Charles Dickens As a Novelist

In the nineteenth century English novel, Charles Dickens (1812-70) is Pre-eminent. With the exception of Shakespeare, there is no greater example of creative force in English literature. Every figure, the creative finger of Dickens touched came alive, from Mr. Pickwick’s cabman to Mr. Wegg’s hoarse charioteer. Vitality, exuberance, idiosyncrasy – these are the notes of Dickens’ characters. They are sometimes more lively than life itself, and they are never forgotten. The great humourists of the world can be counted on the fingers of a single hand, and Dickens is of that choice company. We have in Dickens, an astonishing combination of creative vigour, unstable humour and abundant variety.

Yet no great creative artist had a more unpromising birth and upbringing. Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth. His father, John Dickens, was a dockyard clerk in the Navy Pay Office, and a transfer to Chatham in 1817 made the child familiar with the neighbouring Rochester and its ancient appeal. A further transfer to Somerset House brought the family to London, where, after living in a sordid suburb, the acutely sensitive child became painfully familiar with another great national institution, a debtor’s prison, the Marshalsea, to which the father was consigned. On 9 February 1824, just two days after his twelfth birthday, Charles was sent (through the influence of a near relation) to work at Warren’s Blacking warehouse off the Strand pasting labels on blacking pots. It is worth noting that when John Dickens was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debt, the entire family except Charles, moved inside the prison shortly afterwards, while the boy lived in a succession of lodging houses. The release of the father led to a reconsideration of the family position. Dickens’ father proposed to send Charles to school, but his mother was in favour of his return to the blacking pots. This was the deepest wound made in his young soul, the only cruelty that he never forgot. But the father prevailed and Charles resumed his education as a day pupil at a nearby school where he remained till 1827 when he was found a place as a clerk in a legal office. Then, with the help of a journalist uncle, he began a career as a parliamentary reporter, a job for which shorthand was essential. So Dickens taught himself shorthand, and became a reporter for several papers. While still a reporter, he began writing short stories, and achieved modest success with them in the literary world.

The very earliest of his writings deserve consideration. The Sketches of Young Gentlemen, Sketches of Young Couples and the Mud-fog Papers, ever reprinted by Dickens himself, are good examples of journalism, with a certain touch of originality in them which might come to something or not. What came immediately were not the great novels, but the Sketches by Boz. Which indicated the arrival of a writer whose competence was unquestionable. Dickens’ first sketch. A Dinner at Poplar Walk, retitled Mr. Minns and his Cousin, was published in December 1833. After that, he wrote numerous tales and sketches, and in a year or two had enough from which to make two selections, Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-day Life, and Every-day People (1835) and a second series (1836).

Thus, in his twenty-third year, Dickens was moderately well-known as the author of journalistic or magazine contributions, and no more. What happened next is almost like a fairy tale. Dickens was asked to add the written matter to the pictures in a humorous monthly periodical chronicling the adventures of a cockney sporting club. Chapman and Hall were publishing this periodical and Robert Seymour was to draw the plates. The work, so casually conceived, was to become one of the world’s comic masterpieces. The first monthly number appeared in April 1836 and bore on its wrappers the title The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Containing a Faithful Record of the Perambulations, Perils. Travels, Adventures and Sporting Transactions of the Corresponding Members, Edited by Boz. The new adventure did not begin well, for Dickens was writing to order and had not found himself. Thus the earlier chapters became stiff, crude and unrewarding. But with the cab journey from Goswell Street to the Golden Cross we enter an entirely new world and are never shut out of it until Death performs the ungracious office and leaves the story of Edwin Drood half told.

Pickwick Papers (1836-37) thus has become the supreme comic novel in the English language. The comedy seems to be never superimposed, for it is an effortless expansion of a comic view of life. The novel is a Rabelaisian fairy-tale, with a stout little man in tights and spectacles as the presiding genius. The novel has been regarded as a triumph of the curious and difficult process that may be called ‘realism disrealized’. It is worth remembering here that this vast and vigorous world, with its three hundred characters and twenty- two inns, was created by a Youngman of four-and-twenty.

Dickens enjoyed life, but hated the social system into which he had been born. The immense success of Pickwick Papers made Dickens his own man forever. He could now write just what he liked. In his next novels, Oliver Twist (1837-38) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), we see the crusader with wrongs to set right, the journalist with evils to expose, the philanthropist with causes to proclaim, and the melodramatics with villains to denounce. Of his time, feels that he must convey a message through fiction to his hard- The humourist vanishes and pathos intrudes, Dickens, appalled by the cruelty hearted generation.

