Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities

February 19, 2019

A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens
(Nonesuch, 2008) [1859]
386 p.

Somehow I managed to reach my ripe old age without having read this great novel, a defect that I am happy to have now rectified. Yes, even through these tears, I am happy.

The story is set during the final decades of the eighteenth century, the two cities are London and Paris, and the story follows a family that, with one foot on each side of the channel, gets caught in the crosshairs of the French Revolution. I suppose everyone knows this, although I did not.

It’s a wonderful book in pretty much every respect. The characters are excellent, even the rare female villain, and the amiable old banker, and the kindly old father, and the courageous young woman, and the principled young man, and, of course, the noble-hearted young lover. The writing is, even for Dickens, marvellous; there are sections — such as the passage about the storming of the Bastille, or that scene of spilled wine in the street, or that prophetic vision — that are like orchestral music. It has been ingeniously constructed, with key revelations concealed until the appropriate hour. At barely half the length of one of his typical novels, it is unusually focused and fleet of foot.

Dickens was clearly no friend of the Revolution — its rallying cry he always modifies to “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death!” — though of course he was no friend either to oppression and injustice. He saw the desire of the people for liberty as healthy, but the means followed to that end horrible. He is the patron novelist of the common Englishman, but was able to put a sympathetic aristocrat, and a French one at that, at the center of this book. In the end, he gave us a large-hearted story about the power of love, requited and unrequited, romantic and filial, to shine in the darkness, though the darkness does not comprehend it. I judge it one of Dickens’ best.

Favourites in 2018: Books

December 28, 2018

I had, by hook and by crook, a pretty good year of reading. In this post I’ll highlight what were for me the most satisfying, interesting, and entertaining books I had the pleasure to read this year.


My ongoing Roman reading project started this year with Appian’s history of a century of conflict (c.130-30 BC) and concluded with some of the early poetry of Virgil. In between I sallied at Lucretius and Catullus, but spent most of my time with Cicero and Julius Caesar, the latter of whose first-hand accounts of the Gallic Wars and Civil War were a highlight of my year. I read Caesar in the unsurpassed luxury of the Landmark edition, which I recommend unreservedly.


This was also the year in which I polished off the final few volumes in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. I’ve written about the pleasures of these books in previous years, so I’ll simply say that even apart from the wonderful characters, musical language, and adventurous stories, I loved them for their portrayal of a friendship, between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, that has few literary rivals.


Forlorn without Aubrey and Maturin, I turned to Jeeves and Wooster for comfort, and spent the rest of the year devouring comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. I expected to like the Jeeves books, and of course I did, but I also dipped into the Psmith novels and the Blandings Castle books, and, to my unalloyed delight, found them just as good. If I have to pick just one to highlight for this list, I will choose Something Fresh, the first of the Blandings Castle books, through which I laughed with hearty cheer and admiration. P.G. Wodehouse and I will remain boon companions in 2019.


Another highlight has been my slow perusal of The Complete Old English Poems, a massive volume packed with Anglo-Saxon verse rendered into modern English by the indefatigable (I assume he must be indefatigable) Craig Williamson. This year I read the Vercelli Book and the Exeter Book, two of the principal surviving anthologies of Old English poetry, and I relished both. Lives of saints, clashes with cannibals, dream prayers, gnomic riddles, moral meditations — Old English poetry has it all. The thought that I still have about 500 pages to go in this colossal codex, including another encounter with Beowulf, is cheering.


Of the two Dickens novels I tackled this year, the best was A Tale of Two Cities, my edition of which is now stained with tears. By some unlikely series of mischances I had arrived in life on the threshold of this book having no idea what it was about, and I was thoroughly absorbed by the tale of a family caught in the cross-fire of the French Revolution. Dickens is always good, of course, but I found him particularly good here, especially in the final quarter. I now have, I believe, only one (and a half) Dickens novels left before I’ll have read the whole groaning shelf-full.


Perhaps the greatest surprise of my year was T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, which I began only in a dutiful effort to scout ahead of my children for good books to hand to them, but which quickly won my heart for its winsome combination of wit, supple language, and inventive storytelling. I’ve since been working my way through the other volumes in White’s Arthurian tetralogy, but, as I was warned, they have not been the equal of the first, which has earned a spot among the ten or fifteen greatest children’s books known to me.


The last novel I will praise on this list is George Mackay Brown’s Magnus, a mercurial book that is, on the surface, a life of the twelfth-century Earl of Orkney, St Magnus Erlendsson, but which turns out to also be lyrical medieval hagiography, ruminative meditation, and, in one dazzling sequence, a kind of spiritual portal into the twentieth century. Formally inventive and beautifully written in a style that drifts, as circumstances demand, between knotty toughness and languid beauty, I found it an excellent and memorable read.


Among the best nonfiction I read this year was Mont St Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams’ love letter to France in the high middle ages. His is a very personal encounter with the architecture and literary art of the period, with a premium on imaginative appreciation rather than objective analysis. It is a book that is willing to engage the great masterpieces of medieval art in a childlike spirit in an effort to collapse, so far as is possible, the centuries separating us from those who made and first inhabited them. I found in its pages a kindred spirit.


A rewarding short read was Michel de Montaigne’s essay “On the Education of Children”. Montaigne wrote about the aims, methods, and motives of education from within the broad tradition, playing on a thread that has grown frayed and strained in the centuries between his time and ours, and therefore providing a healthy, robust contrast with our own habitual ways of thinking about education today. This was my first foray into the world of Montaigne’s essays, and I look forward to going back.


I’ll round out this list with another book about education. Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education, edited by Ryan Topping, is a treasure trove of reflections on the nature and purpose of education culled from eminent pens, starting with Plato and Aristotle, running up through Augustine, Basil, and Aquinas, through Erasmus and (yes!) Montaigne and into the 20th century. It’s a superb collection that has been put together in part to remind modern Catholics, the great majority of whom have attended schools much more influenced by Rousseau and Dewey than by Bonaventure and Newman, just what the Church through time has thought and taught about education. If my dozens of pages of notes are any indication, it’s a book with a lot of valuable things to say.


Record keeping:

Oldest: Plato, Phaedrus.

Newest: Ross Douthat, To Change the Church.

Longest: Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit.

Most by one author: Shakespeare (11), Wodehouse (11), Thornton Burgess (5).


That’s the kind of year in books it’s been for me.

Dickens: Little Dorrit

September 28, 2018

Little Dorrit
Charles Dickens
(Nonesuch, 2008) [1857]
853 p.

The practice of throwing debtors into prison, where their means to repay the debt are greatly reduced, is nonsensical, and it must have seemed so to many at the time when debtors’ prisons were used. It seemed so to Dickens, whose own father was confined to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison when Charles was a lad. That early, humiliating experience for the Dickens family became, many years later, the background for this novel on the life and fortunes of the Dorrit family.

At the beginning of the novel Edward Dorrit, formerly a wealthy man, is thrown into the Marshalsea in the expectation that he’ll be out again in a day or two, but days turn to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years, and still he remains. His wife is with him, and his children, including the youngest, little Amy Dorrit — the little heroine, or, at least, the little centerpiece of our story — are born and brought up within the walls. When she becomes a young woman, Little Dorrit leaves the prison to take up humble work as a seamstress, but returns each night to care for her aged father, continuing to make the prison her home.

The main arc of the story’s first half relates how it comes about that an honourable London businessman, Arthur Clennam, befriends Little Dorrit and, with unprecedented tenacity, pursues the Dorrit case through the nation’s financial bureaucracy, with the happy result that the Dorrits are finally released from the Marshalsea.

In the second half the wheel of fortune continues to turn: what was down goes up, and what was up goes down, and soon enough it is Little Dorrit who finds herself in a position to help Clennam. Naturally, there is a romantic element complicating these negotiations.

