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Title: Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens
Author: Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith), 1874-1936
Language: English
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  [Illustration: Charles Dickens, Circa 1840
  From an oil painting by R. J. Lane.]







_All rights reserved_


  CHAPTER                             PAGE

     I. INTRODUCTION                   vii
    II. SKETCHES BY BOZ                  1
   III. PICKWICK PAPERS                 13
    IV. NICHOLAS NICKLEBY               26
     V. OLIVER TWIST                    38
    VI. OLD CURIOSITY SHOP              50
   VII. BARNABY RUDGE                   65
  VIII. AMERICAN NOTES                  76
    IX. PICTURES FROM ITALY             87
     X. MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT               90
    XI. CHRISTMAS BOOKS                103
   XII. DOMBEY AND SON                 114
  XIII. DAVID COPPERFIELD              129
   XIV. CHRISTMAS STORIES              140
    XV. BLEAK HOUSE                    148
   XVII. HARD TIMES                    169
  XVIII. LITTLE DORRIT                 178
    XIX. A TALE OF TWO CITIES          188
     XX. GREAT EXPECTATIONS            197
    XXI. OUR MUTUAL FRIEND             207
   XXII. EDWIN DROOD                   218
   XXIV. REPRINTED PIECES              239



  CHARLES DICKENS, CIRCA 1840                             _Frontispiece_
    From an oil painting by R. J. Lane.

  CHARLES DICKENS, 1842                                               76
    From a bust by H. Dexter, executed during Dickens's
    first visit to America.

  CHARLES DICKENS, 1844                                               90
    From a miniature by Margaret Gillies.

  CHARLES DICKENS, 1849                                              130
    From a daguerreotype by Mayall.

  CHARLES DICKENS, 1858                                              184
    From a black and white drawing by Baughiet.

  CHARLES DICKENS, 1859                                              188
    From an oil painting by W. P. Frith, R.A.

  CHARLES DICKENS, CIRCA 1860                                        198
    Photograph by J. & C. Watkins.

  CHARLES DICKENS, 1868                                              218
    From a photograph by Gurney.


These papers were originally published as prefaces to the separate books
of Dickens in one of the most extensive of those cheap libraries of the
classics which are one of the real improvements of recent times. Thus
they were harmless, being diluted by, or rather drowned in Dickens. My
scrap of theory was a mere dry biscuit to be taken with the grand tawny
port of great English comedy; and by most people it was not taken at
all--like the biscuit. Nevertheless the essays were not in intention so
aimless as they appear in fact. I had a general notion of what needed
saying about Dickens to the new generation, though probably I did not
say it. I will make another attempt to do so in this prologue, and,
possibly fail again.

There was a painful moment (somewhere about the eighties) when we
watched anxiously to see whether Dickens was fading from the modern
world. We have watched a little longer, and with great relief we begin
to realise that it is the modern world that is fading. All that universe
of ranks and respectabilities in comparison with which Dickens was
called a caricaturist, all that Victorian universe in which he seemed
vulgar--all that is itself breaking up like a cloudland. And only the
caricatures of Dickens remain like things carved in stone. This, of
course, is an old story in the case of a man reproached with any excess
of the poetic. Again and again when the man of visions was pinned by the
sly dog who knows the world,

    "The man recovered of the bite,
    The dog it was that died."

To call Thackeray a cynic, which means a sly dog, was indeed absurd; but
it is fair to say that in comparison with Dickens he felt himself a man
of the world. Nevertheless, that world of which he was a man is coming
to an end before our eyes; its aristocracy has grown corrupt, its middle
class insecure, and things that he never thought of are walking about
the drawing-rooms of both. Thackeray has described for ever the
Anglo-Indian Colonel; but what on earth would he have done with an
Australian Colonel? What can it matter whether Dickens's clerks talked
cockney now that half the duchesses talk American? What would Thackeray
have made of an age in which a man in the position of Lord Kew may
actually be the born brother of Mr. Moss of Wardour Street? Nor does
this apply merely to Thackeray, but to all those Victorians who prided
themselves on the realism or sobriety of their descriptions; it applies
to Anthony Trollope and, as much as any one, to George Eliot. For we
have not only survived that present which Thackeray described: we have
even survived that future to which George Eliot looked forward. It is no
longer adequate to say that Dickens did not understand that old world of
gentility, of parliamentary politeness and the balance of the
constitution. That world is rapidly ceasing to understand itself. It is
vain to repeat the complaint of the old Quarterly Reviewers, that
Dickens had not enjoyed a university education. What would the old
Quarterly Reviewers themselves have thought of the Rhodes Scholarships?
It is useless to repeat the old tag that Dickens could not describe a
gentleman. A gentleman in our time has become something quite

Now the interesting fact is this: That Dickens, whom so many considered
to be at the best a vulgar enthusiast, saw the coming change in our
society much more soberly and scientifically than did his better
educated and more pretentious contemporaries. I give but one example out
of many. Thackeray was a good Victorian radical, who seems to have gone
to his grave quite contented with the early Victorian radical
theory--the theory which Macaulay preached with unparalleled luminosity
and completeness; the theory that true progress goes on so steadily
through human history, that while reaction is indefensible, revolution
is unnecessary. Thackeray seems to have been quite content to think that
the world would grow more and more liberal in the limited sense; that
Free Trade would get freer; that ballot boxes would grow more and more
secret; that at last (as some satirist of Liberalism puts it) every man
would have two votes instead of one. There is no trace in Thackeray of
the slightest consciousness that progress could ever change its
direction. There is in Dickens. The whole of _Hard Times_ is the
expression of just such a realisation. It is not true to say that
Dickens was a Socialist, but it is not absurd to say so. And it would
be simply absurd to say it of any of the great Individualist novelists
of the Victorian time. Dickens saw far enough ahead to know that the
time was coming when the people would be imploring the State to save
them from mere freedom, as from some frightful foreign oppressor. He
felt the society changing; and Thackeray never did.

As talking about Socialism and Individualism is one of the greatest
bores ever endured among men, I will take another instance to illustrate
my meaning, even though the instance be a queer and even a delicate one.
Even if the reader does not agree with my deduction, I ask his attention
to the fact itself, which I think a curiosity of literature. In the last
important work of Dickens, that excellent book _Our Mutual Friend_,
there is an odd thing about which I cannot make up my mind; I do not
know whether it is unconscious observation or fiendish irony. But it is
this. In _Our Mutual Friend_ is an old patriarch named Aaron, who is a
saintly Jew made to do the dirty work of an abominable Christian usurer.
In an artistic sense I think the patriarch Aaron as much of a humbug as
the patriarch Casby. In a moral sense there is no doubt at all that
Dickens introduced the Jew with a philanthropic idea of doing justice to
Judaism, which he was told he had affronted by the great gargoyle of
Fagin. If this was his motive, it was morally a most worthy one. But it
is certainly unfortunate for the Hebrew cause that the bad Jew should be
so very much more convincing than the good one. Old Aaron is not an
exaggeration of Jewish virtues; he is simply not Jewish, because he is
not human. There is nothing about him that in any way suggests the
nobler sort of Jew, such a man as Spinoza or Mr. Zangwill. He is simply
a public apology, and like most public apologies, he is very stiff and
not very convincing.

So far so good. Now we come to the funny part. To describe the high
visionary and mystic Jew like Spinoza or Zangwill is a great and
delicate task in which even Dickens might have failed. But most of us
know something of the make and manners of the low Jew, who is generally
the successful one. Most of us know the Jew who calls himself De
Valancourt. Now to any one who knows a low Jew by sight or hearing, the
story called _Our Mutual Friend_ is literally full of Jews. Like all
Dickens's best characters they are vivid; we know them. And we know them
to be Hebrew. Mr. Veneering, the Man from Nowhere, dark, sphinx-like,
smiling, with black curling hair, and a taste in florid vulgar
furniture--of what stock was he? Mr. Lammle, with "too much nose in his
face, too much ginger in his whiskers, too much sparkle in his studs and
manners"--of what blood was he? Mr. Lammle's friends, coarse and
thick-lipped, with fingers so covered with rings that they could hardly
hold their gold pencils--do they remind us of anybody? Mr. Fledgeby,
with his little ugly eyes and social flashiness and craven bodily
servility--might not some fanatic like M. Drumont make interesting
conjectures about him? The particular types that people hate in Jewry,
the types that are the shame of all good Jews, absolutely run riot in
this book, which is supposed to contain an apology to them. It looks at
first sight as if Dickens's apology were one hideous sneer. It looks as
if he put in one good Jew whom nobody could believe in, and then
balanced him with ten bad Jews whom nobody could fail to recognise. It
seems as if he had avenged himself for the doubt about Fagin by
introducing five or six Fagins--triumphant Fagins, fashionable Fagins,
Fagins who had changed their names. The impeccable old Aaron stands up
in the middle of this ironic carnival with a peculiar solemnity and
silliness. He looks like one particularly stupid Englishman pretending
to be a Jew, amidst all that crowd of clever Jews who are pretending to
be Englishmen.

But this notion of a sneer is not admissible. Dickens was far too frank
and generous a writer to employ such an elaborate plot of silence. His
satire was always intended to attack, never to entrap; moreover, he was
far too vain a man not to wish the crowd to see all his jokes. Vanity is
more divine than pride, because it is more democratic than pride. Third,
and most important, Dickens was a good Liberal, and would have been
horrified at the notion of making so venomous a vendetta against one
race or creed. Nevertheless the fact is there, as I say, if only as a
curiosity of literature. I defy any man to read through _Our Mutual
Friend_ after hearing this suggestion, and to get out of his head the
conviction that Lammle is the wrong kind of Jew. The explanation lies, I
think, in this, that Dickens was so wonderfully sensitive to that change
that has come over our society, that he noticed the type of the oriental
and cosmopolitan financier without even knowing that it was oriental or
cosmopolitan. He had, in fact, fallen a victim to a very simple fallacy
affecting this problem. Somebody said, with great wit and truth, that
treason cannot prosper, because when it prospers it cannot be called
treason. The same argument soothed all possible Anti-Semitism in men
like Dickens. Jews cannot be sneaks and snobs, because when they are
sneaks and snobs they do not admit that they are Jews.

I have taken this case of the growth of the cosmopolitan financier,
because it is not so stale in discussion as its parallel, the growth of
Socialism. But as regards Dickens, the same criticism applies to both.
Dickens knew that Socialism was coming, though he did not know its name.
Similarly, Dickens knew that the South African millionaire was coming,
though he did not know the millionaire's name. Nobody does. His was not
a type of mind to disentangle either the abstract truths touching the
Socialist, nor the highly personal truth about the millionaire. He was a
man of impressions; he has never been equalled in the art of conveying
what a man looks like at first sight--and he simply felt the two things
as atmospheric facts. He felt that the mercantile power was oppressive,
past all bearing by Christian men; and he felt that this power was no
longer wholly in the hands even of heavy English merchants like Podsnap.
It was largely in the hands of a feverish and unfamiliar type, like
Lammle and Veneering. The fact that he felt these things is almost more
impressive because he did not understand them.

Now for this reason Dickens must definitely be considered in the light
of the changes which his soul foresaw. Thackeray has become classical;
but Dickens has done more: he has remained modern. The grand
retrospective spirit of Thackeray is by its nature attached to places
and times; he belongs to Queen Victoria as much as Addison belongs to
Queen Anne, and it is not only Queen Anne who is dead. But Dickens, in a
dark prophetic kind of way, belongs to the developments. He belongs to
the times since his death when Hard Times grew harder, and when
Veneering became not only a Member of Parliament, but a Cabinet
Minister; the times when the very soul and spirit of Fledgeby carried
war into Africa. Dickens can be criticised as a contemporary of Bernard
Shaw or Anatole France or C. F. G. Masterman. In talking of him one need
no longer talk merely of the Manchester School or Puseyism or the Charge
of the Light Brigade; his name comes to the tongue when we are talking
of Christian Socialists or Mr. Roosevelt or County Council Steam Boats
or Guilds of Play. He can be considered under new lights, some larger
and some meaner than his own; and it is a very rough effort so to
consider him which is the excuse of these pages. Of the essays in this
book I desire to say as little as possible; I will discuss any other
subject in preference with a readiness which reaches to avidity. But I
may very curtly apply the explanation used above to the cases of two or
three of them. Thus in the article on _David Copperfield_ I have done
far less than justice to that fine book considered in its relation to
eternal literature; but I have dwelt at some length upon a particular
element in it which has grown enormous in England after Dickens's death.
Thus again, in introducing the _Sketches by Boz_ I have felt chiefly
that I am introducing them to a new generation insufficiently in
sympathy with such palpable and unsophisticated fun. A Board School
education, evolved since Dickens's day, has given to our people a queer
and inadequate sort of refinement, one which prevents them from enjoying
the raw jests of the _Sketches by Boz_, but leaves them easily open to
that slight but poisonous sentimentalism which I note amid all the
merits of David Copperfield. In the same way I shall speak of _Little
Dorrit_, with reference to a school of pessimistic fiction which did not
exist when it was written, of _Hard Times_ in the light of the most
modern crises of economics, and of _The Child's History of England_ in
the light of the most matured authority of history. In short, these
criticisms are an intrinsically ephemeral comment from one generation
upon work that will delight many more. Dickens was a very great man, and
there are many ways of testing and stating the fact. But one permissible
way is to say this, that he was an ignorant man, ill-read in the past,
and often confused about the present. Yet he remains great and true, and
even essentially reliable, if we suppose him to have known not only all
that went before his lifetime, but also all that was to come after.

From this vanishing of the Victorian compromise (I might say the
Victorian illusion) there begins to emerge a menacing and even monstrous
thing--we may begin again to behold the English people. If that strange
dawn ever comes, it will be the final vindication of Dickens. It will be
proved that he is hardly even a caricaturist; that he is something very
like a realist. Those comic monstrosities which the critics found
incredible will be found to be the immense majority of the citizens of
this country. We shall find that Sweedlepipe cuts our hair and
Pumblechook sells our cereals; that Sam Weller blacks our boots and
Tony Weller drives our omnibus. For the exaggerated notion of the
exaggerations of Dickens (as was admirably pointed out by my old friend
and enemy Mr. Blatchford in a _Clarion_ review) is very largely due to
our mixing with only one social class, whose conventions are very
strict, and to whose affectations we are accustomed. In cabmen, in
cobblers, in charwomen, individuality is often pushed to the edge of
insanity. But as long as the Thackerayan platform of gentility stood
firm all this was, comparatively speaking, concealed. For the English,
of all nations, have the most uniform upper class and the most varied
democracy. In France it is the peasants who are solid to uniformity; it
is the marquises who are a little mad. But in England, while good form
restrains and levels the universities and the army, the poor people are
the most motley and amusing creatures in the world, full of humorous
affections and prejudices and twists of irony. Frenchmen tend to be
alike, because they are all soldiers; Prussians because they are all
something else, probably policemen; even Americans are all something,
though it is not easy to say what it is; it goes with hawk-like eyes and
an irrational eagerness. Perhaps it is savages. But two English cabmen
will be as grotesquely different as Mr. Weller and Mr. Wegg. Nor is it
true to say that I see this variety because it is in my own people. For
I do not see the same degree of variety in my own class or in the class
above it; there is more superficial resemblance between two Kensington
doctors or two Highland dukes. No; the democracy is really composed of
Dickens characters, for the simple reason that Dickens was himself one
of the democracy.

There remains one thing to be added to this attempt to exhibit Dickens
in the growing and changing lights of our time. God forbid that any one
(especially any Dickensian) should dilute or discourage the great
efforts towards social improvement. But I wish that social reformers
would more often remember that they are imposing their rules not on dots
and numbers, but on Bob Sawyer and Tim Linkinwater, on Mrs. Lirriper and
Dr. Marigold. I wish Mr. Sidney Webb would shut his eyes until he _sees_
Sam Weller.

A great many circumstances have led to the neglect in literature of
these exuberant types which do actually exist in the ruder classes of
society. Perhaps the principal cause is that since Dickens's time the
study of the poor has ceased to be an art and become a sort of sham
science. Dickens took the poor individually: all modern writing tends to
take them collectively. It is said that the modern realist produces a
photograph rather than a picture. But this is an inadequate objection.
The real trouble with the realist is not that he produces a photograph,
but that he produces a composite photograph. It is like all composite
photographs, blurred; like all composite photographs, hideous; and like
all composite photographs, unlike anything or anybody. The new
sociological novels, which attempt to describe the abstract type of the
working-classes, sin in practice against the first canon of literature,
true when all others are subject to exception. Literature must always be
a pointing out of what is interesting in life; but these books are
duller than the life they represent. Even supposing that Dickens did
exaggerate the degree to which one man differs from another--that was at
least an exaggeration upon the side of literature; it was better than a
mere attempt to reduce what is actually vivid and unmistakable to what
is in comparison colourless or unnoticeable. Even the creditable and
necessary efforts of our time in certain matters of social reform have
discouraged the old distinctive Dickens treatment. People are so anxious
to do something for the poor man that they have a sort of subconscious
desire to think that there is only one kind of man to do it for. Thus
while the old accounts were sometimes too steep and crazy, the new
became too sweeping and flat. People write about the problem of drink,
for instance, as if it were one problem. Dickens could have told them
that there is the abyss between heaven and hell between the incongruous
excesses of Mr. Pickwick and the fatalistic soaking of Mr. Wickfield. He
could have shown that there was nothing in common between the brandy and
water of Bob Sawyer and the rum and water of Mr. Stiggins. People talk
of imprudent marriages among the poor, as if it were all one question.
Dickens could have told them that it is one thing to marry without much
money, like Stephen Blackpool, and quite another to marry without the
smallest intention of ever trying to get any, like Harold Skimpole.
People talk about husbands in the working-classes being kind or brutal
to their wives, as if that was the one permanent problem and no other
possibility need be considered. Dickens could have told them that there
was the case (the by no means uncommon case) of the husband of Mrs.
Gargery as well as of the wife of Mr. Quilp. In short, Dickens saw the
problem of the poor not as a dead and definite business, but as a living
and very complex one. In some ways he would be called much more
conservative than the modern sociologists, in some ways much more


In the time of the decline and death of Dickens, and even more strongly
after it, there arose a school of criticism which substantially
maintained that a man wrote better when he was ill. It was some such
sentiment as this that made Mr. George Gissing, that able writer, come
near to contending that _Little Dorrit_ is Dickens's best book. It was
the principle of his philosophy to maintain (I know not why) that a man
was more likely to perceive the truth when in low spirits than when in
high spirits.


The three articles on Sunday of which I speak are almost the last
expression of an articulate sort in English literature of the ancient
and existing morality of the English people. It is always asserted that
Puritanism came in with the seventeenth century and thoroughly soaked
and absorbed the English. We are now, it is constantly said, an
incurably Puritanic people. Personally, I have my doubts about this. I
shall not refuse to admit to the Puritans that they conquered and
crushed the English people; but I do not think that they ever
transformed it. My doubt is chiefly derived from three historical
facts. First, that England was never so richly and recognisably English
as in the Shakespearian age before the Puritan had appeared. Second,
that ever since he did appear there has been a long unbroken line of
brilliant and typical Englishmen who belonged to the Shakespearian and
not the Puritanic tradition; Dryden, Johnson, Wilkes, Fox, Nelson, were
hardly Puritans. And third, that the real rise of a new, cold, and
illiberal morality in these matters seems to me to have occurred in the
time of Queen Victoria, and not of Queen Elizabeth. All things
considered, it is likely that future historians will say that the
Puritans first really triumphed in the twentieth century, and that
Dickens was the last cry of Merry England.

And about these additional, miscellaneous, and even inferior works of
Dickens there is, moreover, another use and fascination which all
Dickensians will understand; which, after a manner, is not for the
profane. All who love Dickens have a strange sense that he is really
inexhaustible. It is this fantastic infinity that divides him even from
the strongest and healthiest romantic artists of a later day--from
Stevenson, for example. I have read _Treasure Island_ twenty times;
nevertheless I know it. But I do not really feel as if I knew all
_Pickwick_; I have not so much read it twenty times as read in it a
million times; and it almost seemed as if I always read something new.
We of the true faith look at each other and understand; yes, our master
was a magician. I believe the books are alive; I believe that leaves
still grow in them, as leaves grow on the trees. I believe that this
fairy library flourishes and increases like a fairy forest: but the
world is listening to us, and we will put our hand upon our mouth.


One thing at least seems certain. Dickens may or may not have been
socialist in his tendencies; one might quote on the affirmative side his
satire against Mr. Podsnap, who thought Centralisation "un-English"; one
might quote in reply the fact that he satirised quite as unmercifully
state and municipal officials of the most modern type. But there is one
condition of affairs which Dickens would certainly have detested and
denounced, and that is the condition in which we actually stand to-day.
At this moment it is vain to discuss whether socialism will be a selling
of men's liberty for bread. The men have already sold the liberty; only
they have not yet got the bread. A most incessant and exacting
interference with the poor is already in operation; they are already
ruled like slaves, only they are not fed like slaves. The children are
forcibly provided with a school; only they are not provided with a
house. Officials give the most detailed domestic directions about the
fireguard; only they do not give the fireguard. Officials bring round
the most stringent directions about the milk; only they do not bring
round the milk. The situation is perhaps the most humorous in the whole
history of oppression. We force the nigger to dig; but as a concession
to him we do not give him a spade. We compel Sambo to cook; but we
consult his dignity so far as to refuse him a fire.

This state of things at least cannot conceivably endure. We must either
give the workers more property and liberty, or we must feed them
properly as we work them properly. If we insist on sending the menu into
them, they will naturally send the bill into us. This may possibly
result (it is not my purpose here to prove that it will) in the drilling
of the English people into hordes of humanely herded serfs; and this
again may mean the fading from our consciousness of all those elves and
giants, monsters and fantastics whom we are faintly beginning to feel
and remember in the land. If this be so, the work of Dickens may be
considered as a great vision--a vision, as Swinburne said, between a
sleep and a sleep. It can be said that between the grey past of
territorial depression and the grey future of economic routine the
strange clouds lifted, and we beheld the land of the living.

Lastly, Dickens is even astonishingly right about Eugene Wrayburne. So
far from reproaching him with not understanding a gentleman, the critic
will be astonished at the accuracy with which he has really observed the
worth and the weakness of the aristocrat. He is quite right when he
suggests that such a man has intelligence enough to despise the
invitations which he has not the energy to refuse. He is quite right
when he makes Eugene (like Mr. Balfour) constantly right in argument
even when he is obviously wrong in fact. Dickens is quite right when he
describes Eugene as capable of cultivating a sort of secondary and false
industry about anything that is not profitable; or pursuing with passion
anything that is not his business. He is quite right in making Eugene
honestly appreciative of essential goodness--in other people. He is
quite right in making him really good at the graceful combination of
satire and sentiment, both perfectly sincere. He is also right in
indicating that the only cure for this intellectual condition is a
violent blow on the head.


The real achievement of the earlier part of _David Copperfield_ lies in
a certain impression of the little Copperfield living in a land of
giants. It is at once Gargantuan in its fancy and grossly vivid in its
facts; like Gulliver in the land of Brobdingnag when he describes
mountainous hands and faces filling the sky, bristles as big as hedges,
or moles as big as molehills. To him parents and guardians are not
Olympians (as in Mr. Kenneth Grahame's clever book), mysterious and
dignified, dwelling upon a cloudy hill. Rather they are all the more
visible for being large. They come all the closer because they are
colossal. Their queer features and weaknesses stand out large in a sort
of gigantic domesticity, like the hairs and freckles of a
Brobdingnagian. We feel the sombre Murdstone coming upon the house like
a tall storm striding through the sky. We watch every pucker of
Peggotty's peasant face in its moods of flinty prejudice or whimsical
hesitation. We look up and feel that Aunt Betsey in her garden gloves
was really terrible--especially her garden gloves. But one cannot avoid
the impression that as the boy grows larger these figures grow smaller,
and are not perhaps so completely satisfactory.


And there is doubtless a certain poetic unity and irony in gathering
together three or four of the crudest and most cocksure of the modern
theorists, with their shrill voices and metallic virtues, under the
fulness and the sonorous sanity of Christian bells. But the figures
satirised in _The Chimes_ cross each other's path and spoil each other
in some degree. The main purpose of the book was a protest against that
impudent and hard-hearted utilitarianism which arranges the people only
in rows of men or even in rows of figures. It is a flaming denunciation
of that strange mathematical morality which was twisted often unfairly
out of Bentham and Mill: a morality by which each citizen must regard
himself as a fraction, and a very vulgar fraction. Though the particular
form of this insolent patronage has changed, this revolt and rebuke is
still of value, and may be wholesome for those who are teaching the poor
to be provident. Doubtless it is a good idea to be provident, in the
sense that Providence is provident, but that should mean being kind, and
certainly not merely being cold.

_The Cricket on the Hearth_, though popular, I think, with many sections
of the great army of Dickensians, cannot be spoken of in any such
abstract or serious terms. It is a brief domestic glimpse; it is an
interior. It must be remembered that Dickens was fond of interiors as
such; he was like a romantic tramp who should go from window to window
looking in at the parlours. He had that solid, indescribable delight in
the mere solidity and neatness of funny little humanity in its funny
little houses, like doll's houses. To him every house was a box, a
Christmas box, in which a dancing human doll was tied up in bricks and
slates instead of string and brown paper. He went from one gleaming
window to another, looking in at the lamp-lit parlours. Thus he stood
for a little while looking in at this cosy if commonplace interior of
the carrier and his wife; but he did not stand there very long. He was
on his way to quainter towns and villages. Already the plants were
sprouting upon the balcony of Miss Tox; and the great wind was rising
that flung Mr. Pecksniff against his own front door.


It was well for him, at any rate, that the people rose in France. It was
well for him, at any rate, that the guillotine was set up in the Place
de la Concorde. Unconsciously, but not accidentally, Dickens was here
working out the whole true comparison between swift revolutionism in
Paris and slow evolutionism in London. Sidney Carton is one of those
sublime ascetics whose head offends them, and who cut it off. For him at
least it was better that the blood should flow in Paris than that the
wine should flow any longer in London. And if I say that even now the
guillotine might be the best cure for many a London lawyer, I ask you to
believe that I am not merely flippant. But you will not believe it.


It may be said that there is no comparison between that explosive
opening of the intellect in Paris and an antiquated madman leading a
knot of provincial Protestants. The Man of the Hill, says Victor Hugo
somewhere, fights for an idea; the Man of the Forest for a prejudice.
Nevertheless it remains true that the enemies of the red cap long
attempted to represent it as a sham decoration in the style of Sim
Tappertit. Long after the revolutionists had shown more than the
qualities of men, it was common among lords and lacqueys to attribute to
them the stagey and piratical pretentiousness of urchins. The kings
called Napoleon's pistol a toy pistol even while it was holding up their
coach and mastering their money or their lives; they called his sword a
stage sword even while they ran away from it. Something of the same
senile inconsistency can be found in an English and American habit
common until recently: that of painting the South Americans at once as
ruffians wading in carnage, and also as poltroons playing at war. They
blame them first for the cruelty of having a fight; and then for the
weakness of having a sham fight. Such, however, since the French
Revolution and before it, has been the fatuous attitude of certain
Anglo-Saxons towards the whole revolutionary tradition. Sim Tappertit
was a sort of answer to everything; and the young men were mocked as
'prentices long after they were masters. The rising fortune of the South
American republics to-day is symbolical and even menacing of many
things; and it may be that the romance of riot will not be so much
extinguished as extended; and nearer home we may have boys being boys
again, and in London the cry of "clubs."


_The Uncommercial Traveller_ is a collection of Dickens's memories
rather than of his literary purposes; but it is due to him to say that
memory is often more startling in him than prophecy in anybody else.
They have the character which belongs to all his vivid incidental
writing: that they attach themselves always to some text which is a fact
rather than an idea. He was one of those sons of Eve who are fonder of
the Tree of Life than of the Tree of Knowledge--even of the knowledge of
good and of evil. He was in this profoundest sense a realist. Critics
have talked of an artist with his eye on the object. Dickens as an
essayist always had his eye on an object before he had the faintest
notion of a subject. All these works of his can best be considered as
letters; they are notes of personal travel, scribbles in a diary about
this or that that really happened. But Dickens was one of the few men
who have the two talents that are the whole of literature--and have them
both together. First, he could make a thing happen over again; and
second, he could make it happen better. He can be called exaggerative;
but mere exaggeration conveys nothing of his typical talent. Mere
whirlwinds of words, mere melodramas of earth and heaven do not affect
us as Dickens affects us, because they are exaggerations of nothing. If
asked for an exaggeration of something, their inventors would be
entirely dumb. They would not know how to exaggerate a broom-stick; for
the life of them they could not exaggerate a tenpenny nail. Dickens
always began with the nail or the broom-stick. He always began with a
fact even when he was most fanciful; and even when he drew the long bow
he was careful to hit the white.

This riotous realism of Dickens has its disadvantage--a disadvantage
that comes out more clearly in these casual sketches than in his
constructed romances. One grave defect in his greatness is that he was
altogether too indifferent to theories. On large matters he went right
by the very largeness of his mind; but in small matters he suffered from
the lack of any logical test and ready reckoner. Hence his comment upon
the details of civilisation or reform are sometimes apt to be jerky and
jarring, and even grossly inconsistent. So long as a thing was heroic
enough to admire, Dickens admired it; whenever it was absurd enough to
laugh at he laughed at it: so far he was on sure ground. But about all
the small human projects that lie between the extremes of the sublime
and the ridiculous, his criticism was apt to have an accidental quality.
As Matthew Arnold said of the remarks of the Young Man from the Country
about the perambulator, they are felt not to be at the heart of the
situation. On a great many occasions the Uncommercial Traveller seems,
like other hasty travellers, to be criticising elements and institutions
which he has quite inadequately understood; and once or twice the
Uncommercial Traveller might almost as well be a Commercial Traveller
for all he knows of the countryside.

An instance of what I mean may be found in the amusing article about the
nightmares of the nursery. Superficially read it might almost be taken
to mean that Dickens disapproved of ghost stories--disapproved of that
old and genial horror which nurses can hardly supply fast enough for the
children who want it. Dickens, one would have thought, should have been
the last man in the world to object to horrible stories, having himself
written some of the most horrible that exist in the world. The author of
the Madman's Manuscript, of the disease of Monk and the death of Krook,
cannot be considered fastidious in the matter of revolting realism or of
revolting mysticism. If artistic horror is to be kept from the young, it
is at least as necessary to keep little boys from reading _Pickwick_ or
_Bleak House_ as to refrain from telling them the story of Captain
Murderer or the terrible tale of Chips. If there was something appalling
in the rhyme of Chips and pips and ships, it was nothing compared to
that infernal refrain of "Mudstains, bloodstains" which Dickens himself,
in one of his highest moments of hellish art, put into _Oliver Twist_.

I take this one instance of the excellent article called "Nurse's
Stories" because it is quite typical of all the rest. Dickens (accused
of superficiality by those who cannot grasp that there is foam upon deep
seas) was really deep about human beings; that is, he was original and
creative about them. But about ideas he did tend to be a little
superficial. He judged them by whether they hit him, and not by what
they were trying to hit. Thus in this book the great wizard of the
Christmas ghosts seems almost the enemy of ghost stories; thus the
almost melodramatic moralist who created Ralph Nickleby and Jonas
Chuzzlewit cannot see the point in original sin; thus the great
denouncer of official oppression in England may be found far too
indulgent to the basest aspects of the modern police. His theories were
less important than his creations, because he was a man of genius. But
he himself thought his theories the more important, because he was a


The greatest mystery about almost any great writer is why he was ever
allowed to write at all. The first efforts of eminent men are always
imitations; and very often they are bad imitations. The only question is
whether the publisher had (as his name would seem to imply) some
subconscious connection or sympathy with the public, and thus felt
instinctively the presence of something that might ultimately tell; or
whether the choice was merely a matter of chance and one Dickens was
chosen and another Dickens left. The fact is almost unquestionable: most
authors made their reputation by bad books and afterwards supported it
by good ones. This is in some degree true even in the case of Dickens.
The public continued to call him "Boz" long after the public had
forgotten the _Sketches by Boz_. Numberless writers of the time speak of
"Boz" as having written _Martin Chuzzlewit_ and "Boz" as having written
_David Copperfield_. Yet if they had gone back to the original book
signed "Boz" they might even have felt that it was vulgar and flippant.
This is indeed the chief tragedy of publishers: that they may easily
refuse at the same moment the wrong manuscript and the right man. It is
easy to see of Dickens now that he was the right man; but a man might
have been very well excused if he had not realised that the _Sketches_
was the right book. Dickens, I say, is a case for this primary query:
whether there was in the first work any clear sign of his higher
creative spirit. But Dickens is much less a case for this query than
almost all the other great men of his period. The very earliest works of
Thackeray are much more unimpressive than those of Dickens. Nay, they
are much more vulgar than those of Dickens. And worst of all, they are
much more numerous than those of Dickens. Thackeray came much nearer to
being the ordinary literary failure than Dickens ever came. Read some of
the earliest criticisms of Mr. Yellowplush or Michael Angelo Titmarsh
and you will realise that at the very beginning there was more potential
clumsiness and silliness in Thackeray than there ever was in Dickens.
Nevertheless there was some potential clumsiness and silliness in
Dickens; and what there is of it appears here and there in the admirable
_Sketches by Boz_.

Perhaps we may put the matter this way: this is the only one of
Dickens's works of which it is ordinarily necessary to know the date. To
a close and delicate comprehension it is indeed very important that
_Nicholas Nickleby_ was written at the beginning of Dickens's life, and
_Our Mutual Friend_ towards the end of it. Nevertheless anybody could
understand or enjoy these books, whenever they were written. If _Our
Mutual Friend_ was written in the Latin of the Dark Ages we should still
want it translated. If we thought that _Nicholas Nickleby_ would not be
written until thirty years hence we should all wait for it eagerly. The
general impression produced by Dickens's work is the same as that
produced by miraculous visions; it is the destruction of time. Thomas
Aquinas said that there was no time in the sight of God; however this
may be, there was no time in the sight of Dickens. As a general rule
Dickens can be read in any order; not only in any order of books, but
even in any order of chapters. In an average Dickens book every part is
so amusing and alive that you can read the parts backwards; you can read
the quarrel first and then the cause of the quarrel; you can fall in
love with a woman in the tenth chapter and then turn back to the first
chapter to find out who she is. This is not chaos; it is eternity. It
means merely that Dickens instinctively felt all his figures to be
immortal souls who existed whether he wrote of them or not, and whether
the reader read of them or not. There is a peculiar quality as of
celestial pre-existence about the Dickens characters. Not only did they
exist before we heard of them, they existed also before Dickens heard of
them. As a rule this unchangeable air in Dickens deprives any discussion
about date of its point. But as I have said, this is the one Dickens
work of which the date _is_ essential. It is really an important part of
the criticism of this book to say that it is his first book. Certain
elements of clumsiness, of obviousness, of evident blunder, actually
require the chronological explanation. It is biographically important
that this is his first book, almost exactly in the same way that it is
biographically important that _The Mystery of Edwin Drood_ was his last
book. Change or no change, _Edwin Drood_ has this plain point of a last
story about it: that it is not finished. But if the last book is
unfinished, the first book is more unfinished still.

The _Sketches_ divide themselves, of course, into two broad classes. One
half consists of sketches that are truly and in the strict sense
sketches. That is, they are things that have no story and in their
outline none of the character of creation; they are merely facts from
the street or the tavern or the town hall, noted down as they occurred
by an intelligence of quite exceptional vivacity. The second class
consists of purely creative things: farces, romances, stories in any
case with a non-natural perfection, or a poetical justice, to round them
off. One class is admirably represented, for instance, by the sketch
describing the Charity Dinner, the other by such a story as that of
_Horatio Sparkins_. These things were almost certainly written by
Dickens at very various periods of his youth; and early as the harvest
is, no doubt it is a harvest and had ripened during a reasonably long
time. Nevertheless it is with these two types of narrative that the
young Charles Dickens first enters English literature; he enters it with
a number of journalistic notes of such things as he has seen happen in
streets or offices, and with a number of short stories which err on the
side of the extravagant and even the superficial. Journalism had not
then, indeed, sunk to the low level which it has since reached. His
sketches of dirty London would not have been dirty enough for the modern
Imperialist press. Still these first efforts of his are journalism, and
sometimes vulgar journalism. It was as a journalist that he attacked the
world, as a journalist that he conquered it.

The biographical circumstances will not, of course, be forgotten. The
life of Dickens had been a curious one. Brought up in a family just poor
enough to be painfully conscious of its prosperity and its
respectability, he had been suddenly flung by a financial calamity into
a social condition far below his own. For men on that exact edge of the
educated class such a transition is really tragic. A duke may become a
navvy for a joke, but a clerk cannot become a navvy for a joke.
Dickens's parents went to a debtors' prison; Dickens himself went to a
far more unpleasant place. The debtors' prison had about it at least
that element of amiable compromise and kindly decay which belonged (and
belongs still) to all the official institutions of England. But Dickens
was doomed to see the very blackest aspect of nineteenth-century
England, something far blacker than any mere bad government. He went not
to a prison but to a factory. In the musty traditionalism of the
Marshalsea old John Dickens could easily remain optimistic. In the
ferocious efficiency of the modern factory young Charles Dickens
narrowly escaped being a pessimist. He did escape this danger; finally
he even escaped the factory itself. His next step in life was, if
possible, even more eccentric. He was sent to school; he was sent off
like an innocent little boy in Eton collars to learn the rudiments of
Latin grammar, without any reference to the fact that he had already
taken his part in the horrible competition and actuality of the age of
manufactures. It was like giving a sacked bank manager a satchel and
sending him to a dame's school. Nor was the third stage of this career
unconnected with the oddity of the others. On leaving the school he was
made a clerk in a lawyer's office, as if henceforward this child of
ridiculous changes was to settle down into a silent assistant for a
quiet solicitor. It was exactly at this moment that his fundamental
rebellion began to seethe; it seethed more against the quiet finality of
his legal occupation than it had seethed against the squalor and slavery
of his days of poverty. There must have been in his mind, I think, a dim
feeling: "Did all my dark crises mean only this; was I crucified only
that I might become a solicitor's clerk?" Whatever be the truth about
this conjecture there can be no question about the facts themselves. It
was about this time that he began to burst and bubble over, to insist
upon his own intellect, to claim a career. It was about this time that
he put together a loose pile of papers, satires on institutions,
pictures of private persons, fairy tales of the vulgarity of his world,
odds and ends such as come out of the facility and the fierce vanity of
youth. It was about this time at any rate that he decided to publish
them, and gave them the name of _Sketches by Boz_.

They must, I think, be read in the light of this youthful explosion. In
some psychological sense he had really been wronged. But he had only
become conscious of his wrongs as his wrongs had been gradually righted.
Similarly, it has often been found that a man who can patiently endure
penal servitude through a judicial blunder will nevertheless, when once
his cause is well asserted, quarrel about the amount of compensation or
complain of small slights in his professional existence. These are the
marks of the first literary action of Dickens. It has in it all the
peculiar hardness of youth; a hardness which in those who have in any
way been unfairly treated reaches even to impudence. It is a terrible
thing for any man to find out that his elders are wrong. And this
almost unkindly courage of youth must partly be held responsible for the
smartness of Dickens, that almost offensive smartness which in these
earlier books of his sometimes irritates us like the showy gibes in the
tall talk of a school-boy. These first pages bear witness both to the
energy of his genius and also to its unenlightenment; he seems more
ignorant and more cocksure than so great a man should be. Dickens was
never stupid, but he was sometimes silly; and he is occasionally silly

All this must be said to prepare the more fastidious modern for these
papers, if he has never read them before. But when all this has been
said there remains in them exactly what always remains in Dickens when
you have taken away everything that can be taken away by the most
fastidious modern who ever dissected his grandmother. There remains that
_primum mobile_ of which all the mystics have spoken: energy, the power
to create. I will not call it "the will to live," for that is a priggish
phrase of German professors. Even German professors, I suppose, have the
will to live. But Dickens had exactly what German professors have not:
he had the power to live. And indeed it is most valuable to have these
early specimens of the Dickens work if only because they are specimens
of his spirit apart from his matured intelligence. It is well to be able
to realise that contact with the Dickens world is almost like a physical
contact; it is like stepping suddenly into the hot smells of a
greenhouse, or into the bleak smell of the sea. We know that we are
there. Let any one read, for instance, one of the foolish but amusing
farces in Dickens's first volume. Let him read, for instance, such a
story as that of _Horatio Sparkins_ or that of _The Tuggses at
Ramsgate_. He will not find very much of that verbal felicity or
fantastic irony that Dickens afterwards developed; the incidents are
upon the plain lines of the stock comedy of the day: sharpers who entrap
simpletons, spinsters who angle for husbands, youths who try to look
Byronic and only look foolish. Yet there is something in these stories
which there is not in the ordinary stock comedies of that day: an
indefinable flavour of emphasis and richness, a hint as of infinity of
fun. Doubtless, for instance, a million comic writers of that epoch had
made game of the dark, romantic young man who pretended to abysses of
philosophy and despair. And it is not easy to say exactly why we feel
that the few metaphysical remarks of Mr. Horatio Sparkins are in some
way really much funnier than any of those old stock jokes. It is in a
certain quality of deep enjoyment in the writer as well as the reader;
as if the few words written had been dipped in dark nonsense and were,
as it were, reeking with derision. "Because if Effect be the result of
Cause and Cause be the Precursor of Effect," said Mr. Horatio Sparkins,
"I apprehend that you are wrong." Nobody can get at the real secret of
sentences like that; sentences which were afterwards strewed with
reckless liberality over the conversation of Dick Swiveller or Mr.
Mantalini, Sim Tappertit or Mr. Pecksniff. Though the joke seems most
superficial one has only to read it a certain number of times to see
that it is most subtle. The joke does not lie in Mr. Sparkins merely
using long words, any more than the joke lies merely in Mr. Swiveller
drinking, or in Mr. Mantalini deceiving his wife. It is something in
the arrangement of the words; something in a last inspired turn of
absurdity given to a sentence. In spite of everything Horatio Sparkins
is funny. We cannot tell why he is funny. When we know why he is funny
we shall know why Dickens is great.

