GISSING'S WRITINGS ON DICKENS
A Bio-bibliographical Surveyby
PIERRE COUSTILLAStogether with two uncollected reviews
by George Gissing from
The Times Literary Supplement
LONDON: ENITHARMON PRESS, 1969
(My sincere thanks go to Professor Pierre Coustillas who has permitted me to digitise his article for the perusal of the public on the Web.)
Since Gissing published his Charles Dickens, A Critical Study in 1898, readers and critics acquainted with these two writers' works have occasionally been led to wonder why the younger novelist came to write an appraisement of the elder. Indeed, by the time the book appeared Gissing had made himself a solid reputation as the author of gloomy, pessimistic pictures of late Victorian life, especially of life in London. Whenever a new novel from his pen appeared, the tribe of reviewers - whom he held in contempt - would more or less whiningly complain that he saw but the darker side of life, that Grub Street was a much more cheerful place to live in than he imagined, that he had no remedy to offer to cure the manifold social evils which he painted in such sombre colours. So when it was rumoured about in paragraphs that Gissing was writing a book on Dickens, the news was felt as something of a paradox and the volume awaited with curiosity. C. K. Shorter, for example, remarked in his 'Literary Letter' in the Illustrated London News that it was 'a curious irony to have given Mr. Gissing the task of appreciating Dickens. The one writer makes poverty so much more depressing than it really is, the other so much more joyous than it is.' 1
The man whose irony was involved was John Holland Rose whom Gissing had known at Owens College, Manchester, in the 1870s. But whereas the latter had ruined his career there through his association with a young prostitute, Rose - his senior by two years - had gone on to Christ College, Cambridge, passed his M.A. and become a university extension lecturer in history. 2 In 1896 he had been entrusted with the editorship of the Victorian Era Series, contemplated by the Glasgow publishing firm of Blackie and Son. The series was intended to deal with the great movements of the century - economic, social, religious, literary and scientific - and several volumes to be devoted in particular to some of the most prominent literary figures of the century, such as Tennyson, Charles Kingsley and Dickens. Undoubtedly Gissing was offered to write the volume on Dickens because the editor had known him as an undergraduate and had since followed his career as a novelist. He received Rose's letter on December 27th, 1896, and forthwith replied consenting, adding however, that he would be glad of more details. Several reasons prompted him to accept. From his boyhood when Dickens's novels were read at the family table in Wakefield he had been an attentive reader of the master's works. Further, when he received the unexpected proposal, he had just completed the manuscript of The Whirlpool (to be published in the following April) and was rather tired of fiction-grinding; so the prospect of a change in activity appealed to his fatigued brain. But there may have been other - unspoken and perhaps unconscious - motives. With the literary criticism of his day he was dissatisfied and it was tempting to try one's hand at a genre whose specimens often proved jejune and unstimulating. Personal misfortune had made him acquainted with the background - geographical and social - of the bulk of Dickens's novels and none of the critics could deny him competence to speak of the London lower- and middle-classes earlier in the century, since he had, in his own works, carried on the tradition of social criticism in however different a spirit.
So, early in 1897, he began to re-read the novels, jotting down critical impressions as he went along. This was in fact as much as he could do at the time, his domestic situation becoming worse every week. The frequent rows his wife had with their servant rendered well-nigh impossible any continuous effort on his part. And when at last he was tired of also being personally insulted in his own house, he fled from the infernal Epsom home and sought refuge at the house of a friend, Dr. Henry Hick, who lived at New Romney, Kent. The state of his health made necessary a change of climate, both atmospheric and domestic; thus it was that the preparation of his critical study was pursued at Budleigh Salterton. At the same time he was thinking of his next novel, intended for serialization, The Town Traveller (Methuen, 1898), which turned out to be the most Dickensian in spirit of all his books. It took him but a spell of five weeks to write it, from June 9th to July 14th, after which date he turned again to the preparation of his Dickens book, re-reading in particular Barnaby Rudge and Edwin Drood, as well as Forster's Life, a favourite biography of his which he would take down from his shelves whenever melancholy grew upon him.
