Dickens and his detractors



I have been blogging on books for quite a few years now on various messageboards, and I have found that when I mention my literary enthusiasms, none raises more eyebrows than my mention of Dickens. “Dickens? Surely you can’t like Dickens! Wasn’t he merely a writer of pap for the masses – a sort of Jeffrey Archer of his time? Didn’t he keep killing off children to give his readership a good cry? Wasn’t he just a purveyor of cheap sentimentality? Wasn’t he verbose and long-winded? (He must have been paid by the word!) He couldn’t really characterise though, could he? – he merely created caricatures. And – of course – he couldn’t create women. Social conscience, yes – he pointed out some of the social iniquities of his time, but that’s not really of much relevance these days, is it?”

The sort of writer one would imagine from these criticisms would be a very poor writer indeed; and yet, for all that, Dickens’ place in the pantheon of literature has never been in serious dispute, and his admirers have included such notable figures as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Franz Kafka, Thomas Hardy, George Orwell, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, etc. etc. It’s hard to square this discrepancy: if Dickens really is as bad a writer as is alleged, why has he been so admired by so many people with such fastidious literary tastes? Indeed, when I try to talk about Dickens, I can’t help wondering which Dickens I am talking about.

The problem is that most of the criticisms made are justified – up to a point. But only, I think, up to a point. So yes, there is a great deal of sentimentality, especially in his earlier works; but no, Dickens isn’t always killing off Little Nells in order to evoke pathos. Indeed, given how high child mortality rates were in Dickens’ times, there are actually not that many dying children. And yes, Dickens does create caricatures, but he could create rounded characters as well; and what’s more, his caricatures are brilliant. And so on.

Let us first consider the issue of caricatures. The implication of this criticism that he “created caricatures” seems to be that his caricatures are merely crude substitutes for the more well-rounded figures that are indicative of a higher level of artistry, and which he was incapable of creating. To investigate this issue properly, we must first, I think, define what it is we mean by “well-rounded characters”. To me, “well-rounded characters” are those who have in them elements that are apparently contradictory, but which nonetheless cohere to give an impression of unity; who are credible in being who they are given their past experiences; and who continue to develop with experience. By this reckoning, it seems to me that Pip, Arthur Clennan, Esther Summerson (whether one likes her as a person or not), Bella Wilfer, etc. etc. are all well-rounded characters: the contention that Dickens was incapable of creating well-rounded characters does not, I think, bear up to much scrutiny. But what of his caricatures? It needs to be emphasised, I think, that a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. Authors of the stature of Fielding, Austen, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, etc. have all created caricatures. And yet, Fielding is never criticised for Squire Western; Austen is never criticised for Aunt Norris. Creating good, memorable caricatures requires skill, and I don’t think anyone was more skilful in this art than was Dickens. Vincent Crummles, Daniel Quilp, Sarah Gamp, Uriah Heep, Mr Chadband – far from indicating artistic failure, these are amongst the greatest triumphs of literary art.

It is true, though, that Dickens had problems with the traditional hero and heroine. Dickens’ earlier novels had followed a traditional pattern, which, allowing for Victorian sensibilities, resembled the novels of Fielding and Smollett. In this pattern, the hero had to end up marrying the heroine, and the heroine had to be spotlessly pure. And, in Dickens’ time, the hero too had to remain unsullied: Fielding could create a less than virginal Tom Jones, but Martin Chuzzlewit or Nicholas Nickleby had to remain spotless. But perfect, spotless characters, whether male or female, are dull. As a result, Dickens ended up with pallid and uninteresting heroes and heroines right up to David Copperfield. Characters such as Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, the adult David Copperfield, etc. are intolerably dull, as are their female counterparts – Madeleine Bray, Agnes Wickfield, etc. This has led to some people claiming that Dickens was weak with women characters, but this is not true: the creator of Betsey Trotwood, Sarah Gamp, Miss Havisham, Louisa Harthouse, Esther Summerson, Bella Wilfer, Miss Wade, Harriet Beadle, etc. really cannot be accused of failing to create female characters. Dickens’ weakness was with the spotlessly virtuous characters – male or female – that were demanded by the convention in which he was writing.

