Thursday, December 1, 2016

Mr. Dickens

Review of:
The Works of Charles Dickens (1858).

The republication of Mr. Dickens's works in a collected form affords an opportunity for offering some observations on the position which the most celebrated novelist of the day occupies, and will in future occupy, in English literature. If popularity is to be taken as the test of merit, Mr. Dickens must be ranked next to Sir Walter Scott in the list of English novelists. For more than twenty-five years he has continued to publish an unintermitting series of fictions, most of which are probably more than twice as long as those to which the author of Waverley owed his fame, and might have owed his fortune if he had pursued it somewhat less eagerly. Besides his larger works, Mr. Dickens is the author of a great variety of smaller tales, and the conductor of one of the most successful of the periodical publications of the day. In whatever he has undertaken he has obtained not only, success, but an unbounded and enthusiastic popularity, which is manifested, whenever the opportunity offers, with all the warmth of personal affection. It is interesting to attempt to analyse the qualities which have produced such results. Nothing throws more light on the character of an age than the study of its amusements—especially its literary amusements; and Mr. Dickens has amused the public more successfully than any other living man.

Pickwick was first published, we believe, about the year 1832 or 1833, when the Reform Bill had just been passed, and when what Mr. Carlyle has called—with the miraculous facility for inventing nicknames, which is not the least of his gifts—the Scavenger Age, was in the first flush of its triumphant inauguration. We should be at a loss to mention any one who reflected the temper of the time in which he rose into eminence more strongly than Mr. Dickens. We feel no doubt that one principal cause of his popularity is the spirit of revolt against all established rules which pervades every one of his books, and which is displayed most strongly and freshly in his earlier productions. Just as Scott owed so much of his success to the skill with which he gave shape and colour to the great Conservative reaction against the French Revolution, Mr. Dickens is indebted to the exquisite adaptation of his own turn of mind to the peculiar state of feeling which still prevails in some classes, and which twenty years ago prevailed far more widely, with respect to all the arrangements of society. So much cant had been in fashion about the wisdom of our ancestors, the glorious constitution, the wise balance of King, Lords, and Commons, and other such topics, which are embalmed in the Noodle's Oration, that a large class of pool. were ready to hail with intense satisfaction the advent of a writer who naturally and without an effort bantered everything in the world, from elections and law courts down to Cockney sportsmen, the boots at an inn, cooks and chambermaids. Mr. Dickens had the additional advantage of doing this not only with exquisite skill, and with a sustained flow of spirit and drollery almost unequalled by any other writer, but in a style which seemed expressly intended to bring into contempt all those canons of criticism which a large proportion of people were learning to look upon as mere pedantry and imposture. Pickwick is throughout a sort of half-conscious parody of that style of writing which demanded balanced sentences, double-barrelled epithets, and a proper conception of the office and authority of semicolons. It is as if a saucy lad were to strut about the house in his father's court-dress, with the sleeves turned inside out and the coat-tails stuck under his arms. Whenever, he can get an opportunity, Mr. Dickens rakes up the old-fashioned finery, twists it into every sort of grotesque shape, introduces it to all kinds of strange bedfellows, and contrives, with an art which is all the more ingenious because it was probably quite undesigned, to convey the impression that every one who tries to write, to think, or to act by rule, is little more than a pompous jackass. It is impossible to describe the spirit of a writer of whose best books slang is the soul without speaking his own language. Mr. Dickens is the very Avatar of chaff, and bigwigs of every description are his game. The joviality, the animal spirits, and the freshness with which he acted this part in his earliest books are wonderful. We cannot mention any caricature so perfect and so ludicrous as the description of Messrs. Dodson and Fogg, and that of the trial of Bardell v. Pickwick. The mere skill of his workmanship would have unquestionably secured the success of such a writer; but the harmony between his own temper and that of his audience must be appreciated before we can understand the way in which approbation grew into enthusiasm.

It would, however, be a great mistake to suppose that it was merely to banter that Mr. Dickens owed his marvellous success. Mere banter soon grows wearisome; and Mr. Dickens was led by nature as much as by art to mix up a very strong dose of sentiment with his caricature. From first to last, he has tried about as much to make his readers cry as to make them laugh; and there is a very large section of the British public—and especially of the younger, weaker, and more ignorant part of it— which considers these two functions as comprising the whole duty of novelists. It is impossible to deny that certain classes of Englishmen and Englishwomen retain all the tendencies of Prince Arthur's young gentlemen in France, who were as sad as night for very wantonness. They do not care for violent paroxysms of passion—they are disgusted by horrors. The outrageous rants, surgical operations, and post mortem examinations which afford, such lively pleasure to Parisian readers, would be out of place here; but if anybody can get a pretty little girl to go to heaven prattling about her dolls, and her little brothers and sisters, and quoting texts of Scripture with appropriate gasps, dashes, and broken sentences, he may send half the women in London, with tears in their eyes, to Mr. Mudie's or Mr. Booth's. This kind of taste has not only been flattered, but prodigiously developed, by Mr. Dickens. He is the intellectual parent of a whole class of fictions, of which the Heir of Redclyffe was perhaps the most successful. No man can offer to the public so large a stock of death-beds adapted for either sex and for any age from five-and-twenty downwards. There are idiot death-beds, where the patient cries ha, ha! and points wildly at vacancy—pauper death-beds, with unfeeling nurses to match— male and female children's death-beds, where the young ladies or gentlemen sit up in bed, pray to the angels, and see golden water on the walls. In short, there never was a man to whom the King of Terrors was so useful as a lay figure.

