The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

X. Dickens

§ 1. Early life

THERE is a point in the consideration of the subject of the present chapter which, though of the most obvious to uncritical, as well as to critical, appreciation, is, perhaps, worthy of more attention in respect of criticism proper than has usually been given to it. This point is the immense popularity of Dickens, as it is vulgarly called, or (as it may be put in a form more critically useful) the immense amount of pleasure which he has given to a number of people who, from the very vastness of that number, must, necessarily, have included individuals and whole sections of readers of the most various tastes, powers and qualifications. Except Shakespeare and Scott, there is, probably, no other English writer who can match him in this respect. Now, mere popularity, especially of an ephemeral kind, of course, proves nothing as to merit; and, though it is never exactly negligible to the critic (for he must satisfy himself as to its causes), he can scarcely allow it to affect his judgment. But very long-continued popularity is in a different case; and popularity which has been attained in the case of very dissimilar classes and individuals, and, therefore, by very dissimilar appeals, is in a different case again. These latter kinds of popularity not only cannot be neglected, but they cannot, without danger, be slightly recognised by the critic, and, especially, by the historical critic.

It may be said, perhaps, that Dickens’s popularity has not yet had time, as Shakespeare’s has, to vindicate itself by the test of long continuance and some vicissitudes. More than a century has, indeed, elapsed since his birth and nearly half a century since his death: but instances could be produced of reputations which, after towering for at least as long, have dropped to a much lower level, if they have not fallen altogether. Complaints, undoubtedly, are, sometimes, made that his atmosphere is becoming difficult to breathe; and, though the lungs which feel this difficulty are probably rather weak, their complaint must be registered. But, in regard to the other point, there is no possibility of rational and well-informed doubt. It is probably safe to say (here making no exception at all and giving him no companions) that no author in our literary history has been both admired and enjoyed for such different reasons; by such different tastes and intellects; by whole classes of readers unlike each other. He is “made one with Nature,” not, indeed, by a Shakespearean universality—for there are wide, numerous and, sometimes, unfortunate gaps in his appeal—but by the great range and diversity of that appeal. The uncritical lover of the sentimental and the melodramatic; the frank devotee of mere “fun”; the people who simply desire to pass their time by witnessing a lively and interesting set of scenes and figures; the respectable yearners for social and political reform; the not quite so respectable seekers after scandal and satire on the upper and wealthier and more accomplished classes: these and a dozen or a hundred other types all fly to Dickens as to a magnet. And—what is most remarkable of all and most unparalleled in other cases—the very critics who find it their duty to object to his faults most strongly, who think his sentiment too often worse than mawkish, and his melodrama not seldom more than ridiculous; who rank his characters too close to “character parts,” in the lower theatrical sense; who consider his style too often tawdry; his satire strained, yet falling short or wide of its object; his politics unpractical and, sometimes, positively mischievous; his plots either non-existent or tediously complicated for no real purpose; who fully admit the quaint unreality of his realism and the strange “some-other-worldliness” of much of his atmosphere—these very persons, not unfrequently, read him for choice again and again. In fact, neither the uncritical nor the critical lover of Dickens ever tires of him, as both often do of some writers whom they have admired. Some of his books will, of course, in different cases, be read oftener than others; but, generally, the Dickens quality, mixed and diverse as it is, never loses its attraction for anyone who has once felt it. The road to Eatanswill is never hard or hackneyed; the company of Mrs. Gamp never ceases to be as delightful in fiction as it would be disgusting (especially supposing her to be on duty) in real life.

It results infallibly from these facts that the quality in question must, as it has been called, be extraordinarily “mixed.” The simpler kinds of genius never attain to this result. They being of a “higher” (to use the question-begging but unavoidable word) strain, may create a higher satisfaction, and, as we flatter ourselves, appeal to a higher order of mind; but this, of itself, means limitation. And it follows that mixed genius of the Dickens kind requires a corresponding variety of analysis to understand itself, its causes and its manifestations.

