The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Dickens, Charles

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Dickens, Charles
Edition of 1920. See also Charles Dickens on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

DICKENS, Charles, English novelist: b. Landport, England, 7 Feb. 1812; d. Gad's Hill, near London, 9 June 1870. Dickens, who was christened Charles John Huffham Dickens, was the eldest son and the second child among eight of John and Elizabeth Dickens. His father was a navy-clerk in the Portsmouth dockyard at the time of the novelist's birth; thence he was transferred to London, and, when Charles was five, to Chatham. Here Dickens learned to read and got some schooling. The most important influence of this early life was his acquaintance with the great novelists of the preceding century, Fielding and Smollett, and also LeSage and Cervantes, all of whom had much effect on his own work. He also read much travel, and had a good deal of pleasure in the ‘Arabian Nights’ and the British essayists.

In 1821, the Dickens family returned to London, in straitened circumstances, and the following year the elder Dickens was confined in the Marshalsea for debt, through hard luck and misfortune rather than, as his biographers are careful to explain, any fault or misdemeanor of his own. The young Charles was put pasting labels in a blacking warehouse in Blackfriars, much as his hero, David Copperfield, toiled in the warehouse of Murdstone and Grinby, though he was not ill-used. Beginning with 1824 he got two or three years of schooling of no very profitable sort, and found some employment, first as lawyer's clerk, and later as newspaper reporter. In order better to perfect his work in this field he learned shorthand and read with some system in the British Museum. For a time, probably, he thought of becoming an actor, whose profession always had great charm for him, but this was definitely abandoned when, in 1831, bis toil was rewarded by his being made parliamentary reporter, and later, in 1834, a regular reporter on the Morning Chronicle, an important Whig newspaper. At his profession Dickens worked with great energy, but he found time also to begin the writing which led to his great popular fame.

This was a sketch entitled ‘A Dinner at Poplar Walk,’ and it was published early in 1834 in the Monthly Magazine. By the beginning of 1836, enough had been published in that paper and the Evening Chronicle to make a volume, which shortly appeared with the title, ‘Sketches by Boz,’ the nickname of his boyhood, which he used as a pseudonym for many years. The sketches were so successful that Dickens shortly found it profitable to buy back the copyright for 13 times the £150 that be had originally got for it. The same year (1836) he married Catherine Hogarth, eldest daughter of George Hogarth, the conductor of the Evening Chronicle.

The five years following the appearance of the ‘Sketches’ were marked by an enormous amount of production of varied and admirable quality and great popular success. In that year, at the request of Chapman and Hall, he began the ‘Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.’ The original idea was to have a humorous running account of a party of unlucky sportsmen, illustrated with suitable pictures. The idea, after the first few numbers, took a more serious turn in Dickens' mind, and though the humor to the end remained unfailing, the characters grew in depth and intensity and became less caricatures by the time of the close of the publication in 1837. The book was almost instantly popular, it achieved success such as few books have had, and is to-day probably the most familiar of Dickens's writings.

In February 1837, while ‘Pickwick Papers’ was still ia progress, there appeared the first instalment of Dickens' first regular novel, ‘Oliver Twist.’ Besides being a more coherent story than ‘Pickwick,’ though not, even so, a very closely knit narrative, this successor was of a type common in the author's later work; it had a purpose. Strong hints of the type are to be found in ‘Pickwick,’ as in the trial of Bardell vs. Pickwick and Mr. Pickwick's own imprisonment, in which scenes the intention is not wholly comic. In ‘Oliver Twist’ there is a deliberate representation, somewhat along the lines laid down by Fielding and Smollett, of the under side of life, and there is also an attack on the iniquity of the administration of charity schools and the poor law. The most intimate and affecting parts of the story are those dealing with the subterranean life of the young pickpockets and Nancy. Dickens' feeling for reform is even more poignant in the next novel, ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ (1838-39), where he fell upon the country schools in the person of the immortal Squeers and Dotheboys Hall. Critical opinion is in accord with regard to the infinite superiority of the portraits of the Squeers family, the actors, and the rest of those who are more or less taken from the author's own keen observation of life, to the conventional and unconvincing picture of the “high” life in the novel. In Mrs. Nickleby, as earlier in Pickwick, and later in Mrs. Gamp, Mr. Micawber, Uriah Heep sad many others, Dickens made an interesting addition to the gallery of permanent and popular portraits established by Chaucer, and added to by Shakespeare, Fielding, Sheridan and others.

