The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 10. Dombey and Son
The years which produced these by-works produced, also, not a little else. Martin Chuzzlewit itself overran a considerable portion of them, and a long visit (two visits, indeed) to Italy resulted in the Pictures from that country originally published in The Daily News, which Dickens nominally edited for a week or two but quickly relinquished. He had, thus, no time during them for more than one new attempt at fiction on the great scale. Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, the title of which posterity, in general, has wisely cut down to the last three words, if not even to one, Dombey, is of importance in more than size. In the first place, it marks a very important transition in the handling of scene and personage, especially the latter. For reasons obvious enough, partly from his biography and partly from the character of the work itself, his drawing of actual society, except as concerns the middle, lower and lowest classes, had been very vague. Mr. Pickwick is “a gentleman retired from business” and, as some of his less discreet admirers almost petulantly insist, he possesses all the moral qualities of gentlemanliness. Nor are his actions, nor is his general behaviour, inconsistent with that status. But his “atmosphere” is certainly not quite that which we know not merely from other novels but from letters, biographies, indisputable documents of all sorts, to have been that, not merely of the upper ranks, but of the upper middle and prossional classes at the time. The superior personages of Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and Martin Chuzzlewit (Barnaby Rudge, definitely dealing with the past, here falls out) partake of the same vagueness when they are not purely theatrical. But, in Dombey, Dickens has more or less shaken off the theatrical, and, apparently, is endeavouring to observe the actual manners and character of society. Dombey is, at least, meant to be an actual city man of quite the highest class. Dr. Blimber and Major Bagstock, however obviously caricatured, are meant to retain the general character of an officer who has emerged from real barracks, a clergyman and schoolmaster who is no shadowy angel like the good clergymen of Pickwick and The Old Curiosity Shop, no fantastic tyrant like Squeers in the past and, to some extent, Creakle in the future, but a rational, if somewhat pedantic, individual who has passed through a university and taken orders himself and is preparing other persons for the same or similar occupations. Even the Dombey servants, though, of course, comically heightened, are nearer to the actual population of London areas than ever before. It is true that Dickens has (to avail oneself of the dictum of the dictionaries that “dis-is used at will to form words” and to coin one much wanted in English) “dis-damaged” himself most freely in this respect. Cousin Feenix, though almost the first “aristocrat” whom he represents as a thoroughly good fellow, is, of course, all but burlesqued; Mrs. Skewton is, at least, much exaggerated, and, as for Edith, she is completely “out of drawing,” as is, by common consent, her villain-lover Carker, who once more belongs to the tribe of Monks, save that, unfortunately, he is much less shadowy. Even in the characters not yet mentioned, the element of exaggeration and caricature comes in to some extent. Susan Nipper, though we should be very sorry if she had not, has it; Toots has it to the utmost possible or impossible extent; Captain Cuttle (and great would be the loss) could not exist without it; even Miss Tox has it in no slight degree. He has further relieved himself in the old directions by doubling, in the sentimental way, with more detail, the part of little Nell with that of little Paul and, in the melodramatic, by the retribution of Carker. But, at the same time, Dombey remains his first attempt at painting actual modern society—his first to “disfantasy,” so far as he could, the atmosphere, and to be not merely realist but real. General remarks as to his success will come best later, but the point of departure should be marked.
About a year after the close of Dombey, and a few months after the issue of The Haunted Man, the time having been also partly occupied by the composition of his favourite and (as some think) greatest book, David Copperfield, Dickens also undertook the new and very important adventure of editing Household Words, a weekly periodical which very soon justified its title, and which, with its sequal All the Year Round, he carried on for more than twenty years till his death.
The two (though he by no means discontinued the method of monthly issues for the bigger novels which would have over-loaded a weekly paper) contained, thenceforward, a great deal of his own work; they caused a, perhaps, rather beneficent change of the Christmas books into shorter Christmas stories and they undoubtedly enriched popular literature with a great deal of good work besides his own. Dickens was a decidedly despotic, and a rather egotistic, editor; and work of the very highest merit, off his own special lines, would have had little chance with him. But he succeeded in attracting and training a remarkable number of competent writers who could, more or less, fall in with those lines. The short story and the short miscellaneous essay which had already made lodgments in the monthly magazines found open house in these weekly ones; and, though a great many of the contributions have been more permanently and accessibly enshrined in collected Works of himself, of Wilkie Collins, of Collins’s less known but, perhaps, even more gifted brother Charles, of Mrs. Gaskell and of others, there must remain a considerable residuum on which it is rather surprising that the active reprinters of to-day have not laid hands. It is certain that there are few luckier “finds” on a wet day in a country house, or, still more, a country inn, than a volume of Household Words, or All the Year Round.