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Title: Charles Dickens
Author: G K Chesterton
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Title: Charles Dickens
Author: G K Chesterton

First published 1906








Much of our modern difficulty, in religion and other things, arises
merely from this: that we confuse the word "indefinable" with the word
"vague." If some one speaks of a spiritual fact as "indefinable" we
promptly picture something misty, a cloud with indeterminate edges. But
this is an error even in commonplace logic. The thing that cannot be
defined is the first thing; the primary fact. It is our arms and legs,
our pots and pans, that are indefinable. The indefinable is the
indisputable. The man next door is indefinable, because he is too actual
to be defined. And there are some to whom spiritual things have the same
fierce and practical proximity; some to whom God is too actual to be

But there is a third class of primary terms. There are popular
expressions which every one uses and no one can explain; which the wise
man will accept and reverence, as he reverences desire or darkness or
any elemental thing. The prigs of the debating club will demand that he
should define his terms. And, being a wise man, he will flatly refuse.
This first inexplicable term is the most important term of all. The word
that has no definition is the word that has no substitute. If a man
falls back again and again on some such word as "vulgar" or "manly," do
not suppose that the word means nothing because he cannot say what it
means. If he could say what the word means he would say what it means
instead of saying the word. When the Game Chicken (that fine thinker)
kept on saying to Mr. Toots, "It's mean. That's what it is--it's mean,"
he was using language in the wisest possible way. For what else could he
say? There is no word for mean except mean. A man must be very mean
himself before he comes to defining meanness. Precisely because the word
is indefinable, the word is indispensable.

In everyday talk, or in any of our journals, we may find the loose but
important phrase, "Why have we no great men to-day? Why have we no great
men like Thackeray, or Carlyle, or Dickens?" Do not let us dismiss this
expression, because it appears loose or arbitrary. "Great" does mean
something, and the test of its actuality is to be found by noting how
instinctively and decisively we do apply it to some men and not to
others; above all, how instinctively and decisively we do apply it to
four or five men in the Victorian era, four or five men of whom Dickens
was not the least. The term is found to fit a definite thing. Whatever
the word "great" means, Dickens was what it means. Even the fastidious
and unhappy who cannot read his books without a continuous critical
exasperation, would use the word of him without stopping to think. They
feel that Dickens is a great writer even if he is not a good writer. He
is treated as a classic; that is, as a king who may now be deserted, but
who cannot now be dethroned. The atmosphere of this word clings to him;
and the curious thing is that we cannot get it to cling to any of the
men of our own generation. "Great" is the first adjective which the most
supercilious modern critic would apply to Dickens. And "great" is the
last adjective that the most supercilious modern critic would apply to
himself We dare not claim to be great men, even when we claim to be
superior to them.

Is there, then, any vital meaning in this idea of "greatness" or in our
laments over its absence in our own time? Some people say, indeed, that
this sense of mass is but a mirage of distance, and that men always
think dead men great and live men small. They seem to think that the law
of perspective in the mental world is the precise opposite to the law of
perspective in the physical world. They think that figures grow larger
as they walk away. But this theory cannot be made to correspond with the
facts. We do not lack great men in our own day because we decline to
look for them in our own day; on the contrary, we are looking for them
all day long. We are not, as a matter of fact, mere examples of those
who stone the prophets and leave it to their posterity to build their
sepulchres. If the world would only produce our perfect prophet, solemn,
searching, universal, nothing would give us keener pleasure than to
build his sepulchre. In our eagerness we might even bury him alive. Nor
is it true that the great men of the Victorian era were not called great
in their own time. By many they were called great from the first.
Charlotte Brontë held this heroic language about Thackeray. Ruskin held
it about Carlyle. A definite school regarded Dickens as a great man from
the first days of his fame: Dickens certainly belonged to this school.

In reply to this question, "Why have we no great men to-day?" many
modern explanations are offered. Advertisement, cigarette-smoking, the
decay of religion, the decay of agriculture, too much humanitarianism,
too little humanitarianism, the fact that people are educated
insufficiently, the fact that they are educated at all, all these are
reasons given. If I give my own explanation, it is not for its intrinsic
value; it is because my answer to the question, "Why have we no great
men?" is a short way of stating the deepest and most catastrophic
difference between the age in which we live and the early nineteenth
century; the age under the shadow of the French Revolution, the age in
which Dickens was born.

The soundest of the Dickens critics, a man of genius, Mr. George
Gissing, opens his criticism by remarking that the world in which
Dickens grew up was a hard and cruel world. He notes its gross feeding,
its fierce sports, its fighting and foul humour, and all this he
summarises in the words hard and cruel. It is curious how different are
the impressions of men. To me this old English world seems infinitely
less hard and cruel than the world described in Gissing's own novels.
Coarse external customs are merely relative, and easily assimilated. A
man soon learnt to harden his hands and harden his head. Faced with the
world of Gissing, he can do little but harden his heart. But the
fundamental difference between the beginning of the nineteenth century
and the end of it is a difference simple but enormous. The first period
was full of evil things, but it was full of hope. The second period, the
fin de siécle, was even full (in some sense) of good things. But it was
occupied in asking what was the good of good things. Joy itself became
joyless; and the fighting of Cobbett was happier than the feasting of
Walter Pater. The men of Cobbett's day were sturdy enough to endure and
inflict brutality; but they were also sturdy enough to alter it. This
"hard and cruel" age was, after all, the age of reform. The gibbet stood
up black above them; but it was black against the dawn.

This dawn, against which the gibbet and all the old cruelties stood out
so black and clear, was the developing idea of liberalism, the French
Revolution. It was a clear and a happy philosophy. And only against such
philosophies do evils appear evident at all. The optimist is a better
reformer than the pessimist; and the man who believes life to be
excellent is the man who alters it most. It seems a paradox, yet the
reason of it is very plain. The pessimist can be enraged at evil. But
only the optimist can be surprised at it. From the reformer is required
a simplicity of surprise. He must have the faculty of a violent and
virgin astonishment. It is not enough that he should think injustice
distressing; he must think injustice absurd, an anomaly in existence, a
matter less for tears than for a shattering laughter. On the other hand,
the pessimists at the end of the century could hardly curse even the
blackest thing; for they could hardly see it against its black and
eternal background. Nothing was bad, because everything was bad. Life in
prison was infamous--like life anywhere else. The fires of persecution
were vile--like the stars. We perpetually find this paradox of a
contented discontent. Dr. Johnson takes too sad a view of humanity, but
he is also too satisfied a Conservative. Rousseau takes too rosy a view
of humanity, but he causes a revolution. Swift is angry, but a Tory.
Shelley is happy, and a rebel. Dickens, the optimist, satirises the
Fleet, and the Fleet is gone. Gissing, the pessimist, satirises
Suburbia, and Suburbia remains.

Mr. Gissing's error, then, about the early Dickens period we may put
thus: in calling it hard and cruel he omits the wind of hope and
humanity that was blowing through it. It may have been full of inhuman
institutions, but it was full of humanitarian people. And this
humanitarianism was very much the better (in my view) because it was a
rough and even rowdy humanitarianism. It was free from all the faults
that cling to the name. It was, if you will, a coarse humanitarianism.
It was a shouting, fighting, drinking philanthropy--a noble thing. But,
in any case, this atmosphere was the atmosphere of the Revolution; and
its main idea was the idea of human equality. I am not concerned here to
defend the egalitarian idea against the solemn and babyish attacks made
upon it by the rich and learned of to-day. I am merely concerned to
state one of its practical consequences. One of the actual and certain
consequences of the idea that all men are equal is immediately to
produce very great men. I would say superior men, only that the hero
thinks of himself as great, but not as superior. This has been hidden
from us of late by a foolish worship of sinister and exceptional men,
men without comrade-ship, or any infectious virtue. This type of Caesar
does exist. There is a great man who makes every man feel small. But the
real great man is the man who makes every man feel great.

The spirit of the early century produced great men, because it believed
that men were great. It made strong men by encouraging weak men. Its
education, its public habits, its rhetoric, were all addressed towards
encouraging the greatness in everybody. And by encouraging the greatness
in everybody, it naturally encouraged superlative greatness in some.
Superiority came out of the high rapture of equality. It is precisely in
this sort of passionate unconsciousness and bewildering community of
thought that men do become more than themselves. No man by taking
thought can add one cubit to his stature; but a man may add many cubits
to his stature by not taking thought. The best men of the Revolution
were simply common men at their best. This is why our age can never
understand Napoleon. Because he was something great and triumphant, we
suppose that he must have been something extraordinary, something
inhuman. Some say he was the Devil; some say he was the Superman. Was he
a very, very bad man? Was he a good man with some greater moral code? We
strive in vain to invent the mysteries behind that immortal mask of
brass. The modern world with all its subtleness will never guess his
strange secret; for his strange secret was that he was very like other

And almost without exception all the great men have come out of this
atmosphere of equality. Great men may make despotisms; but democracies
make great men. The other main factory of heroes besides a revolution is
a religion. And a religion again, is a thing which, by its nature, does
not think of men as more or less valuable, but of men as all intensely
and painfully valuable, a democracy of eternal danger. For religion all
men are equal, as all pennies are equal, because the only value in any
of them is that they bear the image of the King. This fact has been
quite insufficiently observed in the study of religious heroes. Piety
produces intellectual greatness precisely because piety in itself is
quite indifferent to intellectual greatness. The strength of Cromwell
was that he cared for religion. But the strength of religion was that it
did not care for Cromwell; did not care for him, that is, any more than
for anybody else. He and his footman were equally welcomed to warm
places in the hospitality of hell. It has often been said, very truly,
that religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel
extraordinary; it is an equally important truth that religion is the
thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary.

Carlyle killed the heroes; there have been none since his time. He
killed the heroic (which he sincerely loved) by forcing upon each man
this question: "Am I strong or weak?" To which the answer from any
honest man whatever (yes, from Caesar or Bismarck) would "weak." He asked
for candidates for a definite aristocracy, for men who should hold
themselves consciously above their fellows. He advertised for them, so
to speak; he promised them glory; he promised them omnipotence. They
have not appeared yet. They never will. For the real heroes of whom he
wrote had appeared out of an ecstacy of the ordinary. I have already
instanced such a case as Cromwell. But there is no need to go through
all the great men of Carlyle. Carlyle himself was as great as any of
them; and if ever there was a typical child of the French Revolution, it
was he. He began with the wildest hopes from the Reform Bill, and
although he soured afterwards, he had been made and moulded by those
hopes. He was disappointed with Equality; but Equality was not
disappointed with him. Equality is justified of all her children.