After a false start in ‘Master Humphrey's Clock,’ there emerged ‘Old Curiosity Shop’ (1840), one of the author's most idyllic and pathetic books, published like all his earlier works, serially. He then essayed a historical novel, and in ‘Barnaby Rudge’ (1841) laid his scene at the time of the Gordon Riots, in the preceding century. It is a novel of pretty elaborate plot and uneven dramatic power and historical sense. As usual, in Dickens's work, the best parts deal with genre types and comedy characters rather than with conventional villainy or sentiment. During this period Dickens had not only written his stories but had written several plays, of which two, ‘The Strange Gentleman,’ a farce (1836), and ‘The Village Coquette,’ an operetta (1836), were successful, and had essayed the founding and editing of the weekly magazine in which ‘Old Curiosity Shop’ appeared.

Early in 1842, Dickens and his wife went to America, where he was warmly received and where his popularity was quite as great as in England. The result of the journey is to be found in the ‘American Notes’ published late in 1842, and, to a certain degree, — in those parts that satirize American life, — in the novel, ‘Martin Chuzzlewit,’ of which the first instalment appeared on the first day of 1843. This novel, in which Dickens in many respects, as in the immortal Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp, reached the high-water mark of his comic and satiric power, ran for 20 monthly numbers. It was immediately followed by the first of his “Christmas Books,” which appeared each year from 1843 to 1846 and again in 1848. For about a year, 1844-45, with one return to London, he was with his family in Italy, of which sojourn ‘Pictures from Italy’ contains the record.

A short connection with the newly-founded radical journal The Daily News, early in 1846, was followed by another journey to the Continent. On this trip he began ‘Dombey and Son,’ the first number of which appeared in October 1846. Herein Dickens for the first time on an elaborate scale attempted a statement of a moral and spiritual, rather than a political and philanthropic, problem. In the misfortunes of Mr. Dombey he preached from the text that “Pride goeth before destruction.” It is on the ground of insufficient reality that the major characters of the book have often been criticised, but there is little dissent from the view that the minor characters are done with much of Dickens's characteristic power, or that the book was one of his great popular successes.

In 1847, Dickens began a series of intellectual diversions in the form of an organized amateur theatrical company, which included many well-known men of letters of the time — R. H. Horne, Mark Lemon, Mrs, Cowden Clarke, Wilkie Collins and others — and which gave successful amateur performances in various places in England. Performances of Jonson's ‘Every Man in His Humor’ were given in Manchester and Liverpool, in July, with great success, and the following year this play alternated with ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ in London and five large towns of the kingdom. Many of the performances were for the benefit of indigent actors and men of letters, and a performance in 1851 of ‘Not So Bad as We Seem,’ written for the occasion by Bulwer Lytton, was acted before the queen for the benefit of the Guild of Literature and Art. During 1852, also, the company gave many representations in various parts of the country. Throughout the five years of its existence Dickens was manager of the company.

Meanwhile (May 1849-November 1850), what is commonly regarded as Dickens's masterpiece of narrative fiction, ‘David Copperfield,’ appeared. Dickens himself thought more highly of the novel than of any of tne others, and looked upon it with much affection. The reason for both the popular and the author's judgment probably lies in the autobiographical character of the book. That is to say, Dickens here speaks more profoundly from his own experience, tells with more closeness and reality the tale of his early days, and introduces a larger number of those inimitable characters, which, however comic and retouched, are founded on his own observation of actual life. The humorous passages, the idyllic and the pathetic passages are unexcelled by any of his other work. On the other hand, though there are many traces and delineations of the conventional villain type and some soundings of the sentimental motif, these are not so marked as in such earlier novels as, for example, ‘Nicholas Nickleby.’ In short, Dickens, in ‘David Copperfield,’ followed more closely than in any of his preceding novels the groundwork of his own knowledge and experience at the same time losing no whit of his quality and humor. Criticism and popular verdict alike assign to this novel a very high place in English fiction.