In the summer an attempt at reconciliation with his wife having failed he decided to spend the autumn and winter in Italy, the land of his dreams, which he had previously visited on two occasions, after the death of his first wife had released him from certain material duties. Rather than Rome or Naples where the temptation of libraries and sightseeing might be detrimental to the progress of his book, he chose Siena, a provincial town where his curiosity had never led him before, but where he hoped to find tranquillity. Before leaving England he attended to various business aspects of the enterprise: he called on J. H. Rose at Balham to obtain further particulars on the task that was requested of him, and signed the agreement for publication. The book was to be completed in from 60,000 to 70,000 words and the manuscript to be handed in by December 31st, 1897, at the latest. Gissing would receive ten per cent on the published price, i.e. two shillings and sixpence, up to 4,000 copies, and fifteen per cent subsequently. Thirty pounds would be paid to him on publication in advance of royalties. These terms made it clear that he could not make a fortune on the book; they also meant that no more money would be owing to him until 2,400 copies had been disposed of, a figure he had never reached, not even with The Whirlpool (1897). But he retained the copyright and might expect some more profit from the American edition. For the negotiations about the latter he relied upon his literary agent, William Morris Colles, who succeeded in selling the rights for the United States to Dodd, Mead and Co., for the lump sum of £50. 3
On September 27th, Gissing settled at 18 Via delle Belle Arte, and there it was, in his room on the third floor, that he began writing his critical study of Dickens. A pleasant change from the Epsom uproar, he commanded from his desk a fine view of the Duomo and could hear the tinkling of the goat bells in the street below. His manuscript having to be ready by the end of November, he fell vigorously to work, writing six hours a day, during which he would do about 2,000 words. Though it was slower work than fiction he was quite satisfied with his own progress and felt rather optimistic about the result of his efforts. Besides, the tour he projected taking to Calabria as soon as he had finished helped rather than impeded his inspiration. However, an event occurred which threatened the regularity of his work. His landlady's husband, Signore Gabrielli, lay in bed paralysed and it seemed that the poor man's sufferings would soon come to an end. Gissing rather resented not having been told of the situation as he would rather have taken other lodgings than run the risk of being interrupted in his labours by the death of an inmate, so much did steadiness of effort mean to him. But it was too late to change his mind and when the unfortunate event happened, he had no other course left than helping the desolate widow as best he could through the funeral ceremony and removing with the grief-stricken family to a smaller flat, situated at 8 Via Franciosa, a step made necessary by the family's bleak prospects. Nevertheless his book did not suffer too much from the interruption; perhaps six years of intermittent domestic quarrels had partly inoculated him - though unwittingly - against happenings of a disagreeable nature. He was glad all the same to reach the end of it on November 5th. The next day he hastened to send his manuscript to Colles. He was now free to start on the trip which he related later in By the Ionian Sea (Chapman and Hall, 1901).
Once back in Rome, late in December, he had to correct the proofs in hot haste since Blackies wanted to bring out the book on February 15th. 4 To this hurry was due a certain number of misprints which had been overlooked in the proofs. Later Gissing went through his own copy of the first English edition and besides correcting obvious errors altered a good many words and phrases. 5 In particular he restored the correct date of Dickens's birth which had first been given wrongly as February 17th, 1812. As for the text of the American edition, it was printed from another set of proofs which he despatched straight to New York without an index; on his return to Epsom, he found two copies awaiting him and thought the book so beautifully done that he wrote to Dodd Mead to congratulate them on their good taste.
Charles Dickens, a Critical Study appeared in England on the stated date and was widely reviewed. 6 It came at a very appropriate moment. Dickens's repute in the eighties and nineties was at its lowest ebb among the critics. It was habitual then, in literary circles, to assume a rather contemptuous attitude towards him. The tone had been set earlier by George H. Lewes in the Fortnightly Review (1866) and George Eliot had once said that Dickens would be quite unintelligible to another generation. But though 'superior' persons would not recognise his claims to greatness, his works continued to be extensively read and not least by people who were too young to remember him in his lifetime. Now, at this juncture, Gissing's book possessed a not inconsiderable advantage: it showed no blindness to its subject's faults as an artist while it paid enthusiastic homage to the stronger points in the elder novelist's books. Thus critics of the two schools approved Gissing's achievement and his first venture into criticism was warmly praised. There were of course minor disagreements in the general chorus of eulogy. Some reviewers not unjustly drew attention to the odd arrangement of the book which had led its author to some unnecessary repetitions and one or two were arrested by the trenchant tone evinced by the chapter on women. The writer in the Academy, for instance, jokingly wondered whether some of the most vituperative passages had not been written for one of Mr. Gissing's novels and been inserted into the critical study by mistake; the anonymous reviewer could not know that the author of New Grub Street had just separated from his wife and vowed an implacable hatred to domestic shrews of every description.
In America too, the book was acclaimed as the first piece of thorough and level-headed criticism on Dickens. 7 But it did not sell as well as in England, perhaps on account of the relatively high price - two dollars - though more probably because Dickens meant less to the American than to the British public and also because Gissing's name in the States had hardly filtered beyond literary circles. 8 An additional note of admiration was even sounded from across the Channel by Henry D. Davray, who pronounced the book to be excellent, remarking how rare it is for a novelist to do good critical work. 9
Ironically enough, one volume about Dickens succeeded where seventeen novels of modern life had not quite won the day. Whereas the critics still often paid but lip-service to his pictures of contemporary English society and would half-heartedly grant him a place in the first rank, his critical study won him forthwith the reputation of a Dickens specialist. He, who had often been reproached with his lack of humour in his own novels, was admitted as an authority on Dickens's gallery of eccentrics. 10 John Holland Rose was so pleased with the book that he asked him to write a companion volume on Thackeray, but though Gissing agreed that he was even more interested in Thackeray than in Dickens, he declined the offer. He felt that he had his renown as a novelist to maintain and this involved writing a new volume of fiction before the public had time to forget him. 11
That his book had made its mark was further proved to him when, hardly four months after its publication, he received from Methuens an unforeseen proposal. This new publishing house sought his collaboration for a new edition of Dickens to be known as the Rochester edition. He was to write introductions to such novels as had fallen out of copyright; they would be illustrated by various artists and the accompanying notes entrusted to F. G. Kitton. Gissing turned to his agent, Colles, to negotiate decent terms, he himself considering favourably a task which would not be very exacting yet might bring him some much needed money while it did not ruin his prospect of writing a new novel in the near future. The terms agreed to by Steadman, of Methuens, stated that Gissing would receive ten guineas for each introduction, payable on publication. With the deduction of the usual ten per cent agent's commission, the eleven novels at first planned would bring their editor about £100. Under those conditions, he undertook to write introductions of some 3,000 words each.
