-revelation. What could be better than a lad's picture of his state of mind, when, after learning that he has "great expectations", he quits the country home of his childhood and goes to London? "I formed a plan in outline for bestowing a dinner of roast beef and plum-pudding, a pint of ale, and a gallon of condescension upon everybody in the village" (chap. xix). It is one of many touches which give high value to this book.
As a rule, the more elaborate Dickens's conception of character, the smaller his success in working it out. Again and again he endeavoured to present men and women of exceptionally strong passions: the kind of persons who make such a figure on the boards, where they frown and clench their fists, and utter terrible phrases. It began in Oliver Twist with the man called Monk; in Barnaby came the murderer; in Chuzzlewit appears the puppet known as old Martin, a thing of sawdust. Later, the efforts in this direction are more conscientious, more laboured, but rarely more successful. An exception, perhaps, may be noted in Bradley Headstone, the lover of Lizzie Hexam, whose consuming passion here and there convinces, all the more for its well-contrived contrast with the character of the man whom Lizzie prefers. Charley Hexam, too, is lifelike, on a lower plane. The popular voice pleads for Sidney Carton; yes, he is well presented -- but so easy to forget. Think, on the other hand, of the long list of women meant to be tragic, who, one and all, must be judged failures. Edith Dombey, with her silent wrath and ludicrous behaviour, who, intended for a strong, scornful nature, dumbly goes to the sacrifice when bidden by her foolish mother, and then rails at the old worldling for the miseries needlessly brought upon herself. Rosa Dartle, at first a promising suggestion, but falling away into exaggerations of limelight frenzy. Lady Dedlock and her maid Hortense -- which is the more obvious waxwork? Mrs. Clennam, in Little Dorrit, is wrought so patiently and placed in so picturesque a scene that one laments over her impossibility; her so-called talk is, perhaps, less readable than anything in Dickens. The same book shows us, or aims at showing us, Miss Wade and Tattycoram, from both of whom we turn incredulous. Of Miss Havisham one grudges to speak; her ghostly presence does its best to spoil an admirable novel. Women, all these, only in name; a cause of grief to the lovers of the master, a matter of scoffing to his idler critics. When we come to women of everyday stature, then indeed it is a different thing. So numerous are these, and so important in an estimate of Dickens's power of characterization, that I must give them a chapter to themselves.
Neither at a black-hearted villain was he really good, though he prided himself on his achievements in this kind. Jonas Chuzzlewit is the earliest worth mention; and what can be said of Jonas, save that he is a surly ruffian of whom one knows very little? The "setting" of his part is very strong; much powerful writing goes to narrate his history; but the man remains mechanical. Mr. Carker hardly aims at such completeness of scoundreldom, but he would be a fierce rascal -- if not so bent on exhibiting his teeth, which remind one of the working wires. Other shapes hover in lurid vagueness. Whether, last of all, John Jasper would have shown a great advance, must remain doubtful. The first half of Edwin Drood shows him picturesquely, and little more. We discover no hint of real tragedy. The man seems to us a very vulgar assassin, and we care not at all what becomes of him.
Against these set the gallery of portraits in which Dickens has displayed to us the legal world of his day. Here he painted from nature, and with an artist's love of his subject. From the attorneys and barristers of Pickwick, sportive themselves and a cause of infinite mirth in others, to the Old Bailey practitioners so admirably grim in Great Expectations, one's eye passes along a row of masterpieces. Nay, it is idle to use the pictorial simile; here are men with blood in their veins -- some of them with a good deal of it on their hands. They will not be forgotten; whether we watch the light comedy of Jorkins and Spenlow, or observe the grim gravity of Mr. Jaggers, it is with the same entire conviction. In this department of his work Dickens can be said to idealize only in the sense of the finest art; no praise can exaggerate his dexterity in setting forth these examples of supreme realism. As a picture of actual life in a certain small world Bleak House is his greatest book; from office-boy to judge, here are all who walk in "the valley of the shadow of the Law". Impossible to run through the list, much as one would enjoy it. Think only of Mr. Vholes. In the whole range of fiction there is no character more vivid than this; exhibited so briefly yet so completely, with such rightness in every touch, such impressiveness of total effect, that the thing becomes a miracle. No strain of improbable intrigue can threaten the vitality of these dusty figures. The clerks are as much alive as their employers; the law-stationer stands for ever face to face with Mr. Tulkinghorn; Inspector Bucket has warmer flesh than that of any other detective in the library of detective literature. As for Jaggers and Wemmick, we should presume them unsurpassable had we not known their predecessors. They would make a novelist's reputation.
