The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 17. Summary
It is, therefore, not improbable, to speak in the manner of the “gelid critic,” that, even had Dickens been less reckless of his failing health, and had that health given him a fuller span of life, no further masterpieces would have been added to his tale; and, so, the story of his work need not be affected by that sense of possible injustice to future achievements which, occasionally, besets such things. The system of survey which has been actually adopted may seem to some too pedestrian—too much of a mere inventory. But it has been adopted quite deliberately and with an easy choice of other plans of a more generalising and high-flying character. And it may be possible to justify the choice in the few remarks of a more general kind which will close the chapter.
The survey of Dickens, then, is, perhaps, best conducted in the way of a catalogue, yet of a catalogue raisonneè, precisely because his inspiration itself is, after all, mainly an inspiration of detail. Those who feel his special charm most keenly and most constantly do not, as a rule, find it in actually close-woven stories like A Tale of Two Cities and Hard Times, or in books with an ostensibly elaborate plot, like most of the later ones. The term “phantasmagoria”—which, though it does not, perhaps, please some of the more fanatical Dickensites, is often attached by critical admirers as a label, but a label of honour, to his work—almost expressly excludes definite scenes, acts, plays or even trilogies or cyclical sequences of the more sharply separated and elaborately planned kind. “The Shapes arise,” to borrow an excellent phrase from Whitman; the scenery rises with them; they play their part; and they pass. Shapes and scenes alike are of extraordinary number and variety; they very seldom, as has been said above, merely repeat each other, though there are some natural family likenesses among them; they are grave or gay, tragic, comic or grotesque. Sometimes, especially at the first, they are of somewhat too familiar or “stock” character; sometimes, especially at the last, their rising, action and passing seem to be accompanied by more effort, somewhere, than is compatible with the keeping of the vision. But, on the whole, the spring never dries up; the
But, if this seem an exaggeration, something closely connected with it and referred to briefly already is not: and that is the unique re-readableness of Dickens. In this, he surpasses, for those who can taste him at all, even Scott; and he surpasses, also, others whom, in some cases, the same readers would put on a level with him or above him in total literary rank. It may, possibly, be the case that the very superiority of total effect, and the deeper draught of character found in these latter, require the lapse of some time in order to get the table of the mind ready for fresh impressions; while Dickens’s crowd of flitting figures and dissolving views always finds a fresh appetite. If you like them at all you will like them always.
How far this bears on the still vexed question of their “reality” will, probably, be decided by foregone opinion. “How is it possible that things not fully real should exercise such power?” some may ask, and others may answer, that it is precisely the fantastic element—the contrast of real and unreal—which keeps the charm effective. David Copperfield, in its characters, is, undoubtedly, the nearest throughout to persons whom we have met and feel it quite likely that we might meet. Pip, who, to some extent, is David’s younger brother, perhaps comes next. It would be hard to find them many companions.
There are other points in Dickens of which some treatment may be expected, but on which it does not seem necessary to say much. Some peculiarities of his earlier style—especially his most unlucky fondness for blank verse imbedded in the more impassioned passages of his prose—have been more than enough rebuked. His irony was seldom happy; first, because he had not the command of himself which irony requires, and, secondly, because, in strict wit, which irony requires still more, he was by no means so strong as he was in humour. His irony, moreover, was almost wholly exerted in the political-social passages where he was never at his best. His politics and his sociology themselves are hot ashes at which there is no need to burn discreet feet or fingers. Certainly he, perhaps more than anyone else, started that curious topsy-turvyfied snobbishness—that “cult of the lower classes”—which has become a more and more fashionable religion up to the present moment.
The more excellent way is to concentrate attention on those purely literary qualities which have given to English literature one of its greatest and most unique figures and contributions of work. He has constantly been compared to Balzac, and the comparison has some solid foundations. But it must be a strange taste which would take in exchange even the great Frenchman for our English Dickens. Of the faults—ethical and aesthetic—of the national character he has plenty: prejudice, party spirit, aptness to speak without sufficient information, lack of criticism, insubordination to even reasonable rules in art and literature, exaggeration, extravagance, doubtful taste. The French themselves, since their romantic transformation, have, at least, pretended to like Dickens; but a criticism on him by Voltaire would be very precious. On the other hand, he has many, if not quite all, of the virtues on which we most pride, or, at least, used to pride, ourselves—courage, independence, individuality, imaginative freshness and activity, which does not disdain to approach the diviner kinds of nonsense, humour, in some, if not all, of its quintessences, kindliness, the sense of comfort and cheerfulness and home. And all these good and bad things he put together for our literary use with an unstinting fertility of device, a daemonic energy, an actual power of artistic creation in certain kinds, to which there is, perhaps, no parallel in our literature and certainly none in any other.