But we, in the post-Carlylean period, have be come fastidious about
great men. Every man examines himself, every man examines his
neighbours, to see whether they or he quite come up to the exact line of
greatness. The answer is, naturally, "No." And many a man calls himself
contentedly "a minor poet" who would then have been inspired to be a
major prophet. We are hard to please and of little faith. We can hardly
believe that there is such a thing as a great man. They could hardly
believe there was such a thing as a small one. But we are always praying
that our eyes may behold greatness, instead of praying that our hearts
may be filled with it. Thus, for instance, the Liberal party (to which I
belong) was, in its period of exile, always saying, "O for a Gladstone!"
and such things. We were always asking that it might be strengthened
from above, instead of ourselves strengthening it from below, with our
hope and our anger and our youth. Every man was waiting for a leader.
Every man ought to be waiting for a chance to lead. If a god does come
upon the earth, he will descend at the sight of the brave. Our
prostrations and litanies are of no avail; our new moons and our
sabbaths are an abomination. The great man will come when all of us are
feeling great, not when all of us are feeling small. He will ride in at
some splendid moment when we all feel that we could do without him.

We are then able to answer in some manner the question, "Why have we no
great men?" We have no great men chiefly because we are always looking
for them. We are connoisseurs of greatness, and connoisseurs can never
be great; we are fastidious, that is, we are small. When Diogenes went
about with a lantern looking for an honest man, I am afraid he had very
little time to be honest himself And when anybody goes about on his
hands and knees looking for a great man to worship, he is making sure
that one man at any rate shall not be great. Now, the error of Diogenes
is evident. The error of Diogenes lay in the fact that he omitted to
notice that every man is both an honest man and a dishonest man.
Diogenes looked for his honest man inside every crypt and cavern; but he
never thought of looking inside the thief And that is where the Founder
of Christianity found the honest man; He found him on a gibbet and
promised him Paradise. Just as Christianity looked for the honest man
inside the thief, democracy looked for the wise man inside the fool. It
encouraged the fool to be wise. We can call this thing sometimes
optimism, sometimes equality; the nearest name for it is encouragement.
It had its exaggerations--failure to understand original sin, notions
that education would make all men good, the childlike yet pedantic
philosophies of human perfectibility. But the whole was full of a faith
in the infinity of human souls, which is in itself not only Christian
but orthodox; and this we have lost amid the limitations of a
pessimistic science. Christianity said that any man could be a saint if
he chose; democracy, that any man could be a citizen if he chose. The
note of the last few decades in art and ethics has been that a man is
stamped with an irrevocable psychology, and is cramped for perpetuity in
the prison of his skull. It was a world that expected everything of
everybody. It was a world that encouraged anybody to be anything. And in
England and literature its living expression was Dickens.

We shall consider Dickens in many other capacities, but let us put this
one first. He was the voice in England of this humane intoxication and
expansion, this encouraging of anybody to be anything. His best books
are a carnival of liberty, and there is more of the real spirit of the
French Revolution in "Nicholas Nickleby" than in "The Tale of Two
Cities." His work has the great glory of the Revolution, the bidding of
every man to be himself; it has also the revolutionary deficiency: it
seems to think that this mere emancipation is enough. No man encouraged
his characters so much as Dickens. "I am an affectionate father," he
says, "to every child of my fancy." He was not only an affectionate
father, he was an over-indulgent father. The children of his fancy are
spoilt children. They shake the house like heavy and shouting
schoolboys; they smash the story to pieces like so much furniture. When
we moderns write stories our characters are better controlled. But,
alas! our characters are rather easier to control. We are in no danger
from the gigantic gambols of creatures like Mantalini and Micawber. We
are in no danger of giving our readers too much Weller or Wegg. We have
not got it to give. When we experience the ungovernable sense of life
which goes along with the old Dickens sense of liberty, we experience
the best of the revolution. We are filled with the first of all
democratic doctrines, that all men are interesting; Dickens tried to
make some of his people appear dull people, but he could not keep them
dull. He could not make a monotonous man. The bores in his books are
brighter than the wits in other books.

I have put this position first for a defined reason. It is useless for
us to attempt to imagine Dickens and his life unless we are able at
least to imagine this old atmosphere of a democratic optimism--a
confidence in common men. Dickens depends upon such a comprehension in a
rather unusual manner, a manner worth explanation, or at least remark.

The disadvantage under which Dickens has fallen, both as an artist and a
moralist, is very plain. His misfortune is that neither of the two last
movements in literary criticism has done him any good. He has suffered
alike from his enemies, and from the enemies of his enemies. The facts
to which I refer are familiar. When the world first awoke from the mere
hypnotism of Dickens, from the direct tyranny of his temperament, there
was, of course, a reaction. At the head of it came the Realists, with
their documents, like Miss Flite. They declared that scenes and types in
Dickens were wholly impossible (in which they were perfectly right), and
on this rather paradoxical ground objected to them as literature. They
were not "like life," and there, they thought, was an end of the matter.
The realist for a time prevailed. But Realists did not enjoy their
victory (if they enjoyed anything) very long. A more symbolic school of
criticism soon arose. Men saw that it was necessary to give a much
deeper and more delicate meaning to the expression "like life." Streets
are not life, cities and civilisations are not life, faces even and
voices are not life itself Life is within, and no man hath seen it at
any time. As for our meals, and our manners, and our daily dress, these
are things exactly like sonnets; they are random symbols of the soul.
One man tries to express himself in books, another in boots; both
probably fail. Our solid houses and square meals are in the strict sense
fiction. They are things made up to typify our thoughts. The coat a man
wears may be wholly fictitious; the movement of his hands may be quite
unlike life.

This much the intelligence of men soon perceived. And by this much
Dickens's fame should have greatly profited. For Dickens is "like life"
in the truer sense, in the sense that he is akin to the living principle
in us and in the universe; he is like life, at least in this detail,
that he is alive. His art is like life, because, like life, it cares for
nothing outside itself, and goes on its way rejoicing. Both produce
monsters with a kind of carelessness, like enormous by-products; life
producing the rhinoceros, and art Mr. Bunsby. Art indeed copies life in
not copying life, for life copies nothing. Dickens's art is like life
because, like life, it is irresponsible, because, like life, it is

Yet the return of this realisation has not greatly profited Dickens, the
return of romance has been almost useless to this great romantic. He has
gained as little from the fall of the realists as from their triumph;
there has been a revolution, there has been a counter revolution, there
has been no restoration. And the reason of this brings us back to that
atmosphere of popular optimism of which I spoke. And the shortest way of
expressing the more recent neglect of Dickens is to say that for our
time and taste he exaggerates the wrong thing.

Exaggeration is the definition of art. That both Dickens and the Moderns
understood. Art is, in its inmost nature, fantastic. Time brings queer
revenges, and while the realists were yet living, the art of Dickens was
justified by Aubrey Beardsley. But men like Aubrey Beardsley were
allowed to be fantastic, because the mood which they overstrained and
overstated was a mood which their period understood. Dickens overstrains
and overstates a mood our period does not understand. The truth he
exaggerates is exactly this old Revolution sense of infinite opportunity
and boisterous brotherhood. And we resent his undue sense of it, because
we ourselves have not even a due sense of it. We feel troubled with too
much where we have too little; we wish he would keep it within bounds.
For we are all exact and scientific on the subjects we do not care
about. We all immediately detect exaggeration in an exposition of
Mormonism or a patriotic speech from Paraguay. We all require sobriety
on the subject of the sea-serpent. But the moment we begin to believe a
thing ourselves, that moment we begin easily to overstate it; and the
moment our souls become serious, our words become a little wild. And
certain moderns are thus placed towards exaggeration. They permit any
writer to emphasise doubts for instance, for doubts are their religion,
but they permit no man to emphasise dogmas. If a man be the mildest
Christian, they smell "cant;" but he can be a raving windmill of
pessimism, "and they call it 'temperament." If a moralist paints a wild
picture of immorality, they doubt its truth, they say that devils are
not so black as they are painted. But if a pessimist paints a wild
picture of melancholy, they accept the whole horrible psychology, and
they never ask if devils are as blue as they are painted.

It is evident, in short, why even those who admire exaggeration do not
admire Dickens. He is exaggerating the wrong thing. They know what it is
to feel a sadness so strange and deep that only impossible characters
can express it: they do not know what it is to feel a joy so vital and
violent that only impossible characters can express that. They know that
the soul can be so sad as to dream naturally of the blue faces of the
corpses of Baudelaire: they do not know that the soul can be so cheerful
as to dream naturally of the blue face of Major Bagstock. They know that
there is a point of depression at which one believes in Tintagiles: they
do not know that there is a point of exhilaration at which one believes
in Mr. Wegg. To them the impossibilities of Dickens seem much more
impossible than they really are, because they are already attuned to the
opposite impossibilities of Maeterlinck. For every mood there is an
appropriate impossibility--a decent and tactful impossibility--fitted to
the frame of mind. Every train of thought may end in an ecstasy, and all
roads lead to Elfland. But few now walk far enough along the street of
Dickens to find the place where the cockney villas grow so comic that
they become poetical. People do not know how far mere good spirits will
go. For instance, we never think (as the old folk-lore did) of good
spirits reaching to the spiritual world. We see this in the complete
absence from modern, popular supernaturalism of the old popular mirth.
We hear plenty to-day of the wisdom of the spiritual world; but we do
not hear, as our fathers did, of the folly of the spiritual world, of
the tricks of the gods, and the jokes of the patron saints. Our popular
tales tell us of a man who is so wise that he touches the supernatural,
like Dr. Nikola; but they never tell us (like the popular tales of the
past) of a man who was so silly that he touched the supernatural, like
Bottom the Weaver. We do not understand the dark and transcendental
sympathy between fairies and fools. We understand a devout occultism, an
evil occultism, a tragic occultism, but a farcical occultism is beyond
us. Yet a farcical occultism is the very essence of "The Midsummer
Night's Dream." It is also the right and credible essence of "The
Christmas Carol." Whether we understand it depends upon whether we can
understand that exhilaration is not a physical accident, but a mystical
fact; that exhilaration can be infinite, like sorrow; that a joke can be
so big that it breaks the roof of the stars. By simply going on being
absurd, a thing can become godlike; there is but one step from the
ridiculous to the sublime.