Among the finest examples of characterization (I postpone a review of the figures which belong more distinctly to satire) must be mentioned the Father of the Marshalsea. Should ever proof be demanded -- as often it has been -- that Dickens is capable of high comedy, let it be sought in the 31st chapter of book i of Little Dorrit. There will be seen the old Marshalsea prisoner, the bankrupt of half a lifetime, entertaining and patronizing his workhouse pensioner, old Mr. Nandy. For delicacy of treatment, for fineness of observation, this scene, I am inclined to think, is unequalled in all the novels. Of exaggeration there is no trace; nothing raises a laugh; at most one smiles, and may very likely be kept grave by profound interest and a certain emotion of wonder. We are in a debtors' prison, among vulgar folk; yet the exquisite finish of this study of human nature forbids one to judge it by any but the highest standards. The Dorrit brothers are both well drawn; they are characterizations in the best sense of the word; and in this scene we have the culmination of the author's genius. That it reveals itself so quietly is but the final assurance of consummate power.
With the normal in character, with what (all things considered) we may call wholesome normality, Dickens does not often concern himself. Of course there are his homely-minded "little women", of whom more in another place. And there are his benevolent old boys (I call them so advisedly) whom one would like to be able to class with everyday people, but who cannot in strictness be considered here. Walking-gentlemen appear often enough; amiable shadows, such as Tom Pinch's friend Westlock; figures meant to be prominent, such as Arthur Clennam. There remain a few instances of genuine characterization within ordinary limits. I cannot fall in with the common judgment that Dickens never shows us a gentleman. Twice, certainly, he has done so, with the interesting distinction that in one case he depicts a gentleman of the old school; in the other, a representative of the refined manhood which came into existence (or became commonly observable) in his latter years. In John Jarndyce I can detect no vulgarity; he appears to me compact of good sense, honour, and gentle feeling. His eccentricity does not pass bounds; the better we know him the less observable it grows. Though we are told nothing expressly of his intellectual acquirements, it is plain that he had a liberal education, and that his tastes are studious. Impossible not to like and to respect Mr. Jarndyce. Compare him with Mr. Pickwick, or with the Cheerybles, and we see at once the author's indication of social superiority, no less than his increased skill in portraiture. The second figure, belonging to a changed time, is Mr. Crisparkle, for whose sake especially one regrets the unfinished state of Edwin Drood. His breezy manner, his athletic habits, his pleasant speech, give no bad idea of the classical tutor who is neither an upstart nor a pedant. Dickens was careful in his choice of names; we see how he formed that of Crisparkle, and recognize its fitness.
Two other names occur to me, which carry with them a suggestion of true gentility -- if the word be permitted; but their bearers can hardly rank with normal personages. Sir Leicester Dedlock, though by no means unsympathetically presented, belongs rather to the region of satire; he is a gentleman, indeed, and meant to be representative of a class, but his special characteristic overcharges the portrait. Incomparably more of a human being than his wife, he might, with less satirical emphasis, have been a very true gentleman indeed. Then, in Dombey and Son, does one not remember Cousin Feenix? The name, this time, is unfortunate; this weak-legged scion of aristocracy deserved better treatment. For he is no phantasm; has no part with the puppets of supposed high-birth whom Dickens occasionally set up only for the pleasure of knocking them down again. However incapable of walking straight across a room, however restricted in his views of life, Cousin Feenix has the instincts of birth and breeding. I think one may say that he is Dickens's least disputable success in a sketch (it is only a sketch) from the aristocratic world. His talk does not seem to me exaggerated, and it is unusually interesting; his heart is right, his apprehensions are delicate. That he should be shown as feeble in mind, no less than at the knees, is merely part of the author's scheme; and, after all, the feebleness is more apparent than real. Dickens, moreover, very often associates kindness of disposition with lack of brains; it connects itself, I fancy, with his attitude towards liberal education, which has already been discussed, as well as with his Radicalism, still to be spoken of. No distinctly intellectual person figures in his books; David Copperfield is only a seeming exception, for who really thinks of David as a literary man? To his autobiography let all praise be given -- with the reserve that we see the man himself less clearly than any other person of whom he speaks. Decidedly he is not "the hero of his own story". Had Dickens intended to show us a man of letters, he would here have failed most grievously; of course he aimed at no such thing; the attempt would have cost him half his public. And so it is that one never thinks of the good David as a character at all, never for a moment credits him, the long-suffering youth for whom Dora "held the pens", with that glorious endowment of genius which went to the writing of his life.