Standing as we do here upon the threshold, as it were, of the work of
Dickens, it may be well perhaps to state this truth as being, after all,
the most important one. This first work had, as I have said, the faults
of first work and the special faults that arose from its author's
accidental history; he was deprived of education, and therefore it was
in some ways uneducated; he was confronted with the folly and failure of
his natural superiors and guardians, and therefore it was in some ways
pert and insolent. Nevertheless the main fact about the work is worth
stating here for any reader who should follow the chronological order
and read the _Sketches by Boz_ before embarking on the stormy and
splendid sea of _Pickwick_. For the sea of _Pickwick_, though splendid,
does make some people seasick. The great point to be emphasised at such
an initiation is this: that people, especially refined people, are not
to judge of Dickens by what they would call the coarseness or
commonplaceness of his subject. It is quite true that his jokes are
often on the same _subjects_ as the jokes in a halfpenny comic paper.
Only they happen to be good jokes. He does make jokes about drunkenness,
jokes about mothers-in-law, jokes about henpecked husbands, jokes (which
is much more really unpardonable) about spinsters, jokes about physical
cowardice, jokes about fatness, jokes about sitting down on one's hat.
He does make fun of all these things; and the reason is not very far to
seek. He makes fun of all these things because all these things, or
nearly all of them, are really very funny. But a large number of those
who might otherwise read and enjoy Dickens are undoubtedly "put off" (as
the phrase goes) by the fact that he seems to be echoing a poor kind of
claptrap in his choice of incidents and images. Partly, of course, he
suffers from the very fact of his success; his play with these topics
was so good that every one else has played with them increasingly since;
he may indeed have copied the old jokes, but he certainly renewed them.
For instance, "Ally Sloper" was certainly copied from Wilkins Micawber.
To this day you may see (in the front page of that fine periodical) the
bald head and the high shirt collar that betray the high original from
which "Ally Sloper" is derived. But exactly because "Sloper" was stolen
from Micawber, for that very reason the new generation feels as if
Micawber were stolen from "Sloper." Many modern readers feel as if
Dickens were copying the comic papers, whereas in truth the comic papers
are still copying Dickens.

Dickens showed himself to be an original man by always accepting old and
established topics. There is no clearer sign of the absence of
originality among modern poets than their disposition to find new
themes. Really original poets write poems about the spring. They are
always fresh, just as the spring is always fresh. Men wholly without
originality write poems about torture, or new religions, of some
perversion of obscenity, hoping that the mere sting of the subject may
speak for them. But we do not sufficiently realise that what is true of
the classic ode is also true of the classic joke. A true poet writes
about the spring being beautiful because (after a thousand springs) the
spring really is beautiful. In the same way the true humourist writes
about a man sitting down on his hat, because the act of sitting down on
one's hat (however often and however admirably performed) really is
extremely funny. We must not dismiss a new poet because his poem is
called _To a Skylark_; nor must we dismiss a humourist because his new
farce is called _My Mother-in-law_. He may really have splendid and
inspiring things to say upon an eternal problem. The whole question is
whether he has.

Now this is exactly where Dickens, and the possible mistake about
Dickens, both come in. Numbers of sensitive ladies, numbers of simple
æsthetes, have had a vague shrinking from that element in Dickens which
begins vaguely in _The Tuggses at Ramsgate_ and culminates in
_Pickwick_. They have a vague shrinking from the mere subject matter;
from the mere fact that so much of the fun is about drinking or
fighting, or falling down, or eloping with old ladies. It is to these
that the first appeal must be made upon the threshold of Dickens
criticism. Let them really read the thing and really see whether the
humour is the gross and half-witted jeering which they imagine it to be.
It is exactly here that the whole genius of Dickens is concerned. His
subjects are indeed stock subjects; like the skylark of Shelley, or the
autumn of Keats. But all the more because they are stock subjects the
reader realises what a magician is at work. The notion of a clumsy
fellow who falls off his horse is indeed a stock and stale subject. But
Mr. Winkle is not a stock and stale subject. Nor is his horse a stock
and stale subject; it is as immortal as the horses of Achilles. The
notion of a fat old gentleman proud of his legs might easily be vulgar.
But Mr. Pickwick proud of his legs is not vulgar; somehow we feel that
they were legs to be proud of. And it is exactly this that we must look
for in these _Sketches_. We must not leap to any cheap fancy that they
are low farces. Rather we must see that they are not low farces; and see
that nobody but Dickens could have prevented them from being so.


There are those who deny with enthusiasm the existence of a God and are
happy in a hobby which they call the Mistakes of Moses. I have not
studied their labours in detail, but it seems that the chief mistake of
Moses was that he neglected to write the Pentateuch. The lesser errors,
apparently, were not made by Moses, but by another person equally
unknown. These controversialists cover the very widest field, and their
attacks upon Scripture are varied to the point of wildness. They range
from the proposition that the unexpurgated Bible is almost as unfit for
an American girls' school as is an unexpurgated Shakespeare; they
descend to the proposition that kissing the Book is almost as
hygienically dangerous as kissing the babies of the poor. A superficial
critic might well imagine that there was not one single sentence left of
the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures which this school had not marked with
some ingenious and uneducated comment. But there is one passage at least
upon which they have never pounced, at least to my knowledge; and in
pointing it out to them I feel that I am, or ought to be, providing
material for quite a multitude of Hyde Park orations. I mean that
singular arrangement in the mystical account of the Creation by which
light is created first and all the luminous bodies afterwards. One could
not imagine a process more open to the elephantine logic of the
Bible-smasher than this: that the sun should be created after the
sunlight. The conception that lies at the back of the phrase is indeed
profoundly antagonistic to much of the modern point of view. To many
modern people it would sound like saying that foliage existed before the
first leaf; it would sound like saying that childhood existed before a
baby was born. The idea is, as I have said, alien to most modern
thought, and like many other ideas which are alien to most modern
thought, it is a very subtle and a very sound idea. Whatever be the
meaning of the passage in the actual primeval poem, there is a very real
metaphysical meaning in the idea that light existed before the sun and
stars. It is not barbaric; it is rather Platonic. The idea existed
before any of the machinery which made manifest the idea. Justice
existed when there was no need of judges, and mercy existed before any
man was oppressed.

However this may be in the matter of religion and philosophy, it can be
said with little exaggeration that this truth is the very key of
literature. The whole difference between construction and creation is
exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is
constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists, as the
mother can love the unborn child. In creative art the essence of a book
exists before the book or before even the details or main features of
the book; the author enjoys it and lives in it with a kind of prophetic
rapture. He wishes to write a comic story before he has thought of a
single comic incident. He desires to write a sad story before he has
thought of anything sad. He knows the atmosphere before he knows
anything. There is a low priggish maxim sometimes uttered by men so
frivolous as to take humour seriously--a maxim that a man should not
laugh at his own jokes. But the great artist not only laughs at his own
jokes; he laughs at his own jokes before he has made them. In the case
of a man really humorous we can see humour in his eye before he has
thought of any amusing words at all. So the creative writer laughs at
his comedy before he creates it, and he has tears for his tragedy before
he knows what it is. When the symbols and the fulfilling facts do come
to him, they come generally in a manner very fragmentary and inverted,
mostly in irrational glimpses of crisis or consummation. The last page
comes before the first; before his romance has begun, he knows that it
has ended well. He sees the wedding before the wooing; he sees the death
before the duel. But most of all he sees the colour and character of the
whole story prior to any possible events in it. This is the real
argument for art and style, only that the artists and the stylists have
not the sense to use it. In one very real sense style is far more
important than either character or narrative. For a man knows what style
of book he wants to write when he knows nothing else about it.

_Pickwick_ is in Dickens's career the mere mass of light before the
creation of sun or moon. It is the splendid, shapeless substance of
which all his stars were ultimately made. You might split up _Pickwick_
into innumerable novels as you could split up that primeval light into
innumerable solar systems. The _Pickwick Papers_ constitute first and
foremost a kind of wild promise, a pre-natal vision of all the children
of Dickens. He had not yet settled down into the plain, professional
habit of picking out a plot and characters, of attending to one thing at
a time, of writing a separate, sensible novel and sending it off to his
publishers. He is still in the youthful whirl of the kind of world that
he would like to create. He has not yet really settled what story he
will write, but only what sort of story he will write. He tries to tell
ten stories at once; he pours into the pot all the chaotic fancies and
crude experiences of his boyhood; he sticks in irrelevant short stories
shamelessly, as into a scrap-book; he adopts designs and abandons them,
begins episodes and leaves them unfinished; but from the first page to
the last there is a nameless and elemental ecstasy--that of the man who
is doing the kind of thing that he can do. Dickens, like every other
honest and effective writer, came at last to some degree of care and
self-restraint. He learned how to make his _dramatis personæ_ assist his
drama; he learned how to write stories which were full of rambling and
perversity, but which were stories. But before he wrote a single real
story, he had a kind of vision. It was a vision of the Dickens world--a
maze of white roads, a map full of fantastic towns, thundering coaches,
clamorous market-places, uproarious inns, strange and swaggering
figures. That vision was _Pickwick_.

It must be remembered that this is true even in connection with the
man's contemporaneous biography. Apart from anything else about it,
_Pickwick_ was his first great chance. It was a big commission given in
some sense to an untried man, that he might show what he could do. It
was in a strict sense a sample. And just as a sample of leather can be
only a piece of leather, or a sample of coal a lump of coal, so this
book may most properly be regarded as simply a lump of Dickens. He was
anxious to show all that was in him. He was more concerned to prove that
he could write well than to prove that he could write this particular
book well. And he did prove this, at any rate. No one ever sent such a
sample as the sample of Dickens. His roll of leather blocked up the
street; his lump of coal set the Thames on fire.

The book originated in the suggestion of a publisher; as many more good
books have done than the arrogance of the man of letters is commonly
inclined to admit. Very much is said in our time about Apollo and
Admetus, and the impossibility of asking genius to work within
prescribed limits or assist an alien design. But after all, as a matter
of fact, some of the greatest geniuses have done it, from Shakespeare
botching up bad comedies and dramatising bad novels down to Dickens
writing a masterpiece as the mere framework for a Mr. Seymour's
sketches. Nor is the true explanation irrelevant to the spirit and power
of Dickens. Very delicate, slender, and _bizarre_ talents are indeed
incapable of being used for an outside purpose, whether of public good
or of private gain. But about very great and rich talent there goes a
certain disdainful generosity which can turn its hand to anything. Minor
poets cannot write to order; but very great poets can write to order.
The larger the man's mind, the wider his scope of vision, the more
likely it will be that anything suggested to him will seem significant
and promising; the more he has a grasp of everything the more ready he
will be to write anything. It is very hard (if that is the question) to
throw a brick at a man and ask him to write an epic; but the more he is
a great man the more able he will be to write about the brick. It is
very unjust (if that is all) to point to a hoarding of Colman's mustard
and demand a flood of philosophical eloquence; but the greater the man
is the more likely he will be to give it to you. So it was proved, not
for the first time, in this great experiment of the early employment of
Dickens. Messrs. Chapman and Hall came to him with a scheme for a string
of sporting stories to serve as the context, and one might almost say
the excuse, for a string of sketches by Seymour, the sporting artist.
Dickens made some modifications in the plan, but he adopted its main
feature; and its main feature was Mr. Winkle. To think of what Mr.
Winkle might have been in the hands of a dull _farceur_, and then to
think of what he is, is to experience the feeling that Dickens made a
man out of rags and refuse. Dickens was to work splendidly and
successfully in many fields, and to send forth many brilliant books and
brave figures. He was destined to have the applause of continents like a
statesman, and to dictate to his publishers like a despot; but perhaps
he never worked again so supremely well as here, where he worked in
chains. It may well be questioned whether his one hack book is not his

Of course it is true that as he went on his independence increased, and
he kicked quite free of the influences that had suggested his story. So
Shakespeare declared his independence of the original chronicle of
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, eliminating altogether (with some wisdom)
another uncle called Wiglerus. At the start the Nimrod Club of Chapman
and Hall may have even had equal chances with the Pickwick Club of young
Mr. Dickens; but the Pickwick Club became something much better than any
publisher had dared to dream of. Some of the old links were indeed
severed by accident or extraneous trouble; Seymour, for whose sake the
whole had perhaps been planned, blew his brains out before he had drawn
ten pictures. But such things were trifles compared to _Pickwick_
itself. It mattered little now whether Seymour blew his brains out, so
long as Charles Dickens blew his brains in. The work became
systematically and progressively more powerful and masterly. Many
critics have commented on the somewhat discordant and inartistic change
between the earlier part of _Pickwick_ and the later; they have pointed
out, not without good sense, that the character of Mr. Pickwick changes
from that of a silly buffoon to that of a solid merchant. But the case,
if these critics had noticed it, is much stronger in the minor
characters of the great company. Mr. Winkle, who has been an idiot
(even, perhaps, as Mr. Pickwick says, "an impostor"), suddenly becomes a
romantic and even reckless lover, scaling a forbidden wall and planning
a bold elopement. Mr. Snodgrass, who has behaved in a ridiculous manner
in all serious positions, suddenly finds himself in a ridiculous
position--that of a gentleman surprised in a secret love affair--and
behaves in a manner perfectly manly, serious, and honourable. Mr.
Tupman alone has no serious emotional development, and for this reason
it is, presumably, that we hear less and less of Mr. Tupman towards the
end of the book. Dickens has by this time got into a thoroughly serious
mood--a mood expressed indeed by extravagant incidents, but none the
less serious for that; and into this Winkle and Snodgrass, in the
character of romantic lovers, could be made to fit. Mr. Tupman had to be
left out of the love affairs; therefore Mr. Tupman is left out of the

Much of the change was due to the entrance of the greatest character in
the story. It may seem strange at the first glance to say that Sam
Weller helped to make the story serious. Nevertheless, this is strictly
true. The introduction of Sam Weller had, to begin with, some merely
accidental and superficial effects. When Samuel Weller had appeared,
Samuel Pickwick was no longer the chief farcical character. Weller
became the joker and Pickwick in some sense the butt of his jokes. Thus
it was obvious that the more simple, solemn, and really respectable this
butt could be made the better. Mr. Pickwick had been the figure capering
before the footlights. But with the advent of Sam, Mr. Pickwick had
become a sort of black background and had to behave as such. But this
explanation, though true as far as it goes, is a mean and unsatisfactory
one, leaving the great elements unexplained. For a much deeper and more
righteous reason Sam Weller introduces the more serious tone of
Pickwick. He introduces it because he introduces something which it was
the chief business of Dickens to preach throughout his life--something
which he never preached so well as when he preached it unconsciously.
Sam Weller introduces the English people.

Sam Weller is the great symbol in English literature of the populace
peculiar to England. His incessant stream of sane nonsense is a
wonderful achievement of Dickens: but it is no great falsification of
the incessant stream of sane nonsense as it really exists among the
English poor. The English poor live in an atmosphere of humour; they
think in humour. Irony is the very air that they breathe. A joke comes
suddenly from time to time into the head of a politician or a gentleman,
and then as a rule he makes the most of it; but when a serious word
comes into the mind of a coster it is almost as startling as a joke. The
word "chaff" was, I suppose, originally applied to badinage to express
its barren and unsustaining character; but to the English poor chaff is
as sustaining as grain. The phrase that leaps to their lips is the
ironical phrase. I remember once being driven in a hansom cab down a
street that turned out to be a _cul de sac_, and brought us bang up
against a wall. The driver and I simultaneously said something. But I
said: "This'll never do!" and he said: "This is all right!" Even in the
act of pulling back his horse's nose from a brick wall, that confirmed
satirist thought in terms of his highly-trained and traditional satire;
while I, belonging to a duller and simpler class, expressed my feelings
in words as innocent and literal as those of a rustic or a child.

This eternal output of divine derision has never been so truly typified
as by the character of Sam; he is a grotesque fountain which gushes the
living waters for ever. Dickens is accused of exaggeration and he is
often guilty of exaggeration; but here he does not exaggerate: he merely
symbolises and sublimates like any other great artist. Sam Weller does
not exaggerate the wit of the London street arab one atom more than
Colonel Newcome, let us say, exaggerates the stateliness of an ordinary
soldier and gentleman, or than Mr. Collins exaggerates the fatuity of a
certain kind of country clergyman. And this breath from the boisterous
brotherhood of the poor lent a special seriousness and smell of reality
to the whole story. The unconscious follies of Winkle and Tupman are
blown away like leaves before the solid and conscious folly of Sam
Weller. Moreover, the relations between Pickwick and his servant Sam are
in some ways new and valuable in literature. Many comic writers had
described the clever rascal and his ridiculous dupe; but here, in a
fresh and very human atmosphere, we have a clever servant who was not a
rascal and a dupe who was not ridiculous. Sam Weller stands in some ways
for a cheerful knowledge of the world; Mr. Pickwick stands for a still
more cheerful ignorance of the world. And Dickens responded to a
profound human sentiment (the sentiment that has made saints and the
sanctity of children) when he made the gentler and less-travelled
type--the type which moderates and controls. Knowledge and innocence are
both excellent things, and they are both very funny. But it is right
that knowledge should be the servant and innocence the master.

The sincerity of this study of Sam Weller has produced one particular
effect in the book which I wonder that critics of Dickens have never
noticed or discussed. Because it has no Dickens "pathos," certain parts
of it are truly pathetic. Dickens, realising rightly that the whole tone
of the book was fun, felt that he ought to keep out of it any great
experiments in sadness and keep within limits those that he put in. He
used this restraint in order not to spoil the humour; but (if he had
known himself better) he might well have used it in order not to spoil
the pathos. This is the one book in which Dickens was, as it were,
forced to trample down his tender feelings; and for that very reason it
is the one book where all the tenderness there is is quite
unquestionably true. An admirable example of what I mean may be found in
the scene in which Sam Weller goes down to see his bereaved father after
the death of his step-mother. The most loyal admirer of Dickens can
hardly prevent himself from giving a slight shudder when he thinks of
what Dickens might have made of that scene in some of his more expansive
and maudlin moments. For all I know old Mrs. Weller might have asked
what the wild waves were saying; and for all I know old Mr. Weller might
have told her. As it is, Dickens, being forced to keep the tale taut and
humorous, gives a picture of humble respect and decency which is manly,
dignified, and really sad. There is no attempt made by these simple and
honest men, the father and son, to pretend that the dead woman was
anything greatly other than she was; their respect is for death, and for
the human weakness and mystery which it must finally cover. Old Tony
Weller does not tell his shrewish wife that she is already a
white-winged angel; he speaks to her with an admirable good nature and
good sense:

     "'Susan,' I says, 'you've been a wery good vife to me altogether:
     keep a good heart, my dear, and you'll live to see me punch that
     'ere Stiggins's 'ead yet.' She smiled at this, Samivel ... but she
     died arter all."

That is perhaps the first and the last time that Dickens ever touched
the extreme dignity of pathos. He is restraining his compassion, and
afterwards he let it go. Now laughter is a thing that can be let go;
laughter has in it a quality of liberty. But sorrow has in it by its
very nature a quality of confinement; pathos by its very nature fights
with itself. Humour is expansive; it bursts outwards; the fact is
attested by the common expression, "holding one's sides." But sorrow is
not expansive; and it was afterwards the mistake of Dickens that he
tried to make it expansive. It is the one great weakness of Dickens as a
great writer, that he did try to make that sudden sadness, that abrupt
pity, which we call pathos, a thing quite obvious, infectious, public,
as if it were journalism or the measles. It is pleasant to think that in
this supreme masterpiece, done in the dawn of his career, there is not
even this faint fleck upon the sun of his just splendour. Pickwick will
always be remembered as the great example of everything that made
Dickens great; of the solemn conviviality of great friendships, of the
erratic adventures of old English roads, of the hospitality of old
English inns, of the great fundamental kindliness and honour of old
English manners. First of all, however, it will always be remembered for
its laughter, or, if you will, for its folly. A good joke is the one
ultimate and sacred thing which cannot be criticised. Our relations
with a good joke are direct and even divine relations. We speak of
"seeing" a joke just as we speak of "seeing" a ghost or a vision. If we
have seen it, it is futile to argue with us; and we have seen the vision
of _Pickwick_. _Pickwick_ may be the top of Dickens's humour; I think
upon the whole it is. But the broad humour of _Pickwick_ he broadened
over many wonderful kingdoms; the narrow pathos of _Pickwick_ he never
found again.


Romance is perhaps the highest point of human expression, except indeed
religion, to which it is closely allied. Romance resembles religion
especially in this, that it is not only a simplification but a
shortening of existence. Both romance and religion see everything as it
were foreshortened; they see everything in an abrupt and fantastic
perspective, coming to an apex. It is the whole essence of perspective
that it comes to a point. Similarly, religion comes to a point--to the
point. Thus religion is always insisting on the shortness of human life.
But it does not insist on the shortness of human life as the pessimists
insist on it. Pessimism insists on the shortness of human life in order
to show that life is valueless. Religion insists on the shortness of
human life in order to show that life is frightfully valuable--is almost
horribly valuable. Pessimism says that life is so short that it gives
nobody a chance; religion says that life is so short that it gives
everybody his final chance. In the first case the word brevity means
futility; in the second case, opportunity. But the case is even stronger
than this. Religion shortens everything. Religion shortens even
eternity. Where science, submitting to the false standard of time, sees
evolution, which is slow, religion sees creation, which is sudden.
Philosophically speaking, the process is neither slow nor quick since
we have nothing to compare it with. Religion prefers to think of it as
quick. For religion the flowers shoot up suddenly like rockets. For
religion the mountains are lifted up suddenly like waves. Those who
quote that fine passage which says that in God's sight a thousand years
are as yesterday that is passed as a watch in the night, do not realise
the full force of the meaning. To God a thousand years are not only a
watch but an exciting watch. For God time goes at a gallop, as it does
to a man reading a good tale.

All this is, in a humble manner, true for romance. Romance is a
shortening and sharpening of the human difficulty. Where you and I have
to vote against a man, or write (rather feebly) against a man, or sign
illegible petitions against a man, romance does for him what we should
really like to see done. It knocks him down; it shortens the slow
process of historical justice. All romances consist of three characters.
Other characters may be introduced; but those other characters are
certainly mere scenery as far as the romance is concerned. They are
bushes that wave rather excitedly; they are posts that stand up with a
certain pride; they are correctly painted rocks that frown very
correctly; but they are all landscape--they are all a background. In
every pure romance there are three living and moving characters. For the
sake of argument they may be called St. George and the Dragon and the
Princess. In every romance there must be the twin elements of loving and
fighting. In every romance there must be the three characters: there
must be the Princess, who is a thing to be loved; there must be the
Dragon, who is a thing to be fought; and there must be St. George, who
is a thing that both loves and fights. There have been many symptoms of
cynicism and decay in our modern civilisation. But of all the signs of
modern feebleness, of lack of grasp on morals as they actually must be,
there has been none quite so silly or so dangerous as this: that the
philosophers of to-day have started to divide loving from fighting and
to put them into opposite camps. There could be no worse sign than that
a man, even Nietzsche, can be found to say that we should go in for
fighting instead of loving. There can be no worse sign than that a man,
even Tolstoi, can be found to tell us that we should go in for loving
instead of fighting. The two things imply each other; they implied each
other in the old romance and in the old religion, which were the two
permanent things of humanity. You cannot love a thing without wanting to
fight for it. You cannot fight without something to fight for. To love a
thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all; it is lust. It
may be an airy, philosophical, and disinterested lust; it may be, so to
speak, a virgin lust; but it is lust, because it is wholly
self-indulgent and invites no attack. On the other hand, fighting for a
thing without loving it is not even fighting; it can only be called a
kind of horse-play that is occasionally fatal. Wherever human nature is
human and unspoilt by any special sophistry, there exists this natural
kinship between war and wooing, and that natural kinship is called
romance. It comes upon a man especially in the great hour of youth; and
every man who has ever been young at all has felt, if only for a moment,
this ultimate and poetic paradox. He knows that loving the world is the
same thing as fighting the world. It was at the very moment when he
offered to like everybody he also offered to hit everybody. To almost
every man that can be called a man this especial moment of the romantic
culmination has come. In the first resort the man wished to live a
romance. In the second resort, in the last and worst resort, he was
content to write one.

Now there is a certain moment when this element enters independently
into the life of Dickens. There is a particular time when we can see him
suddenly realise that he wants to write a romance and nothing else. In
reading his letters, in appreciating his character, this point emerges
clearly enough. He was full of the afterglow of his marriage; he was
still young and psychologically ignorant; above all, he was now, really
for the first time, sure that he was going to be at least some kind of
success. There is, I repeat, a certain point at which one feels that
Dickens will either begin to write romances or go off on something
different altogether. This crucial point in his life is marked by
_Nicholas Nickleby_.

It must be remembered that before this issue of _Nicholas Nickleby_ his
work, successful as it was, had not been such as to dedicate him
seriously or irrevocably to the writing of novels. He had already
written three books; and at least two of them are classed among the
novels under his name. But if we look at the actual origin and formation
of these books we see that they came from another source and were really
designed upon another plan. The three books were, of course, the
_Sketches by Boz_, _the Pickwick Papers_, and _Oliver Twist_. It is, I
suppose, sufficiently well understood that the _Sketches by Boz_ are, as
their name implies, only sketches. But surely it is quite equally clear
that the _Pickwick Papers_ are, as their name implies, merely papers.
Nor is the case at all different in spirit and essence when we come to
_Oliver Twist_. There is indeed a sort of romance in _Oliver Twist_, but
it is such an uncommonly bad one that it can hardly be regarded as
greatly interrupting the previous process; and if the reader chooses to
pay very little attention to it, he cannot pay less attention to it than
the author did. But in fact the case lies far deeper. _Oliver Twist_ is
so much apart from the ordinary track of Dickens, it is so gloomy, it is
so much all in one atmosphere, that it can best be considered as an
exception or a solitary excursus in his work. Perhaps it can best be
considered as the extension of one of his old sketches, of some sketch
that happened to be about a visit to a workhouse or a gaol. In the
_Sketches by Boz_ he might well have visited a workhouse where he saw
Bumble; in the _Sketches by Boz_ he might well have visited a prison
where he saw Fagin. We are still in the realm of sketches and
sketchiness. _The Pickwick Papers_ may be called an extension of one of
his bright sketches. _Oliver Twist_ may be called an extension of one of
his gloomy ones.

Had he continued along this line all his books might very well have been
note-books. It would be very easy to split up all his subsequent books
into scraps and episodes, such as those which make up the _Sketches by
Boz_. It would be easy enough for Dickens, instead of publishing
_Nicholas Nickleby_, to have published a book of sketches, one of which
was called "A Yorkshire School," another called "A Provincial Theatre,"
and another called "Sir Mulberry Hawk or High Life Revealed," another
called "Mrs. Nickleby or a Lady's Monologue." It would have been very
easy to have thrown over the rather chaotic plan of the _Old Curiosity
Shop_. He might have merely written short stories called "The Glorious
Apollos," "Mrs. Quilp's Tea-Party," "Mrs. Jarley's Waxwork," "The Little
Servant," and "The Death of a Dwarf." _Martin Chuzzlewit_ might have
been twenty stories instead of one story. _Dombey and Son_ might have
been twenty stories instead of one story. We might have lost all
Dickens's novels; we might have lost altogether Dickens the novelist. We
might have lost that steady love of a seminal and growing romance which
grew on him steadily as the years advanced, and which gave us towards
the end some of his greatest triumphs. All his books might have been
_Sketches by Boz_. But he did turn away from this, and the turning-point
is _Nicholas Nickleby_.

Everything has a supreme moment and is crucial; that is where our
friends the evolutionists go wrong. I suppose that there is an instant
of midsummer as there is an instant of midnight. If in the same way
there is a supreme point of spring, _Nicholas Nickleby_ is the supreme
point of Dickens's spring. I do not mean that it is the best book that
he wrote in his youth. _Pickwick_ is a better book. I do not mean that
it contains more striking characters than any of the other books in his
youth. The _Old Curiosity Shop_ contains at least two more striking
characters. But I mean that this book coincided with his resolution to
be a great novelist and his final belief that he could be one.
Henceforward his books are novels, very commonly bad novels. Previously
they have not really been novels at all. There are many indications of
the change I mean. Here is one, for instance, which is more or less
final. _Nicholas Nickleby_ is Dickens's first romantic novel because it
is his first novel with a proper and dignified romantic hero; which
means, of course, a somewhat chivalrous young donkey. The hero of
_Pickwick_ is an old man. The hero of _Oliver Twist_ is a child. Even
after _Nicholas Nickleby_ this non-romantic custom continued. The _Old
Curiosity Shop_ has no hero in particular. The hero of _Barnaby Rudge_
is a lunatic. But Nicholas Nickleby is a proper, formal, and ceremonial
hero. He has no psychology; he has not even any particular character;
but he is made deliberately a hero--young, poor, brave, unimpeachable,
and ultimately triumphant. He is, in short, the hero. Mr. Vincent
Crummles had a colossal intellect; and I always have a fancy that under
all his pomposity he saw things more keenly than he allowed others to
see. The moment he saw Nicholas Nickleby, almost in rags and limping
along the high road, he engaged him (you will remember) as first walking
gentleman. He was right. Nobody could possibly be more of a first
walking gentleman than Nicholas Nickleby was. He was the first walking
gentleman before he went on to the boards of Mr. Vincent Crummles's
theatre, and he remained the first walking gentleman after he had come

Now this romantic method involves a certain element of climax which to
us appears crudity. Nicholas Nickleby, for instance, wanders through the
world; he takes a situation as assistant to a Yorkshire schoolmaster;
he sees an act of tyranny of which he strongly disapproves; he cries out
"Stop!" in a voice that makes the rafters ring; he thrashes the
schoolmaster within an inch of his life; he throws the schoolmaster away
like an old cigar, and he goes away. The modern intellect is positively
prostrated and flattened by this rapid and romantic way of righting
wrongs. If a modern philanthropist came to Dotheboys Hall I fear he
would not employ the simple, sacred, and truly Christian solution of
beating Mr. Squeers with a stick. I fancy he would petition the
Government to appoint a Royal Commission to inquire into Mr. Squeers. I
think he would every now and then write letters to newspapers reminding
people that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, there was a
Royal Commission to inquire into Mr. Squeers. I agree that he might even
go the length of calling a crowded meeting in St. James's Hall on the
subject of the best policy with regard to Mr. Squeers. At this meeting
some very heated and daring speakers might even go the length of
alluding sternly to Mr. Squeers. Occasionally even hoarse voices from
the back of the hall might ask (in vain) what was going to be done with
Mr. Squeers. The Royal Commission would report about three years
afterwards and would say that many things had happened which were
certainly most regrettable; that Mr. Squeers was the victim of a bad
system; that Mrs. Squeers was also the victim of a bad system; but that
the man who sold Squeers his cane had really acted with great
indiscretion and ought to be spoken to kindly. Something like this would
be what, after four years, the Royal Commission would have said; but it
would not matter in the least what the Royal Commission had said, for by
that time the philanthropists would be off on a new tack and the world
would have forgotten all about Dotheboys Hall and everything connected
with it. By that time the philanthropists would be petitioning
Parliament for another Royal Commission; perhaps a Royal Commission to
inquire into whether Mr. Mantalini was extravagant with his wife's
money; perhaps a commission to inquire into whether Mr. Vincent Crummles
kept the Infant Phenomenon short by means of gin.

If we wish to understand the spirit and the period of _Nicholas
Nickleby_ we must endeavour to comprehend and to appreciate the old more
decisive remedies, or, if we prefer to put it so, the old more desperate
remedies. Our fathers had a plain sort of pity; if you will, a gross and
coarse pity. They had their own sort of sentimentalism. They were quite
willing to weep over Smike. But it certainly never occurred to them to
weep over Squeers. Even those who opposed the French war opposed it
exactly in the same way as their enemies opposed the French soldiers.
They fought with fighting. Charles Fox was full of horror at the
bitterness and the useless bloodshed; but if any one had insulted him
over the matter, he would have gone out and shot him in a duel as coolly
as any of his contemporaries. All their interference was heroic
interference. All their legislation was heroic legislation. All their
remedies were heroic remedies. No doubt they were often narrow and often
visionary. No doubt they often looked at a political formula when they
should have looked at an elemental fact. No doubt they were pedantic in
some of their principles and clumsy in some of their solutions. No
doubt, in short, they were all very wrong; and no doubt we are the
people, and wisdom shall die with us. But when they saw something which
in their eyes, such as they were, really violated their morality, such
as it was, then they did not cry "Investigate!" They did not cry
"Educate!" They did not cry "Improve!" They did not cry "Evolve!" Like
Nicholas Nickleby they cried "Stop!" And it did stop.

This is the first mark of the purely romantic method: the swiftness and
simplicity with which St. George kills the dragon. The second mark of it
is exhibited here as one of the weaknesses of _Nicholas Nickleby_. I
mean the tendency in the purely romantic story to regard the heroine
merely as something to be won; to regard the princess solely as
something to be saved from the dragon. The father of Madeline Bray is
really a very respectable dragon. His selfishness is suggested with much
more psychological tact and truth than that of any other of the villains
that Dickens described about this time. But his daughter is merely the
young woman with whom Nicholas is in love. We do not care a rap about
Madeline Bray. Personally I should have preferred Cecilia Bobster. Here
is one real point where the Victorian romance falls below the
Elizabethan romantic drama. Shakespeare always made his heroines heroic
as well as his heroes.

In Dickens's actual literary career it is this romantic quality in
_Nicholas Nickleby_ that is most important. It is his first definite
attempt to write a young and chivalrous novel. In this sense the comic
characters and the comic scenes are secondary; and indeed the comic
characters and the comic scenes, admirable as they are, could never be
considered as in themselves superior to such characters and such scenes
in many of the other books. But in themselves how unforgettable they
are. Mr. Crummles and the whole of his theatrical business is an
admirable case of that first and most splendid quality in Dickens--I
mean the art of making something which in life we call pompous and dull,
becoming in literature pompous and delightful. I have remarked before
that nearly every one of the amusing characters of Dickens is in reality
a great fool. But I might go further. Almost every one of his amusing
characters is in reality a great bore. The very people that we fly to in
Dickens are the very people that we fly from in life. And there is more
in Crummles than the mere entertainment of his solemnity and his tedium.
The enormous seriousness with which he takes his art is always an exact
touch in regard to the unsuccessful artist. If an artist is successful,
everything then depends upon a dilemma of his moral character. If he is
a mean artist success will make him a society man. If he is a
magnanimous artist, success will make him an ordinary man. But only as
long as he is unsuccessful will he be an unfathomable and serious
artist, like Mr. Crummles. Dickens was always particularly good at
expressing thus the treasures that belong to those who do not succeed in
this world. There are vast prospects and splendid songs in the point of
view of the typically unsuccessful man; if all the used-up actors and
spoilt journalists and broken clerks could give a chorus, it would be a
wonderful chorus in praise of the world. But these unsuccessful men
commonly cannot even speak. Dickens is the voice of them, and a very
ringing voice; because he was perhaps the only one of these unsuccessful
men that was ever successful.


In considering Dickens, as we almost always must consider him, as a man
of rich originality, we may possibly miss the forces from which he drew
even his original energy. It is not well for man to be alone. We, in the
modern world, are ready enough to admit that when it is applied to some
problem of monasticism or of an ecstatic life. But we will not admit
that our modern artistic claim to absolute originality is really a claim
to absolute unsociability; a claim to absolute loneliness. The anarchist
is at least as solitary as the ascetic. And the men of very vivid vigour
in literature, the men such as Dickens, have generally displayed a large
sociability towards the society of letters, always expressed in the
happy pursuit of pre-existent themes, sometimes expressed, as in the
case of Molière or Sterne, in downright plagiarism. For even theft is a
confession of our dependence on society. In Dickens, however, this
element of the original foundations on which he worked is quite
especially difficult to determine. This is partly due to the fact that
for the present reading public he is practically the only one of his
long line that is read at all. He sums up Smollett and Goldsmith, but he
also destroys them. This one giant, being closest to us, cuts off from
our view even the giants that begat him. But much more is this
difficulty due to the fact that Dickens mixed up with the old material,
materials so subtly modern, so made of the French Revolution, that the
whole is transformed. If we want the best example of this, the best
example is _Oliver Twist_.

Relatively to the other works of Dickens _Oliver Twist_ is not of great
value, but it is of great importance. Some parts of it are so crude and
of so clumsy a melodrama, that one is almost tempted to say that Dickens
would have been greater without it. But even if he had been greater
without it he would still have been incomplete without it. With the
exception of some gorgeous passages, both of humour and horror, the
interest of the book lies not so much in its revelation of Dickens's
literary genius as in its revelation of those moral, personal, and
political instincts which were the make-up of his character and the
permanent support of that literary genius. It is by far the most
depressing of all his books; it is in some ways the most irritating; yet
its ugliness gives the last touch of honesty to all that spontaneous and
splendid output. Without this one discordant note all his merriment
might have seemed like levity.

Dickens had just appeared upon the stage and set the whole world
laughing with his first great story _Pickwick_. _Oliver Twist_ was his
encore. It was the second opportunity given to him by those who had
rolled about with laughter over Tupman and Jingle, Weller and Dowler.
Under such circumstances a stagey reciter will sometimes take care to
give a pathetic piece after his humorous one; and with all his many
moral merits, there was much that was stagey about Dickens. But this
explanation alone is altogether inadequate and unworthy. There was in
Dickens this other kind of energy, horrible, uncanny, barbaric, capable
in another age of coarseness, greedy for the emblems of established
ugliness, the coffin, the gibbet, the bones, the bloody knife. Dickens
liked these things and he was all the more of a man for liking them;
especially he was all the more of a boy. We can all recall with pleasure
the fact that Miss Petowker (afterwards Mrs. Lillyvick) was in the habit
of reciting a poem called "The Blood Drinker's Burial." I cannot express
my regret that the words of this poem are not given; for Dickens would
have been quite as capable of writing "The Blood Drinker's Burial" as
Miss Petowker was of reciting it. This strain existed in Dickens
alongside of his happy laughter; both were allied to the same robust
romance. Here as elsewhere Dickens is close to all the permanent human
things. He is close to religion, which has never allowed the thousand
devils on its churches to stop the dancing of its bells. He is allied to
the people, to the real poor, who love nothing so much as to take a
cheerful glass and to talk about funerals. The extremes of his gloom and
gaiety are the mark of religion and democracy; they mark him off from
the moderate happiness of philosophers, and from that stoicism which is
the virtue and the creed of aristocrats. There is nothing odd in the
fact that the same man who conceived the humane hospitalities of
Pickwick should also have imagined the inhuman laughter of Fagin's den.
They are both genuine and they are both exaggerated. And the whole human
tradition has tied up together in a strange knot these strands of
festivity and fear. It is over the cups of Christmas Eve that men have
always competed in telling ghost stories.

This first element was present in Dickens, and it is very powerfully
present in _Oliver Twist_. It had not been present with sufficient
consistency or continuity in _Pickwick_ to make it remain on the
reader's memory at all, for the tale of "Gabriel Grubb" is grotesque
rather than horrible, and the two gloomy stories of the "Madman" and the
"Queer Client" are so utterly irrelevant to the tale, that even if the
reader remember them he probably does not remember that they occur in
_Pickwick_. Critics have complained of Shakespeare and others for
putting comic episodes into a tragedy. It required a man with the
courage and coarseness of Dickens actually to put tragic episodes into a
farce. But they are not caught up into the story at all. In _Oliver
Twist_, however, the thing broke out with an almost brutal inspiration,
and those who had fallen in love with Dickens for his generous
buffoonery may very likely have been startled at receiving such very
different fare at the next helping. When you have bought a man's book
because you like his writing about Mr. Wardle's punch-bowl and Mr.
Winkle's skates, it may very well be surprising to open it and read
about the sickening thuds that beat out the life of Nancy, or that
mysterious villain whose face was blasted with disease.

As a nightmare, the work is really admirable. Characters which are not
very clearly conceived as regards their own psychology are yet, at
certain moments, managed so as to shake to its foundations our own
psychology. Bill Sikes is not exactly a real man, but for all that he is
a real murderer. Nancy is not really impressive as a living woman; but
(as the phrase goes) she makes a lovely corpse. Something quite childish
and eternal in us, something which is shocked with the mere simplicity
of death, quivers when we read of those repeated blows or see Sikes
cursing the tell-tale cur who will follow his bloody foot-prints. And
this strange, sublime, vulgar melodrama, which is melodrama and yet is
painfully real, reaches its hideous height in that fine scene of the
death of Sikes, the besieged house, the boy screaming within, the crowd
screaming without, the murderer turned almost a maniac and dragging his
victim uselessly up and down the room, the escape over the roof, the
rope swiftly running taut, and death sudden, startling and symbolic; a
man hanged. There is in this and similar scenes something of the quality
of Hogarth and many other English moralists of the early eighteenth
century. It is not easy to define this Hogarthian quality in words,
beyond saying that it is a sort of alphabetical realism, like the cruel
candour of children. But it has about it these two special principles
which separate it from all that we call realism in our time. First, that
with us a moral story means a story about moral people; with them a
moral story meant more often a story about immoral people. Second, that
with us realism is always associated with some subtle view of morals;
with them realism was always associated with some simple view of morals.
The end of Bill Sikes exactly in the way that the law would have killed
him--this is a Hogarthian incident; it carries on that tradition of
startling and shocking platitude.

All this element in the book was a sincere thing in the author, but none
the less it came from old soils, from the graveyard and the gallows, and
the lane where the ghost walked. Dickens was always attracted to such
things, and (as Forster says with inimitable simplicity) "but for his
strong sense might have fallen into the follies of spiritualism." As a
matter of fact, like most of the men of strong sense in his tradition,
Dickens was left with a half belief in spirits which became in practice
a belief in bad spirits. The great disadvantage of those who have too
much strong sense to believe in supernaturalism is that they keep last
the low and little forms of the supernatural, such as omens, curses,
spectres, and retributions, but find a high and happy supernaturalism
quite incredible. Thus the Puritans denied the sacraments, but went on
burning witches. This shadow does rest, to some extent, upon the
rational English writers like Dickens; supernaturalism was dying, but
its ugliest roots died last. Dickens would have found it easier to
believe in a ghost than in a vision of the Virgin with angels. There,
for good or evil, however, was the root of the old _diablerie_ in
Dickens, and there it is in _Oliver Twist_. But this was only the first
of the new Dickens elements, which must have surprised those Dickensians
who eagerly bought his second book. The second of the new Dickens
elements is equally indisputable and separate. It swelled afterwards to
enormous proportions in Dickens's work; but it really has its rise here.
Again, as in the case of the element of _diablerie_, it would be
possible to make technical exceptions in favour of _Pickwick_. Just as
there were quite inappropriate scraps of the gruesome element in
_Pickwick_, so there are quite inappropriate allusions to this other
topic in _Pickwick_. But nobody by merely reading _Pickwick_ would even
remember this topic; no one by merely reading _Pickwick_ would know what
this topic is; this third great subject of Dickens; this second great
subject of the Dickens of _Oliver Twist_.

