Dickens has always presented problems for literary criticism. For
theorists whose critical presuppositions emphasise intelligence,
sensitivity and an author in complete control of his work the cruder
aspects of his popular art have often proved an unsurmountable
obstacle, while for the formulators of traditions his gigantic
idiosyncrasies can never be made to conform. And if difficulties
such as these have been overcome by the awareness that Dickens
sets his own standards, or rather that the standards that he sets, far
from being inimical to great art, are his own expression of it, there
remains a further problem: since his own lifetime Dickens has
invariably seemed as much an institution as an individual. The
institution of the 'Dickens of Christmas', celebrated by Chesterton,
but derided by more sophisticated critics ever since, has given way
to the Dickens of the academic thesis. The change may perhaps be
defined by suggesting that, whereas it was once necessary when
advancing the claims of Dickens to insist that he was not an
entertainer, it is now becoming increasingly necessary to insist that
he was. The invaluable reassessment of the later novels which has
taken place in recent years, emphasizing in particular the social and
psychological aspects of their symbolism and structure, has
sometimes gone close to producing a Dickens that his
contemporaries would have recognized as, at most, only part of the
picture. Dickens's art was at once varied and constant; if themes,
emphases and preoccupations develop 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, of Mrs Bardell and Mrs Gamp, that Pecksniff and Podsnap have
much in common, and that the atmosphere of nightmare that is felt so
intensely in Edwin Drood has been lived through before in Jonas
Chuzzlewit's solitary return from the murder of Mr Montague Tigg.
Dickens's early success with his public gave him an assurance that led to
increased powers of poetic expression and
narrative technique, and it gave him also the confidence to assert
his thematic priorities to a point where they contradicted the social
assumptions of many of his readers, but he never rejected the basic
methods which had brought him his initial success. 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. Fielding and Smollett, Dickens's heroes, did not depend on their novels for a living any more than did Richardson and Jane Austen, whereas for Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and Henry James, their art ensured not only a means of subsistence but social prestige as well. 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 boy whose formal education was so abruptly interrupted by his father's financial disasters sent his own eldest son to Eton; the child who had visited his father in the Marshalsea prison was listened to as an adult on the subject of penal reform. 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 commercialized environment. The account of his childhood employment in the blacking-shop which he gave to his biographer Forster has often been 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 away from me, never to 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 Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, Bk I, ch. 2)Dickens is notoriously 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.
The extent to which the career of Dickens the novelist was the life of Dickens the man is best indicated simply by listing his full- length novels with the dates when they appeared. His first publications of any consequence were the Sketches by Boz which began to come out in 1834. From that date his novels appeared as follows (the dates are those of their first appearance, in instalment or serial form):
A man of phenomenal energy, Dickens combined his literary career with a variety of social and theatrical interests. Some of the social concerns are interestingly documented in Philip Collins's two studies, Dickens and Crime (1962) and Dickens and Education (1963), while the theatrical involvement embraced writing, acting and producing for the stage, and culminated in the famous public readings from his own works. But a glance through the list of the 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. (For reasons of space I have confined myself in this study to the novels alone. A full study of Dickens would, of course, pay proper attention to the other aspects of his literary career and in particular to the short stories, some of which throw interesting light on his development.)
The practice of serial publication, a publisher's device to facilitate sales which became an important factor in the development of nineteenth-century fiction, had consequences for Dickens's novels which it is difficult for the modern reader confronted by a set of eight-hundred page volumes to appreciate. Of the novels listed above, nine were originally published in illustrated monthly parts, each consisting of three or four chapters. Of the remaining six, one, Oliver Twist, appeared as a monthly serial in the magazine Bentley's Miscellany, while the other five, all of them rather shorter, were published in serial form in weekly papers. The effect of such a method of publication on the tone and content of the novels concerned was considerable. In the first place the need to maintain interest by the deployment of an easily identifiable narrative was paramount. Much has been made of the complexity of Dickens's plots but fundamentally a Dickens novel is based on a sample narrative concept like Pickwick's journey, the lives of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, or Pip, or the hidden secrets of Bleak House, Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend. On the other hand, with a basic story established, there is ample opportunity for the multiplicity of character and event for which Dickens is famous; the dual nature of the process is revealed clearly by Dickens's device of two separate narratives in Bleak House. The wealth of apparently extraneous detail that is a feature of the novels has sometimes led to the supposition that Dickens wrote without plan, but the information that he gave to Forster, together with his own notes for individual novels, shows very clearly the extent to which, particularly in his later novels, he formulated a basic narrative concept to which he could keep firm hold as his novel progressed.
Serial publication thus posed its own technical problems and to a large extent dictated their solution. It also 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 or the Elizabethan stage. To some novelists, conscious of what they saw as more important obligations, the need to tailor their novels to popular demand was a source of irritation: Mrs Gaskell, for example, had disagreements with Dickens himself over the serialization of her industrial novel North and South in his magazine Household Words. More than technical issues were at stake, however. In two vital areas audience-demand was a controlling factor over the content of Victorian fiction: the taboo on explicitness in the examination of sexual relationships, and the exploitation of sentiment, which in many ways can be seen as a substitute for a more realistic examination of human emotion.
It should be said straight away that very few major Victorian authors felt these aspects of public taste to be unduly crippling. As Kathleen Tillotson has pointed out, 'With very few exceptions, novelists were contented with such limitations as existed, and moved freely within them, or figure-skated along the edge' (Novels of the Eighteen-Forties, 1954, p. 64). Dickens, however, seems not merely to have accepted these conditions but to have positively endorsed them. Conscious that his instalments were read, as they appeared, at family gatherings, he ensured that they contained nothing that a Victorian family would blush to hear. Furthermore, his manipulation of pathos, evidenced not only by individual incidents like the death of Little Nell and Paul Dombey, but by the total concept of characters like Esther Summerson in Bleak House and Amy Dorrit, provides a feature of the novels that to a modern reader can require considerable explanatory apology.
Obviously the emphasis on the pathetic can be attributed to some extent to popular demand: it is well known that at the time of writing The Old Curiosity Shop Dickens received numerous letters on the fate of his heroine. What must also be stressed are the powerful elements of sentimentality and morbidity in Dickens's own character which enabled him to respond to this aspect of popular taste. Little Nell was the fictional parallel of Dickens's sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, over whose early death he had grieved inconsolably. She became more than a figure of fiction to her creator, however: approaching the climax of The Old Curiosity Shop Dickens told Forster, 'All night I have been pursued by the child; and this morning I am unrefreshed and miserable.' (Forster, op. cit., Bk II p. 7). To self-indulgence in the pathetic was added an impulse towards the violent and the macabre. Dickens's readings from his own works show clearly the way in which he wished not only to gratify his own emotional needs in his fiction but also to witness its effect on his audience at first hand. Along with the comic scenes, he liked to include in his programmes the most affecting or disturbing passages from the novels - the death of Paul Dombey, the Bob Cratchit scenes from A Christmas Carol, the Smike scenes from Nicholas Nickleby and, most dramatic of all, the murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist - and he measured his success by the degree of emotional response that he could exact from an often weeping audience. In a revealing letter to his wife, describing a private reading, he wrote: 'If you had seen Macready last night, undisguisedly sobbing and crying on the sofa as I read, you would have felt, as I did, what a thing it is to have power.' (Quoted in E. Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, 1953, p. 532.) The enjoyment of this sense of power over his audience gives us a clue to much that we find disturbing in Dickens's novels: more than any other novelist he needed not merely the applause of his audience but their submission. At the end of his career Dickens wrote in the last pages of Our Mutual Friend:
. . . that I hold the advantages of the mode of publication (i.e. in serial form) to outweigh its disadvantages, may be easily believed of one who revived it in the Pickwick Papers after long disuse, and has pursued it ever since.' (Postscript)Even he, however, can hardly have been aware of the full implications of the form for the development of his art.
