Charles Dickens



Charles Dickens

Dickens has always presented problems for literary criticism. For theorists whose critical presuppositions emphasize intelligence, sensitivity and an author in complete control of his work the cruder aspects of his popular art have often proved an insurmountable obstacle, while for the formulators of traditions his gigantic idiosyncrasies can never be made to conform. If difficulties such as these have been overcome by the awareness that Dickens sets his own standards, there remains a further problem: his won lifetime Dickens has invariably seemed as much an institution as an individual. The institution of the ‘Dickens of Christmas’, celebrated by Chersterton. The change may perhaps be defined by suggesting that it is now becoming increasingly necessary to insist that he was. Dickens’s art was at once varied and constant; if themes, emphases and preoccupations developed towards the ultimate pessimism of Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend, it is important to remember that Flora Finching and her aunt are cousins, not far removed. When he collapsed in 1870, having almost completed the sixth instalment of Edwin Drood, the manner of his death was peculiarly appropriate: his audience were left in the state of anticipation to which he had accustomed them, but this time there was to be no resolution.

In the nineteenth century the writing of novels emerged from a permitted indulgence to an acceptable career. It is customary to think of Dickens as a critic of much of the Victorian ethos, but whatever reservations the novels may express about self-aggrandizement, no career could demonstrate the ideal of the self-made man more effectively than his own. The facts of Dickens’s early life have been rehearsed frequently enough and there is little need to recount them here other than to emphasize the extent to which Dickens, the chronicler of afflicted children, saw in his own childhood the archetypal experience of the child frustrated by the pressures of an urban and commercialize environment. The account of his childhood employment in the blacking-shop, which he gave to his biographer Forster, has often quoted:



The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing way passing away from me, never be brought back any more, cannot be written. My whole nature was so penetrated with the grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life. (John Froster, The Life of Charles Dickens, Bk. I, ch. 2)


Dickens is self-indulgent in this reflective mood, but the complaint is supported by the facts, and the tone of the passage, especially of its conclusion, was to be transmuted to the tone of David Copperfield and Great Expectations.

A glance through the list of novels shows the extent to which Dickens’s life was dominated by the demands of authorship, for apart from the gaps between the last three items there is scarcely an unproductive year. When one considers how each of the novels appeared in either weekly or monthly instalments, and that they were supplemented by short stories and occasional journalism, as well as, from time to time, the duties of an editor, it can fairly be said that Dickens’s literary activity over a period of more than thirty years was uninterrupted.

Serial publications thus posed its own technical problems and to a large extent dictated their solution. It had the effect of intensifying the relationship between the author and his audience to a degree that can perhaps be compared with the oral narrative poem of the Elizabethan stage. Tome some novelists, the need to tailor their novels to popular demand was a source of irritation. More than technical issues were at stake. In two vital areas audience-demand was a controlling factor over the content of exploitation of sentiment.

The emphasis on the pathetic can be attributed to some extent to popular demand: it is well know that at the time of writing The Old Curiosity