The rate of publication was to be two novels a year, so he had plenty of time to edit them, doing so at odd moments when he was temporarily relieved from his exacting task of fiction-writing. Thus he wrote four at Dorking in 1898 before he settled to The Crown of Life, those dealing with David Copperfield (August 18th-21st), Dombey and Son (August 22nd-25th), The Pickwick Papers (August 29th-31st), and Nicholas Nickleby (September 22nd-24th). He added two more when he had finished his novel, the introductions to Bleak House (towards February 15th, 1899) and to Oliver Twist (from 21st to 23rd of the same month). Then in May, he left for France and while in Paris, another three were written in succession: The Old Curiosity Shop (June 16th-l9th), Martin Chuzzlewit (June 2Oth-23rd) and Barnaby Rudge (June 24th-26th). The last two he fitted in between his novels Among the Prophets and Our Friend the Charlatan: that of Sketches by Boz took him but two days (February l3th-l4th, 1900) and the series was completed with the Christmas Books, some time between February 14th and 19th, 1900.
Gissing's account of books shows that for the eleven introductions he received a total amount of £100 17s. 6d., i.e. £9 9s. 0d. apiece, except for The Pickwick Papers (£9) and Dombey and Son, Martin Chuzzlewit, David Copperfield, Sketches by Boz and Barnaby Rudge for which he was paid a lump sum of £44 12s. 6d., owing to certain deductions due to Colles's expenses. The Rochester Edition proved anything but a success from the publisher's point of view. Doubtless the slow rhythm of publication was detrimental to the steady sale of the series, all the more so as other firms like Chapman and Hall were competing in a very businesslike spirit. Finally Methuen's project was abandoned when six titles had been brought out. 12 They appeared in the following order: The Pickwick Papers, December 1899 ; 13 Nicholas Nickleby, July 1900; 14 Bleak House, November 1900; 15 Oliver Twist, December 1900; 16 The Old Curiosity Shop, April 1901 17 and Barnaby Rudg, November 1901. 18
The others remained in Methuen's files until the 1920s when Temple Scott in America and B. W. Matz in England decided to give Gissing's contributions a new lease of life. It was Matz's belief that Gissing had written twelve introductions of which three had been lost and, curiously enough, William Morris Colles had equally thought so a quarter of a century earlier. But on November 14th, 1901, Gissing refuted the idea with Methuen's list of eleven novels in hand. Colles's error, he suggested, probably came from his counting Master Humphrey's Clock as one, when in fact the latter had been dealt with in a few paragraphs in the Introduction to The Old Curiosity Shop. So only those to David Copperfield and The Christmas Books have disappeared.
The nine that remained were first brought out under the title of Critical Studies of the Works of Charles Dickens (Greenberg, New York) in 1924, 19 with an introduction and a bibliography of Gissing's works by Temple Scott; then as The Immortal Dickens (Cecil Palmer, London) in the following year, 20 with three prefatory pages by B. W. Matz.
The publication of his Critical Study in 1898 had put Gissing in contact with various Dickensians of recognised standing, and with one of them, F. G. Kitton, he was to have some lasting, if businesslike relations. As early as March 1898, Kitton had written to the newcomer in the arena of Dickens's critics, praising his book - which he probably reviewed anonymously somewhere - but also suggesting a few corrections which Gissing gratefully noted for use in a possible second edition. His reply dated Hôtel Alibert, Rome, March 31st, where he had recently moved with a view to being in H. G. Wells's company, like most of those he sent to the same correspondent, is now held by the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library. 21 It shows, like the subsequent notes, that both men earnestly cared for accuracy and meant to do Dickens justice. Gissing was always full of praise for Kitton's part in the Rochester Edition, repeatedly asseverating that his topographical comments gave it a feature of its own. But he did not hesitate to point to any grammatical slip he noticed in his collaborator's prose, though he would always word his objections very tactfully. Despite the sharp distinction between their editing fields, it sometimes happened - as with Nicholas Nickleby - that they covered the same ground and had to reshuffle some paragraph or suppress some repetitious quotations.
