Dickens is one of the masters of prose, but in a sense that carries qualification. He cannot be compared with Thackeray for flow of pure idiom, for command of subtle melodies. He is often mannered to the last point of endurance; he has one fault which offends the prime law of prose composition. For all that, he made unique use of the English language, and his style must be examined as one of the justifications of his place in literature.
In the beginning it had excellent qualities; his Sketches are phrased with vigour, with variety, and with a soundness of construction which he owed to his eighteenth-century studies. Dealing for the most part with vulgarity, his first book is very free from vulgarisms. In one of the earliest letters to Forster, he speaks of "your invite"; but no such abomination deforms his printed pages. Facetiousness is now and then to blame for an affected sentence, and this fault once or twice crops up in later books. Someone in Pickwick wears "a grin which agitated his countenance from one auricular organ to the other"; and in Bleak House, when grandfather Smallweed threw his cushion at the old woman, we are told that "the effect of this act of jaculation was twofold". Without much effort Dickens kept clear of such pitfalls; what might have befallen him but for his fine models and his good sense, we may surmise from the style of certain of his more or less conscious imitators, Slovenly English he never wrote; the nature of the man made it impossible. And in this respect he contrasts remarkably with all save the greatest of his day. As an illustration of what a generally sound writer could permit himself in the hurry of writing a "mere novel", I remember a passage in Henry Kingsley's Ravenshoe (chap. xxviii), where a dog is trying to attract his master's attention; we read, with a little shock of surprise, that "the dog wagged his tail and pawed his waistcoat". But Dickens respected both himself and his public -- never a common virtue in the everyday English novelist.
The gravest of his faults, from Oliver Twist onwards -- and he never wholly overcame it -- is the habit of writing metrically. He is not alone in this vice. Charles Kingsley illustrates it very badly in some of his prose; especially, I remember, in the Heroes. Should any one wish to see how far the trick (unconsciously, of course) can be carried, let him open Richard Jefferies' paper "The Open Air", where he will find several pages written, with very few breaks, precisely in a metre made familiar by Longfellow. As thus: "All the devious brooklet's sweetness / where the iris stays the sunlight; / all the wild woods hold of beauty: / all the broad hills' thyme and freedom: / thrice a hundred years repeated". This, of course, betrays an ear untrained in the harmonies of prose; the worst of it is, that many readers would discover it with delight, and point to it as admirable. A good many years since, I came upon a magazine article entitled "Dickens as a Poet", the absurd aim whereof was to show admiringly how many passages from the novels could be written and read as blank verse. The fact unfortunately cannot be disputed. Dickens wrote thus under the influence of strong emotion. He observed the tendency, speaks of it as something he cannot help, and is not disturbed by it. The habit overcame him in his moods of softness; and therefore is particularly noticeable towards the end of the Old Curiosity Shop. When his emotion is indignant, on the other hand, he is not thus tempted; simply as a bit of prose, the paragraph giving a general description of the children at Dotheboys, is good, well-balanced, with no out-of-place rhythm. But turn to a passage quoted by Forster (Book iii, chap. 8) from the American Notes; quoted as a fine expression of Dickens's sympathy with the poor. It is nobly felt, most admirably worded; yet the five-foot cadence is flagrant here and there. "But bring him here, upon this crowded deck. / Strip from his fair young wife her silken dress / . . . pinch her pale cheek with care and much privation" -- and so on. One is half inclined to think that Dickens did it deliberately, regarding it as an improvement on plain prose.
For a style simple, direct, and forcible, one may turn to Barnaby Rudge. Taking it all in all, this is perhaps the best written of his novels; best, that is to say, in the sense of presenting the smoothest and closest strain of narrative. There are no irruptions of metre; the periods are flowing, the language is full of subdued energy. Among the first few books it is very noticeable for this peculiar excellence. One reason, possibly, is its comparative shortness. Nickleby, on the other hand, has faults of style plainly due to the necessity of writing more than the author wished to say. One of its best-knit chapters is that describing Nicholas's walk from London through Surrey, with Smike. We breathe the very air of the downs, and smell the sweetness of wayside hedges. This power of suggesting a country atmosphere is remarkable in Dickens. He hardly ever mentions a tree or flower by its name; he never elaborates -- perhaps never even sketches -- a landscape; yet we see and feel the open-air surroundings. The secret is his own delight in the road and the meadow, and his infinite power of suggestion in seemingly unconsidered words.
In narrative, he is always excellent when describing rapid journeys. The best coach-drive ever put into words is that of the Muggleton coach, in Pickwick. It surpasses the much longer description in Chuzzlewit, which comes near to being monotonous after many paragraphs beginning with the same words; it is incredibly exhilarating, and would put a healthy glow, as of a fine frosty morning, into the veins of a man languishing in the tropics. We are asked to believe that the story (in Bleak House) of the posting journey conducted by Inspector Bucket, came from the pen of Miss Esther Summerson; the brain, at all events, was Dickens's, and working with its most characteristic vigour. He knew every stage covered by the travellers; he saw the gleam of the lamps, the faces they illumined but for a moment; the very horses brought out fresh were his old acquaintances. Such writing is no mere question of selecting and collocating words; there must first be vision, and that of extraordinary clearness. Dickens tells us that in times of worry or of grave trouble he could still write; he had but to sit down at his desk, and straightway he saw. Where -- as would happen -- he saw untruly, a mere fantasm thrown forward by the mind, his hand at once had lost its cunning. When vision was but a subtly enhanced memory, he never lacked the skill to make it seen by others.
Think of the easy graphic power that Dickens possessed, and compare it for a moment with the results of such laborious effort to the same ends as was put forth by the French novelist Flaubert. On the one hand, here is a man who works hard indeed, and methodically, but whose work is ever a joy to him, and not seldom a rapture. On the other, we have growls and groans; toil advancing at snail's pace, whilst sweat drips from the toiler's brow; little or no satisfaction to him in the end from all his suffering. And not one page of Flaubert gives proof of sight and grasp equal to that evinced in a thousand of Dickens. This thing cometh not by prayer and fasting, nor by any amount of thinking about art. You have it or you have it not. As a boy or youth Dickens was occupied in seeing; as a young man he took his pen and began to write of what he had seen. And the world saw with him -- much better than with its own poor, purblind eyes.
In the story of David Copperfield's journey on the Dover road, we have as good a piece of narrative prose as can be found in English. Equally as good, in another way, are those passages of rapid retrospect, in which David tells us of his later boyhood; a concentration of memory perfumed with the sweetest humour. It is not an easy thing to relate with perfect proportion of detail, with interest that never for a moment drops, the course of a year or two of wholly uneventful marriage; but read the chapter entitled "Our Domestic Life" and try to award adequate praise to the great artist who composed it. One can readily suggest how the chapter might have been spoiled; ever so little undue satire, ever so little excess of sentiment; but who can point to a line in which it might be bettered? It is perfect writing; one can say no more and no less.
Another kind of descriptive writing appears in the nineteenth chapter of Chuzzlewit: the funeral of old Anthony conducted by Mr. Mould. What of the scope declared in a contrast of this chapter with the one in Copperfield just mentioned? I should not like to say that one excels the other; I should find it impossible to decide between their merits. Where is the "extravagance" which, we are told, has pronounced Dickens's doom? Mr. Mould and his retainers, the whole funeral from house to grave, seems to me realism of the finest; it is clearest vision and narrative, without a hint of effort; and there stands the thing for ever.
A fine piece of the grimly picturesque is Quilp's death. Better, because more human, is the narrative in Barnaby Rudge of the day and night before the gaol-delivery when the rioters are to be hung. It has the effect of rapidity, but contains an immense amount of detail, actual and imaginative. Dennis, Hugh, and Barnaby, together in their cell, are seen by us as the swift hours pass, and at the same time we know what is going on without. Of all the broad and the delicate touches in which these pages abound, not one could be omitted as superfluous; and the impression aimed at is obtained with absolute success.
Narrative, of course, includes description; but in description by itself and in elaborate picturing, as distinguished from the hints which so often serve his purpose, Dickens is very strong. Before speaking of the familiar instances let me mention that chapter at the beginning of Little Dorrit, which opens with a picture of London as seen on a gloomy Sunday -- if the phrase be not tautological. It is very curious reading. For once we have Dickens quite divested of his humour, and beholding the great city in something like a splenetic mood. As conveying an impression, the passage could not be better; it makes us feel precisely what one has felt times innumerable amid the black lifeless houses, under a sky that crushes the spirit. But seldom indeed can Dickens have seen and felt thus. Compare with it his picture of the fog -- Mr. Guppy's "London particular" -- at the opening of Bleak House. This darkness visible makes one rather cheerful than otherwise, for we are spectators in the company of a man who allows nothing to balk his enjoyment of life, and who can jest unaffectedly even in such circumstances. Those few pages of Little Dorrit, admirable as art, suggest the kind of novels Dickens might have written without his humour. But in that case he would not have written them at all.
