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Dickens

"I cannot read Dickens!" How many people make this confession, with a front of brass, and do not seem to know how poor a figure they cut! George Eliot says that a difference of taste in jokes is a great cause of domestic discomfort. A difference of taste in books, when it is decided and vigorous, breaks many a possible friendship, and nips many a young liking in the bud. I would not willingly seem intolerant. A man may not like Sophocles, may speak disrespectfully of Virgil, and even sneer at Herodotus, and yet may be endured. But he or she (it is usually she) who contemns Scott, and "cannot read Dickens," is a person with whom I would fain have no further converse. If she be a lady, and if one meets her at dinner, she must of course be borne with, and "suffered gladly." But she has dug a gulf that nothing can bridge; she may be fair, clever and popular, but she is Anathema. I feel towards her (or him if he wears a beard) as Bucklaw did towards the person who should make inquiries about that bridal night of Lammermoor.

But this admission does not mean that one is sealed of the tribe of Charles--that one is a Dickensite pure and simple, convinced and devout--any more than Mr. Matthew Arnold was a Wordsworthian. Dickens has many such worshippers, especially (and this is an argument in favour of the faith) among those who knew him in his life. He must have had a wonderful charm; for his friends in life are his literary partisans, his uncompromising partisans, even to this day. They will have no half-hearted admiration, and scout him who tries to speak of Dickens as of an artist not flawless, no less than they scorn him who cannot read Dickens at all. At one time this honourable enthusiasm (as among the Wordsworthians) took the shape of "endless imitation." That is over; only here and there is an imitator of the master left in the land. All his own genius was needed to carry his mannerisms; the mannerisms without the genius were an armour that no devoted David had proved, that none could wear with success.

Of all great writers since Scott, Dickens is probably the man to whom the world owes most gratitude. No other has caused so many sad hearts to be lifted up in laughter; no other has added so much mirth to the toilsome and perplexed life of men, of poor and rich, of learned and unlearned. "A vast hope has passed across the world," says Alfred de Musset; we may say that with Dickens a happy smile, a joyous laugh, went round this earth. To have made us laugh so frequently, so inextinguishably, so kindly--that is his great good deed. It will be said, and with a great deal of truth, that he has purged us with pity and terror as well as with laughter. But it is becoming plain that his command of tears is less assured than of old, and I cannot honestly regret that some of his pathos--not all, by any means--is losing its charm and its certainty of appeal. Dickens's humour was rarely too obvious; it was essentially personal, original, quaint, unexpected, and his own. His pathos was not infrequently derived from sources open to all the world, and capable of being drawn from by very commonplace writers. Little Nells and Dombeys, children unhappy, overthrown early in the melee of the world, and dying among weeping readers, no longer affect us as they affected another generation. Mrs. Beecher Stowe and the author of "Misunderstood," once made some people weep like anything by these simple means. Ouida can do it; plenty of people can do it. Dickens lives by virtue of what none but he can do: by virtue of Sairey Gamp, and Sam Weller, and Dick Swiveller, and Mr. Squeers, with a thousand other old friends, of whom we can never weary. No more than Cleopatra's can custom stale their infinite variety.

I do not say that Dickens' pathos is always of the too facile sort, which plays round children's death-beds. Other pathos he has, more fine and not less genuine. It may be morbid and contemptible to feel "a great inclination to cry" over David Copperfield's boyish infatuation for Steerforth; but I feel it. Steerforth was a "tiger,"--as Major Pendennis would have said, a tiger with his curly hair and his ambrosial whiskers. But when a little boy loses his heart to a big boy he does not think of this. Traddles thought of it. "Shame, J. Steerforth!" cried Traddles, when Steerforth bullied the usher. Traddles had not lost his heart, nor set up the big boy as a god in the shrine thereof. But boys do these things; most of us have had our Steerforths--tall, strong, handsome, brave, good- humoured. Far off across the years I see the face of such an one, and remember that emotion which is described in "David Copperfield," chap. xix., towards the end of the chapter. I don't know any other novelist who has touched this young and absolutely disinterested belief of a little boy in a big one--touched it so kindly and seriously, that is there is a hint of it in "Dr. Birch's School Days."