Of an average middle-class family in Dickens's earlier time -- decent, kindly, not unintelligent folk -- we have the best example in the Meagles group, from Little Dorrit. This household may be contrasted with, say, that of the Maylies in Oliver Twist, which is merely immature work, and with the more familiar family circles on which Dickens lavishes his mirth and his benevolence. The Meagles do not much interest us, which is quite right; they are thoroughly realized, and take their place in social history. Well done, too, is the Pocket family in Great Expectations, an interesting pendant to that of the Jellybys in Bleak House; showing how well, when he chose, Dickens could satirize without extravagance. Mrs. Pocket is decidedly more credible than Mrs. Jellyby; it might be urged, perhaps, that she belongs to the Sixties instead of to the Fifties, a point of some importance. The likeness in dissimilitude between these ladies' husbands is very instructive. As for the son, Herbert Pocket, he is a capital specimen of the healthy, right-minded, and fairly-educated middle-class youth. Very skilfully indeed is he placed side by side with Pip; each throwing into relief the other's natural and acquired characteristics. We see how long it will take the blacksmith's foster-child (he telling the tale himself) to reach the point of mental and moral refinement to which Herbert Pocket has been bred.
One more illustration of the ordinary in life and character. Evidently Dickens took much pains with Walter Gay, in Dombey and Son, meaning to represent an average middle-class boy, high-spirited, frank, affectionate, and full of cheerful ambition. I have already mentioned the darker design, so quickly abandoned; we feel sure its working out would not have carried conviction, for Walter Gay, from the first, does not ring quite true. The note seems forced; we are not stirred by the lad's exuberance of jollity, and he never for a moment awakens strong interest. Is it any better with Richard Carstone, -- in whom the tragic idea was, with modification, carried through? Yes, Richard is more interesting; by necessity of his fortunes, and by virtue of artistic effort. He has his place in a book pervaded with the atmosphere of doom. Vivid he never becomes; we see him as a passive victim of fate, rather than as a struggling man; if he made a better fight, or if we were allowed to see more of his human weakness (partly forbidden by our proprieties), his destiny would affect us more than it does. In truth, this kind of thing cannot be done under Dickens's restrictions. Thackeray could have done it magnificently; but there was "the great, big, stupid public".