His normal manner is seen in the description of the Fleet, in Pickwick. It would appear difficult to make a vivid picture of such a place, a picture which convinces, and yet to omit things vile or intolerable to the feelings; but here it is done. The same art manifests itself as in his masterpieces of characterization; something is obscured, nothing falsified. At times, he could make a sketch in what is known as the impressionist manner; rapid, strong, and in the broadest lines suggesting a vast amount of detail; as in the description of the Gordon rioters seen, passing in their drunken fury along the street, from an upper window (Barnaby, chapter L). Dickens was rather proud of this passage; he calls attention to it in a letter written at the time. Innumerable the aspects of London presented in his books; what a wonderful little volume might be made by collecting such passages! Of the West-end we have glimpses only; one remembers, however, that very genteel but stuffy corner inhabited by the house of Barnacle, and the similar locality where dwelt Miss Tox. Stately and wealthy London he does not show us; his artistic preference is for the quaint, out-of-the-way quarters, or for the grim and the lurid, out of which he made a picturesque of his own. Writing once from Naples (where he was merely disappointed and disgusted, we can see why), he says, "I am afraid the conventional idea of the picturesque is associated with such misery and degradation that a new picturesque will have to be established as the world goes onward". Conventional his own ideas and presentments certainly were not, but for the most part they are closely connected with misery and degradation. Jacob's Island and Tom-all-alone's have the affect of fine, wild etchings lighted only just sufficiently to show broad features and suggest details one does not desire to pry into. Krook's house and its surroundings make an essential part of the world shadowed by Chancery; unutterably foul and stifling, yet so shown as to hold the imagination in no painful way. Dickens views such scenes in a romantic light. It is the property of his genius to perceive romance in the commonplace and the squalid, no less than in clean and comfortable homeliness.
What he can make out of a wretched little room a few feet square, in a close-packed, sordid neighbourhood, is shown in chapter xlvi of Chuzzlewit. Jonas, become a murderer, is lurking in his own house, and chooses a corner of it where he is not likely to be observed. "The room in which he had shut himself up was on the ground-floor, at the back of the house. It was lighted by a dirty sky-light, and had a door in the wall, opening into a narrow, covered passage or blind alley. . . . It was a blotched, stained, mouldering room, like a vault; and there were water-pipes running through it, which, at unexpected times in the night, when other things were quiet, clicked and gurgled suddenly, as if they were choking." Nothing could be more insignificant, and at the same time more grim. An out-of-doors companion to it may be found in Great Expectations. I came into Smithfield; the shameful place, being all filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me. So I rubbed it off with all possible speed by turning into a street where I saw the great black dome of St. Paul's bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison. Following the wall of the jail, I found the roadway covered with straw to deaden the sound of passing vehicles; and from the quantity of people standing about, smelling strongly of spirits and beer, I inferred that the trials were on" (chap. xx). This is "locality" as good as the bit of human portraiture which follows (Mr. Jaggers walking through the throng of his clients); and higher praise could not be bestowed.
I suppose there is no English writer, perhaps no writer in any literature, who so often gives proof of wonderfully minute observation. It is an important source of his strength; it helps him to put people and things before us more clearly than, as a rule, we should ourselves see them. Two examples only can I find room for; but they will suffice. Peggotty's purse, given to little David on his departure from Yarmouth, was found to contain "three bright shillings, which Peggotty had evidently polished up with whiting for my greater delight". And again, little Pip, after being washed by his sister, is led to make the remark: "I suppose myself to be better acquainted than any living authority with the ridgy effect of a wedding-ring, passing unsympathetically over the human countenance". You will come across no such instances as these in any other novelist, of observation, memory, and imaginative force, all evinced in a touch of detail so indescribably trivial; its very triviality being the proof of power in one who could so choose for his purposes among the neglected incidents of life.
When Dickens writes in his pleasantest mood of things either pleasant in themselves, or especially suggestive of humorous reflection, his style is faultless; perfectly suited, that is to say, to the author's aim and to the matter in hand. His Christmas number called The Holly Tree begins with a chapter on Inns; we rise from it feeling that on that subject the last word has been said, and said in the best possible way. His book of collected papers, The Uncommercial Traveller, consists almost wholly of such writing. Whether its theme is City of London Churches, or Shy Neighbourhoods, Tramps, or Night-walks, or London Chambers, he is invariably happy in phrase, and in flow of language which, always easy, never falls below the level of literature. In such work he must be put beside the eighteenth-century essayists, whom he always had in mind. His English is not less idiomatic than theirs, and his views of life find no less complete expression through the medium of a style so lightly and deftly handled.
Dickens's superabounding energy, and the unrest which frequently came upon him in consequence of private worries, now and then diverted his thoughts from the all-sufficient labours of literature, and made him anxious to try his strength in public life. At one time he carefully inquired as to the possibility of his becoming a stipendiary magistrate; but the replies he received were not encouraging. At another, he fixed his mind on political journalism; and this had practical result in the establishment of the Daily News, which paper, as we have seen, he edited for only a few days. A desire to preside in courts of justice was natural enough in the author of Oliver Twist; and, like other men of letters much concerned with social questions, he imagined that the columns of a great newspaper would afford him the best possible field for making known his views and influencing the world. One step which has tempted writers from their appointed task he seems never to have seriously contemplated; he received invitations to stand as a Parliamentary candidate, but gave no ear to them.
The term which described him as politician and social reformer is no longer in common use; he was a Radical. This meant, of course, one who was discontented with the slow course of legislation, moving decorously "from precedent to precedent", and with the aristocratic ideas underlying English life; one who desired radical changes, in the direction of giving liberty and voice to the majority of the people. In a day of advancing Socialism, the demands put forward by such men seem timidly tentative. To our mind, Dickens is in most things a Conservative, and never in his intention democratic -- using the word in its original sense. We have to remember the reforms actually achieved in his time, to recognize how progressive was the Radical spirit. Dickens's novels had no small part in the good work, and their influence certainly went further than he knew.
Even in the Sketches he writes satirically of the House of Commons, and at a later time his attitude towards Parliament was no less contemptuous than Carlyle's. A letter, bearing the date 1855, declares his grave belief that Representative Government was a failure in England, owing to the national vice which was then known as "flunkeyism". At that time he was writing Little Dorrit, and had many reasons for discontent with things in general. But he never desired or anticipated a political revolution of the thorough kind. His first visit to America gave him impressions on the subject of Republicanism which were never removed. He writes thence to Forster, 1842, that he trembled for any Radical who should cross the Atlantic, "unless he is a Radical on principle, by reason and reflection, and from the sense of right. I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country, in the failure of its example to the earth." If that example had proved to be in any respect hopeful, he would undoubtedly have rejoiced. Later he probably felt some little satisfaction in the thought that the great Republic had not done so greatly better, all things considered, than monarchic England.
He never attained to a theory of reform; it was not in his mind, his character, to elaborate such reflections. What he thought about the bygone story of his country we can read in the series of chapters which he wrote for Household Words, and afterwards published as the Child's History of England. As literature it is not happy; too often one is reminded (at a great distance certainly) of that disgusting series of books called Comic Histories, which someone or other disgraced himself by writing. Dickens had no serious historical knowledge, and no true understanding of what is meant by history; his volume shows a series of more or less grotesque sovereigns, who play pranks before high heaven at the expense of the multitudes they are supposed to rule by divine right. Most unfortunate would be the child into whose hand this "history" was put. The one clear suggestion we carry away after trying to read it, is that Dickens congratulated himself on living in the nineteenth century, a subject of Queen Victoria. It was part of his Radicalism to speak of "the bad old times", and true history of course not seldom justifies him. After a visit to Chillon, he writes an admirable letter of description, and ends exclaiming -- "Good God, the greatest mystery in all the earth, to me, is how or why the world was tolerated by its Creator through the good old times, and wasn't dashed to fragments". The past, to his mind, was much better forgotten. That the world progressed, he never for a moment held in doubt; but the rate of progress was not at all in keeping with his energetic habits.
In a speech on some public occasion he made a political remark, which, from the ambiguity of its wording, caused newspaper discussion; he said that he had little or no faith in the people governing, but faith limitless in the people governed. Obviously, the shrewdest "trimmer" could not have devised a form of words allowing more latitude of interpretation; but what Dickens meant was plain enough to anyone who did not desire to misunderstand him. He explained afterwards that the first "people" should be spelt with a small initial letter, the second with a capital. But even so, an ambiguity remains, for "the people governed" may mean either a fact or a hypothesis. Dickens intended the former; he could have implied the latter without any contradiction of his views as seen throughout the novels. He was never a democrat; in his heart he always held that to be governed was the people's good; only let the governors be rightly chosen. Herbert Spencer has a precious sentence with which Dickens would profoundly have agreed in all its issues: "There is no political alchemy by which you can get golden conduct out of leaden instincts". Dickens knew -- no man better -- how unfit are the vast majority of mankind to form sound views as to what is best for them, whether in public or private life; he knew that ignorance inevitably goes hand in hand with forms of baseness, and that though the voice of the people must be heard, it cannot always be allowed to rule. This is very moderate doctrine indeed, but it then qualified a man as a good Radical. Not much more advanced was the position of the little band of teachers who called themselves "Christian Socialists", men with whom Dickens very largely sympathized.
He had the sincerest admiration for Carlyle, the sound of whose great guns could not but delight him -- at all events when they were directed against the aristocracy and its game-preserving habits. Himself an aristocrat to the core in the nobler and truer sense of the word, and with very little patience for the simpletons and weaklings whom Dickens took to his heart with so warm a charity, Carlyle was yet far more passionate than the novelist on behalf of the poor and hard-driven sons of men. A humorist, he too, and among the greatest, Carlyle could jest but grimly where his eyes fell upon those "hard-entreated brothers"; he felt within himself the wrath of the prophet moved to lift up his voice against the world's injustice. Conscious himself of the ills of poverty, not only in childhood but at the time of life when want breeds gall and bitterness in strong hearts, he could remind the poor of their eternal duties with stoic sternness, but in the next moment turned away to hide a tear. Vastly wider was his vision than that of Dickens, and so much the deeper his compassion. Another great name rightly associated with Radicalism is that of Tennyson. He who wrote Locksley Hall and Maud had no stinted sympathy with the revolt against pride of place. A hackneyed strophe in Vere de Vere expressed the inmost thought of Dickens's heart. Tennyson moved on to other things; he had a larger mission; but no word that stands upon his perfect page did wrong to the ideal of humanity he had followed in his youth. Unable though he was to enter into the poet's highest mood, Dickens held substantially by the same moral and intellectual guidance. Their messages do not contradict, but supplement, each other.