If the more startling aspects of Dickens's fiction can be traced to traits in his own temperament it must be recorded that his comedy also has its origins in the man himself. Much has been written of his comic technique, but his letters reveal very clearly that the source of his comedy was not a conscious technique, in the literary sense, but a combination of vision and expression that was habitual to him. Writing, for example, of the domestic upheaval caused by some house alterations which he had set in progress he builds up a scene and an atmosphere in much the same way as he does in the novels:
I am perpetually wandering (in fancy) up and down the house andtumbling over the workmen. When I feel that they are gone to dinner Ibecome low. When I look forward to their total abstinence on Sunday Ibecome wretched. The gravy at dinner has a taste of glue in it. I smell paintin the sea. Phantom lime attends me all the day long. I dream that I am acarpenter and can't partition off the hall. (Quoted in Johnson, op. cit., p. 748)In a similar letter, describing the same events, Catherine, his wife, is 'all over paint' and seems to think it is somehow being immensely useful to get into that condition'. Here we have not only the elaboration of detail in the accumulation of comic disaster that we know so well from the novels, but also that spontaneous interrelationship of perception and articulation that is the hallmark of Dickens's mode of comic expression. The sentence about his wife, for example, inconsequential though it is, could not have been rendered in any other way and it is typical of countless such observations that appear in the novels, giving to their comedy its inimitable flavour. Character and incident proliferate in Dickens so naturally because they are the product of an imagination that was never still, and of an impulse towards the dramatic evidenced not only by his theatrical activities but by the details of his day-to-day existence. Dickens would never have understood a theory of fiction based on the detachment of the author; the novels, as they stand, are the expression of the man who wrote them.
The origins of Dickens's literary career can be traced to his early employment as a journalist. This work took him first to the Law Courts, including the Court of Chancery, and then to Parliament, and his contempt for these institutions, evinced most powerfully in Bleak House but reappearing consistently throughout his work, is based on the first-hand knowledge of them that he gained at the outset of his career. From reporting he moved on to descriptive journalism of a more imaginative kind and from 1834 to 1835 he wrote a series of sketches which appeared first in the Monthly Magazine and then in the Evening Chronicle. Some of these, together with some additional sketches written for the occasion, were collected and published in two illustrated volumes under the title Sketches by Boz in February 1836. Forster remarks that 'The Sketches were more talked about than the first two or three numbers of Pickwick' (op. cit., Bk I p. 5), and certainly they were well received at the time. Their appearance in the Evening Chronicle had already attracted the attention of the publishers Edward Chapman and William Hall who invited Dickens to write a series of similar pieces to accompany a set of illustrations that they intended to bring out on sporting themes. From the start the text became more important than the illustrations and The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club was born. The work appeared in monthly numbers, running from April 1836 to November in the following year.
Initially the venture seemed to be a failure. The opening numbers sold only four hundred copies and were dismissed by such reviewers as noticed them, but with the fourth number sales began to improve and Pickwick Papers suddenly became a triumph, selling 40,000 copies at the height of its success. Readers of Mrs Gaskell's Cranford will remember how Captain Brown was run over by a railway train while engrossed in the latest number of Pickwick Papers; his enthusiasm was paralleled with less disastrous consequences throughout the country and at all levels of literate society. Once it had caught on, the book was not just another literary success but a phenomenon and its boisterous and inconsequential spirit came to represent - and indeed to misrepresent its author for generations to come.
The form that Pickwick Papers took was not original. R. S. Surtees had already established himself as a humorous celebrant of sporting life and the sketches which he wrote for The New Sporting Magazine, and which were later re-published as Jorrocks' Jaunts and Jollities (1838), were the direct source of Dickens's material, most notably of the trial of Bardell vs Pickwick. There was indeed a vogue for this kind of comic realism on familiar topics which had probably attracted the publishers in the first place. But Dickens brought to the form not simply a wish to emulate a successful predecessor but also a comic imagination nurtured on the classics of the picaresque novel. In David Copperfield Dickens tells us that his hero had 'a little room upstairs. . . . From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphry Clinker, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas and Robinson Crusoe came out, a glorious host, to keep me company' (Forster, op. cit., Bk I p. 1). Pickwick Papers is in direct line of descent from such a tradition, with Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller as anglicized Quixote and Sancho Panza, journeying in the last days of the stage-coach through pre-industrial England. The story, based on the unpredictable adventures of a journey, exploited so successfully by Fielding and Smollett, was rendered obsolete by the coming of the railways, and it is worth remarking that Pickwick Papers, the first novel of the greatest urban novelist, was also, in a very real sense, the last major novel of the pre-railway age.
The narrative devices of Pickwick Papers, its loosely- connected sequence of events, its interpolated stories and its mildly mock-heroic set-pieces, are techniques that Dickens had learnt from his eighteenth-century predecessors; from them also he inherited the comic amplitude and boisterous humour that is typical of much of the book. Pickwick drinks himself to sleep in Mr Wardle's wheelbarrow and is deposited as a vagabond in the village pound, there to be pelted with rubbish; when Mr Winkle goes shooting, Mr Tupman 'saved the lives of innumerable small birds by receiving a portion of the charge in his left arm.' Pickwick himself comments on the source of much of the comedy:
'Does it not, I ask, bespeak the indiscretion... of my followers, that, beneath whatever roof they locate, they disturb the peace of mind and happiness of some confiding female?' (ch. 18)Such scenes, however, are always more decorously comic than their counterparts in Fielding and Smollett, and the predominant tone of Pickwick Papers is one of benevolence and well-being. Good food, so often a source of comfort in Dickens, is never so effective in resolving disaster as it is in his first novel. The interpolated stories, in which can be seen hints of the violence that was sometimes to predominate in the later novels, are too crude to affect the basic atmosphere more than marginally and even the social realism of the Eatanswill election is presented in such a way that its less pleasant aspects are tempered by the overall sense of inconsequence.
