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

X. Dickens

§ 3. The Pickwick Papers

Still, neither in the larger, earlier and better, nor in the smaller, later and worse, collection of these Sketches is there anything of that “true Dickens” which is a more remarkable idiosyncrasy than even what Browning meant when he used the words. It is, again, a curiosity of historical criticism to note that, while in Thackeray’s nearly contemporary and similarly “Hookish” attempts, such as The Professor, there are immature, but quite perceptible, traces of the special quality which was to need seven years’ hard labour and constant failure to mature it, there is in Dickens’s big volume of early sketches hardly anything of the astonishing “quiddity” which was to reveal itself at once in The Pickwick Papers. there are some of the externals ready; there is something of the framework and machinery—of the “plant”; more than something of the sentiment, opinion and the like; but nothing whatever of the strange phantasmagoric spirit of life which was now, apparently, by a sudden daemonic impulse to be breathed into what had been hitherto simply puppets. It has been complained, with what justice we may consider later, that Dickens’s folk, at their greatest and best, are not exactly, in the Falstaffian phrase, “men [and women] of this world.” But, up to this time, they had been trying to be so and had been more or less pale copies of such. They now become conscious living beings of a world of their own; varying, of course, in power, gift, appeal, like creatures of any world, but seldom without flashes of their peculiar life; while, at times, and at their best, they are creations and such creations as had never been seen in literature before and have never been seen since, whether anything like them has been seen in this life or not. And it adds to the curiosity that the actual opening of Pickwick itself promises little or nothing of this. The club scene and debate with their stock machinery; the parody, smart enough but rather facile and rather overdone, of parliament and the like might easily have been a Boz sketch. The second chapter opens with another parody of Fielding which promises little more. But the journey from Goswell street to the Golden Cross (though this, too, links itself with the “redcab” driver in Boz) is big with quite new suggestions and possibilities; and even before Jingle elbows himself in, still more when he takes further root (though he, too, is Hook’s debtor to an extent which few people know), we are in the new world—never (not even in Hard Times) to be entirely shut out of it until death performs the ungracious office and leaves Edwin Drood not half told.

Whether Dickens was himself conscious of this sudden and, as it were, miraculous transformation nowhere (speaking under correction) appears. But he has, in a way however circular and cryptic, registered the time of its occurrence in the famous phrase “I thought of Mr. Pickwick,” when telling how he brushed aside the proposals of his publishers for what was, in fact, a stale competition with the already popular Mr. Jorrocks, and substituted his own. As has been hinted, there are signs of his not having “thought of Mr. Pickwick” in the full sense quite at once—signs which are not entirely accounted for by, though they are not inconsistent with, his equally well-known apology about the salient absurdities of a man’s character being noticeable first. Probably, Seymour’s death relieved him rather of something like a clog than (as was suggested, illiberally but inevitably, at the time and denied by him with his usual over-sensitiveness) of an inconvenient suggestion of the general idea. At any rate, how it happened we do not and cannot know; that it happened, we know and ought to be truly thankful for. There is no book like Pickwick anywhere; it is almost (extravagant as the saying may seem) worth while to read the wretched imitations of it in order to enjoy the zest with which one comes back to the real, though fantastically real, thing. The diversity of Dickens’s clients is nowhere better illustrated than in the case of this, his first, and, as some think, his greatest, book. Those much to be commiserated people, on the other hand, who do not like it may be said to consist of two classes only—classes each well worth the consideration of the historical student of literature. The first, which has existed from the beginning and must always exist, consists of those who cannot relish pure fun—fantastic humour which cares nothing for probability, consistency, chronology (the chronology of Pickwick has long been a favourite subject for the amazement of the serious and the amusement of others) and is not in the least afraid of invading those confines of nonsense which Hazlitt proudly and wisely claimed as the appanage and province of every true Englishman. For these, of course, nothing can be done. They may or must be looked at (whether with humility, respect, contempt, pity or thankfulness matters little) and passed.