"I exhort my dear children" -- thus runs a passage at the close of Dickens's will -- "humbly to try to guide themselves by the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man's narrow construction of its letter here and there." It is the essence of his religion; and his religion (oddly as it may sound) had a great deal to do with the tone and teaching of his literary work. We are told that, for a few years, he attended a Unitarian place of worship; but this involved no dogmatic heresy; at all events, no mental travail on religious subjects. It meant only that the clergy of the English church had irritated and disgusted him. The causes of such feeling are not far to seek, but it will be enough here to mention a fact which he emphasizes in one of his letters, that not until the year of grace 1848 did any Bishop of London make his voice heard as to the necessity of providing the poor with better dwellings. One bears in mind what sort of habitations sheltered the poor of London; one' remembers also certain events of that very year '48; and the two reflections help to understand Dickens's attitude. Preoccupied always with the thought of Christ's simple teaching, he took trouble to extract, for his children's use, what seemed to him the essential portions of the New Testament; and it would greatly have pleased him could such a little volume have been used for the instruction of the children of the poor. Instead, he saw them brought up on "the church catechism and other mere formularies and subtleties", and he saw their instructors fighting for this mere husk of religion as though it were the Master's vital word -- that word, meanwhile, being by most of them assiduously neglected. None the less he returned to the English Church, and to the end remained a member of it. How he looked upon the more aggressive forms of Dissent we know. It would be a libel to say that Dickens clung to the Establishment because it was "respectable", but undoubtedly he did so in part because the Church belonged to that ancient and solid order of things in England which he never wished to see overturned. Many a man of brains still behaves in the same way, for the same reason. Of his religious sincerity, in the broader sense, there can be no possibility of doubt. He was the last man to drag sacred names and associations into his books on trivial pretexts; but whenever he alludes to Christian precept or makes mention of the Teacher himself, it is with a simple reverence very beautiful and touching; words which came from his own heart, and go straight to that of his reader.
We do not nowadays look for a fervent Christianity in leaders of the people. In that, as in several other matters, Dickens was by choice retrospective. Still writing at a time when "infidelity" -- the word then used -- was becoming rife among the populace of great towns, he never makes any reference to it, and probably did not take it into account; it had no place in his English ideal. I doubt, indeed, whether he was practically acquainted with the "free-thinking" workman. A more noticeable omission from his books (if we except the one novel which I cannot but think a failure) is that of the workman at war with capital. This great struggle, going on before him all his life, found no place in the scheme of his fiction. He shows us poor men who suffer under tyranny, and who exclaim against the hardship of things; but never such a representative wage-earner as was then to be seen battling for bread and right. One reason is plain: Dickens did not know the north of England. With adequate knowledge of a manufacturing town, he would never have written so unconvincingly as in his book Hard Times -- the opportunity for dealing with this subject. Stephen Blackpool represents nothing at all; he is a mere model of meekness, and his great misfortune is such as might befall any man anywhere, the curse of a drunken wife. The book is a crude attack on materialism, a theme which might, of course, have entered very well into a study of the combatant working-class. But, as I have already pointed out, the working-class is not Dickens's field, even in London. For the purposes of fiction, it is a class still waiting its portrayer; much has been written about it in novels, but we have no work of the first order dealing primarily with that form of life. Mrs. Gaskell essayed the theme very faithfully, and with some success; but it was not her best work. I can recall no working-class figures in English novels so truly representative as those in Charlotte Brontë's second book. Given a little wider experience, the author of Shirley might have exhibited this class in a masterpiece such as we vainly look for.
I do not forget Rouncewell in Bleak House. He is a Radical, vigorous in action and in speech; but then, he happens to be an employer, and not a "hand". His purpose in visiting Chesney Wold is to withdraw from domestic service, as from an unsuitable position, the young girl with whom his son has fallen in love. Mr. Rouncewell belongs distinctly to the middle class -- the "great" middle class. He is a Radical in the way of becoming a considerable capitalist. Note that Dickens saw no incongruity in these things. He makes it plain to us that the man has risen by honest ability and work; this being so, he has a right to stand firmly, but respectfully, face to face with Sir Leicester Dedlock, or with men of even higher title. It is the middle-class ideal; that which developed together with England's wealth -- at the cost of things which we agree to forget. Dickens greatly admires and sympathizes with Mr. Rouncewell. Yet, at this distance of time, we feel it rather difficult to understand why the successful iron-founder should be a more sympathetic figure than the honest-hearted baronet. The one represents a coming triumph; the other, a sinking cause; but, in the meantime, it remains very doubtful whether the triumphing order will achieve more for the interests of humanity than that which has received its death-blow. Mr. Rouncewell's characteristics are very significant; he is the ideal Englishman in the eye of Dickens, and of most of his contemporaries. The son of a domestic servant -- who is herself a model woman, having risen to the position of confidential housekeeper in a great family -- he could never for a moment feel ashamed of his origin; nay, on due occasion he will be proud of it; but he is making money, and looks forward to establishing a "family" of his own. Elaborately, yet modestly, he expounds the situation to the wondering Sir Leicester. With a certain semi-conscious self-approval, he makes known to the baronet that it is no uncommon thing for the son of a wealthy manufacturer to fall in love with a working girl, in which event the girl is removed from her lowly position to be suitably educated and prepared for her duties as a middle-class wife. (Observe our progress; Mr. Rouncewell would hardly be so complacent in speaking of such love-affairs nowadays; but that by the by.) There is no hint that the mothers of prosperous men should be removed from a place of servitude. Old and new here meet amicably. Mrs. Rouncewell would never consent to quit Chesney Wold, where she regards her duties as a high privilege; she "knows her place", and her son, anything but an intentional revolutionist, is quite content that this should be so. The whole scene is a most valuable bit of history. Sir Leicester and his lady, with old Mrs. Rouncewell, represent the past; Rouncewell, his son, and the pretty girl in Lady Dedlock's service, stand for the future. All is civilly transacted; the baronet could not behave otherwise than as noblesse oblige; the iron-master is very much of a gentleman. Our author is not entirely aware of his success in satire; for Sir Leicester has more reason to marvel at the social change going on about him than Dickens himself perceived.
Honesty, hard work, worldly success -- these are the ideal of the new order; and Dickens heartily approves them. Was he not himself a brilliant example of the self-made man? Much more than that, to be sure; and therefore he supplements the commonly admired scheme of things with a humanity of thought which places him above temporary conditions. Read his addresses given to audiences of the new democracy; especially that delivered at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, in which he used the ambiguous phrases, quoted above, about the people governing and governed. Here, as often in public speeches, he expressly declares that study must not be undertaken solely for the sake of "getting on", but for the moral and intellectual good resulting to him who studies, and for the power it bestows of doing good to others. He said it with all sincerity; but his audience, we may be sure, kept before them, whilst they listened, the mental image of Mr. Rouncewell. When Dickens spoke of Progress, it was thus that the people interpreted him. And of Progress he spoke much and often, convinced as he was that his country was moving steadily towards a better day. Human nature being what it is, a commercial epoch might do much worse than set up Mr. Rouncewell as its patron saint. But Sir Leicester, too, had his intimations of futurity; he may, in his darkest moments, have foreseen Chesney Wold fallen into the possession of some lord of millions, who neither knew nor cared anything about the fair traditions of the past, who revelled in vulgar display, and who, by the force of his glaring example, promoted bitterness and warfare between the classes and the nations of mankind. Dickens lived to see the beginnings of plutocracy. He would not have glorified that form of progress; but all unconsciously he had his part in bringing it about.
One vice which had formerly been proper to aristocratic circles, that of furious gambling, he saw spreading through society at large, and spoke of it as became him. He chanced to be at Doncaster during the races, and after describing in a letter the scenes of that lively time, he adds, "I vow to God that I can see nothing in it but cruelty, covetousness, calculation, insensibility, and low wickedness". These are honest words. But no man's censure can avail against a national curse which is inseparably connected with the triumph of commercialism.
On its better side, then, Dickens's Radicalism consisted in profound sympathy with the poor, and boundless contempt of all social superiority that is merely obstructive. Speaking of The Chimes, he said that it was his wish and hope in this book "to strike a blow for the poor Many such blows he struck, and that right manfully. Our social experience forbids us to think that his views were always wise. He hated the new Poor Law, merely because it put an end to a ruinous system of outdoor relief and compelled the indigent to live in so-called workhouses. One can only wonder that his feeling so much overcame his robust common-sense. Quite late in his career we come across the old animosity in his description of Betty Higden (Our Mutual Friend), one of the least valuable of his pictures of poor life. Old Betty lives in terror of the workhouse, and wishes to die in a ditch rather than be taken care of by the Union. This is intelligible enough; one knows that workhouses are often brutally conducted, and one sympathizes very thoroughly with a loathing of that "charity" which is not at all synonymous with charity in its true sense. But Betty, as a figure in fiction, does not interest us; she is so evidently a mere mouthpiece for criticism of a system; we do not see her, and do not believe in her talk. The practical man only scoffs. And Dickens could so easily have drawn a character at which no scoffing would have been possible.