The world of Pickwick Papers, however, is not simply the world of Dingley Dell and Eatanswill, neither is its total effect as disjointed as its loosely-constructed technique would perhaps imply. The novel is given shape both by a subtle development in the character of Pickwick himself and by the way in which its thematic concerns, most notably in the sequence of events involving Pickwick and the law, have the common element of an attack on inhumanity and selfishness. The affair with Mrs Bardell begins as a typically Pickwickian episode, but as Pickwick becomes more deeply involved with the legal process, described as an instrument for 'the torture and torment of his majesty's liege subjects' and 'the comfort and emolument' of its practitioners, there is an increasingly serious edge to the comedy. Ultimately, in the Fleet prison, Pickwick is brought face to face with misery and the effect is not compromised in any way. When the 'Chancery prisoner' dies of consumption, a note is introduced into the novel that its readers have been prepared for over a series of scenes but which its earliest numbers hardly anticipated. In his solicitor's office Pickwick reflects that 'When a man bleeds inwardly it is a dangerous thing for himself; but when he laughs inwardly, it bodes no good to other people' (ch. 31); the thought has an intensity that indicates the development of Pickwick himself from a myopic comic butt to a figure of wisdom and sensitivity. He himself may not be aware of the development, which was perhaps to some extent subconscious on the part of his creator, but it is consistent with a gradual process of unification that is apparent in Pickwick Papers as a whole. If we still remember the novel primarily in terms of its superb range of comic incident and character we cannot re-read it and remain unaffected by its social concern and above all by its ultimate affirmation of the pre- eminence of human charity.
Such concerns, of course, are the preoccupations of the novels that followed Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, both of which take as their central situation the plight of children in the face of institutional cruelty. Undoubtedly Dickens's success with Pickwick Papers had given him the confidence to put his own interests at the centre of his fiction, and in practical terms the financial security which it had brought him made it possible to experiment with themes of his own choosing. The change surprised some of the readers of Pickwick Papers who, seeing in Oliver Twist simply another example of the 'Newgate Novel', objected to its preoccupation with low life. Such reservations were a minority judgment however, and, after all, both Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby continue to show the imaginative fertility that had brought about Dickens's early triumph.
Of the two novels Oliver Twist is the most consistently effective as an attack on social injustice. Far more successfully than Nicholas Nickleby, it creates within its comedy the element of evil by which its child-hero is threatened, and the malignancy is rendered more complex by the way in which it is embodied not only in the dramatically criminal figures of Fagin and Bill Sikes but also in the representatives of established authority like the Board of Guardians and the police magistrate Mr Fang. Here Dickens emphasizes for the first time a quality that was to become a theme of his later work:the innocent are caught between the Scylla of crime and the Charybdis of legalized repression. 'Mrs Sowerberry, the undertaker's wife, who had a good deal of taste in the undertaking way', emphasizes the point; the repressive mentality has invaded the family hearth. Compared with this enveloping atmosphere of inhumanity, the cruelties of Nicholas Nickleby, for all their vividness, seem parochial; Dotheboys Hall exists not at the centre of the novel but at its perimeter, and once it has been destroyed the novel is given over to issues of romance and to a series of comic portraits which, splendid in themselves, tend to dissipate its thematic interest. Despite the death of Smike, Wackford Squeers is more a figure of fun than the embodiment of inhumanity that Dickens intended, while the wicked Uncle Ralph and the decadent Sir Mulberry Hawk are scarcely more substantial than those intolerable manifestations of goodness, the Cheeryble twins.
Dickens's next two novels, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, can also usefully be considered as a pair in that they appeared in quick succession in a periodical of his own devising, Master Humphrey's Clock. Furthermore, as distinct from the other early novels, they involved a more hectic process of composition, appearing in weekly instead of monthly instalments. The very factor which was responsible for The Old Curiosity Shop's compulsive effect on Dickens's contemporaries, his treatment of the life and death of the heroine Little Nell, has led to its notoriety with succeeding generations. Edward FitzGerald copied out all the parts of the book which involved Little Nell herself: modern opinion would go to the opposite extreme and delete them, leaving an interesting range of incidental characters and some social commentary on industrial England of considerable force. In fact, The Old Curiosity Shop deserves more generous consideration than this. Professor K. J. Fielding has commented effectively on its resemblance to allegory (Charles Dickens, 1958, pp 52-4), and, like other Dickens children, Little Nell herself assumes symbolic significance when set against the avarice of her persecutors, Quilp and Sampson Brass. Barnaby Rudge is a novel of a different kind. Based on the Gordon riots, it is in many ways a more stimulating novel on the theme of revolution than the more famous - and more sentimental - A Tale of Two Cities. For Dickens, the revolutionary, like the criminal, was a figure of compelling interest; while the behaviour of such characters might be rendered explicable, even sympathetic, by the circumstances in which they found themselves, ultimately they figured as expressions of evil far beyond the powers of rational analysis.
In the five years from 1836 to 1841 Dickens had thus produced five long novels, all of them, to a greater or lesser degree, bestsellers. Unknown seven years earlier, in 1842 he visited America as a literary celebrity. The visit began auspiciously enough, hut despite his appreciation of the lavish hospitality of his hosts Dickens could not resist the opportunity to refer repeatedly in his public pronouncements to the vexed issue of international copyright, and in particular to the pirating of English works by American publishers. While undoubtedly in the right, as ever he lacked discretion, and the result was a series of attacks on him in American newspapers for which he, in return, exacted revenge, at first mildly in his American Notes, published in 1842, and then more vehemently in the American sections of his next novel, Martin Chuzzlewit.
Martin Chuzzlewit, to Dickens's alarm, met with a very lukewarm reception. For Dickens, with his emotional need for the support of his audience, this was particularly distressing, all the more so since he thought the book 'in a hundred points immeasurably the best of my stories.' It has been cogently argued that its comparative failure was due not so much to its own weakness as to the limitations of its predecessor, American Notes; whatever the reason, it caused its author intolerable anxiety.
Martin Chuzzlewit's lack of contemporary success is particularly surprising when one considers that in some ways it re- invokes the spirit of Pickwick Papers. There is, of course, no Mr Pickwick, but Mark Tapley, the pot-boy who becomes the hero's inseparable man-servant, is in the vein of Sam Weller, and the recourse to the familiar aspects of the coaching-inn and the feast are reminiscent of Dickens's first success. Martin Chuzzlewit, however, was written to a definitely preconceived thematic plan. It has a story devised to demonstrate the eventual triumph of goodness, and the characters also were intended to emphasize the novel's thematic concerns. According to Forster, 'the notion of taking Pecksniff for a type of character was really the origin of the book; the design being to show, more or less by every person introduced, the number and variety of humours that have their root in selfishness' (op. cit., Bk III p. 8). Martin Chuzzlewit is thus both a return to the spirit of Pickwick Papers and, in technique, a development from it. In that it can perhaps be seen as the culmination of Dickens's early novels it is worth considering in some detail.
Certainly Forster's emphasis on character is borne out by the book itself Its plot is an amalgam of the improbable and the sentimental, but for what Forster referred to as 'the exuberance of comic invention' its characters are unequalled elsewhere in Dickens. Pecksniff the hypocritical architect whose moral enunciation - "'Charity, my dear . . . when I take my chamber-candlestick tonight, remind me to be more than usually particular in praying for Mr Anthony Chuzzlewit, who has done me an injustice"' (ch. 4) - is superbly parodied by his own drunken declamation at Todgers's boarding-house. Mrs Gamp, the bibulous sick-nurse and layer-out of the dead who regards her clients in the former function in terms of their potential for the latter, and Mrs Harris, a creature not only of Dickens's imagination but Mrs Gamp's as well, are only the more prominent members of the cast of a comedy as expansive as any that Dickens wrote. The inventiveness of the comedy in fact defeats Dickens's moralistic intentions: in a world in which the eventual happiness of the good is scarcely in doubt Pecksniff himself becomes a self-sustaining figure of delight.
