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

X. Dickens

§ 16. Great Expectations

There are, however, those who admire A Tale of Two Cities sincerely, and who think but little of the novel which followed it through the paper and in publication; while there are others who take up the Tale more seldom than any other of Dickens’s books, and who consider Great Expectations one of his very masterpieces, putting it with the “wild freshness of morning” in Pickwick and the noonday completeness of David Copperfield as an “evening voluntary” of the most delightful kind. It is not faultless. The mannerism and the exaggeration of all the later books sometimes break through, and the grime of the heroine’s parentage is not only unnecessary but ill-managed. That obsession of feeble satire as to rank and respect to rank, which was one of Dickens’s numerous forms of his own “king Charles’s head” disease, comes in, and melodrama is not far off. But he had never done anything, not even in Copperfield itself, so real as “Pip,” with his fears, his hopes, his human weaknesses and meannesses, his love, his bearing up against misfortune. Never did he combine analysis and synthesis so thoroughly as here. He has given Estella little space and some unattractive points, so that some do not like her; but others see in her at least the possibility of a heroine more thoroughly real and far more fascinating than any in Dickens. Joe Gargery has conciliated almost everybody, and his alarming wife, Pip’s terrible sister, does not require her punishment in order to conciliate some. The Havisham part may seem extravagant, but is not so to all; and Trabb’s boy and Mr. Jaggers and Wemmick and yet other persons and things garnish a delightful feast.

He never did anything so good again; and, though he had nearly ten years to live, he did not, in the way of actual literature, do very much at all. The fatal “readings” were filling his pocket and draining his powers; editing took much of his time; he travelled a good deal, and even he began to find that “his chariot wheels drave heavily.” In 1865, he had a serious illness, with threatenings of something like paralysis, which was certainly not staved off by the great railway accident of that year on the South Eastern railway, in which, though he sustained no visible injury, he was severely shaken. But, in these years, with all his other employments, he managed, besides two or three smaller things—the powerful if slightly melodramatic Hunted Down, the almost worthless George Silverman’s Explanation, the charming Holiday Romance, as well as not a few notable Christmas stories—to finish one long novel, Our Mutual Friend, and to plan and begin another, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This latter appeared as a fragment between his return from that quest of suicide, as it may be called—his second journey to America, in 1868, to read himself into twenty thousand pounds and almost into his grave—and his actual death in 1870, the interval being occupied by further readings at home which brought eight thousand pounds more, and the death warrant. He had added to his early selections the murder scene in Oliver Twist, which he read with an intensity described by those who heard it as almost frightful, and not such as would have been particularly wholesome for a young man in full strength. He was a man of nearly sixty, broken down by five and thirty years of varied work, much of it of a kind most trying to the brain, and actually threatened, for the last five, with cerebral and cardiac disease. It is only wonderful that the two burning ends of the candle took so long to meet.

Of Edwin Drood itself, little need be said here. It has, through one of the numerous oddities of the human mind, received a great amount of attention, repeatedly and recently renewed, simply because it is unfinished; but, of intrinsic attraction, it has, for some critics, little or nothing except its renewed pictures of the beloved city of Rochester, first drawn and latest sketched of all Dickens’s “places.” But the Christmas stories of the two weekly papers and his last considerable and complete novel, Our Mutual Friend, require longer notice. Like, but even more than, The Uncommercial Traveller articles (which he continued during most of this time), the “stories” contain some of Dickens’s most enjoyable things. He had begun the substitution of collections only partly written by himself for single, and singly written, “books,” twenty years earlier, in Household Words, and his contributions there included the pathetic story of “Richard Doubledick” in The Seven Poor Travellers; some vigorous stuff in The Wreck of the Golden Mary and “The Island of Silver-store” and, above all, the unsurpassable legend of child-loves told by the “Boots at the Holly-Tree Inn.” But, in the All the Year Round set—nine in number—the general level of Dickens’s own stuff was even higher, except, perhaps, in the last, No Thoroughfare, which he wrote in conjunction with Wilkie Collins, but where the disciple’s hand is more evident than the master’s. The framework of The Haunted House (as, indeed, of most of the sets) is his, and admirable, while “The Ghost in Master B.’s room” is one of the best of his numerous half humorous, half sad reminiscences of his own youth. In A Message from the Sea, we have, for the first time, actual collaboration in these “stories” with Wilkie Collins, and would rather have Dickens alone. Tom Tiddler’s Ground improves, and, with Somebody’s Luggage, we reach, in Dickens’s own part, something like his quintessence in the case of Christopher the waiter. It persists in the twin appearances of Mrs. Lirriper, and is partly upheld in Doctor Marigold’s Prescriptions, but whether or not it is in full force at Mugby Junction is a point on which men may differ, though, in the child Polly, he is, as usual, at his best. On the whole, too, his part in this batch of Christmas numbers (they contain much excellent work of others) is practically never bad and sometimes first rate.

