Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Mr. Dickens as a Politician

The age in which we live has produced, amongst other novelties, an entirely new school of politicians. In almost every department of public life, the task of obtaining results has been to a great extent superseded by that of inventing machinery. The world, we are all agreed, is out of joint, and it is touching to see how many doctors are anxious to reduce the dislocation. In politics, in law, and in twenty other walks of life, reforming has become a distinct branch of business. Almost every man who can in any way command the ear of the world has engaged himself in the hopeful task of “doing good,” in preference to the ignoble selfishness of minding his own business, and, in one way or other, hoists the flag and wears the uniform of the noble army of world-betterers. As every system is said to culminate, and every idea to be embodied, it might have been expected à priori that an era of reform would find, sooner or later, its representative man. We do not know whether the restless, discontented, self-sufficient spirit which characterises so large a portion of modern speculation—especially on political and social subjects—could have had a more characteristic Avatar than it has found in Mr. Dickens. The nature, the sphere, and the character of his influence, and the foundations upon which it rests, furnish a most curious commentary on a vast mass of phenomena which it is impossible for a serious person to view without profound disquiet. In his preface to a late edition of his earliest novel, Mr. Dickens informed the world with satisfaction that, since its publication, a great part of the horrors of imprisonment for debt—the special evil which it denounced—have been removed by legislation; and he expressed a hope that, at the republication of each of his works, he might be able to say the same of the particular abuse against which it was levelled. Now, Mr. Dickens is the author of some twelve or fourteen books, each as long as three ordinary novels; and in each of them, in addition to the usual tasks which writers of fiction impose on themselves, he has discharged a self-imposed obligation of attacking some part or other of our rotten institutions. In Pickwick, he denounced imprisonment for debt—in Oliver Twist, the Poor Laws—in David Copperfield, the inefficiency of Parliament—in Bleak House, the Court of Chancery—and in Little Dorrit, the system of administration. We say nothing at present of the satire which he has directed against the Americans, the aristocracy, the middle classes, charitable societies, and Calvinism. To do his best to persuade his neighbours that the institutions under which they live encourage and permit the grossest cruelties towards debtors and paupers—that their Legislature is a stupid and inefficient debating club, their courts of justice foul haunts of chicanery, pedantry, and fraud, and their system of administration an odious compound of stupidity and corruption—is, perhaps, a sufficient responsibility for one man to assume; yet it is very characteristic that he should consider it so light a matter as to be anxious, in addition, to propagate similar views about almost every element of social life.

Such language may be considered too grave for such a subject. Who, it may be asked, takes Mr. Dickens seriously? Is it not as foolish to estimate his melodramatic and sentimental stock-in-trade gravely, as it would be to undertake a refutation of the jokes of the clown in a Christmas pantomime? No doubt this would be true enough if the world were composed entirely or principally of men of sense and cultivation. To such persons Mr. Dickens is nothing more than any other public performer—enjoying an extravagantly high reputation, and rewarded for his labours, both in purse and in credit, at an extravagantly high rate. But the vast majority of mankind, unfortunately, think little, and cultivate themselves still less. Whatever philanthropists and public lecturers may say, the mass of the poorer no less than of the richer classes are mentally idle, and are incapable of sustained and systematic thought or inquiry. Members of parliament, active professional men, merchants, manufacturers, shopkeepers in a large way of business, and enterprising farmers, form numerically an infinitesimally small proportion of the population. We have amongst us millions who are physically and intellectually weak, but whose collective sentiments go to form that moral atmosphere in the midst of which we all live and move. To these classes, such writers as Mr. Dickens are something more than an amusement. They are the most influential of all teachers—the teachers who make themselves friends and companions during those occasional intervals of rest and enjoyment which to many minds are far the pleasantest part of life. The production, among such readers, of false impressions of the system of which they form a part— especially if the falsehood tends to render them discontented with and disaffected to the institutions under which they live —cannot but be a serious evil, and must often involve great moral delinquency. Except the relations between men and their Maker, no subjects can be more grave than Legislation, Government, and the Administration of Justice; and we do not know that a man can misuse the trust imposed upon him by the possession of great talents and unbounded popularity more mischievously than by leading people to under-estimate the good, and over-estimate the evil, of the institutions of their country. Looking, therefore, at the sphere of Mr. Dickens's influence, we are compelled to think of him seriously. He is not entitled to the protection of insignificance. It may be admitted that he can scarcely attract the attention of the more intelligent classes of the community; but he may, and, as we believe, does exercise a very wide and a very pernicious political and social influence.

