The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 2. Sketches
But he added to these “the true Dickens,” and it is difficult, even for those who hold, with the greatest tenacity, to the historical view of literature, to believe that this true Dickens would not have made its way without any patterns at all, though it may be that they gave that mysterious start or suggestion which is sometimes, if not always, necessary. What is certain is that they hindered almost as much as they helped; and that some of the faults of the later and greater books are not unfairly traceable to their influence; while it was some considerable time before he got free from relapses into mere bad imitation of them. To appreciate this, it is necessary to pay more attention to the early Sketches than has sometimes been given to them. Dickens himself wisely refrained from reprinting any of them except the Boz division, which, though it is the earliest, contains, also, by far the best work. But the student, if not the general reader, must submit himself to the perusal not merely of these, but of Sketches of Young Gentlemen, Sketches of Young Couples and The Mudfog Papers, which the ruthless resurrectionists of literature have unearthed. There is, indeed, hardly anything that is good in these; the best of them are weak copies of papers by Hunt and others of the older generation; survivals of the old stock “character”; newspaper “Balaam” (as the cant phrase then went) of the thinnest and dreariest kind. Yet, some, if not all, of them were written after The Pickwick Papers and alongside of the greater part of the earlier novels. They—or, rather, the critical or uncritical spirit which allowed him to write them—account for the clumsy and soon discarded framework of Master Humphrey’s Clock; and their acceptance of the type by one who, in his better moods, was one of the most individual and individualising of writers, never quite effaces itself from his work to the very end; while, in the Mudfog group, at least, the habit of exaggerated and overdriven irony (or, rather, attempt at irony) which, unfortunately, was to increase, is manifest. These things, though, as has been pointed out, not exactly novice-work, are such obvious “slips of the pen” on a large scale that one is almost ashamed to speak of them seriously. Yet, after all, they form part of the dossier—the body of documents in the case—which every honest historical critic and student has to examine.
There is very much better matter in the Boz Sketches themselves, though their immaturity and inequality are great, and were frankly acknowledged by the author himself, whose fault was certainly not excess of modesty. The patterns are even more obvious; but the vigour and versatility are far greater, and the addition to the title “illustrative of everyday life and everyday people” is justified in a fashion for which Hunt had not strength enough, which Hook’s inveterate tendency to caricature and charge precluded him from attaining and which the lapse of nearly a century throws out of comparison with Smollett. The best of them are real studies for the finished pictures of the novels; and the author rarely attempts the sentimentalism, the melodrama and the fine writing which were to be snares for him later. There are not many things more curious in critical enquiry, of what may be called the physiological or biological sort, than the way in which “Our Parish” shows the future novelist. It is, to a large extent, made up of studies of the type kind above described and not commended; but these are connected, if not by any plot, by a certain community of characters, and even by some threads of incident; and, accordingly, things become far more alive and the shadow of the coming novelist falls on the mere sketch-writer. The scenes are still Leigh-Huntian in general scheme; but they are drawn with a precision, a verve and an atmosphere of, at least, plausible realism which Hunt could not reach. Of the “Tales” (so called), Dickens himself was rather ashamed; and no wonder. None, perhaps, has the merit of Hook’s best short stories, such as Gervase Skinner; the subjects are, sometimes, thin for the lengths; and a certain triviality is not deniable, especially in the longer efforts about boarding-house society and the like. But the teller can, at other times, tell; conventions pass, now and then, into vivid touches of, at least, low life; there is, occasionally, fun which does not always mean mere horseplay; there is, almost always, the setting of the scenes adapted to show up whatever incident there may be.