The influence of life on literature, commonly exaggerated, may be easily exaggerated here; but it counts solidly, if not in a manifold fashion. Dickens’s biography is familiar from one great storehouse, Forster’s Life, and from many smaller monographs of varying merit, nor does it require full handling here. Born in the lower, rather than the upper, middle class, and sunk, by family misfortune, at one time, to the very level poignantly described in David Copperfield, he acquired, in his interrupted schooldays, a very limited amount of regular education and never enjoyed David’s subsequent “advantages.” But he knew something of the school groundwork usual at that time, and, on his own account, developed a keen and most fortunate fondness for the great classics of English fiction, original or translated—Smollett, perhaps, most of all, but, also, Fielding; Don Quixote, as well as The Arabian Nights. After all the sordid but, eventually, genial experiences which, later, reflect themselves in his books—the childish schooling which provides some of the most charming things of his Christmas stories; his father’s prison in the Marshalsea; the dismal shabby lodgings at Camden town and in Lant street and so forth—he got no nearer Copperfield’s dignified articled position in Doctors’ Commons than a boy-clerkship in a solicitor’s office and a reportership in the Commons itself. But this last gave him a sort of hold on the fringe of journalism, if not of literature, and he soon fastened that hold on the garment itself. More varied and important reportings; Sketches by Boz, at first mainly imitative but, even then, in part, noticeably original, led to the great chance of Pickwick, which was taken greatly. After the success of Pickwick, the aspect of his life presented as sharp a contrast to its earlier phase as the often cited one which is shown by the two parts of a portrait in a picture-cleaner’s windows, or the advertisements of a certain soap. It was, if not exactly all dark, at any rate all shabby, grimy and obscure before: it was all bright now, except for certain domestic inconveniences late in his career. He never had any more money troubles; he never had any lack of popularity; he worked hard, indeed: but he was a “glutton for work” and could choose his time, place and manner of doing it after a fashion which deprives work of all, or nearly all, its worrying effect. He found, in addition to his original and independent work as novelist, two occupations, that of editor and that of public reader, both of which were very profitable, while the former of them gave exercise to his busy and rather autocratic temper, and the latter furnished an outlet to the histrionic faculty which was almost as strong in him as the literary. He died, it is true, in middle age only; but after a full, glorious and, apparently, on the whole, happy life, not, indeed, without some preliminary illness, but without suffering from that terrible lingering failure of faculties which had beset Scott and Southey and Moore in the generation immediately before him. Fame and fortune after the very earliest step, and far earlier than in most cases, had, in almost all respects, been equally kind to him.

Not the least the respects concerns the exact relations of his life and his work; though qualifications begin here to be necessary. the hardships and vicissitudes, the enforced self-reliance of his youth, confirmed, if they did not originate, the unflinching, undoubting adventurousness which enabled him to turn out book after book—most of them utterly unlike anything that had been seen before, and hardly one of them, even at its worst, showing that fatal groove-and-mould character which besets the novelist more than any other literary craftsman. His almost immediate success, and the power of taking his own line which it conferred, removed the slightest temptation to follow fashions in any way. Neither kind of influence could have been better contrived to nurse that indomitable idiosyncrasy which was his.

At the same time, neither, as it will at once be perceived, was likely to contribute the counterbalancing gift which idiosyncrasy requires—the gift of self-discipline and self-criticism. “Self-sufficiency,” unfortunately, has two meanings; and those who, in early life, have to learn it in the one and better sense are too apt to display it later in the other and worse. That the qualities of what the Italians have denominated the selfelpista are not always wholly amiable or a admirable is a truism. Their dangerous side is not likely to be effaced when the severer struggle is over almost before the man has reached full manhood, and when, thenceforward, he is almost as much “his own master” as if he were born to independence and several thousands a year. And these qualities themselves are well known, especially on the ethical side, though they have seldom had such an opportunity of developing themselves on the aesthetic and literary as they had in Dickens’s case. Arrogance, “cocksureness,” doubtful taste, undue indulgence in “tricks and manners” (one naturally takes his own words to describe him), a general rebelliousness against criticism and an irresistible or, at least, unresisted tendency to “do it again” when something has been found objectionable—these things, and a still more general tendency to exaggerate, to “force the note,” to keep one’s own personality constantly in the foreground, are among necessary consequences of the situation. If a man of this stamp is, for his own good fortune and the world’s, endowed with a great inventive genius, it would, according to some critics, be actually possible to forecast, and it certainly is, according to, perhaps, safer and saner views, not at all surprising to find, a result of work such as that which Dickens has actually given. Let us follow the method of these latter critics and examine the work itself with the least prolix but most necessary preface as to the historical circumstances in which he began.

To understand his position thoroughly, it must be remembered that, when he began to write, Scott had been dead for some years and Jane Austen for nearly twenty; that no one had yet seriously tried to fit on the mantle of the latter in the domain of the domestic novel; that Scott’s had been most unsuccessfully attempted by men like Ainsworth and James; that new special varieties had been introduced by Bulwer, Marryat, Lever and others; but that nothing of absolutely first-class quality had been achieved. The most popular novelist of Dickens’s younger manhood was, however, none of these, but a man who produced work not so good as that of even the worst of them—Theodore Hook. That Hook’s novels, as well as Leigh Hunt’s essays, had immense influence on Sketches by Boz few critical readers of the three will deny; and that the habit of the essayist as well as that of the novelist clung to Dickens, much better things than Sketches—such as The Uncommercial Traveller and not a few oddments up to the very close of his career—remain to attest. Both, as well as his earlier favourite, Smollett, were his masters in the comparatively little used art of minute description of “interiors” and “setting.” Hook gave him the tone of caricature and extravaganza: Hunt that of easy intimate talk.