Their correspondence might have ceased when Methuen, after advertising David Copperfield, decided to abandon the Rochester edition, but the two men were widely recognised as experts, though with a difference, on the same subject and various occasions brought them still closer than before. After he was chosen by George Sproul as general editor and annotator of the Autograph Edition, Kitton wrote to Gissing to propose that he should write a new introduction to David Copperfield - a choice which was ratified with particular gratefulness. Gissing promised to have it ready by the end of the year and named his terms - fifteen guineas for 3,000 words - and for once he received more than he asked for, that is, twenty pounds. As regards this edition which was at one time to be called the Millionaire Edition, he found himself among a brilliant set of literary people. Each introduction was entrusted to a different writer. Thus Sketches by Boz to A. W. Ward, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and formerly professor at Owens College, Manchester, where Gissing had been his pupil; Oliver Twist to Swinburne and Our Mutual Friend to Edmund Gosse. 22 At the close of 1901, Gissing mildly noted that he was still awaiting payment for his work of the summer. He had by that time heard what an extravagant price the set of fifty-six volumes would cost and regretted that he had not asked for a higher price. It was a minor consolation for him to learn from Kitton that he would receive another £5 for appending his signature to 300 copies of the last sheet of his introduction. However, in February 1903, i.e. seven months after he had accepted the above conditions, he had come to forget the exact terms of the agreement, and now imagined he had consented to sign only 200 copies for £5. This led to a rather comical difference, Gissing demanding £5 more when he realised that he had 300 signatures to write. He finally retreated when Kitton remarked that the other writers had been content with their £5. He did not wish to appear greedier than anyone else and declared himself satisfied when George Sproul conceded another pound. David Copperfield appeared with Gissing's introduction in 1903, the year of his death. 23
Meanwhile, his critical study was not being forgotten. When in 1901, three years after its publication, the Gresham Publishing Company, of London, contemplated the Imperial Edition of Dickens's works, they asked Blackie and Son permission to reprint Gissing's book as introductory volume. In turn Blackies wrote to him, offering £35 for the rights which they could dispose of to the Gresham Publishing Company. On April 13th, he replied, asking for further information, whereupon Blackies made a new offer which he accepted on the 18th: for £50 he sold all his British rights, involving reprinting in the Victorian Era Series as well as republication in the Imperial Dickens. In the latter undertaking he was again associated with F. G. Kitton who, as usual, contributed topographical notes to the illustrations. The moment had come to revise his text and he did so freely. 24 Both Blackies and the Gresham Publishing Company, on the other hand, fully availed themselves of the opportunity to diffuse the book. It was reprinted without corrections, in the Victorian Era Series in 1903 and later in 1926 in Blackie's Casket Library Edition, with new impressions in 1928 and 1929. As a part of the Imperial Dickens it first appeared in 1902 and was reprinted many times: 1903, 1904, 1912, 1913, 1914, 1922, 1923, 1925. In America at least four editions were published by Dodd, Mead and Co.; respectively in 1898, 1904, 1912 and 1924, the latter from plates of the Gresham Publishing Company. The Kennikat Press, of Port Washington, N.Y., have reissued the book in 1966.
Editors and publishers now thought of him naturally in connection with Dickens. On December 30th, 1900, he had been asked by the Northern Newspaper Syndicate for an article of 2,500 words on Dickens's Homes and Haunts, the payment to be six guineas. He accepted on condition he was paid on delivery of the manuscript. It took him but three days, from January 28th to 30th, 1901, to acquit himself of the task. The cheque reached him on February 14th, but the article was not published until August 16th, 1902, in The Nottinghamshire Guardian. It was later reprinted with other essays by various writers in Homes and Haunts of Famous Authors (London, & Wells Gardner, Darton and Co., Ltd., 1906). 25
In the autumn of 1901 it was Literature which turned to him for a 'personal view' of Dickens to be included in a December Dickens number. He negotiated the terms of this 1,500-2,000 word essay through his new agent James B. Pinker. What sum he obtained we do not know because payment for it came with other fees in the same cheque, but it must have been no less than £5 since it covered both British and American rights. This contribution appeared in one of the last numbers of Literature, on December 21st, 1901, pp.572-575 under the title 'Dickens in Memory'. The New York Critic published it in its January 1902 issue, pp. 47-5 I Comments are to be found in The Daily News (December 28th, 1901) and The Academy (January 11th, 1902). This essay is also available as the introductory chapter to The Immortal Dickens (1925) and the concluding chapter to Critical Studies of the Works of Charles Dickens (1924).
At about the same time the firm of Chapman and Hall, which had almost simultaneously published his Our Friend the Charlatan and By the Ionian Sea earlier in 1901, approached him through one of its members, W. L. Courtney, for a new Life of Dickens, based on Forster's book, with additional matter and notes, altogether a volume of about 100,000 words. This offer greatly embarrassed Gissing for many reasons. He was then living in France and both the serious state of his health and his common law marriage with Gabrielle Fleury made it impossible for him to settle in England where he could have access to some well-stocked library containing the numerous books he would need. But perhaps this could be remedied if the publishers were willing to supply him with copies of them. Then the questions of time and money arose in conjunction. He felt he could not write such a biography in less than six months. Now his money requirements made it imperative that any non-fictional work he undertook should be as remunerative as fiction itself. If Chapman and Hall were prepared to pay him £500 he would set to work at once. Still, he disclaimed any pretension of being a Dickens specialist and felt that - out of sheer intellectual honesty - he would have to make a confession to that effect in a preface. Rather than this project which was attended by serious material difficulties, he would have preferred to cut down and re-write Forster's Life, thus avoiding original research and satisfying the publisher's request for a shorter, handier biography. Such an abridgement could be done fairly quickly. He would bring the book down to 100,000 words, with a few additions of his own.