But Dickens is always excellent in his boys, of whom he has drawn dozens of types--all capital. There is Tommy Traddles, for example. And how can people say that Dickens could not draw a gentleman? The boy who shouted, "Shame, J. Steerforth!" was a gentleman, if one may pretend to have an opinion about a theme so difficult. The Dodger and Charley Bates are delightful boys--especially Bates. Pip, in the good old days, when he was the prowling boy, and fought Herbert Pocket, was not less attractive, and Herbert himself, with his theory and practice of the art of self-defence--could Nelson have been more brave, or Shelley (as in Mr. Matthew Arnold's opinion) more "ineffectual"? Even the boys at Dotheboys Hall are each of them quite distinct. Dickens's boys are almost as dear to me as Thackeray's--as little Rawdon himself. There is one exception. I cannot interest myself in Little Dombey. Little David Copperfield is a jewel of a boy with a turn for books. Doubtless he is created out of Dickens's memories of himself as a child. That is true pathos again, and not overwrought, when David is sent to Creakle's, and his poor troubled mother dare hardly say farewell to him.

And this brings us back to that debatable thing--the pathos of Dickens--from which one has been withdrawn by the attractions of his boys. Little Dombey is a prize example of his pathos. Little Nell is another. Jeffrey, of the Edinburgh Review, who criticised "Marmion" and the "Lady of the Lake" so vindictively, shed tears over Little Nell. It is a matter of taste, or, as Science might say, of the lachrymal glands as developed in each individual. But the lachrymal glands of this amateur are not developed in that direction. Little Dombey and Little Nell leave me with a pair of dry eyes. I do not "melt visibly" over Little Dombey, like the weak-eyed young man who took out his books and trunk to the coach. The poor little chap was feeble and feverish, and had dreams of trying to stop a river with his childish hands, or to choke it with sand. It may be very good pathology, but I cannot see that it is at all right pathos. One does not like copy to be made out of the sufferings of children or of animals. One's heart hardens: the object is too manifest, the trick is too easy. Conceive a child of Dombey's age remarking, with his latest breath, "Tell them that the picture on the stairs at school is not Divine enough!" That is not the delirium of infancy, that is art-criticism: it is the Athenaeum on Mr. Holman Hunt. It is not true to nature; it is not good in art: it is the kind of thing that appears in Sunday-school books about the virtuous little boy who died. There is more true pathos in many a page of "Huckleberry Finn." Yet this is what Jeffrey gushed over. "There has been nothing like the actual dying of that sweet Paul." So much can age enfeeble the intellect, that he who had known Scott, and yet nibbled at his fame, descended to admiring the feeblest of false sentiment. As for Little Nell, who also has caused floods of tears to be shed, her case is sufficiently illustrated by the picture in the first edition ("Master Humphrey's Clock,", 1840, p. 210):


"'When I die
Put near me something that has loved the light,
And had the sky above it always.'  Those
Were her words."

"Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead!"


The pathos is about as good as the prose, and THAT is blank verse. Are the words in the former quotation in the least like anything that a little girl would say? A German sentimentalist might have said them; Obermann might have murmured them in his weaker moments. Let us try a piece of domestic pathos by another hand. It is the dawn of Waterloo.

"Heart-stained and shame-stricken, he stood at the bed's foot, and looked at the sleeping girl. How dared he--who was he--to pray for one so spotless! God bless her! God bless her! He came to the bedside, and looked at the hand, the little soft hand, lying asleep, and he bent over the pillow noiselessly towards the gentle pale face. Two fair arms closed tenderly round his neck as he stooped down. 'I am awake, George,' the poor child said, with a sob."