Martin Chuzzlewit is not only memorable for its comedy, however. In its variety of scene it achieves considerable atmospheric complexity and in its London scenes in particular it suggests that sense of the density of urban experience that was to become the hallmark of the later novels. When Pecksniff brings his daughters, Mercy and Charity, up to town he brings them to an exciting new world of
. . . steeples, towers, belfries, shining vanes, and masts of ships: a very forest. Gables, house-tops, garret-windows, wilderness upon wilderness. Smoke and noise enough for all the world at once.To the onlooker, however, the scene becomes one of menace:
The tumult, swelled into a roar; the hosts of objects seemed to thicken and expand a hundredfold; and after gazing round him, quite scared, he turned into Todgers's again, much more rapidly than he came out. . . . (ch. 9)and when Mercy Pecksniff is inveigled into marriage with Jonas Chuzzlewit, who during the course of the novel becomes wifebeater, murderer and suicide, the threat becomes reality. If London is the site of Mrs Todgers's boarding-house, it is also the site of the dwelling-place of Jonas, incarcerated with his aged father and the senile and terrified servant, Chuffey. While the outcome of Martin Chuzzlewit confirms its benevolent ethos, Dickens extracts from the sub-plot of Jonas's career a disturbing atmosphere of the macabre. Martin Chuzzlewit has its imperfections - amongst them the extended American journey of its hero which Dickens introduced unashamedly in an attempt to stimulate sales, and which, though a sustained tour-or-force, can never overcome its digressive effect - but they are the faults of an imagination on the rampage. Dickens may have set out with an end in view, but he found, as he wrote the novel, that, as Forster records, 'it seized him' for itself... he wept over it, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself to an extraordinary degree... and walked thinking of it fifteen and twenty miles about the black streets of London, many and many a night after all sober folks had gone to bed' (Bk W p. 4) Such self- absorption was indeed not uncommon to Dickens, but it did not always achieve such fortunate results as it did in this case. From this point his novels were to achieve an often overpowering symbolic and thematic intensity, but they did so to some extent at the cost of the unrestrained comic invention that proliferates in the earlier novels, and to such potent effect in the best scenes of Martin Chuzzlewit.
In the novels discussed so far the techniques, both of the fiction itself and the social criticism embodied within it, are relatively straightforward. The institutions which Dickens attacks, the workhouses in Oliver Twist or the Yorkshire schools in Nicholas Nickleby, are easily recognizable, and once the abuse has been overcome, the way is open to a happy conclusion. Dickens's conception of character in these novels is similarly uncomplicated: hence the optimism which they imply, which in itself is made more acceptable by the way in which they are distanced in time from the late 1830s and early 1840s when they were written. The stagecoach world of Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewit is fundamentally stable and comforting, and it is only parenthetically that the violence of the changes implicit in the industrialization of society breaks in - as with the London sections of Oliver Twist or, more specifically, Little Nell's journey through the Midlands in The Old Curiosity Shop. In Dombey and Son, however, and in most of the novels which follow it, Dickens locates his action, at least in spirit, in the immediately contemporary world, most emphatically perhaps in Dombey and Son itself, with its constant reference to the railway, a symbol of social change of perhaps uncontrollable potential, but also in novels like Bleak House, with its descriptions of the squalor of living conditions in the overcrowded city, Little Dorrit, like Dombey and Son, emphasizing the destructive interrelationship of economic and moral attitudes, and finally, Our Mutual Friend, where the forces of business speculation are seen at work on the raw material of rotting corpses, dunghills - and marriage. As Humphry House has pointed out, the specific abuses attacked in these novels are often things of the past - most obviously so in the case of the Marshalsea prison in Little Dorrit and the physical settings are sometimes a mixture of the contemporary and the recollected past, but the institutions are important not in themselves but as metaphors for a repressive social psychology, in itself the consequence of a predominantly selfish economic ethos, that in its pressure on the helpless individual is identifiably Victorian. The opening of Little Dorrit gives the date of the action as the eighteen-twenties, but when Arthur Clennam, its hero, returns to his inheritance the description of the city that greets him in no way evokes the sense of the past:
It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale. Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick-and-mortar echoes hideous. Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows, in dire despondency. . . . Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up. Nothing for the spent toiler to do, but to compare the monotony of his seventh day with the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it - or the worst, according to the probabilities.(Bk I, ch. 3)Here we are reminded not of anything in fiction but of Blake's London in the Songs of Experience:
The resemblance, of course, is far from coincidental: both Blake and Dickens have' at the heart of their work a sense of the threat to the human spirit from the forces of repression, and they locate that threat symbolically in the rapidly developing urban and industrial world around them. The London of Little Dorrit though, however specific the dating of the novel, is the London of the tangible present, just as it is in the other later novels (even, in a very special way, in A Tale of Two Cities). From the time of Dombey and Son Dickens becomes, in the fullest sense, a Victorian novelist.
In the space available here it is scarcely possible to discuss each of the later novels in detail and it must be emphasized that generalizations about them must be qualified, not only by the way in which Dickens presents different aspects of his analysis of society in the novels already mentioned, but also by the diversifying effect of the other novels of this later period, most notably David Copperfield and Great Expectations with their strongly autobiographical overtones, and Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities with their concentration on specific issues. The generalization that I have outlined in the preceding paragraph, however, will, I hope, serve as a context within which discussion of individual novels can take place. For the purposes of this essay I intend to concentrate in some detail on Dombey and Son before going on to suggest resemblances and qualifications that may arise from the novels which followed it.
Just as Martin Chuzzlewit was written with a preconceived moral end in view, so Dombey and Son was intended to convey a similar message. Forster records that Dickens told him that the intention in the case of Dombey and Son was 'to do with Pride what its predecessor had done with Selfishness' and he goes on to quote a long letter from Dickens outlining the proposed plot in some detail:'This is what cooks call "the stock of the soup". All kinds of things will be added to it of course.' Dickens's letter emphasizes the central issue of Dombey's pride, expressed in his preoccupation with his son, Paul, and the consequent alienation, on Paul's death, from his daughter, Florence, leading up to 'the decay and downfall of the house, and the bankruptcy of Dombey, and all' the rest of it' (Forster, Bk VI p. 2) It makes no mention of Dombey's second marriage, and thus of the way in which the climax of the novel is intensified by Edith Dombey's desertion of her husband, but the novel as it stands is a remarkably consistent development of Dickens's original idea. In particular, his conception of Dombey's character is far more complex than anything he had attempted so far and the relationship of every aspect of the novel to the psychology of its central character is consistently and convincingly handled.