Woven into the story are the nefarious doings of a French criminal attempting to blackmail Arthur’s family by threatening exposure of a family secret — an underwhelming secret, it must be said, which eventually comes out like a whimper.

Chesterton, in the introduction he wrote to the novel, calls the book “Dickens’s dark moment” on the grounds that “the main business of the story of Little Dorrit is to describe the victory of circumstances over a soul”, a very un-Dickensian project indeed, “not connected in any manner with the special thing that he had to say”. And there is something to this view: Chesterton highlights the contrast between David Copperfield‘s Mr Micawber, himself also a denizen of debtor’s prison, but ebullient and unbeaten in spirit, and Mr Dorrit, who is passive and overmastered.

But I’m not convinced that Chesterton’s argument is quite convincing as a criticism of the novel as a whole. After all, the title is not Mr Dorrit. His daughter escapes the fatalism that afflicts him, and this indeed is why the story follows her. Mind, her character poses different problems for the reader. She is so delicate that one worries she might dissolve in a light rain, a mere wisp of a character. But I am inclined to give Dickens the benefit of my doubt; he clearly intends her to be simple and good, from her top of her mild head right down to the tips of her mild toes.

There are an abundance of secondary characters in the story, many there just to develop sub-plots that have to intersect with the main story at crucial junctures before fading away. My favourite of these was Mrs Plornish, a Londoner with a knack for speaking Italian, or something bearing a distant resemblance to Italian, and an old woman known only as “Mrs F’s aunt” who sits tight-lipped in the corner until, at inopportune moments, she utters oracles.

A novelty of the book — not quite unprecedented in Dickens’ corpus, but not expected either — is the international setting. I’ve already mentioned the (at the risk of redundancy in triplicate) dastardly French villain, and on his trail we visit Calais and Marseilles, but we also follow the Dorrits to a sojourn in Venice and then to Rome, all of which is quite delightful, even if they all feel rather like a variant on Dickensian London.

The chief triumph of the book is Dickens’ satire on government bureaucracy in his invention of the Circumlocution Office, the great study and object of which is “HOW NOT TO DO IT”. If you love Dickens, but haven’t read Little Dorrit, you might enjoy reading the section in which he introduces the Circumlocution Office for the first time: here. Pure delight.

To my mind Little Dorrit ranks somewhere in the middle to low range of Dickens’ novels. I liked it better, I think, than Barnaby Rudge, and perhaps it could be considered a  competitor to Martin Chuzzlewit or even The Old Curiosity Shop. But I would be surprised to find a reader for whom it was a particular favourite.

Linked links

March 15, 2018

Today a set of items sewn together by threads firm and flimsy:

  • Some of us read not so much for plot as for style, but what is style? At The New Criterion Dominic Green has some ideas about it, expressed with style. It’s a splendid essay.
  • Joseph Epstein has written a nice appreciation of that delightful stylist P.G. Wodehouse. It led me to Roger Kimball’s older essay in a similar vein. And that led me to Christopher Hitchens’ thoughts on the subject. Wodehouse has been an obsession of mine of late; I’ve nearly completed all the Jeeves and Wooster novels. As displays of wit they are hard to beat.
  • And what about displays of Whit?
  • The film that won the Best Picture Oscar this year was del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which Ross Douthat sees as a rather unsubtle example of liberal myth-making. I’ve not seen it myself.
  • Neither have I seen — it was a strictly auditory affair — a recent debate between Jordan Peterson and philosophy’s own Angel of Death, David Benatar. At issue is anti-natalism, a view that holds that sentient life is an evil. (Peterson’s against it; so am I.)
  • I’m more likely to throw my support behind a proposition implicit in the novels of our great English moralist Charles Dickens: that coffee is an evil.
  • You have to wonder what the dickens the consciousness deniers are thinking. (Technical answer: nothing.) The linked essay is a good one, but over contented with its preferred solution, and not quite grappling with the scope of the problem. Most educated Westerners today are committed to a metaphysics that leads where the consciousness deniers have ended up. Do I hear someone whistling past this graveyard?
  • I think so, and I think I know the tune. Didn’t Ian Bostridge mention it in his reflections on the English choral tradition?

As an envoi, let’s hear something from that tradition. Here is Herbert Howells’ A Spotless Rose, sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Dickens: Dombey and Son

February 4, 2016

Dombey and Son
Charles Dickens
(Oxford, 1988) [1848]
960 p.

I came to Dombey and Son knowing nothing about it, but with the reasonable presumption that it would be about Dombey and his son — and this was wrong. Since I’d heard very little about it I assumed that it was probably not all that good and might be a chore to get through — and this was wrong too. It was for me a story full of surprises. I am happy to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly.

In the introductory notes he wrote for the novel, Chesterton points out that Dombey and Son occupies an important place in Dickens’ authorship. It was preceded by Martin Chuzzlewit and succeeded by David Copperfield, two very different books. In his early books, of which Pickwick is the immortal exemplar, Dickens was really an episodist and caricaturist, not a novelist; his ‘story’ was a long string of mostly disconnected stories, tied together by amusing and endearing characters. In Nicholas Nickleby he took some steps in the direction of novel-writing, though there too the story was mostly episodic, and he continued largely in this vein up through Martin Chuzzlewit. Yet David Copperfield is unquestionably a novel in the full sense, so we might expect Dombey and Son to be a transitional work between the early, episodic Dickens and the late, novelistic Dickens. And we would be right.

In fact, it’s a good deal closer to Copperfield than Chuzzlewit. There are character arcs — especially for young Florence Dombey, whom I would defend as one of Dickens’ greatest and most affecting heroines — and, to a lesser degree, for Edith and for Mr Dombey himself, though his ‘arc’ is a rather abrupt one. The story as a whole has clearly been carefully planned on the large scale, and it holds together nicely, even if the most important of the long-range developments were rather obvious and, in a sense, necessary.

But Dickens the novelist is still Dickens, and Dombey and Son has its fair share of delightful Dickensian comic characters, the sorts of figures for whom one would happily clear the deck to let them hold forth for chapter after chapter. (Chesterton: “One good character by Dickens requires all eternity to stretch its legs in.”) Of these my favourites were Captain Cuttle, whose good heart and penchant for speaking in impenetrable naval metaphors endeared him greatly to me, and Mr Toots, whom Chesterton praises in lavish terms that are worth quoting:

Lastly, there is the admirable study of Toots, who may be considered as being in some ways the masterpiece of Dickens. Nowhere else did Dickens express with such astonishing insight and truth his main contention, which is that to be good and idiotic is not a poor fate, but, on the contrary, an experience of primeval innocence, which wonders at all things. Dickens did not know, anymore than any great man ever knows, what was the particular thing that he had to preach. He did not know it; he only preached it. But the particular thing that he had to preach was this: That humility is the only possible basis of enjoyment; that if one has no other way of being humble except being poor, then it is better to be poor, and to enjoy; that if one has no other way of being humble except being imbecile, then it is better to be imbecile, and to enjoy. That is the deep unconscious truth in the character of Toots — that all his externals are flashy and false; all his internals unconscious, obscure, and true. He wears loud clothes, and he is silent inside them. His shirts and waistcoats are covered with bright spots of pink and purple, while his soul is always covered with the sacred shame. He always gets all the outside things of life wrong, and all the inside things right. He always admires the right Christian people, and gives them the wrong Christian names… He forgets who they are, but he remembers what they are. With the clear eyes of humility he perceives the whole world as it is.

Surely any book of which such things can be said of even a minor character must be very much worth reading, and that is certainly true of Dombey and Son, a book that surpassed my expectations in virtually every respect.

Dickens: David Copperfield

January 24, 2016

I recently finished reading Dickens’ Dombey and Son, and while writing up some thoughts I was surprised to realize that my brief notes on David Copperfield never made the transition from my old web log to this one. So, for no very good reason, here they are. These were written ten years ago, when I was just getting to know Dickens. (David Copperfield was the second of his books I had read.) They sound a little naive to me now, but they are a faithful record of what I thought at the time.