This subject is social oppression. It is surely fair to say that no one
could have gathered from _Pickwick_ how this question boiled in the
blood of the author of _Pickwick_. There are, indeed, passages,
particularly in connection with Mr. Pickwick in the debtor's prison,
which prove to us, looking back on a whole public career, that Dickens
had been from the beginning bitter and inquisitive about the problem of
our civilisation. No one could have imagined at the time that this
bitterness ran in an unbroken river under all the surges of that superb
gaiety and exuberance. With _Oliver Twist_ this sterner side of Dickens
was suddenly revealed. For the very first pages of _Oliver Twist_ are
stern even when they are funny. They amuse, but they cannot be enjoyed,
as can the passages about the follies of Mr. Snodgrass or the
humiliations of Mr. Winkle. The difference between the old easy humour
and this new harsh humour is a difference not of degree but of kind.
Dickens makes game of Mr. Bumble because he wants to kill Mr. Bumble; he
made game of Mr. Winkle because he wanted him to live for ever. Dickens
has taken the sword in hand; against what is he declaring war?

It is just here that the greatness of Dickens comes in; it is just here
that the difference lies between the pedant and the poet. Dickens enters
the social and political war, and the first stroke he deals is not only
significant but even startling. Fully to see this we must appreciate the
national situation. It was an age of reform, and even of radical reform;
the world was full of radicals and reformers; but only too many of them
took the line of attacking everything and anything that was opposed to
some particular theory among the many political theories that possessed
the end of the eighteenth century. Some had so much perfected the
perfect theory of republicanism that they almost lay awake at night
because Queen Victoria had a crown on her head. Others were so certain
that mankind had hitherto been merely strangled in the bonds of the
State that they saw truth only in the destruction of tariffs or of
by-laws. The greater part of that generation held that clearness,
economy, and a hard common-sense, would soon destroy the errors that had
been erected by the superstitions and sentimentalities of the past. In
pursuance of this idea many of the new men of the new century, quite
confident that they were invigorating the new age, sought to destroy the
old sentimental clericalism, the old sentimental feudalism, the
old-world belief in priests, the old-world belief in patrons, and among
other things the old-world belief in beggars. They sought among other
things to clear away the old visionary kindliness on the subject of
vagrants. Hence those reformers enacted not only a new reform bill but
also a new poor law. In creating many other modern things they created
the modern workhouse, and when Dickens came out to fight it was the
first thing that he broke with his battle-axe.

This is where Dickens's social revolt is of more value than mere
politics and avoids the vulgarity of the novel with a purpose. His
revolt is not a revolt of the commercialist against the feudalist, of
the Nonconformist against the Churchman, of the Free-trader against the
Protectionist, of the Liberal against the Tory. If he were among us now
his revolt would not be the revolt of the Socialist against the
Individualist, or of the Anarchist against the Socialist. His revolt was
simply and solely the eternal revolt; it was the revolt of the weak
against the strong. He did not dislike this or that argument for
oppression; he disliked oppression. He disliked a certain look on the
face of a man when he looks down on another man. And that look on the
face is, indeed, the only thing in the world that we have really to
fight between here and the fires of Hell. That which pedants of that
time and this time would have called the sentimentalism of Dickens was
really simply the detached sanity of Dickens. He cared nothing for the
fugitive explanations of the Constitutional Conservatives; he cared
nothing for the fugitive explanations of the Manchester School. He would
have cared quite as little for the fugitive explanations of the Fabian
Society or of the modern scientific Socialist. He saw that under many
forms there was one fact, the tyranny of man over man; and he struck at
it when he saw it, whether it was old or new. When he found that footmen
and rustics were too much afraid of Sir Leicester Dedlock, he attacked
Sir Leicester Dedlock; he did not care whether Sir Leicester Dedlock
said he was attacking England or whether Mr. Rouncewell, the
Ironmaster, said he was attacking an effete oligarchy. In that case he
pleased Mr. Rouncewell, the Iron-master, and displeased Sir Leicester
Dedlock, the Aristocrat. But when he found that Mr. Rouncewell's workmen
were much too frightened of Mr. Rouncewell, then he displeased Mr.
Rouncewell in turn; he displeased Mr. Rouncewell very much by calling
him Mr. Bounderby. When he imagined himself to be fighting old laws he
gave a sort of vague and general approval to new laws. But when he came
to the new laws they had a bad time. When Dickens found that after a
hundred economic arguments and granting a hundred economic
considerations, the fact remained that paupers in modern workhouses were
much too afraid of the beadle, just as vassals in ancient castles were
much too afraid of the Dedlocks, then he struck suddenly and at once.
This is what makes the opening chapters of _Oliver Twist_ so curious and
important. The very fact of Dickens's distance from, and independence
of, the elaborate financial arguments of his time, makes more definite
and dazzling his sudden assertion that he sees the old human tyranny in
front of him as plain as the sun at noon-day. Dickens attacks the modern
workhouse with a sort of inspired simplicity as of a boy in a fairy tale
who had wandered about, sword in hand, looking for ogres and who had
found an indisputable ogre. All the other people of his time are
attacking things because they are bad economics or because they are bad
politics, or because they are bad science; he alone is attacking things
because they are bad. All the others are Radicals with a large R; he
alone is radical with a small one. He encounters evil with that
beautiful surprise which, as it is the beginning of all real pleasure,
is also the beginning of all righteous indignation. He enters the
workhouse just as Oliver Twist enters it, as a little child.

This is the real power and pathos of that celebrated passage in the book
which has passed into a proverb; but which has not lost its terrible
humour even in being hackneyed. I mean, of course, the everlasting
quotation about Oliver Twist asking for more. The real poignancy that
there is in this idea is a very good study in that strong school of
social criticism which Dickens represented. A modern realist describing
the dreary workhouse would have made all the children utterly crushed,
not daring to speak at all, not expecting anything, not hoping anything,
past all possibility of affording even an ironical contrast or a protest
of despair. A modern, in short, would have made all the boys in the
workhouse pathetic by making them all pessimists. But Oliver Twist is
not pathetic because he is a pessimist. Oliver Twist is pathetic because
he is an optimist. The whole tragedy of that incident is in the fact
that he does expect the universe to be kind to him, that he does believe
that he is living in a just world. He comes before the Guardians as the
ragged peasants of the French Revolution came before the Kings and
Parliaments of Europe. That is to say, he comes, indeed, with gloomy
experiences, but he comes with a happy philosophy. He knows that there
are wrongs of man to be reviled; but he believes also that there are
rights of man to be demanded. It has often been remarked as a singular
fact that the French poor, who stand in historic tradition as typical
of all the desperate men who have dragged down tyranny, were, as a
matter of fact, by no means worse off than the poor of many other
European countries before the Revolution. The truth is that the French
were tragic because they were better off. The others had known the
sorrowful experiences; but they alone had known the splendid expectation
and the original claims. It was just here that Dickens was so true a
child of them and of that happy theory so bitterly applied. They were
the one oppressed people that simply asked for justice; they were the
one Parish Boy who innocently asked for more.


Nothing is important except the fate of the soul; and literature is only
redeemed from an utter triviality, surpassing that of naughts and
crosses, by the fact that it describes not the world around us or the
things on the retina of the eye or the enormous irrelevancy of
encyclopædias, but some condition to which the human spirit can come.
All good writers express the state of their souls, even (as occurs in
some cases of very good writers) if it is a state of damnation. The
first thing that has to be realised about Dickens is this ultimate
spiritual condition of the man, which lay behind all his creations. This
Dickens state of mind is difficult to pick out in words as are all
elementary states of mind; they cannot be described, not because they
are too subtle for words, but because they are too simple for words.
Perhaps the nearest approach to a statement of it would be this: that
Dickens expresses an eager anticipation of everything that will happen
in the motley affairs of men; he looks at the quiet crowd waiting for it
to be picturesque and to play the fool; he expects everything; he is
torn with a happy hunger. Thackeray is always looking back to yesterday;
Dickens is always looking forward to to-morrow. Both are profoundly
humorous, for there is a humour of the morning and a humour of the
evening; but the first guesses at what it will get, at all the
grotesqueness and variety which a day may bring forth; the second looks
back on what the day has been and sees even its solemnities as slightly
ironical. Nothing can be too extravagant for the laughter that looks
forward; and nothing can be too dignified for the laughter that looks
back. It is an idle but obvious thing, which many must have noticed,
that we often find in the title of one of an author's books what might
very well stand for a general description of all of them. Thus all
Spenser's works might be called _A Hymn to Heavenly Beauty_; or all Mr.
Bernard Shaw's bound books might be called _You Never Can Tell_. In the
same way the whole substance and spirit of Thackeray might be gathered
under the general title _Vanity Fair_. In the same way too the whole
substance and spirit of Dickens might be gathered under the general
title _Great Expectations_.

In a recent criticism on this position I saw it remarked that all this
is reading into Dickens something that he did not mean; and I have been
told that it would have greatly surprised Dickens to be informed that he
"went down the broad road of the Revolution." Of course it would.
Criticism does not exist to say about authors the things that they knew
themselves. It exists to say the things about them which they did not
know themselves. If a critic says that the _Iliad_ has a pagan rather
than a Christian pity, or that it is full of pictures made by one
epithet, of course he does not mean that Homer could have said that. If
Homer could have said that the critic would leave Homer to say it. The
function of criticism, if it has a legitimate function at all, can only
be one function--that of dealing with the subconscious part of the
author's mind which only the critic can express, and not with the
conscious part of the author's mind, which the author himself can
express. Either criticism is no good at all (a very defensible position)
or else criticism means saying about an author the very things that
would have made him jump out of his boots.

Doubtless the name in this case _Great Expectations_ is an empty
coincidence; and indeed it is not in the books of the later Dickens
period (the period of _Great Expectations_) that we should look for the
best examples of this sanguine and expectant spirit which is the
essential of the man's genius. There are plenty of good examples of it
especially in the earlier works. But even in the earlier works there is
no example of it more striking or more satisfactory than _The Old
Curiosity Shop_. It is particularly noticeable in the fact that its
opening and original framework express the idea of a random experience,
a thing come across in the street; a single face in the crowd, followed
until it tells its story. Though the thing ends in a novel it begins in
a sketch; it begins as one of the _Sketches by Boz_. There is something
unconsciously artistic in the very clumsiness of this opening. Master
Humphrey starts to keep a scrap-book of all his adventures, and he finds
that he can fill the whole scrap-book with the sequels and developments
of one adventure; he goes out to notice everybody and he finds himself
busily and variedly occupied only in watching somebody. In this there is
a very profound truth about the true excitement and inexhaustible poetry
of life. The truth is not so much that eternity is full of souls as that
one soul can fill eternity. In strict art there is something quite lame
and lumbering about the way in which the benevolent old story-teller
starts to tell many stories and then drops away altogether, while one of
his stories takes his place. But in a larger art, his collision with
Little Nell and his complete eclipse by her personality and narrative
have a real significance. They suggest the random richness of such
meetings, and their uncalculated results. It makes the whole book a sort
of splendid accident.

It is not true, as is commonly said, that the Dickens pathos as pathos
is bad. It is not true, as is still more commonly said, that the whole
business about Little Nell is bad. The case is more complex than that.
Yet complex as it is it admits of one sufficiently clear distinction.
Those who have written about the death of Little Nell, have generally
noticed the crudities of the character itself; the little girl's
unnatural and staring innocence, her constrained and awkward piety. But
they have nearly all of them entirely failed to notice that there is in
the death of Little Nell one quite definite and really artistic idea. It
is not an artistic idea that a little child should die rhetorically on
the stage like Paul Dombey; and Little Nell does not die rhetorically
upon the stage like Paul Dombey. But it is an artistic idea that all the
good powers and personalities in the story should set out in pursuit of
one insignificant child, to repair an injustice to her, should track her
from town to town over England with all the resources of wealth,
intelligence, and travel, and should all--arrive too late. All the good
fairies and all the kind magicians, all the just kings and all the
gallant princes, with chariots and flying dragons and armies and navies
go after one little child who had strayed into a wood, and find her
dead. That is the conception which Dickens's artistic instinct was
really aiming at when he finally condemned Little Nell to death, after
keeping her, so to speak, so long with the rope round her neck. The
death of Little Nell is open certainly to the particular denial which
its enemies make about it. The death of Little Nell is not pathetic. It
is perhaps tragic; it is in reality ironic. Here is a very good case of
the injustice to Dickens on his purely literary side. It is not that I
say that Dickens achieved what he designed; it is that the critics will
not see what the design was. They go on talking of the death of Little
Nell as if it were a mere example of maudlin description like the death
of Little Paul. As a fact it is not described at all; so it cannot be
objectionable. It is not the death of Little Nell, but the life of
Little Nell, that I object to.

In this, in the actual picture of her personality, if you can call it a
personality, Dickens did fall into some of his facile vices. The real
objection to much of his pathos belongs really to another part of his
character. It is connected with his vanity, his voracity for all kinds
of praise, his restive experimentalism and even perhaps his envy. He
strained himself to achieve pathos. His humour was inspiration; but his
pathos was ambition. His laughter was lonely; he would have laughed on a
desert island. But his grief was gregarious. He liked to move great
masses of men, to melt them into tenderness, to play on the people as a
great pianist plays on them; to make them mad or sad. His pathos was to
him a way of showing his power; and for that reason it was really
powerless. He could not help making people laugh; but he tried to make
them cry. We come in this novel, as we often do come in his novels, upon
hard lumps of unreality, upon a phrase that suddenly sickens. That is
always due to his conscious despotism over the delicate feelings; that
is always due to his love of fame as distinct from his love of fun. But
it is not true that all Dickens's pathos is like this; it is not even
true that all the passages about Little Nell are like this; there are
two strands almost everywhere and they can be differentiated as the
sincere and the deliberate. There is a great difference between Dickens
thinking about the tears of his characters and Dickens thinking about
the tears of his audience.

When all this is allowed, however, and the exaggerated contempt for the
Dickens pathos is properly corrected, the broad fact remains: that to
pass from the solemn characters in this book to the comic characters in
this book, is to be like some Ulysses who should pass suddenly from the
land of shadows to the mountain of the gods. Little Nell has her own
position in careful and reasonable criticism: even that wobbling old
ass, her grandfather, has his position in it; perhaps even the
dissipated Fred (whom long acquaintance with Mr. Dick Swiveller has not
made any less dismal in his dissipation) has a place in it also. But
when we come to Swiveller and Sampson Brass and Quilp and Mrs. Jarley,
then Fred and Nell and the grandfather simply do not exist. There are no
such people in the story. The real hero and heroine of _The Old
Curiosity Shop_ are of course Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness. It is
significant in a sense that these two sane, strong, living, and lovable
human beings are the only two, or almost the only two, people in the
story who do not run after Little Nell. They have something better to do
than to go on that shadowy chase after that cheerless phantom. They have
to build up between them a true romance; perhaps the one true romance in
the whole of Dickens. Dick Swiveller really has all the half-heroic
characteristics which make a man respected by a woman and which are the
male contribution to virtue. He is brave, magnanimous, sincere about
himself, amusing, absurdly hopeful; above all, he is both strong and
weak. On the other hand the Marchioness really has all the
characteristics, the entirely heroic characteristics which make a woman
respected by a man. She is female: that is, she is at once incurably
candid and incurably loyal, she is full of terrible common-sense, she
expects little pleasure for herself and yet she can enjoy bursts of it;
above all, she is physically timid and yet she can face anything. All
this solid rocky romanticism is really implied in the speech and action
of these two characters and can be felt behind them all the time.
Because they are the two most absurd people in the book they are also
the most vivid, human, and imaginable. There are two really fine love
affairs in Dickens; and I almost think only two. One is the happy
courtship of Swiveller and the Marchioness; the other is the tragic
courtship of Toots and Florence Dombey. When Dick Swiveller wakes up in
bed and sees the Marchioness playing cribbage he thinks that he and she
are a prince and princess in a fairy tale. He thinks right.

I speak thus seriously of such characters with a deliberate purpose; for
the frivolous characters of Dickens are taken much too frivolously. It
has been quite insufficiently pointed out that all the serious moral
ideas that Dickens did contrive to express he expressed altogether
through this fantastic medium, in such figures as Swiveller and the
little servant. The warmest upholder of Dickens would not go to the
solemn or sentimental passages for anything fresh or suggestive in faith
or philosophy. No one would pretend that the death of little Dombey
(with its "What are the wild waves saying?") told us anything new or
real about death. A good Christian dying, one would imagine, not only
would not know what the wild waves were saying, but would not care. No
one would pretend that the repentance of old Paul Dombey throws any
light on the psychology or philosophy of repentance. No doubt old
Dombey, white-haired and amiable, was a great improvement on old Dombey
brown-haired and unpleasant. But in his case the softening of the heart
seems to bear too close a resemblance to softening of the brain. Whether
these serious passages are as bad as the critical people or as good as
the sentimental people find them, at least they do not convey anything
in the way of an illuminating glimpse or a bold suggestion about men's
moral nature. The serious figures do not tell one anything about the
human soul. The comic figures do. Take anything almost at random out of
these admirable speeches of Dick Swiveller. Notice, for instance, how
exquisitely Dickens has caught a certain very deep and delicate quality
at the bottom of this idle kind of man. I mean that odd impersonal sort
of intellectual justice, by which the frivolous fellow sees things as
they are and even himself as he is; and is above irritation. Mr.
Swiveller, you remember, asks the Marchioness whether the Brass family
ever talk about him; she nods her head with vivacity. "'Complimentary?'
inquired Mr. Swiveller. The motion of the little servant's head
altered.... 'But she says,' continued the little servant, 'that you
ain't to be trusted.' 'Well, do you know, Marchioness,' said Mr.
Swiveller thoughtfully, 'many people, not exactly professional people,
but tradesmen, have had the same idea. The excellent citizen from whom I
ordered this beer inclines strongly to that opinion.'"

This philosophical freedom from all resentment, this strange love of
truth which seems actually to come through carelessness, is a very real
piece of spiritual observation. Even among liars there are two classes,
one immeasurably better than another. The honest liar is the man who
tells the truth about his old lies; who says on Wednesday, "I told a
magnificent lie on Monday." He keeps the truth in circulation; no one
version of things stagnates in him and becomes an evil secret. He does
not have to live with old lies; a horrible domesticity. Mr. Swiveller
may mislead the waiter about whether he has the money to pay; but he
does not mislead his friend, and he does not mislead himself on the
point. He is quite as well aware as any one can be of the accumulating
falsity of the position of a gentleman who by his various debts has
closed up all the streets into the Strand except one, and who is going
to close that to-night with a pair of gloves. He shuts up the street
with a pair of gloves, but he does not shut up his mind with a secret.
The traffic of truth is still kept open through his soul.

It is exactly in these absurd characters, then, that we can find a mass
of psychological and ethical suggestion. This cannot be found in the
serious characters except indeed in some of the later experiments: there
is a little of such psychological and ethical suggestion in figures like
Gridley, like Jasper, like Bradley Headstone. But in these earlier books
at least, such as _The Old Curiosity Shop_, the grave or moral figures
throw no light upon morals. I should maintain this generalisation even
in the presence of that apparent exception _The Christmas Carol_ with
its trio of didactic ghosts. Charity is certainly splendid, at once a
luxury and a necessity; but Dickens is not most effective when he is
preaching charity seriously; he is most effective when he is preaching
it uproariously; when he is preaching it by means of massive
personalities and vivid scenes. One might say that he is best not when
he is preaching his human love, but when he is practising it. In his
grave pages he tells us to love men; but in his wild pages he creates
men whom we can love. By his solemnity he commands us to love our
neighbours. By his caricature he makes us love them.

There is an odd literary question which I wonder is not put more often
in literature. How far can an author tell a truth without seeing it
himself? Perhaps an actual example will express my meaning. I was once
talking to a highly intelligent lady about Thackeray's _Newcomes_. We
were speaking of the character of Mrs. Mackenzie, the Campaigner, and in
the middle of the conversation the lady leaned across to me and said in
a low, hoarse, but emphatic voice, "She drank. Thackeray didn't know it;
but she drank." And it is really astonishing what a shaft of white light
this sheds on the Campaigner, on her terrible temperament, on her
agonised abusiveness and her almost more agonised urbanity, on her
clamour which is nevertheless not open or explicable, on her temper
which is not so much bad temper as insatiable, bloodthirsty, man-eating
temper. How far can a writer thus indicate by accident a truth of which
he is himself ignorant? If truth is a plan or pattern of things that
really are, or in other words, if truth truly exists outside ourselves,
or in other words, if truth exists at all, it must be often possible for
a writer to uncover a corner of it which he happens not to understand,
but which his reader does happen to understand. The author sees only two
lines; the reader sees where they meet and what is the angle. The author
sees only an arc or fragment of a curve; the reader sees the size of the
circle. The last thing to say about Dickens, and especially about books
like _The Old Curiosity Shop_, is that they are full of these
unconscious truths. The careless reader may miss them. The careless
author almost certainly did miss them. But from them can be gathered an
impression of real truth to life which is for the grave critics of
Dickens an almost unknown benefit, buried treasure. Here for instance is
one of them out of _The Old Curiosity Shop_. I mean the passage in which
(by a blazing stroke of genius) the dashing Mr. Chuckster, one of the
Glorious Apollos of whom Mr. Swiveller was the Perpetual Grand, is made
to entertain a hatred bordering upon frenzy for the stolid, patient,
respectful, and laborious Kit. Now in the formal plan of the story Mr.
Chuckster is a fool, and Kit is almost a hero; at least he is a noble
boy. Yet unconsciously Dickens made the idiot Chuckster say something
profoundly suggestive on the subject. In speaking of Kit Mr. Chuckster
makes use of these two remarkable phrases; that Kit is "meek" and that
he is "a snob." Now Kit is really a very fresh and manly picture of a
boy, firm, sane, chivalrous, reasonable, full of those three great Roman
virtues which Mr. Belloc has so often celebrated, _virtus_ and
_verecundia_ and _pietas_. He is a sympathetic but still a
straightforward study of the best type of that most respectable of all
human classes, the respectable poor. All this is true; all that Dickens
utters in praise of Kit is true; nevertheless the awful words of
Chuckster remain written on the eternal skies. Kit is meek and Kit is a
snob. His natural dignity does include and is partly marred by that
instinctive subservience to the employing class which has been the
comfortable weakness of the whole English democracy, which has prevented
their making any revolution for the last two hundred years. Kit would
not serve any wicked man for money, but he would serve any moderately
good man and the money would give a certain dignity and decisiveness to
the goodness. All this is the English popular evil which goes along with
the English popular virtues of geniality, of homeliness, tolerance and
strong humour, hope and an enormous appetite for a hand-to-mouth
happiness. The scene in which Kit takes his family to the theatre is a
monument of the massive qualities of old English enjoyment. If what we
want is Merry England, our antiquarians ought not to revive the Maypole
or the Morris Dancers; they ought to revive Astley's and Sadler's Wells
and the old solemn Circus and the old stupid Pantomime, and all the
sawdust and all the oranges. Of all this strength and joy in the poor,
Kit is a splendid and final symbol. But amid all his masculine and
English virtue, he has this weak touch of meekness, or acceptance of the
powers that be. It is a sound touch; it is a real truth about Kit. But
Dickens did not know it. Mr. Chuckster did.

Dickens's stories taken as a whole have more artistic unity than appears
at the first glance. It is the immediate impulse of a modern critic to
dismiss them as mere disorderly scrap-books with very brilliant scraps.
But this is not quite so true as it looks. In one of Dickens's novels
there is generally no particular unity of construction; but there is
often a considerable unity of sentiment and atmosphere. Things are
irrelevant, but not somehow inappropriate. The whole book is written
carelessly; but the whole book is generally written in one mood. To take
a rude parallel from the other arts, we may say that there is not much
unity of form, but there is much unity of colour. In most of the novels
this can be seen. _Nicholas Nickleby_, as I have remarked, is full of a
certain freshness, a certain light and open-air curiosity, which
irradiates from the image of the young man swinging along the Yorkshire
roads in the sun. Hence the comic characters with whom he falls in are
comic characters in the same key; they are a band of strolling players,
charlatans and poseurs, but too humane to be called humbugs. In the same
way, the central story of _Oliver Twist_ is sombre; and hence even its
comic character is almost sombre; at least he is too ugly to be merely
amusing. Mr. Bumble is in some ways a terrible grotesque; his apoplectic
visage recalls the "fire-red Cherubimme's face," which added such horror
to the height and stature of Chaucer's Sompnour. In both these cases
even the riotous and absurd characters are a little touched with the
tint of the whole story. But this neglected merit of Dickens can
certainly be seen best in _The Old Curiosity Shop_.

The curiosity shop itself was a lumber of grotesque and sinister things,
outlandish weapons, twisted and diabolic decorations. The comic
characters in the book are all like images bought in an old curiosity
shop. Quilp might be a gargoyle. He might be some sort of devilish
door-knocker, dropped down and crawling about the pavement. The same
applies to the sinister and really terrifying stiffness of Sally Brass.
She is like some old staring figure cut out of wood. Sampson Brass, her
brother, again is a grotesque in the same rather inhuman manner; he is
especially himself when he comes in with the green shade over his eye.
About all this group of bad figures in _The Old Curiosity Shop_ there is
a sort of _diablerie_. There is also within this atmosphere an
extraordinary energy of irony and laughter. The scene in which Sampson
Brass draws up the description of Quilp, supposing him to be dead,
reaches a point of fiendish fun. "We will not say very bandy, Mrs.
Jiniwin," he says of his friend's legs, "we will confine ourselves to
bandy. He is gone, my friends, where his legs would never be called in
question." They go on to the discussion of his nose, and Mrs. Jiniwin
inclines to the view that it is flat. "Aquiline, you hag! Aquiline,"
cries Mr. Quilp, pushing in his head and striking his nose with his
fist. There is nothing better in the whole brutal exuberance of the
character than that gesture with which Quilp punches his own face with
his own fist. It is indeed a perfect symbol; for Quilp is always
fighting himself for want of anybody else. He is energy, and energy by
itself is always suicidal; he is that primordial energy which tears and
which destroys itself.


_Barnaby Rudge_ was written by Dickens in the spring and first flowing
tide of his popularity; it came immediately after _The Old Curiosity
Shop_, and only a short time after _Pickwick_. Dickens was one of those
rare but often very sincere men in whom the high moment of success
almost coincides with the high moment of youth. The calls upon him at
this time were insistent and overwhelming; this necessarily happens at a
certain stage of a successful writer's career. He was just successful
enough to invite offers and not successful enough to reject them. At the
beginning of his career he could throw himself into _Pickwick_ because
there was nothing else to throw himself into. At the end of his life he
could throw himself into _A Tale of Two Cities_, because he refused to
throw himself into anything else. But there was an intervening period,
early in his life, when there was almost too much work for his
imagination, and yet not quite enough work for his housekeeping. To this
period _Barnaby Rudge_ belongs. And it is a curious tribute to the quite
curious greatness of Dickens that in this period of youthful strain we
do not feel the strain but feel only the youth. His own amazing wish to
write equalled or outstripped even his readers' amazing wish to read.
Working too hard did not cure him of his abstract love of work.
Unreasonable publishers asked him to write ten novels at once; but he
wanted to write twenty novels at once. All this period is strangely full
of his own sense at once of fertility and of futility; he did work which
no one else could have done, and yet he could not be certain as yet that
he was anybody.

_Barnaby Rudge_ marks this epoch because it marks the fact that he is
still confused about what kind of person he is going to be. He has
already struck the note of the normal romance in _Nicholas Nickleby_; he
has already created some of his highest comic characters in _Pickwick_
and _The Old Curiosity Shop_, but here he betrays the fact that it is
still a question what ultimate guide he shall follow. _Barnaby Rudge_ is
a romantic, historical novel. Its design reminds us of Scott; some parts
of its fulfilment remind us, alas! of Harrison Ainsworth. It is a very
fine romantic historical novel; Scott would have been proud of it. But
it is still so far different from the general work of Dickens that it is
permissible to wonder how far Dickens was proud of it. The book,
effective as it is, is almost entirely devoted to dealings with a
certain artistic element, which (in its mere isolation) Dickens did not
commonly affect; an element which many men of infinitely less genius
have often seemed to affect more successfully; I mean the element of the

It is the custom in many quarters to speak somewhat sneeringly of that
element which is broadly called the picturesque. It is always felt to be
an inferior, a vulgar, and even an artificial form of art. Yet two
things may be remarked about it. The first is that, with few
exceptions, the greatest literary artists have been not only
particularly clever at the picturesque, but particularly fond of it.
Shakespeare, for instance, delighted in certain merely pictorial
contrasts which are quite distinct from, even when they are akin to, the
spiritual view involved. For instance, there is admirable satire in the
idea of Touchstone teaching worldly wisdom and worldly honour to the
woodland yokels. There is excellent philosophy in the idea of the fool
being the representative of civilisation in the forest. But quite apart
from this deeper meaning in the incident, the mere figure of the jester,
in his bright motley and his cap and bells, against the green background
of the forest and the rude forms of the shepherds, is a strong example
of the purely picturesque. There is excellent tragic irony in the
confrontation of the melancholy philosopher among the tombs with the
cheerful digger of the graves. It sums up the essential point, that dead
bodies can be comic; it is only dead souls that can be tragic. But quite
apart from such irony, the mere picture of the grotesque gravedigger,
the black-clad prince, and the skull is a picture in the strongest sense
picturesque. Caliban and the two shipwrecked drunkards are an admirable
symbol; but they are also an admirable scene. Bottom, with the ass's
head, sitting in a ring of elves, is excellent moving comedy, but also
excellent still life. Falstaff with his huge body, Bardolph with his
burning nose, are masterpieces of the pen; but they would be fine
sketches even for the pencil. King Lear, in the storm, is a landscape as
well as a character study. There is something decorative even about the
insistence on the swarthiness of Othello, or the deformity of Richard
III. Shakespeare's work is much more than picturesque; but it is
picturesque. And the same which is said here of him by way of example is
largely true of the highest class of literature. Dante's _Divine Comedy_
is supremely important as a philosophy; but it is important merely as a
panorama. Spenser's _Faery Queen_ pleases us as an allegory; but it
would please us even as a wall-paper. Stronger still is the case of
Chaucer who loved the pure picturesque, which always includes something
of what we commonly call the ugly. The huge stature and startling
scarlet face of the Sompnour is in just the same spirit as Shakespeare's
skulls and motley; the same spirit gave Chaucer's miller bagpipes, and
clad his doctor in crimson. It is the spirit which, while making many
other things, loves to make a picture.

Now the second thing to be remarked in apology for the picturesque is,
that the very thing which makes it seem trivial ought really to make it
seem important; I mean the fact that it consists necessarily of
contrasts. It brings together types that stand out from their
background, but are abruptly different from each other, like the clown
among the fairies or the fool in the forest. And his audacious
reconciliation is a mark not of frivolity but of extreme seriousness. A
man who deals in harmonies, who only matches stars with angels or lambs
with spring flowers, he indeed may be frivolous; for he is taking one
mood at a time, and perhaps forgetting each mood as it passes. But a man
who ventures to combine an angel and an octopus must have some serious
view of the universe. The man who should write a dialogue between two
early Christians might be a mere writer of dialogues. But a man who
should write a dialogue between an early Christian and the Missing Link
would have to be a philosopher. The more widely different the types
talked of, the more serious and universal must be the philosophy which
talks of them. The mark of the light and thoughtless writer is the
harmony of his subject matter; the mark of the thoughtful writer is its
apparent diversity. The most flippant lyric poet might write a pretty
poem about lambs; but it requires something bolder and graver than a
poet, it requires an ecstatic prophet, to talk about the lion lying down
with the lamb.

Dickens, at any rate, strongly supports this conception: that great
literary men as such do not despise the purely pictorial. No man's works
have so much the quality of illustrating themselves. Few men's works
have been more thoroughly and eagerly illustrated; few men's works can
it have been better fun to illustrate. As a rule this fascinating
quality in the mere fantastic figures of the tale was inseparable from
their farcical quality in the tale. Stiggins's red nose is distinctly
connected with the fact that he is a member of the Ebenezer Temperance
Association; Quilp is little, because a little of him goes a long way.
Mr. Carker smiles and smiles and is a villain; Mr. Chadband is fat
because in his case to be fat is to be hated. The story is immeasurably
more important than the picture; it is not mere indulgence in the
picturesque. Generally it is an intellectual love of the comic; not a
pure love of the grotesque.

But in one book Dickens suddenly confesses that he likes the grotesque
even without the comic. In one case he makes clear that he enjoys pure
pictures with a pure love of the picturesque. That place is _Barnaby
Rudge_. There had indeed been hints of it in many episodes in his books;
notably, for example, in that fine scene of the death of Quilp--a scene
in which the dwarf remains fantastic long after he has ceased to be in
any way funny. Still, the dwarf was meant to be funny. Humour of a
horrible kind, but still humour, is the purpose of Quilp's existence and
position in the book. Laughter is the object of all his oddities. But
laughter is not the object of Barnaby Rudge's oddities. His idiot
costume and his ugly raven are used for the purpose of the pure
grotesque; solely to make a certain kind of Gothic sketch.

It is commonly this love of pictures that drives men back upon the
historical novel. But it is very typical of Dickens's living interest in
his own time, that though he wrote two historical novels they were
neither of them of very ancient history. They were both, indeed, of very
recent history; only they were those parts of recent history which were
specially picturesque. I do not think that this was due to any mere
consciousness on his part that he knew no history. Undoubtedly he knew
no history; and he may or may not have been conscious of the fact. But
the consciousness did not prevent him from writing a _History of
England_. Nor did it prevent him from interlarding all or any of his
works with tales of the pictorial past, such as the tale of the broken
swords in _Master Humphrey's Clock_, or the indefensibly delightful
nightmare of the lady in the stage-coach, which helps to soften the
amiable end of Pickwick. Neither, worst of all, did it prevent him from
dogmatising anywhere and everywhere about the past, of which he knew
nothing; it did not prevent him from telling the bells to tell Trotty
Veck that the Middle Ages were a failure, nor from solemnly declaring
that the best thing that the mediæval monks ever did was to create the
mean and snobbish quietude of a modern cathedral city. No, it was not
historical reverence that held him back from dealing with the remote
past; but rather something much better--a living interest in the living
century in which he was born. He would have thought himself quite
intellectually capable of writing a novel about the Council of Trent or
the First Crusade. He would have thought himself quite equal to
analysing the psychology of Abelard or giving a bright, satiric sketch
of St. Augustine. It must frankly be confessed that it was not a sense
of his own unworthiness that held him back; I fear it was rather a sense
of St. Augustine's unworthiness. He could not see the point of any
history before the first slow swell of the French Revolution. He could
understand the revolutions of the eighteenth century; all the other
revolutions of history (so many and so splendid) were unmeaning to him.
But the revolutions of the eighteenth century he did understand; and to
them therefore he went back, as all historical novelists go back, in
search of the picturesque. And from this fact an important result

The result that follows is this: that his only two historical novels are
both tales of revolutions--of eighteenth-century revolutions. These two
eighteenth-century revolutions may seem to differ, and perhaps do
differ in everything except in being revolutions and of the eighteenth
century. The French Revolution, which is the theme of _A Tale of Two
Cities_, was a revolt in favour of all that is now called enlightenment
and liberation. The great Gordon Riot, which is the theme of _Barnaby
Rudge_, was a revolt in favour of something which would now be called
mere ignorant and obscurantist Protestantism. Nevertheless both belonged
more typically to the age out of which Dickens came--the great sceptical
and yet creative eighteenth century of Europe. Whether the mob rose on
the right side or the wrong they both belonged to the time in which a
mob could rise, in which a mob could conquer. No growth of intellectual
science or of moral cowardice had made it impossible to fight in the
streets, whether for the republic or for the Bible. If we wish to know
what was the real link, existing actually in ultimate truth, existing
unconsciously in Dickens's mind, which connected the Gordon Riots with
the French Revolution, the link may be defined though not with any great
adequacy. The nearest and truest way of stating it is that neither of
the two could possibly happen in Fleet Street to-morrow evening.

Another point of resemblance between the two books might be found in the
fact that they both contain the sketch of the same kind of
eighteenth-century aristocrat, if indeed that kind of aristocrat really
existed in the eighteenth century. The diabolical dandy with the rapier
and the sneer is at any rate a necessity of all normal plays and
romances; hence Mr. Chester has a right to exist in this romance, and
Foulon a right to exist in a page of history almost as cloudy and
disputable as a romance. What Dickens and other romancers do probably
omit from the picture of the eighteenth-century oligarch is probably his
liberality. It must never be forgotten that even when he was a despot in
practice he was generally a liberal in theory. Dickens and romancers
make the pre-revolution tyrant a sincere believer in tyranny; generally
he was not. He was a sceptic about everything, even about his own
position. The romantic Foulon says of the people, "Let them eat grass,"
with bitter and deliberate contempt. The real Foulon (if he ever said it
at all) probably said it as a sort of dreary joke because he couldn't
think of any other way out of the problem. Similarly Mr. Chester, a
cynic as he is, believes seriously in the beauty of being a gentleman; a
real man of that type probably disbelieved in that as in everything
else. Dickens was too bracing, one may say too bouncing himself to
understand the psychology of fatigue in a protected and leisured class.
He could understand a tyrant like Quilp, a tyrant who is on his throne
because he has climbed up into it, like a monkey. He could not
understand a tyrant who is on his throne because he is too weary to get
out of it. The old aristocrats were in a dead way quite good-natured.
They were even humanitarians; which perhaps accounts for the extent to
which they roused against themselves the healthy hatred of humanity. But
they were tired humanitarians; tired with doing nothing. Figures like
that of Mr. Chester, therefore, fail somewhat to give the true sense of
something hopeless and helpless which led men to despair of the upper
class. He has a boyish pleasure in play-acting; he has an interest in
life; being a villain is his hobby. But the true man of that type had
found all hobbies fail him. He had wearied of himself as he had wearied
of a hundred women. He was graceful and could not even admire himself in
the glass. He was witty and could not even laugh at his own jokes.
Dickens could never understand tedium.

There is no mark more strange and perhaps sinister of the interesting
and not very sane condition of our modern literature, than the fact that
tedium has been admirably described in it. Our best modern writers are
never so exciting as they are about dulness. Mr. Rudyard Kipling is
never so powerful as when he is painting yawning deserts, aching
silences, sleepless nights, or infernal isolation. The excitement in one
of the stories of Mr. Henry James becomes tense, thrilling, and almost
intolerable in all the half hours during which nothing whatever is said
or done. We are entering again into the mind, into the real mind of
Foulon and Mr. Chester. We begin to understand the deep despair of those
tyrants whom our fathers pulled down. But Dickens could never have
understood that despair; it was not in his soul. And it is an
interesting coincidence that here, in this book of _Barnaby Rudge_,
there is a character meant to be wholly grotesque, who, nevertheless,
expresses much of that element in Dickens which prevented him from being
a true interpreter of the tired and sceptical aristocrat.

Sim Tappertit is a fool, but a perfectly honourable fool. It requires
some sincerity to pose. Posing means that one has not dried up in
oneself all the youthful and innocent vanities with the slow paralysis
of mere pride. Posing means that one is still fresh enough to enjoy the
good opinion of one's fellows. On the other hand, the true cynic has not
enough truth in him to attempt affectation; he has never even seen the
truth, far less tried to imitate it. Now we might very well take the
type of Mr. Chester on the one hand, and of Sim Tappertit on the other,
as marking the issue, the conflict, and the victory which really ushered
in the nineteenth century. Dickens was very like Sim Tappertit. The
Liberal Revolution was very like a Sim Tappertit revolution. It was
vulgar, it was overdone, it was absurd, but it was alive. Dickens was
vulgar, was absurd, overdid everything, but he was alive. The
aristocrats were perfectly correct, but quite dead; dead long before
they were guillotined. The classics and critics who lamented that
Dickens was no gentleman were quite right, but quite dead. The
revolution thought itself rational; but so did Sim Tappertit. It was
really a huge revolt of romanticism against a reason which had grown
sick even of itself. Sim Tappertit rose against Mr. Chester; and, thank
God! he put his foot upon his neck.

  [Illustration: Charles Dickens, 1842
  From a bust by H. Dexter, executed during Dickens's first visit to


_American Notes_ was written soon after Dickens had returned from his
first visit to America. That visit had, of course, been a great epoch in
his life; but how much of an epoch men did not truly realise until, some
time after, in the middle of a quiet story about Salisbury and a
ridiculous architect, his feelings flamed out and flared up to the stars
in _Martin Chuzzlewit_. The _American Notes_ are, however, interesting,
because in them he betrays his feelings when he does not know that he is
betraying them. Dickens's first visit to America was, from his own point
of view, and at the beginning, a happy and festive experiment. It is
very characteristic of him that he went among the Americans, enjoyed
them, even admired them, and then had a quarrel with them. Nothing was
ever so unmistakable as his good-will, except his ill-will; and they
were never far apart. And this was not, as some bloodless moderns have
sneeringly insinuated, a mere repetition of the proximity between the
benevolent stage and the quarrelsome stage of drink. It was a piece of
pure optimism; he believed so readily that men were going to be good to
him that an injury to him was something more than an injury: it was a
shock. What was the exact nature of the American shock must, however, be
more carefully stated.