I know I am making enemies of a large proportion of the readers of this page. "Odious, sneering beast!" is the quotation which they will apply, perhaps unconscious of its origin, to a critic who is humble but would fain be honest, to a critic who thinks that Dickens has his weak places, and that his pathos is one of these. It cannot be helped. Each of us has his author who is a favourite, a friend, an idol, whose immaculate perfection he maintains against all comers. For example, things are urged against Scott; I receive them in the attitude of the deaf adder of St. Augustine, who stops one ear with his tail and presses the other against the dust. The same with Moliere: M. Scherer utters complaints against Moliere! He would not convince me, even if I were convinced. So, with regard to Dickens, the true believer will not listen, he will not be persuaded. But if any one feels a little shaken, let him try it another way. There is a character in M. Alphonse Daudet's "Froment Jeune et Rissler Aine"--a character who, people say, is taken bodily from Dickens. This is Desiree Delobelle, the deformed girl, the daughter of un rate, a pretentious imbecile actor. She is poor, stunted, laborious, toiling at a small industry; she is in love, is rejected, she tries to drown herself, she dies. The sequence of ideas is in Dickens's vein; but read the tale, and I think you will see how little the thing is overdone, how simple and unforced it is, compared with analogous persons and scenes in the work of the English master. The idiotic yell of "plagiarism" has been raised, of course, by critical cretins. M. Daudet, as I understand what he says in "Trente Ans de Paris," had not read Dickens at all, when he wrote "Froment Jeune"--certainly had not read "Our Mutual Friend." But there is something of Dickens's genius in M. Daudet's, and that something is kept much better in hand by the Frenchman, is more subordinated to the principles of taste and of truth.

On the other hand, to be done with this point, look at Delobelle, the father of Desiree, and compare him with Dickens's splendid strollers, with Mr. Vincent Crummles, and Mr. Lenville, and the rest. As in Desiree so in Delobelle, M. Daudet's picture is much the more truthful. But it is truthful with a bitter kind of truth. Now, there is nothing not genial and delightful in Crummles and Mrs. Crummles and the Infant Phenomenon. Here Dickens has got into a region unlike the region of the pathetic, into a world that welcomes charge or caricature, the world of humour. We do not know, we never meet Crummleses quite so unsophisticated as Vincent, who is "not a Prussian," who "can't think who puts these things into the papers." But we do meet stage people who come very near to this naivete of self-advertisement, and some of whom are just as dismal as Crummles is delightful.

Here, no doubt, is Dickens's forte. Here his genius is all pure gold, in his successful studies or inventions of the humorous, of character parts. One literally does not know where to begin or end in one's admiration for this creative power that peopled our fancies with such troops of dear and impossible friends. "Pickwick" comes practically first, and he never surpassed "Pickwick." He was a poor story-teller, and in "Pickwick" he had no story to tell; he merely wandered at adventure in that merrier England which was before railways were. "Pickwick" is the last of the stories of the road that begin in the wandering, aimless, adventurous romances of Greece, or in Petronius Arbiter, and that live with the life of "Gil Blas" and "Don Quixote," of "Le Roman Comique," of "Tom Jones and "Joseph Andrews." These tales are progresses along highways bristling with adventure, and among inns full of confusion, Mr. Pickwick's affair with the lady with yellow curl-papers being a mild example. Though "Tom Jones" has a plot so excellent, no plot is needed here, and no consecutive story is required. Detached experiences, vagrants of every rank that come and go, as in real life, are all the material of the artist. With such materials Dickens was exactly suited; he was at home on high-road and lane, street and field-path, in inns and yeomen's warm hospitable houses. Never a humour escaped him, and he had such a wealth of fun and high spirits in these glad days as never any other possessed before. He was not in the least a bookish man, not in any degree a scholar; but Nature taught him, and while he wrote with Nature for his teacher, with men and women for his matter, with diversion for his aim, he was unsurpassable--nay, he was unapproachable.