David Copperfield
Charles Dickens
(Duckworth & Co., 2005) [1850]

871 p.

I am always charmed by the Victorian habit of granting long, flowery names to books. A novel that is known to us only as David Copperfield was published then under the elaborate title The Personal History, Adventures, Experience & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He never meant to be Published on any Account). This title, both in its length, and in its poised but unhurried manner, is a remarkably faithful model of the novel itself. But to profess admiration of Victorian eloquence in a book’s title is very different from professing enthusiasm for an entire book in the same style. Some beauties are best enjoyed at a distance. And it is this wariness, I think, that had led me to avoid the novels of Charles Dickens in the past. I knew too that Dickens published his books serially, and I suspected that a certain pecuniary interest must have inflated his books beyond an appropriate size. And, in a sense, I was right: David Copperfield is long, much too long, meanders, strolls with hands in pockets, whistling, quite unconcerned about getting to the point. Yet it is a splendid book.

Written as an autobiography — and apparently sections are based rather closely on Dickens’ own life — the novel recounts the life of David Copperfield, beginning just prior to his birth, and finishing in his old age. David is a wonderful narrator. He’s a sensitive man, generous with others, and even in recounting his own follies he brings a warm, compassionate understanding to bear. He is not drawn as sharply as other characters in the novel, and we never see him as clearly delineated as we do them, but the entire story is suffused with and filtered through his gentle, perceptive sensibility.

Dickens seems to have excelled at creating memorable personalities out of just a few light touches: his mother, so kind and loving, but tragically timid; his aunt, imposing and proper, but leavened by an enduring rage at trespassing donkeys; Mr. Dick, a happy simpleton whose mind is continually in danger of tending to that of Charles I; the magnificent Mr. Micawber, an eloquent giant of a man whose constant financial desperation finds voice only in his hilarious valedictory letters; Mrs. Micawber, his tenacious and argumentative wife; Mr. Peggotty, a weathered, poor, and good man who wanders the world to find and forgive little Em’ly, his lost sheep; Dora, David’s ‘child-wife’, whom he loves in her silly simplicity; Agnes, his second wife, whom he loves with all of his mind and heart; the wicked Uriah Heep, who masks his cunning and malice behind false humility; and others. I admired the way Dickens was able to plausibly reverse our understanding of some characters simply by re-presenting them from another perspective. This happens, for instance, with David’s aunt, whom he desperately fears in his childhood, but whom he later discovers to be a truly loving, motherly figure to him. Another example is his school friend Steerforth, a dashing, brave boy, but a reckless, foolish man.

There were a few things that surprised me about this book. I was certainly not expecting it to be as funny as it was. Having read The Pickwick Papers, I should have known that Dickens had a ready wit, but I admit the comedy took me very pleasantly by surprise. And I was also impressed by the sheer craft of his writing. I expected to encounter serviceable but unremarkable prose — something like a 19th century John Grisham — but I was badly mistaken. He’s an excellent writer, very articulate, conveying complex scenes and feelings with economy. And on the large scale, too, despite its length and serial production, the story exhibits a pleasing shape and structure.

The copy I bought was produced by Duckworth & Co., and it is a beauty. It is a facsimile edition of The Nonesuch Dickens, a limited edition originally published in 1937. The book is large, hardback, illustrated, includes Dickens’ own marginal notes, has quality pages, a ribbon, and a classy spine. Duckworth is planning to issue a twenty-three volume set of Dickens’ works in this same handsome format. It looks like I’ll be reading Dickens from now to eternity.

An Englishman and an American in Rome

June 25, 2015

Attentive readers will have noted that things have been rather quiet around here of late. This is due, mostly, to the fact that the duties of fatherhood have finally completed their encroachment upon what I used to call my “free time,” and occasions for reading and writing (and, for that matter, arithmetic) have become harder to find. I am actually enjoying at present a few months of paternity leave from the office, and I had thought that I would be able to arrange matters so as to open up some time for writing, but thus far it has not proved so.

But we did find time, last month, to holiday for a few weeks in Italy, spending our time mostly in the Eternal City (with one side jaunt to the hill country and Assisi). While there, I was reading (in addition to a wonderful guide book first published in 1903) a few Roman travel memoirs, especially those of Charles Dickens (in Pictures from Italy) and Henry James (in Italian Hours).

Now Dickens, for all his merits, seems to have been tone deaf to Catholicism, and although he has many approving things to say about Rome and the Romans, he can find little kind to say about the Catholic side of Rome. Of his first visit to St. Peter’s, for instance, he says:

Immediately on going out next day, we hurried off to St. Peter’s. It looked immense in the distance, but distinctly and decidedly small, by comparison, on a near approach. The beauty of the Piazza, on which it stands, with its clusters of exquisite columns, and its gushing fountains—so fresh, so broad, and free, and beautiful—nothing can exaggerate. The first burst of the interior, in all its expansive majesty and glory: and, most of all, the looking up into the Dome: is a sensation never to be forgotten. But, there were preparations for a Festa; the pillars of stately marble were swathed in some impertinent frippery of red and yellow; the altar, and entrance to the subterranean chapel: which is before it: in the centre of the church: were like a goldsmith’s shop, or one of the opening scenes in a very lavish pantomime. And though I had as high a sense of the beauty of the building (I hope) as it is possible to entertain, I felt no very strong emotion. I have been infinitely more affected in many English cathedrals when the organ has been playing, and in many English country churches when the congregation have been singing. I had a much greater sense of mystery and wonder, in the Cathedral of San Mark at Venice.

If you read carefully, you’ll have noted that Dickens describes the church as “distinctly and decidedly small,” which can only be stubbornness on his part, for it is the obvious opposite of the truth, and the impression of the entrance to the subterranean tomb of St. Peter as being “a very lavish pantomime” sound to me like a Protestant gentleman’s determination not to like the place. And his opinion failed to improve on further acquaintance:

The effect of the Cathedral on my mind, on that second visit, was exactly what it was at first, and what it remains after many visits. It is not religiously impressive or affecting. It is an immense edifice, with no one point for the mind to rest upon; and it tires itself with wandering round and round. The very purpose of the place, is not expressed in anything you see there, unless you examine its details—and all examination of details is incompatible with the place itself. It might be a Pantheon, or a Senate House, or a great architectural trophy, having no other object than an architectural triumph. There is a black statue of St. Peter, to be sure, under a red canopy; which is larger than life and which is constantly having its great toe kissed by good Catholics. You cannot help seeing that: it is so very prominent and popular. But it does not heighten the effect of the temple, as a work of art; and it is not expressive—to me at least—of its high purpose.

Never mind the technical detail that St. Peter’s is not a cathedral. The “one point for the mind to rest upon” at St. Peter’s is hard to miss: it is the tomb of St. Peter under the altar under the splendid baldacchino of Bernini. It is hard to believe that he visited the church twice and didn’t notice it. Especially in a space which is so distinctly and decidedly small.

But his point about the impression of the church being a somewhat diffuse one has an element of truth in it. One can wander up and down inside it without constantly having the focal point in view. Henry James picks up on this quality, but in a more approving mood than Dickens, when he writes:

You think you have taken the whole thing in, but it expands, it rises sublime again, and leaves your measure itself poor. You never let the ponderous leather curtain bang down behind you—your weak lift of a scant edge of whose padded vastness resembles the liberty taken in folding back the parchment corner of some mighty folio page—without feeling all former visits to have been but missed attempts at apprehension and the actual to achieve your first real possession.