So, yes, it must be admitted, even by admirers such as myself, that Dickens’ work is uneven: it varies widely in terms not only of quality, but also in terms of artistic ambition. At his worst, he could be very bad indeed – he could be every bit as bad as – possibly even worse than – his detractors claim. But I feel it unfair to judge him at his worst; at his best (and he was often at his best) he produced some of the works of fiction that I value most highly.

He started as a popular writer, without, I think, much thought of artistry. This is not, however, to denigrate his earlier work: his first novel, Pickwick Papers, seems to me one of the great comic masterpieces of the language. Admittedly, it does take a bit of time to get going; and I appreciate also that, laughter being so subjective a matter, not everyone will respond to Dickens’ idiosyncratic and rather eccentric sense of humour. But, as with the works of Wodehouse, it presents a marvellous and welcoming fictional world that I, for one, never tire of revisiting.

After the huge success of Pickwick Papers, the world was at his feet. His next novel was Oliver Twist. Those who look for depth in great literature might be disappointed with this, as Dickens shows no inclination to explore “the human condition”, or even the inner lives of any of his characters. But it is entirely characteristic of him that, after the comedy of Pickwick Papers, he wanted to try his hand at something quite different. Oliver Twist is, admittedly, highly melodramatic, and teeters at times on the edge of sentimentality. But nonetheless, it projects a very real sense of menace. And I cannot really think of any other novel so crammed full of iconic scenes and images.

For a while Dickens was content being a popular writer, and giving the public what they wanted. There is plenty of melodrama (and this requires, of course, a clear dividing line between good and evil, both of which are easily identified); there are also large dollops of sentimentality, which his public lapped up. And verbosity – yes, Dickens was guilty of that as well. And, as convention required, his heroes and heroines are spotless and pure, and, as a consequence, pallid and dull. Indeed, for the next few novels, Dickens was everything his detractors allege.

But for all that, I wouldn’t dismiss these early novels: as well as all those aspects that are no longer to our taste, these novels also display a great vigour and vitality; they display his wonderful ability to create wildly eccentric figures and memorable caricatures; and throughout, there are flashes of his very idiosyncratic humour. The heroes and heroines may remain dull, but the characters around them are some of the finest  of comic creations: Wackford Squeers, Vincent Crummles, Sarah Gamp, Daniel Quilp, Sampson Brass & Sally Brass, etc. etc. These are not the creations of a mere hack writer. However, while I don’t by any means dismiss the novels Dickens wrote during this period, I don’t think I’d even consider Dickens as a major novelist had he written nothing beyond, say, Martin Chuzzlewit.

But, some time after Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens matured as an artist. I get the feeling that he had become tired of the hole he had dug himself into: he certainly seems desperately bored for long stretches in Martin Chuzzlewit. The formula by this stage seemed trite and hackneyed, and was clearly not firing his imagination. But it seems to me that, after this novel, he completely re-thought his art, and managed to renew himself artistically. No longer was he content with laying the various diverse strands of his novel next to each other any old how: from now on, he sought to juxtapose these strands to maximum effect. No longer was he content with bland, romantic heroes and heroines; from now on, his heroes and heroines tended to be more flawed, and, hence, more interesting. From now on, he also concerned himself more with the overall shape of the novel, its structure, its artistic unity, and, to this end, made innovative use of imagery and symbolism. He made innovative use also of language – a feature particularly commented on by Nabokov, himself a startlingly original innovator in this area. And Dickens concerned himself also with artistic expression – far more so than he had previously done.

But in moving away from the more freewheeling works of his earlier years, he encountered problems. His protagonists now are (on the whole) more rounded, but, beyond these protagonists, we still have many flat characters. Although “flat” does not necessarily imply “dull” – especially with Dickens who, to this day, remains unsurpassed as a literary caricaturist – the problem remained: how are these caricatures to be incorporated into a novel? After all, a novel, given its length, demands development of some sort or other, and a caricature, almost by definition, is incapable of development.

