Little Dorrit (by Charles Dickens, 1857).
Mr. Dickens has established a right to a careful examination of what he writes. He boasts—and it is at least a pardonable piece of exultation—of the number of his readers, the implied inference being that he was never so successful before. Apart from the question of taste, which in this quarter was scarcely to be looked for, the very prominent announcement of a large sale looks a little like a latent suspicion that it was not quite deserved. "Oh, I am very well," replied Mr. Merdle, after deliberating about it; "I am as well as I usually am!" and the man went and cut his throat forthwith. This may serve to remind Mr. Dickens that uncalled-for asseverations of well-doing do not prove the heart to be quite at ease; and if we are right as to his secret misgivings, we can assure him that he has ground for them. Mr. Dickens remarks "that he has never had so many readers"—of course he means purchasers, though the terms are not convertible. In our slight experience we can assure him that we have yet to meet the man or woman, boy or girl, who can honestly say that he or she has read Little Dorrit through. It is the cultus of the middle classes to purchase Dickens; but an Act of Parliament would fail to enforce the serious reading of his last production.
The simple fact is, that Mr. Dickens has been spoiled by success—or rather, like many other very clever men, he has mistaken his powers. The late Mr. Liston was an admirable buffoon, but his honest earnest conviction was that Hamlet was his strong point. We once knew a Bampton Lecturer who fancied that his real strength lay in knowledge of horse-flesh, and he actually got up the stud-book as he crammed Thucydides and Butler. So is it with Mr. Dickens. He is a great master of humour—not of wit, for of this faculty he is quite innocent—but he thinks that his vocation is that of the social reformer, perhaps of the prophet. He is eminently gifted to be the Jan Steen of letters —he affects the historical canvas of Michael Angelo. Hogarth tried his hand at scriptural subjects—Mr. Dickens thinks that he is a satirist. In either case, the result is the same. We admit that Mr. Dickens has a mission, but it is to make the world grin, not to recreate and rehabilitate society. Sam Weller, Dick Swiveller, and Sairy Gamp are his successes, and we thank him most heartily for them. But when nothing less will content him than to reform the British constitution, to sit in judgment upon the whole law of England—to pronounce the bar, the Church, and all the Courts and institutions of England, its mercantile community, its legal community, its public servants, her Majesty's Ministers, all our charities, and all our politicians, our men of the Exchange, and men of the pulpit, to be downright shams and selfish hypocrites—we are forced to inquire whether this is not one sham among the universal crowd of shams—whether the preacher is not as his flock ?
We have, however, more specific complaints against Mr. Dickens in the case of Little Dorrit. We have a right to ask of an artist so practised the observance of some of the rules of his art. Perhaps, however, as in the case of the Pythoness, the inspiration and the moral purpose were thought sufficient apologies for stumbling prosody and obscure meaning. Mr. Dickens may consider his design quite grand and religious enough to cover defects in composition. We do not think so. Of a writer of stories we claim some observance of the proprieties of a story. The literary execution of Little Dorrit is even worse than its inflated and pretentious sermonizing object. Mr. Dickens was never successful in his plots—he never yet constructed an artistic story. But in the present instance he never seems to have a whole before him. As far as we can judge, he wrote Little Dorrit, month by month, at haphazard, without ever having sketched out a plan, and failed in executing his own conceptions. He invests his characters with mystery, which he quite fails in clearing up. He suggests complications which involve nothing, and secrets which all end in no meaning. He hints at difficulties which are never unravelled, and we flounder on to the six hundredth page expecting to find a discovery when there is nothing to discover. Either idleness or inability compels him to abandon his characters with the unsatisfactory conclusion that they had no story to tell. Mrs. Clennam's house is haunted by some ghostly mystery—the weird old woman has some impenetrable secret—horrid anticipations of coming doom are in the garrets above and in the cellars below. Will Mr. Dickens assure us that the fall of the house in Tottenham-court-road was not a happy solution of a difficulty which he had not the skill to disentangle? Does he ask us to believe that, when he first introduced us to the old house in the City at p.23, he foresaw the very prosaic catastrophe of its fall at p.600? Are we to understand that all Affery's horrors were meant to be resolved into the every-day phenomena of dry-rot?
