English Matters began with a 300th-birthday tribute to Samuel Johnson in 2009, and makes its belated-phoenix reappearance today to mark the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens on Tuesday 7 February.
Like Dr. Johnson, Charles Dickens is a huge figure in English studies, so large and various that it’s practically impossible to sum him up. You know an author is great when other great writers spend so much time dissing him. “Dickens knows Man but not men,” complained Henry James, a subtle distinction: basically, Dickens didn’t get out enough in the social circles that James yearned to dine in. Oscar Wilde snarked at The Old Curiosity Shop: “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” And what was Virginia Woolf implying when she said that George Eliot’s Middlemarch was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people?”
Among great English novelists, George Orwell most admired Dickens, but with qualifications: “Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters.” Orwell specifies lots of minor matters. However, he goes on to say that “the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny.” Orwell was therefore fascinated and appalled by the images of (literal) class warfare in A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens, who hated injustices perpetrated by the rich and powerful, hated the savagery of the great revolution against the rich and powerful. Of course, one imagines that the leftist-crusading author of Animal Farm would be especially drawn to such a contradiction. But it points to an odd dynamic about Dickens: that his best-known novel is in some ways his least typical, and gives an impression of him as a kind of reactionary.
Is A Tale of Two Cities “written for grown-up people?” I read it in the 8th grade; it followed Silas Marner (7th grade) as the total of my middle-school exposure to Literature. I loved it; it’s all plot, and it offers gorgeous opportunities to read its final sentences in the voice of Ronald Colman. But as Jeff Daniels says in The Squid and the Whale, it’s “minor Dickens.” The major novels are the ones where he refracted the boundless pain and titanic energy of his own personality through a limitless set of characters. “After Shakespeare, God has created most,” said Alexandre Dumas père, but he was too busy creating a lot himself to keep up with the even greater creations of Dickens.
I read David Copperfield on my own even before the 8th grade, struggling through a world so unfamiliar to me as a child of 1960s America that I envisioned almost everything about it wrong, picturing Great Yarmouth as something like the Jersey Shore. (I even thought the Peggottys were black, which actually says a lot about parallels between race in America and class in Britain.) David Copperfield, like the earlier Oliver Twist, is a book about gentility in eclipse. David’s birthright has been lost in the shuffle, and he descends into an urban working class below which there is no obvious safety net. Orwell thought Dickens bourgeois, which he certainly was; Orwell remarks on how “it is questionable whether he really regards [the working class] as equals.”
Yet all of Dickens’s class squeamishnesses have to be seen as relative. In Anna Karenina, written well after Dickens’s death, Vronsky goes to the opera and muses
God knows who they were; the same dirty crowd in the gallery; and in all this crowd, in the boxes and front rows, there were about forty real men and women.
Perhaps Tolstoy is satirizing Vronsky’s own prejudices, but I doubt it. For Tolstoy, the middle class is barely human; society consists of a few aristocratic families and some rustic, idealized muzhiks. For Dickens, despite all the sentimentality, despite Tattycoram and Little Nell and Tiny Tim, every range of the middle class exists, and those trying to hang on and make a living against the odds exist most of all. The poor exist, and the homeless, and the mentally handicapped, and the impossibly pretentious, and the bullies, and the victims, and the ciphers. Everyone, in short, that you never hear about if you’d rather be reading Jane Austen
Great Expectations crystallizes the anxieties of class better than any other Dickens novel. If David is degraded by his time in the bottle warehouse, Pip is degraded by his own desire to leave the working class behind. Blacksmith Joe Gargery may be a caricature of the kind of “men” that Dickens really didn’t know any better than he knew Henry James’s minor nobility. But he’s a damn sight better person than Pip, and Pip knows it, and Pip can’t help despising Joe anyway, despite and because of Joe’s essential decency.
If English novelists have tended to look at Dickens with various attitudes fashioned from envy – disdain, embarrassment, indignation, condescension – writers in other countries have just wallowed in his influence. Mark Twain when young seems to have had a mancrush on Dickens, and it would be evident from his writing if he hadn’t admitted as much. Herman Melville shared Dickens’s histrionics, his panoply of characters, his tendency to lapse into blank verse. And many a European writer looked to Dickens, as earlier generations had looked to Walter Scott, as the pattern of what one could do in fiction. This includes Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (the latter’s range of social reference resembling Dickens’s as much as Tolstoy’s differed), Hugo and Zola, and perhaps most of all Proust. It may seem preposterous to connect Proust to Dickens, but in characterization and satire, Proust was a positive disciple. The “petit noyau” of the Verdurins, in Proust, is an homage to the Veneerings’ circle in Our Mutual Friend, and Proust’s habit of reducing minor characters to verbal or physical tics (think of the narrator’s aunts who talk to M. Swann only in recondite allusions) is a perfection of Dickens’s method.
When I was young, the distinguished Welsh actor Emlyn Williams came to New Jersey and gave a reading, in full dress and character as Charles Dickens, from Dickens’s works – much as the novelist used to do on continual speaking tours himself. Williams was by all accounts a frosty, inaccessible man; Dickens could strike people that way too. They were both larger than life, surrounded by myths and pretenses, anxieties and baggage. Without dropping a smidgen of character or a syllable of prose, Williams read his way through his pieces, leaving an effect of great technical mastery and considerable personal mystery. Dickens was apparently also like that. As a middle-aged celebrity of great wealth and unmatched fame, he would sometimes walk from his estate in Kent all the way to central London and wander the haunts of his childhood by dark, then walk back to Rochester by dawn. It’s impossible to know what drove him to create so much, and hard to empathize with him as a person. That’s OK: all you really have to do is read him with appropriate abandon.