Dickens solved this by incorporating his caricatures into a complex network of symbolism and imagery, so that, as a consequence, the caricatures not only become integrated into the larger structure, but contribute to the curiously hallucinatory nature of the fictional world. For Dickens, unlike, say, Flaubert or Zola, was not interested in creating a fictional world that approximates to the real world as we recognise it: he wanted instead to create a distorted world, a world in which the solidities of everyday are replaced with reflections of his characters’ often turbulent or unbalanced states of mind; a world in which a character’s death by spontaneous combustion may be real as well as symbolic. To create such a fictional world, Dickens made use of his brilliant gifts as a caricaturist; but to ensure structural coherence, these caricatures were integrated into an intricate pattern of symbolism and imagery.

A good example of this sort of thing is the character of Skimpole in Bleak House. On the surface, he is similar to Mantalini in Nicholas Nickleby – a colourful and flamboyant personality who does no work, and is happy to sponge off others. But Skimpole is from the beginning associated with one of the major themes of the novel – childhood: he presents himself as a child incapable of coming to terms with the complexities of the world. When we first see him, he expresses himself very elegantly, and it is hard not to be charmed by him – as Esther, Richard and Ada obviously are. But the image of childhood is then developed elsewhere in the novel, and we are soon bombarded with images of childhood betrayed. As a consequence, every time we return to Skimpole, we see him in a different context: this adult who lays claim to childlike innocence and helplessness contrasts increasingly sharply with what we see elsewhere of real children forced to assume adult roles. So although the character of Skimpole does not develop, our perspective of him does: while remaining the same character, he develops in our minds from a charming picture of childlike innocence to an obscenity: he becomes yet another aspect of the moral rottenness that we see spreading through this fictional world like a malignant cancer.

Then, later in the novel, we are introduced to Skimpole’s own children, and at this point, Skimpole refers to them as his “birds”.  This is significant, because, in another strand of imagery in the novel, caged birds have featured prominently, and, as the novel has progressed, acquired all sorts of different levels of meaning. We had first encountered this motif in the scene where the half-crazed Miss Flite shows Esther, Ada and Richard her large aviary. Later, the birds are named in a monstrous Gargantuan list: “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon and Spinach.” In short, everything – all of life, all its desires and fears and trivialities and absurdities, life with its inscrutable laws and its incomprehensible justice – all of it kept caged, as if in suspended animation, awaiting a judgement day when they can all be set free, a promised Judgement Day that never comes. This image gathers force as the novel progresses, and acquires all sorts of resonance. And its juxtaposition at a strategic point in the novel with another strand of imagery opens up a new set of associations, a new set of possibilities. There is a far greater sophistication in all this than was even dreamt of in, say, The Old Curiosity Shop, or in Barnaby Rudge.

Dickens most certainly renewed himself as an artist, but this process was not immediate: Dombey and Son is the earliest novel in which I seem to detect a greater artistic ambition, but as a novel, it is patchy. And then came David Copperfield. Once again, there are still many of the flaws that had marked his earlier novels: the hero and heroine (the adult David, and Agnes Wickfield) are still deadly dull; and the various strands of the novel are still merely placed next to each other more or less at random, with little thought of the effective juxtaposition. But there is nonetheless an artistry of a quality that one would not have thought possible from the author of, say, Nicholas Nickleby. Perhaps most remarkable of all are the early chapters, covering David’s childhood. I don’t think any other novelist has depicted with such utter conviction a child’s mind. In these chapters, Dickens narrates a fascinating adult drama, but narrates it from the perspective of a child who does not really understand the significance of what he is narrating. It is utterly compelling, and I don’t think there’s anything quite like this elsewhere in literature. Admittedly, once David grows up, the novel becomes patchier, but given the riches still in there, I find it churlish to complain. How many other novels are there with so wonderful a gallery of comic grotesques? Mr Micawber, Betsey Trotwood, Mr Dick, Uriah Heep… Once you read this book, all these wonderful characters become permanently embedded in your consciousness.