Our unfavourable opinion applies equally to the ends which he has in view, and to the means by which he seeks to accomplish them. He is the most prominent and popular of the innumerable preachers of that flattering doctrine, that, by some means or other, the world has been turned topsy-turvy—so that all the folly and stupidity are found in the highest places, and all the good sense, moderation, and ability in the lowest. As German students look upon themselves as the elect, and upon the members of the whole social hierarchy as “philisters,” an opinion, or rather a sentiment, seems to be gaining ground amongst us—and it is carefully fanned by such writers as Mr. Dickens—that success in life is not only no evidence of a man's superiority, but is positive roof of his inferiority to his neighbours. For Parliament Mr. Dickens has an unlimited scorn. It is, he says, all talk, “words, words, nothing but words.” The House of Commons, for him, is a stupid debating club, in which no business is transacted except the enunciation of innumerable platitudes. Nor does the law fare better. The Court of Chancery is an abomination, to be cut down root and branch—a mere den of thieves, in which no man can long retain his honesty. But if our laws are made by fools and administered by rogues, what shall we say of those who manage our public affairs? They are all idiots and jobbers— they have neither the will nor the power to do right. Half-a-dozen families of Barnacles have contrived to attach themselves to the ship of the State, and have no other object than that of impeding its progress as far as possible, in order that their own parasitical existence may not be discovered and terminated. If a man makes a discovery, they treat him as a criminal—if he has a claim or a o baffle and cheat him—they have neither heart nor brain, but the widest of mouths and the most insatiable of stomachs. Such is the lesson which, month by month, Mr. Dickens reads to his fellow-citizens. He is, in the main, a kind-hearted man, and would perhaps be at a loss for opportunities of exercising his powers of vituperation, unless Providence had kindly created dignities on purpose to be evil spoken of; but as that arrangement has been made, he is enabled, with an easy conscience, to devote himself to the task of flattering his readers into the belief that, but for the intelligence of the middle classes and the unostentatious virtues of the poor, England would be a perfect paradise of fools and knaves.

Such is his end; and the means he employs are worthy of it. As there are reproaches which can be uttered by no one but a woman or a child, there are accusations which can only be conveyed through a novel. It would be impossible to make any more serious publication the vehicle of such calumnies— their grave and quiet statement would be their own refutation. But just as a foolish gossip in a country-town, who says what she pleases because all the world knows what her tongue is like, may babble away the purest character, a popular novelist may produce more disaffection and discontent than a whole army of pamphleteers and public orators, because he wears the cap and bells, and laughs in your face when you contradict him. A novelist has no responsibility. He can always discover his own meaning. To the world at large, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce represents the Court of Chancery. To any one who taxes the writer with unfairness, it is merely, he is told, a playful exaggeration— pretty Fanny's way; and who can have the heart to be angry with pretty Fanny? To the thousands of feverish artisans who read Little Dorrit, the Circumlocution Office is a bona fide representation of Downing-street. To any one who remonstrates, it is nothing but a fair representation of what exists, just exaggerated enough to make the subject entertaining. In this, no doubt, there is a certain amount of truth; and so there is in the plea of the old woman who destroys her neighbour's character over her tea, that she only adds colour enough to her story to make it piquant. No doubt Mr. Dickens does not really mean much harm. He only wants to sell his books; and by way of persuading himself that he is of some use in the world, he spices them with a certain amount of advocacy of social reforms, just as clergymen sometimes sugar their private letters with texts to make them improving. This is just what we complain of. He exercises considerable political influence with hardly any political convictions. He introduces the gravest subjects in a manner which makes it impossible that he should do them justice. He scatters fire, and says, Am I not in sport?  The two fallacies which pervade all his writings are just those which nothing but care and education can guard against, and which are, therefore, particularly dangerous when addressed to uneducated people. One is the fallacy of artistic exaggeration. It was said of Swift that he satirized mankind by describing men as vicious horses, and horses as virtuous men, and then asking which was the best. Something in the same way Mr. Dickens makes his intelligent tradesmen high-minded and highly-educated gentlemen, and his officials affected shop-boys, and then asks us whether the officials can bear a comparison with the tradesmen. If you are at liberty to allow some of the staring external marks of a class to stand unaltered, whilst its characteristic defects are exaggerated indefinitely, there can never be any difficulty in making out the world to be as absurd as you please. The other fallacy—that of minute description—is less obvious, but quite as effective. It consists in dwelling upon all the details of an incident till the mind invests it with as much dignity as such an introduction would demand. By the help of this device, nothing would be more easy than to make the operation of pulling out a tooth appear utterly intolerable. Describe the dentist's face, the arm-chair, the warm water, the basin with a hole in the bottom, the opening of the mouth, the insertion of the pineers, the cold feeling of the iron, and its tightening on the tooth, with sufficient, minuteness—and the final wrench may be made to appear like the consummation of all things. In the same way, the inside of a workhouse may be made to look like an absolute torture-chamber; whereas, in fact, neither the pauper nor the dentist's patient feels half the agony which the novelist describes.

