Dickens Part 7

Lastly, in their descriptive power and the faithfulness with which they portray the life and ways of particular periods or countries, of special cla.s.ses, professions, or other divisions of mankind, the books of d.i.c.kens are, again of course within their range, unequalled. He sought his materials chiefly at home, though his letters from Italy and Switzerland and America, and his French pictures in sketch and story, show how much wider a field his descriptive powers might have covered. The _Sketches by Boz_ and the _Pickwick Papers_ showed a mastery, unsurpa.s.sed before or since, in the description of the life of English society in its middle and lower cla.s.ses, and in _Oliver Twist_ he lifted the curtain from some of the rotten parts of our civilisation. This history of a work-house child also sounded the note of that sympathy with the poor which gave to d.i.c.kens's descriptions of their sufferings and their struggles a veracity beyond mere accuracy of detail. He was still happier in describing their household virtues, their helpfulness to one another, their compa.s.sion for those who are the poorest of all--the friendless and the outcast--as he did in his _Old Curiosity Shop_, and in most of his Christmas books. His pictures of middle-cla.s.s life abounded in kindly humour; but the humour and pathos of poverty--more especially the poverty which has not yet lost its self-respect--commended themselves most of all to his descriptive power. Where, as in _Nicholas Nickleby_ and later works, he essayed to describe the manners of the higher cla.s.ses, he was, as a rule, far less successful; partly because there was in his nature a vein of rebellion against the existing system of society, so that, except in his latest books, he usually approached a description of members of its dominant orders with a satirical intention, or at least an undertone of bitterness.

At the same time I demur to the common a.s.sertion that d.i.c.kens could not draw a real gentleman. All that can be said is that it very rarely suited his purpose to do so, supposing the term to include manners as well as feelings and actions; though Mr. Twemlow, in _Our Mutual Friend_, might be instanced as a (perhaps rather conscious) exception of one kind, and Sir Leicester Dedlock, in the latter part of _Bleak House_, as another.

Moreover, a closer examination of Lord Frederick Verisopht and Cousin Feenix will show that, gull as the one and ninny as the other is, neither has anything that can be called ungentlemanly about him; on the contrary, the characters, on the whole, rather plead in favour of the advantage than of the valuelessness of blue blood. As for d.i.c.kens's other n.o.blemen, whom I find enumerated in an American dictionary of his characters, they are nearly all mere pa.s.sing embodiments of satirical fancies, which pretend to be nothing more.

Another ingenious enthusiast has catalogued the numerous callings, professions, and trades of the personages appearing in d.i.c.kens's works. I cannot agree with the criticism that in his personages the man is apt to become forgotten in the externals of his calling--the barrister's wig and gown, as it were, standing for the barrister, and the beadle's c.o.c.ked hat and staff for the beadle. But he must have possessed in its perfection the curious detective faculty of deducing a man's occupation from his manners.

To him nothing wore a neutral tint, and no man or woman was featureless.

He was, it should be remembered, always observing; half his life he was afoot. When he undertook to describe any novel or unfamiliar kind of manners, he spared no time or trouble in making a special study of his subject. He was not content to know the haunts of the London thieves by hearsay, or to read the history of opium-smoking and its effects in Blue-books. From the office of his journal in London we find him starting on these self-imposed commissions, and from his hotel in New York. The whole art of descriptive reporting, which has no doubt produced a large quant.i.ty of trashy writing, but has also been of real service in arousing a public interest in neglected corners of our social life, was, if not actually set on foot, at any rate re-invigorated and vitalised by him. No one was so delighted to notice the oddities which habit and tradition stereotype in particular cla.s.ses of men. A complete natural history of the country actor, the London landlady, and the British waiter might be compiled from his pages. This power of observation and description extended from human life to that of animals. His habits of life could not but make him the friend of dogs, and there is some reason for a t.i.tle which was bestowed on him in a paper in a London magazine concerning his own dogs--the Landseer of Fiction. His letters are full of delightful details concerning these friends and companions, Turk, Linda, and the rest of them; nor is the family of their fict.i.tious counterparts, culminating (intellectually) in Merrylegs, less numerous and delightful. Cats were less congenial to d.i.c.kens, perhaps because he had no objection to changing house; and they appear in his works in no more attractive form than as the attendant spirits of Mrs. Pipchin and of Mr. Krook. But for the humours of animals in general he had a wonderfully quick eye. Of his ravens I have already spoken. The pony Whisker is the type of kind old gentlemen's ponies. In one of his letters occurs an admirably droll description of the pig-market at Boulogne; and the best unscientific description ever given of a spider was imagined by d.i.c.kens at Broadstairs, when in his solitude he thought