David Copperfield was a sort of watershed. Afterwards, there followed at least four novels that seem to me masterpieces of the highest order. Before considering these, I should perhaps mention the few works that I personally consider lesser. One of these is Hard Times, which is rated highly by many, but which I find relatively disappointing: there are fine things in it, of course, but I get the sense that Dickens did not feel entirely at home in the industrial north of England. And then, there is A Tale of Two Cities, which, regarded as a historic romance, is perfectly executed: but I for one find it disappointing that a major novelist at the height of his powers should tackle a subject as important as the French Revolution, and make no more out of it than a mere historic romance. And of course, there was Dickens’ last work – the unfinished Edwin Drood: this was shaping up to be a fine thriller in the mould of the novels of Dickens’ friend Wilkie Collins, and had Dickens lived to finish it, I’m sure we’d be rating it alongside such works as The Woman in White or The Moonstone. As it is, it’s just a fragment. But even leaving these works out of consideration (and there are many who rate them more highly as works of art than I do), that leaves the four novels that seem to me the great peaks of Dickens’ artistic career: Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend, and Great Expectations.

The first three of these – Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend – I sometimes think of as a sort of unofficial trilogy. They are all three huge multi-stranded novels, but the multiple strands aren’t merely laid next to each other, as in his earlier work: they counterpoint each other, to create the most intricate and fascinating of patterns. We have still the wonderful comic grotesques and eccentrics, but now, they don’t exist merely for their own sake: they are integral parts of the overall narrative and thematic structures. The setting – mainly London – does far more than merely set a background for the plot. Since these novels first appeared, many other authors have written works in which the urban setting plays an active part in the novel – Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Bely’s Petersburg, Joyce’s Ulysses, etc – but it was Dickens who did it first. And while subsequent novelists may occasionally equal Dickens in this respect, they have never surpassed him.

Although 19th century fiction is often regarded as essentially realist, Dickens, unlike, say, Zola, had no great interest in reproducing reality. Rather, he set his imagination to work: he took aspects of the real world, and distorted them to produce a fictional world that really is quite unique. It’s like seeing the real world in a distorting mirror, and Dickens’ distortions are fascinating. And the fictional world he presents points towards what we now recognise as “modernism”: without Dickens’ fictional world, I doubt we’d have had, say, Kafka, whose own fictional world seems to grow directly from the one presented by Dickens. There is, I’m sure, a fascinating book to be written on Dickens’ foreshadowings of modernism; and I think it no accident that Eliot’s original title for “The Waste Land”, one of the key texts of the modernist movement, is taken from Dickens: “He Do the Police in Different Voices” is a quote from Our Mutual Friend.

Another aspect of his art that Dickens developed was his use of imagery, and symbolism. By symbol, I don’t mean anything so basic as “A represents B”:  I mean instead the presentation of images that acquire different levels of meaning as the work progresses, and become, in the process, far greater than the sum of its possible interpretations. We have, for instance, the fog and the birds in Bleak House, the prisons in Little Dorrit, the dust-heaps and the dark river in Our Mutual Friend – haunting images that resonate in the mind. These are novels of great poetic power.

Dickens’ experiments with narrative style are also fascinating. Take, for instance, Bleak House, where the highly subjective first person narrative of Esther alternates with a very impersonal third person narrative written in present tense. The juxtaposition of the two narrative voices creates wonderful effects: even as Esther congratulates herself on imposing order in her own environment, the third person narrative shows us a wider world in which no order can ever be imposed. The effect is quite unlike that encountered in any other novel I’ve come across.

And where previously Dickens tended to go merely for crowd-pleasing sentimentality, we now have real emotion. Dickens wasn’t afraid of emotions: he presented them directly – often disconcertingly so. I think this is what worries me when Dickens is accused of sentimentality: yes, Dickens often could be sentimental (especially in his earlier works), but when he writes of Lady Dedlock’s feelings when she realises that the daughter she had thought had died at birth is still alive; when he writes of Pip’s feelings for Estella; when he writes of Arthur Clennan’s feelings of life having passed him by; we are not speaking of sentimentality here, but of genuine, profound emotions that only the greatest of authors are capable of depicting.