I note with interest, and some envy, that in James’ day (writing in 1873) one could enter St. Peter’s by mounting the steps and pulling aside a leather curtain. It is a long way from the interminable lines and security checks that a modern visitor must bear. (The old paradox of tourism: I’m so pleased to be here, but what’s with all these other people also being here?) But James continues, elaborating on the same theme:

Much of the constituted beauty resides in the fact that it is all general beauty, that you are appealed to by no specific details, or that these at least, practically never importunate, are as taken for granted as the lieutenants and captains are taken for granted in a great standing army—among whom indeed individual aspects may figure here the rather shifting range of decorative dignity in which details, when observed, often prove poor (though never not massive and substantially precious) and sometimes prove ridiculous. The sculptures, with the sole exception of Michael Angelo’s ineffable “Pieta,” which lurks obscurely in a side-chapel—this indeed to my sense the rarest artistic combination of the greatest things the hand of man has produced—are either bad or indifferent; and the universal incrustation of marble, though sumptuous enough, has a less brilliant effect than much later work of the same sort, that for instance of St. Paul’s without the Walls. The supreme beauty is the splendidly sustained simplicity of the whole. The thing represents a prodigious imagination extraordinarily strained, yet strained, at its happiest pitch, without breaking. Its happiest pitch I say, because this is the only creation of its strenuous author in presence of which you are in presence of serenity.

That note of serenity is a true one: James may have been largely deaf to the specifically religious side of Catholicism, but his ear (as it were) for sensibility and aesthetics was exquisite, and he hits just the right note, I think, when he later writes that “St. Peter’s speaks less of aspiration than of full and convenient assurance.”

Anyway, it was a great trip, a many splendoured thing, full of glories. I’ll be living off it, I am sure, for years to come.

On Dickens

January 17, 2013

Peter Ackroyd
(HarperCollins, 1990)
1234 p.

Charles Dickens
G.K. Chesterton
(Readers’ Club, 1942) [1906]
254 p.


During the Dickens bicentennial year, I made a resolution to read at least a few of his novels and to tackle Peter Ackroyd’s doorstop of a biography, which had been sitting on my shelf for several years. As it turned out, I managed to read only one novel (Martin Chuzzlewit), but I did succeed in finishing not only Ackroyd’s biography, but Chesterton’s as well. Here I am, a few weeks late, to say a few [sic] words about them.

(I might add that anyone not sufficiently doughty to read all of what follows could nonetheless skip to the end, where I have appended a number of Chesterton’s keener remarks on our subject. It would be a pity to miss them.)


Literary biographies are a strange sub-genre. Do you want to know what a great writer’s life was like? Well, he spent much of each day sitting at a desk. Exciting, isn’t it? Yet it is natural to feel some curiosity about the personality of a writer whose imagination has created stories and characters we love. Both sides of the coin are especially relevant to Dickens, for a writer as prolific as he certainly did spend a great deal of time at a desk, and he did create (in Ackroyd’s words) “the richest gallery of fictional characters ever to have issued from the imagination of one man.”

Dickens rose to greatness from humble beginnings. Born into a downwardly-mobile middle-class family, he was embarrassed as a young boy when his father had debt troubles and was confined for a time to the Marshalsea prison. Dickens was himself forced to take employment in a blacking factory to help with the family finances, a circumstance which occasioned such deep shame that he concealed it his entire life from all but his closest friends; we may speculate that his special concern for the happiness of the poor was rooted in these experiences of labour and poverty. But, these episodes aside, his childhood was in many respects a happy one: he wandered the streets of London — that city which he was to make his own in such an extraordinary way — exploring the thoroughfares and byways, watching the people come and go with a facility and sensitivity for detail that astonished his friends throughout his life. “Dickens had, if ever man had, the key of the street,” says Chesterton, “His stars were the lamps of the street; his hero was the man in the street.” City streets were, in a sense, his home; his stories are not those of drawing rooms and manor houses, but of alleys, sidewalks, and bridges, and the bustle of London’s streets was always a comfort and an inspiration to him.

As a young man he took up a career in journalism, principally covering politics. It was not, it would seem, the most promising course for a man of such prodigious imagination, but the hasty press of the newspaper business appealed to him, and even in his journalistic writings it is possible to descry occasional glimpses of his comic sensibility. (Ackroyd notes that, of a politician who muddled a speech, Dickens filed a report noting that “Lord Lincoln broke down, and sat down.”) Then, in the mid-1830s, when Dickens was in his early 20s, he began contributing short fictional sketches under the pseudonym “Boz”, and though they are little read today, they generated enough attention at the time for him to be approached by a publisher with a proposal: he was asked to write an open-ended series of sketches about the adventures of the members of a sporting club. Dickens accepted the proposal, and set to work. He began with a character named Pickwick, and his sketches eventually produced one of the great comic masterpieces of English literature. Says Chesterton in his entry on Dickens for the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

The track of the story wandered; the tone of the story changed; a servant whom Pickwick found cleaning boots in an inn-yard took the centre of the stage and towered even over Pickwick; Pickwick from being a pompous buffoon became a generous and venerable old English gentleman; and the world still followed that incredible transformation-scene and wishes there were more of it to this day. This was the emergence of Dickens into literature.

The Pickwick Papers brought him fame throughout England. Both Ackroyd and Chesterton comment on the remarkable range of his popularity: his stories were relished by high-society connoisseurs and by the poor labouring classes, even those who were illiterate. An early biographer noted that “I found [a locksmith] reading Pickwick. . .to an audience of twenty persons, literally, men, women, and children.” Chesterton argues that the special appeal of Dickens to the poor was rooted in his comic vision of ordinary life (“He was to make men feel that this dull middle class was actually a kind of Elfland.”) and that his broad popularity is evidence for the deep vein of truth his fiction touches (“In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight: that thing enjoys Dickens.”) I was interested to learn that for many years, long after he had unquestionably become the most famous and successful author in England, Dickens was worried by the thought that his inspiration would desert him and that he would fall from the public’s graces back into a life of poverty. It is true that the size of his readership fluctuated from book to book during his lifetime, but he was always popular, and — though of course he could not have known this — for a long time after his death each successive edition of his books sold better than the one before. I don’t believe that any of his books has ever been out of print.

He did much more than write novels too. I was surprised to learn that throughout his life he took on side projects, ranging from writing and performing in amateur theatrical productions (which was always an intense passion of his) to editing journals and newspapers. In the beginning his intention was to maintain a safety net for himself should his literary fortunes fade, but he continued with side projects long after they ceased to be financially necessary. It is fair to say that he was, in modern parlance, a “workaholic”: he was unable to sit still or relax for long, and was most content, after a fashion, when burdened with large amounts of work. Since work is a curse, I cannot help seeing this as a character defect, and indeed it is one of the few things I do not like about the man.

Late in life Dickens began a series of very successful dramatic readings of his own books, both in Britain and in America. This was a novelty at the time, and people flocked to see the great man giving voice to the many beloved characters he had created. (What I would give for an audio recording of one of those evenings!) Peter Ackroyd does a particularly fine job conveying the atmosphere of these occasions and the intensity of Dickens’ portrayals. His final reading, which marked Dickens’ withdrawal from public life and had received great advance publicity, is captured with particular pathos. Following the reading, Dickens addressed his audience:

“. . . From these garish lights I vanish now for ever more, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.” There was a brief hush in the audience followed by something very like a common sigh and then, as his son recalled, “a storm of cheering as I have never seen equalled in my life”. His head was bowed and the tears were streaming down his face as he left the platform.

Some months later, at the age of just 58, Dickens died, and was quietly buried in Westminster Abbey. Many commentators have argued that his early death was due to his constant overwork, and in particular to the grueling schedule of public readings that he maintained. Chesterton, in his inimitable way, agrees: “He died of popularity.”


What sort of a man was Dickens? Those who knew him in society routinely noted his vivacity, his verbal quickness, and his restless manner. He often dressed flamboyantly, in loud colours, with something of the air of a dandy. People often noted his astonishing powers of observation, his seeming capacity to take in a scene in remarkable detail, and to assess character with a facility that sometimes unnerved acquaintances. Henry James, after meeting Dickens, highlighted this aspect of his personality, while also (characteristically) seeing deeper into it than most; he noted “. . .a straight inscrutability, a merciless military eye, I might have pronounced it, an automatic hardness, in fine, which at once indicated to me, and in the most interesting way in the world, a kind of economy of apprehension. . .” He loved social occasions, and the theatre, and the busy streets of the city; “a long walk in the noisy streets would act upon him like a tonic”.