Dickens was great because he was immoderately possessed with all this;
if we are to understand him at all we must also be moderately possessed
with it. We must understand this old limitless hilarity and human
confidence, at least enough to be able to endure it when it is pushed a
great deal too far. For Dickens did push it too far; he did push the
hilarity to the point of incredible character-drawing; he did push the
human confidence to the point of an unconvincing sentimentalism. You can
trace, if you will, the revolutionary joy till it reaches the incredible
Sapsea epitaph; you can trace the revolutionary hope till it reaches the
repentance of Dombey. There is plenty to carp at in this man if you are
inclined to carp; you may easily find him vulgar if you cannot see that
he is divine; and if you cannot laugh with Dickens, undoubtedly you can
laugh at him.

I believe myself that this braver world of his will certainly return;
for I believe that it is bound up with the realities, like morning and
the spring. But for those who beyond remedy regard it as an error, I put
this appeal before any other observations on Dickens. First let us
sympathise, if only for an instant, with the hopes of the Dickens
period, with that cheerful trouble of change. If democracy has
disappointed you, do not think of it as a burst bubble, but at least as
a broken heart, an old love-affair. Do not sneer at the time when the
creed of humanity was on its honeymoon; treat it with the dreadful
reverence that is due to youth. For you, perhaps, a drearier philosophy
has covered and eclipsed the earth. The fierce poet of the Middle Ages
wrote, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here," over the gates of the
lower world. The emancipated poets of to-day have written it over the
gates of this world. But if we are to understand the story which
follows, we must erase that apocalyptic writing, if only for an hour. We
must recreate the faith of our fathers, if only as an artistic
atmosphere If, then, you are a pessimist, in reading this story, forego
for a little the pleasures of pessimism. Dream for one mad moment that
the grass is green. Unlearn that sinister learning that you think so
clear; deny that deadly knowledge that you think you know. Surrender the
very flower of your culture; give up the very jewel of your pride;
abandon hopelessness, all ye who enter here.


Charles Dickens was born at Landport, in Portsea, on February 7, 1812.
His father was a clerk in the Navy Pay-office, and was temporarily on
duty in the neighbourhood. Very soon after the birth of Charles Dickens,
however, the family moved for a short period to Norfolk Street,
Bloomsbury, and then for a long period to Chatham, which thus became the
real home, and for all serious purposes, the native place of Dickens.
The whole story of his life moves like a Canterbury pilgrimage along the
great roads of Kent.

John Dickens, his father, was, as stated, a clerk; but such mere terms
of trade tell us little of the tone or status of a family. Browning's
father (to take an instance at random) would also be described as a
clerk and a man of the middle class; but the Browning family and the
Dickens family have the colour of two different civilisations. The
difference cannot be conveyed merely by saying that Browning stood many
strata above Dickens. It must also be conveyed that Browning belonged to
that section of the middle class which tends (in the small social sense)
to rise; the Dickenses to that section which tends in the same sense to
fall. If Browning had not been a poet, he would have been a better clerk
than his father, and his son probably a better and richer clerk than he.
But if they had not been lifted in the air by the enormous accident of a
man of genius, the Dickenses, I fancy, would have appeared in poorer and
poorer places, as inventory clerks, as caretakers, as addressers of
envelopes, until they melted into the masses of the poor.

Yet at the time of Dickens's birth and childhood this weakness in their
worldly destiny was in no way apparent; especially it was not apparent
to the little Charles himself. He was born and grew up in a paradise of
small prosperity. He fell into the family, so to speak, during one of
its comfortable periods, and he never in those early days thought of
himself as anything but as a comfortable middle-class child, the son of
a comfortable middle-class man. The father whom he found provided for
him, was one from whom comfort drew forth his most pleasant and
reassuring qualities, though not perhaps his most interesting and
peculiar. John Dickens seemed, most probably, a hearty and kindly
character, a little florid of speech, a little careless of duty in some
details, notably in the detail of education. His neglect of his son's
mental training in later and more trying times was a piece of
unconscious selfishness which remained a little acrimoniously in his
son's mind through life. But even in this earlier and easier period what
records there are of John Dickens give out the air of a somewhat idle
and irresponsible fatherhood. He exhibited towards his son that
contradiction in conduct which is always shown by the too thoughtless
parent to the too thoughtful child. He contrived at once to neglect his
mind, and also to over-stimulate it.

There are many recorded tales and traits of the author's infancy, but
one small fact seems to me more than any other to strike the note and
give the key to his whole strange character. His father found it more
amusing to be an audience than to be an instructor; and instead of
giving the child intellectual pleasure, called upon him, almost before
he was out of petticoats, to provide it. Some of the earliest glimpses
we have of Charles Dickens show him to us perched on some chair or table
singing comic songs in an atmosphere of perpetual applause. So, almost
as soon as he can toddle, he steps into the glare of the footlights. He
never stepped out of it until he died. He was a good man, as men go in
this bewildering world of ours, brave, transparent, tender-hearted,
scrupulously independent and honourable; he was not a man whose
weaknesses should be spoken of without some delicacy and doubt. But
there did mingle with his merits all his life this theatrical quality,
this atmosphere of being shown off--a sort of hilarious
self-consciousness. His literary life was a triumphal procession; he
died drunken with glory. And behind all this nine years' wonder that
filled the world, behind his gigantic tours and his ten thousand
editions, the crowded lectures and the crashing brass, behind all the
thing we really see is the flushed face of a little boy singing
music-hall songs to a circle of aunts and uncles. And this precocious
pleasure explains much, too, in the moral way. Dickens had all his life
the faults of the little boy who is kept up too late at night. The boy
in such a case exhibits a psychological paradox; he is a little too
irritable because he is a little too happy. Dickens was always a little
too irritable because he was a little too happy. Like the overwrought
child in society, he was splendidly sociable, and yet suddenly
quarrelsome. In all the practical relations of his life he was what the
child is in the last hours of an evening party, genuinely delighted,
genuinely delightful, genuinely affectionate and happy, and yet in some
strange way fundamentally exasperated and dangerously close to tears.

There was another touch about the boy which made his case more peculiar,
and perhaps his intelligence more fervid; the touch of ill-health. It
could not be called more than a touch, for he suffered from no
formidable malady and could always through life endure a great degree of
exertion, even if it was only the exertion of walking violently all
night. Still the streak of sickness was sufficient to take him out of
the common unconscious life of the community of boys; and for good or
evil that withdrawal is always a matter of deadly importance to the
mind. He was thrown back perpetually upon the pleasures of the
intelligence, and these began to burn in his head like a pent and
painful furnace. In his own unvaryingly vivid way he has described how
he crawled up into an unconsidered garret, and there found, in a dusty
heap, the undying literature of England. The books he mentions chiefly
are "Humphrey Clinker" and "Tom Jones." When he opened those two books
in the garret he caught hold of the only past with which he is at all
connected, the great comic writers of England of whom he was destined to
be the last.

It must be remembered (as I have suggested before) that there was
something about the county in which he lived, and the great roads along
which he travelled that sympathised with and stimulated his pleasure in
this old picaresque literature. The groups that came along the road,
that passed through his town and out of it, were of the motley laughable
type that tumbled into ditches or beat down the doors of taverns under
the escort of Smollett and Fielding. In our time the main roads of Kent
have upon them very often a perpetual procession of tramps and tinkers
unknown on the quiet hills of Sussex; and it may have been so also in
Dickens's boyhood. In his neighbourhood were definite memorials of yet
older and yet greater English comedy. From the height of Gads-hill at
which he stared unceasingly there looked down upon him the monstrous
ghost of Falstaff, Falstaff who might well have been the spiritual
father of all Dickens's adorable knaves, Falstaff the great mountain of
English laughter and English sentimentalism, the great, healthy, humane
English humbug, not to be matched among the nations.

At this eminence of Gads-hill Dickens used to stare even as a boy with
the steady purpose of some day making it his own. It is characteristic
of the consistency which underlies the superficially erratic career of
Dickens that he actually did live to make it his own. The truth is that
he was a precocious child, precocious not only on the more poetical but
on the more prosaic side of life. He was ambitious as well as
enthusiastic. No one can ever know what visions they were that crowded
into the head of the clever little brat as he ran about the streets of
Chatham or stood glowering at Gads-hill. But I think that quite mundane
visions had a very considerable share in the matter. He longed to go to
school (a strange wish), to go to college, to make a name, nor did he
merely aspire to these things; the great number of them he also
expected. He regarded himself as a child of good position just about to
enter on a life of good luck. He thought his home and family a very good
spring-board or jumping-off place from which to fling himself to the
positions which he desired to reach. And almost as he was about to
spring the whole structure broke under him, and he and all that belonged
to him disappeared into a darkness far below.

Everything had been struck down as with the finality of a thunder-bolt.
His lordly father was a bankrupt, and in the Marshalsea prison. His
mother was in a mean home in the north of London, wildly proclaiming
herself the principal of a girl's school, a girl's school to which
nobody would go. And he himself, the conqueror of the world and the
prospective purchaser of Gads-hill, passed some distracted and
bewildering days in pawning the household necessities to Fagins in foul
shops, and then found himself somehow or other one of a row of ragged
boys in a great dreary factory, pasting the same kinds of labels on to
the same kinds of blacking-bottles from morning till night.

Although it seemed sudden enough to him, the disintegration had, as a
matter of fact, of course, been going on for a long time. He had only
heard from his father dark and melodramatic allusions to a "deed" which,
from the way it was mentioned, might have been a claim to the crown or a
compact with the devil, but which was in truth an unsuccessful
documentary attempt on the part of John Dickens to come to a composition
with his creditors. And now, in the lurid light of his sunset, the
character of John Dickens began to take on those purple colours which
have made him under another name absurd and immortal. It required a
tragedy to bring out this man's comedy. So long as John Dickens was in
easy circumstances, he seemed only an easy man, a little long and
luxuriant in his phrases, a little careless in his business routine. He
seemed only a wordy man, who lived on bread and beef like his
neighbours; but as bread and beef were successively taken away from him,
it was discovered that he lived on words. For him to be involved in a
calamity only meant to be cast for the first part in a tragedy. For him
blank ruin was only a subject for blank verse. Henceforth we feel
scarcely inclined to call him John Dickens at all; we feel inclined to
call him by the name through which his son celebrated this preposterous
and sublime victory of the human spirit over circumstances. Dickens, in
"David Copperfield," called him Wilkins Micawber. In his personal
correspondence he called him the Prodigal Father.