A month later, by mid-November 1901, the solution consisting in an abridgement and revision was accepted by Chapman and Hall, as well as Gissing's terms for his work. He would receive £150, half of it payable on signature of the agreement. At the end of the month he moved to Arcachon, a place recommended to him by his Paris doctor and there it was, at the Villa Souvenir, reclining on his chaise longue, that he complied with the publisher's wishes for a more easily readable book. The proofs reached him in small packets during the whole of May 1902, and the volume, priced at six shillings, was issued about October 10th. It was respectfully reviewed in England, 26 where one or two reviewers, however, took exception to the wording on both spine and jacket - The Life of Dickens. Forster and Gissing - an initiative for which the publishing firm alone was responsible. He himself had had his own qualms of conscience while performing the work: 'To tell you the truth,' he confessed to his German friend Eduard Bertz, 'I felt a good deal of hesitation about cutting down such a biography as Forster's; it savours of philistinism. But people do not read the book nowadays, calling it too long. And if I had not undertaken the task, someone else might have done it far less reverently.' 27 In France, Teodor de Wyzewa, an influential critic of the conservative school, today utterly forgotten, gave a rather scathing review of the biography in the Revue des Deux Mondes (November 15th, 1902, pp.458-468). He bitterly complained that Dickens's repute was sullied by both Forster and Gissing, idealising the man to an exaggerated degree. What sale the book achieved in England is difficult to estimate. For want of more accurate details, one can only say that the first edition, antedated 1903, was followed by another in 1907 and that the book was still available from the same publishers in the early 1920s. 28 In America it appeared under the imprint of McClure, Philips and Co. in 1902 and sold for two dollars. 29
It is pleasant to record that one of Gissing's last satisfactions in his care-ridden life was to be associated with Dickens's name. On July 19th, 1902, there came to him at Saint-Jean-de-Luz - the last but one stage of his quest for a suitable climate - a letter from the editor of The Times, asking him to review the signed article which Swinburne had just published in the July number of the Quarterly Review. 30 It would never have occurred to his pessimistic mind that The Times would come to him, though the friendly reception of his novels by this newspaper could not prejudice him against it. He silenced for a while his dislike of journalism and wrote a well-balanced perceptive leader which appeared in the Literary Supplement, by then six months old, on July 25th, 1902, p.219. He received a payment of four guineas. On August 8th-9th of the same year, he wrote his second and last contribution to the journal - a review of Kitton's Life of Dickens. It was published on August 15th, p.243, and brought him five guineas.
By the time of his death Gissing had become in the eyes of his contemporaries one of the best Dickens specialists. Hardly anyone denied him that status, except perhaps his acquaintance, C. K. Shorter who, nevertheless, lost no opportunity to write a paragraph in praise of his novels and short stories. 31 The reviewers of his abridgement of Forster's book, whatever they might say of the principle, conceded that no one was better fitted for the task. His name was sought after by various associations whose aim was to perpetuate Dickens's renown. Thus in March 1901, Percy Fitzgerald invited him to join the Boz Club, which he accepted - perhaps because attendance at the meetings was not strictly required but also, he said, because his love of his fellow-novelist increased as the years went by. When, about a year later, J. W. T. Ley informed him of his project of a Dickens Society in Bristol, he replied:
'I heartily sympathize with the objects you have in view; the idea of a subscription on behalf of suffering children in Charles Dickens's name seems to me particularly happy. You will remember, of course, that one of the best of his admirable speeches was that he delivered for the Children's Hospital in London.How has Gissing's criticism of Dickens fared in the eyes of later critics? Better than might be expected from an author who, with the partial exception of The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, has never gained the favour of the public at large. Not infrequently does one read that his Charles Dickens: a Critical Study ranks among his best achievements. But more interesting, in the present instance, than any hierarchy of his own works are the judgements of his peers in the vast field of Dickens criticism. A few of them will suffice. G. K. Chesterton, so different from Gissing in views and temperament, pronounced him 'the soundest of the Dickens critics, a man of genius.' 33 Quiller-Couch repeated the latter word, in 1925, 34 and Temple Scott, at about the same date, declared that there was not 'in English Literature a more fulfilling estimate of the writings of Dickens than Gissing's critical study, which is at once finely judicious and deliberately appreciative.' 35 Nor has the tone much changed since, as two more examples will show. In Edmund Wilson's opinion (1941) 'there has been in English one admirable critic of Dickens, George Gissing, whose prefaces and whose book on Dickens not only are the best thing on Dickens in English but stand out as one of the few really first-rate pieces of literary criticism produced by an Englishman of the end of the century.' 36 And Sylvère Monod, writing twelve years later, still favoured the same view: 'Le livre de Gissing, Charles Dickens: a Critical Study, écrit avec beaucoup de pénétration et de sympathie, me parait rester actuellement, après cinquante années d'existence, la meilleure éetude d'ensemble de l'oeuvre de Dickens.' 37
Confronted with such eulogies one may wonder why his various writings on Dickens have not had a wider diffusion. One is glad to see that there have been recent American reprints of Charles Dickens: a Critical Study (1966) and Critical Studies of the Works of Charles Dickens (1965); but their prices have circumscribed the sale to libraries and a limited number of private individuals. What is needed now is an inexpensive annotated edition of these two books, edited by a Dickens and a Gissing scholar, for both would have relevant comments to make. At a time when the revival of interest in Gissing seems well on its way, it would be a fitting tribute both to him and to his subject.
APPENDIXTwo uncollected reviews by George Gissing
from THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT.<
The existence of these reviews was discovered by Pierre Coustillas
MR. SWINBURNE ON DICKENS
An unsigned review THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT 25 July 1902
There scarcely needed the startling innovation of a signature to make known that the article on Dickens in the new number of the Quarterly Review (July 1902) was from the pen of Mr. Swinburne. The first sentence, with its equipollence of emphasis on the names of Shakespeare and Hugo, and its rebuke of 'irrational and impudent men', could not but excite a pleasant suspicion in any intelligent reader; and when, in the course of the essay, one comes upon such a phrase as 'any eye above the level and beyond the insight of a beetle's', when one meets with the 'Helot of culture whose brain may have been affected by habitual indulgence in the academic delirium of self-complacent superiority', it is evident that we are face to face with our greatest living master of the vituperative style. Such vigour is out of fashion nowadays; our critics for the most part incline to an excessive suavity, with a result that may be seen in publishers' advertisements; this fine fury of indignation makes an agreeable tonic after the customary honeyed draughts. Moreover, a critical paper by Mr. Swinburne is sure to offer us the stimulant of vivacious paradox. Thus, in the present case, it will be a shock to many - a shock salutary in some respects - to learn that Matthew Arnold was 'a Triton of the minnows' and a writer 'whose main achievement in creative literature was to make himself by painful painstaking into a sort of pseudo-Wordsworth.' Arnold's rank in English literature is distinctly matter of debate, and his authority as a critic suffered gravely from things revealed in his published correspondence. It is not, however, quite true that he 'could pay no other tribute' to Dickens 'than that of stolid scorn'; once, at all events, he cited a character from Dickens's work as admirably representative of British Philistinism. A second instance of Mr. Swinburne's contemptuous rejection of the popular estimate is less edifying. Whether the pages of comment prefixed by a living man of letters to the 'Gadshill' edition of Dickens's books are adequate or not is a question we have no room to discuss. Mr. Swinburne has, of course, a perfect right to make known his opinion of what strikes him as 'prefatory importunities', but it seems to us that his delight in forceful language has here carried him beyond the limits of becoming censure. The terms in which Mr. Swinburne relieves his feelings are abundantly picturesque, but they surely exaggerate in point of literary judgement as much as they fall short in the matter of courtesy.