These, however, are a constant body at all times. The other class varies much more with times and seasons, and is, therefore, of greater historical interest. It consists of those who feel, not exactly a critical or rational objection to the author’s methods and results, but a half aesthetic and half intellectual incapacity to adjust themselves to his means, his atmosphere and what is sometimes called his milieu. These persons appear (for what reasons, educational or other, it would be irrelevant to enquire) to be particularly numerous just now. The combination of near and far in Dickens; the identity of places, names and so forth, by the side of the difference of manners, habits and, to some extent, speech, seems altogether to upset them. They cannot “see” the spencer-wearing, punch-drinking, churchgoing world of seventy or eighty years since. This certainly argues what Dryden, in discussing a somewhat similar matter, calls a singular “heaviness of soul”—a strange inability to transport and adjust. One can only hope—without being too certain—that it will be outgrown, and that these persons (some of whom, at least, would be not a little offended if they were assumed not to like Homer or Vergil, Dante or Shakespeare, because the manners of the times of each were different from ours) may, at last, consent to allow the characters and the atmosphere of Dickens to differ from those of to-day, without declining, in consequence, to have anything to do with them. But, for the time, they may be nearly as hopeless as the others.

It cannot have taken many people of any competence in criticism very long to discover where, at least, in a general way, the secret of this “new world” of Dickens lies. It lies, of course, in the combination of the strictest realism of detail with a fairy-tale unrealism of general atmosphere. The note of one or the other or both is sometimes forced, and then there is a jar: in the later books, this is too frequently the case. But, in Pickwick, it hardly ever occurs; and, therefore, to all happily fit persons, the “suspension of disbelief,” to adopt and shift Coleridge’s great dictum from verse to prose fiction, is, except in the case of some of the short inset stories, never rudely broken. Never, probably, was there a great writer who knew, or cared, less about Aristotle than Dickens did. If he had spoken of the father of criticism, he would probably have talked—one is not certain that he has not sometimes come near to talking—some of his worst stuff. But, certainly, when he did master it (which was often), nobody ever mastered better than Dickens, in practise, the Aristotelian doctrine of the impossibility rendered probable or not improbable.

As yet, however, nothing has been said of his conversation, though something of what has been said above applies to that, too. Conversation had always been one of the main difficulties of the novel. The romance, with some striking exceptions, had not indulged much in it; and the novel, till Dryden and Addison and Steele and Swift created something of the kind, could find no good conversational style ready to its hand. Even after them—after the great eighteenth century groups, after Scott, after Jane Austen—there hung on the novel a sort of conventional lingo, similar to that of the stage and, probably, derived from it, which was like nothing ever used by man in actual speech—as heavy as frost, but far from having any depth of life at all. Dickens himself was very long in getting rid of this, if he ever did; and some of the worst examples of it are in the speeches of Nicholas Nickleby and his sister in a book which was not begun till Pickwick was nearly finished. But, in Pickwick itself (some of the inset stories again excepted), this lingo hardly ever appears, being ousted, no doubt, to some extent, necessarily, by the prevailing grotesque, and by the fact that a very large part of it is “in the vulgar tongue” with the adjective underlined. But, even when neither of these cathartics of book-made and stage-made lingo was present, the characters almost invariably talk like human beings.

The mention of the word character brings us to another and still more important aspect of our “true Dickens.” It has been said that even the very rudimentary connection of character and incident which is observable in “Our Parish” had stimulated, to some extent, the author’s actual novel-writing faculty; the infinitely more complicated interconnection of the same kind in Pickwick seems to have stimulated it still more. Story of the more technical kind there is, no doubt, little; though there is more than has been sometimes allowed, for the intended exploration of England provides a sort of beginning, the Bardell imbroglio and its sequels provide a really distinct middle and Mr. Pickwick’s retirement and the marriage of his younger friends give us as much of an end as most novels contain. But the interest is really in the separate scenes and not in the connection of them, except in so far as the same characters reappear. Nay, it is scarcely extravagant to say that the interest of the scenes is largely due to the fact of the same characters appearing in them.