Young Charles had been hurriedly flung into the factory by the more or
less careless good-nature of James Lamert, a relation of his mother's;
it was a blacking factory, supposed to be run as a rival to Warren's by
another and "original" Warren, both practically conducted by another of
the Lamerts. It was situated near Hungerford Market. Dickens worked
there drearily, like one stunned with disappointment. To a child
excessively intellectualised, and at this time, I fear, excessively
egotistical, the coarseness of the whole thing--the work, the rooms, the
boys, the language--was a sort of bestial nightmare. Not only did he
scarcely speak of it then, but he scarcely spoke of it afterwards. Years
later, in the fulness of his fame, he heard from Forster that a man had
spoken of knowing him. On hearing the name, he somewhat curtly
acknowledged it, and spoke of having seen the man once. Forster, in his
innocence, answered that the man said he had seen Dickens many times in
a factory by Hungerford Market. Dickens was suddenly struck with a long
and extraordinary silence. Then he invited Forster, as his best friend,
to a particular interview, and, with every appearance of difficulty and
distress, told him the whole story for the first and the last time. A
long while after that he told the world some part of the matter in the
account of Murdstone and Grinby's in "David Copperfield." He never spoke
of the whole experience except once or twice, and he never spoke of it
otherwise than as a man might speak of hell.

It need not be suggested, I think, that this agony in the child was
exaggerated by the man. It is true that he was not incapable of the vice
of exaggeration, if it be a vice. There was about him much vanity and a
certain virulence in his version of many things. Upon the whole, indeed,
it would hardly be too much to say that he would have exaggerated any
sorrow he talked about. But this was a sorrow with a very strange
position in Dickens's life; it was a sorrow he did not talk about. Upon
this particular dark spot he kept a sort of deadly silence for twenty
years. An accident revealed part of the truth to the dearest of all his
friends. He then told the whole truth to the dearest of all his friends.
He never told anybody else. I do not think that this arose from any
social sense of disgrace; if he had it slightly at the time, he was far
too self-satisfied a man to have taken it seriously in after life. I
really think that his pain at this time was so real and ugly that the
thought of it filled him with that sort of impersonal but unbearable
shame with which we are filled, for instance, by the notion of physical
torture, of something that humiliates humanity. He felt that such agony
was something obscene. Moreover there are two other good reasons for
thinking that his sense of hopelessness was very genuine. First of all,
this starless outlook is common in the calamities of boyhood. The
bitterness of boyish distresses does not lie in the fact that they are
large; it lies in the fact that we do not know that they are small.
About any early disaster there is a dreadful finality; a lost child can
suffer like a lost soul.

It is currently said that hope goes with youth, and lends to youth its
wings of a butterfly; but I fancy that hope is the last gift given to
man, and the only gift not given to youth. Youth is preeminently the
period in which a man can be lyric, fanatical, poetic; but youth is the
period in which a man can be hopeless. The end of every episode is the
end of the world. But the power of hoping through everything, the
knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration
comes to the middle-aged; God has kept that good wine until now. It is
from the backs of the elderly gentlemen that the wings of the butterfly
should burst. There is nothing that so much mystifies the young as the
consistent frivolity of the old. They have discovered their
indestructibility. They are in their second and clearer childhood, and
there is a meaning in the merriment of their eyes. They have seen the
end of the End of the World.

First, then, the desolate finality of Dickens's childish mood makes me
think it was a real one. And there is another thing to be remembered.
Dickens was not a saintly child, after the style of Little Dorrit or
Little Nell. He had not, at this time at any rate, set his heart wholly
upon higher things, even upon things such as personal tenderness or
loyalty. He had been, and was, unless I am very much mistaken,
sincerely, stubbornly, bitterly ambitious. He had, I fancy, a fairly
clear idea previous to the downfall of all his family's hopes of what he
wanted to do in the world, and of the mark that he meant to make there.
In no dishonourable sense, but still in a definite sense, he might, in
early life, be called worldly; and the children of this world are in
their generation infinitely more sensitive than the children of light. A
saint after repentance will forgive himself for a sin; a man about town
will never forgive himself for a faux pas. There are ways of getting
absolved for murder; there are no ways of getting absolved for upsetting
the soup. This thin-skinned quality in all very mundane people is a
thing too little remembered; and it must not be wholly forgotten in
connection with a clever, restless lad who dreamed of a destiny. That
part of his distress which concerned himself and his social standing was
among the other parts of it the least noble; but perhaps it was the most
painful. For pride is not only, as the modern world fails to understand,
a sin to be condemned; it is also (as it understands even less) a
weakness to be very much commiserated. A very vitalising touch is given
in one of his own reminiscences. His most unendurable moment did not
come in any bullying in the factory or any famine in the streets. It
came when he went to see his sister Fanny take a prize at the Royal
Academy of Music. "I could not bear to think of myself--beyond the reach
of all such honourable emulation and success. The tears ran down my
face. I felt as if my heart were rent. I prayed when I went to bed that
night to be lifted out of the humiliation and neglect in which I was. I
never had suffered so much before. There was no envy in this." I do not
think that there was, though the poor little wretch could hardly have
been blamed if there had been. There was only a furious sense of
frustration; a spirit like a wild beast in a cage. It was only a small
matter in the external and obvious sense; it was only Dickens prevented
from being Dickens.

If we put these facts together, that the tragedy seemed final, and that
the tragedy was concerned with the supersensitive matters of the ego and
the gentleman, I think we can imagine a pretty genuine case of internal
depression. And when we add to the case of internal depression the case
of the external oppression, the case of the material circumstances by
which he was surrounded, we have reached a sort of midnight. All day he
worked on insufficient food at a factory. It is sufficient to say that
it afterwards appeared in his works as Murdstone and Grinby's. At night
he returned disconsolately to a lodging-house for such lads, kept by an
old lady. It is sufficient to say that she appeared afterwards as Mrs.
Pipchin. Once a week only he saw anybody for whom he cared a straw; that
was when he went to the Marshalsea prison, and that gave his juvenile
pride, half manly and half snobbish, bitter annoyance of another kind.
Add to this, finally, that physically he was always very weak and never
very well. Once he was struck down in the middle of his work with sudden
bodily pain. The boy who worked next to him, a coarse and heavy lad
named Bob Fagin, who had often attacked Dickens on the not unreasonable
ground of his being a "gentleman," suddenly showed that enduring sanity
of compassion which Dickens had destined to show so often in the
characters of the common and unclean. Fagin made a bed for his sick
companion out of the straw in the workroom, and filled empty blacking
bottles with hot water all day. When the evening came, and Dickens was
somewhat recovered, Bob Fagin insisted on escorting the boy home to his
father. The situation was as poignant as a sort of tragic farce. Fagin
in his wooden-headed chivalry would have died in order to take Dickens
to his family; Dickens in his bitter gentility would have died rather
than let Fagin know that his family were in the Marshalsea. So these two
young idiots tramped the tedious streets, both stubborn, both suffering
for an idea. The advantage certainly was with Fagin, who was suffering
for a Christian compassion, while Dickens was suffering for a pagan
pride. At last Dickens flung off his friend with desperate farewell and
thanks, and dashed up the steps of a strange house on the Surrey side.
He knocked and rang as Bob Fagin, his benefactor and his incubus,
disappeared round the corner. And when the servant came to open the
door, he asked, apparently with gravity, whether Mr. Robert Fagin lived
there. It is a strange touch. The immortal Dickens woke in him for an
instant in that last wild joke of that weary evening. Next morning,
however, he was again well enough to make himself ill again, and the
wheels of the great factory went on. They manufactured a number of
bottles of Warren's Blacking, and in the course of the process they
manufactured also the greatest optimist of the nineteenth century.

This boy who dropped down groaning at his work, who was hungry four or
five times a week, whose best feelings and worst feelings were alike
flayed alive, was the man on whom two generations of comfortable critics
have visited the complaint that his view of life was too rosy to be
anything but unreal. Afterwards, and in its proper place, I shall speak
of what is called the optimism of Dickens, and of whether it was really
too cheerful or too smooth. But this boyhood of his may be recorded now
as a mere fact. If he was too happy, this was where he learnt it. If his
school of thought was a vulgar optimism, this is where he went to
school. If he learnt to whitewash the universe, it was in a blacking
factory that he learnt it.

As a fact, there is no shred of evidence to show that those who have had
sad experiences tend to have a sad philosophy. There are numberless
points upon which Dickens is spiritually at one with the poor, that is,
with the great mass of mankind. But there is no point in which he is
more perfectly at one with them than in showing that there is no kind of
connection between a man being unhappy and a man being pessimistic.
Sorrow and pessimism are indeed, in a sense, opposite things, since
sorrow is founded on the value of something, and pessimism upon the
value of nothing. And in practice we find that those poets or political
leaders who come from the people, and whose experiences have really been
searching and cruel, are the most sanguine people in the world. These
men out of the old agony are always optimists; they are sometimes
offensive optimists. A man like Robert Burns, whose father (like
Dickens's father) goes bankrupt, whose whole life is a struggle against
miserable external powers and internal weaknesses yet more miserable--a
man whose life begins grey and ends black--Burns does not merely sing
about the goodness of life, he positively rants and cants about it.
Rousseau, whom all his friends and acquaintances treated almost as badly
as he treated them--Rousseau does not grow merely eloquent, he grows
gushing and sentimental, about the inherent goodness of human nature.
Charles Dickens, who was most miserable at the receptive age when most
people are most happy, is afterwards happy when all men weep.
Circumstances break men's bones; it has never been shown that they break
men's optimism. These great popular leaders do all kinds of desperate
things under the immediate scourge of tragedy. They become drunkards;
they become demagogues; they become morphomaniacs. They never become
pessimists. Most unquestionably there are ragged and unhappy men whom we
could easily understand being pessimists. But as a matter of fact they
are not pessimists. Most unquestionably there are whole dim hordes of
humanity whom we should promptly pardon if they cursed God. But they
don't. The pessimists are aristocrats like Byron; the men who curse God
are aristocrats like Swinburne. But when those who starve and suffer
speak for a moment, they do not profess merely an optimism, they profess
a cheap optimism; they are too poor to afford a dear one. They cannot
indulge in any detailed or merely logical defence of life; that would be
to delay the enjoyment of it. These higher optimists, of whom Dickens
was one, do not approve of the universe; they do not even admire the
universe; they fall in love with it. They embrace life too close to
criticise or even to see it. Existence to such men has the wild beauty
of a woman, and those love her with most intensity who love her with
least cause.