It is not likely that any critic will nowadays find anything very new to say about Dickens. But the fact that, when so many pens are employed on this subject, Mr. Swinburne should feel prompted to declare his attitude towards the supremely popular novelist, is in itself interesting, and one learns with natural pleasure that so great a poet sees in Dickens the greatest creative writer of the Victorian time. The article glows with enthusiasm; in full measure has its writer granted himself the noble joy of praising. He surveys the novels in order of date, noting that the true Dickens came to life only with Sam Weller, and giving a reason for his delight in each book down to 'Edwin Drood', which seems to him to contain pages worthy of Dickens at his best. The savour of such a review lies in the disclosure of personal preferences, which are sure, now and then, to conflict with those of the reader. In the general estimate of 'David Copperfield' Mr. Swinburne concurs; he is disposed to name with it, as the novelist's second best book, 'Great Expectations', a judgement for which something may be said when it is considered how wonderfully Dickens returned, without repeating himself; in the shorter story, to the autobiography of his childhood, a subject which brought out his finest qualities. Full justice is done to a book whose faults have weighed too heavily against its high merits - 'Little Dorrit'. The Father of the Marshalsea is spoken of as so admirable a presentment that 'nothing in the work of Balzac is nearer and truer and more terrible'; one would like to add that assuredly nothing in Balzac equals the subtlety of humour in those prison scenes where Mr. Dorrit shows at his greatest. To 'Hard Times' the writer will by many be thought too indulgent; he speaks of it as superior to 'A Tale of Two Cities' in 'moral and pathetic and humorous effect'. It may be (though Mr. Swinburne does not think so) that 'A Tale of Two Cities' has been commonly placed too high among its author's works, on account of an exceptionally well-constructed plot, a feature delightful to multitudes who are incapable of understanding Dickens's finest work. 'Hard Times', on the other hand, surely merits its comparative neglect, and ought perhaps to be ranked with the story which Mr. Swinburne regards as Dickens's one entire failure - 'The Battle of Life'. More difficult to understand is his eulogy of that portion of 'Bleak House' which critics have hitherto agreed in regarding as a grave artistic mistake; he sees in the personal narrative of Esther Summerson a 'singular and fascinating success', not to be overrated by any enthusiasm of praise. One is tempted to attribute this vehemence of heterodoxy to a generous desire to discover new excellencies in the author whom so many have monotonously lauded. To say that Esther's narrative 'is as good as her creator's' is merely to declare its failure in art; for Miss Summerson, instead of revealing her feminine self, does indeed write with the pen of Dickens, and throughout whole pages of her story it is easy to forget the supposed narrator. The passages wherein Dickens endeavoured to present Esther's mind and heart must be held among the least happy in his books.
The note of exaggeration which too often detracts from the value of Mr. Swinburne's praise or censure sounds very decidedly in his comments on certain of the novelist's characters. Magwitch, in 'Great Expectations', is a notably picturesque figure, but it more than startles one to hear that to have created him 'is to be a god among creators of deathless men'. In what terms, we may ask, is one to speak of the creator of Hamlet or of Don Quixote? As little regard for proportion appears in the statement that the minor personages in 'A Tale of Two Cities' are 'indisputably to be recognized by the sign of eternal life.' This comes of a resolve to carry fire and sword into the enemy's country, utterly to defeat and smash those 'blatant boobies' who, at any point, on any ground, find serious fault with the master's work. Mr. Swinburne has a right to be angry (even at this somewhat late day) with people who could see nothing in Dickens but extravagance and caricature; the attack of George Henry Lewes still rouses in him as keen a resentment as it did in the good John Forster more than thirty years ago. But he is mistaken in supposing that such an attitude of mind necessarily argues 'chattering duncery' and 'impudent malignity'. It has a simpler explanation - defect of imagination and observant power. To certain readers Dickens's best characters seemed 'unreal' for the same reason which made the lady declare to Turner that she had never seen anything like the atmosphere of his picture. Unreality, to be sure, may be found in his pages, and one regrets that Mr. Swinburne should have chosen for admiration one of the striking examples of it - to wit, Miss Havisham. But those who reproached the novelist with extravagance seldom or never directed their criticism where it would have been effective. He who protested that Mr. Pecksniff was a ludicrous impossibility would commonly be found a staunch admirer of Lady Dedlock. The like loyalty in an old cause impels Mr. Swinburne to discuss once more the question of Harold Skimpole and Leigh Hunt. Dickens, he says, might at once have refuted the charge of unkindly portraiture by pointing to the simple fact that Skimpole was essentially an idler, a self-indulgent lounger and shuffler, whereas everyone knew Leigh Hunt for an honest man of exemplary industry. That Dickens did not thus defend himself was due to his consciousness of not being free from blame in this matter. By his own avowal he copied the external characteristics of Skimpole from those of Hunt, and reproved himself for yielding to temptation, as the work grew under his hand. True, the characteristics selected were merely superficial, but it must be remembered that by things on the surface, and not by his inner being, is a man recognized as he walks the streets. Dickens abhorred the thought of hurting his friend, but he fully admitted an indiscretion.