To reverse this sentence almost directly and say that Our Mutual Friend is sometimes nearly bad and never quite first rate would be excessive; but it is only a very harsh and sweeping statement containing something not far from the truth. The illness and the accident above mentioned, no doubt, conditioned the book to some extent unfairly for the worse; but its main faults are scarcely chargeable upon them. It has been justly and acutely remarked that, though Wilkie Collins was, undoubtedly, Dickens’s pupil, the pupil had a good deal of reflex influence on the master, not always for good. The plot of Our Mutual Friend is distinctly of Wilkie Collins’s type, but it is not managed with the cat-like intricacy and dexterity, or with the dramatically striking situations, which were Collins’s strong points. In what may be called the central plot within a plot—the miser-and-tyrant metamorphosis of Mr. Boffin—the thing is in itself so improbable, and is so clumsily and tedio sly treated, as to suggest throwing the book aside. The whole Veneering society, barring a few of the “inimitable” touches to be noticed presently, is preposterous, disagreeable and dull. It was, indeed, interesting, not long ago, to find a critic of the younger generation candidly admitting that, to him, Eugene Wrayburn had been, if he was not still, a striking, if not an ideal, figure. But, as the strangest mistakes are constantly made about the relations of life and literature, especially as to “mid-Victorian” matters, it may be well to put on solemn record here that, among well-bred young men of 1865, Mr. Wrayburn, in, at least, some of his part, would have run great risk of being regarded as what had been earlier called a “tiger,” and what, somewhat later, was said, like the tiger, to “bound.” The good Jew Riah, and the spirited but slightly irrational Betty Higden, have failed to move even some who are very friendly to Dickens’s sentiment. Still, the book is saved from sharing the position of Hard Times by its abundance of the true Dickensian grotesque, a little strained, perhaps, now and then, but always refreshing. The dolls’ dressmaker is, perhaps, a distant relation and inheritrix of Miss Mowcher, but she is raised to a far higher power; in fact, one almost wishes that Dickens had not chosen to make her happy with a good scavenger. Her bad child-father is, in literature, if not in life, excused by his acts and sayings. Some have been hard on Silas Wegg; the present writer, admitting that he ends appropriately in the slop cart, does not think him out of place earlier. Rogue Riderhood would be ill to spare; and so, at the other extremity of class and character, would be Twemlow, the single soul saved out of the Veneering group, except Boots and Buffer as supers. These and some others flit agreeably enough in the regions of fantastic memory to make one willing not to dwell on the darker side further than to observe that, though some of the right-grotes-querie saves the other members of the Wilfer family, Bella, for a long time, is merely an underbred and unattractive minx, while, after her reformation, she joins the great bevy of what, in the sacred language of the Bona Dea, it is whispered, are called “Lady Janes”—mechanical lay-figures, adaptable to various costumes, in this case that of the foolishly affectionate bride and young mother. As for her husband, except in his account to himself of the attempt to drug or drown him, which is rather well done, it is impossible to feel the slightest interest in the question whether he was drowned as well as drugged, or not.