There are popular phrases so picturesque that even when they are
intentionally funny they are unintentionally poetical. I remember, to
take one instance out of many, hearing a heated Secularist in Hyde Park
apply to some parson or other the exquisite expression, "a sky-pilot."
Subsequent inquiry has taught me that the term is intended to be comic
and even contemptuous; but in the first freshness of it I went home
repeating it to myself like a new poem. Few of the pious legends have
conceived so strange and yet celestial a picture as this of a pilot in
the sky, leaning on his helm above the empty heavens, and carrying his
cargo of souls higher than the loneliest cloud. The phrase is like a
lyric of Shelley. Or, to take another instance from another language,
the French have an incomparable idiom for a boy playing truant; "Il fait
l'école buissonnière"--he goes to the bushy school, or the school among
the bushes. How admirably this accidental expression, "the bushy school"
(not to be lightly confounded with the Art School at Bushey)--how
admirably this "bushy school" expresses half the modern notions of a
more natural education! The two words express the whole poetry of
Wordsworth, the whole philosophy of Thoreau, and are quite as good
literature as either.

Now, among a million of such scraps of inspired slang there is one which
describes a certain side of Dickens better than pages of explanation.
The phrase, appropriately enough, occurs at least once in his works, and
that on a fitting occasion. When Job Trotter is sent by Sam on a wild
chase after Mr. Perker, the solicitor, Mr. Perker's clerk condoles with
Job upon the lateness of the hour, and the fact that all habitable
places are shut up. "My friend," says Mr. Perker's clerk, "you've got
the key of the street." Mr. Perker's clerk, who was a flippant and
scornful young man, may perhaps be pardoned if he used this expression
in a flippant and scornful sense; but let us hope that Dickens did not.
Let us hope that Dickens saw the strange, yet satisfying, imaginative
justice of the words; for Dickens himself had, in the most sacred and
serious sense of the term, the key of the street. When we shut 'out
anything, we are shut out of that thing. When we shut out the street, we
are shut out of the street. Few of us understand the street. Even when
we step into it, as into a house or room of strangers. Few of us see
through the shining riddle of the street, the strange folk that belong
to the street only--the street-walker or the street-arab, the nomads
who, generation after generation, have kept their ancient secrets in the
full blaze of the sun. Of the street at night many of us know even less.
The street at night is a great house locked up. But Dickens had, if ever
man had, the key of the street; his stars were the lamps of the street;
his hero was the man in the street. He could open the inmost door of his
house--the door that leads into that secret passage which is lined with
houses and roofed with stars.

This silent transformation into a citizen of the street took place
during those dark days of boyhood, when Dickens was drudging at the
factory. When ever he had done drudging, he had no other resource but
drifting, and he drifted over half London. He was a dreamy child,
thinking mostly of his own dreary prospects. Yet he saw and remembered
much of the streets and squares he passed. Indeed, as a matter of fact,
he went the right way to work unconsciously to do so. He did not go in
for "observation," a priggish habit; he did not look at Charing Cross to
improve his mind or count the lamp-posts in Holborn to practise his
arithmetic. But unconsciously he made all these places the scenes of the
monstrous drama in his miserable little soul. He walked in darkness
under the lamps of Holborn, and was crucified at Charing Cross. So for
him ever afterwards these places had the beauty that only belongs to
battlefields. For our memory never fixes the facts which we have merely
observed. The only way to remember a place for ever is to live in the
place for an hour; and the only way to live in the place for an hour is
to forget the place for an hour. The undying scenes we can all see if we
shut our eyes are not the scenes that we have stared at under the
direction of guide-books; the scenes we see are the scenes at which we
did not look at all--the scenes in which we walked when we were thinking
about something else--about a sin, or a love affair, or some childish
sorrow. We can see the background now because we did not see it then. So
Dickens did not stamp these places on his mind; he stamped his mind on
these places. For him ever afterwards these streets were mortally
romantic; they were dipped in the purple dyes of youth and its tragedy,
and rich with irrevocable sunsets.

Herein is the whole secret of that eerie realism with which Dickens
could always vitalise some dark or dull corner of London. There are
details in the Dickens descriptions--a window, or a railing, or the
keyhole of a door--which he endows with demoniac life. The things seem
more actual than things really are. Indeed, that degree of realism does
not exist in reality; it is the unbearable realism of a dream. And this
kind of realism can only be gained by walking dreamily in a place; it
cannot be gained by walking observantly. Dickens himself has given a
perfect instance of how these nightmare minutiae grew upon him in his
trance of abstraction. He mentions among the coffee-shops into which he
crept in those wretched days one in St. Martin's Lane, "of which I only
recollect it stood near the church, and that in the door there was an
oval glass plate with 'COFFEE ROOM' painted on it, addressed towards the
street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room
now, but where there is an inscription on glass, and read it backwards
on the wrong side, MOOR EEFFOC (as I often used to do then in a dismal
reverie), a shock goes through my blood." That wild word, "Moor Eeffoc,"
is the motto of all effective realism; it is the masterpiece of the good
realistic principle--the principle that the most fantastic thing of all
is often the precise fact. And that elfish kind of realism Dickens
adopted everywhere. His world was alive with inanimate object. The date
on the door danced over Mr. Grewgious's, the knocker grinned at Mr.
Scrooge, the Roman on the ceiling pointed down at Mr. Tulkinghorn, the
elderly armchair leered at Tom Smart--these are all moor eeffocish
things. A man sees them because he does not look at them.

And so the little Dickens Dickensised London. He prepared the way for
all his personages. Into whatever cranny of our city his characters
might crawl, Dickens had been there before them. However wild were the
events he narrated as outside him, they could not be wilder than the
things that had gone on within. However queer a character of Dickens
might be, he could hardly be queerer than Dickens was. The whole secret
of his after-writings is sealed up in those silent years of which no
written word remains. Those years did him harm perhaps, as his
biographer, Forster, has thoughtfully suggested, by sharpening a certain
fierce individualism in him which once or twice during his genial life
flashed like a half-hidden knife. He was always generous; but things had
gone too hardly with him for him to be always easy-going. He was always
kind-hearted; he was not always good-humoured. Those years may also, in
their strange mixture of morbidity and reality, have increased in him
his tendency to exaggeration. But we can scarcely lament this in a
literary sense; exaggeration is almost the definition of art--and it is
entirely the definition of Dickens's art. Those years may have given him
many moral and mental wounds, from which he never recovered. But they
gave him the key of the street.

There is a weird contradiction in the soul of the born optimist. He can
be happy and unhappy at the same time. With Dickens the practical
depression of his life at this time did nothing to prevent him from
laying up those hilarious memories of which all his books are made. No
doubt he was genuinely unhappy in the poor place where his mother kept
school. Nevertheless it was there that he noticed the unfathomable
quaintness of the little servant whom he made into the Marchioness. No
doubt he was comfortless enough at the boarding-house of Mrs. Roylance;
but he perceived with a dreadful joy that Mrs. Roylance's name was
Pipchin. There seems to be no incompatibility between taking in tragedy
and giving out comedy; they are able to run parallel in the same
personality. One incident which he described in his unfinished
"autobiography," and which he afterwards transferred almost verbatim to
David Copperfield, was peculiarly rich and impressive. It was the
inauguration of a petition to the King for a bounty, drawn up by a
committee of the prisoners in the Marshalsea, a committee of which
Dickens's father was the president, no doubt in virtue of his oratory,
and also the scribe no doubt in virtue of his genuine love of literary

"As many of the principal officers of this body as could be got into a
small room without filling it up, supported him in front of the
petition; and my old friend, Captain Porter (who had washed himself to
do honour to so solemn an occasion), stationed himself close to it, to
read it to all who were unacquainted with its contents. The door was
then thrown open, and they began to come in in a long file; several
waiting on the landing outside, while one entered, affixed his
signature, and went out. To everybody in succession Captain Porter said,
'Would you like to hear it read?' If he weakly showed the least
disposition to hear it, Captain Porter in a loud sonorous voice gave him
every word of it. I remember a certain luscious roll he gave to such
words as 'Majesty--Gracious Majesty--Your Gracious Majesty's unfortunate
subjects--Your Majesty's well-known munificence,' as if the words were
something real in his mouth and delicious to taste: my poor father
meanwhile listening with a little of an author's vanity and
contemplating (not severely) the spike on the opposite wall. Whatever
was comical or pathetic in this scene, I sincerely believe I perceived
in my corner, whether I demonstrated it or not, quite as well as I
should perceive it now. I made out my own little character and story for
every man who put his name to the sheet of paper."

Here we see very plainly that Dickens did not merely look back in after
days and see that these humours had been delightful. He was delighted at
the same moment that he was desperate. The two opposite things existed
in him simultaneously, and each in its full strength. His soul was not a
mixed colour like grey and purple, caused by no component colour being
quite itself. His soul was like a shot silk of black and crimson, a shot
silk of misery and joy.