The "gentleman" Dickens loved to contemplate was -- in echo of Burns's phrase -- he who derives his patent of gentility straight from Almighty God. These he found abundantly among the humble of estate, the poor in spirit; or indulged his fine humanity in the belief that they abounded. A broken squire, reduced to miserly service, but keeping through all faults and misfortunes the better part of his honest and kindly nature; grotesque in person, of fantastic demeanour, but always lovable; -- of this dream comes Newman Noggs. A city clerk, grey in conscientious labour for one house, glorying in the perfection of his ledger, taking it ill if his employers insist on raising his salary; -- the vision is christened Tim Linkinwater. A young man of bumpkinish appearance, shy, ungainly, who has somehow drifted into the household of a country architect; who nourishes his soul at the church organ; who is so good and simple and reverential that years of experience cannot teach him what everyone else sees at a glance -- the hypocritical rascality of his master: he takes shape, and is known to us as Tom Pinch. A village blacksmith, with heart as tender as his thews are tough; delighting above all things in the society of a little child; so dull of brain that he gives up in despair the effort to learn his alphabet; so sweet of temper that he endures in silence the nagging of an outrageous wife; so delicate of sensibility that he perspires at the thought of seeming to intrude upon an old friend risen in life; -- what name can be his but Joe Gargery? These, and many another like unto them, did the master lovingly create, and there would be something of sacrilege in a cold scrutiny of his work. Whether or no their prototypes existed in the hurrying crowd of English life, which obscures so much good as well as evil, these figures have fixed themselves in the English imagination, and their names are part of our language. Dickens saw them, and heard them speak; to us, when we choose to enjoy without criticising, they seem no less present. Every such creation was a good deed; the results for good have been incalculable. Would he have been better occupied, had he pried into each character, revealed its vices, insisted on its sordid weaknesses, thrown bare its frequent hypocrisy, and emphasized its dreary unintelligence? Indeed, I think not. I will only permit myself the regret that he who could come so near to truth, and yet so move the affections, as in Joe Gargery, was at other times content with that inferior idealism which addresses itself only to unripe minds or to transitory moods.
The point to be kept in view regarding these ideal figures is that, however little their speech or conduct may smack of earth, their worldly surroundings are shown with marvellous fidelity. Tom Pinch worshipping at the shrine of Pecksniff may not hold our attention; but Tom Pinch walking towards Salisbury on the frosty road, or going to market in London with his sister, is unforgettable. This is what makes the difference between an impossible person in Dickens and the same kind of vision in the work of smaller writers. One cannot repeat too often that, in our literary slang, he "visualized" every character -- Little Nell no less than Mr. Jaggers. Seeing them, he saw the house in which they lived, the table at which they ate, and all the little habits of their day-to-day life. Here is an invaluable method of illusion, if an author can adopt it. Thus fortified, Dickens's least substantial imaginings have a durability not to be hoped for the laborious accuracies of an artist uninspired.
Pass to another group in this scarcely exhaustible world -- the confessed eccentrics. Here Dickens revels. An English novelist must needs be occupied to some extent with grotesque abnormalities of thought and demeanour. Dickens saw them about him even more commonly than we of to-day, and delighted in noting, selecting, combining. The result is seen in those persons of his drama who are frankly given up by many who will defend his verisimilitude in other directions. Mantalini, for example; Quilp, Captain Cuttle, Silas Wegg, and many another. For Silas Wegg, I fear, nothing can be urged, save the trifle that we know him; he becomes a bore, one of the worst instances of this form of humour weakened by extenuation. Even Dickens occasionally suffered from the necessity of filling a certain space. Think how long his novels are, and marvel that the difficulty does not more often declare itself. Of Mr. Boythorne we are accustomed to think as drawn from Landor, but then it is Landor with all the intellect left out; his roaring as gently as any sucking-dove does not greatly charm us, but his talk has good qualities. More of a character, in the proper sense of the word, is Harold Skimpole, whose portrait gave such offence to Leigh Hunt. Now Skimpole is one of the few people in Dickens whom we dislike, and so, a priori, demands attention. If we incline to think his eccentricity overdone, be it remembered that the man was in part an actor, and a very clever actor too. Skimpole is excellent work, and stands out with fine individuality in contrast to the representatives of true unworldliness.