"of taming spiders, as Baron Trenck did. There is one in my cell (with a speckled body and twenty-two very decided knees) who seems to know me."

In everything, whether animate or inanimate, he found out at once the characteristic feature, and reproduced it in words of faultless precision.

This is the real secret of his descriptive power, the exercise of which it would be easy to pursue through many other cla.s.ses of subjects. Scenery, for its own sake, he rarely cared to describe; but no one better understood how to reproduce the combined effect of scenery and weather on the predisposed mind. Thus London and its river in especial are, as I have said, haunted by the memory of d.i.c.kens's books. To me it was for years impossible to pa.s.s near London Bridge at night, or to idle in the Temple on summer days, or to frequent a hundred other localities on or near the Thames, without instinctively recalling pictures scattered through the works of d.i.c.kens--in this respect, also, a real _liber veritatis_.

Thus, and in many ways which it would be labour lost to attempt to describe, and by many a stroke or touch of genius which it would be idle to seek to reproduce in paraphrase, the most observing and the most imaginative of our English humourists revealed to us that infinite mult.i.tude of a.s.sociations which binds men together, and makes us members one of another. But though observation and imagination might discern and discover these a.s.sociations, sympathy--the sympathy of a generous human heart with humanity--alone could breathe into them the warmth of life.

Happily, to most men, there is one place consecrated above others to the feelings of love and good-will; "that great altar where the worst among us sometimes perform the worship of the heart, and where the best have offered up such sacrifices and done such deeds of heroism as, chronicled, would put the proudest temples of old time, with all their vaunting annals, to the blush." It was thus that d.i.c.kens spoke of the sanct.i.ty of _home_; and, English in many things, he was most English in that love of home to which he was never weary of testifying. But, though the "pathway of the sublime" may have been closed to him, he knew well enough that the interests of a people and the interests of humanity are mightier than the domestic loves and cares of any man; and he conscientiously addressed himself, as to the task of his life, to the endeavour to knit humanity together. The method which he, by instinct and by choice, more especially pursued was that of seeking to show the "good in everything." This it is that made him, unreasonably sometimes, ign.o.bly never, the champion of the poor, the helpless, the outcast. He was often tempted into a rhetoric too loud and too shrill, into a satire neither fine nor fair; for he was impatient, but not impatient of what he thought true and good. His purpose, however, was worthy of his powers; nor is there recorded among the lives of English men of letters any more single-minded in its aim, and more successful in the pursuit of it, than his. He was much criticised in his lifetime; and he will, I am well aware, be often criticised in the future by keener and more capable judges than myself. They may miss much in his writings that I find in them; but, unless they find one thing there, it were better that they never opened one of his books. He has indicated it himself when criticising a literary performance by a clever writer:

"In this little MS. everything is too much patronised and condescended to, whereas the slightest touch of feeling for the rustic who is of the earth earthy, or of sisterhood with the homely servant who has made her face shine in her desire to please, would make a difference that the writer can generally imagine without trying it. You don't want any sentiment laboriously made out in such a thing. You don't want any maudlin show of it. But you do want a pervading suggestion that it is there."

The sentiment which d.i.c.kens means is the salt which will give a fresh savour of their own to his works so long as our language endures.