Seen from the outside, his little pleasures and extravagances seem more
pathetic than his grief. Once the solemn little figure went into a
public-house in Parliament Street, and addressed the man behind the bar
in the following terms--"What is your very best--the VERY best ale a
glass?" The man replied, "Twopence." "Then," said the infant, "just draw
me a glass of that, if you please, with a good head to it." "The
landlord," says Dickens, in telling the story, "looked at me in return
over the bar from head to foot with a strange smile on his face; and
instead of drawing the beer looked round the screen and said something
to his wife, who came out from behind it with her work in her hand and
joined him in surveying me...They asked me a good many questions as
to what my name was, how old I was, where I lived, howl was employed,
etc., etc. To all of which, that I might commit nobody, I invented
appropriate answers. They served me with the ale, though I suspect it
was not the strongest on the premises; and the landlord's wife, opening
the little half-door, and bending down, gave me a kiss." Here he touches
that other side of common life which he was chiefly to champion; he was
to show that there is no ale like the ale of a poor man's festival, and
no pleasures like the pleasures of the poor. At other places of
refreshment he was yet more majestic. "I remember," he says, "tucking my
own bread (which I had brought from home in the morning) under my arm,
wrapt up in a piece of paper like a book, and going into the best
dining-room in Johnson's Alamode Beef House in Clare Court, Drury Lane,
and magnificently ordering a small plate of à-la-mode beef to eat with
it. What the waiter thought of such a strange little apparition coming
in all alone I don't know; but I can see him now staring at me as I ate
my dinner, and bringing up the other waiter to look. I gave him a
halfpenny, and I wish, now, that he hadn't taken it."

For the boy individually the prospect seemed to be growing drearier and
drearier. This phrase indeed hardly expresses the fact; for, as he felt
it, it was not so much a run of worsening luck as the closing in of a
certain and quiet calamity like the coming on of twilight and dark. He
felt that he would die and be buried in blacking. Through all this he
does not seem to have said much to his parents of his distress. They who
were in prison had certainly a much jollier time than he who was free.
But of all the strange ways in which the human being proves that he is
not a rational being, whatever else he is, no case is so mysterious and
unaccountable as the secrecy of childhood. We learn of the cruelty of
some school or child-factory from journalists; we learn it from
inspectors, we learn it from doctors, we learn it even from
shame-stricken schoolmasters and repentant sweaters; but we never learn
it from the children; we never learn it from the victims. It would seem
as if a living creature had to be taught, like an art of culture, the
art of crying out when it is hurt. It would seem as if patience were the
natural thing; it would seem as if impatience were an accomplishment
like whist. However this may be, it is wholly certain that Dickens might
have drudged and died drudging, and buried the unborn Pickwick, but for
an external accident.

He was, as has been said, in the habit of visiting his father at the
Marshalsea every week. The talks between the two must have been a comedy
at once more cruel and more delicate than Dickens ever described.
Meredith might picture the comparison between the child whose troubles
were so childish, but who felt them like a damned spirit, and the
middle-aged man whose trouble was final ruin, and who felt it no more
than a baby. Once, it would appear, the boy broke down altogether--perhaps
under the unbearable buoyancy of his oratorical papa--and implored to be
freed from the factory--implored it, I fear, with a precocious and
almost horrible eloquence. The old optimist was astounded--too much
astounded to do anything in particular. Whether the incident had really
anything to do with what followed cannot be decided, but ostensibly it
had not. Ostensibly the cause of Charles's ultimate liberation was a
quarrel between his father and Lamert, the head of the factory. Dickens
the elder (who had at last left the Marshalsea) could no doubt conduct a
quarrel with the magnificence of Micawber; the result of this talent, at
any rate, was to leave Mr. Lamert in a towering rage. He had a stormy
interview with Charles, in which he tried to be good-tempered to the
boy, but could hardly master his tongue about the boy's father. Finally
he told him he must go, and with every observance the little creature
was solemnly expelled from hell.

His mother, with a touch of strange harshness, was for patching up the
quarrel and sending him back. Perhaps, with the fierce feminine
responsibility, she felt that the first necessity was to keep the family
out of debt. But old John Dickens put his foot down here--put his foot
down with that ringing but very rare decision with which (once in ten
years, and often on some trivial matter) the weakest man will overwhelm
the strongest woman. The boy was miserable; the boy was clever; the boy
should go to school. The boy went to school; he went to the Wellington
House Academy, Mornington Place. It was an odd experience for anyone to
go from the world to a school, instead of going from school to the
world. Dickens, we may say, had his boyhood after his youth. He had seen
life at its coarsest before he began his training for it, and knew the
worst words in the English language probably before the best.
This odd chronology, it will be remembered, he retained in his
semi-autobiographical account of the adventures of David Copperfield,
who went into the business of Murdstone and Grinby's before he went to
the school kept by Dr. Strong. David Copperfield, also, went to be
carefully prepared for a world that he had seen already. Outside David
Copperfield, the records of Dickens at this time reduce themselves to a
few glimpses provided by accidental companions of his schooldays, and
little can be deduced from them about his personality beyond a general
impression of sharpness and, perhaps, of bravado, of bright eyes and
bright speeches. Probably the young creature was recuperating himself
for his misfortunes, was making the most of his liberty, was flapping
the wings of that wild spirit that had just not been broken. We hear of
things that sound suddenly juvenile after his maturer troubles, of a
secret language sounding like mere gibberish, and of a small theatre,
with paint and red fire; such as that which Stevenson loved. It was not
an accident that Dickens and Stevenson loved it. It is a stage unsuited
for psychological realism; the cardboard characters cannot analyze each
other with any effect. But it is a stage almost divinely suited for
making surroundings, for making that situation and background which
belongs peculiarly to romance. A toy theatre, in fact, is the opposite
of private theatricals. In the latter you can do anything with the
people if you do not ask much from the scenery; in the former you can do
anything in scenery if you do not ask much from the people. In a toy
theatre you could hardly manage a modern dialogue on marriage, but the
Day of Judgment would be quite easy.

After leaving school, Dickens found employment as a clerk to Mr.
Blackmore, a solicitor, as one of those inconspicuous under-clerks whom
he afterwards turned to many grotesque uses. Here, no doubt, he met
Lowten and Swiveller, Chuckster and Wobbler, in so far as such sacred
creatures ever had embodiments on this lower earth. But it is typical of
him that he had no fancy at all to remain a solicitor's clerk. The
resolution to rise which had glowed in him even as a dawdling boy, when
he gazed at Gads-hill, which had been darkened but not quite destroyed
by his fall into the factory routine, which had been released again by
his return to normal boyhood and the boundaries of school, was not
likely to content itself now with the copying out of agreements. He set
to work, without any advice or help, to learn to be a reporter. He
worked all day at law, and all night at shorthand. It is an art which
can only be effected by time, and he had to effect it by overtime. But
learning the thing under every disadvantage, without a teacher, without
the possibility of concentration or complete mental force without
ordinary human sleep, he made himself one of the most rapid reporters
then alive. There is a curious contrast between the casualness of the
mental training to which his parents and others subjected him and the
savage seriousness of the training to which he subjected himself.
Somebody once asked old John Dickens where his son Charles was educated.
"Well, really," said the great creature, in his spacious way, "he may be
said--ah--to have educated himself." He might indeed.

This practical intensity of Dickens is worth our dwelling on, because it
illustrates an elementary antithesis in his character, or what appears
as an antithesis in our modern popular psychology. We are always talking
about strong men against weak men; but Dickens was not only both a weak
man and a strong man, he was a very weak man and also a very strong man.
He was everything that we currently call a weak man; he was a man hung
on wires; he was a man who might at any moment cry like a child; he was
so sensitive to criticism that one may say that he lacked a skin; he was
so nervous that he allowed great tragedies in his life to arise only out
of nerves. But in the matter where all ordinary strong men are miserably
weak--in the matter of concentrated toil and clear purpose and
unconquerable worldly courage--he was like a straight sword. Mrs.
Carlyle, who in her human epithets often hit the right nail so that it
rang, said of him once, "He has a face made of steel." This was probably
felt in a flash when she saw, in some social crowd, the clear, eager
face of Dickens cutting through those near him like a knife. Any people
who had met him from year to year would each year have found a man
weakly troubled about his worldly decline; and each year they would have
found him higher up in the world. His was a character very hard for any
man of slow and placable temperament to understand; he was the character
whom anybody can hurt and nobody can kill.

When he began to report in the House of Commons he was still only
nineteen. His father, who had been released from his prison a short time
before Charles had been released from his, had also become, among many
other things, a reporter. But old John Dickens could enjoy doing
anything without any particular aspiration after doing it well. But
Charles was of a very different temper. He was, as I have said, consumed
with an enduring and almost angry thirst to excel. He learnt shorthand
with a dark self-devotion as if it were a sacred hieroglyph. Of this
self-instruction, as of everything else, he has left humorous and
illuminating phrases. He describes how, after he had learnt the whole
exact alphabet, "there then appeared a procession of new horrors, called
arbitrary characters--the most despotic characters I have ever known;
who insisted for instance, that a thing like the beginning of a cobweb
meant 'expectation,' and that a pen-and-ink sky rocket stood for
'disadvantageous.'" He concludes, "It was almost heartbreaking." But it
is significant that somebody else, a colleague of his, concluded, "There
never was such a shorthand writer."