To which category belongs Mr. Micawber? The art of living without an income may be successfully cultivated in very different moods. It is possible for a man of the most generous instincts to achieve great things in this line of endeavour; but the fact remains that, sooner or later, somebody has the honour of discharging his liabilities. To speak severely of Mr. Micawber is beyond the power of the most conscientious critic, whether in life or art; the most rigid economist would be glad to grasp him by the hand and to pay for the bowl of punch over which this type of genial impecuniosity would dilate upon his embarrassments and his hopes; the least compromising realist has but to open at a dialogue or a letter in which Mr. Micawber's name is seen, and straightway he forgets his theories. No selfish intention can be attributed to him. His bill might not be provided for when he declared it was, and, in consequence, poor Traddles may lose the table he has purchased for "the dearest girl in the world", but Mr. Micawber had all the time been firmly assured that something would turn up; he will sympathize profoundly with Traddles, and write him an epistle which makes amends for the loss of many tables. No man ever lived who was so consistently delightful -- certainly Dickens's father cannot have been so, but in this idealized portraiture we have essential truth. Men of this stamp do not abound, but they are met with, even to-day. As a rule, he who waits for something to turn up, mixing punch the while, does so with a very keen eye on his neighbour's pocket, and is recommended to us neither by Skimpole's fantastic gaiety nor by Micawber's eloquence and warmth of heart; nevertheless, one knows the irrepressibly hopeful man, full of kindliness, often distinguished by unconscious affectations of speech, who goes through life an unreluctant pensioner on the friends won by his many good and genial qualities. The one point on which experience gives no support to the imaginative figure is his conversion to practical activity. Mr. Micawber in Australia does the heart good; but he is a pious vision. We refuse to think of a wife worn out by anxieties, of children growing up in squalor; we gladly accept the flourishing colonist; but this is tribute to the author whom we love. Dickens never wrought more successfully for our pleasure and for his own fame. He is ever at his best when dealing with an amiable weakness. And in Micawber he gives us no purely national type; such men are peculiar to no country; all the characteristics of this wonderful picture can be appreciated by civilized readers throughout the world. It is not so in regard to many of his creations, though all the finest have traits of universal humanity. Should time deal hardly with him, should his emphasis of time and place begin to weigh against his wide acceptance, it is difficult to believe that the beaming visage of Wilkins Micawber will not continue to be recognized wherever men care for literary art.
This chapter must conclude with a glance at a class of human beings prominent in Dickens's earlier books, but of small artistic interest when treated in the manner peculiar to him. He was fond of characters hovering between eccentricity and madness, and in one case he depicted what he himself calls an idiot, though idiocy is not strictly speaking the form of disease exhibited. Lunatics were more often found at large in his day than in ours; perhaps that accounts for our introduction to such persons as Mrs. Nickleby's wooer and Mr Dick; Miss Flite, of course, had another significance. The crazy gentleman on the garden walk, who at once flatters and terrifies Mrs. Nickleby, can hardly be regarded as anything but an actor in broad farce; his talk, indeed, is midsummer madness, but is meant only to raise a laugh. In the new century, one does not laugh with such agreeable facility. Mrs. Nickleby commands our attention -- at a respectful distance; and here, as always, behaves after her kind illustrating the eternal feminine; but the madman we cannot accept. Betsy Trotwood's protege comes nearer to the recognizable; nevertheless Mr Dick's presence in such a book as David Copperfield would seem waste of space, but for certain considerations. He illustrates the formidable lady's goodness and common-sense; he served a very practical purpose, that of recommending rational treatment of the insane; and he had his place in the pages of an author whose humanity includes all that are in any way afflicted, in mind, body, or estate. Moreover, the craze about King Charles's head has been, and is likely to be, a great resource to literary persons in search of a familiar allusion. In passing to Barnaby Rudge, we are on different ground. Whatever else, Barnaby is a very picturesque figure, and I presume it was merely on this account that Dickens selected such a hero. In an earlier chapter, I said that this story seemed to me to bear traces of the influence of Scott; its narrative style and certain dialogues in the historical part are suggestive of this. May not the crazy Barnaby have originated in a recollection of Madge Wildfire? Crazy, I call him; an idiot he certainly is not. An idiot does not live a life of exalted imagination. But certain lunatics are of imagination all compact, and Barnaby, poetically speaking, makes a good representative of the class. Of psychology -- a word unknown to Dickens -- we, of course, have nothing; to ask for it is out of place. The idea, all things considered, cannot be judged a happy one. Whilst writing the latter part of the book Dickens thought for a moment of showing the rioters as led by a commanding figure, who, in the end, should prove to have escaped from Bedlam. We see his motive for this, but are not sorry he abandoned the idea. Probably Barnaby Rudge, good as it is, would have been still better had the suggestion of a half-witted central figure been also discarded.
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