It is an obvious fault of his work, when he exhibits victims of social wrong, that it takes no due account of the effect of conditions upon character. Think of little Oliver Twist, who has been brought up under Bumble and Company, amid the outcasts of the world, yet is as remarkable for purity of mind as for accuracy of grammar. Oliver, when taken to Fagin's house, is wholly at a loss to conjecture the meaning of words and acts which even a well-bred boy of his age could not fail to understand; the workhouse lad had evidently never heard of pickpockets. Granted that Oliver was of gentle blood, heredity does not go so far as this. Little Dorrit, again: she is the child of the Marshalsea; and think of what that meant, even apart from the fact of her more literal parentage. Yet we find no blemish in her; she has grown up "under the lock" without contracting one bad habit of thought or speech; indeed, one does not know in what way Amy Dorrit could be morally improved. This is optimism of the crudest kind, but to Dickens and to his readers it suggested no troublesome reflections. To show either Oliver or Amy as a creature of pure instincts, struggling and stumbling towards the light and often sinking in despair, would have satisfied neither; the good character must be good in spite of everything, or the Ruler of the universe seems dishonoured.
To us, in a day of sociology, such ideals are uninteresting, and it relieves us when we come across such a capital study of the everyday fact as is seen (Dombey) in Mrs. Toodle's graceless son, Rob the Grinder. Robert was a charity boy, and probably a fair specimen of the breed. From the doubtless well-meaning care of the Charitable Grinders he has come forth a very troublesome young rascal; slippery, untruthful, dishonest, and the ready instrument of any mature scoundrel who chooses to throw him a copper. This, notwithstanding the sterling qualities of his father and mother. Rob is quite capable of penitence; it makes him uncomfortable when he knows that his good mother is crying about him; but after every resolution of amendment comes a speedy relapse, and when we at length lose sight of him, it is with no certainty that he will not live to be transported. Excellent characterization, and far more profitable from the point of view of the good Radical than many crossing-sweeper Joes or declaiming Betty Higdens. It goes to the root of the matter. Rob has been infamously neglected by the pretentious folk who made such a merit of supplying him with bread-and-butter and a hideous garb. This was plainly not the way to make a good citizen out of a low-born child -- or any other child. It pointed to the need for education other than that supplied by Grinders, however charitable; and from this point of view, Rob is one of the most important of Dickens's social studies.
Whilst speaking of the influence of social conditions, one ought to glance again at the Smallweed family, in Bleak House. These creatures, whether it was meant or not, plainly stand for the blighted, stunted, and prematurely old offspring of foggiest London. Impossible, we are told, to conceive of them as having ever been young. Nothing could be truer. These are typical products of a monstrous barbarism masked as civilization; savages amid the smoke and filth and clamour of a huge town, just as much as the dirty grizzled Indian crouched in a corner of his wigwam. Dickens chose to dwell on things more pleasant and, as it seemed to him, better for the soul; but he knew very well that for one Tim Linkinwater there existed five thousand Smallweeds. Not only in the neighbourhood of Chancery do such weeds crop up; it is the pestilent air of crowded brick and mortar that nourishes them. Statisticians tell us that London families simply die out in the third generation; on the whole, one is glad to hear it. Unfortunately, their decay leaves a miasma; and all children so luckless as to breathe it with their daily air shrivel in mind, if not in body, before they have a chance of enjoying youth.
Dickens's remedy for the evils left behind by the bad old times was, for the most part, private benevolence. He distrusted legislation; he had little faith in charitable associations; though such work as that of the Ragged Schools strongly interested him. His saviour of society was a man of heavy purse and large heart, who did the utmost possible good in his own particular sphere. This, too, was characteristic of the age of free-contract, which claimed every man's right to sell himself as best he could, or buy as many other men as his means allowed. At one with Carlyle in scorning the theory that "cash was the sole nexus" between human beings, Dickens would have viewed uneasily any project for doing away with this nexus altogether; which would mean the abolition of a form of beneficence in which he delighted. With what gusto does he write of any red-cheeked old gentleman who goes about scattering half-sovereigns, and finding poor people employment, and brightening squalid sick-chambers with the finest produce of Covent Garden. In the Christmas Books, he went to pantomimic lengths in this kind of thing; but no one was asked to take Scrooge very seriously, either as a grasping curmudgeon, or when he bawls out of the window his jovial orders for Christmas fare. Figures, however, such as Mr. Garland and the Cheerybles and John Jarndyce and many another were presented in all good faith. We may even see Dickens himself playing the part, and very creditably, in that delightful Christmas paper of his, the Seven Poor Travellers; where it makes one's mouth water to read of the fare he ordered at the inn for those lucky vagabonds. In the Cheeryble brothers he indulges his humane imagination to the full. That there indeed existed a couple of kindhearted merchants, who were as anxious to give money as others are to make it, we will believe on the author's assurance; but that anyone ever saw the Cheerybles in the flesh we decline to credit. They are chubby fairies in tights and gaiters; a light not of this world flushes about their jolly forms. Dickens becomes wild with joyous sympathy in telling of their eccentric warm-heartedness "Damn you, Tim Linkinwater!" they exclaim -- unable in the ordinary language of affection to set free their feelings. To double a clerk's salary is a mere bit of forenoon fun; after dinner, we picture them supplying fraudulent debtors with capital for a new undertaking, or purchasing an estate in Hampshire to be made over forthwith to the widow of some warehouse porter with sixteen children. The harm they must have done, those two jolly old boys! But Dickens would not hear of such a suggestion. He considered, above all, the example of self-forgetfulness, of mercy. And as "people in a book", it is likely enough that Tim Linkinwater's employers are to this day bearing far and wide a true gospel of humanity.
The very heartiness of this benevolence precludes every suspicion of offensive patronage. We know that these men do good because it gives them more pleasure than anything else; and their geniality is a result thereof. Even so in Dickens himself; he is incapable of speaking and thinking of the poor as from a higher place; no man ever pleaded their cause with simpler sincerity. He is always, and naturally, on their side, as against the canter, and the bully, and the snob; even as against a class of rich folk with whom he had otherwise no quarrel. It overjoys him to find good in anyone of lowly station, to show virtues in the uneducated. Those very Cheeryble brothers, do they not eat with their knives? We should not have known it, but he goes out of his way to tell us; he insists upon the fact with pride, and to throw scorn upon the fastidious, who would disapprove of this habit. Always it is the heart rather than the head. A man who has been to school and college may, of course, have virtues; but how much fairer do they shine -- thinks Dickens -- in him who drops his h's and does not know the world is round! In this respect -- as in various others -- there is a difference between Dickens and that other Radical novelist, Charles Kingsley. The author of Alton Locke chooses for his hero a working-man whose intellect is so much above the average that he is nothing less than a true poet. One cannot imagine such a figure in Dickens. Copperfield -- by the autobiographic necessity of the case -- does not come of the proletariate, and I remember no instance of a person born in that class to whom Dickens gives anything more than mechanical aptitudes. It was reserved for Thackeray to make a great artist of a butler's son, and for Kingsley to show us a tailor writing "The Sands of Dee". I mention this simply as a fact, without implying any adverse criticism; it was the part of Dickens to show the beauty of moral virtues, and to declare that these could be found in all kinds of men, irrespective of birth and education. When sending forth her nephew into the world, Betsy Trotwood gave him this brief counsel: "Never be mean; never be false; never be cruel". Better advice she could not have bestowed; and it was the ideal of conduct held up by Dickens to all his readers, from beginning to end. If he could discover shining examples of such virtue among the poor and the ignorant, their mental dulness seemed to him of but small account.
It does his heart good to play the advocate and the friend to those with whom nature and man have dealt most cruelly. Upon a Smike or a Maggy (in Little Dorrit) he lavishes his tenderness simply because they are hapless creatures from whom even ordinary kind people would turn with involuntary dislike. Maggy is a starved and diseased idiot, a very child of the London gutter, moping and mowing to signify her pleasures or her pains. Dickens gives her for protector the brave and large-hearted child of the Marshalsea, whose own sufferings have taught her to compassionate those who suffer still more. Maggy is to be rescued from filth and cold and hunger; is to be made as happy as her nature will allow. It is nobly done, and, undoubtedly, an example of more value to the world than any glorification of triumphant intellect.
At times, he went too far in his championship of the humble. Chapter xxxviii of The Old Curiosity Shop contains a paragraph of moralizing in which it is declared that the love of home felt by the poor is "of truer metal" than anything of the kind possible in the wealthy. Twenty years later Dickens would not have spoken so inconsiderately. Sometimes, too, he goes beyond the safe mean in his exhibition of virtuous humility. The lad Kit, who not only "came back to work out the shilling", but repels with a sense of injury an offer of new service at higher wages, comes dangerously near to the kind of thing one meets with in stories written for Sunday School prizes. Many readers, I dare say, are of opinion that Dickens is constantly falling into this error; that it is his besetting sin. Well, that is one way of regarding the matter; on the alternative point of view I have sufficiently insisted.