Then take Miss Wade. It is plain that the author intended to connect her former history with the other characters. He throws out hints and suggestions of some such relation between her and old Casby; but it all comes to nothing. And we are put off with an interpolation of Miss Wade's previous history as apropos to the story as the Memoirs of a Lady of Quality, which Smollett was paid for inserting in Peregrine Pickle. So again with Tattycoram. It is impossible to believe that the parentage of a foundling was not intended to be developed and woven into the plot. Only, somehow or other, Mr. Dickens could not get her to work into the story. Blandois, too, and Mr. and Mrs. Gowan—was it not at first meant that the future of the latter and the antecedents of the first should be connected with the drama of the tale?
In other words, the artistic fault of Little Dorrit is that it is no tale. It neither begins nor ends—it has no central interest, no legitimate catastrophe, and no modelling of the plot into a whole. This is the fault of Mr. Dickens as an artist. He breaks down under his own conceptions, not having the skill, or not choosing to expend the time, to subordinate them to a general scheme. His characters remind us of the cheap theatrical prints of our schoolboy days, and of the inartificial way in which boys used to act a play in the nursery. Every character strikes an imposing attitude—to use one of Mr. Dickens's own expressions— and he goes through all the scenes grimacing and gesticulating, with outstretched arms and one fixed spasmodic intensity of exaggeration. His actors are never in repose, never relax the stony stare, never vary from the monotonous rigidity of matter or manner. What effect there is, is produced by the wearisome repetition of the same details and the unflagging iteration of the same phrases and the same thoughts. Not one of his dramatis persona ever subsides into the commonplace speech of real life. Mrs. Finching, a really good specimen of the grotesque, with her unpunctuated brain and parenthetic gabble of sentiment and kindness of heart, becomes an intolerable bore after (say) the fifteenth specimen of her manner of speech. A rather original conception is Mr. Blandois' French done into English, but after twenty times of “Holy Blue!" we begin to think that a jest maybe worn threadbare. The hard mechanical effort to make out character by elaborately stippling a single feature or a single expression, gives only the unnatural life of a daguerreotype.
Nor is the morality of Mr. Dickens's later works so unexceptionable as he thinks. He knows, at least we know, that it is a libel on human nature to represent every man of five hundred a-year as fit for nothing but to grind the poor, or insult every class of society below his own. It is not the rule of English public men to throw every obstacle in the way of rising genius, as Mr. Dickens would have us to believe; and it would be just as fair to draw all the middle-class men of public life by the lineaments of "Wiscount Villiams," as it is to represent all official persons under the convenient type of Barnacle. And—we dare to hint it—it hardly reconciles us to virtue and philanthropy, and every excellence that can dignify humanity, to present them in the guise of such intolerable bores as Mr. Arthur Clennam, the incarnation of prosing imbecility, and Little Dorrit, that most provoking of all she-saints. In Mr. Dickens' hands, the amiable characters are, we regret to say it, the most tedious of respectabilities. God forgive us—but just as we are tempted to sympathize with every breach of every Commandment, and every assault upon everything that is good and proper, after one of Lord Campbell's sermons to the jury-box, so we must own, with all confusion of face, that "Fanny, dear," is all but justified in rebelling against the fatiguing goodness of Miss Amy. Our taste may be wicked and corrupt; but if we had to choose between the Misses Dorrit, we confess that Mrs. Sparkler would stand first. By the way, docs not Mr. Dickens know the difference between a step-son and a son-in-law? because the former was Mr. Sparkler's relationship to Mr. Merdle, not the latter, which seems to be Mr. Dickens's interpretation of the table of consanguinity.
Not that we are so unjust to Mr. Dickens as to say that he has not retained the elements of his unquestionable powers. In his slighter characteristics, even in Little Dorrit, the old manner and the old cunning hand are still discernible. The barrister, with his "jury droop ' and "eyeglass," is little short of perfection. The Hampton Court dowager is ill-natured and unfair, but vigorously sketched. Casby is as dexterously, as Flora's aunt is coarsely, outlined. But in the dreary waste of tediousness which characterizes the whole community of Bleeding Heart Yard, the stupidity of Pancks and Plornish, and the absurdity of Mrs. General—the woman who was always primming her mouth to the words "prism" and "prunes"—we can only ask with dismay where is the cunning hand which drew Pickwick and the two Wellers? Mr. Dickens can, we believe, recover himself—he has simply mistaken his calling and his powers; and, as he promises to meet us again, we trust it will not be with the cold cabbage of Crimean inquiries and Royal British Banks' Administrative Reformers, Tottenham Court Road accidents, Messrs. Redpath, Cameron, and John Sadleir.
Saturday Review, July 4, 1857.