Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 15.djvu/28

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Dickens
Dickens
22

youth, applied to Dickens for the post of illustrator; but Dickens finally chose Hablot Knight Browne [q. v.], who illustrated the fourth and all the subsequent numbers, as well as many of the later novels.

The success of ‘Pickwick’ soon became extraordinary. The binder prepared four hundred copies of the first number, and forty thousand of the fifteenth. The marked success began with the appearance of Sam Weller in the fifth number. Sam Weller is in fact the incarnation of the qualities to which the success was due. Educated like his creator in the streets of London, he is the ideal cockney. His exuberant animal spirits, humorous shrewdness, and kindliness under a mask of broad farce, made him the favourite of all cockneys in and out of London, and took the gravest readers by storm. All that Dickens had learnt in his rough initiation into life, with a power of observation unequalled in its way, was poured out with boundless vivacity and prodigality of invention. The book, beginning as farce, became admirable comedy, and has caused more hearty and harmless laughter than any book in the Language. If Dickens’s later works surpassed ‘Pickwick’ in some ways, ‘Pickwick’ shows, in their highest development, the qualities in which he most surpassed other writers. Sam Weller’s peculiar trick of speech has been traced with probability to Samuel Vale, a popular comic actor, who in 1822 performed Simon Spatterdash in a farce called ‘The Boarding House,’ and gave currency to a similar phraseology (Notes and Queries, 6th ser. V. 388; and Origin of Sam Weller, with a facsimile of a contemporary piratical imitation of ‘Pickwick,’ 1883).

Dickens was now a prize for which publishers might contend. In the next few years he undertook a great deal of work, with confidence natural to a buoyant temperament, encouraged by unprecedented success, and achieved new triumphs without permitting himself to fall into slovenly composition. Each new book was at least as carefully written as its predecessor. ‘Pickwick’ appeared from April 1836 to November 1837.

‘Oliver Twist’ began, while ‘Pickwick’ was still proceeding, in January 1837, and ran till March 1839. ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ overlapped ‘Oliver Twist,’ beginning in April 1838 and ending in October 1839. In February 1838 Dickens went to Yorkshire to look at the schools caricatured in Dotheboys Hall (for the original of Dotheboys Hall see Notes and Queries, 4th ser. vi. 245, and 5th ser. iii. 325). A short pause followed. Dickens had thought of a series of papers, more or less on the model of the old ‘Spectator,’ in which there was to be a club, including the Wellers, varied essays satirical and descriptive, and occasional stories. The essays were to appear weekly, and for the whole he finally selected the title ‘Master Humphrey’s Clock.’ The plan was carried out with modifications. It appeared at once that the stories were the popular part of the series; the club and the intercalated essay disappeared, and ‘Master Humphrey’s Clock’ resolved itself into the two stories, ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ and ‘Barnaby Rudge.’ During 1840 and 1841 ‘Oliver Twist’ seems to have been at first less popular than its fellow-stories; but ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ surpassed even ‘Pickwick.’ Sydney Smith on reading it confessed that Dickens had ‘conquered him,’ though he had ‘stood out as long as he could.’ ‘Master Humphrey’s Clock’ began with a sale of seventy thousand copies, which declined when there was no indication of a continuous story, but afterwards revived. The ‘Old Curiosity Shop,’ as republished, made an extraordinary success. ‘Barnaby Rudge’ has apparently never been equally popular.

The exuberant animal spirits, and the amazing fertility in creating comic types, which made the fortune of ‘Pickwick,’ were now combined with a more continuous story. The ridicule of ‘Bumbledom’ in ‘Oliver Twist,’ and of Yorkshire schools in ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’ showed the power of satirical portraiture already displayed in the prison scenes of ‘Pickwick.’ The humorist is not yet lost in the satirist, and the extravagance of the caricature is justified by its irresistible fun. Dickens was also showing the command of the pathetic which fascinated the ordinary reader. The critic is apt to complain that Dickens kills his children as if he liked it and makes his victims attitudinise before the footlights. Yet Landor, a severe critic, thought ‘Little Nell’ equal to any character in fiction, and Jeffrey, the despiser of sentimentalising declared that there had been nothing so good since Cordelia (Forster, i. 177, 226). Dickens had written with sincere feeling, and with thoughts of Mary Hogarth, his wife’s sister, whose death in 1837 had profoundly affected him, and forced him to suspend the publication of ‘Pickwick’ (no number was published in June 1837). When we take into account the command of the horrible shown by the murder in ‘Oliver Twist,’ and the unvarying vivacity and brilliance of style, the secret of Dickens’s hold upon his reader is tolerably clear. ‘Barnaby Rudge’ is remarkable as an attempt at the historical novel, repeated only in his ‘Tale of Two Cities;’ but Dickens takes little pains to give genuine local colour, and appears to have regarded the