[1] See _Idyll_. xv. 77. This discovery is not my own, but that of the late Dr. Donaldson, who used to translate the pa.s.sage accordingly with great gusto.

[2] For operas, as a form of _dramatic_ entertainment, d.i.c.kens seems afterwards to have entertained a strong contempt, such as, indeed, it is difficult for any man with a sense of humour wholly to avoid.

[3] W. & D. Grant Brothers had their warehouse at the lower end of Cannon Street, and their private house in Mosely Street.

[4] As there is hardly a character in the whole world of fiction and the drama without some sort of a literary predecessor, so d.i.c.kens may have derived the first notion of Grip from the raven Ralpho--likewise the property of an idiot--who frightened Roderick Random and Strap out of their wits, and into the belief that he was the personage Grip so persistently declared himself to be.

[5] After dining at a party including the son of an eminent man of letters, he notes in his _Remembrancer_ that he found the great man's son "decidedly lumpish," and appends the reflexion, "Copyrights need be hereditary, for genius isn't."

[6] From a list of MSS. at South Kensington, kindly furnished me by Mr. R.

F. Sketchley, I find that Mr. R. H. Shepherd's _Bibliography of d.i.c.kens_ is incomplete on this head.

[7] By an odd coincidence, not less than four out of the six theatres advertising their performances in this first number of the _Daily News_ announce each a different adaptation of _The Cricket on the Hearth_.

Amongst the curiosities of the casts are observable: At the Adelphi, Wright as Tilly s...o...b..y, and at the Haymarket Buckstone in the same character, with William Farren as Caleb Plummer. The latter part is taken at the Princess's by Compton, Mrs. Stirling playing Dot. At the Lyceum, Mr., Mrs., and Miss Mary Keeley, and Mr. Emery, appear in the piece.

[8] It is, perhaps, worth pointing out, though it is not surprising, that d.i.c.kens had a strong sense of what I may call the poetry of the railway-train. Of the effect of the weird _Signalman's Story_ in one of his Christmas numbers it is not very easy to rid one's self. There are excellent descriptions of the _rapidity_ of a railway journey in the first chapter of _The Lazy Tour_, and in another _Household Words_ paper, called _A Flight_.

[9] Among these is Mr. Alexander Ireland, the author of the _Bibliography of Leigh Hunt and Hazlitt_, who has kindly communicated to me part of his collections concerning the former. The t.i.ttle-tattle against Leigh Hunt repeated by Lord Macaulay is, on the face of it, unworthy of notice.

[10] _By Rail to Parna.s.sus_, June 16, 1855.

[11] One of the last things ever written by d.i.c.kens was a criticism of M.

Fechter's acting, intended to introduce him to the American public. A false report, by-the-way, declared d.i.c.kens to have been the author of the dramatic version of Scott's novel, which at Christmas, 1865-'66, was produced at the Lyceum, under the t.i.tle of _The Master of Ravenswood_; but he allowed that he had done "a great deal towards and about the piece, having an earnest desire to put Scott, for once, on the stage in his own gallant manner."

[12] d.i.c.kens undoubtedly had a genius for t.i.tles. Amongst some which he suggested for the use of a friend and contributor to his journal are, "_What will he do with it?_" and "_Can he forgive her?_"

[13] This t.i.tle has helped to extinguish the phrase of which it consists.

Few would now be found to agree with the last clause of Flora's parenthesis in _Little Dorrit_: "Our mutual friend--too cold a word for me; at least I don't mean that very proper expression, mutual friend."

[14] In the last volume of his _magnum opus_ of historical fiction Gustav Freytag describes "Boz" as, about the year 1846, filling with boundless enthusiasm the hearts of young men and maidens in a small Silesian country town.

[15] The pa.s.sage in _Oliver Twist_ (chapter x.x.xvii.) which ill.u.s.trates the maxim that "dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine," may, or may not, be a reminiscence of _Sartor Resartus_, then (1838) first published in a volume.

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