What Dickens's communications with Forster do not stress so emphatically is the way in which Dombey's ruling passion is conceived specifically in economic terms. This is implied, of course, in the ambiguity of the novel's title: 'Dombey and Son' is both a paternal relationship and a commercial concern, and Dombey's tragedy is the result of his inability to distinguish between the two. The point is underlined in the opening chapter of the novel in contrast with that of Martin Chuzzlewit, perhaps the most effective that Dickens ever wrote:
'The house will once again, Mrs Dombey,' said Mr Dombey, 'be not only in name but in fact Dombey and Son; Dom-bey. and Son!' . . .The first part of the novel is devoted to the stultifying effect of Dombey's inability to see the world except in terms of his own commercial pride: the Dombey children, Paul and Florence, are isolated in a world which denies their natural impulses and affections. Paul, doomed with a precocious world-weariness almost before the novel has begun, dies, and 'Dombey and Son is a Daughter after all'.
The pathetic death of Paul Dombey, more intensely rendered in its way than that of Little Nell, is a reminder that Dickens's new control over his material does not involve any change in his basic fictional techniques. In the confrontation between authority and the child Dickens presents the conflict in much the same way as in the earlier novels, exploiting, for example, the combination of comedy and pathos familiar from Oliver Twist. For his education Paul is sent first to Mrs Pipchin, who runs 'an infantine Boarding-House of a very select description' with all the selfish asperity common to Dickensian widows, and then to Dr Blimber's boarding school.
'Ha!' said Dr Blimber. 'Shall we make a man of him?'The comic juxtaposition of uncomprehending adult and unsophisticated child is reminiscent of Oliver's asking for more, but in Dombey and Son scenes like this are integrated into the presentation of Paul Dombey's childhood in a way which qualifies their comedy and emphasizes, by contrast, the completely enveloping nature of the ethos that destroys him.
Dombey's obsession with the power of money lies at the heart of the novel and its repressive consequences are emphasized not only in terms of plot but by the way in which character and location are organized towards a total symbolic effect. It is a common Dickensian technique to identify characters by the life- style of their establishments and he employs it perhaps more purposefully in Dombey and Son than in any other of his novels. The business house of Dombey, where fortunes are made and life is destroyed, is contrasted with Sol Gills's shop, where business fails and humanity flourishes; the suffocating institutions presided over by Mrs Pipchin and Dr Blimber can be set against Staggs's Gardens, the home of Paul Dombey's first nurse, and Mrs MacStinger's lodging-house, where if children run wild they at least run naturally. Minor characters, like Miss Tox, Major Bagstock and John and Harriet Carker, are all presented in the homes which they have made for themselves and which express their personalities so precisely. At the centre of the novel Dombey's own house, with its cheerless rooms and staircases, is no home at all: from its windows Florence looks across the street to where she sees a very different household, with a very different head:
When he had dined, she could see them, through the open windows, go down with their governess or nurse, and cluster round the table; and in the still summer weather the sound of their childish voices and clear laughter would come ringing across the street into the drooping air of the room in which she sat. Then they would climb and clamber upstairs with him, and romp about him on the sofa, or group themselves at his knee, a very nosegay of little faces, while he seemed to tell them some story. Or they would come running Out into the balcony; and then Florence would hide herself quickly, lest it should check them in their joy, to see her in her black dress, sitting there alone. (ch. 18)For all its considerable qualities of plot it is through effects and contrasts such as these that Dombey and Son makes its most telling effect. At the climax of the novel we are again brought back to the Dombey mansion:
It is a great house still, proof against wind and weather, without breaches in the roof, or shattered windows, or dilapidated walls; but it is a ruin none the less, and the rats fly from it. (ch. 59)Alone, the ruined Dombey wanders its corridors at night. He contemplates suicide and is melodramatically saved by the daughter he had spurned, but far more instrumental in the assertion of Dombey's downfall than the events is their setting.. The great empty house, which has seen the birth and death of Paul, Florence's solitary growth to womanhood and the hollow triumph of Dombey's remarriage, is an expression of nemesis far more potent than the events of his career can possibly be.
Running parallel with Dombey's career is that of his unloved daughter: as he moves obdurately towards disaster, she leads a life of emotional starvation from which she is ultimately rescued by her marriage to Dombey's clerk, Walter Gay. Here again the atmospheric contrasts are as important as the narrative events; against the sterility of Florence's environment is set the vitality of the influences which surround Walter Gay. It is worth emphasizing, however, that, just as Dickens's firm hold on the character of Dombey at the centre of the novel gives it coherence and power, so the character of Florence is handled with a sensitivity that gives particular force to her part in the novel. Unlike Esther Summerson in Bleak House and Amy Dorrit, Florence Dombey draws from the reader a sympathy consistent with the facts of her situation, largely perhaps because the importance of her role is not specifically emphasized but develops as a consequence of the novel's central theme. This is not to suggest that Dickens deliberately adopted a more naturalistic approach in Dombey and Son, which as much as any other Dickens novel, has its high points of melodrama, comedy and pathos. What can be said is that these effects are skilfully controlled towards a unified expression of its central concerns in a way which was new to Dickens, and which was to open up new possibilities for the development of his art. (For a fuller discussion of points mentioned here and of many others see Kathleen Tillotson's excellent chapter on this novel in her Novels of the Eighteen-Forties.)
While working on Dombey and Son Dickens had confessed to the need he felt to control some aspects of his imagination:
Invention, thank God, seems the easiest thing in the world; and I seem to have such a preposterous sense of the ridiculous... as to be constantly requiring to restrain myself from launching into extravagances in the height of my enjoyment. (Forster, op. cit., Bk V, p. 5)The admission is an interesting testimony to the way in which Dickens regarded his creative impulse, and in David Copperfield he seems to have been able to relax the restraint which he had imposed upon its predecessor. David Copperfield's traditional popularity has always depended to some extent on the 'preposterous sense of the ridiculous' manifested in characters like Micawber and Betsy Trotwood, while the extent of Dickens's 'enjoyment' in the novel is communicated by the particular quality of its reflective tone:
I never hear the name, or read the name, of Yarmouth, but I am reminded of a certain Sunday morning on the beach, the bells ringing for church, little Em'ly leaning on my shoulder, Ham lazily dropping stones in the water, and the sun, away at sea, just breaking through the heavy mist, and showing us the ships, like their own shadows. (ch. 3)The beautifully realized sense of place, achieved again later in the descriptions of the marsh country in Great Expectations, is typical of the best of David Copperfield; nostalgia is far too crude a term to define its evocative sensitivity. The attention paid to the other major novels of Dickens's later period by modern critics has led to some neglect of what was once regarded as the representative Dickens novel and it is a neglect that amounts to self-deprivation. But when this is said, it has to be admitted that there is much that is unsatisfactory in David Copperfield. In his Introduction to the Everyman edition, written in 1907, Chesterton commented that 'although this is the best of all Dickens's books, it constantly disappoints the critical and intelligent reader.' So much the worse for him, one is tempted to respond, but Chesterton defines the more worrying aspects of David Copperfield when he discusses the novel's conclusion: 'I do not like the notion of David Copperfield sitting down comfortably to his tea-table with Agnes, having got rid of all the inconvenient or distressing characters of the story by sending them to Australia.' Dickens was not above getting rid of his more inconvenient or distressing children by sending them to Australia in real life, but the fictional experience is somehow less excusable. The combination of fiction and selective autobiography makes David Copperfield a disturbingly self-centred book: its hero is embarrassingly prone to a tendency to self-pity and wishful thinking which he never really outgrows and which is hardly improved by the smugness with which he regards himself at the conclusion of the novel:
I had advanced in fame and fortune, my domestic joy was perfect, I had been married ten happy years. (ch. 63)
The unity which Dickens had had to create in Dombey and Son is embodied in David Copperfield in its first-person narrative but, in spite of the special circumstances surrounding it, it has important factors in common with. the other later novels. Like Florence Dombey, David Copperfield suffers a loveless childhood, emphasized in this case by the physical and psychological violence of his stepfather's oppression. In a variety of ways, most obviously in the story of Little Em'ly, this is a Dickensian Song of Experience:the novel has no clearer message than its demonstration of the fragility of childhood innocence. Coupled with this is the sense of isolation, amounting on occasions to desolation, which surrounds David himself as the people to whom he commits himself in his search for security - Steerforth, Dora, even, though through no fault of his own, Peggotty - prove fallible. Given such a demonstration of the instability of existence, how can the marriage to Agnes seem other than a sham? Marriage, in fact, is to seem increasingly a mockery as a means of conclusion in the later novels:what in Martin Chuzzlewit is an acceptable convention of comedy becomes in Little Dorrit, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend almost a matter for apology.