Yet, these characters themselves, with the possible exception of the hero, can hardly be said to be in any way developed by the different situations. They remain the same; not now exactly types, though Mr. Snodgrass, at least, is not very far from “the poetical young gentleman” who seems actually to have succeeded him in production. But they are always “humours,” in the Jonsonian sense. Only late in his career, in Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and, perhaps, Our Mutual Friend, did Dickens attempt anything like a character at least apparently prepared to stand analysis and to achieve or suffer development. Even then, he never went far; it was, frankly, not his business.

But, here, in Pickwick once for all, and as no one had done before him, he displayed the power of imparting, not, indeed, the complexity, variety and depth of life, but a certain—to stoop, for once, to paradoxical phrase—“external intensity” of it. The characters of Pickwick are not, perhaps, in any one instance, like anyone that we have actually met or shall probably meet, but (the insets once more excluded) they are not puppets. The worst treated in this way is the unfortunate Mr. Winkle, who is wanted so often for the horseplay and pantomime business, and is devoted to it so early, that it seems a little incongruous when a girl like Arabella is made to reciprocate his affection. Yet, to us, he is not a mere puppet; and, from the duel scene to that where he manages to get the better of Dowler, he is alive with the strange Dickensian life, if not with the quintessence of it. It is easy to say that the characters furthest from him, the truest “servants of Quintessence,” the two Wellers, are impossible, that they could not be. The only reply is that they are; and that, this being the case, their possibility is a mere “previous question,” a phantom from which we pass to the order of the actual day. Nor is there (once and always excepting the insets and not all of them) any part of the book where this mimetic actuality does not prevail. Improving immensely upon the lines of Defoe and Smollett, and adding to them an imagination of which Defoe had nothing and Smollett not very much, Dickens by this time creates, in a fashion unprecedented and unparalleled, his characters and their surroundings. The personages may be psychologically rudimentary, and often put into exaggerated comic or tragic action; the scenes may be curiously destitute of beauty (Dickens can make a place comfortable just as he can make it horrible and ugly, but he never makes it exactly beautiful; in fact, when he merely tries to describe beauty, as in Pictures from Italy, he cannot do it); they may be open to criticisms of all sorts; but, in their own order of logic, they never fail to be what the critical man of a later day calls “convincing,” though with a conviction which has nothing to do with evidence. They are, in their own way, real: and there’s an end of it. The “swarry” at Bath is open to a hundred cavils; but it is as real, if as artificial, as the Roman remains there, and likely to be as solid, when it is equally out of date and fashion.

The originality of this method of construction could, of course, never be exhibited again as it is in The Pickwick Papers. Whether its power was ever better shown, so far as presence of merits with absence of defects is concerned, is a question, perhaps, of opinion mainly; but that it was capable of almost indefinite extension in range was clear. Strict realism (from which, except in his Christmas books and stories, Dickens never departed) in main subject and in what may be called detail of setting, with audacious disrealising in treatment, was of its essence. But he had tendencies and characteristics which, though visible even in the immature work, and not quite obscure in Pickwick itself, had been kept down in the first group by the fact of its being hackwork, and, in Pickwick by its general scheme of cheerful extravaganza. The not quite immediate, but speedy and immense, success of Pickwick made it possible for him to write more or less as he liked; and, unless he had been more or less than human, he must have been slightly intoxicated with the wine of his own achievement. He continued, for some time (in Bentley’s Miscellany, chiefly), to write the slight things noted above; but, before Pickwick itself was finished, he began to compose, and within a short time of its completion he had published, two elaborate novels of a much closer construction, and (as some would say) of a much more ambitious character than Pickwick itself. In these works, he allowed very large scope to the tendencies above mentioned—that towards sentimental pathos; that towards melodrama; and that towards carrying out political-social purpose of a reforming kind. These were Oliver Twist—the shorter, the earlier published, but, perhaps, not the earlier begun—and the much longer, the more varied and, with some strands of melodrama, the less serious, Nicholas Nickleby.