Before the completion of ‘David Copperfield,’ Dickens had started (30 March 1850) a monthly periodical, Household Words. The design was to furnish an inexpensive and at the same time cheery and wholesome periodical for popular consumption. Its idea was to be pleasant and imaginative rather than sensational and literal. To this Dickens himself contributed the novel ‘Hard Times’ (1854), and some of Mrs. Gaskell's novels also saw the light through its pages. Coming to an end in 1859, it was followed at once by the similar periodical, All the Year Round.

Three novels which followed are of somewhat different types from ‘David Copperfield’ and by themselves. ‘Bleak House’ (March 1852-September 1853) was more of an attempt at intricate plot construction than had been tried in the earlier novels that depicted the fortunes of a hero, and it attacked vigorously the law's delays by making the Court of Chancery, as it were, the centre of interest of the story. Interrupting the course of his novels by ‘A Child's History of England’ (1353), he produced after that ‘Hard Times,’ one of his most didactic works. The moral was a general one; we should cultivate the virtues of charity and fondness for the poor that we have always with us against the evil days wherein hardness of heart will be our bane. More satirical and specific in its application was the attack on the “Circumlocution Office” which forms the burden of ‘Little Dorrit’ (December 1855-June 1857). Its animus was a hatred of war and a wish to satirize the war office because of several breakdowns in the machinery of the Crimean War, then just ended. Of these novels, ‘Bleak House’ attained an extraordinary amount of popularity, even surpassing ‘David Copperfield’ in that respect.

On 20 April 1858, Dickens began on the large scale, that he carried out into the year of his death, the famous series of readings from his works. As early as 1853 he had given occasional public readings, but, until 1858, never in an extensive and systematic way. At the outset he read with the text before him, but he soon memorized the scenes, worked up the “business,” and cultivated a dramatic action which so grew in intensity, that toward the close of his life, his reading became almost acting. The success of this almost wholly new departure in the career of an author was startling. His first course consisted of 81 readings in three and a half months, and this was followed by shorter courses. His most successful and arduous courses were a series of 80 readings in America, in 1857-58, which brought him nearly £20,000, and a farewell course of 100 readings in England the following winter, which were worth £8,000, besides expenses and percentages. The motive that induced Dickens to give these courses was a growing restlessness, the need of activity, and a craving for applause, rather than any pecuniary necessity. As it was, they were a very great tax on his strength and they undoubtedly shortened his life.

In 1859 he gave comparatively few readings, and the following year none. He was then chiefly occupied with the new All the Year Round, in which appeared his second and last historical novel, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (April-November 1859). This story of the French Revolution was written with more deliberation, care for construction and succinctness than his previous works, and, in spite of its comparative lack of humor and spontaneity, Dickens thought highly of it, though he went back in his succeeding novels to his more free and easy way. A series of sketches, ‘The Uncommercial Traveller,’ was begun in 1859, shortly after he had taken up his abode at Gad's Hill Place in Kent, and this change, with its incident trips to London, furnished him material for his work. The effect of the change also appeared in his next novel, ‘Great Expectations’ (in All the Year Round in 1860), which reverted in many respects to the earlier style of ‘David Copperfield.’ More reading then interrupted the course of his novel writing, and it was not until 1863 that he set to work on his last complete story, ‘Our Mutual Friend’ (May 1864-November 1865). Many of the passages of this novel, have been greatly admired, but opinion is fairly uniform that it, as a whole, lacks the movement and glow of Dickens' earlier novels and shows signs of the strain under which he was laboring.