The enviously discontented poor seldom come forward in his pages; indeed, the discontented in any spirit are not often shown. An interesting exception is his paper on "Tramps", in the Uncommercial Traveller, where tramps of every species are discussed with much knowledge and infinite humour, and without a trace of sentimentality. We hear the whining of the rascals, and their curses when they fail to get anything by it; their hopeless brutality is set forth with most refreshing candour. Of characters in the novels, there is no low-class malcontent worth mention except Charley Hexam. He, indeed, makes a very good exception, for he is precisely the one member of his class whom Dickens shows as tolerably educated. The date of Our Mutual Friend is 1865; the great scheme of national education was to be established only five years later; and had Dickens been able to foresee every result of 1870, he could not have drawn a more truly prophetic figure than Charley Hexam. This youth has every fault that can attach to a half-taught cub of his particular world. He is a monstrous egotist, to begin with, and "school" has merely put an edge on to the native vice. The world exists solely for his benefit; his "esuriency", to use Carlyle's word, has no bounds. Then he is of course a snob, and with fair opportunity will develop into a petty tyrant with an inclination to active cruelty. Something of resemblance exists between this fellow and Tom Tulliver; it is an odd coincidence, too, that both should have sisters so vastly their superiors, yet alike devoted to them. Tom had the advantage of country air; he is never quite unwholesome, his selfish coarseness of fibre is recognizable as old English. But Hexam's pride is of base metal, through and through. He is capable of swaggering in a bar-room, of lying contemptibly to an audience of commoner lads. Before he was many years older, he became a "secularist" -- quite without conviction, -- and delivered peculiarly blatant lectures; after that he added "socialism", and pointed to himself as an example of the man of great talents, who had never found a fair chance. Dickens did well in giving him for teacher and friend such a man as Bradley Headstone, whose passionate nature (with which one can sympathize well enough when it comes to the love-story) must needs have an evil influence on Lizzie's brother. But this was not absolutely necessary for the development of a Charley Hexam, whose like, at this moment, may be found throughout London by anyone studying the less happy results of the board-school system.
Of noble discontent, Dickens cannot be said to give us any picture at all. The inventor in Little Dorrit, foiled by the Circumlocutionists, is too mild and dreamy to nourish a spirit of revolt; Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times would hold rebellion a sin; and as for the rank and file of hungry creatures, they seem never to have heard that there is movement in the land, that voices are raised on their behalf, and even to some purpose. No; their hope is in the Cheeryble brothers; not at all in Chartist or in Radical or in Christian Socialist. Very significant the omission. Dickens, for all his sympathy, could not look with entire approval on the poor grown articulate about their wrongs. He would not have used the phrase, but he thought the thought, that humble folk must know "their station". He was a member of the middle class, and as far from preaching "equality" in its social sense as any man that ever wrote. Essentially a member of the great middle class, and on that very account able to do such work, to strike such blows, for the cause of humanity in his day and generation.
Twenty years ago a familiar topic for debating societies was a comparison of the literary characteristics of Dickens and Thackeray -- or of Thackeray and Dickens, I forget which. Not impossibly, the theme is still being discussed in country towns or London suburbs. Of course, it was always an absurdity, the points of difference between these authors being so manifest, and their mutual relations in literature so easy of dismissal, that debate in the proper sense there could be none. As to which of the two was the "greater novelist", the question may be left for answer to those who are capable of seriously propounding it. He will be most positive in judgment whose acquaintance with the novelists' writings is least profound.
It seems to me, however, that we may, without waste of time, suggest comparison in certain points between Dickens and one or two of his foreign contemporaries, writers of fiction who, like the English master, were pre-occupied with social questions, and evinced special knowledge in dealing with the life of the poor. Balzac, Victor Hugo, Dostoieffsky, Daudet -- these names readily occur to one, and I shall not err in assuming familiarity with their principal works in those who have cared to read so far in this little book. Of course I have no intention of saying all that might easily be said as to points of contrast: so thorough an Englishman as Dickens must needs differ in particulars innumerable from authors marked on their side by such strong national characteristics. Enough to indicate certain lines of similarity, or divergence, which, pursued in thought, may help to a complete understanding of our special subject.
Evidently there is a difference on the threshold between Dickens and three of the foreign authors named -- a difference which seems to involve the use of that very idle word "realism". Novels such as those of Balzac are said to be remorseless studies of actual life; whereas Dickens, it is plain, never pretends to give us life itself, but a selection, an adaptation. Balzac, calling his work the "human comedy", is supposed to have smiled over this revelation of the littleness of man, his frequent sordidness, his not uncommon bestiality. Dostoieffsky, absorbed in compassionate study of the wretched, the desolate, the oppressed, by no means goes out of his way to spare our feelings; and Daudet, so like to Dickens in one or two aspects, matures into a conception of the novel which would have been intolerable to the author of David Copperfield -- cultivates a frankness regarding the physical side of life which in England would probably have to be defended before legal authorities with an insular conception of art. Realists, we say; men with an uncompromising method, and utterly heedless as to whether they give pleasure or pain.
The distinction is in no way a censure upon Dickens. As soon as a writer sits down to construct a narrative, to imagine human beings, or adapt those he knows to changed circumstances, he enters a world distinct from the actual, and, call himself what he may, he obeys certain laws, certain conventions, without which the art of fiction could not exist. Be he a true artist, he gives us pictures which represent his own favourite way of looking at life; each is the world in little, and the world as he prefers it. So that, whereas execution may be rightly criticised from the common point of view, a master's general conception of the human tragedy or comedy must be accepted as that without which his work could not take form. Dickens has just as much right to his optimism in the world of art, as Balzac to his bitter smile. Moreover, if it comes to invidious comparisons, one may safely take it for granted that "realism" in its aggressive shapes is very far from being purely a matter of art. The writer who shows to us all the sores of humanity, and does so with a certain fury of determination, may think that he is doing it for art's sake; but in very truth he is enjoying an attack upon the order of the universe -- always such a tempting form of sport. Well, Dickens was also combative, and enjoyed his palpable hits; only, his quarrel was with certain people, and certain ways of thought, never with human nature or the world at large.
There are orders of imaginative work. A novel is distinct from a romance; so is a fairy tale. But there can be drawn only a misleading, futile distinction between novels realistic and idealistic. It is merely a question of degree and of the author's temperament.
In Balzac's Cousin Pons are two figures, amiable, eccentric, such as Dickens might have conceived in other surroundings. Pons, the collector of bric-a-brac, and his friend Schmucke, are good, simple creatures, and Balzac loves them; but so bent is he on showing that life, or at all events Paris, is a vast machine for torturing and crushing the good (and therefore the weak), that these two old men end in the most miserable way, amid baseness and cruelty which triumphs over them. We know how Dickens would have shaped the story. In art he was incapable of such sternness; and he utterly refused to believe that fate was an irresponsible monster. Compare the Maison Vauquer in Le Père Goriot, with "Todgers's" in Martin Chuzzlewit. No one will for a moment believe that Dickens's picture differs from that of Balzac, because the one is a bit of London, the other of Paris. Nor is it a question of defect of humour; Mme Vauquer (née de Conflans) and her group of boarders in the Rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève, are presented with sufficient suggestion of humorous power. But Balzac delights in showing us how contemptible and hateful such persons can be; whereas Dickens throws all his heart on to the side of the amusing and the good. When sheets are wanted to shroud the dead body of poor old Goriot (a victim of atrocious greed), Mme Vauquer exclaims: "Prends les draps retournés; par Dieu! c'est toujours assez bon pour un mort". It is a fierce touch, and Dickens could no more have achieved it in a novel than have uttered the words in his own person. There is a difference of artistic method. We are free to express a preference for this or for that way of presenting life; but such preference involves no judgment. On either side, a host of facts can be brought forward to justify the artist's view; the critic's part is merely to inquire how the work has been executed.
One finds in Balzac a stronger intellect, but by no means a greater genius. Very much wider is his scope in character and circumstance; he sees as clearly and as minutely as Dickens; but I doubt whether he ever imparts his vision with the vividness of Dickens at his best; and assuredly his leagues of description fail in art when compared with the English author's mode of showing us what he wishes. In construction they are both flagrantly defective, though erring in different ways.
Let the critic who dismisses Dickens's figures as types, turn for a moment to Victor Hugo's masterpiece, Les Misérables. What are we to call the personages in this story? Put side by side the detective Javert and Inspector Bucket. It is plain at once that in the latter we have an individual, a living man full of peculiarities, some professional, others native to himself; he represents, no doubt, the London police force of his day, but only as any very shrewd, brisk, and conscientious inspector would have done so. Javert, on the other hand, is an incarnation of the penal code; neither more nor less. Never for one instant do we mistake him for a being such as walks the earth. He is altogether superhuman; he talks the language of an embodied Idea; it cannot surprise us however ubiquitous he seems or however marvellous his scent for a criminal. Go through the book, and it is always the same thing. Jean Valjean might be likened to Prometheus; he is a type of suffering humanity, he represents all the victims of social wrong. Let his adventures go to any length of the heroic, the surprising, we do not protest; he is not one man, but many. Fantine, too; what is she but the spirit of outraged womanhood? Even as Cosette stands for childhood robbed of its natural inheritance, trodden under foot by a greedy and ferocious civilization. Les Misérables is not rightly to be called a novel; it belongs to the region of symbolic art. And my only reason for putting it beside Dickens's work is to make manifest at a glance his superior quality as a writer of fiction.