He was a very disciplined man, in his way. Certainly he was a disciplined writer: he would customarily write each day from 9 am – 2 pm, “like clockwork”. He sat at his desk looking out of a window, and he averaged about 2000 words each day. When writing he would sometimes leave his chair and stand before a mirror, observing himself as he acted out the dialogue he intended to write, trying out facial expressions and tones of voice. He was, in fact, a very visual writer, who placed great stress on the illustrations accompanying his stories and often looked to them for inspiration. While working he required absolute silence in the house, which was something of a burden to his family. He stressed the value of punctuality and order to his servants. He filled his house with mirrors, and almost always wanted a window left open.

At home he was frequently impatient and compulsive. Chesterton captures this side of his personality well:

Everything must be put right, and put right at once, with him. If London bored him, he must go to the Continent at once; if the Continent bored him, he must come back to London at once. If the day was too noisy, the whole household must be quiet; if night was too quiet, the whole household must wake up. Above all, he had the supreme character of the domestic despot — that his good temper was, if possible, more despotic than his bad temper. When he was miserable (as he often was, poor fellow), they only had to listen to his railings. When he was happy they had to listen to his novels.

He would not abide criticism of himself, and would go to great lengths to defend himself against even frivolous charges, both at home and in society. On such occasions, notes Chesterton, “even in being on the right side he was in the wrong place”, for he wasted a great deal of energy to little purpose. He cannot have been easy to live with, and his inability to consider that he might be wrong, coupled with his impulsiveness and apparent lack of concern for the impact of his whims on the lives of others, was surely a factor in the eventual failure of his marriage. We are left with the impression of a man so carried away by his own energies that he often ran rough-shod, wittingly or not, over the lives of his family and friends.

Occasionally his letters reveal glimpses of more pedestrian aspects of his life and personality that nonetheless round out our picture of him: Ackroyd writes of “How he liked to bathe in cold water in the mornings; how he read The Times every day; how he never wore a nightcap; how he carried a Gladstone bag with him on his travels; how he autographed his bottles of wine; how he was a good carpenter and “handy man”; how he hated to be called “Sir”; how his favourite colour was light orange; how he preferred cold, bright weather; how he had a mania for opening windows to the fresh air; how he kept his own books neatly in a row, in the order of their publication; how he wrote out instructions to the various servants about their various duties; how he loved candle-light; how the flag was hoisted above the house when he was in residence.” I don’t know that I have ever heard of anyone else for whom orange was a favourite colour.


A great deal might be written about Dickens’ politics, but I shall dispatch the subject quickly. He has, of course, especially on the strength of novels like Oliver Twist or Hard Times, been associated with “radical” policies aimed at reforming society to improve the lot of the poor and vulnerable, but it would be a great mistake to suppose that he was, to use the modern parlance, a man “of the left”. He did have a special concern for social problems surrounding child labour, poor education, industrialism, and so forth, and his own novels were widely credited with motivating reforms along those lines in English society, but he was also an advocate of strict public morals and a harsh penal system, and he expressed abhorrence of mobs and revolutions. He thought government should have some involvement in education and sanitation, but not much else. To my great surprise, he actually took the side of the Confederacy in the American Civil War! (“He believed the Federal cause to be based on dollars and cents with the anti-slavery cry as no more than mere camouflage for the grosser economic motives.” [Ackroyd]) But his political opinions may in the end not bear much scrutiny, for his thinking was not fundamentally political in nature, and his political principles remained largely inchoate. Ackroyd writes, “It could be said… that his political principles sprang from emotional needs and not from argument; as a result they are not really susceptible to rationalisation, and cannot be said to form a coherent whole […] He knew what he was against but found it far more difficult to give a convincing or even half-substantial idea of what precisely he was for.”


Great barrels of ink have been spilled over Dickens’ religious views, and controversy remains. One camp maintains that he was basically a faithful, if largely dispassionate, member of the Church of England; in their defence they can cite The Life of Our Lord, a narrative of the New Testament which Dickens wrote for his children, Dickens’ own avowal that “All my strongest illustrations are derived from the New Testament; all my social abuses are shown as departures from its spirit”, and his reference, in private correspondence, to “the truth and beauty of the Christian religion”. He is known to have prayed every morning and evening. Others argue that his Christianity was nominal, diffuse, and un-doctrinal, and that he lacked any particularly strong religious commitment beyond “generalized benevolence”. He is on record as rejecting the “hard doctrines” of original sin and last judgement. In his novels, clergyman are never attractive figures, and churches are not attractive places (apart from an occasional dose of the picturesque).

As one would expect, both parties are on to something. Ackroyd writes that he “seems to possess a religious sensibility without any religious beliefs”, and Chesterton complains that he had “that dislike of defined dogmas, which really means a preference for unexamined dogmas”. He did, however, believe in Providence (and was therefore not a Deist) and good works, and he said that he saw the role of the novelist as reflecting that of God within the confines of the story, arranging things for the best. He disliked Catholics (and Anglo-Catholics) and Dissenters, and (we may safely surmise) anyone who took religion more seriously than him.

There is one fascinating episode in his religious history, however, which bears repeating. Ackroyd recounts that, during an extended stay at the Palazzo Peschiere in Genoa, Dickens had a dream of Mary Hogarth, the sister of his wife, who had died young and with whom Dickens had had a complicated relationship. Dickens, divining in the dream that he was communicating with the dead, posed a question: “But answer me one other question! What is the True religion? You think, as I do, that the Form of religion does not so greatly matter, if we try to do good? Or perhaps the Roman Catholic is the best? Perhaps it makes one think of God oftener, and believe in him more steadily?” Interestingly, the vision answered, “For you, it is the best.” This dream seems to have shaken Dickens for a time, but, perhaps because, as already noted, he had no great savour for self-examination, it seems to have eventually faded from his mind. On a later visit to Rome he expressed an “amused contempt” (Ackroyd) for the rites and accoutrements of Catholicism, which prompts Ackroyd to observe:

Not for him any understanding of the terrible consolations of the faith, nor of the history that supported its elaborate framework of worship. He was so out of sympathy with the Catholic Church that he saw only its surface. He saw its comedy. In this regard, at least, he had no real cultural or theoretical sensibility; he saw only the illusions and idiocies of the present, not the presence of the past.

Still, I cannot help but wonder what might have happened if that seed had fallen in more fertile soil. We shall never know!


I was going to say a few words about Dickens’ relationships with women, which is another of the subjects that rends the body politic and generates great fortunes for makers of ink, but frankly it doesn’t interest me enough.


The reason Dickens interests us at all is not because of his life, of course, but because of his books. Before wrapping up these notes I turn, therefore, to consider his place in our literature and the special qualities of his stories that continue to recommend them to our attention. It is here that Chesterton’s little book is invaluable, for it is teeming with insights about the attractions and greatness of Dickens’ fiction. It is the sort of book from which one is tempted to quote at length, and repeatedly. (I have not been able to resist this temptation; see below.) His is not an uncritical adulation — “He wrote an enormous amount of bad work,” Chesterton merrily concedes — but he nonetheless claims that, when time and the bell have buried the day, “Dickens will dominate the whole England of the nineteenth century; he will be left on that platform alone.”