David Copperfield, for all its variety of character and situation, is, of course, a deeply introspective novel. In the two great novels of the eighteen-fifties which followed it, Bleak House and Little Dorrit, Dickens turned, more completely than ever before, to an analysis of society. These two novels have attracted so much attention in recent years that it would serve little purpose to attempt a comprehensive account of them here, even were it possible, and instead I intend only to refer to specific issues arising from them: in the case of Bleak House the unusual narrative method that Dickens adopted, and its implications for the view of society presented in the novel, and in the case of Little Dorrit the organization of the novel towards the expression of an unrelenting social pessimism. (On Bleak House see in particular M. D. Zabel's essay in The Dickens Critics, ed. Ford and Lane. Edgar Johnson's chapter on Little Dorrit in his Charles Dickens is one of his finest and should be consulted.)
Dickens began work on Bleak House at the end of 1851, a year which has often been taken to mark a turning-point in Victorian social history. The Great Exhibition of that year affirmed a commercial and nationalistic pride that could hardly have been predicted from the social unease of the eighteen-thirties and forties: the fifties were the first decade of Victorian self-confidence. The limitations of such an over-simplification have been expertly demonstrated by Professor Asa Briggs (Victorian People, ch. 2), and Dickens himself no admirer of the Exhibition, was in fact probably more concerned with a speech which he made in the same year on behalf of the Metropolitan Sanitary Association, during the course of which he proclaimed:
That no man can estimate the amount of mischief grown in dirt, - that no man can say the evil stops here or stops there, either in its moral or physical effects, or can deny that it begins in the cradle and is not at rest in the miserable grave, is as certain as it is that the air from Gin Lane will be carried by an easterly wind into Mayfair, or that the furious pestilence raging in St Giles's no mortal list of Lady patronesses can keep out of Almack's. (Quoted in Butt and Tillotson, Dickens at Work, 1957, p. 191)In Bleak House Esther Summerson catches smallpox from the crossing-sweeper, Jo; her aristocratic mother dies at the gate of the poison-infested burying-ground close by Tom All-Alone's. The all- embracing nature of social evil in Bleak House is thus made explicit through a symbolism born of Dickens's immediate social concerns. Richard Carstone, the doomed ward of the Court of Chancery, says of that court's operations:
'My head ached with wondering how it happened, if men were neither fools nor rascals and my heart ached to think that they could possibly be either. . . .' (ch. 5)The comment applies not just to Chancery itself but by extension to the social system of which it is presented as the representative institution in the novel.
To emphasize the extent of his social preoccupations in Bleak House Dickens deliberately contrived a dual-narrative in which the life- story of his heroine, Esther Summerson, related as a first-person narrative, is interwoven with an extensive range of imaginative social documentation provided by the author himself. The effect is a subtle one - the novel gains stability from the progressive unravelling of Esther's story, while leaving Dickens free to expatiate on various examples of social abuse in the manner of his earlier picaresque method. The evils which he attacks, ranging from slum-dwelling to misguided philanthropy and including every form of exploitation, are indeed related to the main plot, but the fact that the novel is deliberately compartmentalized in this way allows Dickens to extend his social criticism without limitation.
There is, however, a further effect of the narrative method that is vital to an understanding of Bleak House. If Dickens supplies his analysis in what might loosely be called the picaresque section of the novel, his remedy is contained in the 'linear' narrative of Esther's life-story, and in particular in its account of her relationship with Jarndyce, the father- figure of the novel, who knows the ways of Chancery and constantly asserts the futility of opposition. Jarndyce's method of alleviation is a simple one springing from his inexhaustible bank-account, and, in fact, all that Dickens can offer against the realistic depredations of the social system is charity of improbably mythic proportions. The inadequacy of such a solution is best demonstrated by the way in which Jarndyce, a descendant of the Cheerybles of Nicholas Nickleby and Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist, is presented as a figure of semi-divine potential. At the climax of Bleak House, when he has made Esther a present of not only her home but also her husband, she describes her reaction:
I was cold, and I trembled violently; but not a word he uttered was lost. As I sat looking fixedly at him, and the sun's rays descended, softly shining through the leaves upon his bare head, I felt as if the brightness on him must be like the brightness of the Angels. (ch. 64)The unrealistic nature of Jarndyce's role in Bleak House, far from providing an answer to the social evil documented in the novel, is, in fact, an expression of pessimism about the prospects of social change as intense as any expressed by the social analysis itself; in that Esther's narrative is ostensibly optimistic, the dual-narrative method can be seen as enabling Dickens to put forward a solution to the problems outlined in the novel which he could scarcely have endorsed in rational terms.