He could not rest here; he was, after all, a child of an age that grew sad, and earnest, and thoughtful. He saw abuses round him-- injustice, and oppression, and cruelty. He had a heart to which those things were not only abhorrent, but, as it were, maddening. He knew how great an influence he wielded, and who can blame him for using it in any cause he thought good? Very possibly he might have been a greater artist if he had been less of a man, if he had been quite disinterested, and had never written "with a purpose." That is common, and even rather obsolete critical talk. But when we remember that Fielding, too, very often wrote "with a purpose," and that purpose the protection of the poor and unfriended; and when we remember what an artist Fielding was, I do not see how we can blame Dickens. Occasionally he made his art and his purpose blend so happily that his work was all the better for his benevolent intentions. We owe Mr. Squeers, Mrs. Squeers, Fanny Squeers, Wackford and all, to Dickens's indignation against the nefarious school pirates of his time. If he is less successful in attacking the Court of Chancery, and very much less successful still with the Red Tape and Circumlocution Office affairs, that may be merely because he was less in the humour, and not because he had a purpose in his mind. Every one of a man's books cannot be his masterpiece. There is nothing in literary talk so annoying as the spiteful joy with which many people declare that an author is "worked out," because his last book is less happy than some that went before. There came a time in Dickens' career when his works, to my own taste and that of many people, seemed laboured, artificial--in fact, more or less failures. These books range from "Dombey and Son," through "Little Dorrit," I dare not say to "Our Mutual Friend." One is afraid that "Edwin Drood," too, suggests the malady which Sir Walter already detected in his own "Peveril of the Peak." The intense strain on the faculties of Dickens--as author, editor, reader, and man of the world--could not but tell on him; and years must tell. "Philip" is not worthy of the author of "Esmond," nor "Daniel Deronda" of the author of "Silas Marner." At that time--the time of the Dorrits and Dombeys--Blackwood's Magazine published a "Remonstrance with Boz"; nor was it quite superfluous. But Dickens had abundance of talent still to display--above all in "Great Expectations" and "A Tale of Two Cities." The former is, after "Pickwick," "Copperfield," "Martin Chuzzlewit," and "Nicholas Nickleby"--after the classics, in fact--the most delightful of Dickens's books. The story is embroiled, no doubt. What are we to think of Estelle? Has the minx any purpose? Is she a kind of Ethel Newcome of odd life? It is not easy to say; still, for a story of Dickens's the plot is comparatively clear and intelligible. For a study of a child's life, of the nature Dickens drew best--the river and the marshes--and for plenty of honest explosive fun, there is no later book of Dickens's like "Great Expectations." Miss Havisham, too, in her mouldy bridal splendour, is really impressive; not like Ralph Nickleby and Monk in "Oliver Twist"--a book of which the plot remains to me a mystery. {4} Pip and Pumblechook and Mr. Wopsle and Jo are all immortal, and cause laughter inextinguishable. The rarity of this book, by the way, in its first edition--the usual library three volumes--is rather difficult to explain. One very seldom sees it come into the market, and then it is highly priced.

I have mentioned more than once the obscurity of Dickens's plots. This difficulty may be accounted for in a very flattering manner. Where do we lose ourselves? Not in the bare high-road, but among lanes, between hedges hung with roses, blackberries, morning glories, where all about us is so full of pleasure that our attention is distracted and we miss our way. Now, in Dickens--in "Oliver Twist," in "Martin Chuzzlewit," in "Nicholas Nickleby"-- there is, as in the lanes, so much to divert and beguile, that we cease to care very much where the road leads--a road so full of happy marvels. The dark, plotting villains--like the tramp who frightened Sir Walter Scott so terribly, as he came from Miss Baillie's at Hampstead--peer out from behind the hedges now and then. But we are too much amused by the light hearts that go all the way, by the Dodger and Crummles and Mrs. Gamp, to care much for what Ralph, and Monk, and Jonas Chuzzlewit are plotting. It may not be that the plot is so confused, but that we are too much diverted to care for the plot, for the incredible machinations of Uriah Heap, to choose another example. Mr. Micawber cleared these up; but it is Mr. Micawber that hinders us from heeding them.