Dickens succeeded in becoming a shorthand writer; succeeded in becoming
a reporter; succeeded ultimately in becoming a highly effective
journalist. He was appointed as a reporter of the speeches in
Parliament, first by The True Son, then by The Mirror of Parliament, and
last by The Morning Chronicle. He reported the speeches very well, and
if we must analyze his internal opinions, much better than they
deserved. For it must be remembered that this lad went into the
reporter's gallery full of the triumphant Radicalism which was then the
rising tide of the world. He was, it must be confessed, very little
overpowered by the dignity of the Mother of Parliaments; he regarded the
House of Commons much as he regarded the House of Lords, as a sort of
venerable joke. It was, perhaps, while he watched, pale with weariness
from the reporter's gallery, that there sank into him a thing that never
left him, his unfathomable contempt for the British Constitution. Then
perhaps he heard from the Government benches the immortal apologies of
the Circumlocution Office. "Then would the noble lord or right
honourable gentleman, in whose department it was to defend the
Circumlocution Office, put an orange in his pocket, and make a regular
field-day of the occasion. Then would he come down to that house with a
slap upon the table and meet the honourable gentleman foot to foot. Then
would he be there to tell that honourable gentleman that the
Circumlocution Office was not only blameless in this matter, but was
commendable in this matter, was extollable to the skies in this matter.
Then would he be there to tell that honourable gentleman that although
the Circumlocution Office was invariably right, and wholly right, it
never was so right in this matter. Then would he be there to tell the
honourable gentleman that it would have been more to his honour, more to
his credit, more to his good taste, more to his good sense, more to half
the dictionary of common places if he had left the Circumlocution Office
alone and never approached this matter. Then would he keep one eye upon
a coach or crammer from the Circumlocution Office below the bar, and
smash the honourable gentleman with the Circumlocution Office account of
this matter. And although one of two things always happened; namely,
either that the Circumlocution Office had nothing to say, and said it, or
that it had something to say of which the noble lord or right honourable
gentleman blundered one half and forgot the other; the Circumlocution
Office was always voted immaculate by an accommodating majority." We are
now generally told that Dickens has destroyed these abuses, and that
this is no longer a true picture of public life. Such, at any rate; is
the Circumlocution Office account of this matter. But Dickens as a good
Radical would, I fancy, much prefer that we should continue his battle
than that we should celebrate his triumph; especially when it has not
come. England is still ruled by the great Barnacle family. Parliament is
still ruled by the great Barnacle trinity--the solemn old Barnacle who
knew that the Circumlocution Office was protection, the sprightly young
Barnacle who knew that it was a fraud, and the bewildered young Barnacle
who knew nothing about it. From these three types our Cabinets are still
exclusively recruited. People talk of the tyrannies and anomalies which
Dickens denounced as things of the past like the Star Chamber. They
believe that the days of the old stupid optimism and the old brutal
indifference are gone for ever. In truth, this very belief is only the
countenance of the old stupid optimism and the old brutal indifference.
We believe in a free England and a pure England, because we still
believe in the Circumlocution Office account of this matter. Undoubtedly
our serenity is wide-spread. We believe that England is really reformed,
we believe that England is really democratic, we believe that English
politics are free from corruption. But this general satisfaction of ours
does not show that Dickens has beaten the Barnacles. It only shows that
the Barnacles have beaten Dickens.

It cannot be too often said, then, that we must read into young Dickens
and his works this old Radical tone towards institutions. That tone was
a sort of happy impatience. And when Dickens had to listen for hours to
the speech of the noble lord in defence of the Circumlocution Office,
when, that is, he had to listen to what he regarded as the last
vapourings of a vanishing oligarchy, the impatience rather predominated
over the happiness. His incurably restless nature found more pleasure in
the wandering side of journalism. He went about wildly in post-chaises
to report political meetings for the Morning Chronicle. "And what
gentlemen they were to serve," he exclaimed, "in such things at the old
Morning Chronicle. Great or small it did not matter. I have had to
charge for half a dozen breakdowns in half a dozen times as many miles.
I have had to charge for the damage of a great-coat from the drippings
of a blazing wax candle, in writing through the smallest hours of the
night in a swift flying carriage and pair." And again, "I have often
transcribed for the printer from my shorthand notes important public
speeches in which the strictest accuracy was required, and a mistake in
which would have been to a young man severely compromising, writing on
the palm of my hand, by the light of a dark lantern, in a post-chaise
and four, galloping through a wild country and through the dead of the
night, at the then surprising rate of fifteen miles an hour." The whole
of Dickens's life goes with the throb of that nocturnal gallop. All its
real wildness shot through with an imaginative wickedness he afterwards
uttered in the drive of Jonas Chuzzlewit through the storm.

All this time, and indeed, from a time of which no measure can be taken,
the creative part of his mind had been in a stir or even a fever. While
still a small boy he had written for his own amusement some sketches of
queer people he had met; notably, one of his uncle's barber, whose
principal hobby was pointing out what Napoleon ought to have done in the
matter of military tactics. He had a note-book full of such sketches. He
had sketches not only of persons, but of places, which were to him
almost more personal than persons. In the December of 1833 he published
one of these fragments in the Old Monthly Magazine. This was followed by
nine others in the same paper, and when the paper (which was a
romantically Radical venture, run by a veteran soldier of Bolivar)
itself collapsed, Dickens continued the series in the Evening Chronicle,
an offshoot of the morning paper of the same name. These were the pieces
afterwards published and known as the "Sketches by Boz"; and with them
Dickens enters literature. He also enters upon many things about this
time; he enters manhood, and among other things marriage. A friend of
his on the Chronicle, George Hogarth, had several daughters. With all of
them Dickens appears to have been on terms of great affection. This
sketch is wholly literary, and I do not feel it necessary to do more
than touch upon such incidents as his marriage, just I shall do no more
than touch upon the tragedy that ultimately overtook it. But it may be
suggested here that the final misfortunes were in some degree due to the
circumstances attending the original action. A very young man fighting
his way, and excessively poor, with no memories for years past that were
not monotonous and mean, and with his strongest and most personal
memories quite ignominious and unendurable, was suddenly thrown into the
society of a whole family of girls. I think it does not overstate his
weakness, and I think it partly constitutes his excuse, to say that he
fell in love with the chance of love. As sometimes happens in the
undeveloped youth, an abstract femininity simply intoxicated him. In
what came afterwards he was enormously to blame. But I do not think that
his was a case of cold division from a woman whom he had once seriously
and singly loved. He had been bewildered in a burning haze, I will not
say even of first love, but of first flirtations. The whole family
stimulated him before he fell in love with one of them; and it continued
to stimulate him long after he had quarrelled with her for causes that
did not even destroy his affection for her. This view is strikingly
supported by all the details of his attitude towards all the other
members of the sacred house of Hogarth. One of the sisters remained, of
course, his dearest friend till death. Another who had died, he
worshipped like a saint, and he always asked to be buried in her grave.
He was married on April 2, 1836. Forster remarks that a few days before
the announcement of their marriage in the Times, the same paper
contained another announcement that on the 31st would be published the
first number of a work called "The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick
Club." It is the beginning of his career.

The "Sketches," apart from splendid splashes of humour here and there,
are not manifestations of the man of genius. We might almost say that
this book is one of the few books by Dickens which would not, standing
alone, have made his fame. And yet standing alone it did make his fame.
His contemporaries could see a new spirit in it, where we, familiar with
the larger fruits of that spirit, can only see a continuation of the
prosaic and almost wooden wit of the comic books of that day. But in any
case we should hardly look in the man's first book for the fulness of
his contribution to letters. Youth is almost everything else, but it is
hardly ever original. We read of young men bursting on the old world
with a new message. But youth in actual experience is the period of
imitation and even of obedience. Subjectively its emotions may be
furious and headlong; but its only external outcome is a furious
imitation and a headlong obedience. As we grow older we learn the
special thing we have to do. As a man goes on towards the grave he
discovers gradually a philosophy he can really call fresh, a style he
can really call his own, and as he becomes an older man he becomes a new
writer. Ibsen, in his youth, wrote almost classic plays about vikings;
it was in his old age that he began to break windows and throw
fireworks. The only fault, it was said, of Browning's first poems was
that they had "too much beauty of imagery, and too little wealth of
thought." The only fault, that is, of Browning's first poems, was that
they were not Browning's.

In one way, however, the "Sketches by Boz" do stand out very
symbolically in the life of Dickens. They constitute in a manner the
dedication of him to his especial task; the sympathetic and yet
exaggerated painting of the poorer middle-class. He was to make men feel
that this dull middle-class was actually a kind of elf-land. But here,
again, the work is rude and undeveloped; and this is shown in the fact
that it is a great deal more exaggerative than it is sympathetic. We are
not, of course, concerned with the kind of people who say that they wish
that Dickens was more refined. If those people are ever refined it will
be by fire. But there is in this earliest work, an element which almost
vanished in the later ones, an element which is typical of the
middle-classes in England, and which is in a more real sense to be
called vulgar. I mean that in these little farces there is a trace in the
author as well as in the characters, of that petty sense of social
precedence, that hubbub of little unheard-of oligarchies, which is the
only serious sin of bourgeoisie of Britain. It may seem pragmatical, for
example, to instance such rowdy farce as the story of Horatio Sparkins,
which tells how a tuft-hunting family entertained a rhetorical youth
thinking he was a lord, and found he was a draper's assistant. No doubt
they were very snobbish in thinking that a lord must be eloquent; but we
cannot help feeling that Dickens is almost equally snobbish in feeling
it so very funny that a draper's assistant should be eloquent. A free
man, one would think, would despise the family quite as much if Horatio
had been a peer. Here, and here only, there is just a touch of the
vulgarity, of the only vulgarity of the world out of which Dickens came.
For the only element of lowness that there really is in our populace is
exactly that they are full of superiorities and very conscious of class.
Shades, imperceptible to the eyes of others, but as hard and haughty as
a Brahmin caste, separate one kind of charwoman from another kind of
charwoman. Dickens was destined to show with inspired symbolism all the
immense virtues of the democracy. He was to show them as the most
humorous part of our civilisation; which they certainly are. He was to
show them as the most promptly and practically compassionate part of our
civilisation; which they certainly are. The democracy has a hundred
exuberant good qualities; the democracy has only one outstanding sin--it
is not democratic.


Round the birth of "Pickwick" broke one of those literary quarrels that
were too common in the life of Dickens. Such quarrels indeed generally
arose from some definite mistake or misdemeanour on the part of somebody
else; but they were also made possible by an indefinite touchiness and
susceptibility in Dickens himself. He was so sensitive on points of
personal authorship that even his sacred sense of humour deserted him.
He turned people into mortal enemies whom he might have turned very
easily into immortal jokes. It was not that he was lawless; in a sense
it was that he was too legal; but he did not understand the principle of
de minimis non curat lex. Anybody could draw him; any fool could make a
fool of him. Any obscure madman who chose to say that he had written the
whole of "Martin Chuzzlewit"; any penny-a-liner who chose to say that
Dickens wore no shirt-collar, could call forth the most passionate and
public denials as of a man pleading "not guilty" to witchcraft or high
treason. Hence the letters of Dickens are filled with a certain singular
type of quarrels and complaints, quarrels and complaints in which one
cannot say that he was on the wrong side, but that merely even in being
on the right side he was in the wrong place. He was not only a generous
man, he was even a just man; to have made against anybody a charge or
claim which was unfair would have been insupportable to him. His
weakness was that he found the unfair claim or charge, however small,
equally insupportable when brought against himself. No one can say of
him that he was often wrong; we can only say of him as of many
pugnacious people, that he was too often right.