The pessimism implicit in Bleak House finds overt expression in Little Dorrit, written some five years later. Here Dickens reverts to the world of Dombey and Son in that the novel is given a specifically commercial setting: the inter-relationship between financial preoccupations and selfishness is emphasized not only by the thwarted life of the hero Arthur Clennam, a Paul Dombey who managed to survive, but also, in parody, through the social pretensions of William Dorrit, the Father of the Marshalsea, existing in fantasy when he is imprisoned and in fact after his release. The theme is given a fuller social perspective by the career of the financier, Merdle, surrounded by pillars of the establishment until he is exposed as 'the greatest Forger and the greatest Thief that ever cheated the gallows' (Bk II, ch. 25). The structure of Little Dorrit is a simple one compared with the ingenuity of Bleak House; the real issue is not, as Dickens himself was forced to enquire in a memorandum, how the Clennams are related to the Dorrits, but how the course of their lives demonstrates the hopelessness of existence in the prison-world that the novel portrays. The prison-symbolism of Little Dorrit has received ample comment: one need only remark here on the way in which the actual prisons of the novel and life itself as it is portrayed there become interchangeable. Dorrit released is Dorrit enchained: Clennam imprisoned is Clennam liberated, at. least temporarily, from the pressures of the outside world. Little Dorrit ends with the marriage of Clennam to the heroine, Amy Dorrit, but the sense of release that this convention had given in the earlier novels is never attempted. The marriage takes place in an atmosphere devoid of festivity and the concluding sentence of the novel describes how, after it,
They went quietly down into the. roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar. (Bk II, ch. 34)Little Dorrit has its 'good' characters - Amy herself, the Meagleses, Doyce the engineer, and in their own way, the rent-collector Panks and Flora Finching, nursing her senile aunt - but they are all cast in a minor key and their capacity for happiness seems constantly overshadowed by the predominant atmosphere of defeat that the novel suggests. Here the representative institution is the Circumlocution Office, a government department devoted to the frustration of the individual; in Little Dorrit Dickens seems to abandon the idea that the individual can assert himself with any hope of success against the pressures of society.
The other novels of the eighteen-fifties, Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities, were both written in weekly instalments for Dickens's own periodicals, Household Words and All the Year Round. Of the novels written in this way only Great Expectations really achieves the stature of the major novels although, since its championship by F. R. Leavis in The Great Tradition, Hard Times has come to occupy a special place in Dickens studies. Written soon after the completion of Bleak House and after a visit by Dickens to the industrial North, it is, in fact, far more successful as an attack on Utilitarianism than as a discussion of specifically industrial issues. The economy of its form has certain advantages in this respect; Hard Times makes its point about its chosen target lucidly and forcefully, and certainly Humphry House's assertion that it is 'a sport and an anomaly' (The Dickens World, 1941, p. 34) gives a misleading impression. These qualities, however, cannot disguise the fact that its characterization is often unsubtle and its irony often laboured. Amplitude is fundamental to Dickens's art, and the restrictions imposed upon him by the comparative brevity of Hard Times are not always successfully overcome.
A Tale of Two Cities is more of an anomaly than Hard Times, and some critics have related its singular emotional tone to aspects of Dickens's private life, and particularly to his involvement with the young actress, Ellen Ternan. It is probably more to the point to see this novel as an expression of the subconscious fear of revolutionary violence which Dickens had revealed earlier in Barnaby Rudge and which he shared with so many of his contemporaries. In the Preface Dickens refers to 'the philosophy of Mr Carlyle's wonderful book'. Carlyle's French Revolution had been published in 1837, at a time when it was easy to see the significance of its theme for contemporary England, but A Tale of Two Cities, appearing more than twenty years later, is an interesting reminder that anxiety on the subject of revolution was not confined to the first half of the century. The 'two cities' of the title are, of course, London and Paris, and if the opening chapters express a modernist's contempt for the London of an earlier age, it is not implausible to relate Dickens's account of the fall of the French aristocracy, with its hallmark of gratuitous indifference, to his comments on society in his other late novels. Indeed, some such comparison is suggested in the opening paragraph:
. . . in short the period was so like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (ch. I)but it is never consistently developed. Inspired by Carlyle, A Tale of Two Cities matches Carlyle in its rhetoric and in the vagueness with which its social and emotional themes are explored. For the complexity of tone and analysis that characterizes Dickens's other work of the period are substituted shrillness and a pervasive sentimentality epitomized by Sidney Carton's famous last words. The pessimistic turn taken by Dickens's novels from Dombey and Son onwards could scarcely have passed unnoticed by contemporary reviewers. In a long review of Little Dorrit, for example, in Blackwood's Magazine entitled 'Remonstrance with Dickens', the writer lamented what he regarded as a distortion of Dickens's natural propensities:
. . . we can't wait for the end of the wilderness of Little Dorrit before recording our earnest protest and deep lament; for in that wilderness we sit down and weep when we remember thee, O Pickwick! (Blackwood's Magazine, April 1857)The review concludes by begging Dickens not to go on 'building streets of Bleak Houses, and creating crowds of Little Dorrits'. Pleas for a return to the spirit of the earlier novels were often a way of expressing disapproval of what were felt to be dangerously radical social attitudes: Lord Macaulay's famous comment that Hard Times was 'sullen socialism' was not an isolated example. There were other causes for anxiety amongst Dickens's admirers. Aware of his unhappiness in his marriage, which came to a climax with his separation from his wife in 1858, and his removal to his new house at Gad's Hill near Rochester, his friend, Angela Burdett-Coutts, was afraid that his domestic difficulties had affected his writing. Certainly Little Dorrit, in particular, of the later novels seems in many ways to suggest an impasse: the constant atmosphere of failure surrounding its middle-aged hero has psychological as well as social implications.
Settled at Gad's Hill, however, Dickens seems to have found new resources of creative energy. His last completed novels, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, together with the unfinished Edwin Drood, are certainly no more optimistic than the novels which preceded them - Our Mutual Friend especially, suggests a society more positively predatory than anything in Bleak House or Little Dorrit - but they are marked by new reserves of that fictive inventiveness which is characteristic of Dickens at his greatest, reinforced now by an increasing fascination with the macabre themes of crime and death.
Great Expectations was Dickens's second 'autobiographical' novel - 'autobiographical' in the very general sense that it presents in a first- person narrative the career, and more importantly the psychological development, of its hero. As in David Copperfield, Dickens makes skilful use of the narrator's recollected sense of place. From the opening chapter we are presented through the eyes of the child, Pip, with an evocative picture of the marsh country amongst which he grew up, and to which he is to return, at moments of emotional crisis, throughout the course of the novel:
Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard... and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea. . . . (ch. 1)This kind of atmospheric precision achieves symbolic force and recurs, for example, in Pip's references to the great furnace at the forge where he works with the blacksmith Joe Gargery, and in the descriptions of the decayed sterility of Satis House, the mansion of his supposed benefactress, Miss Havisham.
The theme of Great Expectations is that of false pride and again, as in Dombey and Son, it is given a specifically monetary perspective:Pip's ambitions to be a gentleman, based on the belief that he is the chosen protégé of Miss Havisham, are shattered when he learns that his sponsor is the convict Magwitch. But Great Expectations is, in fact, equivocal about money-values and its real strength lies in the quality of its psychological penetration, revealed not only in its account of Pip's reactions to his situation, but also in features like the mysterious split personality of the criminal lawyer Jaggers and the self- imposed death-in-life of Miss Havisham, the consequence of her having been jilted many years before. Related to, and indeed reinforcing, these psychological concerns is a fascination with crime, emphasized by the role of Magwitch and his involvement in the lives of both Pip and the unattainable heroine, Estella. In his notes for the novel Dickens wrote:
Magwitch tried, found guilty, & left forand at the climax of the novel he includes a highly dramatized account of the death sentence passed on Magwitch at his trial. Preoccupations which had revealed themselves in the early part of Dickens's career, in episodes like Fagin's last night alive, the suicide of Ralph Nickleby and the murder in Martin Chuzzlewit, thus recur in these final novels.
