Amongst novelists, in my personal pantheon, there is Tolstoy and there is Dickens; and then, all the others.
And yet, Dickens is in many ways a difficult writer for me to come to terms with. Dickensians, understandably, speak of his humanity, of his generosity of spirit; and yet, this humane author advocated mass-slaughter of the Indian people. In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, Dickens – not once, but several times – made his feelings quite explicit, writing in a letter at one point that were he Commander-in-Chief in India, he “would do [his] utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of late cruelties rested … with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution, to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth…” Biographer Peter Ackroyd comments laconically that it is not often that a great novelist advocates genocide.
One can, of course, make excuses for Dickens. We can now look back on the Indian Mutiny and see in both sides the most barbaric cruelty and also the most admirable heroism (this is George Macdonald Fraser’s perspective in the excellent Flashman and the Great Game); but in the immediate aftermath of the Mutiny, Indians were widely depicted in Britain as an irredeemably savage and violent people, devoid of any saving grace. One might have expected Dickens to have seen through this, but he didn’t. And, for someone like myself, who reveres Dickens the Novelist virtually to the point of idolatry, this is hard to take, and impossible to square with the generosity and decency that are all too apparent in his novels. Well, I suppose the only Dickens I have to deal with is Dickens the Novelist: Dickens the Man is, of course, long gone. And I suppose also that an artist puts the best of himself in his art. My knowledge of Dickens’ outbursts against Indians – his desire to exterminate my forefathers – is not going to affect my love of and admiration for Bleak House, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend. But it continues to trouble me, nonetheless.
In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens gives the following lines to a Jewish character, Mr Riah:
For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, ‘This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.’ Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough – among what peoples are the bad not easily found? – but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say All Jews are alike.
Is it really possible that the man who could pen such lines never thought to himself that there are bad Indians, but that there are also good Indians? It is very strange.