Page:EB1911 - Volume 08.djvu/198

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181
DICKENS

contemporaries he was not so much a man as an institution, at the very mention of whose name faces were puckered with grins or wreathed in smiles. To many his work was a revelation, the revelation of a new world and one far better than their own. And his influence went further than this in the direction of revolution or revival. It gave what were then universally referred to as “the lower orders” a new sense of self-respect, a new feeling of citizenship. Like the defiance of another Luther, or the Declaration of a new Independence, it emitted a fresh ray of hope across the firmament. He did for the whole English-speaking race what Burns had done for Scotland—he gave it a new conceit of itself. He knew what a people wanted and he told what he knew. He could do this better than anybody else because his mind was theirs. He shared many of their “great useless virtues,” among which generosity ranks before justice, and sympathy before truth, even though, true to his middle-class vein, he exalts piety, chastity and honesty in a manner somewhat alien to the mind of the low-bred man. This is what makes Dickens such a demigod and his public success such a marvel, and this also is why any exclusively literary criticism of his work is bound to be so inadequate. It should also help us to make the necessary allowances for the man. Dickens, even the Dickens of legend that we know, is far from perfect. The Dickens of reality to which Time may furnish a nearer approximation is far less perfect. But when we consider the corroding influence of adulation, and the intoxication of unbridled success, we cannot but wonder at the relatively high level of moderation and self-control that Dickens almost invariably observed. Mr G. K. Chesterton remarks suggestively that Dickens had all his life the faults of the little boy who is kept up too late at night. He is overwrought by happiness to the verge of exasperation, and yet as a matter of fact he does keep on the right side of the breaking point. The specific and curative in his case was the work in which he took such anxious pride, and such unmitigated delight. He revelled in punctual and regular work; at his desk he was often in the highest spirits. Behold how he pictured himself, one day at Broadstairs, where he was writing Chuzzlewit. “In a bay-window in a one-pair sits, from nine o’clock to one, a gentleman with rather long hair and no neckcloth, who writes and grins, as if he thought he was very funny indeed. At one he disappears, presently emerges from a bathing-machine, and may be seen, a kind of salmon-colour porpoise, splashing about in the ocean. After that, he may be viewed in another bay-window on the ground-floor eating a strong lunch; and after that, walking a dozen miles or so, or lying on his back on the sand reading a book. Nobody bothers him, unless they know he is disposed to be talked to, and I am told he is very comfortable indeed. He’s as brown as a berry, and they do say he is as good as a small fortune to the innkeeper, who sells beer and cold punch.” Here is the secret of such work as that of Dickens; it is done with delight—done (in a sense) easily, done with the mechanism of mind and body in splendid order. Even so did Scott write; though more rapidly and with less conscious care: his chapter finished before the world had got up to breakfast. Later, Dickens produced novels less excellent with much more of mental strain. The effects of age could not have shown themselves so soon, but for the unfortunate loss of energy involved in his non-literary labours.

While the public were still rejoicing in the first sprightly runnings of the “new humour,” the humorist set to work desperately on the grim scenes of Oliver Twist, the story of a parish orphan, the nucleus of which had already seen the light in his Sketches. The early scenes are of a harrowing reality, despite the germ of forced pathos which the observant reader may detect in the pitiful parting between Oliver and little Dick; but what will strike every reader at once in this book is the directness and power of the English style, so nervous and unadorned: from its unmistakable clearness and vigour Dickens was to travel far as time went on. But the full effect of the old simplicity is felt in such masterpieces of description as the drive of Oliver and Sikes to Chertsey, the condemned-cell ecstasy of Fagin, or the unforgettable first encounter between Oliver and the Artful Dodger. Before November 1837 had ended, Charles Dickens entered on an engagement to write a successor to Pickwick on similar lines of publication. Oliver Twist was then in mid-career; a Life of Grimaldi and Barnaby Rudge were already covenanted for. Dickens forged ahead with the new tale of Nicholas Nickleby and was justified by the results, for its sale far surpassed even that of Pickwick. As a conception it is one of his weakest. An unmistakably 18th-century character pervades it. Some of the vignettes are among the most piquant and besetting ever written. Large parts of it are totally unobserved conventional melodrama; but the Portsmouth Theatre and Dotheboys Hall and Mrs Nickleby (based to some extent, it is thought, upon Miss Bates in Emma, but also upon the author’s Mamma) live for ever as Dickens conceived them in the pages of Nicholas Nickleby.

Having got rid of Nicholas Nickleby and resigned his editorship of Bentley’s Miscellany, in which Oliver Twist originally appeared, Dickens conceived the idea of a weekly periodical to be issued as Master Humphrey’s Clock, to comprise short stories, essays and miscellaneous papers, after the model of Addison’s Spectator. To make the weekly numbers “go,” he introduced Mr Pickwick, Sam Weller and his father in friendly intercourse. But the public requisitioned “a story,” and in No. 4 he had to brace himself up to give them one. Thus was commenced The Old Curiosity Shop, which was continued with slight interruptions, and followed by Barnaby Rudge. For the first time we find Dickens obsessed by a highly complicated plot. The tonality achieved in The Old Curiosity Shop surpassed anything he had attempted in this difficult vein, while the rich humour of Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness, and the vivid portraiture of the wandering Bohemians, attain the very highest level of Dickensian drollery; but in the lamentable tale of Little Nell (though Landor and Jeffrey thought the character-drawing of this infant comparable with that of Cordelia), it is generally admitted that he committed an indecent assault upon the emotions by exhibiting a veritable monster of piety and long-suffering in a child of tender years. In Barnaby Rudge he was manifestly affected by the influence of Scott, whose achievements he always regarded with a touching veneration. The plot, again, is of the utmost complexity, and Edgar Allan Poe (who predicted the conclusion) must be one of the few persons who ever really mastered it. But few of Dickens’s books are written in a more admirable style.

Master Humphrey’s Clock concluded, Dickens started in 1842 on his first visit to America—an episode hitherto without parallel in English literary history, for he was received everywhere with popular acclamation as the representative of a grand triumph of the English language and imagination, without regard to distinctions of nationality. He offended the American public grievously by a few words of frank description and a few quotations of the advertisement columns of American papers illustrating the essential barbarity of the old slave system (American Notes). Dickens was soon pining for home—no English writer is more essentially and insularly English in inspiration and aspiration than he is. He still brooded over the perverseness of America on the copyright question, and in his next book he took the opportunity of uttering a few of his impressions about the objectionable sides of American democracy, the result being that “all Yankee-doodle-dom blazed up like one universal soda bottle,” as Carlyle said. Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844) is important as closing his great character period. His sève originale, as the French would say, was by this time to a considerable extent exhausted, and he had to depend more upon artistic elaboration, upon satires, upon tours de force of description, upon romantic and ingenious contrivances. But all these resources combined proved unequal to his powers as an original observer of popular types, until he reinforced himself by autobiographic reminiscence, as in David Copperfield and Great Expectations, the two great books remaining to his later career.

After these two masterpieces and the three wonderful books with which he made his début, we are inclined to rank Chuzzlewit. Nothing in Dickens is more admirably seen and presented than Todgers’s, a bit of London particular cut out with a knife. Mr