Perhaps the best part of this fervent and delightful essay is that which deals with Dickens's minor writings - minor only in the sense of being less long than his novels. Mr. Swinburne has done well in insisting upon the marvellous quality and abundance of the work which Dickens threw off in the intervals of more serious labour, most of it for the periodicals he himself conducted. Recalling the multitude of figures, many of them among the most lifelike he ever drew, in his sketches and short stories, and remembering that such a book as 'The Uncommercial Traveller' has its place in this list of casual productions, we are hardly disposed to cavil at Mr. Swinburne's phrase when he bids us wonder at the 'incredible immensity' of Dickens's creative powers. It is simple truth that, had he never done anything on a larger scale, these smaller pieces would have 'sufficed for a fame great enough to deserve the applause and the thanksgiving of all men worthy to acclaim it.'
MR. KITTON'S LIFE OF DICKENSAn unsigned review of Charles Dickens, his life, writings,
and personality by Frederick G. Kitton
THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT 15 August 1902
The enduring popularity of Dickens has more than a literary significance. That a writer, who for thirty years of his lifetime enjoyed the most brilliant success, should more than thirty years after his death still hold a supreme place in the admiration and the affection of his countrymen, a new edition of his works being announced almost every month and the periodicals ceaselessly busy with his fame, is a fact without parallel in the history of literature. It cannot be explained solely by Dickens's greatness as an author, nor by the peculiar charm of his books. The keenness of popular interest, so unmistakably and so variously manifested, seeming likely to increase rather than to diminish, is tribute not only to an abiding literary fame, but to an unforgettable personality. By the multitude he is read as he ever was, with delight in his strong characteristics, regardless of his prominent defects; the intelligent read him, in spite of a severity of criticism such as no other novelist has undergone and survived. As regards the latter class, his present acceptance may be regarded as something of a reaction after the relative disfavour into which he was brought with them by the school of realism or naturalism; but those who waved him aside with a smile of superiority never counted for much in the national judgement; and there were not wanted sounder critics who pointed out that, if realism were the question, Dickens himself had founded a new school of fiction, and that, as a realist, he surpassed in originality all the writers of the century. Differ as they may in their appreciation of the author, simple and reflective are alike interested in the man; the personality of Dickens has an indescribable attractiveness for all who speak the English tongue. As a matter of fact, he stands before us the typical Englishman of the Victorian time. He represents a triumphant movement, a triumphant class. Independently of his genius, he exemplified in a most impressive way the best qualities of that middle rank which in his day became all-powerful. That he had likewise their shortcomings does but increase the humanity of his most human figure. Add to these characteristics that personal magic which nature bestows upon her chosen, which intensifies and brings into glowing relief all the qualities we are most ready to admire; add that magnificent gift which enabled him to glorify the kindlier spirit of English life into a radiant ideal; and the reason of Dickens's unassailable position becomes clear enough.
He was very fortunate in his biographer. Forster's work, notwithstanding the fault found with it at the time of publication, when the biographer was charged with magnifying himself at the expense of his subject, had precisely those merits which give vitality to such a book; written with absolute honesty, with the most intimate knowledge, with a fervour (never extravagant) which more than atoned for certain defects of style, it 'gave the world assurance of a man', and, whilst satisfying every legitimate curiosity as to the facts of Dickens's life, made permanent in the general imagination that delightful image which the great man's contemporaries had already in their minds and hearts. To Forster's book all subsequent writers on Dickens's life have necessarily had recourse, and very little indeed of any importance has been contributed by them on the subject, the only notable exception being a little book in which the late Mr. Robert Langton revised Forster's account of Dickens's earliest years, and put on record a few interesting details which he had himself discovered. There has now appeared a new biography, a substantial, well-printed, well-indexed volume, by Mr. F. G. Kitton, much of whose life has been devoted to the study of Dickens, and whose previous contributions to Dickensian bibliography, topography, etc., are well known. Let it be said at once that this new book is a thoroughly conscientious, trustworthy, and complete piece of work. In his preface, Mr. Kitton of course acknowledges his indebtedness to Forster, and indicates sources from which he has derived biographical matter either unknown to Forster or unused by him. It is probable that no detail of Dickens's life, now recoverable, has escaped Mr. Kitton's zealous research. In topography, of course, he is admirably full and precise; with this volume in hand, anyone desirous of seeking out the novelist's homes and haunts can do so with certainty of the best guidance, never in danger of going to see a house which no longer exists, or of being misled by a change of numbering in a street. Wherever it is possible, Mr. Kitton has fortified himself with first hand information; we see that he has handled original editions, has turned up old advertisements and criticisms which still have interest; he works into the narrative many illustrative odds and ends which he has gathered from obscure newspapers, from local tradition, from personal correspondence with Dickens's relatives and acquaintances. His plan was, he tells Us, 'to maintain an absolute sequence of events', and by this adoption of a strictly chronological method to distinguish his work from that of other biographers. Herein he has been successful, notwithstanding the many difficulties presented by such a method in the case of a life full of multifarious activity; the course of his narrative is smooth and clear, and minuteness of detail is never allowed to produce a sense of disproportion. One of Forster's advantages over all who follow him is the use he was able to make of a mass of Dickens's best and most intimate letters. From this material, Mr. Kitton has selected with discretion, repeating such well-known passages as are indispensable to a picture of Dickens's life, but never quoting merely to lengthen his book. On the other hand, he has made very good use of the published volumes of the novelist's correspondence, much less known to the general reader. His style, for the most part, keeps that safe level which too many writers nowadays disdain; but we must protest against 'inter-mutual mistakes', and regret that Mr. Kitton often speaks of 'electing' to do a thing, when he merely means 'deciding'. And it is not by an odd misnomer that Mr. Venus is called a 'taxidermist'.