This union of banter and sentiment appears to us to form the essence of Mr. Dickens's view of life. In the main, it is a very lovely world, a very good and a very happy world, in which we live. We ought all to be particularly fond of each other and infinitely pleased with our position. The only drawback to this charming state of things is that a great number of absurd people have got up a silly set of conventional rules, which the rest of us are foolish enough to submit to. The proper course with them is good natured ridicule and caricature, which cannot fail to make them conscious of the absurdity of their position. Here and there, no doubt, is to be found a villain who has laid aside the dagger, the bowl, and the Spanish cloak, which by rights he ought to carry, for some one of the many costumes worn by Englishmen in the nineteenth century; and there are plenty of erring brothers and sisters who have lost all but their picturesqueness, which is in itself enough to constitute the highest claim to our sympathy. It would be no uninteresting task to trace the stream downwards from the fountain-head, and to show how this view pervades the long series of works to which we have referred, though the exigencies of fecundity and an enlarged acquaintance with the world have modified it very considerably, especially by way of acidulation. We are all dear brothers and sisters in Bleak House and Little Dorrit, just as we were in Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby; but we have reached a time of life in which family quarrels must be expected, and we have learned that good-natured banter; when kept up for a quarter of a century, is apt, with the kindest intentions in the world, to degenerate into serious and angry discussion. It is all very well to cork a man's face after a college supper-party, but if the process were kept up for five-and-twenty years, whenever he took a nap, it might come to be worth his while to require a special and serious justification for such conduct.

We cannot now attempt to trace the history of Mr. Dickens's publications, or of the various stages through which his style and is opinions have passed, but we may briefly indicate the ho position to which, in our opinion, he has attained. It does not appear to us certain that his books will live, nor do we think that his place in literary history will be by the side of such men as Defoe and Fielding, the founders of the school to which he belongs. Pickwick stands as far below Tom Jones as it stands above Dombey and Son or Bleak House. It is an exquisitely piquant caricature of the everyday life of the middle and lower classes at the time to which it refers; but the general theory of life on which it is based is not only false, but puerile. Caricature depends for its vitality almost entirely on the degree of wisdom which it veils, just as the ornaments of a dress depend for their beauty on the materials which they adorn. The wit of Henry IV. or the Merry Wives of Windsor is like spangles on rich velvet—the wit of Pickwick is like spangles on tinsel paper. Mr. Dickens's very highest notion of goodness does not go beyond that sort of good-nature celebrated in the old song about the fine old English gentleman who had an old estate, and kept up his old mansion at a bountiful old rate. He can only conceive of virtues and vices in their very simplest forms. The goodness of his good men, is always running over their beards, like Aaron's ointment—the wickedness of his villains is always flaming and blazing like a house on fire. The mixed characters, the confusion, the incompleteness, which meet us at every step in real life, never occur in his pages. You understand what he means on the first reading far better than on any other. The only characters drawn from real observation belong to one or two classes of life. All the oddities of London he has sketched with inimitable vigour; but class characteristics and local peculiarities are of a very transient nature. Fifty years hence, most of his wit will be harder to understand than the allusions in the Dunciad; and our grandchildren will wonder what their ancestors could have meant by putting Mr. Dickens at the head of the novelists of his day.

Though, however, we do not believe in the permanence of his reputation, it is impossible to deny that Mr. Dickens has exercised an immense influence over contemporary literature, or that his books must always be an extremely curious study on that account. Till our own days, almost every popular writer formed his style on the classical model. Even those who revolted most strongly against the canons of composition current in the eighteenth century—Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Charles Lamb, and their associates—had, almost without an exception, been taught to write. They maintained that, the stiffness of the style then dominant arose from a misapprehension of the true principles of the art of literature; but that it was an art they never doubted. The first person of mark who wrote entirely by the light of nature, and without the guidance of any other principle than that of expressing his meaning in the most emphatic language that he could find, was Cobbett. Though no two persons could resemble each other less in character, the position of Mr. Dickens with respect to fiction is precisely analogous to that of Cobbett with respect to political discussion. The object of the arguments of the one is to drive his opinion into the dullest understanding— the object of the narrative of the other is to paint a picture which will catch the eye of the most ignorant and least attentive observer.  Mr. Dickens's writings are the apotheosis of what has been called newspaper English. He makes points everywhere, gives unfamiliar names to the commonest objects, and lavishes a marvellous quantity of language on the most ordinary incidents. Mr. William Russell and Mr. Charles Dickens have respectively risen to the very top of two closely connected branches of the some occupation. The correspondence from the Crimea is constructed upon exactly the same model as Pickwick and Martin Chuzzlewit, and there can be no doubt that the triumphs which this style has attained in Mr. Dickens's hands have exercised, and will continue to exercise, very considerable influence on the mould into which people will cast their thoughts, and indirectly upon their thoughts themselves. We cannot affect to say that we look upon the growth of this habit with much satisfaction. It appears to us to foster a pert, flippant frame of mind, in which the fancy exerts an amount of influence which does not rightfully belong to it, and in which it is very hard for people to thin soberly of others, and almost impossible for them not to think a great deal too much about themselves and the effect which they are producing. There is a sex in minds as well as in bodies, and Mr. Dickens's literary progeny seem to us to be for the most part of the feminine gender, and to betray it by most unceasing flirtations, and by a very tiresome irritability of nerve,

Saturday Review, May 8, 1858.

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