This, at least, is a not unfriendly explanation. Yet I cannot but believe that, though Dickens took great pains with his plots, he was not a great plotter. He was not, any more than Thackeray, a story- teller first and foremost. We can hold in our minds every thread of Mr. Wilkie Collins' web, or of M. Fortune du Boisgobey's, or of M. Gaboriau's--all great weavers of intrigues. But Dickens goes about darkening his intrigue, giving it an extra knot, an extra twist, hinting here, ominously laughing there, till we get mystified and bored, and give ourselves up to the fun of the humours, indifferent to the destinies of villains and victims. Look at "Edwin Drood." A constant war about the plot rages in the magazines. I believe, for one, that Edwin Drood was resuscitated; but it gives me no pleasure. He was too uninteresting. Dickens's hints, nods, mutterings, forebodings, do not at all impress one like that deepening and darkening of the awful omens in "The Bride of Lammermoor." Here Scott--unconsciously, no doubt--used the very manner of Homer in the Odyssey, and nowhere was his genius more Homeric. That was romance.

The "Tale of Two Cities" is a great test of the faith--that is in Dickensites. Of all his works it is the favourite with the wrong sort! Ladies prefer it. Many people can read it who cannot otherwise read Dickens at all. This in itself proves that it is not a good example of Dickens, that it is not central, that it is an outlying province which he conquered. It is not a favourite of mine. The humour of the humorous characters rings false--for example, the fun of the resurrection-man with the wife who "flops." But Sidney Carton has drawn many tears down cheeks not accustomed to what Mr. B. in "Pamela" calls "pearly fugitives."

It sometimes strikes one that certain weaknesses in our great novelists, in Thackeray as well as Dickens, were caused by their method of publication. The green and yellow leaves flourished on the trees for two whole years. Who (except Alexandre the Great) could write so much, and yet all good? Do we not all feel that "David Copperfield" should have been compressed? As to "Pendennis," Mr. Thackeray's bad health when he wrote it might well cause a certain languor in the later pages. Moreover, he frankly did not care for the story, and bluffly says, in the preface, that he respited Colonel Altamont almost at the foot of the gallows. Dickens took himself more in earnest, and, having so many pages to fill, conscientiously made Uriah Heap wind and wriggle through them all.

To try to see blots in the sun, and to pick holes in Dickens, seems ungrateful, and is indeed an ungrateful task; to no mortal man have more people owed mirth, pleasure, forgetfulness of care, knowledge of life in strange places. There never was such another as Charles Dickens, nor shall we see his like sooner than the like of Shakespeare. And he owed all to native genius and hard work; he owed almost nothing to literature, and that little we regret. He was influenced by Carlyle, he adopted his method of nicknames, and of hammering with wearisome iteration on some peculiarity--for example, on Carker's teeth, and the patriarch's white hair. By the way, how incredible is all the Carker episode in "Dombey"! Surely Dickens can never have intended Edith, from the first, to behave as she did! People may have influenced him, as they influenced Scott about "St. Ronan's Well." It has been said that, save for Carlyle, Dickens was in letters a self-taught artist, that he was no man's pupil, and borrowed from none. No doubt this makes him less acceptable to the literary class than a man of letters, like Thackeray--than a man in whose treasure chamber of memory all the wealth of the Middle Ages was stored, like Scott. But the native naked genius of Dickens,--his heart, his mirth, his observation, his delightful high spirits, his intrepid loathing of wrong, his chivalrous desire to right it,--these things will make him for ever, we hope and believe, the darling of the English people.


{4} Mr. Henley has lately, as a loyal Dickensite, been defending the plots of Dickens, and his tragedy. Pro captu lectoris; if the reader likes them, then they are good for the reader: "good absolute, not for me though," perhaps. The plot of "Martin Chuzzlewit" may be good, but the conduct of old Martin would strike me as improbable if I met it in the "Arabian Nights." That the creator of Pecksniff should have taken his misdeeds seriously, as if Mr. Pecksniff had been a Tartuffe, not a delight, seems curious.


Andrew Lang

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