The famous quarrel between Dickens and America, which finds its most
elaborate expression in _American Notes_, though its most brilliant
expression in _Martin Chuzzlewit_, is an incident about which a great
deal remains to be said. But the thing which most specially remains to
be said is this. This old Anglo-American quarrel was much more
fundamentally friendly than most Anglo-American alliances. In Dickens's
day each nation understood the other enough to argue. In our time
neither nation understands itself even enough to quarrel. There was an
English tradition, from Fox and eighteenth-century England; there was an
American tradition from Franklin and eighteenth-century America; and
they were still close enough together to discuss their differences with
acrimony, perhaps, but with certain fundamental understandings. The
eighteenth-century belief in a liberal civilisation was still a dogma;
for dogma is the only thing that makes argument or reasoning possible.
America, under all its swagger, did still really believe that Europe was
its fountain and its mother, because Europe was more fully civilised.
Dickens, under all his disgust, did still believe that America was in
advance of Europe, because it was more democratic. It was an age, in
short, in which the word "progress" could still be used reasonably;
because the whole world looked to one way of escape and there was only
one kind of progress under discussion. Now, of course, "progress" is a
useless word; for progress takes for granted an already defined
direction; and it is exactly about the direction that we disagree. Do
not let us therefore be misled into any mistaken optimism or special
self-congratulation upon what many people would call the improved
relations between England and America. The relations are improved
because America has finally become a foreign country. And with foreign
countries all sane men take care to exchange a certain consideration and
courtesy. But even as late as the time of Dickens's first visit to the
United States, we English still felt America as a colony; an insolent,
offensive, and even unintelligible colony sometimes, but still a colony;
a part of our civilisation, a limb of our life. And America itself, as I
have said, under all its bounce and independence, really regarded us as
a mother country. This being the case it was possible for us to quarrel,
like kinsmen. Now we only bow and smile, like strangers.

This tone, as a sort of family responsibility, can be felt quite
specially all through the satires or suggestions of these _American
Notes_. Dickens is cross with America because he is worried about
America; as if he were its father. He explores its industrial, legal,
and educational arrangements like a mother looking at the housekeeping
of a married son; he makes suggestions with a certain acidity; he takes
a strange pleasure in being pessimistic. He advises them to take note of
how much better certain things are done in England. All this is very
different from Dickens's characteristic way of dealing with a foreign
country. In countries really foreign, such as France, Switzerland, and
Italy, he had two attitudes, neither of them in the least worried or
paternal. When he found a thing in Europe which he did not understand,
such as the Roman Catholic Church, he simply called it an old-world
superstition, and sat looking at it like a moonlit ruin. When he found
something that he did understand, such as luncheon baskets, he burst
into carols of praise over the superior sense in our civilisation and
good management to Continental methods. An example of the first attitude
may be found in one of his letters, in which he describes the
backwardness and idleness of Catholics who would not build a Birmingham
in Italy. He seems quite unconscious of the obvious truth, that the
backwardness of Catholics was simply the refusal of Bob Cratchit to
enter the house of Gradgrind. An example of the second attitude can be
found in the purple patches of fun in _Mugby Junction_; in which the
English waitress denounces the profligate French habit of providing new
bread and clean food for people travelling by rail. The point is,
however, that in neither case has he the air of one suggesting
improvements or sharing a problem with the people engaged on it. He does
not go carefully with a notebook through Jesuit schools nor offer
friendly suggestions to the governors of Parisian prisons. Or if he
does, it is in a different spirit; it is in the spirit of an ordinary
tourist being shown over the Coliseum or the Pyramids. But he visited
America in the spirit of a Government inspector dealing with something
it was his duty to inspect. This is never felt either in his praise or
blame of Continental countries. When he did not leave a foreign country
to decay like a dead dog, he merely watched it at play like a kitten.
France he mistook for a kitten. Italy he mistook for a dead dog.

But with America he could feel--and fear. There he could hate, because
he could love. There he could feel not the past alone nor the present,
but the future also; and, like all brave men, when he saw the future he
was a little afraid of it. For of all tests by which the good citizen
and strong reformer can be distinguished from the vague faddist or the
inhuman sceptic, I know no better test than this--that the unreal
reformer sees in front of him one certain future, the future of his fad;
while the real reformer sees before him ten or twenty futures among
which his country must choose, and may, in some dreadful hour, choose
the wrong one. The true patriot is always doubtful of victory; because
he knows that he is dealing with a living thing; a thing with free will.
To be certain of free will is to be uncertain of success.

The subject matter of the real difference of opinion between Dickens and
the public of America can only be understood if it is thus treated as a
dispute between brothers about the destiny of a common heritage. The
point at issue might be stated like this. Dickens, on his side, did not
in his heart doubt for a moment that England would eventually follow
America along the road towards real political equality and purely
republican institutions. He lived, it must be remembered, before the
revival of aristocracy, which has since overwhelmed us--the revival of
aristocracy worked through popular science and commercial dictatorship,
and which has nowhere been more manifest than in America itself. He knew
nothing of this; in his heart he conceded to the Yankees that not only
was their revolution right but would ultimately be completed everywhere.
But on the other hand, his whole point against the American experiment
was this--that if it ignored certain ancient English contributions it
would go to pieces for lack of them. Of these the first was good manners
and the second individual liberty--liberty, that is, to speak and write
against the trend of the majority. In these things he was much more
serious and much more sensible than it is the fashion to think he was;
he was indeed one of the most serious and sensible critics England ever
had of current and present problems, though his criticism is useless to
the point of nonentity about all things remote from him in style of
civilisation or in time. His point about good manners is really
important. All his grumblings through this book of _American Notes_, all
his shrieking satire in _Martin Chuzzlewit_ are expressions of a grave
and reasonable fear he had touching the future of democracy. And
remember again what has been already remarked--instinctively he paid
America the compliment of looking at her as the future of democracy.

The mistake which he attacked still exists. I cannot imagine why it is
that social equality is somehow supposed to mean social familiarity. Why
should equality mean that all men are equally rude? Should it not rather
mean that all men are equally polite? Might it not quite reasonably mean
that all men should be equally ceremonious and stately and pontifical?
What is there specially Equalitarian, for instance, in calling your
political friends and even your political enemies by their Christian
names in public? There is something very futile in the way in which
certain Socialist leaders call each other Tom, Dick, and Harry;
especially when Tom is accusing Harry of having basely imposed upon the
well-known imbecility of Dick. There is something quite undemocratic in
all men calling each other by the special and affectionate term
"comrade"; especially when they say it with a sneer and smart inquiry
about the funds. Democracy would be quite satisfied if every man called
every other man "sir." Democracy would have no conceivable reason to
complain if every man called every other man "your excellency" or "your
holiness" or "brother of the sun and moon." The only democratic
essential is that it should be a term of dignity and that it should be
given to all. To abolish all terms of dignity is no more specially
democratic than the Roman emperor's wish to cut off everybody's head at
once was specially democratic. That involved equality certainly, but it
was lacking in respect.

Dickens saw America as markedly the seat of this danger. He saw that
there was a perilous possibility that republican ideals might be allied
to a social anarchy good neither for them nor for any other ideals.
Republican simplicity, which is difficult, might be quickly turned into
Bohemian brutality, which is easy. Cincinnatus, instead of putting his
hand to the plough, might put his feet on the tablecloth, and an
impression prevail that it was all a part of the same rugged equality
and freedom. Insolence might become a tradition. Bad manners might have
all the sanctity of good manners. "There you are!" cries Martin
Chuzzlewit indignantly, when the American has befouled the butter. "A
man deliberately makes a hog of himself and _that_ is an Institution."
But the thread of thought which we must always keep in hand in this
matter is that he would not thus have worried about the degradation of
republican simplicity into general rudeness if he had not from first to
last instinctively felt that America held human democracy in her hand,
to exalt it or to let it fall. In one of his gloomier moments he wrote
down his fear that the greatest blow ever struck at liberty would be
struck by America in the failure of her mission upon the earth.

This brings us to the other ground of his alarm--the matter of liberty
of speech. Here also he was much more reasonable and philosophic than
has commonly been realised. The truth is that the lurid individualism of
Carlyle has, with its violent colours, "killed" the tones of most
criticism of his time; and just as we can often see a scheme of
decoration better if we cover some flaming picture, so you can judge
nineteenth-century England much better if you leave Carlyle out. He is
important to moderns because he led that return to Toryism which has
been the chief feature of modernity, but his judgments were often not
only spiritually false, but really quite superficial. Dickens understood
the danger of democracy far better than Carlyle; just as he understood
the merits of democracy far better than Carlyle. And of this fact we can
produce one plain evidence in the matter of which we speak. Carlyle, in
his general dislike of the revolutionary movement, lumped liberty and
democracy together and said that the chief objection to democracy was
that it involved the excess and misuse of liberty; he called democracy
"anarchy or no-rule." Dickens, with far more philosophical insight and
spiritual delicacy, saw that the real danger of democracy is that it
tends to the very opposite of anarchy; even to the very opposite of
liberty. He lamented in America the freedom of manners. But he lamented
even more the absence of freedom of opinion. "I believe there is no
country on the face of the earth," he says, "where there is less freedom
of opinion on any subject in reference to which there is a broad
difference of opinion than in this. There! I write the words with
reluctance, disappointment, and sorrow; but I believe it from the bottom
of my soul. The notion that I, a man alone by myself in America, should
venture to suggest to the Americans that there was one point on which
they were neither just to their own countrymen nor to us, actually
struck the boldest dumb! Washington Irving, Prescott, Hoffman, Bryant,
Halleck, Dana, Washington Allston--every man who writes in this country
is devoted to the question, and not one of them _dares_ to raise his
voice and complain of the atrocious state of the law. The wonder is that
a breathing man can be found with temerity enough to suggest to the
Americans the possibility of their having done wrong. I wish you could
have seen the faces that I saw down both sides of the table at Hartford
when I began to talk about Scott. I wish you could have heard how I gave
it out. My blood so boiled when I thought of the monstrous injustice
that I felt as if I were twelve feet high when I thrust it down their
throats." Dickens knew no history, but he had all history behind him in
feeling that a pure democracy does tend, when it goes wrong, to be too
traditional and absolute. The truth is indeed a singular example of the
unfair attack upon democracy in our own time. Everybody can repeat the
platitude that the mob can be the greatest of all tyrants. But few
realise or remember the corresponding truth which goes along with
it--that the mob is the only permanent and unassailable high priest.
Democracy drives its traditions too hard; but democracy is the only
thing that keeps any traditions. An aristocracy must always be going
after some new thing. The severity of democracy is far more of a virtue
than its liberty. The decorum of a democracy is far more of a danger
than its lawlessness. Dickens discovered this in his great quarrels
about the copyright, when a whole nation acted on a small point of
opinion as if it were going to lynch him. But, fortunately for the
purpose of this argument, there is no need to go back to the forties for
such a case. Another great literary man has of late visited America; and
it is possible that Maxim Gorky may be in a position to state how far
democracy is likely to err on the side of mere liberty and laxity. He
may have found, like Dickens, some freedom of manners; he did not find
much freedom of morals.

Along with such American criticism should really go his very
characteristic summary of the question of the Red Indian. It marks the
combination between the mental narrowness and the moral justice of the
old Liberal. Dickens can see nothing in the Red Indian except that he is
barbaric, retrograde, bellicose, uncleanly, and superstitious--in short,
that he is not a member of the special civilisation of Birmingham or
Brighton. It is curious to note the contrast between the cheery, nay
Cockney, contempt with which Dickens speaks of the American Indian and
that chivalrous and pathetic essay in which Washington Irving celebrates
the virtues of the vanishing race. Between Washington Irving and his
friend Charles Dickens there was always indeed this ironical comedy of
inversion. It is amusing that the Englishman should have been the
pushing and even pert modernist, and the American the stately
antiquarian and lover of lost causes. But while a man of more mellow
sympathies may well dislike Dickens's dislike of savages, and even
disdain his disdain, he ought to sharply remind himself of the admirable
ethical fairness and equity which meet with that restricted outlook. In
the very act of describing Red Indians as devils who, like so much dirt,
it would pay us to sweep away, he pauses to deny emphatically that we
have any right to sweep them away. We have no right to wrong the man, he
means to say, even if he himself be a kind of wrong. Here we strike the
ringing iron of the old conscience and sense of honour which marked the
best men of his party and of his epoch. This rigid and even reluctant
justice towers, at any rate, far above modern views of savages, above
the sentimentalism of the mere humanitarian and the far weaker
sentimentalism that pleads for brutality and a race war. Dickens was at
least more of a man than the brutalitarian who claims to wrong people
because they are nasty, or the humanitarian who cannot be just to them
without pretending that they are nice.


The _Pictures from Italy_ are excellent in themselves and excellent as a
foil to the _American Notes_. Here we have none of that air of giving a
decision like a judge or sending in a report like an inspector; here we
have only glimpses, light and even fantastic glimpses, of a world that
is really alien to Dickens. It is so alien that he can almost entirely
enjoy it. For no man can entirely enjoy that which he loves; contentment
is always unpatriotic. The difference can indeed be put with approximate
perfection in one phrase. In Italy he was on a holiday; in America he
was on a tour. But indeed Dickens himself has quite sufficiently
conveyed the difference in the two phrases that he did actually use for
the titles of the two books. Dickens often told unconscious truths,
especially in small matters. The _American Notes_ really are notes, like
the notes of a student or a professional witness. The _Pictures from
Italy_ are only pictures from Italy, like the miscellaneous pictures
that all tourists bring from Italy.

To take another and perhaps closer figure of speech, almost all
Dickens's works such as these may best be regarded as private letters
addressed to the public. His private correspondence was quite as
brilliant as his public works; and many of his public works are almost
as formless and casual as his private correspondence. If he had been
struck insensible for a year, I really think that his friends and family
could have brought out one of his best books by themselves if they had
happened to keep his letters. The homogeneity of his public and private
work was indeed strange in many ways. On the one hand, there was little
that was pompously and unmistakably public in the publications; on the
other hand, there was very little that was private in the private
letters. His hilarity had almost a kind of hardness about it; no man's
letters, I should think, ever needed less expurgation on the ground of
weakness or undue confession. The main part, and certainly the best
part, of such a book as _Pictures from Italy_ can certainly be
criticised best as part of that perpetual torrent of entertaining
autobiography which he flung at his children as if they were his readers
and his readers as if they were his children. There are some brilliant
patches of sense and nonsense in this book; but there is always
something accidental in them; as if they might have occurred somewhere
else. Perhaps the most attractive of them is the incomparable
description of the Italian Marionette Theatre in which they acted a play
about the death of Napoleon in St. Helena. The description is better
than that of Codlin and Short's Punch and Judy, and almost as good as
that of Mrs. Jarley's Wax Works. Indeed the humour is similar; for Punch
is supposed to be funny, but Napoleon (as Mrs. Jarley said when asked if
her show was funnier than Punch) was not funny at all. The idea of a
really tragic scene being enacted between tiny wooden dolls with large
heads is delightfully dealt with by Dickens. We can almost imagine the
scene in which the wooden Napoleon haughtily rebukes his wooden jailor
for calling him General Bonaparte--"Sir Hudson Low, call me not thus; I
am Napoleon, Emperor of the French." There is also something singularly
gratifying about the scene of Napoleon's death, in which he lay in bed
with his little wooden hands outside the counterpane and the doctor (who
was hung on wires too short) "delivered medical opinions in the air." It
may seem flippant to dwell on such flippancies in connection with a book
which contains many romantic descriptions and many moral generalisations
which Dickens probably valued highly. But it is not for such things that
he is valued. In all his writings, from his most reasoned and sustained
novel to his maddest private note, it is always this obstreperous
instinct for farce which stands out as his in the highest sense. His
wisdom is at the best talent, his foolishness is genius. Just that
exuberant levity which we associate with a moment we associate in his
case with immortality. It is said of certain old masonry that the mortar
was so hard that it has survived the stones. So if Dickens could revisit
the thing he built, he would be surprised to see all the work he thought
solid and responsible wasted almost utterly away, but the shortest
frivolities and the most momentary jokes remaining like colossal rocks
for ever.

  [Illustration: Charles Dickens, 1844
  From a miniature by Margaret Gillies.]


There is a certain quality or element which broods over the whole of
_Martin Chuzzlewit_ to which it is difficult for either friends or foes
to put a name. I think the reader who enjoys Dickens's other books has
an impression that it is a kind of melancholy. There are grotesque
figures of the most gorgeous kind; there are scenes that are farcical
even by the standard of the farcical license of Dickens; there is humour
both of the heaviest and of the lightest kind; there are two great comic
personalities who run like a rich vein through the whole story,
Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp; there is one blinding patch of brilliancy, the
satire on American cant; there is Todgers's boarding-house; there is
Bailey; there is Mr. Mould, the incomparable undertaker. But yet in
spite of everything, in spite even of the undertaker, the book is sad.
No one I think ever went to it in that mixed mood of a tired tenderness
and a readiness to believe and laugh in which most of Dickens's novels
are most enjoyed. We go for a particular novel to Dickens as we go for a
particular inn. We go to the sign of the Pickwick Papers. We go to the
sign of the Rudge and Raven. We go to the sign of the Old Curiosities.
We go to the sign of the Two Cities. We go to each or all of them
according to what kind of hospitality and what kind of happiness we
require. But it is always some kind of hospitality and some kind of
happiness that we require. And as in the case of inns we also remember
that while there was shelter in all and food in all and some kind of
fire and some kind of wine in all, yet one has left upon us an
indescribable and unaccountable memory of mortality and decay, of
dreariness in the rooms and even of tastelessness in the banquet. So any
one who has enjoyed the stories of Dickens as they should be enjoyed has
a nameless feeling that this one story is sad and almost sodden. Dickens
himself had this feeling, though his breezy vanity forbade him to
express it in so many words. In spite of Pecksniff, in spite of Mrs.
Gamp, in spite of the yet greater Bailey, the story went lumberingly and
even lifelessly; he found the sales falling off; he fancied his
popularity waning, and by a sudden impulse most inartistic and yet most
artistic, he dragged in the episode of Martin's visit to America, which
is the blazing jewel and the sudden redemption of the book. He wrote it
at an uneasy and unhappy period of his life; when he had ceased
wandering in America, but could not cease wandering altogether; when he
had lost his original routine of work which was violent but regular, and
had not yet settled down to the full enjoyment of his success and his
later years. He poured into this book genius that might make the
mountains laugh, invention that juggled with the stars. But the book was
sad; and he knew it.

The just reason for this is really interesting. Yet it is one that is
not easy to state without guarding one's self on the one side or the
other against great misunderstandings; and these stipulations or
preliminary allowances must in such a case as this of necessity be made
first. Dickens was among other things a satirist, a pure satirist. I
have never been able to understand why this title is always specially
and sacredly reserved for Thackeray. Thackeray was a novelist; in the
strict and narrow sense at any rate, Thackeray was a far greater
novelist than Dickens. But Dickens certainly was the satirist. The
essence of satire is that it perceives some absurdity inherent in the
logic of some position, and that it draws that absurdity out and
isolates it, so that all can see it. Thus for instance when Dickens
says, "Lord Coodle would go out; Sir Thomas Doodle wouldn't come in; and
there being no people to speak of in England except Coodle and Doodle
the country has been without a Government"; when Dickens says this he
suddenly pounces on and plucks out the one inherent absurdity in the
English party system which is hidden behind all its paraphernalia of
Parliaments and Statutes, elections and ballot papers. When all the
dignity and all the patriotism and all the public interest of the
English constitutional party conflict have been fully allowed for, there
does remain the bold, bleak question which Dickens in substance asks,
"Suppose I want somebody else who is neither Coodle nor Doodle." This is
the great quality called satire; it is a kind of taunting
reasonableness; and it is inseparable from a certain insane logic which
is often called exaggeration. Dickens was more of a satirist than
Thackeray for this simple reason: that Thackeray carried a man's
principles as far as that man carried them; Dickens carried a man's
principles as far as a man's principles would go. Dickens in short (as
people put it) exaggerated the man and his principles; that is to say
he emphasised them. Dickens drew a man's absurdity out of him; Thackeray
left a man's absurdity in him. Of this last fact we can take any example
we like; take for instance the comparison between the city man as
treated by Thackeray in the most satiric of his novels, with the city
man as treated by Dickens in one of the mildest and maturest of his.
Compare the character of old Mr. Osborne in _Vanity Fair_ with the
character of Mr. Podsnap in _Our Mutual Friend_. In the case of Mr.
Osborne there is nothing except the solid blocking in of a brutal dull
convincing character. _Vanity Fair_ is not a satire on the City except
in so far as it happens to be true. _Vanity Fair_ is not a satire on the
City, in short, except in so far as the City is a satire on the City.
But Mr. Podsnap is a pure satire; he is an extracting out of the City
man of those purely intellectual qualities which happen to make that
kind of City man a particularly exasperating fool. One might almost say
that Mr. Podsnap is all Mr. Osborne's opinions separated from Mr.
Osborne and turned into a character. In short the satirist is more
purely philosophical than the novelist. The novelist may be only an
observer; the satirist must be a thinker. He must be a thinker, he must
be a philosophical thinker for this simple reason; that he exercises his
philosophical thought in deciding what part of his subject he is to
satirise. You may have the dullest possible intelligence and be a
portrait painter; but a man must have a serious intellect in order to be
a caricaturist. He has to select what thing he will caricature. True
satire is always of this intellectual kind; true satire is always, so
to speak, a variation or fantasia upon the air of pure logic. The
satirist is the man who carries men's enthusiasm further than they carry
it themselves. He outstrips the most extravagant fanatic. He is years
ahead of the most audacious prophet. He sees where men's detached
intellect will eventually lead them, and he tells them the name of the
place--which is generally hell.

Now of this detached and rational use of satire there is one great
example in this book. Even _Gulliver's Travels_ is hardly more
reasonable than Martin Chuzzlewit's travels in the incredible land of
the Americans. Before considering the humour of this description in its
more exhaustive and liberal aspects, it may be first remarked that in
this American part of _Martin Chuzzlewit_, Dickens quite specially
sharpens up his own more controversial and political intelligence. There
are more things here than anywhere else in Dickens that partake of the
nature of pamphleteering, of positive challenge, of sudden repartee, of
pugnacious and exasperating query, in a word of everything that belongs
to the pure art of controversy as distinct not only from the pure art of
fiction but even also from the pure art of satire. I am inclined to
think (to put the matter not only shortly but clumsily) that Dickens was
never in all his life so strictly clever as he is in the American part
of _Martin Chuzzlewit_. There are places where he was more inspired,
almost in the sense of being intoxicated, as, for instance, in the
Micawber feasts of _David Copperfield_; there are places where he wrote
more carefully and cunningly, as, for instance, in the mystery of _The
Mystery of Edwin Drood_; there are places where he wrote very much more
humanly, more close to the ground and to growing things, as in the whole
of that admirable book _Great Expectations_. But I do not think that his
mere abstract acuteness and rapidity of thought were ever exercised with
such startling exactitude as they are in this place in _Martin
Chuzzlewit_. It is to be noted, for instance, that his American
experience had actually worked him up to a heat and habit of argument. A
slave-owner in the Southern States tells Dickens that slave-owners do
not ill-treat their slaves, that it is not to the interest of
slave-owners to ill-treat their slaves. Dickens flashes back that it is
not to the interest of a man to get drunk, but he does get drunk. This
pugnacious atmosphere of parry and riposte must first of all be allowed
for and understood in all the satiric excursus of Martin in America.
Dickens is arguing all the time; and, to do him justice, arguing very
well. These chapters are full not merely of exuberant satire on America
in the sense that Dotheboys Hall or Mr. Bumble's Workhouse are exuberant
satires on England. They are full also of sharp argument with America as
if the man who wrote expected retort and was prepared with rejoinder.
The rest of the book, like the rest of Dickens's books, possesses
humour. This part of the book, like hardly any of Dickens's books,
possesses wit. The republican gentleman who receives Martin on landing
is horrified on hearing an English servant speak of the employer as "the
master." "There are no masters in America," says the gentleman. "All
owners are they?" says Martin. This sort of verbal promptitude is out of
the ordinary scope of Dickens; but we find it frequently in this
particular part of _Martin Chuzzlewit_. Martin himself is constantly
breaking out into a controversial lucidity, which is elsewhere not at
all a part of his character. When they talk to him about the
institutions of America he asks sarcastically whether bowie knives and
swordsticks and revolvers are the institutions of America. All this (if
I may summarise) is expressive of one main fact. Being a satirist means
being a philosopher. Dickens was not always very philosophical; but he
had this permanent quality of the philosopher about him, that he always
remembered people by their opinions. Elijah Pogram was to him the man
who said that "his boastful answer to the tyrant and the despot was that
his bright home was the land of the settin' sun." Mr. Scadder and Mr.
Jefferson Brick were to him the men who said (in cooperation) that "the
libation of freedom must sometimes be quaffed in blood." And in these
chapters more than anywhere else he falls into the extreme habit of
satire, that of treating people as if there were nothing about them
except their opinions. It is therefore difficult to accept these pages
as pages in a novel, splendid as they are considered as pages in a
parody. I do not dispute that men have said and do say that "the
libation of freedom must sometimes be quaffed in blood," that "their
bright homes are the land of the settin' sun," that "they taunt that
lion," that "alone they dare him," or "that softly sleeps the calm ideal
in the whispering chambers of imagination." I have read too much
American journalism to deny that any of these sentences and any of these
opinions may at some time or other have been uttered. I do not deny
that there are such opinions. But I do deny that there are such people.
Elijah Pogram had some other business in life besides defending
defaulting postmasters; he must have been a son or a father or a husband
or at least (admirable thought) a lover. Mr. Chollop had some moments in
his existence when he was not threatening his fellow-creatures with his
sword-stick and his revolver. Of all this human side of such American
types Dickens does not really give any hint at all. He does not suggest
that the bully Chollop had even such coarse good-humour as bullies
almost always have. He does not suggest that the humbug Elijah Pogram
had even as much greasy amiability as humbugs almost invariably have. He
is not studying them as human beings, even as bad human beings; he is
studying them as conceptions, as points of view, as symbols of a state
of mind with which he is in violent disagreement. To put it roughly, he
is not describing characters, he is satirising fads. To put it more
exactly, he is not describing characters; he is persecuting heresies.
There is one thing really to be said against his American satire; it is
a serious thing to be said: it is an argument, and it is true. This can
be said of Martin's wanderings in America, that from the time he lands
in America to the time he sets sail from it he never meets a living man.
He has travelled in the land of Laputa. All the people he has met have
been absurd opinions walking about. The whole art of Dickens in such
passages as these consisted in one thing. It consisted in finding an
opinion that had not a leg to stand on, and then giving it two legs to
stand on.

So much may be allowed; it may be admitted that Dickens is in this sense
the great satirist, in that he can imagine absurd opinions walking by
themselves about the street. It may be admitted that Thackeray would not
have allowed an absurd opinion to walk about the street without at least
tying a man on to it for the sake of safety. But while this first truth
may be evident, the second truth which is the complement of it may
easily be forgotten. On the one hand there was no man who could so much
enjoy mere intellectual satire apart from humanity as Dickens. On the
other hand there was no man who, with another and more turbulent part of
his nature, demanded humanity, and demanded its supremacy over
intellect, more than Dickens. To put it shortly: there never was a man
so much fitted for saying that everything was wrong; and there never was
a man who was so desirous of saying that everything was right. Thus,
when he met men with whom he violently disagreed, he described them as
devils or lunatics; he could not bear to describe them as men. If they
could not think with him on essentials he could not stand the idea that
they were human souls; he cast them out; he forgot them; and if he could
not forget them he caricatured them. He was too emotional to regard them
as anything but enemies, if they were not friends. He was too humane not
to hate them. Charles Lamb said with his inimitable sleek pungency that
he could read all the books there were; he excluded books that obviously
were not books, as cookery books, chessboards bound so as to look like
books, and all the works of modern historians and philosophers. One
might say in much the same style that Dickens loved all the men in the
world; that is he loved all the men whom he was able to recognise as
men; the rest he turned into griffins and chimeras without any serious
semblance to humanity. Even in his books he never hates a human being.
If he wishes to hate him he adopts the simple expedient of making him an
inhuman being. Now of these two strands almost the whole of Dickens is
made up; they are not only different strands, they are even antagonistic
strands. I mean that the whole of Dickens is made up of the strand of
satire and the strand of sentimentalism; and the strand of satire is
quite unnecessarily merciless and hostile, and the strand of
sentimentalism is quite unnecessarily humanitarian and even maudlin. On
the proper interweaving of these two things depends the great part of
Dickens's success in a novel. And by the consideration of them we can
probably best arrive at the solution of the particular emotional enigma
of the novel called _Martin Chuzzlewit_.

_Martin Chuzzlewit_ is, I think, vaguely unsatisfactory to the reader,
vaguely sad and heavy even to the reader who loves Dickens, because in
_Martin Chuzzlewit_ more than anywhere else in Dickens's works, more
even than in _Oliver Twist_, there is a predominance of the harsh and
hostile sort of humour over the hilarious and the humane. It is absurd
to lay down any such little rules for the testing of literature. But
this may be broadly said and yet with confidence: that Dickens is always
at his best when he is laughing at the people whom he really admires. He
is at his most humorous in writing of Mr. Pickwick, who represents
passive virtue. He is at his most humorous in writing of Mr. Sam
Weller, who represents active virtue. He is never so funny as when he is
speaking of people in whom fun itself is a virtue, like the poor people
in the Fleet or the Marshalsea. And in the stories that had immediately
preceded _Martin Chuzzlewit_ he had consistently concerned himself in
the majority of cases with the study of such genial and honourable
eccentrics; if they are lunatics they are amiable lunatics. In the last
important novel before _Martin Chuzzlewit_, _Barnaby Rudge_, the hero
himself is an amiable lunatic. In the novel before that, _The Old
Curiosity Shop_, the two comic figures, Dick Swiveller and the
Marchioness, are not only the most really entertaining, but also the
most really sympathetic characters in the book. Before that came _Oliver
Twist_ (which is, I have said, an exception), and before that
_Pickwick_, where the hero is, as Mr. Weller says, "an angel in
gaiters." Hitherto, then, on the whole, the central Dickens character
had been the man who gave to the poor many things, gold and wine and
feasting and good advice; but among other things gave them a good laugh
at himself. The jolly old English merchant of the Pickwick type was
popular on both counts. People liked to see him throw his money in the
gutter. They also liked to see him throw himself there occasionally. In
both acts they recognised a common quality of virtue.

Now I think it is certainly the disadvantage of _Martin Chuzzlewit_ that
none of its absurd characters are thus sympathetic. There are in the
book two celebrated characters who are both especially exuberant and
amusing even for Dickens, and who are both especially heartless and
abominable even for Dickens--I mean of course Mr. Pecksniff on the one
hand and Mrs. Gamp on the other. The humour of both of them is
gigantesque. Nobody will ever forget the first time he read the words
"Now I should be very glad to see Mrs. Todgers's idea of a wooden leg."
It is like remembering first love: there is still some sort of ancient
sweetness and sting. I am afraid that, in spite of many criticisms to
the contrary, I am still unable to take Mr. Pecksniff's hypocrisy
seriously. He does not seem to me so much a hypocrite as a rhetorician;
he reminds me of Serjeant Buzfuz. A very capable critic, Mr. Noyes, said
that I was wrong when I suggested in another place that Dickens must
have loved Pecksniff. Mr. Noyes thinks it clear that Dickens hated
Pecksniff. I cannot believe it. Hatred does indeed linger round its
object as much as love; but not in that way. Dickens is always making
Pecksniff say things which have a wild poetical truth about them. Hatred
allows no such outbursts of original innocence. But however that may be
the broad fact remains--Dickens may or may not have loved Pecksniff
comically, but he did not love him seriously; he did not respect him as
he certainly respected Sam Weller. The same of course is true of Mrs.
Gamp. To any one who appreciates her unctuous and sumptuous conversation
it is difficult indeed not to feel that it would be almost better to be
killed by Mrs. Gamp than to be saved by a better nurse. But the fact
remains. In this book Dickens has not allowed us to love the most absurd
people seriously, and absurd people ought to be loved seriously.
Pecksniff has to be amusing all the time; the instant he ceases to be
laughable he becomes detestable. Pickwick can take his ease at his inn;
he can be leisurely, he can be spacious; he can fall into moods of
gravity and even of dulness; he is not bound to be always funny or to
forfeit the reader's concern, for he is a good man, and therefore even
his dulness is beautiful, just as is the dulness of the animal. We can
leave Pickwick a little while by the fire to think; for the thoughts of
Pickwick, even if they were to go slowly, would be full of all the
things that all men care for--old friends and old inns and memory and
the goodness of God. But we dare not leave Pecksniff alone for a moment.
We dare not leave him thinking by the fire, for the thoughts of
Pecksniff would be too frightful.


The mystery of Christmas is in a manner identical with the mystery of
Dickens. If ever we adequately explain the one we may adequately explain
the other. And indeed, in the treatment of the two, the chronological or
historical order must in some degree be remembered. Before we come to
the question of what Dickens did for Christmas we must consider the
question of what Christmas did for Dickens. How did it happen that this
bustling, nineteenth-century man, full of the almost cock-sure
common-sense of the utilitarian and liberal epoch, came to associate his
name chiefly in literary history with the perpetuation of a half pagan
and half Catholic festival which he would certainly have called an
antiquity and might easily have called a superstition? Christmas has
indeed been celebrated before in English literature; but it had, in the
most noticeable cases, been celebrated in connection with that kind of
feudalism with which Dickens would have severed his connection with an
ignorant and even excessive scorn. Sir Roger de Coverley kept Christmas;
but it was a feudal Christmas. Sir Walter Scott sang in praise of
Christmas; but it was a feudal Christmas. And Dickens was not only
indifferent to the dignity of the old country gentleman or to the genial
archæology of Scott; he was even harshly and insolently hostile to it.
If Dickens had lived in the neighbourhood of Sir Roger de Coverley he
would undoubtedly, like Tom Touchy, have been always "having the law of
him." If Dickens had stumbled in among the old armour and quaint folios
of Scott's study he would certainly have read his brother novelist a
lesson in no measured terms about the futility of thus fumbling in the
dust-bins of old oppression and error. So far from Dickens being one of
those who like a thing because it is old, he was one of those cruder
kind of reformers, in theory at least, who actually dislike a thing
because it is old. He was not merely the more righteous kind of Radical
who tries to uproot abuses; he was partly also that more suicidal kind
of Radical who tries to uproot himself. In theory at any rate, he had no
adequate conception of the importance of human tradition; in his time it
had been twisted and falsified into the form of an opposition to
democracy. In truth, of course, tradition is the most democratic of all
things, for tradition is merely a democracy of the dead as well as the
living. But Dickens and his special group or generation had no grasp of
this permanent position; they had been called to a special war for the
righting of special wrongs. In so far as such an institution as
Christmas was old, Dickens would even have tended to despise it. He
could never have put the matter to himself in the correct way--that
while there are some things whose antiquity does prove that they are
dying, there are some other things whose antiquity only proves that they
cannot die. If some Radical contemporary and friend of Dickens had
happened to say to him that in defending the mince-pies and the
mummeries of Christmas he was defending a piece of barbaric and brutal
ritualism, doomed to disappear in the light of reason along with the
Boy-Bishop and the Lord of Misrule, I am not sure that Dickens (though
he was one of the readiest and most rapid masters of reply in history)
would have found it very easy upon his own principles to answer. It was
by a great ancestral instinct that he defended Christmas; by that sacred
sub-consciousness which is called tradition, which some have called a
dead thing, but which is really a thing far more living than the
intellect. There is a dark kinship and brotherhood of all mankind which
is much too deep to be called heredity or to be in any way explained in
scientific formulæ; blood is thicker than water and is especially very
much thicker than water on the brain. But this unconscious and even
automatic quality in Dickens's defence of the Christmas feast, this fact
that his defence might almost be called animal rather than mental,
though in proper language it should be called merely virile; all this
brings us back to the fact that we must begin with the atmosphere of the
subject itself. We must not ask Dickens what Christmas is, for with all
his heat and eloquence he does not know. Rather we must ask Christmas
what Dickens is--ask how this strange child of Christmas came to be born
out of due time.

Dickens devoted his genius in a somewhat special sense to the
description of happiness. No other literary man of his eminence has made
this central human aim so specially his subject matter. Happiness is a
mystery--generally a momentary mystery--which seldom stops long enough
to submit itself to artistic observation, and which, even when it is
habitual, has something about it which renders artistic description
almost impossible. There are twenty tiny minor poets who can describe
fairly impressively an eternity of agony; there are very few even of the
eternal poets who can describe ten minutes of satisfaction.
Nevertheless, mankind being half divine is always in love with the
impossible, and numberless attempts have been made from the beginning of
human literature to describe a real state of felicity. Upon the whole, I
think, the most successful have been the most frankly physical and
symbolic; the flowers of Eden or the jewels of the New Jerusalem. Many
writers, for instance, have called the gold and chrysolite of the Holy
City a vulgar lump of jewellery. But when these critics themselves
attempt to describe their conceptions of future happiness, it is always
some priggish nonsense about "planes," about "cycles of fulfilment," or
"spirals of spiritual evolution." Now a cycle is just as much a physical
metaphor as a flower of Eden; a spiral is just as much a physical
metaphor as a precious stone. But, after all, a garden is a beautiful
thing; whereas this is by no means necessarily true of a cycle, as can
be seen in the case of a bicycle. A jewel, after all, is a beautiful
thing; but this is not necessarily so of a spiral, as can be seen in the
case of a corkscrew. Nothing is gained by dropping the old material
metaphors, which did hint at heavenly beauty, and adopting other
material metaphors which do not even give a hint of earthly beauty. This
modern or spiral method of describing indescribable happiness may, I
think, be dismissed. Then there has been another method which has been
adopted by many men of a very real poetical genius. It was the method of
the old pastoral poets like Theocritus. It was in another way that
adopted by the elegance and piety of Spenser. It was certainly expressed
in the pictures of Watteau; and it had a very sympathetic and even manly
expression in modern England in the decorative poetry of William Morris.
These men of genius, from Theocritus to Morris, occupied themselves in
endeavouring to describe happiness as a state of certain human beings,
the atmosphere of a commonwealth, the enduring climate of certain cities
or islands. They poured forth treasures of the truest kind of
imagination upon describing the happy lives and landscapes of Utopia or
Atlantis or the Earthly Paradise. They traced with the most tender
accuracy the tracery of its fruit-trees or the glimmering garments of
its women; they used every ingenuity of colour or intricate shape to
suggest its infinite delight. And what they succeeded in suggesting was
always its infinite melancholy. William Morris described the Earthly
Paradise in such a way that the only strong emotional note left on the
mind was the feeling of how homeless his travellers felt in that alien
Elysium; and the reader sympathised with them, feeling that he would
prefer not only Elizabethan England but even twentieth-century
Camberwell to such a land of shining shadows. Thus literature has almost
always failed in endeavouring to describe happiness as a state. Human
tradition, human custom and folk-lore (though far more true and reliable
than literature as a rule) have not often succeeded in giving quite the
correct symbols for a real atmosphere of _camaraderie_ and joy. But
here and there the note has been struck with the sudden vibration of the
_vox humana_. In human tradition it has been struck chiefly in the old
celebrations of Christmas. In literature it has been struck chiefly in
Dickens's Christmas tales.

In the historic celebration of Christmas as it remains from Catholic
times in certain northern countries (and it is to be remembered that in
Catholic times the northern countries were, if possible, more Catholic
than anybody else), there are three qualities which explain, I think,
its hold upon the human sense of happiness, especially in such men as
Dickens. There are three notes of Christmas, so to speak, which are also
notes of happiness, and which the pagans and the Utopians forget. If we
state what they are in the case of Christmas, it will be quite
sufficiently obvious how important they are in the case of Dickens.

The first quality is what may be called the dramatic quality. The
happiness is not a state; it is a crisis. All the old customs
surrounding the celebration of the birth of Christ are made by human
instinct so as to insist and re-insist upon this crucial quality.
Everything is so arranged that the whole household may feel, if
possible, as a household does when a child is actually being born in it.
The thing is a vigil and a vigil with a definite limit. People sit up at
night until they hear the bells ring. Or they try to sleep at night in
order to see their presents the next morning. Everywhere there is a
limitation, a restraint; at one moment the door is shut, at the moment
after it is opened. The hour has come or it has not come; the parcels
are undone or they are not undone; there is no evolution of Christmas
presents. This sharp and theatrical quality in pleasure, which human
instinct and the mother wit of the world has wisely put into the popular
celebrations of Christmas, is also a quality which is essential in such
romantic literature as Dickens wrote. In romantic literature the hero
and heroine must indeed be happy, but they must also be unexpectedly
happy. This is the first connecting link between literature and the old
religious feast; this is the first connecting link between Dickens and

The second element to be found in all such festivity and all such
romance is the element which is represented as well as it could be
represented by the mere fact that Christmas occurs in the winter. It is
the element not merely of contrast, but actually of antagonism. It
preserves everything that was best in the merely primitive or pagan view
of such ceremonies or such banquets. If we are carousing, at least we
are warriors carousing. We hang above us, as it were, the shields and
battle-axes with which we must do battle with the giants of the snow and
hail. All comfort must be based on discomfort. Man chooses when he
wishes to be most joyful the very moment when the whole material
universe is most sad. It is this contradiction and mystical defiance
which gives a quality of manliness and reality to the old winter feasts
which is not characteristic of the sunny felicities of the Earthly
Paradise. And this curious element has been carried out even in all the
trivial jokes and tasks that have always surrounded such occasions as
these. The object of the jovial customs was not to make everything
artificially easy: on the contrary, it was rather to make everything
artificially difficult. Idealism is not only expressed by shooting an
arrow at the stars; the fundamental principle of idealism is also
expressed by putting a leg of mutton at the top of a greasy pole. There
is in all such observances a quality which can be called only the
quality of divine obstruction. For instance, in the game of snapdragon
(that admirable occupation) the conception is that raisins taste much
nicer if they are brands saved from the burning. About all Christmas
things there is something a little nobler, if only nobler in form and
theory, than mere comfort; even holly is prickly. It is not hard to see
the connection of this kind of historic instinct with a romantic writer
like Dickens. The healthy novelist must always play snapdragon with his
principal characters; he must always be snatching the hero and heroine
like raisins out of the fire.