Hugo is concerned with wide historical questions, with great forces in the life of the world; he probes the theory of society, searches into the rights of the individual; he judges man; he seeks to justify the ways of God. He is international; and his vast drama belongs to all modern time. He is in the faithfulest sense of the word a democrat; for him there can be, in the very nature of things, no ruling voice save that of the people; all other potentates and lawgivers are mere usurpers, to be suffered for a time. Dickens, though engaged heart and soul in the cause of the oppressed, fights their battle on a much narrower ground. The laws he combats are local, belonging, for the most part, to certain years of grace. His philosophy is the simplest possible, and all his wisdom is to be read in the Sermon on the Mount. Democrat he is none, but a hearty English Radical. His force is in his intense nationality, enabling him to utter the thoughts of voiceless England. Yet of necessity there are many points at which his work and Hugo's touch together, inviting comparison. Child-life is one of them. I have spoken of Dickens's true pathos; but is there anything in all his stories that springs from so deep a fount of tender pity as that vision of Cosette putting out her wooden shoe at Christmas? For the rest, Dickens's children are generally creatures of flesh and blood; Cosette, save at moments, belongs to the spirit world. An inferiority in the Englishman -- if we care to glance at it -- becomes plain by a contrast of his wronged women with Fantine. Abstractions these, as we have already noted, and therefore an illustration of what his people for the most part are not; as abstractions, how thin and futile and untrue when brought into the light of a fine creation, such as the mother of Cosette! At root, both writers have the same faith in man; they glorify the same virtues. But for Dickens life is so much simpler -- and so greatly more amusing. From his point of view, how easily all could be set right, if the wealthy and the powerful were but reasonably good-natured -- with an adequate sense of humour!
He is wroth with institutions; never bitter against fate, as is so often the case in "realistic" novels of our time. Something of this, though for the most part unconsciously, appears in the great Russian novelist Dostoieffsky, whose work, in which Dickens would have found much to like and admire, shows so sombre a colouring beside the English novels. It is gloomy, for one reason, because it treats of the empire of the Tzar; for another, because Dostoieffsky, a poor and suffering man, gives us with immense power his own view of penury and wretchedness. Not seldom, in reading him, one is reminded of Dickens, even of Dickens's peculiarities in humour. The note of his books is sympathy; a compassion so intense as often to seem morbid -- which indeed it may have been, as a matter of fact. One novel is called The Idiot, a study of mental weakness induced by epilepsy. Mark the distance between this and Barnaby Rudge; here we have the pathos of saddest truth, and no dallying with half-pleasant fancies But read the opening of the story called in its French translation Humiliés et Offensés; it is not impossible that Dickens's direct influence worked with the writer in those pages describing the hero's kindness to the poor little waif who comes under his care; in any case, spiritual kindred is manifest. And in how alien a world as to all things outward!
Dostoieffsky's masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, abounds in Dickens-like touches in its lighter passages. Extravagances of character delighted him, and he depicted them with a freer hand than Dickens was permitted or would have cared to use. Suppose the English novelist born in Russia, he might well have been the author of the long scene at the beginning of the book, where Sonia's father, the eccentric drunkard, makes himself known to us in his extraordinary monologue. For that matter, with such change of birth and breeding, Dickens might well have written the whole book, which is a story of a strange murder, of detective ingenuity, of a ruined girl who keeps her soul clean, and of a criminal redeemed by love and faith in Christ; the scene throughout being amid the darkness, squalor, and grotesque ugliness of Russia's capital. Dostoieffsky is invariably pure of tone and even decorous from our own peculiar point of view; his superiority as a "realist" to the author of David Copperfield consists merely in his frank recognition of facts which Dickens is obliged to ignore, or to hint with sighing timidity. Sonia could not have been used by the Englishman as a heroine at all; as a subordinate figure he would have turned her to his most stagey purposes, though meaning all the time an infinitude of gentleness and sympathy; instead of a most exceptional girl (by no means, I think, impossible), she would have become a glaring unreality, giving neither pleasure nor solace to any rational reader. The crucial chapter of the story, the magnificent scene in which Raskolnikoff makes confession to Sonia, is beyond Dickens, as we know him; it would not have been so but for the defects of education and the social prejudices which forbade his tragic gift to develop. Raskolnikoff himself, a typical Russian, a man of brains maddened by hunger and by the sight of others hungry, is the kind of character Dickens never attempted to portray; his motives, his reasonings, could not be comprehended by an Englishman of the lower middle class. And the murder itself -- Bill Sikes, Jonas Chuzzlewit, show but feebly after we have watched that lank student, with the hatchet under his coat, stealing up the stairs; when we have seen him do his deed of blood, and heard the sound of that awful bell tinkling in the still chamber. Dostoieffsky's work is indescribably powerful and finely tragic; the murders in Dickens are too vulgar of motive greatly to impress us, and lack the touch of high imaginativeness.
Little as he cared for foreign writers, we learn that Dickens found pleasure in a book called Le Petit Chose, the first novel of a very young author named Alphonse Daudet. It would have been strange indeed had he not done so; for Daudet at that time as closely resembled Dickens himself as a Frenchman possibly could. To repeated suggestions that he modelled his early work on that of his great contemporary, Daudet replied with a good-humoured shake of the head; and as an illustration of how one can seem to plagiarize without doing anything of the kind, he mentions in his Memoirs that he was about to give to the little lame girl, Désirée Delobelle, the occupation of doll's dressmaker, when a friend made known to him the existence of just such a figure in Our Mutual Friend. If indeed Daudet did not deceive himself, we can only wonder at the striking resemblance between his mind and that of Dickens. Not only is it a question of literary manner, and of the humour which is a leading characteristic in both; the Frenchman is penetrated with a delicate sense, a fine enjoyment, of the virtues and happiness of simple domestic life, and in a measure has done for France what Dickens in his larger way did for England, shaping examples of sweetness and goodness among humble folk, which have been taken to their hearts by his readers. Bélisaire, in Fromont Jeune, is a typical instance; and the like may be found even in his later novels, where, as some think, he has been unhappily led after false gods by the literary fashion of his time. Real life has frequently supplied him with an artistic motive precisely such as Dickens rejoiced in finding; for example, "le père Joyeuse" in Le Nabab, the clerk who, having lost his employment, shrinks from letting his family know, and leaves home each morning as if going to the office as usual -- a delightful sketch, done with perfection of kindliness and humour. Then, there is Daudet's fine compassion. He says, again in his Memoirs: "Je me sens en coeur l'amour de Dickens pour les disgraciés et les pauvres, les enfances mêlées aux misères des grandes villes"; and this is abundantly proved throughout his writings.
Daudet has a great advantage in his mastery of construction. Where, as in Fromont Jeune, he constructs too well, that is to say, on the stage model, we see what a gain it was to him to have before his eyes the Paris stage of the Second Empire instead of that of London in the early Victorian time. Moreover, he is free from English fetters; he can give us such a portrait as Sidonie, done with wonderful truth, yet with a delicacy, even a tenderness, which keeps it thoroughly in tone with his pure ideals. I do not speak of the later novels, much as I see to admire and like in them; only of the time when his resemblance to Dickens was most pronounced. Jack's mother, the feather-brained Ida de Barancy, belongs to a very different order of art from anything attained in female portraiture by the English novelist. In his men, too, this advantage is often very noticeable. Delobelle the illustrious, and the mouthing D'Argenton, have points of character which easily suggest persons in Dickens; but they belong to a world which has more colour, more variety, and the writer does not fear to present them completely. These things notwithstanding, Dickens's work is of course beyond comparison wider in scope and richer in significance. We may concede to Daudet all his superiority as a finished artist, and only become the more conscious of Dickens's unapproachable genius.
Telling us of the hapless lad from whom he modelled his Jack, Daudet notes points of difference between the real and the fictitious character; the Jack he knew had not altogether that refinement which heightens our interest in the hero of the novel. "Il faut dire", adds the writer, "que le peuple ignore bien des délicatesses, des susceptibilités morales." Could such a remark possibly have fallen from the pen of Dickens, even when not employed upon fiction? Of "the people" he could neither have said nor thought it; was it not to "the people" that he turned when he wanted an example of the finest delicacy of heart, the most sensitive moral susceptibility? Perhaps it was just this lack of faith that held Daudet from fulfilling what seemed the promise of his early time. Such lack of faith in the multitude is not difficult to account for in a very acute observer. It was especially hard to maintain in face of a literary movement which devoted itself to laying bare the worst of popular life. The brothers Goncourt, Flaubert, and M. Zola were not companions likely to fortify a naï:ve ideal. It is just possible that they inflicted serious injury upon Daudet's work, and robbed France of a precious gift -- the books he might have written but for the triumph of "realism". Dickens, who died before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, can barely have suspected the lines that literature was to follow in the next decade; to the end he represented in himself a literary force which had burst upon the world with irresistible charm, had held its way victoriously for five-and-thirty years, and seemed as far as ever from losing its dominion over English readers. The likelihood is that his unwavering consistency will stand him in better stead through the century now opening than any amount of that artistic perfection which only a small class can appreciate and enjoy.