The truth of the accusations which Mr. Dickens brings against society is on a par with the fairness of the manner in which they are urged. No one can deny that there are great abuses in the world in general, and in this country in particular. There is much that wants reform in Parliament, in the law, and in the administration; but no one can reform wisely unless he knows what he is about; and that these institutions want reform is only half, or perhaps even less than half, of the truth. With all their faults, they have the very highest merits; and a man who represents to his fellow-countrymen only the faults, and none of the merits, fosters one of the worst of our national faults—the inveterate habit of self-depreciation. Whatever else our Parliament is, it is the only popular government in the world which has been able to maintain itself; and whatever Mr. Dickens may think, it really has done a very considerable amount of work since he began to denounce it, and will probably continue to do so. Our law has enormous faults, and we have always exposed them, and contended that they ought to be reformed; but to speak of the law with bitter contempt is to show the most profound ignorance of English history. The great faults which every one now acknowledges must be viewed historically, as well as in their present condition; and though the historical fact that the defects of the law formed part of the price of our political freedom is no sort of reason for not reforming them, it is a very strong reason for speaking of the law, and of those who profess it, with some sort of respect and some approach to justice. Our administration, no doubt, had not the means of carrying on a gigantic war immediately after forty years of peace, but, on the other hand, the deficiency was repaired with unexampled vigour; and with respect to other branches of Government, it should be remembered that a vast proportion of the national affairs are conducted fairly enough, and that there is no country in which the great ends of civil society—the security of person and property, and the absolute supremacy of law—are more fully attained, or in which the private character of public men stands higher. Human nature must be judged by an actual, and not by an ideal standard; and though it is true that we have a good deal of jobbing in England, it is quite as true that we have less downright bribery, less violation of confidence, less peculation, than most other countries. Our statesmen may sometimes provide for their cousins and nephews in the public service, but they do not sell their official secrets, or make fortunes on the Stock Exchange. That relations should be maintained with every nation in the world—that a revenue of some sixty millions should be collected and disbursed—that person and property should be secure in a very high degree—that espionage and individual oppression should be altogether unknown, are results which, as times go, we cannot despise, even if an inventor is sometimes snubbed, and an applicant occasionally kept waiting for his rights.

The most wonderful feature in Mr. Dickens's influence is the nature of the foundation on which it stands. Who is this man who is so much wiser than the rest of the world that he can pour contempt on all the institutions of his country? He is a man with a very active fancy, great powers of language, much perception of what is grotesque, and a most lachrymose and melodramatic turn of mind—and this is all. He is utterly destitute of any kind of solid acquirements. He has never, played any part in any movement more significant than that of the fly — generally a gad-fly — on the wheel. Imprisonment for debt on mesne process was doomed, if not abolished, before he wrote Pickwick. The Court of Chancery was reformed before he published Bleak House. In his attacks on Parliament he certainly relied on his own experience, and was utterly and hopelessly wrong. In his attacks on the administration he only followed the lead of Our Own Correspondent. And yet this man, who knows absolutely nothing of law or politics—who was so ignorant of the one subject that he grumbled at the length of an administration suit (which is like grumbling at the slowness of the lapse of time), and so ignorant of the other that he represented Parliament as a debating club— has elaborated a kind of theory of politics. He would have the pace of legislation quickened by the abolition of vain debates—he would have justice freed from the shackles of law—he would have public affairs conducted by officers of vast powers, unfettered by routine. He does not know his own meaning. He does not see the consequences of his own teaching; and yet he is unconsciously tending to a result logically connected with the whole of it. Freedom, law, established rules, have their difficulties. They are possible only to men who will be patient, quiet, moderate, and tolerant of difference in opinion; and therefore their results are intolerable to a feminine, irritable, noisy mind, which is always clamouring and shrieking for protection and guidance. Mr. Dickens's government looks pretty at a distance, but we can tell him how his ideal would look if it were realized. It would result in the purest despotism. There would be no debates to worry effeminate understandings—no laws to prevent judges going at once to the merits of the case according to their own inclination—no forms to prevent officials from dealing with their neighbours as so many parcels of ticketed goods. Whether a Mr. Dickens would then be able to point out the fact that arbitrary power is not uniformly wise, that arbitrary judges are sometimes corrupt, and that arbitrary officials are not always patriotic, is a very different question.

Saturday Review, January 3, 1857.

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