Ackroyd seizes upon Dickens’ description of fairy tales as composed of “simplicity, and purity, and innocent extravagance” and applies it to Dickens’ own work. We find, he argues, in Dickens’ stories, “reality suffused with wild fancy so that it both is and is not the same”, and this is apt, I think, so far as it goes. We do have that feeling when reading him that the world which is recognizably our own has somehow been infused with more energy, as though everything were a little larger than life. “He saw all his streets in fantastic perspectives,” writes Chesterton, “he saw all his cockney villas as top-heavy and wild, he saw every man’s nose twice as big as it was, and very man’s eyes like saucers. And this was the basis of his gaiety. . .” Or again, “His art is like life, because, like life, it cares for nothing outside itself, and goes on its way rejoicing.”

For Chesterton Dickens’ claim to greatness resides principally in his characters, rather than his plots. Smiling, he writes that “Dickens’s characters are perfect as long as he can keep them out of his stories.” In another place he elaborates:

Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist; he was the last of the mythologists, and perhaps the greatest. He did not always manage to make his characters men, but he always managed, at the least, to make them gods. They are creatures like Punch or Father Christmas. They live statically, in a perpetual summer of being themselves. It was not the aim of Dickens to show the effect of time and circumstance upon a character; it was not even his aim to show the effect of a character on time and circumstance. . . Once the great characters are face to face, the ladder by which they climbed is forgotten and falls down, the structure of the story drops to pieces, the plot is abandoned; the other characters deserted at every kind of crisis; the whole crowded thoroughfare of the tale is blocked by two or three talkers, who take their immortal ease as if they were already in Paradise. For they do not exist for the story; the story exists for them; and they know it.

In his later novels Dickens put more stress on plot, working harder to ensure that they had a satisfying dramatic shape, rather than being episodic in the way his earlier books were, and in some sense this was an improvement — certainly it brought those later novels, like David Copperfield, Bleak House, and A Tale of Two Cities into the orbit of other great works of nineteenth-century fiction — but Chesterton argues that this greater verisimilitude resulted in a neglect of his unique talents as a caricaturist. Acknowledging that the later works are more true to life, Chesterton nonetheless wistfully remarks that “He who remembers Pickwick and Pecksniff, creatures like Puck or Pan, may sometimes wonder whether the work had not most life when it was least lifelike.” Or, again (and it is evident that I am now just stitching together Chesterton’s thoughts, but what else can I do?), he writes rather wryly that

Those who have any doubt about Dickens can have no doubt of the superiority of the later books. Beyond question they have less of what annoys us in Dickens. But do not, if you are in the company of any ardent adorers of Dickens (as I hope for your sake you are), do not insist too urgently and exclusively on the splendour of Dickens’s last works, or they will discover that you do not like him.

Prior to reading Chesterton’s book, I would have counted myself among those who prefer his later books. I suppose that I still do, but I am now less confident in that judgement. I need to revisit the early books, especially The Pickwick Papers, with Chesterton’s argument in mind.

Now, there are (if I can speak in hushed tones for a moment) those who do not like Dickens at all. There are some who look askance at the buffoonery and high spirits and wish for something more refined. “If those people are ever refined it will be by fire,” is Chesterton’s response, but he does acknowledge that Dickens poses some special problems for modern critics. There is something in his writing that is out of temper with our times, a sense that a critical apparatus which can seize upon Thackeray or Eliot with a firm grip will somehow slip and grasp emptiness when applied to Dickens. Chesterton noted this already a century ago, and ascribed it to the powerful simplicity of Dickens’ genius:

Dickens has greatly suffered with the critics precisely through this stunning simplicity in his best work. The critic is called upon to describe his sensations while enjoying Mantalini and Micawber, and he can no more describe them than he can describe a blow in the face. Thus Dickens, in this self-conscious, analytical and descriptive age, loses both ways. He is doubly unfitted for the best modern criticism. His bad work is below that criticism. His good work is above it.

Or, if you do not find that convincing, perhaps some struggle with Dickens because he “exaggerated life in the direction of life”, whereas their inclination is in the other direction. “To them the impossibilities of Dickens seem much more impossible than they really are, because they are already attuned to the opposite impossibilities of Maeterlinck.”

Be that as it may, I like Dickens, and if you are still reading this (God bless you!), you must as well. We are free to enjoy our enjoyment, and to ponder its object. I will close with Chesterton’s “deepest lesson of Dickens” for our mutual consideration:

If we are to look for lessons, here at least is the last and deepest lesson of Dickens. It is in our own daily life that we are to look for the portents and the prodigies. This is the truth, not merely of the fixed figures of our life; the wife, the husband, the fool that fills the sky. It is true of the whole stream and substance of our daily experience; every instant we reject a great fool merely because he is foolish. Every day we neglect Tootses and Swivellers, Guppys and Joblings, Simmerys and Flashers. Every day we lose the last sight of Jobling and Chuckster, the Analytical Chemist, or the Marchioness. Every day we are missing a monster whom we might easily love, and an imbecile whom we should certainly admire.

This is the real gospel of Dickens; the inexhaustible opportunities offered by the liberty and the variety of man. Compared with this life, all public life, all fame, all wisdom, is by its nature cramped and cold and small. For on that defined and lighted public stage men are of necessity forced to profess one set of accomplishments, to rise to one rigid standard. It is the utterly unknown people who can grow in all directions like an exuberant tree. It is in our interior lives that we find that people are too much themselves. It is in our private life that we find them swelling into the enormous contours, and taking on the colours of caricature. Many of us live publicly with featureless public puppets, images of the small public abstractions. It is when we pass our own private gate, and open our own secret door, that we step into the land of the giants.


Did I say that I was closing? Yes, but I’d first like to back away from Dickens himself to say a few quick words about the two books which have occasioned this post.

Ackroyd’s biography is a treasure-trove. He says at some point that during his research he had written out an index card for each day of Dickens’ life, and it shows: the level of detail is meticulous. He evades being tedious by the excellence of his writing and the thoughtfulness and affection that he brings to his subject; I can honestly say that I was never bored. In another place he remarks that in preparation for writing the book he read all of Dickens’ published work — both novels and correspondence — at least three times, not to mention reading the secondary literature listed in the bibliography (which runs to about 400 titles)! The book is a major accomplishment, which for any author could justly be considered the crown to a life’s work. That Ackroyd has also written over fifty (!) other books is all the more amazing. Interleaved with the biographical material are several imaginative fantasies: Dickens meeting his own characters in the streets of London, Dickens in conversation with Ackroyd, Ackroyd interviewing himself about his book, and so on. All of them are great fun. In the self-interview, Ackroyd asks himself, “Why did you decide to write the book in the first place?”, to which he replies, “I don’t know. It just seemed like a good idea at the time.” I love it.

I have already sung the praises of Chesterton’s book, but I can remember the tune: I could say that it is unquestionably among his finest literary criticism, which is true, but I would fail to convey just how insightful and delightful it is. Ackroyd says in his book that Chesterton is “perhaps Dickens’ best critic,” and it is easy to believe. As evidence, I will close with a string of quotations from the book that I was unable to work into the text of this post. Happy reading.


[Dickens’ talent for caricature]
We talk of the power of drawing people out; and that is the nearest parallel to the power of Dickens. He drew reels and reels of highly coloured caricature out of an ordinary person, as dazzlingly as a conjurer draws reels and reels of highly coloured paper out of an ordinary hat. But if anybody thinks the conjuring-trick is easy to perform, let him try it with the next ordinary person he sees. The exaggeration is always the logical extension of something that really exists; but genius appears, first in seeing that it exists, and second in seeing that it will bear to be thus exaggerated. That is something totally different from giving a man a long nose; it is the delicate surgical separation or extension of a living nerve. It is carrying a ludicrous train of thought further than the actual thinker carries it; but it requires a little thinking. It is making fools more gloriously foolish than they can be in this vale of tears; and it is not every fool who can do it.