The Old Curiosity Shop (book form 1841) shows pathos transcendent over humour, especially in the death of Little Nell. Barnaby Rudge (book long- form 1841), with its picture of the Gordon Riots, is Dickens first attempt in the historical novel, and here plot, which had mattered very little in Pickwick Papers, becomes increasingly important. In 1842 Dickens paid a contemplated visit to America-the first of the tours abroad, which became frequent and exercised a great influence on his work. This particular voyage produced American Notes (1842) and Martin Chuzzlewit (parts 1843-4). As a book, American Notes is fairly amusing, but it lacks the peculiar fantastic attraction of the novels. The American scenes in Martin Chuzzlewit gave offence. Yet all of Dickens is here: Pecksniff and his daughter, a great variety of character and incident all well managed.

In 1843 came A Christmas Carol, first of the endearing Christmas books, which continued annually with The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man, and ceased only when the establishment of Household Words changed them to shorter Christmas stories which, in that paper and in All the Year Round, were scattered over the rest of the writer’s life. In the five Christmas stories, Dickens indulged in some moral stock- taking of the traditional season of goodwill, and he claimed in them the right of all, even the poorest, to enjoy themselves in their own way, undeterred by economists and statisticians and professional philanthropists.

Between the first and the last of the Christmas books, Dickens did much other work. We may dismiss Pictures from Italy (1846) as unimportant. Dombey and Son (the usual abbreviation of a thirteen-word title) appeared in parts during 1847-48 and marked a change in manner, for it is Dickens’ first attempt at painting actual modern society. Though much of it is unsuccessful, many of the humorous characters have all the old success.

After Dombey and Son, the inexhaustible Dickens not only began writing David Copperfield but undertook the new and very important adventure of editing Household Words, a weekly periodical which very soon justified its title and which, with its sequel All the Year Round, he carried on till his death. David Copperfield appeared in the old monthly form (1849- 50), written with a curious tenderness, for there is in it something of what the young Dickens was, and something of what the young Dickens wanted to be. Yet it contains no accusation against the world. In fact, it is the sweetest of all the stories. The abundance of life and vitality, the range of characters, the close-knit texture of the story and the high quality of the writing can hardly be paralleled. There is no “crusading”, although one can note some melodrama. Yet this novel can be aptly described as Dickens’ most varied, most serious and most firmly sustained effort.

In the spring of 1852 Dickens began Bleak House (parts 1852-53), a rather grave book in which for once, the chief crusading motif-that against the law’s delays-is used as art and not as pamphlet. Next in chronological order comes A Child’s History of England (three volumes 1852, 1853, 1854) which had, no doubt, a life of its own in the domestic circle, and should have been confined there. Hard Times, For these Times (1854, after appearance in Household Words) is not one of the books that have been popular. While in all his work Dickens is attacking the social conditions of his time, here he gives this theme a special emphasis. He satirizes in Coketown and Mr. Gradgrind the whole laissez faire-system of the Manchester school and suggests that its enlightened self-interest is unenlightened cruelty.

Now for the first time comes a pause in the astonishing stream of production. Not till the end of 1857 did the first part of Little Dorrit appear. To be completed in 1858. In this novel, Dickens attacks the circumlocution office and the methods of bureaucracy; the picture of prison life, which was a comic motif in Pickwick Papers, is now a serious theme in the portrayal of the debtor’s prison. There is some crusading and some melodrama; but the tale is so well ordered and so enriched with subsidiary figures, that it becomes memorable.

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With A Tale of Two Cities (1859), he returned to the historical novel, and inspired by Carlyle, laid his theme in the French Revolution. The story is well plotted and closely woven, and has a romantic “hero with a weakness”. Great Expectations (1860-61) is undoubtedly Dickens, and some of it both new and of the best. Pip is even better than David. Our Mutual Friend (parts 1864-65), was the last novel Dickens completed. It is difficult to understand why this novel had to fight its way through indifference and positive dislike to its present assured popularity. Few of its predecessors are so rich in exuberant character. And the last tale of all, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), begins superbly.

Dickens, to many literary historians, was lucky in his sudden death, because he was spared the decay of Scott and the dotage of Swift. But according to some, he had actually driven himself to death. From 1858 to 1868, he had given dramatic readings of his novels in England and America. They were profitable, and, despite the weariness of the journeys, he delighted in applause. This strain opined some literary historians, must have killed him.

One must briefly comment upon Dickens’ sense of words which was exquisite. His genius in coining names was unsurpassed. With Shakespeare. Dickens can be rightly called the most English of writers, and, like Shakespeare, he has conquered the world. Dickens had an extraordinary range of language, from comic invention to great eloquence. He invented character and situation with a range that had been unequalled since Shakespeare. When Dickens died in 1870, something seemed to have gone out of English life that was irreplaceable, a bright light that had shone upon the drab commercialism of the century.



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