Violence and the mentality of the criminal are even more intensely represented in Our Mutual Friend and Edwin Drood and in the latter, with the prominence given to the character of Jasper Drood, choirmaster, opium addict and presumably murderer, Dickens would seem to have intended to concentrate specifically on these issues. Dickens had published Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone in All the Year Round in 1868 and this may have induced him to write his own detective story, although Edwin Drood is a work of potentially far greater power than Collins's novel. Speculation on the subject of Dickens's unfinished novel, however, while fascinating, is not always productive, and I therefore intend to conclude this survey of Dickens's work with a discussion of Our Mutual Friend his last, and arguably his greatest, completed novel.
Our Mutual Friend has had a chequered critical career. Its opening numbers were not altogether well received and Dickens endured considerable anxiety about its progress. The young Henry James attacked it violently for its lack of discipline and 'humanity':
What a world were this world if the world of Our Mutual Friend were honest reflection of it! But a community of eccentrics is impossible. . . . Where in these pages are the depositories of that intelligence without which the movement of life would cease? Who represents nature?(The Nation, I (1865), reprinted in Ford and Lane, The Dickens Critics, 1961)and of the early critics only Shaw seems to have anticipated such modern views as those of Edmund Wilson and Edgar Johnson, who rank it with Dickens's greatest achievements rather than considering it as evidence of decline.
The first thing that has to be said about Our Mutual Friend is that it is a novel in which Dickens, in a way curiously comparable to Henry James himself in his last novels, takes his fictional techniques to the point of self-parody. The convoluted plot, involving its central character in not two, but three, separate identities, all involving disguise, outdoes anything its author had contrived before; we are asked to accept concealed evidence, simulated behaviour and hidden secrets as part of the day-to-day processes of existence. The characterization offers a range of grotesques like the one- legged Silas Wegg, hired to read the 'Decline-and-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan- Empire' to the equally improbable Golden Dustman Noddy Boffin, Mr Venus, taxidermist and dealer in 'human warious', and Jenny Wren, the deformed dolls' dressmaker, whose love for the good Lizzie Hexam alternates with sadistic fantasies about the fate of her enemies. Our Mutual Friend seems at times like a vast and somewhat decaying baroque structure, threatening at any moment to collapse.
The effect of this exaggeration of technique, like that of James's prose in The Ambassadors, is one of challenge to the reader, and it is a challenge which, if accepted, intensifies the thematic concerns of the novel. These, crudely, are two-fold and combine the preoccupations which I have outlined in the earlier novels - social constriction, based on obsession with money, and psychological stress, particularly of a violent kind.
Our Mutual Friend is set very firmly in the present: 'In these times of ours, though concerning the. exact year there is no need to be precise' (Bk I, ch. I). The history of the Harmon inheritance, which consists of a series of dust-heaps containing untold wealth, is introduced at a society dinner, whose members are presented as typical of the Victorian ruling-class: Veneering, the spectator, who is to become an M.P., Podsnap, the successful businessman, confident in his own incontrovertible and jingoistic morality, and a group of upper-class decadents to whom life is simply a bore. These characters survive at the end of the novel - if Veneering's fraudulent career is about to be exposed, this is mentioned only casually and he will easily be replaced - to conclude the narration of the Harmon story. The implications are obvious: social status may be based on shaky foundations -
. . . traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world. Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners; have Shares. (Bk I, ch. 10)- but the system is immovable. The imagery of speculation is repeated throughout the novel; when the humble Boffins, temporarily enriched by the inheritance, decide to adopt an orphan,
The suddenness of an orphan's rise in the market was not to be paralleled by the maddest records of the Stock Exchange. He would he at five thousand per cent. discount . . at nine in the morning, and (being enquired for) would go up at five thousand per cent. premium before noon. (Bk I, ch. 16)Silas Wegg speculates in ingratiation (Bk I, ch. 5), while a pair of confidence-tricksters, the Lammles, speculate in each other in marriage and, disappointed, attempt to entrap another acquaintance, 'Fascination' Fledgeby, the child of a similar mercenary marriage. They
. . . all had a touch of the outlaw, as to their rovings in the merry greenwood of Jobbery Forest, lying in the outskirts of the Share Market and the Stock Exchange. (Bk II, ch. 5)In Bleak House and Little Dorrit Dickens took institutions as metaphors for social malaise: in Our Mutual Friend he attacked an economic system, engaging it not on the grounds of theory, but in terms of its effects on human behaviour.
This theme is emphasized by the magnetizing effect of the Harmon inheritance on those who come into contact with it and Our Mutual Friend can justly be said to be a fitting culmination to the vein of social criticism which Dickens embarked upon in Dombey and Son and pursued through the novels which followed it. Bound into its story also is the interest in the more dramatic aspects of human psychology, which had been hinted at in the early novels and which re-emerged more powerfully towards the end of Dickens's career. The world of Our Mutual Friend is a Waste Land in which boredom and criminality flourish. Boredom is seen in the behaviour of the enervated young lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn, who is eventually rescued from his affected nihilism, after a ritualistic immersion in the Thames, by the love of Lizzie Hexam, the waterman's daughter; criminality is revealed through the underworld behaviour of the river- scavengers; and, more specifically, the uncontrollable passion of Wrayburn's rival, the schoolmaster Bradley Headstone, is an extended study in violence on a level which Dickens had scarcely attempted before; inevitably melodramatic, he nevertheless conveys a power born of Dickens's own propensities towards the extremes of emotion.
An account as brief as this can only hint at, and over-simplify, the complexity of a novel like Our Mutual Friend. If this novel lacks the thematic coherence of Dombey and Son, the range of Bleak House or the atmospheric consistency of Little Dorrit, it more than compensates for these omissions by the intensity of its satire and by the power of its insights and implications. The eccentricity of its characterization has been cited as evidence of its author's tiredness in the last stages of his demanding career; in fact, Our Mutual Friend is an astonishingly inventive, if at times morbid, novel, and far from indicating exhaustion it developed new areas of interest, some of which obviously were to have been explored in Edwin Drood.
The reservations expressed by some of the reviewers about the social stance adopted by Dickens in his later novels seem not to have been reflected in his general popularity. He was elated to be able to claim that Edwin Drood was meeting with more success than any of its predecessors. His death, like that of Tennyson, the other great Victorian writer to become an institution in his own time, was an occasion for national mourning; a special train conveyed his coffin from Gad's Hill to London for its interment in Westminster Abbey. Like Shakespeare, Dickens worked in a popular medium at a time when it was becoming the predominant literary form and, like Shakespeare, he enriched it through the fertility of his imagination and the extent of his vision. In that that vision, in even the darkest of the novels, remained fundamentally comic, I suspect that, where criticism has found him wanting, it is often because comedy, of its nature, presents particular problems for the moral certitude which criticism tends to embody. This in itself is a measure of Dickens's greatness: like all great artists he forces us to reconsider the attitudes which we bring to art.