[The character of Dickens’ stories]
Those who see in Dickens’s unchanging characters and recurring catch-words a mere stiffness and lack of living movement miss the point and nature of his work. His tradition is another tradition altogether; his aim is another aim altogether to those of the modern novelists who trace the alchemy of experience and the autumn tints of character. He is there, like the common people of all ages, to make deities; he is there, as I have said, to exaggerate life in the direction of life. The spirit he at bottom celebrates is that of two friends drinking wine together and talking through the night. But for him they are two deathless friends talking through an endless night and pouring wine from an inexhaustible bottle.

[Early and late Dickens]
That original violent vision of all things which he had seen from his boyhood began to be mixed with other men’s milder visions and with the light of common day. He began to understand and practise other than his own mad merits; began to have some movement towards the merits of other writers, towards the mixed emotion of Thackeray, or the solidity of George Eliot. And this must be said for the process; that the fierce wine of Dickens could endure some dilution. On the whole, perhaps, his primal personalism was all the better when surging against some saner restraints. . . For my own part, for reasons which I shall afterwards mention, I am in real doubt about the advantage of this realistic education of Dickens. I am not sure that it made his books better; but I am sure it made them less bad. He made fewer mistakes undoubtedly; he succeeded in eliminating much of the mere rant or cant of his first books; he threw away much of the old padding, all the more annoying, perhaps, in a literary sense, because he did not mean it for padding, but for essential eloquence. But he did not produce anything actually better than Mr. Chuckster. But then there is nothing better than Mr. Chuckster. Certain works of art, such as the Venus of Milo, exhaust our aspiration. Upon the whole this may, perhaps, be safely said of the transition. Those who have any doubt about Dickens can have no doubt of the superiority of the later books. Beyond question they have less of what annoys us in Dickens. But do not, if you are in the company of any ardent adorers of Dickens (as I hope for your sake you are), do not insist too urgently and exclusively on the splendour of Dickens’s last works, or they will discover that you do not like him.

[Why do some not like Dickens?]
It is evident, in short, why even those who admire exaggeration do not admire Dickens. He is exaggerating the wrong thing. They know what it is to feel a sadness so strange and deep that only impossible characters can express it: they do not know what it is to feel a joy so vital and violent that only impossible characters can express that. They know that the soul can be so sad as to dream naturally of the blue faces of the corpses of Baudelaire: they do not know that the soul can be so cheerful as to dream naturally of the blue face of Major Bagstock. They know that there is a point of depression at which one believes in Tintagiles: they do not know that there is a point of exhilaration at which one believes in Mr. Wegg. To them the impossibilities of Dickens seem much more impossible than they really are, because they are already attuned to the opposite impossibilities of Maeterlinck.

[Dickens’ literary genius]
His literary genius consisted in a contradictory capacity at once to entertain and to deride — very ridiculous ideas. If he is a buffoon, he is laughing at buffoonery. His books were in some ways the wildest on the face of the world. Rabelais did not introduce into Paphlagonia or the Kingdom of the Coqcigrues satiric figures more frantic and misshapen than Dickens made to walk about the Strand and Lincoln’s Inn. But for all that, you come, in the core of him, on a sudden quietude and good sense. Such, I think, was the core of Rabelais, such were all the far-stretching and violent satirists. This is a point essential to Dickens, though very little comprehended in our current tone of thought. Dickens was an immoderate jester, but a moderate thinker. He was an immoderate jester because he was a moderate thinker. What we moderns call the wildness of his imagination was actually created by what we moderns call the tameness of his thought. I mean that he felt the full insanity of all extreme tendencies, because he was himself so sane; he felt eccentricities, because he was in the centre. We are always, in these days, asking our violent prophets to write violent satires; but violent prophets can never possibly write violent satires. In order to write satire like that of Rabelais — satire that juggles with the stars and kicks the world about like a football — it is necessary to be one’s self temperate, and even mild. A modern man like Nietzsche, a modern man like Gorky, a modern man like d’Annunzio, could not possibly write real and riotous satire. They are themselves too much on the borderlands. They could not be a success as caricaturists, for they are already a great success as caricatures.

[Dickens’ sense of the strangeness of the world]
The chief fountain in Dickens of what I have called cheerfulness, and some prefer to call optimism, is something deeper than a verbal philosophy. It is, after all, an incomparable hunger and pleasure for the vitality and the variety, for the infinite eccentricity of existence. And this word “eccentricity” brings us, perhaps, nearer to the matter than any other. It is, perhaps, the strongest mark of the divinity of man that he talks of this world as “a strange world,” though he has seen no other. We feel that all there is is eccentric, though we do not know what is the centre. This sentiment of the grotesqueness of the universe ran through Dickens’s brain and body like the mad blood of the elves. He saw all his streets in fantastic perspectives, he saw all his cockney villas as top heavy and wild, he saw every man’s nose twice as big as it was, and very man’s eyes like saucers. And this was the basis of his gaiety — the only real basis of any philosophical gaiety. This world is not to be justified as it is justified by the mechanical optimists; it is not to be justified as the best of all possible worlds. Its merit is not that it is orderly and explicable; its merit is that it is wild and utterly unexplained. Its merit is precisely that none of us could have conceived such a thing, that we should have rejected the bare idea of it as miracle and unreason. It is the best of all impossible worlds.

The hour of absinthe is over. We shall not be much further troubled with the little artists who found Dickens too sane for their sorrows and too clean for their delights. But we have a long way to travel before we get back to what Dickens meant: and the passage is along a rambling English road, a twisting road such as Mr. Pickwick travelled. But this at least is part of what he meant; that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but that rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters: and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.

Books briefly noted

August 5, 2012

Quick notes on a few novels I have read in recent months:

The Bonfire of the Vanities
Tom Wolfe
(Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1987)
690 p.

Wall Street and the street collide in this tragicomedy about a high flying bond trader’s fall from grace. It could happen to anyone: a wrong turn down the wrong street on the wrong side of town becomes, faster than you can say “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, a nightmare that threatens to send Sherman McCoy’s life up in smoke. Wolfe, in his rollicking way, in pretty probing here: how much of McCoy’s troubles are due to his own hasty prejudices and bad decisions, how much to plain bad luck, how much to modern media’s voracious appetite for sensationalism, and how much to the politics of class and race in America? This year marks the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication, and, despite its arguably topical subject matter, it stands up well. It is particularly good, in its frolicsome way, at conveying the psychological devastation of a normal person thrust into the center of a media storm. It is also outrageously funny: it has been years since a book stirred me to gales of laughter, and for that blessing I owe Wolfe humble and hearty thanks.

The Song of Bernadette
Franz Werfel
(MacMillan, 1944) [1942]
575 p.

I will admit that I approached this novel about the life of St. Bernadette Soubirous with some wariness. It is fair to say that most of the art associated with Lourdes leans toward the saccharine, and I was afraid that the novel would do the same. I needn’t have been so worried: it is a surprisingly good, even excellent, book that handles its somewhat difficult subject matter with a sure touch and plain-spoken confidence. The story is not obviously devotional in spirit — Werfel was not a Catholic, and cannot have been expected to have any particular devotion to Our Lady — but neither is it a skeptical novel. In fact, there are skeptics in the novel, and they do not come off well. Werfel seems to have been content to tell the story more or less according to Bernadette’s own testimony — she, you will recall, never did claim to have seen the Blessed Virgin, but only “a lady” — and to leave the reader to make of it what he will. Werfel does a lot of things right: portraying the public controversy, the politics, the popular enthusiasm, and the ecclesiastical turmoil that surrounded Bernadette, but his great triumph is Bernadette herself, who is rendered as a quiet and simple girl whose innocence of spirit disarms and confounds the powerful forces swirling around her. Reading the book has certainly increased my admiration for her.

A few bits of trivia: the structure of the book reflects the structure of the Rosary, being laid out in five sections, each of ten chapters (the Rosary being, of course, a prayer especially associated with Lourdes); Werfel wrote the book because during the Second World War he and his wife had been sheltered by Catholic families in Lourdes while fleeing from the Gestapo; more incidentally, Werfel’s wife was Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler. Interesting.