Mr. Kitton has thought it needless to offer former criticism of Dickens's writings, and indeed quite enough of such comment, good, bad, and indifferent, is already before the public; no attempt is made in this volume to say anything new about the novelist's genius, or to sum the results of all the criticism to which it has been subjected. The author confines himself almost entirely to biographical narrative and personal description. To the vague borderland of literary anecdote belong those passages where he endeavours to find an actual prototype of many of the novelist's best-known characters. It is very seldom indeed, in the case of a great writer, that such a search can be anything but futile, and for the most part it produces altogether false impressions in the mind of the ingenuous reader. That Dickens's own mother sat for Mrs. Nickleby we know on the best of evidence; also that Miss Mowcher was drawn from life, and drawn too well, as the portrait got Dickens into trouble with the original; but direct portraiture is very rare in the best imaginative work. On the other hand, every living figure in fiction owes its origin to the author's observation of life, and it is merely a superfluous insistence on this truism to indicate this, that, and the other person whom the novelist may have had in mind when shaping a new creation. Thus Mr. Kitton tells us that 'the prototype of a scheming Carker is said to have been connected with an eminent London firm of engineers, and to have lived in Oxford Street, where he might frequently have been seen prowling about', information which carries no weight whatever, and serves no purpose. Who, again, will believe that the original of Sam Weller was a character in a popular play of that time, though Mr. Kitton declares that 'satisfactory evidence justifies the assumption'? Not thus does a Sam Weller come into being. Just as little do we credit the statement that Traddles in 'David Copperfield' was drawn, even 'in a restricted sense', from Serjeant Talfourd. It would have been better, we think, to omit all this kind of thing, except where there is biographical reason for introducing it, as, for instance, in the case of Skimpole and Leigh Hunt. Having been told, on what he considers excellent authority, that Micawber was not intended as a portrait of the novelist's father, Mr. Kitton casts about him for other prototypes of that immortal personage, and discovers two - a literary man in America, and a teacher of elocution at York. The wonder is that at least half a dozen were not forthcoming.
To his continuous narrative, the author adds a couple of supplementary chapters, wherein he discusses Dickens as actor, reader, editor, and public speaker, and his personality as seen in the reports of those who knew him. These chapters give a good idea of Mr. Kitton's industry and thoroughness; they present a mass of information, and surely leave little of that kind to be gleaned by any future biographer. Here may the inquirer learn, when he is satisfied on every more important point, what was Dickens' favourite cigar. Yet (unless it be in this one instance) the author has not lost sight of discretion; his pages are never disfigured by this sort of gossip which was abundantly discoverable had he thought fit to introduce it. It is to be hoped that the day will never come when it will seem necessary to reproach a biographer of Dickens for having descended to the equivalent of chatter about 'Harriet'. With his love of original sources, Mr. Kitton must, of course, have perused the only indefensible piece of writing that Dickens ever sent to print; equally of course, he says no more of it than is to be found in Forster, or any other self-respecting writer on the subject. In this connexion a word may be said regarding the portraits of Dickens which Mr. Kitton has reproduced, several of which will be entirely new to the public; that on the frontispiece, a photograph dated two years before the novelist's death, is one of the best ever taken. Very curious (though in rather a painful way) is the photograph which represents Dickens on the reading platform. But was it worthwhile to give the portrait by Ary Scheffer, admittedly a failure, and that earlier one by Drummond, which cannot have been a passable likeness?
It has more than once been suggested that the publication of the autobiography of Anthony Trollope sufficiently explains the total oblivion which involved that once popular novelist very soon after his death. Other causes were at work, but it may be true that Trollope's uncommonly cynical confessions (which did him injustice, by the bye), shocked even the novel-reading public, and helped to lower him in their esteem. Greater contrast could be none than between the self-revelation of a literary workman and the picture of Dickens given to the world by his first biographer; and every new fact added to the story of Dickens's life as author has but confirmed the sentiment of affectionate admiration so long attaching to his name. In this volume the story may be re-read; that wonderful career of matchless energy, of artistic fervour and conscientiousness, may once more be watched from its hard and obscure beginnings to its close in Westminster Abbey. After all, this is for us the root of the matter - how Dickens taught himself to be a writer of books, and how, one after another, those books were written. To all who would fain know as much as can be known of that delightful story, Mr. Kitton's work may safely be recommended.
Top of Page Mitsuharu Matsuoka's Home Page