The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 14. Little Dorrit
His work as editor—which, like all his work, he took the reverse of lightly—and, perhaps, some of the inevitable revenge which nature exacts for the putting forth of such power as he had shown for nearly twenty years, rather slackened Dickens’s production after this; and it was not till the close of 1855 that he began to send Little Dorrit on its usual year and a half, or rather more, of serial appearance. This novel has been even more variously judged than Hard Times, indeed, judgment of it has been known to vary remarkably, not merely as between different individuals, but as formed by the same individual at different times. Probably the general result, at first reading, has been unfavourable. Not merely the tiresome “crusade” element, which had made its appearance in the books immediately preceding, but the tendency to dwell, and thump, upon particular notes not always very melodious or satisfying, which, more or less, had been apparent throughout, are unluckily prominent here. And the newer feature—that is to say, the attempt at a rather elaborate plot which adds little or nothing to the real interest of the story—appears likewise. Carker’s teeth, in Dombey, are excusable and almost negligible beside the trivial, tedious and exasperating business of Pancks, with his puffings and snortings, and the outward and visible signs of hypocrisy in his employer Casby. That employer’s daughter Flora is so exceedingly amusing that one does not care to enquire too closely into her verisimilitude; and “Mr. F.’s aunt” is one of those pure extravaganzas of the author who justify themselves offhand. But the Circumlocution office is merely a nuisance of a worse kind in literature than even its prototype in life; the soured blood and shabby state of the Gowans as human fringes of aristocracy might have been hit off admirably in a few touches, but are spoilt by many. The absence of that calming and restraining influence which has been noted in Copperfield is felt in every part of the book except the pure extravaganzas just referred to. The Marshalsea scenes, which, again, are autobiographic (for Dickens the elder had been immured there), escape partially because there is much of this fantastic element with a great deal of real “business.” But the Dorrits themselves, especially when the father is released; that unpoetical and dismal “House of Usher” where the Clennam family and firm abide (of all deplorable); the contrasted Merdle household with its stale social satire (“Bar” and “Physician” escape best); the old toy-theatre villains Rigaud and Flintwinch (Affery saves herself with Mr. F.’s aunt, and one would like to have heard a conversation between them); even the Meagles family and the puppet Tattycoram and the “villainess” Miss Wade—all these come under the same curse of fundamental unreality which derives hardly any benefit from the fantastic energy expended by the author. And yet it is one of the most remarkable testimonies to Dickens’s really magical power that, when the faults have become familiar and, thus, cease to tease much, Little Dorrit remains almost as re-readable as any but the very best of its companions.
These faults, however, could not escape notice, and they suggested (unless Bleak House and Hard Times had done it before them) to Anthony Trollope a rather smart scenarioparody of Dickens’s manner in The Warden. But the completion of the book brought many other matters to give Dicken’s mind new turns. He had already bought, but had not yet settled in, his famous country house, Gadshill place; in the spring of 1858, he was separated from his wife—a fact which requires no comment here; the separation was the indirect cause of his giving up Household Words and starting All the Year Round; and he thought of, and began, the “readings” of his own work which brought him in large sums of money; created for him a new kind of popular reputation; enabled him to display his singular histrionic faculty; but, also, beyond all doubt (combined, as they were, with unbroken, though not quite such abundant, production of original work), put a strain upon his nervous system which had a great deal to do with his comparatively early death.