The third great Christmas element is the element of the grotesque. The
grotesque is the natural expression of joy; and all the Utopias and new
Edens of the poets fail to give a real impression of enjoyment, very
largely because they leave out the grotesque. A man in most modern
Utopias cannot really be happy; he is too dignified. A man in Morris's
Earthly Paradise cannot really be enjoying himself; he is too
decorative. When real human beings have real delights they tend to
express them entirely in grotesques--I might almost say entirely in
goblins. On Christmas Eve one may talk about ghosts so long as they are
turnip ghosts. But one would not be allowed (I hope, in any decent
family) to talk on Christmas Eve about astral bodies. The boar's head of
old Yule-time was as grotesque as the donkey's head of Bottom the
Weaver. But there is only one set of goblins quite wild enough to
express the wild goodwill of Christmas. Those goblins are the characters
of Dickens.

Arcadian poets and Arcadian painters have striven to express happiness
by means of beautiful figures. Dickens understood that happiness is best
expressed by ugly figures. In beauty, perhaps, there is something allied
to sadness; certainly there is something akin to joy in the grotesque,
nay, in the uncouth. There is something mysteriously associated with
happiness not only in the corpulence of Falstaff and the corpulence of
Tony Weller, but even in the red nose of Bardolph or the red nose of Mr.
Stiggins. A thing of beauty is an inspiration for ever--a matter of
meditation for ever. It is rather a thing of ugliness that is strictly a
joy for ever.

All Dickens's books are Christmas books. But this is still truest of his
two or three famous Yuletide tales--The _Christmas Carol_ and _The
Chimes_ and _The Cricket on the Hearth_. Of these _The Christmas Carol_
is beyond comparison the best as well as the most popular. Indeed,
Dickens is in so profound and spiritual a sense a popular author that in
his case, unlike most others, it can generally be said that the best
work is the most popular. It is for _Pickwick_ that he is best known;
and upon the whole it is for Pickwick that he is best worth knowing. In
any case this superiority of _The Christmas Carol_ makes it convenient
for us to take it as an example of the generalisations already made. If
we study the very real atmosphere of rejoicing and of riotous charity in
_The Christmas Carol_ we shall find that all the three marks I have
mentioned are unmistakably visible. _The Christmas Carol_ is a happy
story first, because it describes an abrupt and dramatic change. It is
not only the story of a conversion, but of a sudden conversion; as
sudden as the conversion of a man at a Salvation Army meeting. Popular
religion is quite right in insisting on the fact of a crisis in most
things. It is true that the man at the Salvation Army meeting would
probably be converted from the punch bowl; whereas Scrooge was converted
to it. That only means that Scrooge and Dickens represented a higher and
more historic Christianity.

Again, _The Christmas Carol_ owes much of its hilarity to our second
source--the fact of its being a tale of winter and of a very wintry
winter. There is much about comfort in the story; yet the comfort is
never enervating: it is saved from that by a tingle of something bitter
and bracing in the weather. Lastly, the story exemplifies throughout the
power of the third principle--the kinship between gaiety and the
grotesque. Everybody is happy because nobody is dignified. We have a
feeling somehow that Scrooge looked even uglier when he was kind than he
had looked when he was cruel. The turkey that Scrooge bought was so fat,
says Dickens, that it could never have stood upright. That top-heavy and
monstrous bird is a good symbol of the top-heavy happiness of the

It is less profitable to criticise the other two tales in detail because
they represent variations on the theme in two directions; and variations
that were not, upon the whole, improvements. _The Chimes_ is a monument
of Dickens's honourable quality of pugnacity. He could not admire
anything, even peace, without wanting to be warlike about it. That was
all as it should be.


In Dickens's literary life _Dombey and Son_ represents a break so
important as to necessitate our casting back to a summary and a
generalisation. In order fully to understand what this break is, we must
say something of the previous character of Dickens's novels, and even
something of the general character of novels in themselves. How
essential this is we shall see shortly.

It must first be remembered that the novel is the most typical of modern
forms. It is typical of modern forms especially in this, that it is
essentially formless. All the ancient modes or structures of literature
were definite and severe. Any one composing them had to abide by their
rules; they were what their name implied. Thus a tragedy might be a bad
tragedy, but it was always a tragedy. Thus an epic might be a bad epic,
but it was always an epic. Now in the sense in which there is such a
thing as an epic, in that sense there is no such thing as a novel. We
call any long fictitious narrative in prose a novel, just as we call any
short piece of prose without any narrative an essay. Both these forms
are really quite formless, and both of them are really quite new. The
difference between a good epic by Mr. John Milton and a bad epic by Mr.
John Smith was simply the difference between the same thing done well
and the same thing done badly. But it was not (for instance) like the
difference between _Clarissa Harlowe_ and _The Time Machine_. If we
class Richardson's book with Mr. Wells's book it is really only for
convenience; if we say that they are both novels we shall certainly be
puzzled in that case to say what on earth a novel is. But the note of
our age, both for good and evil, is a highly poetical and largely
illogical faith in liberty. Liberty is not a negation or a piece of
nonsense, as the cheap reactionaries say; it is a belief in variety and
growth. But it is a purely poetic and even a merely romantic belief. The
nineteenth century was an age of romance as certainly as the Middle Ages
was an age of reason. Mediævals liked to have everything defined and
defensible; the modern world prefers to run some risks for the sake of
spontaneity and diversity. Consequently the modern world is full of a
phenomenon peculiar to itself--I mean the spectacle of small or
originally small things swollen to enormous size and power. The modern
world is like a world in which toadstools should be as big as trees, and
insects should walk about in the sun as large as elephants. Thus, for
instance, the shopkeeper, almost an unimportant figure in carefully
ordered states, has in our time become the millionaire, and has more
power than ten kings. Thus again a practical knowledge of nature, of the
habits of animals or the properties of fire and water, was in the old
ordered state either an almost servile labour or a sort of joke; it was
left to old women and gamekeepers and boys who went birds'-nesting. In
our time this commonplace daily knowledge has swollen into the enormous
miracle of physical size, weighing the stars and talking under the sea.
In short, our age is a sort of splendid jungle in which some of the most
towering weeds and blossoms have come from the smallest seed.

And this is, generally speaking, the explanation of the novel. The novel
is not so much the filling up of an artistic plan, however new or
fantastic. It is a thing that has grown from some germ of suggestion,
and has often turned out much larger than the author intended. And this,
lastly, is the final result of these facts, that the critic can
generally trace in a novel what was the original artistic type or shape
of thought from which the whole matter started, and he will generally
find that this is different in every case. In one novel he will find
that the first impulse is a character. In another novel he will find
that the first impulse is a landscape, the atmosphere of some special
countryside. In another novel he will find that the first impulse is the
last chapter. Or it may be a thrust with sword or dagger, it may be a
theology, it may be a song. Somewhere embedded in every ordinary book
are the five or six words for which really all the rest will be written.
Some of our enterprising editors who set their readers to hunt for
banknotes and missing ladies might start a competition for finding those
words in every novel. But whether or no this is possible, there is no
doubt that the principle in question is of great importance in the case
of Dickens, and especially in the case of _Dombey and Son_.

In all the Dickens novels can be seen, so to speak, the original thing
that they were before they were novels. The same may be observed, for
the matter of that, in the great novels of most of the great modern
novelists. For example, Sir Walter Scott wrote poetical romances before
he wrote prose romances. Hence it follows that, with all their much
greater merit, his novels may still be described as poetical romances in
prose. While adding a new and powerful element of popular humours and
observation, Scott still retains a certain purely poetical right--a
right to make his heroes and outlaws and great kings speak at the great
moments with a rhetoric so rhythmical that it partakes of the nature of
song, the same quite metrical rhetoric which is used in the metrical
speeches of Marmion or Roderick Dhu. In the same way, although _Don
Quixote_ is a modern novel in its irony and subtlety, we can see that it
comes from the old long romances of chivalry. In the same way, although
_Clarissa_ is a modern novel in its intimacy and actuality, we can see
that it comes from the old polite letter-writing and polite essays of
the period of the _Spectator_. Any one can see that Scott formed in _The
Lay of the Last Minstrel_ the style that he applied again and again
afterwards, like the reappearances of a star taking leave of the stage.
All his other romances were positively last appearances of the
positively last Minstrel. Any one can see that Thackeray formed in
fragmentary satires like _The Book of Snobs_ or _The Yellowplush Papers_
the style, the rather fragmentary style, in which he was to write
_Vanity Fair_. In most modern cases, in short (until very lately, at any
rate), the novel is an enormous outgrowth from something that was not a
novel. And in Dickens this is very important. All his novels are
outgrowths of the original notion of taking notes, splendid and
inspired notes, of what happens in the street. Those in the modern
world who cannot reconcile themselves to his method--those who feel that
there is about his books something intolerably clumsy or
superficial--have either no natural taste for strong literature at all,
or else have fallen into their error by too persistently regarding
Dickens as a modern novelist and expecting all his books to be modern
novels. Dickens did not know at what exact point he really turned into a
novelist. Nor do we. Dickens did not know, in his deepest soul, whether
he ever really did turn into a novelist. Nor do we. The novel being a
modern product is one of the few things to which we really can apply
that disgusting method of thought--the method of evolution. But even in
evolution there are great gaps, there are great breaks, there are great
crises. I have said that the first of these breaks in Dickens may be
placed at the point when he wrote _Nicholas Nickleby_. This was his
first serious decision to be a novelist in any sense at all, to be
anything except a maker of momentary farces. The second break, and that
a far more important break, is in _Dombey and Son_. This marks his final
resolution to be a novelist and nothing else, to be a serious
constructor of fiction in the serious sense. Before _Dombey and Son_
even his pathos had been really frivolous. After _Dombey and Son_ even
his absurdity was intentional and grave.

In case this transition is not understood, one or two tests may be taken
at random. The episodes in _Dombey and Son_, the episodes in _David
Copperfield_, which came after it, are no longer episodes merely stuck
into the middle of the story without any connection with it, like most
of the episodes in _Nicholas Nickleby_, or most of the episodes even in
_Martin Chuzzlewit_. Take, for instance, by way of a mere coincidence,
the fact that three schools for boys are described successively in
_Nicholas Nickleby_, in _Dombey and Son_, and in _David Copperfield_.
But the difference is enormous. Dotheboys Hall does not exist to tell us
anything about Nicholas Nickleby. Rather Nicholas Nickleby exists
entirely in order to tell us about Dotheboys Hall. It does not in any
way affect his history or psychology; he enters Mr. Squeers's school and
leaves Mr. Squeers's school with the same character, or rather absence
of character. It is a mere episode, existing for itself. But when little
Paul Dombey goes to an old-fashioned but kindly school, it is in a very
different sense and for a very different reason from that for which
Nicholas Nickleby goes to an old-fashioned and cruel school. The sending
of little Paul to Dr. Blimber's is a real part of the history of little
Paul, such as it is. Dickens deliberately invents all that elderly
pedantry in order to show up Paul's childishness. Dickens deliberately
invents all that rather heavy kindness in order to show up Paul's
predestination and tragedy. Dotheboys Hall is not meant to show up
anything except Dotheboys Hall. But although Dickens doubtless enjoyed
Dr. Blimber quite as much as Mr. Squeers, it remains true that Dr.
Blimber is really a very good foil to Paul; whereas Squeers is not a
foil to Nicholas; Nicholas is merely a lame excuse for Squeers. The
change can be seen continued in the school, or rather the two schools,
to which David Copperfield goes. The whole idea of David Copperfield's
life is that he had the dregs of life before the wine of it. He knew
the worst of the world before he knew the best of it. His childhood at
Dr. Strong's is a second childhood. Now for this purpose the two schools
are perfectly well adapted. Mr. Creakle's school is not only, like Mr.
Squeers's school, a bad school, it is a bad influence upon David
Copperfield. Dr. Strong's school is not only a good school, it is a good
influence upon David Copperfield. I have taken this case of the schools
as a case casual but concrete. The same, however, can be seen in any of
the groups or incidents of the novels on both sides of the boundary. Mr.
Crummles's theatrical company is only a society that Nicholas happens to
fall into. America is only a place to which Martin Chuzzlewit happens to
go. These things are isolated sketches, and nothing else. Even Todgers's
boarding-house is only a place where Mr. Pecksniff can be delightfully
hypocritical. It is not a place which throws any new light on Mr.
Pecksniff's hypocrisy. But the case is different with that more subtle
hypocrite in _Dombey and Son_--I mean Major Bagstock. Dickens does mean
it as a deliberate light on Mr. Dombey's character that he basks with a
fatuous calm in the blazing sun of Major Bagstock's tropical and
offensive flattery. Here, then, is the essence of the change. He not
only wishes to write a novel; this he did as early as _Nicholas
Nickleby_. He wishes to have as little as possible in the novel that
does not really assist it as a novel. Previously he had asked with the
assistance of what incidents could his hero wander farther and farther
from the pathway. Now he has really begun to ask with the assistance of
what incidents his hero can get nearer and nearer to the goal.

The change made Dickens a greater novelist. I am not sure that it made
him a greater man. One good character by Dickens requires all eternity
to stretch its legs in; and the characters in his later books are always
being tripped up by some tiresome nonsense about the story. For
instance, in _Dombey and Son_, Mrs. Skewton is really very funny. But
nobody with a love of the real smell of Dickens would compare her for a
moment, for instance, with Mrs. Nickleby. And the reason of Mrs.
Skewton's inferiority is simply this, that she has something to do in
the plot; she has to entrap or assist to entrap Mr. Dombey into marrying
Edith. Mrs. Nickleby, on the other hand, has nothing at all to do in the
story, except to get in everybody's way. The consequence is that we
complain not of her for getting in everyone's way, but of everyone for
getting in hers. What are suns and stars, what are times and seasons,
what is the mere universe, that it should presume to interrupt Mrs.
Nickleby? Mrs. Skewton (though supposed, of course, to be a much viler
sort of woman) has something of the same quality of splendid and
startling irrelevancy. In her also there is the same feeling of wild
threads hung from world to world like the webs of gigantic spiders; of
things connected that seem to have no connection save by this one
adventurous filament of frail and daring folly. Nothing could be better
than Mrs. Skewton when she finds herself, after convolutions of speech,
somehow on the subject of Henry VIII., and pauses to mention with
approval "his dear little peepy eyes and his benevolent chin." Nothing
could be better than her attempt at Mahomedan resignation when she feels
almost inclined to say "that there is no What's-his-name but Thingummy,
and What-you-may-call-it is his prophet!" But she has not so much time
as Mrs. Nickleby to say these good things; also she has not sufficient
human virtue to say them constantly. She is always intent upon her
worldly plans, among other things upon the worldly plan of assisting
Charles Dickens to get a story finished. She is always "advancing her
shrivelled ear" to listen to what Dombey is saying to Edith. Worldliness
is the most solemn thing in the world; it is far more solemn than
other-worldliness. Mrs. Nickleby can afford to ramble as a child does in
a field, or as a child does to laugh at nothing, for she is like a
child, innocent. It is only the good who can afford to be frivolous.

Broadly speaking, what is said here of Mrs. Skewton applies to the great
part of _Dombey and Son_, even to the comic part of it. It shows an
advance in art and unity; it does not show an advance in genius and
creation. In some cases, in fact, I cannot help feeling that it shows a
falling off. It may be a personal idiosyncrasy, but there is only one
comic character really prominent in Dickens, upon whom Dickens has
really lavished the wealth of his invention, and who does not amuse me
at all, and that character is Captain Cuttle. But three great exceptions
must be made to any such disparagement of _Dombey and Son_. They are all
three of that royal order in Dickens's creation which can no more be
described or criticised than strong wine. The first is Major Bagstock,
the second is Cousin Feenix, the third is Toots. In Bagstock Dickens has
blasted for ever that type which pretends to be sincere by the simple
operation of being explosively obvious. He tells about a quarter of the
truth, and then poses as truthful because a quarter of the truth is much
simpler than the whole of it. He is the kind of man who goes about with
posers for Bishops or for Socialists, with plain questions to which he
wants a plain answer. His questions are plain only in the same sense
that he himself is plain--in the sense of being uncommonly ugly. He is
the man who always bursts with satisfaction because he can call a spade
a spade, as if there were any kind of logical or philosophical use in
merely saying the same word twice over. He is the man who wants things
down in black and white, as if black and white were the only two
colours; as if blue and green and red and gold were not facts of the
universe. He is too selfish to tell the truth and too impatient even to
hear it. He cannot endure the truth, because it is subtle. This man is
almost always like Bagstock--a sycophant and a toad-eater. A man is not
any the less a toad-eater because he eats his toads with a huge appetite
and gobbles them up, as Bagstock did his breakfast, with the eyes
starting out of his purple face. He flatters brutally. He cringes with a
swagger. And men of the world like Dombey are always taken in by him,
because men of the world are probably the simplest of all the children
of Adam.

Cousin Feenix again is an exquisite suggestion, with his rickety
chivalry and rambling compliments. It was about the period of _Dombey
and Son_ that Dickens began to be taken up by good society. (One can use
only vulgar terms for an essentially vulgar process.) And his sketches
of the man of good family in the books of this period show that he had
had glimpses of what that singular world is like. The aristocrats in his
earliest books are simply dragons and griffins for his heroes to fight
with--monsters like Sir Mulberry Hawk or Lord Verisopht. They are merely
created upon the old principle, that your scoundrel must be polite and
powerful--a very sound principle. The villain must be not only a
villain, but a tyrant. The giant must be larger than Jack. But in the
books of the Dombey period we have many shrewd glimpses of the queer
realities of English aristocracy. Of these Cousin Feenix is one of the
best. Cousin Feenix is a much better sketch of the essentially decent
and chivalrous aristocrat than Sir Leicester Dedlock. Both of the men
are, if you will, fools, as both are honourable gentlemen. But if one
may attempt a classification among fools, Sir Leicester Dedlock is a
stupid fool, while Cousin Feenix is a silly fool--which is much better.
The difference is that the silly fool has a folly which is always on the
borderland of wit, and even of wisdom; his wandering wits come often
upon undiscovered truths. The stupid fool is as consistent and as
homogeneous as wood; he is as invincible as the ancestral darkness.
Cousin Feenix is a good sketch of the sort of well-bred old ass who is
so fundamentally genuine that he is always saying very true things by
accident. His whole tone also, though exaggerated like everything in
Dickens, is very true to the bewildered good nature which marks English
aristocratic life. The statement that Dickens could not describe a
gentleman is, like most popular animadversions against Dickens, so very
thin and one-sided a truth as to be for serious purposes a falsehood.
When people say that Dickens could not describe a gentleman, what they
mean is this, and so far what they mean is true. They mean that Dickens
could not describe a gentleman as gentlemen feel a gentleman. They mean
that he could not take that atmosphere easily, accept it as the normal
atmosphere, or describe that world from the inside. This is true. In
Dickens's time there was such a thing as the English people, and Dickens
belonged to it. Because there is no such thing as an English people now,
almost all literary men drift towards what is called Society; almost all
literary men either are gentlemen or pretend to be. Hence, as I say,
when we talk of describing a gentleman, we always mean describing a
gentleman from the point of view of one who either belongs to, or is
interested in perpetuating, that type. Dickens did not describe
gentlemen in the way that gentlemen describe gentlemen. He described
them in the way in which he described waiters, or railway guards, or men
drawing with chalk on the pavement. He described them, in short (and
this we may freely concede), from the outside, as he described any other
oddity or special trade. But when it comes to saying that he did not
describe them well, then that is quite another matter, and that I should
emphatically deny. The things that are really odd about the English
upper class he saw with startling promptitude and penetration, and if
the English upper class does not see these odd things in itself, it is
not because they are not there, but because we are all blind to our own
oddities; it is for the same reason that tramps do not feel dirty, or
that niggers do not feel black. I have often heard a dear old English
oligarch say that Dickens could not describe a gentleman, while every
note of his own voice and turn of his own hand recalled Sir Leicester
Dedlock. I have often been told by some old buck that Dickens could not
describe a gentleman, and been told so in the shaky voice and with all
the vague allusiveness of Cousin Feenix.

Cousin Feenix has really many of the main points of the class that
governs England. Take, for an instance, his hazy notion that he is in a
world where everybody knows everybody; whenever he mentions a man, it is
a man "with whom my friend Dombey is no doubt acquainted." That pierces
to the very helpless soul of aristocracy. Take again the stupendous
gravity with which he leads up to a joke. That is the very soul of the
House of Commons and the Cabinet, of the high-class English politics,
where a joke is always enjoyed solemnly. Take his insistence upon the
technique of Parliament, his regrets for the time when the rules of
debate were perhaps better observed than they are now. Take that
wonderful mixture in him (which is the real human virtue of our
aristocracy) of a fair amount of personal modesty with an innocent
assumption of rank. Of a man who saw all these genteel foibles so
clearly it is absurd merely to say without further explanation that he
could not describe a gentleman. Let us confine ourselves to saying that
he did not describe a gentleman as gentlemen like to be described.

Lastly, there is the admirable study of Toots, who may be considered as
being in some ways the masterpiece of Dickens. Nowhere else did Dickens
express with such astonishing insight and truth his main contention,
which is that to be good and idiotic is not a poor fate, but, on the
contrary, an experience of primeval innocence, which wonders at all
things. Dickens did not know, anymore than any great man ever knows,
what was the particular thing that he had to preach. He did not know it;
he only preached it. But the particular thing that he had to preach was
this: That humility is the only possible basis of enjoyment; that if one
has no other way of being humble except being poor, then it is better to
be poor, and to enjoy; that if one has no other way of being humble
except being imbecile, then it is better to be imbecile, and to enjoy.
That is the deep unconscious truth in the character of Toots--that all
his externals are flashy and false; all his internals unconscious,
obscure, and true. He wears loud clothes, and he is silent inside them.
His shirts and waistcoats are covered with bright spots of pink and
purple, while his soul is always covered with the sacred shame. He
always gets all the outside things of life wrong, and all the inside
things right. He always admires the right Christian people, and gives
them the wrong Christian names. Dimly connecting Captain Cuttle with the
shop of Mr. Solomon Gills, he always addresses the astonished mariner as
"Captain Gills." He turns Mr. Walter Gay, by a most improving
transformation, into "Lieutenant Walters." But he always knows which
people upon his own principles to admire. He forgets who they are, but
he remembers what they are. With the clear eyes of humility he perceives
the whole world as it is. He respects the Game Chicken for being
strong, as even the Game Chicken ought to be respected for being strong.
He respects Florence for being good, as even Florence ought to be
respected for being good. And he has no doubt about which he admires
most; he prefers goodness to strength, as do all masculine men. It is
through the eyes of such characters as Toots that Dickens really sees
the whole of his tales. For even if one calls him a half-wit, it still
makes a difference that he keeps the right half of his wits. When we
think of the unclean and craven spirit in which Toots might be treated
in a psychological novel of to-day; how he might walk with a mooncalf
face, and a brain of bestial darkness, the soul rises in real homage to
Dickens for showing how much simple gratitude and happiness can remain
in the lopped roots of the most simplified intelligence. If scientists
must treat a man as a dog, it need not be always as a mad dog. They
might grant him, like Toots, a little of the dog's loyalty and the dog's

  [Illustration: Charles Dickens, 1849
  From a daguerreotype by Mayall.]


In this book Dickens is really trying to write a new kind of book, and
the enterprise is almost as chivalrous as a cavalry charge. He is making
a romantic attempt to be realistic. That is almost the definition of
_David Copperfield_. In his last book, _Dombey and Son_, we see a
certain maturity and even a certain mild exhaustion in his earlier
farcical method. He never failed to have fine things in any of his
books, and Toots is a very fine thing. Still, I could never find Captain
Cuttle and Mr. Sol Gills very funny, and the whole Wooden Midshipman
seems to me very wooden. In _David Copperfield_ he suddenly unseals a
new torrent of truth, the truth out of his own life. The impulse of the
thing is autobiography; he is trying to tell all the absurd things that
have happened to himself, and not the least absurd thing is himself. Yet
though it is Dickens's ablest and clearest book, there is in it a
falling away of a somewhat singular kind.

Generally speaking there was astonishingly little of fatigue in
Dickens's books. He sometimes wrote bad work; he sometimes wrote even
unimportant work; but he wrote hardly a line which is not full of his
own fierce vitality and fancy. If he is dull it is hardly ever because
he cannot think of anything; it is because, by some silly excitement or
momentary lapse of judgment, he has thought of something that was not
worth thinking of. If his joke is feeble, it is as an impromptu joke at
an uproarious dinner-table may be feeble; it is no indication of any
lack of vitality. The joke is feeble, but it is not a sign of
feebleness. Broadly speaking, this is true of Dickens. If his writing is
not amusing us, at least it is amusing him. Even when he is tiring he is
not tired.

But in the case of _David Copperfield_ there is a real reason for noting
an air of fatigue. For although this is the best of all Dickens's books,
it constantly disappoints the critical and intelligent reader. The
reason is that Dickens began it under his sudden emotional impulse of
telling the whole truth about himself and gradually allowed the whole
truth to be more and more diluted, until towards the end of the book we
are back in the old pedantic and decorative art of Dickens, an art which
we justly admired in its own place and on its own terms, but which we
resent when we feel it gradually returning through a tale pitched
originally in a more practical and piercing key. Here, I say, is the one
real example of the fatigue of Dickens. He begins his story in a new
style and then slips back into an old one. The earlier part is in his
later manner. The later part is in his earlier manner.

There are many marks of something weak and shadowy in the end of _David
Copperfield_. Here, for instance, is one of them which is not without
its bearing on many tendencies of modern England. Why did Dickens at the
end of this book give way to that typically English optimism about
emigration? He seems to think that he can cure the souls of a whole
cartload, or rather boatload, of his characters by sending them all
to the Colonies. Peggotty is a desolate and insulted parent whose house
has been desecrated and his pride laid low; therefore let him go to
Australia. Emily is a woman whose heart is broken and whose honour is
blasted; but she will be quite happy if she goes to Australia. Mr.
Micawber is a man whose soul cannot be made to understand the tyranny of
time or the limits of human hope; but he will understand all these
things if he goes to Australia. For it must be noted that Dickens does
not use this emigration merely as a mode of exit. He does not send these
characters away on a ship merely as a symbol suggesting that they pass
wholly out of his hearer's life. He does definitely suggest that
Australia is a sort of island Valley of Avalon, where the soul may heal
it of its grievous wound. It is seriously suggested that Peggotty finds
peace in Australia. It is really indicated that Emily regains her
dignity in Australia. It is positively explained of Mr. Micawber not
that he was happy in Australia (for he would be that anywhere), but that
he was definitely prosperous and practically successful in Australia;
and that he would certainly be nowhere. Colonising is not talked of
merely as a coarse, economic expedient for going to a new market. It is
really offered as something that will cure the hopeless tragedy of
Peggotty; as something that will cure the still more hopeless comedy of

I will not dwell here on the subsequent adventures of this very
sentimental and extremely English illusion. It would be an exaggeration
to say that Dickens in this matter is something of a forerunner of much
modern imperialism. His political views were such that he would have
regarded modern imperialism with horror and contempt. Nevertheless there
is here something of that hazy sentimentalism which makes some
Imperialists prefer to talk of the fringe of the empire of which they
know nothing, rather than of the heart of the empire which they know is
diseased. It is said that in the twilight and decline of Rome, close to
the dark ages, the people in Gaul believed that Britain was a land of
ghosts (perhaps it was foggy), and that the dead were ferried across to
it from the northern coast of France. If (as is not entirely impossible)
our own century appears to future ages as a time of temporary decay and
twilight, it may be said that there was attached to England a blessed
island called Australia to which the souls of the socially dead were
ferried across to remain in bliss for ever.

This element which is represented by the colonial optimism at the end of
_David Copperfield_ is a moral element. The truth is that there is
something a little mean about this sort of optimism. I do not like the
notion of David Copperfield sitting down comfortably to his tea-table
with Agnes, having got rid of all the inconvenient or distressing
characters of the story by sending them to the other side of the world.
The whole thing has too much about it of the selfishness of a family
which sends a scapegrace to the Colonies to starve with its blessing.
There is too much in the whole thing of that element which was satirised
by an ironic interpretation of the epitaph "Peace, perfect peace, with
loved ones far away." We should have thought more of David Copperfield
(and also of Charles Dickens) if he had endeavoured for the rest of his
life, by conversation and comfort, to bind up the wounds of his old
friends from the seaside. We should have thought more of David
Copperfield (and also of Charles Dickens) if he had faced the
possibility of going on till his dying day lending money to Mr. Wilkins
Micawber. We should have thought more of David Copperfield (and also of
Charles Dickens) if he had not looked upon the marriage with Dora merely
as a flirtation, an episode which he survived and ought to survive. And
yet the truth is that there is nowhere in fiction where we feel so
keenly the primary human instinct and principle that a marriage is a
marriage and irrevocable, that such things do leave a wound and also a
bond as in this case of David's short connection with his silly little
wife. When all is said and done, when Dickens has done his best and his
worst, when he has sentimentalised for pages and tried to tie up
everything in the pink tape of optimism, the fact, in the psychology of
the reader, still remains. The reader does still feel that David's
marriage to Dora was a real marriage; and that his marriage to Agnes was
nothing, a middle-aged compromise, a taking of the second best, a sort
of spiritualised and sublimated marriage of convenience. For all the
readers of Dickens Dora is thoroughly avenged. The modern world (intent
on anarchy in everything, even in Government) refuses to perceive the
permanent element of tragic constancy which inheres in all passion, and
which is the origin of marriage. Marriage rests upon the fact that you
cannot have your cake and eat it; that you cannot lose your heart and
have it. But, as I have said, there is perhaps no place in literature
where we feel more vividly the sense of this monogamous instinct in man
than in David Copperfield. A man is monogamous even if he is only
monogamous for a month; love is eternal even if it is only eternal for a
month. It always leaves behind it the sense of something broken and

But I have mentioned Dora in this connection only because she
illustrates the same fact which Micawber illustrates; the fact that
there is at the end of this book too much tendency to bless people and
get rid of them. Micawber is a nuisance. Dickens the despot condemns him
to exile. Dora is a nuisance. Dickens the despot condemns her to death.
But it is the whole business of Dickens in the world to express the fact
that such people are the spice and interest of life. It is the whole
point of Dickens that there is nobody more worth living with than a
strong, splendid, entertaining, immortal nuisance. Micawber interrupts
practical life; but what is practical life that it should venture to
interrupt Micawber? Dora confuses the housekeeping; but we are not angry
with Dora because she confuses the housekeeping. We are angry with the
housekeeping because it confuses Dora. I repeat, and it cannot be too
much repeated that the whole lesson of Dickens is here. It is better to
know Micawber than not to know the minor worries that arise out of
knowing Micawber. It is better to have a bad debt and a good friend. In
the same way it is better to marry a human and healthy personality which
happens to attract you than to marry a mere housewife; for a mere
housewife is a mere housekeeper. All this was what Dickens stood for;
that the very people who are most irritating in small business
circumstances are often the people who are most delightful in long
stretches of experience of life. It is just the man who is maddening
when he is ordering a cutlet or arranging an appointment who is probably
the man in whose company it is worth while to journey steadily towards
the grave. Distribute the dignified people and the capable people and
the highly business-like people among all the situations which their
ambition or their innate corruption may demand; but keep close to your
heart, keep deep in your inner councils the absurd people. Let the
clever people pretend to govern you, let the unimpeachable people
pretend to advise you, but let the fools alone influence you; let the
laughable people whose faults you see and understand be the only people
who are really inside your life, who really come near you or accompany
you on your lonely march towards the last impossibility. That is the
whole meaning of Dickens; that we should keep the absurd people for our
friends. And here at the end of _David Copperfield_ he seems in some dim
way to deny it. He seems to want to get rid of the preposterous people
simply because they will always continue to be preposterous. I have a
horrible feeling that David Copperfield will send even his aunt to
Australia if she worries him too much about donkeys.

I repeat, then, that this wrong ending of _David Copperfield_ is one of
the very few examples in Dickens of a real symptom of fatigue. Having
created splendid beings for whom alone life might be worth living, he
cannot endure the thought of his hero living with them. Having given his
hero superb and terrible friends, he is afraid of the awful and
tempestuous vista of their friendship. He slips back into a more
superficial kind of story and ends it in a more superficial way. He is
afraid of the things he has made; of that terrible figure Micawber; of
that yet more terrible figure Dora. He cannot make up his mind to see
his hero perpetually entangled in the splendid tortures and sacred
surprises that come from living with really individual and unmanageable
people. He cannot endure the idea that his fairy prince will not have
henceforward a perfectly peaceful time. But the wise old fairy tales
(which are the wisest things in the world, at any rate the wisest things
of worldly origin), the wise old fairy tales never were so silly as to
say that the prince and the princess lived peacefully ever afterwards.
The fairy tales said that the prince and princess lived happily ever
afterwards: and so they did. They lived happily, although it is very
likely that from time to time they threw the furniture at each other.
Most marriages, I think, are happy marriages; but there is no such thing
as a contented marriage. The whole pleasure of marriage is that it is a
perpetual crisis. David Copperfield and Dora quarrelled over the cold
mutton; and if they had gone on quarrelling to the end of their lives,
they would have gone on loving each other to the end of their lives; it
would have been a human marriage. But David Copperfield and Agnes would
agree about the cold mutton. And that cold mutton would be very cold.

I have here endeavoured to suggest some of the main merits of Dickens
within the framework of one of his faults. I have said that _David
Copperfield_ represents a rather sad transition from his strongest
method to his weakest. Nobody would ever complain of Charles Dickens
going on writing his own kind of novels, his old kind of novels. If
there be anywhere a man who loves good books, that man wishes that there
were four _Oliver Twists_ and at least forty-four _Pickwicks_. If there
be any one who loves laughter and creation, he would be glad to read a
hundred of _Nicholas Nickleby_ and two hundred of _The Old Curiosity
Shop_. But while any one would have welcomed one of Dickens's own
ordered and conventional novels, it was not in this spirit that they
welcomed _David Copperfield_.

_David Copperfield_ begins as if it were going to be a new kind of
Dickens novel; then it gradually turns into an old kind of Dickens
novel. It is here that many readers of this splendid book have been
subtly and secretly irritated. Nicholas Nickleby is all very well; we
accept him as something which is required to tie the whole affair
together. Nicholas is a sort of string or clothes-line on which are hung
the limp figure of Smike, the jumping-jack of Mr. Squeers and the twin
dolls named Cheeryble. If we do not accept Nicholas Nickleby as the hero
of the story, at least we accept him as the title of the story. But in
_David Copperfield_ Dickens begins something which looks for the moment
fresh and startling. In the earlier chapters (the amazing earlier
chapters of this book) he does seem to be going to tell the living truth
about a living boy and man. It is melancholy to see that sudden fire
fading. It is sad to see David Copperfield gradually turning into
Nicholas Nickleby. Nicholas Nickleby does not exist at all; he is a
quite colourless primary condition of the story. We look through
Nicholas Nickleby at the story just as we look through a plain pane of
glass at the street. But David Copperfield does begin by existing; it is
only gradually that he gives up that exhausting habit.

Any fair critical account of Dickens must always make him out much
smaller than he is. For any fair criticism of Dickens must take account
of his evident errors, as I have taken account of one of the most
evident of them during the last two or three pages. It would not even be
loyal to conceal them. But no honest criticism, no criticism, though it
spoke with the tongues of men and angels, could ever really talk about
Dickens. In all this that I have said I have not been talking about
Dickens at all. I say it with equanimity; I say it even with arrogance.
I have been talking about the gaps of Dickens. I have been talking about
the omissions of Dickens. I have been talking about the slumber of
Dickens and the forgetfulness and unconsciousness of Dickens. In one
word, I have been talking not about Dickens, but about the absence of
Dickens. But when we come to him and his work itself, what is there to
be said? What is there to be said about earthquake and the dawn? He has
created, especially in this book of _David Copperfield_, he has created,
creatures who cling to us and tyrannise over us, creatures whom we would
not forget if we could, creatures whom we could not forget if we would,
creatures who are more actual than the man who made them.

This is the excuse for all that indeterminate and rambling and sometimes
sentimental criticism of which Dickens, more than any one else, is the
victim, of which I fear that I for one have made him the victim in this
place. When I was a boy I could not understand why the Dickensians
worried so wearily about Dickens, about where he went to school and
where he ate his dinners, about how he wore his trousers and when he cut
his hair. I used to wonder why they did not write something that I could
read about a man like Micawber. But I have come to the conclusion that
this almost hysterical worship of the man, combined with a comparatively
feeble criticism on his works, is just and natural. Dickens was a man
like ourselves; we can see where he went wrong, and study him without
being stunned or getting the sunstroke. But Micawber is not a man;
Micawber is the superman. We can only walk round and round him wondering
what we shall say. All the critics of Dickens, when all is said and
done, have only walked round and round Micawber wondering what they
should say. I am myself at this moment walking round and round Micawber
wondering what I shall say. And I have not found out yet.


The power of Dickens is shown even in the scraps of Dickens, just as the
virtue of a saint is said to be shown in fragments of his property or
rags from his robe. It is with such fragments that we are chiefly
concerned in the _Christmas Stories_. Many of them are fragments in the
literal sense; Dickens began them and then allowed some one else to
carry them on; they are almost rejected notes. In all the other cases we
have been considering the books that he wrote; here we have rather to
consider the books that he might have written. And here we find the
final evidence and the unconscious stamp of greatness, as we might find
it in some broken bust or some rejected moulding in the studio of
Michael Angelo.

These sketches or parts of sketches all belong to that period in his
later life when he had undertaken the duties of an editor, the very
heavy duties of a very popular editor. He was not by any means naturally
fitted for that position. He was the best man in the world for founding
papers; but many people wished that he could have been buried under the
foundations, like the first builder in some pagan and prehistoric pile.
He called the _Daily News_ into existence, but when once it existed, it
objected to him strongly. It is not easy, and perhaps it is not
important, to state truly the cause of this incapacity. It was not in
the least what is called the ordinary fault or weakness of the artist.
It was not that he was careless; rather it was that he was too
conscientious. It was not that he had the irresponsibility of genius;
rather it was that he had the irritating responsibility of genius; he
wanted everybody to see things as he saw them. But in spite of all this
he certainly ran two great popular periodicals--_Household Words_ and
_All the Year Round_--with enormous popular success. And he certainly so
far succeeded in throwing himself into the communism of journalism, into
the nameless brotherhood of a big paper, that many earnest Dickensians
are still engaged in picking out pieces of Dickens from the anonymous
pages of _Household Words_ and _All the Year Round_, and those parts
which have been already beyond question picked out and proved are often
fragmentary. The genuine writing of Dickens breaks off at a certain
point, and the writing of some one else begins. But when the writing of
Dickens breaks off, I fancy that we know it.

The singular thing is that some of the best work that Dickens ever did,
better than the work in his best novels, can be found in these slight
and composite scraps of journalism. For instance, the solemn and
self-satisfied account of the duty and dignity of a waiter given in the
opening chapter of _Somebody's Luggage_ is quite as full and fine as
anything done anywhere by its author in the same vein of sumptuous
satire. It is as good as the account which Mr. Bumble gives of out-door
relief, which, "properly understood, is the parochial safeguard. The
great thing is to give the paupers what they don't want, and then they
never come again." It is as good as Mr. Podsnap's description of the
British Constitution, which was bestowed on him by Providence. None of
these celebrated passages is more obviously Dickens at his best than
this, the admirable description of "the true principles of waitering,"
or the account of how the waiter's father came back to his mother in
broad daylight, "in itself an act of madness on the part of a waiter,"
and how he expired repeating continually "two and six is three and four
is nine." That waiter's explanatory soliloquy might easily have opened
an excellent novel, as _Martin Chuzzlewit_ is opened by the clever
nonsense about the genealogy of the Chuzzlewits, or as _Bleak House_ is
opened by a satiric account of the damp, dim life of a law court. Yet
Dickens practically abandoned the scheme of _Somebody's Luggage_; he
only wrote two sketches out of those obviously intended. He may almost
be said to have only written a brilliant introduction to another man's

Yet it is exactly in such broken outbreaks that his greatness appears.
If a man has flung away bad ideas he has shown his sense, but if he has
flung away good ideas he has shown his genius. He has proved that he
actually has that over-pressure of pure creativeness which we see in
nature itself, "that of a hundred seeds, she often brings but one to
bear." Dickens had to be Malthusian about his spiritual children.
Critics have called Keats and others who died young "the great
Might-have-beens of literary history." Dickens certainly was not merely
a great Might-have-been. Dickens, to say the least of him, was a great
Was. Yet this fails fully to express the richness of his talent; for
the truth is that he was a great Was and also a great Might-have-been.
He said what he had to say, and yet not all he had to say. Wild
pictures, possible stories, tantalising and attractive trains of
thought, perspectives of adventure, crowded so continually upon his mind
that at the end there was a vast mass of them left over, ideas that he
literally had not the opportunity to develop, tales that he literally
had not the time to tell. This is shown clearly in his private notes and
letters, which are full of schemes singularly striking and suggestive,
schemes which he never carried out. It is indicated even more clearly by
these _Christmas Stories_, collected out of the chaotic opulence of
_Household Words_ and _All the Year Round_. He wrote short stories
actually because he had not time to write long stories. He often put
into the short story a deep and branching idea which would have done
very well for a long story; many of his long stories, so to speak, broke
off short. This is where he differs from most who are called the
Might-have-beens of literature. Marlowe and Chatterton failed because of
their weakness. Dickens failed because of his force.

Examine for example this case of the waiter in _Somebody's Luggage_.
Dickens obviously knew enough about that waiter to have made him a
running spring of joy throughout a whole novel; as the beadle is in
_Oliver Twist_, or the undertaker in _Martin Chuzzlewit_. Every touch of
him tingles with truth, from the vague gallantry with which he asks,
"Would'st thou know, fair reader (if of the adorable female sex)" to the
official severity with which he takes the chambermaid down, "as many
pegs as is desirable for the future comfort of all parties." If Dickens
had developed this character at full length in a book he would have
preserved for ever in literature a type of great humour and great value,
and a type which may only too soon be disappearing from English history.
He would have eternalised the English waiter. He still exists in some
sound old taverns and decent country inns, but there is no one left
really capable of singing his praises. I know that Mr. Bernard Shaw has
done something of the sort in the delightfully whimsical account of
William in _You Never Can Tell_. But nothing will persuade me that Mr.
Bernard Shaw can really understand the English waiter. He can never have
ordered wine from him for instance. And though the English waiter is by
the nature of things solemn about everything, he can never reach the
true height and ecstasy of his solemnity except about wine. What the
real English waiter would do or say if Mr. Shaw asked him for a
vegetarian meal I cannot dare to predict. I rather think that for the
first time in his life he would laugh--a horrible sight.