Great Expectations is a bit different from these other three. Unlike these other three novels, Great Expectations consists of a single narrative strand; and instead of a wide, panoramic viewpoint, here, we have a personal narrative of almost unbearable poignancy. I cannot think of any other novel that has communicated so poignantly the pains of unrequited love: there is a sense of delicacy here which we don’t normally associate with Dickens. And its theme, I think, is that of finding moral values that one can live by in a world in which human worth is judged purely on the basis of wealth and of social status. As in his other later works, Good and Bad are not obviously signposted: although Dickens continues to believe in the possibility of human goodness (as exemplified in Joe Gargery), here he presents moral ambiguities that are beyond the comprehension of someone so basically good and decent as Joe. We are a long way here from the moral certainties of, say, Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby.

I may have given the impression that Dickens, in the latter half of his career, became a completely different writer. In some ways, he did. But the author of Our Mutual Friend is still recognisable as the author of, say, The Old Curiosity Shop: there is that same vigour and gusto, the same quirky sense of humour, that same love of the grotesque, that same ability to paint on a wide canvas. Dickens never forgot his roots as a popular writer. But he transformed the elements of his popular art into something very rich and strange. There is far, far more to be said about his novels than I could possibly cram even into a post even as long as this: but I hope I have said enough here to counter sat least some of the more usual criticisms – especially the idea (that I have heard expressed more than once) that he was essentially a crowd-pleasing, populist hack, a sort of Jeffrey Archer of his day.  Quite apart from anything else, I doubt that the real Jeffrey Archer will be inspiring the Kafkas and the Nabokovs of future generations.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on May 31, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    I remember somebody once remarking that Dickens wrote strangely memorable tales.
    This is certainly true of the little that I have read.
    You say that Dickens wrote caricatures, and perhaps that is what helps make him memorable. Caricatures in drawing are the few, brief, exaggerated strokes of a pen that bring real people to mind in ways that seem remarkable upon reflection. Perhaps caricaturists understand, either by experiment or design, how our memories work and how to trigger recollection and perhaps even replace our memories with caricature – witness how some politicians struggle to rise above their caricatures.
    Saying ‘merely caricature’ ignores how difficult it is to create caricatures. It is not merely exaggeration, it is a very careful exaggeration of a few very important things.
    You’ve managed to convince me that I should read more – perhaps Bleak House.


  2. I agree with you about caricatures. A good caricature requires just as much skill as a good portrait – albeit of a different type. I remember cartoonist Steve Bell talking about how he created the caricature of John Major: he decided thatthe feature to exaggerate were those two lines that run from the nostrils to the top of the lip. As soon as he said it, it seemed obvious, but it would never have occurred to me. A good caricaturist knows precisely which aspects to exaggerate, and to what extent.

    I suppose we don’t often get too many caricatures in literature because caricatures can’t really develop: this makes them fine for sketches, but not so good for novels. Dickens – in his mature works – thought up various ingenious solutions to this problem.

    I do feel when I am writing about Dickens that I feel to defend him. This is because whenever I do write about him, he gets attacked. It’s not so much that people do not care for his brand of artistry: more often than not, he is not not even credited with having serious artistic aims. Even many people who claim to like Dickens seem to think that he was a good populist writer, but not much more. I do find this quite extraordinary – especially when I consider the extraordinary scope of something like Bleak house, or the depth of feeling in something like Great Expectations.

    When in Italy, I looked into the window of a bookshop and saw “Casa Desolata” by Charles Dickens. I wish I’d bought it now!


  3. Posted by alan on June 12, 2010 at 9:44 am

    You might be interested in Martin Baum’s attempt to revive interest in Dicken’s and Shakespeare:


  4. Posted by alan on June 12, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Of course, that should have been without the Green Grocers punctuation.


  5. Posted by alan on June 12, 2010 at 9:46 am

    Or even Green Grocers’.
    Time to stop digging.


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