A short last course of lectures was delivered between January and March 1870. Then appeared the first instalment of ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood.’ The afternoon of 8 June he finished the sixth number of the story. The next day he was suddenly stricken and died at about six in the evening. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

With the possible exception of Scott, no English novelist has been, and probably still is, so widely popular as Dickens, both in his own country and abroad. His great contemporary Thackeray was not so extensively read in his lifetime, and none of his successors who, like George Eliot, may not unreasonably be regarded as approximating his high place, have been so much beloved. Dickens' manner of expression has had a wide effect on popular style, and many of his sentiments, as well as a whole galaxy of characters, have become common property. Foreign writers, like Daudet, have to some degree imitated his style. Furthermore, few writers have had so long continued a vogue. Single novels, like ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin,’ may have surpassed any of Dickens' works, and several contemporaiy novels have had marvellous success, but with the exception of Scott, there is in English fiction no instance of such widespread and lasting popularity for so long a succession of novels. Of late years there has been some critical disparagement of Dickens as an artist, but it is doubtful if this has in any way affected his popular vogue or lessened the solid esteem that people feel for him.

The reasons for his great success and the just estimation in which he is held are usually accounted to be the marvelous vitality and resourcefulness of his characterizations, the copious and rapid, though lengthy, movement of his narrative, and the unfailing spring of his humor. His power of seeing effects in situations and humors in character and of depicting them with a few salient strokes have probably been the cause of his adding more figures to the common store of characters than any writer since Shakespeare. Most of these figures, it has frequently been observed, are taken from the lower strata of society; with the so-called higher classes he is uniformly less successful, and in some instances wholly unconvincing. His natural habit of mind and his training as a reporter early gave him the faculty of taking in a large number of details at a glance and his boyhood experience and his active life in London had furnished him with an abundance of material. The subtler effects of a more refined or intellectual society were foreign to his early impressions and were beyond the scope of his swift, definite delineation. In this respect he would fall short of Fielding, Scott and Thackeray as an analyst of various human life, but outside of these three writers it is doubtful if any English novelists have so great a range of characterization. Certainly no English novelist has depicted a greater number of characters. His performance remains, in spite of attempts to disparage his genius, one of the most vigorous and lasting in English literature. See David Copperfield; Great Expectations; Oliver Twist; Pickwick Papers; A Tale of Two Cities.

Bibliography. — Standard editions of Dickens are numerous. One of the most recent is Kitton, ‘The Autograph Edition of Complete Works’ (56 vols.; New York 1902). The chief life is that by his friend John Forster, ‘The Life of Charles Dickens’ (London 1872-74). Among other books may be mentioned: Chesterton, ‘Life of Charles Dickens’ (New York 1906); Fields, ‘Yesterdays with Authors’ (Boston 1872); Fitzgerald, ‘The History of Pickwick’ (London 1891); id., ‘Life of Charles Dickens as Revealed in his Writings’ (ib. 1905); Fitzgerald, P. H., ‘Memoirs of Charles Dickens’ (London and New York 1914); Gissing, ‘Charles Dickens: A Critical Study’ (New York 1898); Hogarth and Dickens, ‘Letters of Charles Dickens’ (London 1882); Hughes, ‘Dickens as an Educator’ (New York 1900); Kent, ‘Charles Dickens as an Actor’ (London 1872); Kitton, ‘The Novels of Charles Dickens’ (ib. 1897); Lehmann, ‘Charles Dickens as an Editor’ (New York 1912); Marzials, ‘Life of Charles Dickens’ (1887); Pemberton, ‘Charles Dickens and the Stage’ (London 1888); Pugh, ‘The Charles Dickens Originals’ (ib. 1912); Thomson, ‘Dickens Bibliography’ (Warwick 1904). Consult also Cross, W. L., ‘The Development of the English Novel’ (New York 1899).

William T. Brewster,
Professor of English in Columbia University.