Dickens's waiter is described by one who is not merely witty, truthful,
and observant, like Mr. Bernard Shaw, but one who really knew the
atmosphere of inns, one who knew and even liked the smell of beef, and
beer, and brandy. Hence there is a richness in Dickens's portrait which
does not exist in Mr. Shaw's. Mr. Shaw's waiter is merely a man of tact;
Dickens's is a man of principle. Mr. Shaw's waiter is an opportunist,
just as Mr. Shaw is an opportunist in politics. Dickens's waiter is
ready to stand up seriously for "the true principles of waitering,"
just as Dickens was ready to stand up for the true principles of
Liberalism. Mr. Shaw's waiter is agnostic; his motto is "You never can
tell." Dickens's waiter is a dogmatist; his motto is "You can tell; I
will tell you." And the true old-fashioned English waiter had really
this grave and even moral attitude; he was the servant of the customers
as a priest is the servant of the faithful, but scarcely in any less
dignified sense. Surely it is not mere patriotic partiality that makes
one lament the disappearance of this careful and honourable figure
crowded out by meaner men at meaner wages, by the German waiter who has
learnt five languages in the course of running away from his own, or the
Italian waiter who regards those he serves with a darkling contempt
which must certainly be that either of a dynamiter or an exiled prince.
The human and hospitable English waiter is vanishing. And Dickens might
perhaps have saved him, as he saved Christmas.

I have taken this case of the waiter in Dickens and his equally
important counterpart in England as an example of the sincere and genial
sketches scattered about these short stories. But there are many others,
and one at least demands special mention; I mean Mrs. Lirriper, the
London landlady. Not only did Dickens never do anything better in a
literary sense, but he never performed more perfectly his main moral
function, that of insisting through laughter and flippancy upon the
virtue of Christian charity. There has been much broad farce against the
lodging-house keeper: he alone could have written broad farce in her
favour. It is fashionable to represent the landlady as a tyrant; it is
too much forgotten that if she is one of the oppressors she is at least
as much one of the oppressed. If she is bad-tempered it is often for the
same reasons that make all women bad-tempered (I suppose the
exasperating qualities of the other sex); if she is grasping it is often
because when a husband makes generosity a vice it is often necessary
that a wife should make avarice a virtue. All this Dickens suggested
very soundly and in a few strokes in the more remote character of Miss
Wozenham. But in Mrs. Lirriper he went further and did not fare worse.
In Mrs. Lirriper he suggested quite truly how huge a mass of real good
humour, of grand unconscious patience, of unfailing courtesy and
constant and difficult benevolence is concealed behind many a
lodging-house door and compact in the red-faced person of many a
preposterous landlady. Any one could easily excuse the ill-humour of the
poor. But great masses of the poor have not even any ill-humour to be
excused. Their cheeriness is startling enough to be the foundation of a
miracle play; and certainly is startling enough to be the foundation of
a romance. Yet I do not know of any romance in which it is expressed
except this one.

Of the landlady as of the waiter it may be said that Dickens left in a
slight sketch what he might have developed through a long and strong
novel. For Dickens had hold of one great truth, the neglect of which
has, as it were, truncated and made meagre the work of many brilliant
modern novelists. Modern novelists try to make long novels out of subtle
characters. But a subtle character soon comes to an end, because it
works in and in to its own centre and dies there. But a simple
character goes on for ever in a fresh interest and energy, because it
works out and out into the infinite universe. Mr. George Moore in France
is not by any means so interesting as Mrs. Lirriper in France; for she
is trying to find France and he is only trying to find George Moore.
Mrs. Lirriper is the female equivalent of Mr. Pickwick. Unlike Mrs.
Bardell (another and lesser landlady) she was fully worthy to be Mrs.
Pickwick. For in both cases the essential truth is the same; that
original innocence which alone deserves adventures and because it alone
can appreciate them. We have had Mr. Pickwick in England and we can
imagine him in France. We have had Mrs. Lirriper in France and we can
imagine her in Mesopotamia or in heaven. The subtle character in the
modern novels we cannot really imagine anywhere except in the suburbs or
in Limbo.


_Bleak House_ is not certainly Dickens's best book; but perhaps it is
his best novel. Such a distinction is not a mere verbal trick; it has to
be remembered rather constantly in connection with his work. This
particular story represents the highest point of his intellectual
maturity. Maturity does not necessarily mean perfection. It is idle to
say that a mature potato is perfect; some people like new potatoes. A
mature potato is not perfect, but it is a mature potato; the mind of an
intelligent epicure may find it less adapted to his particular purpose;
but the mind of an intelligent potato would at once admit it as being,
beyond all doubt, a genuine, fully developed specimen of his own
particular species. The same is in some degree true even of literature.
We can say more or less when a human being has come to his full mental
growth, even if we go so far as to wish that he had never come to it.
Children are very much nicer than grown-up people; but there is such a
thing as growing up. When Dickens wrote _Bleak House_ he had grown up.

Like Napoleon, he had made his army on the march. He had walked in front
of his mob of aggressive characters as Napoleon did in front of the
half-baked battalions of the Revolution. And, like Napoleon, he won
battle after battle before he knew his own plan of campaign; like
Napoleon, he put the enemies' forces to rout before he had put his own
force into order. Like Napoleon, he had a victorious army almost before
he had an army. After his decisive victories Napoleon began to put his
house in order; after his decisive victories Dickens also began to put
his house in order. The house, when he had put it in order, was _Bleak

There was one thing common to nearly all the other Dickens tales, with
the possible exception of _Dombey and Son_. They were all rambling
tales; and they all had a perfect right to be. They were all rambling
tales for the very simple reason that they were all about rambling
people. They were novels of adventure; they were even diaries of travel.
Since the hero strayed from place to place, it did not seem unreasonable
that the story should stray from subject to subject. This is true of the
bulk of the novels up to and including _David Copperfield_, up to the
very brink or threshold of _Bleak House_. Mr. Pickwick wanders about on
the white English roads, always looking for antiquities and always
finding novelties. Poor Oliver Twist wanders along the same white roads
to seek his fortune and to find his misfortune. Nicholas Nickleby goes
walking across England because he is young and hopeful; Little Nell's
grandfather does the same thing because he is old and silly. There is
not much in common between Samuel Pickwick and Oliver Twist; there is
not much in common between Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby; there is
not much in common (let us hope) between Little Nell's grandfather and
any other human being. But they all have this in common, that they may
actually all have trodden in each other's footprints. They were all
wanderers on the face of the same fair English land. _Martin Chuzzlewit_
was only made popular by the travels of the hero in America. When we
come to _Dombey and Son_ we find, as I have said, an exception; but even
here it is odd to note the fact that it was an exception almost by
accident. In Dickens's original scheme of the story, much greater
prominence was to have been given to the travels and trials of Walter
Gay; in fact, the young man was to have had a deterioration of character
which could only have been adequately detailed in him in his character
of a vagabond and a wastrel. The most important point, however, is that
when we come to _David Copperfield_, in some sense the summit of his
serious literature, we find the thing still there. The hero still
wanders from place to place, his genius is still gipsy. The adventures
in the book are less violent and less improbable than those which wait
for Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby; but they are still adventures and
not merely events; they are still things met on a road. The facts of the
story fall away from David as such facts do fall away from a traveller
walking fast. We are more likely perhaps, to pass by Mr. Creakle's
school than to pass by Mrs. Jarley's wax-works. The only point is that
we should pass by both of them. Up to this point in Dickens's
development, his novel, however true, is still picaresque; his hero
never really rests anywhere in the story. No one seems really to know
where Mr. Pickwick lived. Here he has no abiding city.

When we come to _Bleak House_, we come to a change in artistic
structure. The thing is no longer a string of incidents; it is a cycle
of incidents. It returns upon itself; it has recurrent melody and
poetic justice; it has artistic constancy and artistic revenge. It
preserves the unities; even to some extent it preserves the unities of
time and place. The story circles round two or three symbolic places; it
does not go straggling irregularly all over England like one of Mr.
Pickwick's coaches. People go from one place to another place; but not
from one place to another place on the road to everywhere else. Mr.
Jarndyce goes from Bleak House to visit Mr. Boythorn; but he comes back
to Bleak House. Miss Clare and Miss Summerson go from Bleak House to
visit Mr. and Mrs. Bayham Badger; but they come back to Bleak House. The
whole story strays from Bleak House and plunges into the foul fogs of
Chancery and the autumn mists of Chesney Wold; but the whole story comes
back to Bleak House. The domestic title is appropriate; it is a
permanent address.

Dickens's openings are almost always good; but the opening of _Bleak
House_ is good in a quite new and striking sense. Nothing could be
better, for instance, than the first foolish chapter about the genealogy
of the Chuzzlewits; but it has nothing to do with the Chuzzlewits.
Nothing could be better than the first chapter of _David Copperfield_;
the breezy entrance and banging exit of Miss Betsy Trotwood. But if
there is ultimately any crisis or serious subject-matter of _David
Copperfield_, it is the marred marriage with Dora, the final return to
Agnes; and all this is in no way involved in the highly-amusing fact
that his aunt expected him to be a girl. We may repeat that the matter
is picaresque. The story begins in one place and ends in another place,
and there is no real connection between the beginning and the end
except a biographical connection.

A picaresque novel is only a very eventful biography; but the opening of
_Bleak House_ is quite another business altogether. It is admirable in
quite another way. The description of the fog in the first chapter of
_Bleak House_ is good in itself; but it is not merely good in itself,
like the description of the wind in the opening of _Martin Chuzzlewit_;
it is also good in the sense that Maeterlinck is good; it is what the
modern people call an atmosphere. Dickens begins in the Chancery fog
because he means to end in the Chancery fog. He did not begin in the
Chuzzlewit wind because he meant to end in it; he began in it because it
was a good beginning. This is perhaps the best short way of stating the
peculiarity of the position of _Bleak House_. In this _Bleak House_
beginning we have the feeling that it is not only a beginning; we have
the feeling that the author sees the conclusion and the whole. The
beginning is alpha and omega: the beginning and the end. He means that
all the characters and all the events shall be read through the smoky
colours of that sinister and unnatural vapour.

The same is true throughout the whole tale; the whole tale is symbolic
and crowded with symbols. Miss Flite is a funny character, like Miss La
Creevy, but Miss La Creevy means only Miss La Creevy. Miss Flite means
Chancery. The rag-and-bone man, Krook, is a powerful grotesque; so is
Quilp; but in the story Quilp only means Quilp; Krook means Chancery.
Rick Carstone is a kind and tragic figure, like Sidney Carton; but
Sidney Carton only means the tragedy of human nature; Rick Carstone
means the tragedy of Chancery. Little Jo dies pathetically like Little
Paul; but for the death of Little Paul we can only blame Dickens; for
the death of Little Jo we blame Chancery. Thus the artistic unity of the
book, compared to all the author's earlier novels, is satisfying, almost
suffocating. There is the _motif_, and again the _motif_. Almost
everything is calculated to assert and re-assert the savage morality of
Dickens's protest against a particular social evil. The whole theme is
that which another Englishman as jovial as Dickens defined shortly and
finally as the law's delay. The fog of the first chapter never lifts.

In this twilight he traced wonderful shapes. Those people who fancy that
Dickens was a mere clown; that he could not describe anything delicate
or deadly in the human character,--those who fancy this are mostly
people whose position is explicable in many easy ways. The vast majority
of the fastidious critics have, in the quite strict and solid sense of
the words, never read Dickens at all; hence their opposition is due to
and inspired by a hearty innocence which will certainly make them
enthusiastic Dickensians if they ever, by some accident, happen to read
him. In other cases it is due to a certain habit of reading books under
the eye of a conventional critic, admiring what we expect to admire,
regretting what we are told to regret, waiting for Mr. Bumble to admire
him, waiting for Little Nell to despise her. Yet again, of course, it is
sometimes due to that basest of all artistic indulgences (certainly far
baser than the pleasure of absinthe or the pleasure of opium), the
pleasure of appreciating works of art which ordinary men cannot
appreciate. Surely the vilest point of human vanity is exactly that; to
ask to be admired for admiring what your admirers do not admire. But
whatever be the reason, whether rude or subtle, which has prevented any
particular man from personally admiring Dickens, there is in connection
with a book like _Bleak House_ something that may be called a solid and
impressive challenge. Let anyone who thinks that Dickens could not
describe the semi-tones and the abrupt instincts of real human nature
simply take the trouble to read the stretch of chapters which detail the
way in which Carstone's mind grew gradually morbid about his chances in
Chancery. Let him note the manner in which the mere masculinity of
Carstone is caught; how as he grows more mad he grows more logical, nay,
more rational. Good women who love him come to him, and point out the
fact that Jarndyce is a good man, a fact to them solid like an object of
the senses. In answer he asks them to understand his position. He does
not say this; he does not say that. He only urges that Jarndyce may have
become cynical in the affair in the same sense that he himself may have
become cynical in the affair. He is always a man; that is to say, he is
always unanswerable, always wrong. The passionate certainty of the woman
beats itself like battering waves against the thin smooth wall of his
insane consistency. I repeat: let any one who thinks that Dickens was a
gross and indelicate artist read that part of the book. If Dickens had
been the clumsy journalist that such people represent, he never could
have written such an episode at all. A clumsy journalist would have
made Rick Carstone in his mad career cast off Esther and Ada and the
others. The great artist knew better. He knew that even if all the good
in a man is dying, the last sense that dies is the sense that knows a
good woman from a bad; it is like the scent of a noble hound.

The clumsy journalist would have made Rick Carstone turn on John
Jarndyce with an explosion of hatred, as of one who had made an
exposure--who had found out what low people call "a false friend" in
what they call "his true colours." The great artist knew better; he knew
that a good man going wrong tries to salve his soul to the last with the
sense of generosity and intellectual justice. He will try to love his
enemy if only out of mere love of himself. As the wolf dies fighting,
the good man gone wrong dies arguing. This is what constitutes the true
and real tragedy of Richard Carstone. It is strictly the one and only
great tragedy that Dickens wrote. It is like the tragedy of Hamlet. The
others are not tragedies because they deal almost with dead men. The
tragedy of old Dorrit is merely the sad spectacle of a dotard dragged
about Europe in his last childhood. The tragedy of Steerforth is only
that of one who dies suddenly; the tragedy of old Dombey only that of
one who was dead all the time. But Rick is a real tragedy, for he is
still alive when the quicksand sucks him down.

It is impossible to avoid putting in the first place this pall of smoke
which Dickens has deliberately spread over the story. It is quite true
that the country underneath is clear enough to contain any number of
unconscious comedians or of merry monsters such as he was in the custom
of introducing into the carnival of his tales. But he meant us to take
the smoky atmosphere seriously. Charles Dickens, who was, like all men
who are really funny about funny things, horribly serious about serious
things, certainly meant us to read this story in terms of his protest
and his insurrection against the emptiness and arrogance of law, against
the folly and the pride of judges. Everything else that there is in this
story entered into it through the unconscious or accidental energy of
his genius, which broke in at every gap. But it was the tragedy of
Richard Carstone that he meant, not the comedy of Harold Skimpole. He
could not help being amusing; but he meant to be depressing.

Another case might be taken as testing the greater seriousness of this
tale. The passages about Mrs. Jellyby and her philanthropic schemes show
Dickens at his best in his old and more familiar satiric manner. But in
the midst of the Jellyby pandemonium, which is in itself described with
the same _abandon_ and irrelevance as the boarding-house of Mrs. Todgers
or the travelling theatre of Mr. Crummles, the elder Dickens introduced
another piece of pure truth and even tenderness. I mean the account of
Caddy Jellyby. If Carstone is a truly masculine study of how a man goes
wrong, Caddy is a perfectly feminine study of how a girl goes right.
Nowhere else perhaps in fiction, and certainly nowhere else in Dickens,
is the mere female paradox so well epitomised, the unjust use of words
covering so much capacity for a justice of ultimate estimate; the
seeming irresponsibility in language concealing such a fixed and
pitiless sense of responsibility about things; the air of being always
at daggers-drawn with her own kindred, yet the confession of incurable
kinship implied in pride and shame; and, above all, that thirst for
order and beauty as for something physical; that strange female power of
hating ugliness and waste as good men can only hate sin and bad men
virtue. Every touch in her is true, from her first bewildering outbursts
of hating people because she likes them, down to the sudden quietude and
good sense which announces that she has slipped into her natural place
as a woman. Miss Clare is a figure-head, Miss Summerson in some ways a
failure; but Miss Caddy Jellyby is by far the greatest, the most human,
and the most really dignified of all the heroines of Dickens.

With one or two exceptions, all the effects in this story are of this
somewhat quieter kind, though none of them are so subtly successful as
Rick Carstone and Caddy. Harold Skimpole begins as a sketch drawn with a
pencil almost as airy and fanciful as his own. The humour of the earlier
scenes is delightful--the scenes in which Skimpole looks on at other
people paying his debts with the air of a kindly outsider, and suggests
in formless legal phraseology that they might "sign something" or "make
over something," or the scene in which he tries to explain the
advantages of accepting everything to the apoplectic Mr. Boythorn. But
it was one of the defects of Dickens as a novelist that his characters
always became coarser and clumsier as they passed through the practical
events of a story, and this would necessarily be so with Skimpole, whose
position was conceivable even to himself only on the assumption that he
was a mere spectator of life. Poor Skimpole only asked to be kept out
of the business of this world, and Dickens ought to have kept him out of
the business of _Bleak House_. By the end of the tale he has brought
Skimpole to doing acts of mere low villainy. This altogether spoils the
ironical daintiness of the original notion. Skimpole was meant to end
with a note of interrogation. As it is, he ends with a big, black,
unmistakable blot. Speaking purely artistically, we may say that this is
as great a collapse or vulgarisation as if Richard Carstone had turned
into a common blackguard and wife-beater, or Caddy Jellyby into a comic
and illiterate landlady. Upon the whole it may, I think, be said that
the character of Skimpole is rather a piece of brilliant moralising than
of pure observation or creation. Dickens had a singularly just mind. He
was wild in his caricatures, but very sane in his impressions. Many of
his books were devoted, and this book is partly devoted, to a
denunciation of aristocracy--of the idle class that lives easily upon
the toil of nations. But he was fairer than many modern revolutionists,
and he insisted on satirising also those who prey on society not in the
name of rank or law, but in the name of intellect and beauty. Sir
Leicester Dedlock and Mr. Harold Skimpole are alike in accepting with a
royal unconsciousness the anomaly and evil of their position. But the
idleness and insolence of the aristocrat is human and humble compared to
the idleness and insolence of the artist.

With the exception of a few fine freaks, such as Turveydrop and
Chadband, all the figures in this book are touched more delicately, even
more faintly, than is common with Dickens. But if the figures are
touched more faintly, it is partly because they are figures in a
fog--the fog of Chancery. Dickens meant that twilight to be oppressive;
for it was the symbol of oppression. Deliberately he did not dispel the
darkness at the end of this book, as he does dispel it at the end of
most of his books. Pickwick gets out of the Fleet Prison; Carstone never
gets out of Chancery but by death. This tyranny, Dickens said, shall not
be lifted by the light subterfuge of a fiction. This tyranny shall never
be lifted till all Englishmen lift it together.


There are works of great authors manifestly inferior to their typical
work which are yet necessary to their fame and their figure in the
world. It is not difficult to recall examples of them. No one, for
instance, would talk of Scott's _Tales of a Grandfather_ as indicating
the power that produced _Kenilworth_ and _Guy Mannering_. Nevertheless,
without this chance minor compilation we should not really have the key
of Scott. Without this one insignificant book we should not see his
significance. For the truth was that Scott loved history more than
romance, because he was so constituted as to find it more romantic than
romance. He preferred the deeds of Wallace and Douglas to those of
Marmion and Ivanhoe. Therefore his garrulous gossip of old times, his
rambles in dead centuries, give us the real material and impulse of all
his work; they represent the quarry in which he dug and the food on
which he fed. Almost alone among novelists Scott actually preferred
those parts of his historical novels which he had not invented himself.
He exults when he can boast in an eager note that he has stolen some
saying from history. Thus _The Tales of a Grandfather_, though small, is
in some sense the frame of all the Waverley novels. We realise that all
Scott's novels are tales of a grandfather.

What has been said here about Scott might be said in a less degree
about Thackeray's _Four Georges_. Though standing higher among his works
than _The Tales of a Grandfather_ among Scott's they are not his works
of genius; yet they seem in some way to surround, supplement, and
explain such works. Without the _Four Georges_ we should know less of
the link that bound Thackeray to the beginning and to the end of the
eighteenth century; thence we should have known less of Colonel Esmond
and also less of Lord Steyne. To these two examples I have given of the
slight historical experiments of two novelists a third has to be added.
The third great master of English fiction whose glory fills the
nineteenth century also produced a small experiment in the
popularisation of history. It is separated from the other two partly by
a great difference of merit but partly also by an utter difference of
tone and outlook. We seem to hear it suddenly as in the first words
spoken by a new voice, a voice gay, colloquial, and impatient. Scott and
Thackeray were tenderly attached to the past; Dickens (in his
consciousness at any rate) was impatient with everything, but especially
impatient with the past.

A collection of the works of Dickens would be incomplete in an essential
as well as a literal sense without his _Child's History of England_. It
may not be important as a contribution to history, but it is important
as a contribution to biography; as a contribution to the character and
the career of the man who wrote it, a typical man of his time. That he
had made no personal historical researches, that he had no special
historical learning, that he had not had, in truth, even anything that
could be called a good education, all this only accentuates not the
merit but at least the importance of the book. For here we may read in
plain popular language, written by a man whose genius for popular
exposition has never been surpassed among men, a brief account of the
origin and meaning of England as it seemed to the average Englishman of
that age. When subtler views of our history, some more false and some
more true than his, have become popular, or at least well known, when in
the near future Carlylean or Catholic or Marxian views of history have
spread themselves among the reading public, this book will always remain
as a bright and brisk summary of the cock-sure, healthy-minded,
essentially manly and essentially ungentlemanly view of history which
characterised the Radicals of that particular Radical era. The history
tells us nothing about the periods that it talks about; but it tells us
a great deal about the period that it does not talk about; the period in
which it was written. It is in no sense a history of England from the
Roman invasion; but it is certainly one of the documents which will
contribute to a history of England in the nineteenth century.

Of the actual nature of its philosophical and technical limitations it
is, I suppose, unnecessary to speak. They all resolve themselves into
one fault common in the modern world, and certainly characteristic of
historians much more learned and pretentious than Dickens. That fault
consists simply in ignoring or underrating the variety of strange evils
and unique dangers in the world. The Radicals of the nineteenth century
were engaged, and most righteously engaged, in dealing with one
particular problem of human civilisation; they were shifting and
apportioning more equally a load of custom that had really become
unmeaning, often accidental, and nearly always unfair. Thus, for
instance, a fierce and fighting penal code, which had been perfectly
natural when the robbers were as strong as the Government, had become in
more ordered times nothing but a base and bloody habit. Thus again
Church powers and dues, which had been human when every man felt the
Church as the best part of himself, were mere mean privileges when the
nation was full of sects and full of freethinkers. This clearing away of
external symbols that no longer symbolised anything was an honourable
and needful work; but it was so difficult that to the men engaged in it
it blocked up the perspective and filled the sky, so that they slid into
a very natural mental mistake which coloured all their views of history.
They supposed that this particular problem on which they were engaged
was the one problem upon which all mankind had always been engaged. They
got it into their heads that breaking away from a dead past was the
perpetual process of humanity. The truth is obviously that humanity has
found itself in many difficulties very different from that. Sometimes
the best business of an age is to resist some alien invasion; sometimes
to preach practical self-control in a world too self-indulgent and
diffused; sometimes to prevent the growth in the State of great new
private enterprises that would poison or oppress it. Above all it may
sometimes happen that the highest task of a thinking citizen may be to
do the exact opposite of the work which the Radicals had to do. It may
be his highest duty to cling on to every scrap of the past that he can
find, if he feels that the ground is giving way beneath him and sinking
into mere savagery and forgetfulness of all human culture. This was
exactly the position of all thinking men in what we call the dark ages,
say from the sixth to the tenth century. The cheap progressive view of
history can never make head or tail of that epoch; it was an epoch
upside down. We think of the old things as barbaric and the new things
as enlightened. In that age all the enlightened things were old; all
the barbaric and brutally ignorant things were new and up to date.
Republicanism was a fading legend; despotism was a new and successful
experiment. Christianity was not only better than the clans that
rebelled against it; Christianity was more rationalistic than they were.
When men looked back they saw progress and reason; when they looked
forward they saw shapeless tradition and tribal terror. Touching such
an age it is obvious that all our modern terms describing reform or
conservation are foolish and beside the mark. The Conservative was then
the only possible reformer. If a man did not strengthen the remains of
Roman order and the root of Roman Christianity, he was simply helping
the world to roll downhill into ruin and idiotcy. Remember all these
evident historical truths and then turn to the account given by
Charles Dickens of that great man, St. Dunstan. It is not that the
pert cockney tone of the abuse is irritating to the nerves: it is that
he has got the whole hang of the thing wrong. His head is full of the
nineteenth-century situation; that a priest imposing discipline is a
person somehow blocking the way to equality and light. Whereas the
point about such a man as Dunstan was that nobody in the place except he
cared a button about equality or light: and that he was defending what
was left of them against the young and growing power of darkness and
division and caste.

Nevertheless the case against such books as this is commonly stated
wrong. The fault of Dickens is not (as is often said) that he "applies
the same moral standard to all ages." Every sane man must do that: a
moral standard must remain the same or it is not a moral standard. If we
call St. Anthony of Padua a good man, we must mean what we mean when we
call Huxley a good man, or else there is no sense in using the word
"good." The fault of the Dickens school of popular history lies, not in
the application of a plain rule of right and wrong to all circumstances,
but in ignorance of the circumstances to which it was applied. It is not
that they wrongly enforce the fixed principle that life should be saved;
it is that they take a fire-engine to a shipwreck and a lifeboat to a
house on fire. The business of a good man in Dickens's time was to bring
justice up to date. The business of a good man in Dunstan's time was to
toil to ensure the survival of any justice at all.

And Dickens, through being a living and fighting man of his own time,
kept the health of his own heart, and so saw many truths with a single
eye: truths that were spoilt for subtler eyes. He was much more really
right than Carlyle; immeasurably more right than Froude. He was more
right precisely because he applied plain human morals to all facts as he
saw them. Carlyle really had a vague idea that in coarse and cruel
times it was right to be coarse and cruel; that tyranny was excusable in
the twelfth century: as if the twelfth century did not denounce tyrants
as much or more than any other. Carlyle, in fact, fancied that Rufus was
the right sort of man; a view which was not only not shared by Anselm,
but was probably not shared by Rufus. In this connection, or rather in
connection with the other case of Froude, it is worth while to take
another figure from Dickens's history, which illustrates the other and
better side of the facile and popular method. Sheer ignorance of the
environment made him wrong about Dunstan. But sheer instinct and good
moral tradition made him right, for instance, about Henry VIII.; right
where Froude is wildly wrong. Dickens's imagination could not re-picture
an age where learning and liberty were dying rather than being born: but
Henry VIII. lived in a time of expanding knowledge and unrest; a time
therefore somewhat like the Victorian. And Dickens in his childish but
robust way does perceive the main point about him: that he was a wicked
man. He misses all the fine shades, of course; he makes him every kind
of wicked man at once. He leaves out the serious interests of the man:
his strange but real concern for theology; his love of certain legal and
moral forms; his half-unconscious patriotism. But he sees the solid bulk
of definite badness simply because it was there; and Froude cannot see
it at all; because Froude followed Carlyle and played tricks with the
eternal conscience. Henry VIII. _was_ "a blot of blood and grease upon
the history of England." For he was the embodiment of the Devil in the
Renascence, that wild worship of mere pleasure and scorn, which with its
pictures and its palaces has enriched and ruined the world.

The time will soon come when the mere common-sense of Dickens, like the
mere common-sense of Macaulay (though his was poisoned by learning and
Whig politics), will appear to give a plainer and therefore truer
picture of the mass of history than the mystical perversity of a man of
genius writing only out of his own temperament, like Carlyle or Taine.
If a man has a new theory of ethics there is one thing he must not be
allowed to do. Let him give laws on Sinai, let him dictate a Bible, let
him fill the world with cathedrals if he can. But he must not be allowed
to write a history of England; or a history of any country. All history
was conducted on ordinary morality: with his extraordinary morality he
is certain to read it all askew. Thus Carlyle tries to write of the
Middle Ages with a bias against humility and mercy; that is, with a bias
against the whole theoretic morality of the Middle Ages. The result is
that he turns into a mere turmoil of arrogant German savages what was
really the most complete and logical, if not the highest, of human
civilisations. Historically speaking, it is better to be Dickens than to
be this; better to be ignorant, provincial, slap-dash, seeing only the
passing moment, but in that moment, to be true to eternal things.

It must be remembered, of course, that Dickens deliberately offers this
only as a "child's" history of England. That is, he only professes to be
able to teach history as any father of a little boy of five professes to
be able to teach him history. And although the history of England would
certainly be taught very differently (as regards the actual criticism of
events and men) in a family with a wider culture or with another
religion, the general method would be the same. For the general method
is quite right. This black-and-white history of heroes and villains;
this history full of pugnacious ethics and of nothing else, is the right
kind of history for children. I have often wondered how the scientific
Marxians and the believers in "the materialist view of history" will
ever manage to teach their dreary economic generalisations to children:
but I suppose they will have no children. Dickens's history will always
be popular with the young; almost as popular as Dickens's novels, and
for the same reason: because it is full of moralising. Science and art
without morality are not dangerous in the sense commonly supposed. They
are not dangerous like a fire, but dangerous like a fog. A fire is
dangerous in its brightness; a fog in its dulness; and thought without
morals is merely dull, like a fog. The fog seems to be creeping up the
street; putting out lamp after lamp. But this cockney lamp-post which
the children love is still crowned with its flame; and when the fathers
have forgotten ethics, their babies will turn and teach them.


I have heard that in some debating clubs there is a rule that the
members may discuss anything except religion and politics. I cannot
imagine what they do discuss; but it is quite evident that they have
ruled out the only two subjects which are either important or amusing.
The thing is a part of a certain modern tendency to avoid things because
they lead to warmth; whereas, obviously, we ought, even in a social
sense, to seek those things specially. The warmth of the discussion is
as much a part of hospitality as the warmth of the fire. And it is
singularly suggestive that in English literature the two things have
died together. The very people who would blame Dickens for his
sentimental hospitality are the very people who would also blame him for
his narrow political conviction. The very people who would mock him for
his narrow radicalism are those who would mock him for his broad
fireside. Real conviction and real charity are much nearer than people
suppose. Dickens was capable of loving all men; but he refused to love
all opinions. The modern humanitarian can love all opinions, but he
cannot love all men; he seems, sometimes, in the ecstasy of his
humanitarianism, even to hate them all. He can love all opinions,
including the opinion that men are unlovable.

In feeling Dickens as a lover we must never forget him as a fighter, and
a fighter for a creed; but indeed there is no other kind of fighter. The
geniality which he spread over all his creations was geniality spread
from one centre, from one flaming peak. He was willing to excuse Mr.
Micawber for being extravagant; but Dickens and Dickens's doctrine were
strictly to decide how far he was to be excused. He was willing to like
Mr. Twemlow in spite of his snobbishness, but Dickens and Dickens's
doctrine were alone to be judges of how far he was snobbish. There was
never a more didactic writer: hence there was never one more amusing. He
had no mean modern notion of keeping the moral doubtful. He would have
regarded this as a mere piece of slovenliness, like leaving the last
page illegible.

Everywhere in Dickens's work these angles of his absolute opinion stood
up out of the confusion of his general kindness, just as sharp and
splintered peaks stand up out of the soft confusion of the forests.
Dickens is always generous, he is generally kind-hearted, he is often
sentimental, he is sometimes intolerably maudlin; but you never know
when you will not come upon one of the convictions of Dickens; and when
you do come upon it you do know it. It is as hard and as high as any
precipice or peak of the mountains. The highest and hardest of these
peaks is _Hard Times_.

It is here more than anywhere else that the sternness of Dickens emerges
as separate from his softness; it is here, most obviously, so to speak,
that his bones stick out. There are indeed many other books of his which
are written better and written in a sadder tone. _Great Expectations_ is
melancholy in a sense; but it is doubtful of everything, even of its
own melancholy. _The Tale of Two Cities_ is a great tragedy, but it is
still a sentimental tragedy. It is a great drama, but it is still a
melodrama. But this tale of _Hard Times_ is in some way harsher than all
these. For it is the expression of a righteous indignation which cannot
condescend to humour and which cannot even condescend to pathos. Twenty
times we have taken Dickens's hand and it has been sometimes hot with
revelry and sometimes weak with weariness; but this time we start a
little, for it is inhumanly cold; and then we realise that we have
touched his gauntlet of steel.

One cannot express the real value of this book without being irrelevant.
It is true that one cannot express the real value of anything without
being irrelevant. If we take a thing frivolously we can take it
separately, but the moment we take a thing seriously, if it were only an
old umbrella, it is obvious that that umbrella opens above us into the
immensity of the whole universe. But there are rather particular reasons
why the value of the book called _Hard Times_ should be referred back to
great historic and theoretic matters with which it may appear
superficially to have little or nothing to do. The chief reason can
perhaps be stated thus--that English politics had for more than a
hundred years been getting into more and more of a hopeless tangle (a
tangle which, of course, has since become even worse) and that Dickens
did in some extraordinary way see what was wrong, even if he did not see
what was right.

The Liberalism which Dickens and nearly all of his contemporaries
professed had begun in the American and the French Revolutions. Almost
all modern English criticism upon those revolutions has been vitiated
by the assumption that those revolutions burst upon a world which was
unprepared for their ideas--a world ignorant of the possibility of such
ideas. Somewhat the same mistake is made by those who suggest that
Christianity was adopted by a world incapable of criticising it; whereas
obviously it was adopted by a world that was tired of criticising
everything. The vital mistake that is made about the French Revolution
is merely this--that everyone talks about it as the introduction of a
new idea. It was not the introduction of a new idea; there are no new
ideas. Or if there are new ideas, they would not cause the least
irritation if they were introduced into political society; because the
world having never got used to them there would be no mass of men ready
to fight for them at a moment's notice. That which was irritating about
the French Revolution was this--that it was not the introduction of a
new ideal, but the practical fulfilment of an old one. From the time of
the first fairy tales men had always believed ideally in equality; they
had always thought that something ought to be done, if anything could be
done, to redress the balance between Cinderella and the ugly sisters.
The irritating thing about the French was not that they said this ought
to be done; everybody said that. The irritating thing about the French
was that they did it. They proposed to carry out into a positive scheme
what had been the vision of humanity; and humanity was naturally
annoyed. The kings of Europe did not make war upon the Revolution
because it was a blasphemy, but because it was a copy-book maxim which
had been just too accurately copied. It was a platitude which they had
always held in theory unexpectedly put into practice. The tyrants did
not hate democracy because it was a paradox; they hated it because it
was a truism which seemed in some danger of coming true.

Now it happens to be hugely important to have this right view of the
Revolution in considering its political effects upon England. For the
English, being a deeply and indeed excessively romantic people, could
never be quite content with this quality of cold and bald obviousness
about the republican formula. The republican formula was merely
this--that the State must consist of its citizens ruling equally,
however unequally they may do anything else. In their capacity of
members of the State they are all equally interested in its
preservation. But the English soon began to be romantically restless
about this eternal truism; they were perpetually trying to turn it into
something else, into something more picturesque--progress perhaps, or
anarchy. At last they turned it into the highly exciting and highly
unsound system of politics, which was known as the Manchester School,
and which was expressed with a sort of logical flightiness, more
excusable in literature, by Mr. Herbert Spencer. Of course Danton or
Washington or any of the original republicans would have thought these
people were mad. They would never have admitted for a moment that the
State must not interfere with commerce or competition; they would merely
have insisted that if the State did interfere, it must really be the
State--that is, the whole people. But the distance between the common
sense of Danton and the mere ecstasy of Herbert Spencer marks the
English way of colouring and altering the revolutionary idea. The
English people as a body went blind, as the saying is, for interpreting
democracy entirely in terms of liberty. They said in substance that if
they had more and more liberty it did not matter whether they had any
equality or any fraternity. But this was violating the sacred trinity of
true politics; they confounded the persons and they divided the

Now the really odd thing about England in the nineteenth century is
this--that there was one Englishman who happened to keep his head. The
men who lost their heads lost highly scientific and philosophical heads;
they were great cosmic systematisers like Spencer, great social
philosophers like Bentham, great practical politicians like Bright,
great political economists like Mill. The man who kept his head kept a
head full of fantastic nonsense; he was a writer of rowdy farces, a
demagogue of fiction, a man without education in any serious sense
whatever, a man whose whole business was to turn ordinary cockneys into
extraordinary caricatures. Yet when all these other children of the
revolution went wrong he, by a mystical something in his bones, went
right. He knew nothing of the Revolution; yet he struck the note of it.
He returned to the original sentimental commonplace upon which it is
forever founded, as the Church is founded on a rock. In an England gone
mad about a minor theory he reasserted the original idea--the idea that
no one in the State must be too weak to influence the State.

This man was Dickens. He did this work much more genuinely than it was
done by Carlyle or Ruskin; for they were simply Tories making out a
romantic case for the return of Toryism. But Dickens was a real Liberal
demanding the return of real Liberalism. Dickens was there to remind
people that England had rubbed out two words of the revolutionary motto,
had left only Liberty and destroyed Equality and Fraternity. In this
book, _Hard Times_, he specially champions equality. In all his books he
champions fraternity.

The atmosphere of this book and what it stands for can be very
adequately conveyed in the note on the book by Lord Macaulay, who may
stand as a very good example of the spirit of England in those years of
eager emancipation and expanding wealth--the years in which Liberalism
was turned from an omnipotent truth to a weak scientific system.
Macaulay's private comment on _Hard Times_ runs, "One or two passages of
exquisite pathos and the rest sullen Socialism." That is not an unfair
and certainly not a specially hostile criticism, but it exactly shows
how the book struck those people who were mad on political liberty and
dead about everything else. Macaulay mistook for a new formula called
Socialism what was, in truth, only the old formula called political
democracy. He and his Whigs had so thoroughly mauled and modified the
original idea of Rousseau or Jefferson that when they saw it again they
positively thought that it was something quite new and eccentric. But
the truth was that Dickens was not a Socialist, but an unspoilt Liberal;
he was not sullen; nay, rather, he had remained strangely hopeful. They
called him a sullen Socialist only to disguise their astonishment at
finding still loose about the London streets a happy republican.

Dickens is the one living link between the old kindness and the new,
between the good will of the past and the good works of the future. He
links May Day with Bank Holiday, and he does it almost alone. All the
men around him, great and good as they were, were in comparison
puritanical, and never so puritanical as when they were also atheistic.
He is a sort of solitary pipe down which pours to the twentieth century
the original river of Merry England. And although this _Hard Times_ is,
as its name implies, the hardest of his works, although there is less in
it perhaps than in any of the others of the _abandon_ and the buffoonery
of Dickens, this only emphasises the more clearly the fact that he stood
almost alone for a more humane and hilarious view of democracy. None of
his great and much more highly-educated contemporaries could help him in
this. Carlyle was as gloomy on the one side as Herbert Spencer on the
other. He protested against the commercial oppression simply and solely
because it was not only an oppression but a depression. And this protest
of his was made specially in the case of the book before us. It may be
bitter, but it was a protest against bitterness. It may be dark, but it
is the darkness of the subject and not of the author. He is by his own
account dealing with hard times, but not with a hard eternity, not with
a hard philosophy of the universe. Nevertheless, this is the one place
in his work where he does not make us remember human happiness by
example as well as by precept. This is, as I have said, not the saddest,
but certainly the harshest of his stories. It is perhaps the only place
where Dickens, in defending happiness, for a moment forgets to be

He describes Bounderby and Gradgrind with a degree of grimness and
sombre hatred very different from the half affectionate derision which
he directed against the old tyrants or humbugs of the earlier nineteenth
century--the pompous Dedlock or the fatuous Nupkins, the grotesque
Bumble or the inane Tigg. In those old books his very abuse was
benignant; in _Hard Times_ even his sympathy is hard. And the reason is
again to be found in the political facts of the century. Dickens could
be half genial with the older generation of oppressors because it was a
dying generation. It was evident, or at least it seemed evident then,
that Nupkins could not go on much longer making up the law of England to
suit himself; that Sir Leicester Dedlock could not go on much longer
being kind to his tenants as if they were dogs and cats. And some of
these evils the nineteenth century did really eliminate or improve. For
the first half of the century Dickens and all his friends were justified
in feeling that the chains were falling from mankind. At any rate, the
chains did fall from Mr. Rouncewell the Iron-master. And when they fell
from him he picked them up and put them upon the poor.

  [Illustration: Charles Dickens, 1858
  From a black and white drawing by Baughiet.]