It is the privilege of a great writer to put into his work the finest qualities of his heart and brain, to make permanent the best part of himself, and through that to influence the world. In speaking of Dickens's triumphs as an author, I have felt that the most fervent praise could not err by excess; every time I open his books, as the years go on, it is with ever more of wonder, delight, admiration, and love. To point out his shortcomings as a man could give little satisfaction to one who thus thinks of him; merely for the sake of completeness in my view of his life and works, I feel it necessary to glance at those disastrous latter years which show him as a "public entertainer", all true peace and leisure at an end, shortening his life that he might be able to leave a fortune to his family. Carlyle said that the story of Charles Dickens's doings in America "transcended in tragic interest, to a thinking reader, most things one has seen in writing". We see plainly enough what a deplorable mistake it was, and men such as Forster, Dickens's true friends, not only saw it at the time, but did their utmost in the way of protest. He himself had no misgiving -- or would confess none. In the words with which he prefaced his first paid reading (1858) he said he had satisfied himself that to adopt this career could involve no possible compromise of the credit and independence of literature, and that whatever brought a public man and his public face to face, on terms of mutual confidence and respect, was of necessity a good thing. Both assertions may be contested. Carlyle, and many another man of letters, saw very grave objections to semi-theatrical "touring" on the score of the credit of literature; and as to the relations between "a public man" and his admirers, it is very doubtful whether a novelist should bear that title at all. But Dickens's intimate relations with the theatre made it impossible for him to give due weight to these objections. Moreover he was a very keen man of business, and could not resist the temptation of enriching himself by means which, in themselves, were thoroughly congenial to him.
For he enjoyed those readings. The first he ever gave -- that of his Christmas Carol to a little group of friends -- was arranged on his own suggestion, and he read several times for charitable purposes before he began to do so for profit. Not without reason he felt that all who knew him in his books were as personal friends to him, and he to them; he delighted in standing before those vast audiences, and moving them to laughter or to tears. Opinions differ as to his merits as a reader, but it is plain that the public thought him unsurpassable. He had always wished to shine as an actor; as a "reader" (it was in truth recitation, and not reading) he came very near to that -- especially in such efforts as the murder scene from Oliver Twist. The life, too, one of ceaseless travel and excitement, suited him at the time when he was making grave changes in his domestic circumstances; changes which may or may not have been inevitable, but which doubtless helped to urge him along the fatal course. Forster's Biography makes it clear that, from 1857 onwards, Dickens suffered somewhat in character from the effects of this public life; nothing like so much as in health; but he was no longer quite the man of his best literary years. Remember the intensely practical strain in his nature. As a very young man, he allowed himself to be put at a disadvantage with publishers; but this was soon, and energetically, set right; afterwards, he transacted the business of his books with high commercial aptitude. It was the same in everything; subtract his genius, and we have a most capable, upright, vigorous man of business -- the very ideal (so much better than all but a few actual examples) of commercial England. It is a surprising combination -- such qualities united with those which characterized the author Charles Dickens. To minds of a certain type there appears to be the utmost satisfaction in pointing out that Shakespeare made money, and built "the trimmest house in Stratford town"; but who can seriously suggest that, even mutatis mutandis, Shakespeare's business aptitudes and success were comparable with those of Dickens? The author of Hamlet indubitably had common sense, but, most happily, business as it is understood among us nowadays had not been dreamt of in Elizabethan England, and one may very safely assert that Shakespeare was no distinguished merchant even in the sense of that day. Dickens might easily have become a great capitalist; and his generosity would have secured him against any self-reproach when treading the ways of capitalism. He reflected with annoyance on the serious loss occasioned him by the lack of American copyright; granted the opportunity, he could have drawn up an international arrangement in this matter which would have been a model of clear-headed justice. After all, what was the financial result of his brilliant and laborious life? He had a large family; his expenses were considerable; he bought himself a country house, which became to him, as an occupation of his leisure, a small Abbotsford. And at his death he leaves an estimated total of £93,000. The merest bagatelle, from a commercial point of view. His readings seem to have brought him, altogether, matter of some £40,000. What man of business, with a world-wide reputation, would be content to toil to the detriment of his health for such results? I go into these details merely to suggest how a man such as Dickens must have felt regarding the pecuniary question. Save in reference to American copyright, he did not complain; that would have been ignoble, and inconsistent with his habits of mind. But it seemed to him indispensable that he should gain more money than would arrive from his literary work. His sons must go forth into the world as English gentlemen -- a term implying so much; his daughters must be made independent; his own mode of life must be on a scale recognized as "respectable" by middle-class England. One need not be much of an optimist to foresee that, as in days gone by, so in a time to come, the spectacle of such a man so beset will be altogether impossible, and the record of such a life will become a matter for wonder and sad smiling.
With the utmost precision of punctuality in all details of daily life, he combined a character of sanguine impulsiveness, and as a result thereof could not endure restraints and burdens which ordinary men accept as a matter of course. If he desired a thing, he must at once obtain it; or at all events aim at obtaining it, and with all his energy. He could work day after day -- the kind of work which demands a patience, an assiduity, a self-control unintelligible to the mass of mankind; could exhibit in himself, and exact from others, a rare conscientiousness in things small and great; but when it came to any kind of constraint which was not imposed by his own temperament he failed at once. The moralist may remark, in his dry way, that no man can receive so much of the good things of life, and remain unspoilt; that Dickens, moreover, was a very unlikely man to go through the ordeal of world-wide flattery, and draw from it moral benefit. The wonder is that Dickens was spoilt so little. In a day when there exists no writer of supreme acceptance, we are in danger of forgetting what his popularity meant. I suppose hat for at least five-and-twenty years of his life, there was not an English-speaking household in the world, above the class which knows nothing of books, where his name was not as familiar as that of any personal acquaintance, and where an allusion to characters of his creating could fail t& be understood. When seeking a title for the periodical eventually called Household Words -- it was in 1849 -- he seriously suggested "CHARLES DICKENS: Conducted by Himself". It was, he admitted, "a strange idea, but with decided advantages". In any other writer then living, the idea would have been strange indeed, and of anything but decided advantage. Dickens could entertain it without egotism, without ridicule; far and wide, at home and abroad, hands would have clutched eagerly at the magazine bearing such a superscription. He passed it over; but whatever the title of the paper he edited, Household Words or All the Year Round, the name it bore in all minds was no other than "Charles Dickens".
It is easy to distinguish between the British characteristic of practicality, and the unpleasant attribute of worldliness; but the intensely practical man seldom escapes a tincture of that neighbouring vice. In dismissing as "fanciful" every intrusion of the pure idea, the English guard themselves against certain risks, and preserve a pretty even current of national life; but they pay a penalty, understood or not. Dickens is an illustration of it. I cannot do better than copy the words written on this subject by his most intimate friend; they occur in the chapter which tells all that need be told about his domestic troubles. "Not his genius only, but his whole nature, was too exclusively made up of sympathy for, and with, the real in its most intense form, to be sufficiently provided against failure in the realities around him. There was for him no 'city of the mind' against outward ills for inner consolation and shelter. . . . By his very attempts to escape the world, he was driven back into the thick of it. But what he would have sought there, it supplies to none; and to get the infinite out of anything so finite, has broken many a stout heart." This, observe, is spoken of a man who was not only "good" in most meanings of the word, but had a profound feeling for the moral significance of the religion he professed. We see the type of nineteenth-century Englishmen; the breed of men who established a commercial supremacy which is (or very lately was) the wonder and the envy of the outer world. You cannot create Lancashire and Yorkshire if at the same time you have to guard a "city of the mind"; much too embarrassing would be the multitude of uneasy questions rushing in at every new step. This typical Englishman has no "detachment". In work or play, he must press onward by the world's high-road. In 1857 Dickens wrote to Forster: "I have now no relief but in action. I am become incapable of rest. I am quite confident I should rust, break, and die, if I spared myself. Much better to die, going. What I am in that way, nature made me first, and my way of life has of late, alas! confirmed." It was a moment of peculiar stress, but that was not needed to explain the letter. As I said in the early pages of this essay, a better education might have done much for Dickens; yet it could hardly have helped him to that "removed ground" where some few men, even in thriving England, were able to possess their souls in peace.
His life was ceaseless activity, mental and physical. After an ailing childhood, he grew into health which perhaps was never robust, but which allowed him to expend the energy of three ordinary mortals He thought nothing of a twenty-mile walk in the odd hours before dinner, and would not be deterred from it by rain or snow. His position obliged him to give a great deal of time to social and public engagements yet they never interfered with his literary tasks. He was always ready to take the chair at a meeting for any charitable purpose with which he sympathized, and his speeches on these occasions were masterpieces of their kind. Three of them are worthy of a permanent place among his writings; that spoken on behalf of the Child's Hospital; that in which, at the dinner of the Newspaper Press Fund, he gave his recollections of life as a reporter; that for the Theatrical Fund, in which he sketches, as no other man ever did or could have done, the whole world of the stage, with the drollest humour and the kindliest note of pathos. With a popular audience on such occasions he was most perfectly in touch. Never for a moment did his style or thought rise above their heads; never was there a suspicion of condescending. He knew how to bestow pleasant flattery, without ever passing the limits of tact and taste. If ladies were among his hearers, he always put in a word of jesting gallantry which was exactly what they liked and expected. Withal, his talk invariably made appeal to the good and unselfish instincts; it was always admirable common sense; it was always morally profitable.
The power he had of pursuing his imaginative tasks amid distractions which most men would find fatal, is especially interesting. Read Forster's description of the state of things in Dickens's house just before the Christmas of 1856, whilst Little Dorrit was being written. "Preparations for the private play had gone on incessantly, and in turning the school-room into a theatre sawing and hammering worthy of Babel continued for weeks." The novelist became stage-carpenter as well as stage-manager. "All day long", he writes in a letter, "a labourer heats size over the fire in a great crucible. We eat it, drink it, breathe it, and smell it. Seventy paint-pots (which came in a van) adorn the stage." The private play was acted night after night to overflowing audiences, and not till the 20th of January was the house clear and quiet. But fiction-writing went on as usual, with never a hint at difficulty owing to circumstances.
