Posts Tagged ‘Peter Ackroyd’

More on Mantel’s malicious More

January 24, 2015

My central complaint about Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels was her “mean-spirited and calumnous” treatment of Thomas More, whom she portrayed as “a remorseless kill-joy and sadist.” (I am quoting myself.) At the time I recommended Peter Ackroyd’s biography of More for its more balanced appraisal.

Today I came across an even better, because more intimate, assessment of More’s character:

In a word, if you want a perfect model of friendship, you will find it in no one better than in More. In society he is so polite, so sweet-mannered, that no one is of so melancholy a disposition as not to be cheered by him, and there is no misfortune that he does not alleviate. Since his boyhood he has so delighted in merriment, that it seems to be part of his nature…

In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent; if with the ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity. He is not even offended by professional jesters. With a wonderful dexterity he accommodates himself to every disposition. As a rule, in talking with women, even with his own wife, he is full of jokes and banter.

In other words, hardly the crabbed old vulture of Mantel’s imagination. These words come from the pen of Erasmus, the great humanist of the age and no sycophant. Read the whole thing at Supremacy and Survival.

From the same source I learn that there is a new television programme based on Mantel’s novels, which more than justifies a renewed critical look at her portrayal.

(Incidentally, to base a television programme on those books seems an odd choice considering that their greatest merits are distinctly literary: their tone, diction, and even grammar, none of which translate well to the screen.)

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.

Ackroyd: The Clerkenwell Tales

September 6, 2011

The Clerkenwell Tales
Peter Ackroyd
(Chatto & Windus, 2003)
221 p.

These notes originally written 5 January 2006.

I picked this book up from the discount table at a bookstore while visiting Toronto a few months ago. I had read several of Peter Ackroyd’s biographies (of T.S. Eliot and St. Thomas More) and enjoyed them very much, so I thought I would try one of his novels.

The story is set in London in the year 1399, and tracks several secret societies which, in one way or another, are stirring up political and religious unrest in the city. The particular conceit that Ackroyd has adopted is that the characters populating his story parallel those in The Canterbury Tales — thus there is a miller, a knight, a wife of Bath, a reeve, a squire, and so on. There are 22 characters in all, and each of them tells one chapter of the story from his or her own point of view.

This is an inventive narrative device, but it does create certain problems. First, it is a relatively short book, and those are a lot of characters to keep track of. The consequence is that there is little in the way of nuanced characterization — indeed, we hardly get to know some of the characters at all. In this respect it reminded me at times of Umberto Eco’s novels — that is, novels that despite, or perhaps because of, all their cleverness and invention never really come to life as novels.

Second, changing the point of view in every chapter fractures the story in a way that makes it difficult to follow and prevents it from building momentum. I found that I didn’t really get involved in the story until the last few chapters, at which point the various threads of the story began to be pulled together. I’m sure that Ackroyd was aware from the start that the problems would be present; I don’t think his efforts to address them were entirely successful.

Having said that, there are real pleasures to be had here. The shifting perspective of the narration has the advantage of taking us into many different scenes of fourteenth-century London life: the cloister, the church, the physician’s office, the cook’s kitchen. Ackroyd clearly has a feel for the texture and language of London at the time. The book is full of wonderful words (‘hopharlot’ is obviously superior to the modern ‘John’) and phrases (‘The fog is not dispersed with a fan.’) that have passed out of the language. In this sense, I think each chapter could be read for more pleasure than the book as a whole.