_Little Dorrit_ stands in Dickens's life chiefly as a signal of how far
he went down the road of realism, of sadness, and of what is called
modernity. True, it was by no means the best of the books of his later
period; some even think it the worst. _Great Expectations_ is certainly
the best of the later novels; some even think it the best of all the
novels. Nor is it the novel most concerned with strictly recent
problems; that title must be given to _Hard Times_. Nor again is it the
most finely finished or well constructed of the later books; that claim
can be probably made for _Edwin Drood_. By a queer verbal paradox the
most carefully finished of his later tales is the tale that is not
finished at all. In form, indeed, the book bears a superficial
resemblance to those earlier works by which the young Dickens had set
the whole world laughing long ago. Much of the story refers to a remote
time early in the nineteenth century; much of it was actually recalled
and copied from the life of Dickens's father in the old Marshalsea
prison. Also the narrative has something of the form, or rather absence
of form, which belonged to _Nicholas Nickleby_ or _Martin Chuzzlewit_.
It has something of the old air of being a string of disconnected
adventures, like a boy's book about bears and Indians. The Dorrits go
wandering for no particular reason on the Continent of Europe, just as
young Martin Chuzzlewit went wandering for no particular reason on the
continent of America. The story of _Little Dorrit_ stops and lingers at
the doors of the Circumlocution Office much in the same way that the
story of Samuel Pickwick stops and lingers in the political excitement
of Eatanswill. The villain, Blandois, is a very stagey villain indeed;
quite as stagey as Ralph Nickleby or the mysterious Monk. The secret of
the dark house of Clennam is a very silly secret; quite as silly as the
secret of Ralph Nickleby or the secret of Monk. Yet all these external
similarities between _Little Dorrit_ and the earliest books, all this
loose, melodramatic quality, only serves to make more obvious and
startling the fact that some change has come over the soul of Dickens.
_Hard Times_ is harsh; but then _Hard Times_ is a social pamphlet;
perhaps it is only harsh as a social pamphlet must be harsh. _Bleak
House_ is a little sombre; but then _Bleak House_ is almost a detective
story; perhaps it is only sombre in the sense that a detective story
must be sombre. _A Tale of Two Cities_ is a tragedy; but then _A Tale of
Two Cities_ is a tale of the French Revolution; perhaps it is only a
tragedy because the French Revolution was a tragedy. _The Mystery of
Edwin Drood_ is dark; but then the mystery of anybody must be dark. In
all these other cases of the later books an artistic reason can be
given--a reason of theme or of construction for the slight sadness that
seems to cling to them. But exactly because _Little Dorrit_ is a mere
Dickens novel, it shows that something must somehow have happened to
Dickens himself. Even in resuming his old liberty, he cannot resume his
old hilarity. He can re-create the anarchy, but not the revelry.

It so happens that this strange difference between the new and the old
mode of Dickens can be symbolised and stated in one separate and simple
contrast. Dickens's father had been a prisoner in a debtors' prison, and
Dickens's works contain two pictures partly suggested by the personality
of that prisoner. Mr. Micawber is one picture of him. Mr. Dorrit is
another. This truth is almost incredible, but it is the truth. The
joyful Micawber, whose very despair was exultant, and the desolate
Dorrit, whose very pride was pitiful, were the same man. The valiant
Micawber and the nervous, shaking Dorrit were the same man. The defiant
Micawber and the snobbish, essentially obsequious Dorrit were the same
man. I do not mean of course that either of the pictures was an exact
copy of anybody. The whole Dickens genius consisted of taking hints and
turning them into human beings. As he took twenty real persons and
turned them into one fictitious person, so he took one real person and
turned him into twenty fictitious persons. This quality would suggest
one character, that quality would suggest another. But in this case, at
any rate, he did take one real person and turn him into two. And what is
more, he turned him into two persons who seem to be quite opposite
persons. To ordinary readers of Dickens, to say that Micawber and Dorrit
had in any sense the same original, will appear unexpected and wild. No
conceivable connection between the two would ever have occurred to
anybody who had read Dickens with simple and superficial enjoyment, as
all good literature ought to be read. It will seem to them just as
silly as saying that the Fat Boy and Mr. Alfred Jingle were both copied
from the same character. It will seem as insane as saying that the
character of Smike and the character of Major Bagstock were both copied
from Dickens's father. Yet it is an unquestionable historical fact that
Micawber and Dorrit were both copied from Dickens's father, in the only
sense that any figures in good literature are ever copied from anything
or anybody. Dickens did get the main idea of Micawber from his father;
and that idea is that a poor man is not conquered by the world. And
Dickens did get the main idea of Dorrit from his father; and that idea
is that a poor man may be conquered by the world. I shall take the
opportunity of discussing, in a moment, which of these ideas is true.
Doubtless old John Dickens included both the gay and the sad moral; most
men do. My only purpose here is to point out that Dickens drew the gay
moral in 1849, and the sad moral in 1857.

There must have been some real sadness at this time creeping like a
cloud over Dickens himself. It is nothing that a man dwells on the
darkness of dark things; all healthy men do that. It is when he dwells
on the darkness of bright things that we have reason to fear some
disease of the emotions. There must really have been some depression
when a man can only see the sad side of flowers or the sad side of
holidays or the sad side of wine. And there must be some depression of
an uncommonly dark and genuine character when a man has reached such a
point that he can see only the sad side of Mr. Wilkins Micawber.

Yet this is in reality what had happened to Dickens about this time.
Staring at Wilkins Micawber he could see only the weakness and the
tragedy that was made possible by his indifference, his indulgence, and
his bravado. He had already indeed been slightly moved towards this
study of the feebleness and ruin of the old epicurean type with which he
had once sympathised, the type of Bob Sawyer or Dick Swiveller. He had
already attacked the evil of it in _Bleak House_ in the character of
Harold Skimpole, with its essentially cowardly carelessness and its
highly selfish communism. Nevertheless, as I have said before, it must
have been no small degree of actual melancholia which led Dickens to
look for a lesson of disaster and slavery in the very same career from
which he had once taught lessons of continual recuperation and a kind of
fantastic freedom. There must have been at this time some melancholy
behind the writings. There must have existed on this earth at the time
that portent and paradox--a somewhat depressed Dickens.

Perhaps it was a reminiscence of that metaphorical proverb which tells
us that "truth lies at the bottom of a well." Perhaps these people
thought that the only way to find truth in the well was to drown
oneself. But on whatever thin theoretic basis, the type and period of
George Gissing did certainly consider that Dickens, so far as he went,
was all the worse for the optimism of the story of Micawber; hence it is
not unnatural that they should think him all the better for the
comparative pessimism of the story of _Little Dorrit_. The very things
in the tale that would naturally displease the ordinary admirers of
Dickens, are the things which would naturally please a man like George
Gissing. There are many of these things, but one of them emerges
pre-eminent and unmistakable. This is the fact that when all is said and
done the main business of the story of _Little Dorrit_ is to describe
the victory of circumstances over a soul. The circumstances are the
financial ruin and long imprisonment of Edward Dorrit; the soul is
Edward Dorrit himself. Let it be granted that the circumstances are
exceptional and oppressive, are denounced as exceptional and oppressive,
are finally exploded and overthrown; still, they are circumstances. Let
it be granted that the soul is that of a man perhaps weak in any case
and retaining many merits to the last, still it is a soul. Let it be
granted, above all, that the admission that such spiritual tragedies do
occur does not decrease by so much as an iota our faith in the validity
of any spiritual struggle. For example, Stevenson has made a study of
the breakdown of a good man's character under a burden for which he is
not to blame, in the tragedy of Henry Durie in _The Master of
Ballantrae_. Yet he has added, in the mouth of Mackellar, the exact
common sense and good theology of the matter, saying "It matters not a
jot; for he that is to pass judgment upon the records of our life is the
same that formed us in frailty." Let us concede then all this, and the
fact remains that the study of the slow demoralisation of a man through
mere misfortune was not a study congenial to Dickens, not in accordance
with his original inspiration, not connected in any manner with the
special thing that he had to say. In a word, the thing is not quite a
part of himself; and he was not quite himself when he did it.

He was still quite a young man; his depression did not come from age.
In fact, as far as I know, mere depression never does come from mere
age. Age can pass into a beautiful reverie. Age can pass into a sort of
beautiful idiocy. But I do not think that the actual decline and close
of our ordinary vitality brings with it any particular heaviness of the
spirits. The spirits of the old do not as a rule seem to become more and
more ponderous until they sink into the earth. Rather the spirits of the
old seem to grow lighter and lighter until they float away like
thistledown. Wherever there is the definite phenomenon called
depression, it commonly means that something else has been closer to us
than so normal a thing as death. There has been disease, bodily or
mental, or there has been sin, or there has been some struggle or
effort, breaking past the ordinary boundaries of human custom. In the
case of Dickens there had been two things that are not of the routine of
a wholesome human life; there had been the quarrel with his wife, and
there had been the strain of incessant and exaggerated intellectual
labour. He had not an easy time; and on top of that (or perhaps rather
at the bottom of it) he had not an easy nature. Not only did his life
necessitate work, but his character necessitated worry about work; and
that combination is always one which is very dangerous to the
temperament which is exposed to it. The only people who ought to be
allowed to work are the people who are able to shirk. The only people
who ought to be allowed to worry are the people who have nothing to
worry about. When the two are combined, as they were in Dickens, you are
very likely to have at least one collapse. _Little Dorrit_ is a very
interesting, sincere, and fascinating book. But for all that, I fancy
it is the one collapse.

The complete proof of this depression may be difficult to advance;
because it will be urged, and entirely with reason, that the actual
examples of it are artistic and appropriate. Dickens, the Gissing school
will say, was here pointing out certain sad truths of psychology; can
any one say that he ought not to point them out? That may be; in any
case, to explain depression is not to remove it. But the instances of
this more sombre quality of which I have spoken are not very hard to
find. The thing can easily be seen by comparing a book like _Little
Dorrit_ with a book like _David Copperfield_. David Copperfield and
Arthur Clennam have both been brought up in unhappy homes, under bitter
guardians and a black, disheartening religion. It is the whole point of
David Copperfield that he has broken out of a Calvinistic tyranny which
he cannot forgive. But it is the whole point of Arthur Clennam that he
has not broken out of the Calvinistic tyranny, but is still under its
shadow. Copperfield has come from a gloomy childhood; Clennam, though
forty years old, is still in a gloomy childhood. When David meets the
Murdstones again it is to defy them with the health and hilarious anger
that go with his happy delirium about Dora. But when Clennam re-enters
his sepulchral house there is a weight upon his soul which makes it
impossible for him to answer, with any spirit, the morbidities of his
mother, or even the grotesque interferences of Mr. Flintwinch. This is
only another example of the same quality which makes the Dickens of
_Little Dorrit_ insist on the degradation of the debtor, while the
Dickens of _David Copperfield_ insisted on his splendid
irresponsibility, his essential emancipation. Imprisonments passed over
Micawber like summer clouds. But the imprisonment in _Little Dorrit_ is
like a complete natural climate and environment; it has positively
modified the shapes and functions of the animals that dwell in it. A
horrible thing has happened to Dickens; he has almost become an
Evolutionist. Worse still, in studying the Calvinism of Mrs. Clennam's
house, he has almost become a Calvinist. He half believes (as do some of
the modern scientists) that there is really such a thing as "a child of
wrath," that a man on whom such an early shadow had fallen could never
shake it off. For ancient Calvinism and modern Evolutionism are
essentially the same things. They are both ingenious logical blasphemies
against the dignity and liberty of the human soul.

The workmanship of the book in detail is often extremely good. The one
passage in the older and heartier Dickens manner (I mean the description
of the Circumlocution Office) is beyond praise. It is a complete picture
of the way England is actually governed at this moment. The very core of
our politics is expressed in the light and easy young Barnacle who told
Clennam with a kindly frankness that he, Clennam, would "never go on
with it." Dickens hit the mark so that the bell rang when he made all
the lower officials, who were cads, tell Clennam coldly that his claim
was absurd, until the last official, who is a gentleman, tells him
genially that the whole business is absurd. Even here, perhaps, there is
something more than the old exuberant derision of Dickens; there is a
touch of experience that verges on scepticism. Everywhere else,
certainly, there is the note which I have called Calvinistic; especially
in the predestined passion of Tattycoram or the incurable cruelty of
Miss Wade. Even Little Dorrit herself had, we are told, one stain from
her prison experience; and it is spoken of like a bodily stain; like
something that cannot be washed away.

There is no denying that this is Dickens's dark moment. It adds
enormously to the value of his general view of life that such a dark
moment came. He did what all the heroes and all the really happy men
have done; he descended into Hell. Nor is it irreverent to continue the
quotation from the Creed, for in the next book he was to write he was to
break out of all these dreams of fate and failure, and with his highest
voice to speak of the triumph of the weak of this world. His next book
was to leave us saying, as Sydney Carton mounted the scaffold, words
which, splendid in themselves, have never been so splendidly quoted--"I
am the Resurrection and the Life; whoso believeth in Me though he be
dead yet he shall live." In Sydney Carton at least, Dickens shows none
of that dreary submission to the environment of the irrevocable that had
for an instant lain on him like a cloud. On this occasion he sees with
the old heroic clearness that to be a failure may be one step to being a
saint. On the third day he rose again from the dead.

  [Illustration: Charles Dickens, 1859
  From an oil painting by W. P. Frith, R.A.]


As an example of Dickens's literary work, _A Tale of Two Cities_ is not
wrongly named. It is his most typical contact with the civic ideals of
Europe. All his other tales have been tales of one city. He was in
spirit a Cockney; though that title has been quite unreasonably twisted
to mean a cad. By the old sound and proverbial test a Cockney was a man
born within the sound of Bow bells. That is, he was a man born within
the immediate appeal of high civilisation and of eternal religion.
Shakespeare, in the heart of his fantastic forest, turns with a splendid
suddenness to the Cockney ideal as being the true one after all. For a
jest, for a reaction, for an idle summer love or still idler summer
hatred, it is well to wander away into the bewildering forest of Arden.
It is well that those who are sick with love or sick with the absence of
love, those who weary of the folly of courts or weary yet more of their
wisdom, it is natural that these should trail away into the twinkling
twilight of the woods. Yet it is here that Shakespeare makes one of his
most arresting and startling assertions of the truth. Here is one of
those rare and tremendous moments of which one may say that there is a
stage direction, "Enter Shakespeare." He has admitted that for men weary
of courts, for men sick of cities, the wood is the wisest place, and he
has praised it with his purest lyric ecstasy. But when a man enters
suddenly upon that celestial picnic, a man who is not sick of cities,
but sick of hunger, a man who is not weary of courts, but weary of
walking, then Shakespeare lets through his own voice with a shattering
sincerity and cries the praise of practical human civilisation:

    If ever you have looked on better days,
    If ever you have sat at good men's feasts,
    If ever been where bells have knolled to church,
    If ever from your eyelids wiped a tear
    Or know what 'tis to pity and be pitied.

There is nothing finer even in Shakespeare than that conception of the
circle of rich men all pretending to rough it in the country, and the
one really hungry man entering, sword in hand, and praising the city.
"If ever been where bells have knolled to church"; if you have ever been
within sound of Bow bells; if you have ever been happy and haughty
enough to call yourself a Cockney.

We must remember this distinction always in the case of Dickens. Dickens
is the great Cockney, at once tragic and comic, who enters abruptly upon
the Arcadian banquet of the æsthetics and says, "Forbear and eat no
more," and tells them that they shall not eat "until necessity be
served." If there was one thing he would have favoured instinctively it
would have been the spreading of the town as meaning the spreading of
civilisation. And we should (I hope) all favour the spreading of the
town if it did mean the spreading of civilisation. The objection to the
spreading of the modern Manchester or Birmingham suburb is simply that
such a suburb is much more barbaric than any village in Europe could
ever conceivably be. And again, if there is anything that Dickens would
have definitely hated it is that general treatment of nature as a
dramatic spectacle, a piece of scene-painting which has become the
common mark of the culture of our wealthier classes. Despite many fine
pictures of natural scenery, especially along the English roadsides, he
was upon the whole emphatically on the side of the town. He was on the
side of bricks and mortar. He was a citizen; and, after all, a citizen
means a man of the city. His strength was, after all, in the fact that
he was a man of the city. But, after all, his weakness, his calamitous
weakness, was that he was a man of one city.

For all practical purposes he had never been outside such places as
Chatham and London. He did indeed travel on the Continent; but surely no
man's travel was ever so superficial as his. He was more superficial
than the smallest and commonest tourist. He went about Europe on stilts;
he never touched the ground. There is one good test and one only of
whether a man has travelled to any profit in Europe. An Englishman is,
as such, a European, and as he approaches the central splendours of
Europe he ought to feel that he is coming home. If he does not feel at
home he had much better have stopped at home. England is a real home;
London is a real home; and all the essential feelings of adventure or
the picturesque can easily be gained by going out at night upon the
flats of Essex or the cloven hills of Surrey. Your visit to Europe is
useless unless it gives you the sense of an exile returning. Your first
sight of Rome is futile unless you feel that you have seen it before.
Thus useless and thus futile were the foreign experiments and the
continental raids of Dickens. He enjoyed them as he would have enjoyed,
as a boy, a scamper out of Chatham into some strange meadows, as he
would have enjoyed, when a grown man, a steam in a police boat out into
the fens to the far east of London. But he was the Cockney venturing
far; he was not the European coming home. He is still the splendid
Cockney Orlando of whom I spoke above; he cannot but suppose that any
strange men, being happy in some pastoral way, are mysterious foreign
scoundrels. Dickens's real speech to the lazy and laughing civilisation
of Southern Europe would really have run in the Shakespearian words:

                    but whoe'er you be
    Who in this desert inaccessible,
    Under the shade of melancholy boughs
    Lose and neglect the creeping hours of time.
    If ever you have looked on better things,
    If ever been where bells have knolled to church.

If, in short, you have ever had the advantage of being born within the
sound of Bow bells. Dickens could not really conceive that there was any
other city but his own.

It is necessary thus to insist that Dickens never understood the
Continent, because only thus can we appreciate the really remarkable
thing he did in _A Tale of Two Cities_. It is necessary to feel, first
of all, the fact that to him London was the centre of the universe. He
did not understand at all the real sense in which Paris is the capital
of Europe. He had never realised that all roads lead to Rome. He had
never felt (as an Englishman can feel) that he was an Athenian before he
was a Londoner. Yet with everything against him he did this astonishing
thing. He wrote a book about two cities, one of which he understood; the
other he did not understand. And his description of the city he did not
know is almost better than his description of the city he did know. This
is the entrance of the unquestionable thing about Dickens; the thing
called genius; the thing which every one has to talk about directly and
distinctly because no one knows what it is. For a plain word (as for
instance the word fool) always covers an infinite mystery.

_A Tale of Two Cities_ is one of the more tragic tints of the later life
of Dickens. It might be said that he grew sadder as he grew older; but
this would be false, for two reasons. First, a man never or hardly ever
does grow sad as he grows old; on the contrary, the most melancholy
young lovers can be found forty years afterwards chuckling over their
port wine. And second, Dickens never did grow old, even in a physical
sense. What weariness did appear in him appeared in the prime of life;
it was due not to age but to overwork, and his exaggerative way of doing
everything. To call Dickens a victim of elderly disenchantment would be
as absurd as to say the same of Keats. Such fatigue as there was, was
due not to the slowing down of his blood, but rather to its unremitting
rapidity. He was not wearied by his age; rather he was wearied by his
youth. And though _A Tale of Two Cities_ is full of sadness, it is full
also of enthusiasm; that pathos is a young pathos rather than an old
one. Yet there is one circumstance which does render important the fact
that _A Tale of Two Cities_ is one of the later works of Dickens. This
fact is the fact of his dependence upon another of the great writers of
the Victorian era. And it is in connection with this that we can best
see the truth of which I have been speaking; the truth that his actual
ignorance of France went with amazing intuitive perception of the truth
about it. It is here that he has most clearly the plain mark of the man
of genius; that he can understand what he does not understand.

Dickens was inspired to the study of the French Revolution and to the
writing of a romance about it by the example and influence of Carlyle.
Thomas Carlyle undoubtedly rediscovered for Englishmen the revolution
that was at the back of all their policies and reforms. It is an
entertaining side joke that the French Revolution should have been
discovered for Britons by the only British writer who did not really
believe in it. Nevertheless, the most authoritative and the most recent
critics on that great renaissance agree in considering Carlyle's work
one of the most searching and detailed power. Carlyle had read a great
deal about the French Revolution. Dickens had read nothing at all,
except Carlyle. Carlyle was a man who collected his ideas by the careful
collation of documents and the verification of references. Dickens was a
man who collected his ideas from loose hints in the streets, and those
always the same streets; as I have said, he was the citizen of one city.
Carlyle was in his way learned; Dickens was in every way ignorant.
Dickens was an Englishman cut off from France; Carlyle was a Scotsman,
historically connected with France. And yet, when all this is said and
certified, Dickens is more right than Carlyle. Dickens's French
Revolution is probably more like the real French Revolution than
Carlyle's. It is difficult, if not impossible, to state the grounds of
this strong conviction. One can only talk of it by employing that
excellent method which Cardinal Newman employed when he spoke of the
"notes" of Catholicism. There were certain "notes" of the Revolution.
One note of the Revolution was the thing which silly people call
optimism, and sensible people call high spirits. Carlyle could never
quite get it, because with all his spiritual energy he had no high
spirits. That is why he preferred prose to poetry. He could understand
rhetoric; for rhetoric means singing with an object. But he could not
understand lyrics; for the lyric means singing without an object; as
every one does when he is happy. Now for all its blood and its black
guillotines, the French Revolution was full of mere high spirits. Nay,
it was full of happiness. This actual lilt and levity Carlyle never
really found in the Revolution, because he could not find it in himself.
Dickens knew less of the Revolution, but he had more of it. When Dickens
attacked abuses, he battered them down with exactly that sort of cheery
and quite one-sided satisfaction with which the French mob battered down
the Bastille. Dickens utterly and innocently believed in certain things;
he would, I think, have drawn the sword for them. Carlyle half believed
in half a hundred things; he was at once more of a mystic and more of a
sceptic. Carlyle was the perfect type of the grumbling servant; the old
grumbling servant of the aristocratic comedies. He followed the
aristocracy, but he growled as he followed. He was obedient without
being servile, just as Caleb Balderstone was obedient without being
servile. But Dickens was the type of the man who might really have
rebelled instead of grumbling. He might have gone out into the street
and fought, like the man who took the Bastille. It is somewhat
nationally significant that when we talk of the man in the street it
means a figure silent, slouching, and even feeble. When the French speak
of the man in the street, it means danger in the street.

No one can fail to notice this deep difference between Dickens and the
Carlyle whom he avowedly copied. Splendid and symbolic as are Carlyle's
scenes of the French Revolution, we have in reading them a curious sense
that everything is happening at night. In Dickens even massacre happens
by daylight. Carlyle always assumes that because things were tragedies
therefore the men who did them felt tragic. Dickens knows that the man
who works the worst tragedies is the man who feels comic; as for
example, Mr. Quilp. The French Revolution was a much simpler world than
Carlyle could understand; for Carlyle was subtle and not simple. Dickens
could understand it, for he was simple and not subtle. He understood
that plain rage against plain political injustice; he understood again
that obvious vindictiveness and that obvious brutality which followed.
"Cruelty and the abuse of absolute power," he told an American
slave-owner, "are two of the bad passions of human nature." Carlyle was
quite incapable of rising to the height of that uplifted common-sense.
He must always find something mystical about the cruelty of the French
Revolution. The effect was equally bad whether he found it mystically
bad and called the thing anarchy, or whether he found it mystically good
and called it the rule of the strong. In both cases he could not
understand the common-sense justice or the common-sense vengeance of
Dickens and the French Revolution.

Yet Dickens has in this book given a perfect and final touch to this
whole conception of mere rebellion and mere human nature. Carlyle had
written the story of the French Revolution and had made the story a mere
tragedy. Dickens writes the story about the French Revolution, and does
not make the Revolution itself the tragedy at all. Dickens knows that an
outbreak is seldom a tragedy; generally it is the avoidance of a
tragedy. All the real tragedies are silent. Men fight each other with
furious cries, because men fight each other with chivalry and an
unchangeable sense of brotherhood. But trees fight each other in utter
stillness; because they fight each other cruelly and without quarter. In
this book, as in history, the guillotine is not the calamity, but rather
the solution of the calamity. The sin of Sydney Carton is a sin of
habit, not of revolution. His gloom is the gloom of London, not the
gloom of Paris.

  [Illustration: Charles Dickens, Circa 1860
  Photograph by J. & C. Watkins.]


_Great Expectations_, which was written in the afternoon of Dickens's
life and fame, has a quality of serene irony and even sadness, which
puts it quite alone among his other works. At no time could Dickens
possibly be called cynical, he had too much vitality; but relatively to
the other books this book is cynical; but it has the soft and gentle
cynicism of old age, not the hard cynicism of youth. To be a young cynic
is to be a young brute; but Dickens, who had been so perfectly romantic
and sentimental in his youth, could afford to admit this touch of doubt
into the mixed experience of his middle age. At no time could any books
by Dickens have been called Thackerayan. Both of the two men were too
great for that. But relatively to the other Dickensian productions this
book may be called Thackerayan. It is a study in human weakness and the
slow human surrender. It describes how easily a free lad of fresh and
decent instincts can be made to care more for rank and pride and the
degrees of our stratified society than for old affection and for honour.
It is an extra chapter to _The Book of Snobs_.

The best way of stating the change which this book marks in Dickens can
be put in one phrase. In this book for the first time the hero
disappears. The hero had descended to Dickens by a long line which
begins with the gods, nay, perhaps if one may say so, which begins with
God. First comes Deity and then the image of Deity; first comes the god
and then the demi-god, the Hercules who labours and conquers before he
receives his heavenly crown. That idea, with continual mystery and
modification, has continued behind all romantic tales; the demi-god
became the hero of paganism; the hero of paganism became the
knight-errant of Christianity; the knight-errant who wandered and was
foiled before he triumphed became the hero of the later prose romance,
the romance in which the hero had to fight a duel with the villain but
always survived, in which the hero drove desperate horses through the
night in order to rescue the heroine, but always rescued her.

This heroic modern hero, this demi-god in a top-hat, may be said to
reach his supreme moment and typical example about the time when Dickens
was writing that thundering and thrilling and highly unlikely scene in
_Nicholas Nickleby_, the scene where Nicholas hopelessly denounces the
atrocious Gride in his hour of grinning triumph, and a thud upon the
floor above tells them that the heroine's tyrannical father has died
just in time to set her free. That is the apotheosis of the pure heroic
as Dickens found it, and as Dickens in some sense continued it. It may
be that it does not appear with quite so much unmistakable youth,
beauty, valour, and virtue as it does in Nicholas Nickleby. Walter Gay
is a simpler and more careless hero, but when he is doing any of the
business of the story he is purely heroic. Kit Nubbles is a humbler
hero, but he is a hero; when he is good he is very good. Even David
Copperfield, who confesses to boyish tremors and boyish evasions in his
account of his boyhood, acts the strict stiff part of the chivalrous
gentleman in all the active and determining scenes of the tale. But
_Great Expectations_ may be called, like _Vanity Fair_, a novel without
a hero. Almost all Thackeray's novels except Esmond are novels without a
hero, but only one of Dickens's novels can be so described. I do not
mean that it is a novel without a _jeune premier_, a young man to make
love; _Pickwick_ is that and _Oliver Twist_, and, perhaps, _The Old
Curiosity Shop_. I mean that it is a novel without a hero in the same
far deeper and more deadly sense in which _Pendennis_ is also a novel
without a hero. I mean that it is a novel which aims chiefly at showing
that the hero is unheroic.

All such phrases as these must appear of course to overstate the case.
Pip is a much more delightful person than Nicholas Nickleby. Or to take
a stronger case for the purpose of our argument, Pip is a much more
delightful person than Sydney Carton. Still the fact remains. Most of
Nicholas Nickleby's personal actions are meant to show that he is
heroic. Most of Pip's actions are meant to show that he is not heroic.
The study of Sydney Carton is meant to indicate that with all his vices
Sydney Carton was a hero. The study of Pip is meant to indicate that
with all his virtues Pip was a snob. The motive of the literary
explanation is different. Pip and Pendennis are meant to show how
circumstances can corrupt men. Sam Weller and Hercules are meant to show
how heroes can subdue circumstances.

This is the preliminary view of the book which is necessary if we are
to regard it as a real and separate fact in the life of Dickens. Dickens
had many moods because he was an artist; but he had one great mood,
because he was a great artist. Any real difference therefore from the
general drift, or rather (I apologise to Dickens) the general drive of
his creation is very important. This is the one place in his work in
which he does, I will not say feel like Thackeray, far less think like
Thackeray, less still write like Thackeray, but this is the one of his
works in which he understands Thackeray. He puts himself in some sense
in the same place; he considers mankind at somewhat the same angle as
mankind is considered in one of the sociable and sarcastic novels of
Thackeray. When he deals with Pip he sets out not to show his strength
like the strength of Hercules, but to show his weakness like the
weakness of Pendennis. When he sets out to describe Pip's great
expectation he does not set out, as in a fairytale, with the idea that
these great expectations will be fulfilled; he sets out from the first
with the idea that these great expectations will be disappointing. We
might very well, as I have remarked elsewhere, apply to all Dickens's
books the title _Great Expectations_. All his books are full of an airy
and yet ardent expectation of everything; of the next person who shall
happen to speak, of the next chimney that shall happen to smoke, of the
next event, of the next ecstasy; of the next fulfilment of any eager
human fancy. All his books might be called _Great Expectations_. But the
only book to which he gave the name of _Great Expectations_ was the only
book in which the expectation was never realised. It was so with the
whole of that splendid and unconscious generation to which he belonged.
The whole glory of that old English middle class was that it was
unconscious; its excellence was entirely in that, that it was the
culture of the nation, and that it did not know it. If Dickens had ever
known that he was optimistic, he would have ceased to be happy.

It is necessary to make this first point clear: that in _Great
Expectations_ Dickens was really trying to be a quiet, a detached, and
even a cynical observer of human life. Dickens was trying to be
Thackeray. And the final and startling triumph of Dickens is this: that
even to this moderate and modern story, he gives an incomparable energy
which is not moderate and which is not modern. He is trying to be
reasonable; but in spite of himself he is inspired. He is trying to be
detailed, but in spite of himself he is gigantic. Compared to the rest
of Dickens this is Thackeray; but compared to the whole of Thackeray we
can only say in supreme praise of it that it is Dickens.

Take, for example, the one question of snobbishness. Dickens has
achieved admirably the description of the doubts and vanities of the
wretched Pip as he walks down the street in his new gentlemanly clothes,
the clothes of which he is so proud and so ashamed. Nothing could be so
exquisitely human, nothing especially could be so exquisitely masculine
as that combination of self-love and self-assertion and even insolence
with a naked and helpless sensibility to the slightest breath of
ridicule. Pip thinks himself better than every one else, and yet anybody
can snub him; that is the everlasting male, and perhaps the everlasting
gentleman. Dickens has described perfectly this quivering and
defenceless dignity. Dickens has described perfectly how ill-armed it is
against the coarse humour of real humanity--the real humanity which
Dickens loved, but which idealists and philanthropists do not love, the
humanity of cabmen and costermongers and men singing in a third-class
carriage; the humanity of Trabb's boy. In describing Pip's weakness
Dickens is as true and as delicate as Thackeray. But Thackeray might
have been easily as true and as delicate as Dickens. This quick and
quiet eye for the tremors of mankind is a thing which Dickens possessed,
but which others possessed also. George Eliot or Thackeray could have
described the weakness of Pip. Exactly what George Eliot and Thackeray
could not have described was the vigour of Trabb's boy. There would have
been admirable humour and observation in their accounts of that
intolerable urchin. Thackeray would have given us little light touches
of Trabb's boy, absolutely true to the quality and colour of the humour,
just as in his novels of the eighteenth century, the glimpses of Steele
or Bolingbroke or Doctor Johnson are exactly and perfectly true to the
colour and quality of their humour. George Eliot in her earlier books
would have given us shrewd authentic scraps of the real dialect of
Trabb's boy, just as she gave us shrewd and authentic scraps of the real
talk in a Midland country town. In her later books she would have given
us highly rationalistic explanations of Trabb's boy; which we should not
have read. But exactly what they could never have given, and exactly
what Dickens does give, is the _bounce_ of Trabb's boy. It is the real
unconquerable rush and energy in a character which was the supreme and
quite indescribable greatness of Dickens. He conquered by rushes; he
attacked in masses; he carried things at the spear point in a charge of
spears; he was the Rupert of Fiction. The thing about any figure of
Dickens, about Sam Weller or Dick Swiveller, or Micawber, or Bagstock,
or Trabb's boy,--the thing about each one of these persons is that he
cannot be exhausted. A Dickens character hits you first on the nose and
then in the waistcoat, and then in the eye and then in the waistcoat
again, with the blinding rapidity of some battering engine. The scene in
which Trabb's boy continually overtakes Pip in order to reel and stagger
as at a first encounter is a thing quite within the real competence of
such a character; it might have been suggested by Thackeray, or George
Eliot, or any realist. But the point with Dickens is that there is a
rush in the boy's rushings; the writer and the reader rush with him.
They start with him, they stare with him, they stagger with him, they
share an inexpressible vitality in the air which emanates from this
violent and capering satirist. Trabb's boy is among other things a boy;
he has a physical rapture in hurling himself like a boomerang and in
bouncing to the sky like a ball. It is just exactly in describing this
quality that Dickens is Dickens and that no one else comes near him. No
one feels in his bones that Felix Holt was strong as he feels in his
bones that little Quilp was strong. No one can feel that even Rawdon
Crawley's splendid smack across the face of Lord Steyne is quite so
living and life-giving as the "kick after kick" which old Mr. Weller
dealt the dancing and quivering Stiggins as he drove him towards the
trough. This quality, whether expressed intellectually or physically,
is the profoundly popular and eternal quality in Dickens; it is the
thing that no one else could do. This quality is the quality which has
always given its continuous power and poetry to the common people
everywhere. It is life; it is the joy of life felt by those who have
nothing else but life. It is the thing that all aristocrats have always
hated and dreaded in the people. And it is the thing which poor Pip
really hates and dreads in Trabb's boy.

A great man of letters or any great artist is symbolic without knowing
it. The things he describes are types because they are truths.
Shakespeare may, or may not, have ever put it to himself that Richard
the Second was a philosophical symbol; but all good criticism must
necessarily see him so. It may be a reasonable question whether the
artist should be allegorical. There can be no doubt among sane men that
the critic should be allegorical. Spenser may have lost by being less
realistic than Fielding. But any good criticism of _Tom Jones_ must be
as mystical as the _Faery Queen_. Hence it is unavoidable in speaking of
a fine book like _Great Expectations_ that we should give even to its
unpretentious and realistic figures a certain massive mysticism. Pip is
Pip, but he is also the well-meaning snob. And this is even more true of
those two great figures in the tale which stand for the English
democracy. For, indeed, the first and last word upon the English
democracy is said in Joe Gargery and Trabb's boy. The actual English
populace, as distinct from the French populace or the Scotch or Irish
populace, may be said to lie between those two types. The first is the
poor man who does not assert himself at all, and the second is the poor
man who asserts himself entirely with the weapon of sarcasm. The only
way in which the English now ever rise in revolution is under the symbol
and leadership of Trabb's boy. What pikes and shillelahs were to the
Irish populace, what guns and barricades were to the French populace,
that chaff is to the English populace. It is their weapon, the use of
which they really understand. It is the one way in which they can make a
rich man feel uncomfortable, and they use it very justifiably for all it
is worth. If they do not cut off the heads of tyrants at least they
sometimes do their best to make the tyrants lose their heads. The gutter
boys of the great towns carry the art of personal criticism to so rich
and delicate a degree that some well-dressed persons when they walk past
a file of them feel as if they were walking past a row of omniscient
critics or judges with a power of life and death. Here and there only is
some ordinary human custom, some natural human pleasure suppressed in
deference to the fastidiousness of the rich. But all the rich tremble
before the fastidiousness of the poor.

Of the other type of democracy it is far more difficult to speak. It is
always hard to speak of good things or good people, for in satisfying
the soul they take away a certain spur to speech. Dickens was often
called a sentimentalist. In one sense he sometimes was a sentimentalist.
But if sentimentalism be held to mean something artificial or
theatrical, then in the core and reality of his character Dickens was
the very reverse of a sentimentalist. He seriously and definitely loved
goodness. To see sincerity and charity satisfied him like a meal. What
some critics call his love of sweet stuff is really his love of plain
beef and bread. Sometimes one is tempted to wish that in the long
Dickens dinner the sweet courses could be left out; but this does not
make the whole banquet other than a banquet singularly solid and simple.
The critics complain of the sweet things, but not because they are so
strong as to like simple things. They complain of the sweet things
because they are so sophisticated as to like sour things; their tongues
are tainted with the bitterness of absinthe. Yet because of the very
simplicity of Dickens's moral tastes it is impossible to speak
adequately of them; and Joe Gargery must stand as he stands in the book,
a thing too obvious to be understood. But this may be said of him in one
of his minor aspects, that he stands for a certain long-suffering in the
English poor, a certain weary patience and politeness which almost
breaks the heart. One cannot help wondering whether that great mass of
silent virtue will ever achieve anything on this earth.


_Our Mutual Friend_ marks a happy return to the earlier manner of
Dickens at the end of Dickens's life. One might call it a sort of Indian
summer of his farce. Those who most truly love Dickens love the earlier
Dickens; and any return to his farce must be welcomed, like a young man
come back from the dead. In this book indeed he does not merely return
to his farce; he returns in a manner to his vulgarity. It is the old
democratic and even uneducated Dickens who is writing here. The very
title is illiterate. Any priggish pupil teacher could tell Dickens that
there is no such phrase in English as "our mutual friend." Any one could
tell Dickens that "our mutual friend" means "our reciprocal friend," and
that "our reciprocal friend" means nothing. If he had only had all the
solemn advantages of academic learning (the absence of which in him was
lamented by the _Quarterly Review_), he would have known better. He
would have known that the correct phrase for a man known to two people
is "our common friend." But if one calls one's friend a common friend,
even that phrase is open to misunderstanding.

I dwell with a gloomy pleasure on this mistake in the very title of the
book because I, for one, am not pleased to see Dickens gradually
absorbed by modern culture and good manners. Dickens, by class and
genius, belonged to the kind of people who do talk about a "mutual
friend"; and for that class there is a very great deal to be said. These
two things can at least be said--that this class does understand the
meaning of the word "friend" and the meaning of the word "mutual." I
know that for some long time before he had been slowly and subtly sucked
into the whirlpool of the fashionable views of later England. I know
that in _Bleak House_ he treats the aristocracy far more tenderly than
he treats them in _David Copperfield_. I know that in _A Tale of Two
Cities_, having come under the influence of Carlyle, he treats
revolution as strange and weird, whereas under the influence of Cobbett
he would have treated it as obvious and reasonable. I know that in _The
Mystery of Edwin Drood_ he not only praised the Minor Canon of
Cloisterham at the expense of the dissenting demagogue, Honeythunder; I
know that he even took the last and most disastrous step in the modern
English reaction. While blaming the old Cloisterham monks (who were
democratic), he praised the old-world peace that they had left behind
them--an old-world peace which is simply one of the last amusements of
aristocracy. The modern rich feel quite at home with the dead monks.
They would have felt anything but comfortable with the live ones. I
know, in short, how the simple democracy of Dickens was gradually dimmed
by the decay and reaction of the middle of the nineteenth century. I
know that he fell into some of the bad habits of aristocratic
sentimentalism. I know that he used the word "gentleman" as meaning good
man. But all this only adds to the unholy joy with which I realise that
the very title of one of his best books was a vulgarism. It is pleasant
to contemplate this last unconscious knock in the eye for the gentility
with which Dickens was half impressed. Dickens is the old self-made man;
you may take him or leave him. He has its disadvantages and its merits.
No university man would have written the title; no university man could
have written the book.

If it were a mere matter of the accident of a name it would not be worth
while thus to dwell on it, even as a preface. But the title is in this
respect typical of the tale. The novel called _Our Mutual Friend_ is in
many ways a real reaction towards the earlier Dickens manner. I have
remarked that _Little Dorrit_ was a reversion to the form of the first
books, but not to their spirit; _Our Mutual Friend_ is a reversion to
the spirit as well as the form. Compare, for instance, the public
figures that make a background in each book. Mr. Merdle is a commercial
man having no great connection with the plot; similarly Mr. Podsnap is a
commercial man having no great connection with the plot. This is
altogether in the spirit of the earlier books; the whole point of an
early Dickens novel was to have as many people as possible entirely
unconnected with the plot. But exactly because both studies are
irrelevant, the contrast between them can be more clearly perceived.
Dickens goes out of his way to describe Merdle; and it is a gloomy
description. But Dickens goes out of his way to describe Podsnap, and it
is a happy and hilarious description. It recalls the days when he hunted
great game; when he went out of his way to entrap such adorable monsters
as Mr. Pecksniff or Mr. Vincent Crummles. With these wild beings we
never bother about the cause of their coming. Such guests in a story
may be uninvited, but they are never _de trop_. They earn their night's
lodging in any tale by being so uproariously amusing; like little Tommy
Tucker in the legend, they sing for their supper. This is really the
marked truth about _Our Mutual Friend_, as a stage in the singular
latter career of Dickens. It is like the leaping up and flaming of a
slowly dying fire. The best things in the book are in the old best
manner of the author. They have that great Dickens quality of being
something which is pure farce and yet which is not superficial; an
unfathomable farce--a farce that goes down to the roots of the universe.
The highest compliment that can ever be paid to the humour of Dickens is
paid when some lady says, with the sudden sincerity of her sex, that it
is "too silly." The phrase is really a perfectly sound and acute
criticism. Humour does consist in being too silly, in passing the
borderland, in breaking through the floor of sense and falling into some
starry abyss of nonsense far below our ordinary human life. This "too
silly" quality is really present in _Our Mutual Friend_. It is present
in _Our Mutual Friend_ just as it is present in _Pickwick_, or _Martin
Chuzzlewit_; just as it is not present in _Little Dorrit_ or in _Hard
Times_. Many tests might be employed. One is the pleasure in purely
physical jokes--jokes about the body. The general dislike which every
one felt for Mr. Stiggins's nose is of the same kind as the ardent
desire which Mr. Lammle felt for Mr. Fledgeby's nose. "Give me your
nose, Sir," said Mr. Lammle. That sentence alone would be enough to show
that the young Dickens had never died.