Hannah Coulter
Wendell Berry
(Counterpoint, 2004)
195 p.

This is just one of the numerous books Berry has written about the residents of the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, but it is the first that I have read. Hannah Coulter is an 80-year old woman looking back over her life and the lives of those closest to her: her two husbands, her children and grandchildren, and her friends, the “membership” of Port William. It is a novel about the importance of family, the dignity of the farming life, our obligations to the people and the places with which we come into contact, but perhaps above all it is about how the world affects the home. Hannah thinks a great deal about the manner in which the pressures of the modern world affect traditional ways of life and thought, such reflections being forced upon her by the events unfolding around her. The book is quiet and thoughtful, but not a sedative. Hannah is a very likable woman: warm and clear-sighted, with a firm moral center and a fine sense of humour. There are pages of great sadness here, and of delighted joy too; the overall impression is of a life being gathered up and regarded with love and thanksgiving. It is a good novel, and I would like to read another of the Port William books as opportunity arises. Recommendations are welcome.

Martin Chuzzlewit
Charles Dickens
(Duckworth, 2008) [1844]
864 p.

If it doesn’t seem quite proper to you that I shoehorn a Dickens novel — Dickens! — into the bottom of this post, I offer this consolation: it doesn’t seem quite proper to me either. The trouble is that I don’t have enough to say to justify giving it its own post. Martin Chuzzlewit is, I think it is fair to say, second-tier (or even third-tier, if there is a third-tier) Dickens. It was written after Dickens’ first trip to America, and it can be considered his “American novel”, in the sense that he sends poor young Martin state-side to seek his fortune, and uses the misadventures of his hero as an occasion to heap disdain on America and Americans. One gets the distinct impression that Dickens had found the United States exasperating, and has here taken opportunity to vent. Not that I am complaining: Dickens in a satirical mood is hard to beat, and the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit were my favourites. When Martin and his friend Mark Tapley are duped in a real-estate deal and dumped in a swampy backwater, lodged in a falling down cabin, surrounded by wilderness, the ever-cheerful Mark attempts to make light conversation with a neighbour:

‘The night air ain’t quite wholesome, I suppose?’ said Mark.
‘It’s deadly poison,’ was the settler’s answer.

Meanwhile, back in England, complicated intrigues surround the elder Martin Chuzzlewit — the young Martin’s grandfather — as a variety of parties try to position themselves to inherit his estate. Among them is the simpering Seth Pecksniff, surely one of Dickens’ finest villains, who hides his avarice behind a mask of self-denial. But then there is a cluster of characters — Chuffey, Tigg, Nadgett, Slyme, Spottletoe, Mrs. Gamp — who have given me a good deal of trouble. I honestly cannot tell you what they are doing in the story, nor how they are related to one another. I will readily concede that this is my own fault — I have been reading Martin Chuzzlewit before bed each night, when my powers of lexic retention descend to their diurnal minimum — but, as the books of moral instruction tell us, acknowledging one’s fault does not, in itself, remedy the evil that was done. Sizable chunks of the plot remain dark to me, and this no doubt accounts, at least partly, for what I must acknowledge with regret is my decided lack of enthusiasm for the novel.

Having said that, this is still Dickens, and naturally there is something to enjoy. The open-hearted warmth, jocular affection, and righteous indignation so characteristic of Dickens are here as usual. In Mark Tapley, and perhaps even more so in Tom Pinch, we have examples of that fine Dickensian type: the genuinely good man, whose innocence and cheerfulness are a continual delight. Pity that we didn’t see more of them.

Martin Chuzzlewit was written after Barnaby Rudge, and can be considered “middle-period Dickens”. (Dickens was only in his early 30s, but already had five earlier novels under his belt.) While writing the middle sections of the novel he took on a side project, a little piece called A Christmas Carol which is still read from time to time. His next novel was to be Dombey and Son, and it will be my next (Dickens) novel too.

Dickens: Barnaby Rudge

March 19, 2011

Barnaby Rudge
Or, A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty
Charles Dickens (Oxford, 1991) [1841]
660 p.

Having been forewarned that Barnaby Rudge was one of Dickens’ lesser works, I approached it with relatively low expectations. Perhaps partly for that reason, I found it pleasantly surprising and quite enjoyable. It is a “serious” novel, dealing with weighty and often dark themes; it contains an unusually large amount of unusually frank violence; the arc of the story culminates at a gibbet. And yet at the heart of the novel there is romance and a good deal of Dickensian humour, and it seems to me that those lighter, warmer elements carry the day.

It is an historical novel, which is a rarity for Dickens. In the background of the story — and in the foreground, too, to a considerable extent — are the Gordon Riots of 1780, in which, in response to a Parliamentary act repealing certain of the penalties that had been imposed on Catholics a century earlier, a Protestant mob under the leadership of Lord George Gordon wreaked havoc in the streets of London for the better part of a week, tearing down Catholic chapels, firing homes and public buildings, and battering down prisons. I have a special interest in the plight of Catholics in post-Henrician England, but I confess that I knew nothing about the Gordon Riots — not even that they had happened; for me, learning about this episode in English history was reason enough to read the book. Dickens was, of course, himself a Protestant, but he has no sympathy for the rioters. He paints them as opportunists and criminals who, for the most part, care neither for Protestantism or Catholicism, but who relish a good street fight and an easy robbery.

The riots are the focus of the novel’s middle and final acts; it opens with a more conventional Dickensian scheme of young romances fighting against the obstacles bestrewing the course of true love. Here again, as he did so splendidly in Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens gives us rousing portraits, in the persons of Joe Willet and Edward Chester, of virtuous and honourable young men, and, in Dolly Varden (“sweet, blooming, buxom”) and Emma Haredale, suitably attractive, demure, and faithful young women. The romance between Dolly and Joe is especially winsomely drawn; both are shy and inexperienced, and their love is conveyed obliquely, through dropped utensils, tangled shoe strings, and sideways glances. It’s lovely:

And did Dolly never once look behind—not once? Was there not one little fleeting glimpse of the dark eyelash, almost resting on her flushed cheek, and of the downcast sparkling eye it shaded? Joe thought there was—and he is not likely to have been mistaken; for there were not many eyes like Dolly’s, that’s the truth.

The fact that the Gordon Riots interrupt these sweet adventures in mid-stream does, admittedly, give the novel an awkward shape, even if the threads are eventually drawn together again and tied into pretty bows. Personally I did not mind, as I found the historical material engrossing, but the apparent disjointedness might account for the novel’s relative lack of popularity.

Another possible reason for Barnaby Rudge‘s neglect may have to do with Barnaby Rudge himself. He is, or is at least supposed to be, a sympathetic character: a young man who is, as we say, ‘touched’. His joys are simple; guile is far from him — so far, in fact, that he cannot recognize it in others. But there are a few problems. His character is not developed very thoroughly; he is, as Chesterton says in his typically enlightening introductory notes to the novel, an exercise in the picturesque: an eccentric young man, bedecked in bright colours and feathers, with a big black crow on his shoulder. He is almost more effective (and affective) as a still life. His tender-hearted mother fares better, but even with her example I found it difficult to really care for him.

A second problem with Barnaby is that, in his simplicity, he is caught up with the rioters and commits acts that strain our sympathy up to, and possibly past, the breaking point. I understand that we are to understand that he does not understand what he is doing, or at least does not understand the moral merits of the two sides of the conflict in which he is involved, and that this understanding is to soften our disapprobation and excite our pity. But, for me at least, the monumental obtuseness which I was thereby forced to attribute to him was asking too much.

This is not to deny that there are real and considerable pleasures to be found in these pages: valour, courage, virtue rewarded, wickedness punished, and sparkling, dark eyes. It is a fine book.

(Incidentally, March 19 is a date that pops up several times in the course of the novel; that I post this Book Note today is a nice coincidence — or is it?)