In his letter-writing alone, Dickens did a life's literary work. Nowadays no one thinks of writing such letters; I mean, letters of such length and detail, for the quality is Dickens's own. He evidently enjoyed this use of the pen. Page after page of Forster's "Life" is occupied with transcription from private correspondence, and never a line of this but is thoroughly worthy of print and preservation. If he makes a tour in any part of the British Isles, he writes a full description of all he sees, of everything that happens, and writes it with such gusto, such mirth, such strokes of fine picturing, as appear in no other private letters ever given to the public. Naturally cheerful beyond the common wont, a holiday gave him the exhilaration of a school-boy. See how he writes from Cornwall, when on a trip with two or three friends, in 1843. "Heavens! if you could have seen the necks of bottles, distracting in their immense variety of shape, peering out of the carriage pockets! If you could have witnessed the deep devotion of the postboys, the maniac glee of the waiters! If you could have followed us into the earthy old churches we visited, and into the strange caverns on the gloomy sea-shore, and down into the depths of mines, and up to the tops of giddy heights, where the unspeakably green water was roaring, I don't know how many hundred feet below! . . . I never laughed in my life as I did on this journey. It would have done you good to hear me. I was choking and gasping and bursting the buckle off the back of my stock, all the way. And Stanfield" -- the painter -- "got into such apoplectic entanglements that we were obliged to beat him on the back with portmanteaus before we could recover him." The mention of "bottles, distracting in their immense variety", leads one to speak of the convivial temper so constantly exhibited in Dickens's letters and books. It might be easily imagined that he was a man of large appetite and something of a toper. Nothing of the kind; when it came to actual eating and drinking no man was more habitually moderate. I am not much in the way of attending "temperance" meetings, and cannot say whether the advocates of total abstinence make a point of holding up Dickens's works to reprobation; but I should hardly think they look upon him with great favour. Indeed, it is an odd thing that, writing so much of the London poor, he so seldom refers to the curse of drunkenness. Of drinking there is any amount, but its results serve only for gaiety or comic extravagance. One remembers "Mr. Dolls" in Our Mutual Friend, a victim to the allurements of gin; he is a pitiful creature, and Jenny, the doll's dressmaker, suffers much from his eccentricities; for all that, we are constrained to laugh at him A tragedy of drink Dickens never gives us. Criticising Cruikshank's pictured morality, "The Bottle", he points out, truly enough, that the artist had seriously erred in making the habit of drunkenness arise from mere conviviality in persons well-to-do; drink, as a real curse, being commonly the result of overwork, semi-starvation, vile dwellings, and lack of reasonable entertainment. Nowadays he would necessarily have viewed the subject in a graver light. The national habits in this matter have been so greatly changed during the last half-century, that it would now be impossible to glorify the flowing bowl as Dickens does in all his most popular writing. His works must have had a great part in promoting that Christmas joviality which of late years is manifestly on the decline. Whatever the perils of strong drink, his imagination could not dispense with it. One is amused to find him writing to his friend from America: "I wish you drank punch, dear Forster. It's a shabby thing not to be able to picture you with that cool green glass." How it happened that John Forster, after many years of such intimacy, did not make at all events a show of handling the "cool green glass", passes our comprehension. We hear in Dickens's words a note of humorous, yet true, regret; it seemed impossible to him that a man could be in the enjoyment of his fireside if no alcoholic comfort stood at his elbow. Scott, by the by, though as hearty and hospitable a man as ever lived, and in youth no shirker of the bottle, always speaks with grave disapprobation of excessive conviviality. Possibly a difference of rank accounts for this; whilst the upper classes were learning to live with prudence and decency, the lower clung to their old habits. Be that as it may, Dickens could not throw his weight on the side of teetotalism. He held that, if social reforms such as he advocated could only be set in motion, the evils of drink would tend to disappear of themselves. He was right; the tendency showed itself beyond dispute; and if, as some think, drunkenness is again increasing among us, the cause must be sought in the social conditions of a new time -- a civilization fraught, perhaps, with quite as many evils as those of the old order.
But not only in holiday time did Dickens live with extraordinary gusto; at his desk he was often in the highest spirits. Behold how he pictured himself, one day at Broadstairs, when he was writing Chuzzlewit. "In a bay-window in a one-pair sits, from nine o'clock to one, a gentleman with rather long hair and no neck-cloth, who writes and grins, as if he thought he were very funny indeed. At one he disappears, presently emerges from a bathing-machine, and may be seen, a kind of salmon-colour porpoise, splashing about in the ocean. After that, he may be viewed in another bay-window on the ground-floor eating a strong lunch; and after that, walking a dozen miles or so, or lying on his back on the sand reading a book. Nobody bothers him, unless they know he is disposed to be talked to, and I am told he is very comfortable indeed. He's as brown as a berry, and they do say he is as good as a small fortune to the innkeeper, who sells beer and cold punch." Here is the secret of such work as that of Dickens; it is done with delight -- done (in a sense) easily, done with the mechanism of mind and body in splendid order. Even so did Scott write, though more rapidly and with less conscious care; his chapter finished before the world had got up to breakfast. Later, Dickens produced novels less excellent with much more of mental strain. The effects of age could not have shown themselves so soon, but for the unfortunate waste of energy involved in his nonliterary labours.
Travel was always a great enjoyment to him, and when on the Continent he largely appreciated the spirit of life dissimilar to that of England. His Pictures from Italy are not of great value either for style or information; there are better things in his private letters written whilst he travelled than in any volume. For Italy he had no intellectual preparation; he saw everything merely with the eyes of intelligence and good-humour. Switzerland and France gave him a better opportunity. Very noticeable is the justice he does to the French character. As a proof of this, and of the fact that his genius did not desert him when he crossed the Channel, nothing could be better than his description of M. Beaucourt, the proprietor of a house he rented at Boulogne. It is a picture -- to be put together out of various anecdotes and sketches -- really wonderful for its charm. In this little French bourgeois the great novelist had found a man after his own heart -- loyal, mirthful, sweet-natured, and made only more likeable by traits especially amusing to an Englishman. "I see little of him now, as, all things being bien arrangées, he is delicate of appearing. His wife has been making a trip in the country during the last three weeks, but (as he mentioned to me with his hat in his hand) it was necessary that he should remain here, to be continually at the disposition of the tenant of the property. (The better to do this, he has had roaring dinner-parties of fifteen daily; and the old woman who milks the cows has been fainting up the hill, under vast burdens of champagne.)" And what could be more apt, more beautiful, than the words which describe M. Beaucourt as he retires from Dickens's presence, after a little dialogue in which he has shown all the gentle goodness of his heart? "He backed himself down the avenue with his cap in his hand, as if he were going to back himself straight into the evening star, without the ceremony of dying first."
This was at the time of the Anglo-French alliance in the Russian war. How just he could be under less favourable circumstances, and how strongly in contrast with that peculiarly offensive type, the supercilious Englishman abroad, appears in an account of his experiences in leaving Italy by the Austrian frontier. "The Austrian police are very strict, but they really know how to do business, and they do it. And if you treat them like gentlemen they will always respond. . . . The thing being done at all, could not be better done, or more politely -- though I dare say if I had been sucking a gentish cane all the time, or talking in English to my compatriots, it might not unnaturally have been different." Dickens could always hold his own as a man among men. At all times he was something more than a writer of books; in this respect, as in literary genius, establishing his claim of brotherhood with Fielding and with Scott.
Reading his life, it is with much satisfaction that we come to his last appearance as a public entertainer. The words with which he took leave of his audience at St. James's Hall have frequently been quoted; they breathe a sense of relief and hopefulness very pathetic in the knowledge of what followed. "In but two short weeks from this time I hope that you may enter, in your own homes, on a new series of readings at which my assistance will be indispensable; but from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, affectionate farewell." The garish lights had done their work upon him, but he did not recognize it; he imagined that he had but to sit down in his house at Gadshill, and resume the true, the honourable occupation of his life, with assurance that before long all would be well with him in mind and body. It was too late, and the book he promised to his hearers remains in our hands a fragment.
Throughout the pages of Edwin Drood there is premonition of the end. Whether it came of feeble health; whether of the melancholy natural in one who has just closed a definite epoch of his life, or merely of the theme he had chosen, there broods over this interrupted writing a shadow of mortality; not oppressive; a shadow as of the summer eventide, descending with peaceful hush. We are in and about the old minster of a quiet English town; among the old graves, to which our attention is constantly directed. It is touching to read that final chapter, which must have brought back to the writer's mind the days long past, when, a little boy, he read and dreamt amid the scenes he was now describing. There is no gloom; he shows us such a brilliant morning as, after a lifetime, will yet linger in the memory from days of earliest childhood. He was tired, but not despondent; true to himself, he saw the sunshine above the world's dark places, nourished the hope of something beyond this present. "Changes of glorious light from moving boughs, songs of birds, scents from gardens, woods, and fields . . . penetrate into the cathedral, subdue its earthly odour, and preach the Resurrection and the Life." It was no form of words; what he wrote in that solemn mood assuredly he believed. Whatever his mistakes and his defects, insincerity had no place among them.
For him, there could be no truer epitaph than the words written by Carlyle on hearing he was dead:
"The good, the gentle, high-gifted, ever-friendly, noble Dickens -- every inch of him an honest man".
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