The opening of a book goes for a great deal. The opening of _Our Mutual
Friend_ is much more instinctively energetic and light-hearted than that
of any of the other novels of his concluding period. Dickens had always
enough optimism to make his stories end well. He had not, in his later
years, always enough optimism to make them begin well. Even _Great
Expectations_, the saddest of his later books, ends well; it ends well
in spite of himself, who had intended it to end badly. But if we leave
the evident case of good endings and take the case of good beginnings,
we see how much _Our Mutual Friend_ stands out from among the other
novels of the evening or the end of Dickens. The tale of _Little Dorrit_
begins in a prison. One of the prisoners is a villain, and his villainy
is as dreary as the prison; that might matter nothing. But the other
prisoner is vivacious, and even his vivacity is dreary. The first note
struck is sad. In the tale of _Edwin Drood_ the first scene is in an
opium den, suffocated with every sort of phantasy and falsehood. Nor is
it true that these openings are merely accidental; they really cast
their shadow over the tales. The people of _Little Dorrit_ begin in
prison; and it is the whole point of the book that people never get out
of prison. The story of _Edwin Drood_ begins amid the fumes of opium,
and it never gets out of the fumes of opium. The darkness of that
strange and horrible smoke is deliberately rolled over the whole story.
Dickens, in his later years, permitted more and more his story to take
the cue from its inception. All the more remarkable, therefore, is the
real jerk and spurt of good spirits with which he opens _Our Mutual
Friend_. It begins with a good piece of rowdy satire, wildly exaggerated
and extremely true. It belongs to the same class as the first chapter
of _Martin Chuzzlewit_, with its preposterous pedigree of the Chuzzlewit
family, or even the first chapter of _Pickwick_, with its immortal
imbecilities about the Theory of Tittlebats and Mr. Blotton of Aldgate.
Doubtless the early satiric chapter in _Our Mutual Friend_ is of a more
strategic and ingenious kind of satire than can be found in these early
and explosive parodies. Still, there is a quality common to both, and
that quality is the whole of Dickens. It is a quality difficult to
define--hence the whole difficulty of criticising Dickens. Perhaps it
can be best stated in two separate statements or as two separate
symptoms. The first is the mere fact that the reader rushes to read it.
The second is the mere fact that the writer rushed to write it.

This beginning, which is like a burst of the old exuberant Dickens, is,
of course, the Veneering dinner-party. In its own way it is as good as
anything that Dickens ever did. There is the old faculty of managing a
crowd, of making character clash with character, that had made Dickens
not only the democrat but even the demagogue of fiction. For if it is
hard to manage a mob, it is hardest of all to manage a swell mob. The
particular kind of chaos that is created by the hospitality of a rich
upstart has perhaps never been so accurately and outrageously described.
Every touch about the thing is true; to this day any one can test it if
he goes to a dinner of this particular kind. How admirable, for
instance, is the description of the way in which all the guests ignored
the host; how the host and hostess peered and gaped for some stray
attention as if they had been a pair of poor relations. Again, how well,
as a matter of social colour, the distinctions between the type and
tone of the guests are made even in the matter of this unguestlike
insolence. How well Dickens distinguishes the ill-bred indifference of
Podsnap from the well-bred indifference of Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene
Wrayburn. How well he distinguishes the bad manners of the merchant from
the equally typical bad manners of the gentleman. Above all, how well he
catches the character of the creature who is really the master of all
these: the impenetrable male servant. Nowhere in literature is the truth
about servants better told. For that truth is simply this: that the
secret of aristocracy is hidden even from aristocrats. Servants,
butlers, footmen, are the high priests who have the real dispensation;
and even gentlemen are afraid of them. Dickens was never more right than
when he made the new people, the Veneerings, employ a butler who
despised not only them but all their guests and acquaintances. The
admirable person called the Analytical Chemist shows his perfection
particularly in the fact that he regards all the sham gentlemen and all
the real gentlemen with the same gloomy and incurable contempt. He
offers wine to the offensive Podsnap or the shrieking Tippins with a
melancholy sincerity and silence; but he offers his letter to the
aristocratic and unconscious Mortimer with the same sincerity and with
the same silence. It is a great pity that the Analytical Chemist only
occurs in two or three scenes of this excellent story. As far as I know,
he never really says a word from one end of the book to the other; but
he is one of the best characters in Dickens.

Round the Veneering dinner-table are collected not indeed the best
characters in Dickens, but certainly the best characters in _Our Mutual
Friend_. Certainly one exception must be made. Fledgeby is unaccountably
absent. There was really no reason why he should not have been present
at a dinner-party given by the Veneerings and including the Lammles. His
money was at least more genuine than theirs. If he had been present the
party would really have included all that is important in _Our Mutual
Friend_. For indeed, outside Mr. Fledgeby and the people at the
dinner-party, there is something a little heavy and careless about the
story. Mr. Silas Wegg is really funny; and he serves the purpose of a
necessary villain in the plot. But his humour and his villainy seem to
have no particular connection with each other; when he is not scheming
he seems the last man likely to scheme. He is rather like one of
Dickens's agreeable Bohemians, a pleasant companion, a quoter of fine
verses. His villainy seems an artificial thing attached to him, like his
wooden leg. For while his villainy is supposed to be of a dull, mean,
and bitter sort (quite unlike, for instance, the uproarious villainy of
Quilp), his humour is of the sincere, flowing and lyric character, like
that of Dick Swiveller or Mr. Micawber. He tells Mr. Boffin that he will
drop into poetry in a friendly way. He does drop into it in a friendly
way; in much too really a friendly way to make him convincing as a mere
calculating knave. He and Mr. Venus are such natural and genuine
companions that one does not see why if Venus repents Wegg should not
repent too. In short, Wegg is a convenience for a plot and not a very
good plot at that. But if he is one of the blots on the business, he is
not the principal one. If the real degradation of Wegg is not very
convincing, it is at least immeasurably more convincing than the
pretended degradation of Boffin. The passage in which Boffin appears as
a sort of miser, and then afterwards explains that he only assumed the
character for reasons of his own, has something about it highly jerky
and unsatisfactory. The truth of the whole matter I think, almost
certainly, is that Dickens did not originally mean Boffin's lapse to be
fictitious. He originally meant Boffin really to be corrupted by wealth,
slowly to degenerate and as slowly to repent. But the story went too
quickly for this long, double, and difficult process; therefore Dickens
at the last moment made a sudden recovery possible by representing that
the whole business had been a trick. Consequently, this episode is not
an error merely in the sense that we may find many errors in a great
writer like Dickens; it is a mistake patched up with another mistake. It
is a case of that ossification which occurs round the healing of an
actual fracture; the story had broken down and been mended.

If Dickens had fulfilled what was probably his original design, and
described the slow freezing of Boffin's soul in prosperity, I do not say
that he would have done the thing well. He was not good at describing
change in anybody, especially not good at describing a change for the
worse. The tendency of all his characters is upwards, like bubbles,
never downwards, like stones. But at least it would probably have been
more credible than the story as it stands; for the story as it stands is
actually less credible than any conceivable kind of moral ruin for
Boffin. Such a character as his--rough, simple and lumberingly
unconscious--might be more easily conceived as really sinking in
self-respect and honour than as keeping up, month after month, so
strained and inhuman a theatrical performance. To a good man (of that
particular type) it would be easier to be bad than to pretend to be bad.
It might have taken years to turn Noddy Boffin into a miser; but it
would have taken centuries to turn him into an actor. This unreality in
the later Boffin scenes makes the end of the story of John Harmon
somewhat more unimpressive perhaps than it might otherwise have been.
Upon no hypothesis, however, can he be made one of the more impressive
figures of Dickens. It is true that it is an unfair criticism to object,
as some have done, that Dickens does not succeed in disguising the
identity of John Harmon with John Rokesmith. Dickens never intended to
disguise it; the whole story would be mainly unintelligible and largely
uninteresting if it had been successfully disguised. But though John
Harmon or Rokesmith was never intended to be merely a man of mystery, it
is not quite so easy to say what he was intended to be. Bella is a
possible and pretty sketch. Mrs. Wilfer, her mother, is an entirely
impossible and entirely delightful one. Miss Podsnap is not only
excellent, she is to a healthy taste positively attractive; there is a
real suggestion in her of the fact that humility is akin to truth, even
when humility takes its more comic form of shyness. There is not in all
literature a more human _cri de coeur_ than that with which Georgiana
Podsnap receives the information that a young man has professed himself
to be attracted by her--"Oh what a Fool he must be!"

Two other figures require praise, though they are in the more tragic
manner which Dickens touched from time to time in his later period.
Bradley Headstone is really a successful villain; so successful that he
fully captures our sympathies. Also there is something original in the
very conception. It was a new notion to add to the villains of fiction,
whose thoughts go quickly, this villain whose thoughts go slow but sure;
and it was a new notion to combine a deadly criminality not with high
life or the slums (the usual haunts for villains) but with the laborious
respectability of the lower, middle classes. The other good conception
is the boy, Bradley Headstone's pupil, with his dull, inexhaustible
egoism, his pert, unconscious cruelty, and the strict decorum and
incredible baseness of his views of life. It is singular that Dickens,
who was not only a radical and a social reformer, but one who would have
been particularly concerned to maintain the principle of modern popular
education, should nevertheless have seen so clearly this potential evil
in the mere educationalism of our time--the fact that merely educating
the democracy may easily mean setting to work to despoil it of all the
democratic virtues. It is better to be Lizzie Hexam and not know how to
read and write than to be Charlie Hexam and not know how to appreciate
Lizzie Hexam. It is not only necessary that the democracy should be
taught; it is also necessary that the democracy should be taught
democracy. Otherwise it will certainly fall a victim to that
snobbishness and system of worldly standards which is the most natural
and easy of all the forms of human corruption. This is one of the many
dangers which Dickens saw before it existed. Dickens was really a
prophet; far more of a prophet than Carlyle.

  [Illustration: Charles Dickens, 1868
  From a photograph by Gurney.]


_Pickwick_ was a work partly designed by others, but ultimately filled
up by Dickens. _Edwin Drood_, the last book, was a book designed by
Dickens, but ultimately filled up by others. The _Pickwick Papers_
showed how much Dickens could make out of other people's suggestions;
_The Mystery of Edwin Drood_ shows how very little other people can make
out of Dickens's suggestions.

Dickens was meant by Heaven to be the great melodramatist; so that even
his literary end was melodramatic. Something more seems hinted at in the
cutting short of _Edwin Drood_ by Dickens than the mere cutting short of
a good novel by a great man. It seems rather like the last taunt of some
elf, leaving the world, that it should be this story which is not ended,
this story which is only a story. The only one of Dickens's novels which
he did not finish was the only one that really needed finishing. He
never had but one thoroughly good plot to tell; and that he has only
told in heaven. This is what separates the case in question from any
parallel cases of novelists cut off in the act of creation. That great
novelist, for instance, with whom Dickens is constantly compared, died
also in the middle of _Denis Duval_. But any one can see in _Denis
Duval_ the qualities of the later work of Thackeray; the increasing
discursiveness, the increasing retrospective poetry, which had been in
part the charm and in part the failure of _Philip_ and _The Virginians_.
But to Dickens it was permitted to die at a dramatic moment and to leave
a dramatic mystery. Any Thackerayan could have completed the plot of
_Denis Duval_; except indeed that a really sympathetic Thackerayan might
have had some doubt as to whether there was any plot to complete. But
Dickens, having had far too little plot in his stories previously, had
far too much plot in the story he never told. Dickens dies in the act of
telling, not his tenth novel, but his first news of murder. He drops
down dead as he is in the act of denouncing the assassin. It is
permitted to Dickens, in short, to come to a literary end as strange as
his literary beginning. He began by completing the old romance of
travel. He ended by inventing the new detective story.

It is as a detective story first and last that we have to consider _The
Mystery of Edwin Drood_. This does not mean, of course, that the details
are not often admirable in their swift and penetrating humour; to say
that of the book would be to say that Dickens did not write it. Nothing
could be truer, for instance, than the manner in which the dazed and
drunken dignity of Durdles illustrates a certain bitterness at the
bottom of the bewilderment of the poor. Nothing could be better than the
way in which the haughty and allusive conversation between Miss
Twinkleton and the landlady illustrates the maddening preference of some
females for skating upon thin social ice. There is an even better
example than these of the original humorous insight of Dickens; and one
not very often remarked, because of its brevity and its unimportance in
the narrative. But Dickens never did anything better than the short
account of Mr. Grewgious's dinner being brought from the tavern by two
waiters: "a stationary waiter," and "a flying waiter." The "flying
waiter" brought the food and the "stationary waiter" quarrelled with
him; the "flying waiter" brought glasses and the "stationary waiter"
looked through them. Finally, it will be remembered the "stationary
waiter" left the room, casting a glance which indicated "let it be
understood that all emoluments are mine, and that Nil is the reward of
this slave." Still, Dickens wrote the book as a detective story; he
wrote it as _The Mystery of Edwin Drood_. And alone, perhaps, among
detective-story writers, he never lived to destroy his mystery. Here
alone then among the Dickens novels it is necessary to speak of the plot
and of the plot alone. And when we speak of the plot it becomes
immediately necessary to speak of the two or three standing explanations
which celebrated critics have given of the plot.

The story, so far as it was written by Dickens, can be read here. It
describes, as will be seen, the disappearance of the young architect
Edwin Drood after a night of festivity which was supposed to celebrate
his reconciliation with a temporary enemy, Neville Landless, and was
held at the house of his uncle John Jasper. Dickens continued the tale
long enough to explain or explode the first and most obvious of his
riddles. Long before the existing part terminates it has become evident
that Drood has been put away, not by his obvious opponent, Landless, but
by his uncle who professes for him an almost painful affection. The fact
that we all know this, however, ought not in fairness to blind us to
the fact that, considered as the first fraud in a detective story, it
has been, with great skill, at once suggested and concealed. Nothing,
for instance, could be cleverer as a piece of artistic mystery than the
fact that Jasper, the uncle, always kept his eyes fixed on Drood's face
with a dark and watchful tenderness; the thing is so told that at first
we really take it as only indicating something morbid in the affection;
it is only afterwards that the frightful fancy breaks upon us that it is
not morbid affection but morbid antagonism. This first mystery (which is
no longer a mystery) of Jasper's guilt, is only worth remarking because
it shows that Dickens meant and felt himself able to mask all his
batteries with real artistic strategy and artistic caution. The manner
of the unmasking of Jasper marks the manner and tone in which the whole
tale was to be told. Here we have not got to do with Dickens simply
giving himself away, as he gave himself away in _Pickwick_ or _The
Christmas Carol_. Not that one complains of his giving himself away;
there was no better gift.

What was the mystery of Edwin Drood from Dickens's point of view we
shall never know, except perhaps from Dickens in heaven, and then he
will very likely have forgotten. But the mystery of Edwin Drood from our
point of view, from that of his critics, and those who have with some
courage (after his death) attempted to be his collaborators, is simply
this. There is no doubt that Jasper either murdered Drood or supposed
that he had murdered him. This certainty we have from the fact that it
is the whole point of a scene between Jasper and Drood's lawyer
Grewgious in which Jasper is struck down with remorse when he realises
that Drood has been killed (from his point of view) needlessly and
without profit. The only question is whether Jasper's remorse was as
needless as his murder. In other words the only question is whether,
while he certainly thought he had murdered Drood, he had really done it.
It need hardly be said that such a doubt would not have been raised for
nothing; gentlemen like Jasper do not as a rule waste good remorse
except upon successful crime. The origin of the doubt about the real
death of Drood is this. Towards the latter end of the existing chapters
there appears very abruptly, and with a quite ostentatious air of
mystery, a character called Datchery. He appears for the purpose of
spying upon Jasper and getting up some case against him; at any rate, if
he has not this purpose in the story he has no other earthly purpose in
it. He is an old gentleman of juvenile energy, with a habit of carrying
his hat in his hand even in the open air; which some have interpreted as
meaning that he feels the unaccustomed weight of a wig. Now there are
one or two people in the story who this person might possibly be.
Notably there is one person in the story who seems as if he were meant
to be something, but who hitherto has certainly been nothing; I mean
Bazzard, Mr. Grewgious's clerk, a sulky fellow interested in
theatricals, of whom an unnecessary fuss is made. There is also Mr.
Grewgious himself, and there is also another suggestion, so much more
startling that I shall have to deal with it later.

For the moment, however, the point is this: That ingenious writer, Mr.
Proctor, started the highly plausible theory that this Datchery was
Drood himself, who had not really been killed. He adduced a most complex
and complete scheme covering nearly all the details; but the strongest
argument he had was rather one of general artistic effect. This argument
has been quite perfectly summed up by Mr. Andrew Lang in one sentence:
"If Edwin Drood is dead, there is not much mystery about him." This is
quite true; Dickens, when writing in so deliberate, nay, dark and
conspiratorial a manner, would surely have kept the death of Drood and
the guilt of Jasper hidden a little longer if the only real mystery had
been the guilt of Jasper and the death of Drood. It certainly seems
artistically more likely that there was a further mystery of Edwin
Drood; not the mystery that he was murdered, but the mystery that he was
not murdered. It is true indeed that Mr. Cumming Walters has a theory of
Datchery (to which I have already darkly alluded) a theory which is wild
enough to be the centre not only of any novel but of any harlequinade.
But the point is that even Mr. Cumming Walters's theory, though it makes
the mystery more extraordinary, does not make it any more of a mystery
of Edwin Drood. It should not have been called _The Mystery of Drood_,
but _The Mystery of Datchery_. This is the strongest case for Proctor;
if the story tells of Drood coming back as Datchery, the story does at
any rate fulfil the title upon its title-page.

The principal objection to Proctor's theory is that there seems no
adequate reason why Jasper should not have murdered his nephew if he
wanted to. And there seems even less reason why Drood, if unsuccessfully
murdered, should not have raised the alarm. Happy young architects,
when nearly strangled by elderly organists, do not generally stroll away
and come back some time afterwards in a wig and with a false name.
Superficially it would seem almost as odd to find the murderer
investigating the origin of the murder, as to find the corpse
investigating it. To this problem two of the ablest literary critics of
our time, Mr. Andrew Lang and Mr. William Archer (both of them persuaded
generally of the Proctor theory) have especially addressed themselves.
Both have come to the same substantial conclusion; and I suspect that
they are right. They hold that Jasper (whose mania for opium is much
insisted on in the tale) had some sort of fit, or trance, or other
physical seizure as he was committing the crime so that he left it
unfinished; and they also hold that he had drugged Drood, so that Drood,
when he recovered from the attack, was doubtful about who had been his
assailant. This might really explain, if a little fancifully, his coming
back to the town in the character of a detective. He might think it due
to his uncle (whom he last remembered in a kind of murderous vision) to
make an independent investigation as to whether he was really guilty or
not. He might say, as Hamlet said of a vision equally terrifying, "I'll
have grounds more relative than this." In fairness it must be said that
there is something vaguely shaky about this theory; chiefly, I think, in
this respect; that there is a sort of farcical cheerfulness about
Datchery which does not seem altogether appropriate to a lad who ought
to be in an agony of doubt as to whether his best friend was or was not
his assassin. Still there are many such incongruities in Dickens; and
the explanation of Mr. Archer and Mr. Lang is an explanation. I do not
believe that any explanation as good can be given to account for the
tale being called _The Mystery of Edwin Drood_, if the tale practically
starts with his corpse.

If Drood is really dead one cannot help feeling the story ought to end
where it does end, not by accident but by design. The murder is
explained. Jasper is ready to be hanged, and every one else in a decent
novel ought to be ready to be married. If there was to be much more of
anything, it must have been of anticlimax. Nevertheless there are
degrees of anticlimax. Some of the more obvious explanations of Datchery
are quite reasonable, but they are distinctly tame. For instance,
Datchery may be Bazzard; but it is not very exciting if he is; for we
know nothing about Bazzard and care less. Again, he might be Grewgious;
but there is something pointless about one grotesque character dressing
up as another grotesque character actually less amusing than himself.
Now, Mr. Cumming Walters has at least had the distinction of inventing a
theory which makes the story at least an interesting story, even if it
is not exactly the story that is promised on the cover of the book. The
obvious enemy of Drood, on whom suspicion first falls, the swarthy and
sulky Landless, has a sister even swarthier and, except for her queenly
dignity, even sulkier than he. This barbaric princess is evidently meant
to be (in a sombre way) in love with Crisparkle, the clergyman and
muscular Christian who represents the breezy element in the emotions of
the tale. Mr. Cumming Walters seriously maintains that it is this
barbaric princess who puts on a wig and dresses up as Mr. Datchery. He
urges his case with much ingenuity of detail. Helena Landless certainly
had a motive; to save her brother, who was accused falsely, by accusing
Jasper justly. She certainly had some of the faculties; it is
elaborately stated in the earlier part of her story that she was
accustomed as a child to dress up in male costume and run into the
wildest adventures. There may be something in Mr. Cumming Walters's
argument that the very flippancy of Datchery is the self-conscious
flippancy of a strong woman in such an odd situation; certainly there is
the same flippancy in Portia and in Rosalind. Nevertheless, I think,
there is one final objection to the theory; and that is simply this,
that it is comic. It is generally wrong to represent a great master of
the grotesque as being grotesque exactly where he does not intend to be.
And I am persuaded that if Dickens had really meant Helena to turn into
Datchery, he would have made her from the first in some way more light,
eccentric, and laughable; he would have made her at least as light and
laughable as Rosa. As it is, there is something strangely stiff and
incredible about the idea of a lady so dark and dignified dressing up as
a swaggering old gentleman in a blue coat and grey trousers. We might
almost as easily imagine Edith Dombey dressing up as Major Bagstock. We
might almost as easily imagine Rebecca in _Ivanhoe_ dressing up as Isaac
of York.

Of course such a question can never really be settled precisely, because
it is the question not merely of a mystery but of a puzzle. For here the
detective novel differs from every other kind of novel. The ordinary
novelist desires to keep his readers to the point; the detective
novelist actually desires to keep his readers off the point. In the
first case, every touch must help to tell the reader what he means; in
the second case, most of the touches must conceal or even contradict
what he means. You are supposed to see and appreciate the smallest
gestures of a good actor; but you do not see all the gestures of a
conjuror, if he is a good conjuror. Hence, into the critical estimate of
such works as this, there is introduced a problem, an extra perplexity,
which does not exist in other cases. I mean the problem of the things
commonly called blinds. Some of the points which we pick out as
suggestive may have been put in as deceptive. Thus the whole conflict
between a critic with one theory, like Mr. Lang, and a critic with
another theory, like Mr. Cumming Walters, becomes eternal and a trifle
farcical. Mr. Walters says that all Mr. Lang's clues were blinds; Mr.
Lang says that all Mr. Walters's clues were blinds. Mr. Walters can say
that some passages seemed to show that Helena was Datchery; Mr. Lang can
reply that those passages were only meant to deceive simple people like
Mr. Walters into supposing that she was Datchery. Similarly Mr. Lang can
say that the return of Drood is foreshadowed; and Mr. Walters can reply
that it was foreshadowed because it was never meant to come off. There
seems no end to this insane process; anything that Dickens wrote may or
may not mean the opposite of what it says. Upon this principle I should
be very ready for one to declare that all the suggested Datcherys were
really blinds; merely because they can naturally be suggested. I would
undertake to maintain that Mr. Datchery is really Miss Twinkleton, who
has a mercenary interest in keeping Rosa Budd at her school. This
suggestion does not seem to me to be really much more humorous than Mr.
Cumming Walters's theory. Yet either may certainly be true. Dickens is
dead, and a number of splendid scenes and startling adventures have died
with him. Even if we get the right solution we shall not know that it is
right. The tale might have been, and yet it has not been.

And I think there is no thought so much calculated to make one doubt
death itself, to feel that sublime doubt which has created all
religion--the doubt that found death incredible. Edwin Drood may or may
not have really died; but surely Dickens did not really die. Surely our
real detective liveth and shall appear in the latter days of the earth.
For a finished tale may give a man immortality in the light and literary
sense; but an unfinished tale suggests another immortality, more
essential and more strange.


It is quite indispensable to include a criticism of _Master Humphrey's
Clock_ in any survey of Dickens, although it is not one of the books of
which his admirers would chiefly boast; although perhaps it is almost
the only one of which he would not have boasted himself. As a triumph of
Dickens, at least, it is not of great importance. But as a sample of
Dickens it happens to be of quite remarkable importance. The very fact
that it is for the most part somewhat more level and even monotonous
than most of his creations, makes us realise, as it were, against what
level and monotony those creations commonly stand out. This book is the
background of his mind. It is the basis and minimum of him which was
always there. Alone, of all written things, this shows how he felt when
he was not writing. Dickens might have written it in his sleep. That is
to say, it is written by a sluggish Dickens, a half automatic Dickens, a
dreaming and drifting Dickens; but still by the enduring Dickens.

But this truth can only be made evident by beginning nearer to the root
of the matter. _Nicholas Nickleby_ had just completed, or, to speak more
strictly, confirmed, the popularity of the young author; wonderful as
_Pickwick_ was it might have been a nine days' wonder; _Oliver Twist_
had been powerful but painful; it was _Nicholas Nickleby_ that proved
the man to be a great productive force of which one could ask more, of
which one could ask all things. His publishers, Chapman and Hall, seem
to have taken at about this point that step which sooner or later most
publishers do take with regard to a half successful man who is becoming
wholly successful. Instead of asking him for something, they asked him
for anything. They made him, so to speak, the editor of his own works.
And indeed it is literally as the editor of his own works that he next
appears; for the next thing to which he proposes to put his name is not
a novel, but for all practical purposes a magazine. Yet although it is a
magazine, it is a magazine entirely written by himself; the publishers,
in point of fact, wanted to create a kind of Dickens Miscellany, in a
much more literal sense than that in which we speak of a Bentley
Miscellany. Dickens was in no way disposed to dislike such a job; for
the more miscellaneous he was the more he enjoyed himself. And indeed
this early experiment of his bears a great deal of resemblance to those
later experiences in which he was the editor of two popular periodicals.
The editor of _Master Humphrey's Clock_ was a kind of type or precursor
of the editor of _Household Words_ and _All the Year Round_. There was
the same sense of absolute ease in an atmosphere of infinite gossip.
There was the same great advantage gained by a man of genius who wrote
best scrappily and by episodes. The omnipotence of the editor helped the
eccentricities of the author. He could excuse himself for all his own
shortcomings. He could begin a novel, get tired of it, and turn it into
a short story. He could begin a short story, get fond of it, and turn
it into a novel. Thus in the days of _Household Words_ he could begin a
big scheme of stories, such as _Somebody's Luggage_, or _Seven Poor
Travellers_, and after writing a tale or two toss the rest to his
colleagues. Thus, on the other hand, in the time of _Master Humphrey's
Clock_, he could begin one small adventure of Master Humphrey and find
himself unable to stop it. It is quite clear I think (though only from
moral evidence, which some call reading between the lines) that he
originally meant to tell many separate tales of Master Humphrey's
wanderings in London, only one of which, and that a short one, was to
have been concerned with a little girl going home. Fortunately for us
that little girl had a grandfather, and that grandfather had a curiosity
shop and also a nephew, and that nephew had an entirely irrelevant
friend whom men and angels called Richard Swiveller. Once having come
into the society of Swiveller it is not unnatural that Dickens stayed
there for a whole book. The essential point for us here, however, is
that _Master Humphrey's Clock_ was stopped by the size and energy of the
thing that had come of it. It died in childbirth.

There is, however, another circumstance which, even in ordinary public
opinion, makes this miscellany important, besides the great novel that
came out of it. I mean that the ordinary reader can remember one great
thing about _Master Humphrey's Clock_, besides the fact that it was the
frame-work of _The Old Curiosity Shop_. He remembers that Mr. Pickwick
and the Wellers rise again from the dead. Dickens makes Samuel Pickwick
become a member of Master Humphrey's Clock Society; and he institutes a
parallel society in the kitchen under the name of Mr. Weller's Watch.

Before we consider the question of whether Dickens was wise when he did
this, it is worth remarking how really odd it is that this is the only
place where he did it. Dickens, one would have thought, was the one man
who might naturally have introduced old characters into new stories.
Dickens, as a matter of fact, was almost the one man who never did it.
It would have seemed natural in him for a double reason; first, that his
characters were very valuable to him, and second that they were not very
valuable to his particular stories. They were dear to him, and they are
dear to us; but they really might as well have turned up (within reason)
in one environment as well as in another. We, I am sure, should be
delighted to meet Mr. Mantalini in the story of _Dombey and Son_. And he
certainly would not be much missed from the plot of Nicholas Nickleby.
"I am an affectionate father," said Dickens, "to all the children of my
fancy; but like many other parents I have in my heart of hearts a
favourite child; and his name is David Copperfield." Yet although his
heart must often have yearned backwards to the children of his fancy
whose tale was already told, yet he never touched one of them again even
with the point of his pen. The characters in _David Copperfield_, as in
all the others, were dead for him after he had done the book; if he
loved them as children, it was as dead and sanctified children. It is a
curious test of the strength and even reticence that underlay the
seeming exuberance of Dickens, that he never did yield at all to
exactly that indiscretion or act of sentimentalism which would seem most
natural to his emotions and his art. Or rather he never did yield to it
except here in this one case; the case of _Master Humphrey's Clock_.

And it must be remembered that nearly everybody else did yield to it.
Especially did those writers who are commonly counted Dickens's
superiors in art and exactitude and closeness to connected reality.
Thackeray wallowed in it; Anthony Trollope lived on it. Those modern
artists who pride themselves most on the separation and unity of a work
of art have indulged in it often; thus, for instance, Stevenson gave a
glimpse of Alan Breck in _The Master of Ballantrae_, and meant to give a
glimpse of the Master of Ballantrae in another unwritten tale called
_The Rising Sun_. The habit of revising old characters is so strong in
Thackeray that _Vanity Fair_, _Pendennis_, _The Newcomes_, and _Philip_
are in one sense all one novel. Certainly the reader sometimes forgets
which one of them he is reading. Afterwards he cannot remember whether
the best description of Lord Steyne's red whiskers or Mr. Wagg's rude
jokes occurred in _Vanity Fair_, or _Pendennis_; he cannot remember
whether his favourite dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Pendennis occurred
in _The Newcomes_, or in _Philip_. Whenever two Thackeray characters in
two Thackeray novels could by any possibility have been contemporary,
Thackeray delights to connect them. He makes Major Pendennis nod to Dr.
Firmin, and Colonel Newcome ask Major Dobbin to dinner. Whenever two
characters could not possibly have been contemporary he goes out of his
way to make one the remote ancestor of the other. Thus he created the
great house of Warrington solely to connect a "blue-bearded" Bohemian
journalist with the blood of Henry Esmond. It is quite impossible to
conceive Dickens keeping up this elaborate connection between all his
characters and all his books, especially across the ages. It would give
us a kind of shock if we learnt from Dickens that Major Bagstock was the
nephew of Mr. Chester. Still less can we imagine Dickens carrying on an
almost systematic family chronicle as was in some sense done by
Trollope. There must be some reason for such a paradox; for in itself it
is a very curious one. The writers who wrote carefully were always
putting, as it were, after-words and appendices to their already
finished portraits; the man who did splendid and flamboyant but faulty
portraits never attempted to touch them up. Or rather (we may say again)
he attempted it once, and then he failed.

The reason lay, I think, in the very genius of Dickens's creation. The
child he bore of his soul quitted him when his term was passed like a
veritable child born of the body. It was independent of him, as a child
is of its parents. It had become dead to him even in becoming alive.
When Thackeray studied Pendennis or Lord Steyne he was studying
something outside himself, and therefore something that might come
nearer and nearer. But when Dickens brought forth Sam Weller or Pickwick
he was creating something that had once been inside himself and
therefore when once created could only go further and further away. It
may seem a strange thing to say of such laughable characters and of so
lively an author, yet I say it quite seriously; I think it possible that
there arose between Dickens and his characters that strange and almost
supernatural shyness that arises often between parents and children;
because they are too close to each other to be open with each other. Too
much hot and high emotion had gone to the creation of one of his great
figures for it to be possible for him without embarrassment ever to
speak with it again. This is the thing which some fools call fickleness;
but which is not the death of feeling, but rather its dreadful
perpetuation; this shyness is the final seal of strong sentiment; this
coldness is an eternal constancy.

This one case where Dickens broke through his rule was not such a
success as to tempt him in any case to try the thing again.

There is weakness in the strict sense of the word in this particular
reappearance of Samuel Pickwick and Samuel Weller. In the original
_Pickwick Papers_ Dickens had with quite remarkable delicacy and
vividness contrived to suggest a certain fundamental sturdiness and
spirit in that corpulent and complacent old gentleman. Mr. Pickwick was
a mild man, a respectable man, a placid man; but he was very decidedly a
man. He could denounce his enemies and fight for his nightcap. He was
fat; but he had a backbone. In _Master Humphrey's Clock_ the backbone
seems somehow to be broken; his good nature seems limp instead of alert.
He gushes out of his good heart; instead of taking a good heart for
granted as a part of any decent gentleman's furniture as did the older
and stronger Pickwick. The truth is, I think, that Mr. Pickwick in
complete repose loses some part of the whole point of his existence. The
quality which makes the _Pickwick Papers_ one of the greatest of human
fairy tales is a quality which all the great fairy tales possess, and
which marks them out from most modern writing. A modern novelist
generally endeavours to make his story interesting, by making his hero
odd. The most typical modern books are those in which the central figure
is himself or herself an exception, a cripple, a courtesan, a lunatic, a
swindler, or a person of the most perverse temperament. Such stories,
for instance, are _Sir Richard Calmady_, _Dodo_, _Quisante_, _La Bête
Humaine_, even the _Egoist_. But in a fairy tale the boy sees all the
wonders of fairyland because he is an ordinary boy. In the same way Mr.
Samuel Pickwick sees an extraordinary England because he is an ordinary
old gentleman. He does not see things through the rosy spectacles of the
modern optimist or the green-smoked spectacles of the pessimist; he sees
it through the crystal glasses of his own innocence. One must see the
world clearly even in order to see its wildest poetry. One must see it
sanely even in order to see that it is insane.

Mr. Pickwick, then, relieved against a background of heavy kindliness
and quiet club life does not seem to be quite the same heroic figure as
Mr. Pickwick relieved against a background of the fighting police
constables at Ipswich or the roaring mobs of Eatanswill. Of the
degeneration of the Wellers, though it has been commonly assumed by
critics, I am not so sure. Some of the things said in the humorous
assembly round Mr. Weller's Watch are really human and laughable and
altogether in the old manner. Especially, I think, the vague and awful
allusiveness of old Mr. Weller when he reminds his little grandson of
his delinquencies under the trope or figure of their being those of
another little boy, is really in the style both of the irony and the
domesticity of the poorer classes. Sam also says one or two things
really worthy of himself. We feel almost as if Sam were a living man,
and could not appear for an instant without being amusing.

The other elements in the make-up of _Master Humphrey's Clock_ come
under the same paradox which I have applied to the whole work. Though
not very important in literature they are somehow quite important in
criticism. They show us better than anything else the whole unconscious
trend of Dickens, the stuff of which his very dreams were made. If he
had made up tales to amuse himself when half-awake (as I have no doubt
he did) they would be just such tales as these. They would have been
ghostly legends of the nooks and holes of London, echoes of old love and
laughter from the taverns or the Inns of Court. In a sense also one may
say that these tales are the great might-have-beens of Dickens. They are
chiefly designs which he fills up here slightly and unsatisfactorily,
but which he might have filled up with his own brightest and most
incredible colours. Nothing, for instance, could have been nearer to the
heart of Dickens than his great Gargantuan conception of Gog and Magog
telling London legends to each other all through the night. Those two
giants might have stood on either side of some new great city of his
invention, swarming with fanciful figures and noisy with new events.
But as it is, the two giants stand alone in a wilderness, guarding
either side of a gate that leads nowhere.


Those abuses which are supposed to belong specially to religion belong
to all human institutions. They are not the sins of supernaturalism, but
the sins of nature. In this respect it is interesting to observe that
all the evils which our Rationalist or Protestant tradition associates
with the idolatrous veneration of sacred figures arises in the merely
human atmosphere of literature and history. Every extravagance of
hagiology can be found in hero-worship. Every folly alleged in the
worship of saints can be found in the worship of poets. There are those
who are honourably and intensely opposed to the atmosphere of religious
symbolism or religious archæology. There are people who have a vague
idea that the worship of saints is worse than the imitation of sinners.
There are some, like a lady I once knew, who think that hagiology is the
scientific study of hags. But these slightly prejudiced persons
generally have idolatries and superstitions of their own, particularly
idolatries and superstitions in connection with celebrated people. Mr.
Stead preserves a pistol belonging to Oliver Cromwell in the office of
the _Review of Reviews_; and I am sure he worships it in his rare
moments of solitude and leisure. A man, who could not be induced to
believe in God by all the arguments of all the philosophers, professed
himself ready to believe if he could see it stated on a postcard in the
handwriting of Mr. Gladstone. Persons not otherwise noted for their
religious exercise have been known to procure and preserve portions of
the hair of Paderewski. Nay, by this time blasphemy itself is a sacred
tradition, and almost as much respect would be paid to the alleged
relics of an atheist as to the alleged relics of a god. If any one has a
fork that belonged to Voltaire, he could probably exchange it in the
open market for a knife that belonged to St. Theresa.

Of all the instances of this there is none stranger than the case of
Dickens. It should be pondered very carefully by those who reproach
Christianity with having been easily corrupted into a system of
superstitions. If ever there was a message full of what modern people
call true Christianity, the direct appeal to the common heart, a faith
that was simple, a hope that was infinite, and a charity that was
omnivorous, if ever there came among men what they call the Christianity
of Christ, it was in the message of Dickens. Christianity has been in
the world nearly two thousand years, and it has not yet quite lost, its
enemies being judges, its first fire and charity; but friends and
enemies would agree that it was from the very first more detailed and
doctrinal than the spirit of Dickens. The spirit of Dickens has been in
the world about sixty years; and already it is a superstition. Already
it is loaded with relics. Already it is stiff with antiquity.

Everything that can be said about the perversion of Christianity can be
said about the perversion of Dickens. It is said that Christ's words
are repeated by the very High Priests and Scribes whom He meant to
denounce. It is just as true that the jokes in _Pickwick_ are quoted
with delight by the very bigwigs of bench and bar whom Dickens wished to
make absurd and impossible. It is said that texts from Scripture are
constantly taken in vain by Judas and Herod, by Caiaphas and Annas. It
is just as true that texts from Dickens are rapturously quoted on all
our platforms by Podsnap and Honeythunder, by Pardiggle and Veneering,
by Tigg when he is forming a company, or Pott when he is founding a
newspaper. People joke about Bumble in defence of Bumbledom; people
allude playfully to Mrs. Jellyby while agitating for Borrioboola Gha.
The very things which Dickens tried to destroy are preserved as relics
of him. The very houses he wished to pull down are propped up as
monuments of Dickens. We wish to preserve everything of him, except his
perilous public spirit.

This antiquarian attitude towards Dickens has many manifestations, some
of them somewhat ridiculous. I give one startling instance out of a
hundred of the irony remarked upon above. In his first important book,
Dickens lashed the loathsome corruption of our oligarchical politics,
their blaring servility and dirty diplomacy of bribes, under the name of
an imaginary town called Eatanswill. If Eatanswill, wherever it was, had
been burned to the ground by its indignant neighbours the day after the
exposure, it would have been not inappropriate. If it had been entirely
deserted by its inhabitants, if they had fled to hide themselves in
holes and caverns, one could have understood it. If it had been struck
by a thunderbolt out of heaven or outlawed by the whole human race, all
that would seem quite natural. What has really happened is this: that
two respectable towns in Suffolk are still disputing for the honour of
having been the original Eatanswill; as if two innocent hamlets each
claimed to be Gomorrah. I make no comment; the thing is beyond speech.

But this strange sentimental and relic-hunting worship of Dickens has
many more innocent manifestations. One of them is that which takes
advantage of the fact that Dickens happened to be a journalist by trade.
It occupies itself therefore with hunting through papers and magazines
for unsigned articles which may possibly be proved to be his. Only a
little time ago one of these enthusiasts ran up to me, rubbing his
hands, and told me that he was sure he had found two and a half short
paragraphs in _All the Year Round_ which were certainly written by
Dickens, whom he called (I regret to say) the Master. Something of this
archæological weakness must cling to all mere reprints of his minor
work. He was a great novelist; but he was also, among other things, a
good journalist and a good man. It is often necessary for a good
journalist to write bad literature. It is sometimes the first duty of a
good man to write it. Pot-boilers to my feeling are sacred things; but
they may well be secret as well as sacred, like the holy pot which it is
their purpose to boil. In the collection called _Reprinted Pieces_ there
are some, I think, which demand or deserve this apology. There are many
which fall below the level of his recognised books of fragments, such as
_The Sketches by Boz_, and _The Uncommercial Traveller_. Two or three
elements in the compilation, however, make it quite essential to any
solid appreciation of the author.

Of these the first in importance is that which comes last in order. I
mean the three remarkable pamphlets upon the English Sunday, called
_Sunday under Three Heads_. Here, at least, we find the eternal Dickens,
though not the eternal Dickens of fiction. His other political and
sociological suggestions in this volume are so far unimportant that they
are incidental, and even personal. Any man might have formed Dickens's
opinion about flogging for garrotters, and altered it afterwards. Any
one might have come to Dickens's conclusion about model prisons, or to
any other conclusion equally reasonable and unimportant. These things
have no colour of the great man's character. But on the subject of the
English Sunday he does stand for his own philosophy. He stands for a
particular view, remote at present both from Liberals and Conservatives.
He was, in a conscious sense, the first of its spokesmen. He was in
every sense the last.

In his appeal for the pleasures of the people, Dickens has remained
alone. The pleasures of the people have now no defender, Radical or
Tory. The Tories despise the people. The Radicals despise the pleasures.


  | Transcriber's Notes and Errata                               |
  |                                                              |
  | The Illustrations have been moved to between chapters.       |
  |                                                              |
  | The following typographical errors have been corrected:      |
  |                                                              |
  |   |Error              |Correction     |                      |
  |   |a dupe and who was |a dupe who was |                      |
  |   |pyschology         |psychology     |                      |
  |   |Similiarly         |Smilarly       |                      |
  |                                                              |
  | The following words were found in both hyphenated and        |
  | un-hyphenated forms in the text. The numbers in parentheses  |
  | show the number of times each form occurred.                 |
  |                                                              |
  |   |framework (3)  |frame-work (1)  |                         |
  |   |cocksure (2)   |cock-sure (2)   |                         |
  |   |Ironmaster (1) |Iron-master (2) |                         |
  |   |footprints (1) |foot-prints (1) |                         |
  |   |goodwill (1)   |good-will (1)   |                         |
  |                                                              |

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