The incidents attending the inauguration of "The Pickwick Papers" are
not, perhaps, a perfect example of this trait, because Dickens was here
a hand-to-mouth journalist, and the blow might possibly have been more
disabling than those struck at him in his days of triumph. But all
through those days of triumph, and to the day of his death, Dickens took
this old tea-cup tempest with the most terrible gravity, drew up
declarations, called witnesses, preserved pulverising documents, and
handed on to his children the forgotten folly as if it had been a
Highland feud. Yet the unjust claim made on him was so much more
ridiculous even than it was unjust, that it seems strange that he should
have remembered it for a month except for his amusement. The facts are
simple and familiar to most people. The publishers--Chapman &
Hall--wished to produce some kind of serial with comic illustrations by
a popular caricaturist named Seymour. This artist was chiefly famous for
his rendering of the farcical side of sport, and to suit this speciality
it was very vaguely suggested to Dickens by the publishers that he
should write about a Nimrod Club, or some such thing, a club of amateur
sportsmen, foredoomed to perpetual ignominies. Dickens objected in
substance upon two very sensible grounds--first, that sporting sketches
were stale; and second, that he knew nothing about sport. He changed the
idea to that of a general club for travel and investigation, the
Pickwick Club, and only retained one fated sportsman, Mr. Winkle, the
melancholy remnant of the Nimrod Club that never was. The first seven
pictures appeared with the signature of Seymour and the letter press of
Dickens, and in them Winkle and his woes were fairly, but not
extraordinarily prominent. Before the eighth picture appeared Seymour
had blown his brains out. After a brief interval of the employment of a
man named Buss, Dickens obtained the assistance of Hablot K. Browne,
whom we all call "Phiz," and may almost, in a certain sense, be said to
have gone into partnership with him. They were as suited to each other
and to the common creation of a unique thing as Gilbert and Sullivan. No
other illustrator ever created the true Dickens characters with the
precise and correct quantum of exaggeration. No other illustrator ever
breathed the true Dickens atmosphere, in which clerks are clerks and yet
at the same time elves.

To the tame mind the above affair does not seem to offer anything very
promising in the way of a row. But Seymour's widow managed to evolve out
of it the proposition that somehow or other her husband had written
"Pickwick," or, at least, had been responsible for the genius and
success of it. It does not appear that she had anything at all
resembling a reason for this opinion except the unquestionable fact that
the publishers had started with the idea of employing Seymour. This was
quite true, and Dickens (who over and above his honesty was far too
quarrelsome a man not to try and keep in the right, and who showed a
sort of fierce carefulness in telling the truth in such cases) never
denied it or attempted to conceal it. It was quite true, that at the
beginning, instead of Seymour being employed to illustrate Dickens,
Dickens may be said to have been employed to illustrate Seymour. But
that Seymour invented anything in the letterpress large or small, that
he invented either the outline of Mr. Pickwick's character, or the
number of Mr. Pickwick's cabman, that he invented either the story, or
so much as a semi-colon in the story was not only never proved, but was
never very lucidly alleged. Dickens fills his letters with all that
there is to be said against Mrs. Seymour's idea; it is not very clear
whether there was anything definitely said for it.

Upon the mere superficial fact and law of the affair, Dickens ought to
have been superior to this silly business. But in a much deeper and a
much more real sense he ought to have been superior to it. It did not
really touch him or his greatness at all, even as an abstract
allegation. If Seymour had started the story, had provided Dickens with
his puppets, Tupman or Jingle, Dickens would still have been Dickens and
Seymour only Seymour. As a matter of fact, it happened to be a
contemptible lie, but it would have been an equally contemptible truth.
For the fact is that the greatness of Dickens and especially the
greatness of Pickwick is not of a kind that could be affected by
somebody else suggesting the first idea. It could not be affected by
somebody else writing the first chapter. If it could be shown that
another man had suggested to Hawthorne (let us say) the primary
conception of "The Scarlet Letter," Hawthorne who worked it out would
still be an exquisite workman; but he would be by so much less a
creator. But in a case like Pickwick there is a simple test. If Seymour
gave Dickens the main idea of Pickwick, what was it? There is no primary
conception of Pickwick for anyone to suggest. Dickens not only did not
get the general plan from Seymour, he did not get it at all. In
Pickwick, and, indeed, in Dickens, generally it is in the details that
the author is creative, it is in the details that he is vast. The power
of the book lies in the perpetual torrent of ingenious and inventive
treatment; the theme (at least at the beginning) simply does not exist.
The idea of Tupman, the fat lady-killer, is in itself quite dreary and
vulgar; it is the detailed Tupman, as he is developed, who is
unexpectedly amusing. The idea of Winkle, the clumsy sportsman, is in
itself quite stale; it is as he goes on repeating himself that he
becomes original. We hear of men whose imagination can touch with magic
the dull facts of our life, but Dickens's yet more indomitable fancy
could touch with magic even our dull fiction. Before we are half-way
through the book the stock characters of dead and damned farces astonish
us like splendid strangers.

Seymour's claim, then, viewed symbolically, was even a compliment. It
was true in spirit that Dickens obtained (or might have obtained) the
start of Pickwick from somebody else, from anybody else. For he had a
more gigantic energy than the energy of the intense artist, the energy
which is prepared to write something. He had the energy which is
prepared to write anything. He could have finished any man's tale. He
could have breathed a mad life into any man's characters. If it had been
true that Seymour had planned out Pickwick, if Seymour had fixed the
chapters and named and numbered the characters, his slave would have
shown even in these shackles such a freedom as would have shaken the
world. If Dickens had been forced to make his incidents out of a chapter
in a child's reading-book, or the names in a scrap of newspaper, he
would have turned them in ten pages into creatures of his own. Seymour,
as I say, was in a manner right in spirit. Dickens would at this time
get his materials from anywhere, in the sense that he cared little what
materials they were. He would not have stolen; but if he had stolen he
would never have imitated. The power which he proceeded at once to
exhibit was the one power in letters which literally cannot be imitated,
the primary inexhaustible creative energy, the enormous prodigality of
genius which no one but another genius could parody. To claim to have
originated an idea of Dickens is like claiming to have contributed one
glass of water to Niagara. Wherever this stream or that stream started
the colossal cataract of absurdity went roaring night and day. The
volume of his invention overwhelmed all doubt of his inventiveness;
Dickens was evidently a great man; unless he was a thousand men.

The actual circumstances of the writing and publishing of "Pickwick"
shows that while Seymour's specific claim was absurd, Dickens's
indignant exactitude about every jot and tittle of authorship was also
inappropriate and misleading. "The Pickwick Papers," when all is said
and done, did emerge out of a haze of suggestions and proposals in which
more than one person was involved. The publishers failed to base the
story on a Nimrod Club, but they succeeded in basing it on a club.
Seymour, by virtue of his idiosyncrasy, if he did not create, brought
about the creation of Mr. Winkle. Seymour sketched Mr. Pickwick as a
tall, thin man. Mr. Chapman (apparently without any word from Dickens)
boldly turned him into a short, fat man. Chapman took the type from a
corpulent old dandy named Foster, who wore tights and gaiters and lived
at Richmond. In this sense, were we affected by this idle aspect of the
thing, we might call Chapman the real originator of "Pickwick." But as
I have suggested, originating "Pickwick" is not the point. It was quite
easy to originate "Pickwick." The difficulty was to write it.

However such things may be, there can be no question of the result of
this chaos. In "The Pickwick Papers" Dickens sprang suddenly from a
comparatively low level to a very high one. To the level of "Sketches by
Boz" he never afterwards descended. To the level of "The Pickwick
Papers" it is doubtful if he ever afterwards rose. "Pickwick," indeed,
is not a good novel; but it is not a bad novel, for it is not a novel at
all. In one sense, indeed, it is something nobler than a novel, for no
novel with a plot and a proper termination could emit that sense of
everlasting youth--a sense as of the gods gone wandering in England.
This is not a novel, for all novels have an end; and "Pickwick,"
properly speaking, has no end--he is equal unto the angels. The point at
which, as a fact, we find the printed matter terminates is not an end in
any artistic sense of the word. Even as a boy I believed there were some
more pages that were torn out of my copy, and I am looking for them
still. The book might have been cut short anywhere else. It might have
been cut short after Mr. Pickwick was released by Mr. Nupkins, or after
Mr. Pickwick was fished out of the water, or at a hundred other places.
And we should still have known that this was not really the story's end.
We should have known that Mr. Pickwick was still having the same high
adventures on the same high roads. As it happens the book ends after Mr.
Pickwick has taken a house in the neighbourhood of Dulwich. But we know
he did not stop there. We know he broke out, that he took again the road
of the high adventures; we know that if we take it ourselves in any acre
of England, we may come suddenly upon him in a lane.

But this relation of "Pickwick" to the strict form of fiction demands a
further word, which should indeed be said in any case before the
consideration of any or all of the Dickens tales. Dickens's work is not
to be reckoned in novels at all. Dickens's work is to be reckoned always
by characters, sometimes by groups, oftener by episodes, but never by
novels. You cannot discuss whether "Nicholas Nickleby" is a good novel,
or whether "Our Mutual Friend" is a bad novel. Strictly, there is no
such novel as "Nicholas Nickleby." There is no such novel as "Our Mutual
Friend." They are simply lengths cut from the flowing and mixed
substance called Dickens--a substance of which any given length will be
certain to contain a given proportion of brilliant and of bad stuff. You
can say, according to your opinions, "the Crummles part is perfect," or
"the Boffins are a mistake," just as a man watching a river go by him
could count here a floating flower, and there a streak of scum. But you
cannot artistically divide the output into books. The best of his work
can be found in the worst of his works. "The Tale of Two Cities" is a
good novel; "Little Dorrit" is not a good novel. But the description of
"The Circumlocution Office" in "Little Dorrit" is quite as good as the
description of "Tellson's Bank" in "The Tale of Two Cities." "The Old
Curiosity Shop" is not so good as "David Copperfield," but Swiveller is
quite as good as Micawber. Nor is there any reason why these superb
creatures, as a general rule, should be in one novel any more than
another. There is no reason why Sam Weller, in the course of his
wanderings, should not wander into "Nicholas Nickleby." There is no
reason why Major Bagstock, in his brisk way, should not walk straight
out of "Dombey and Son" and straight into "Martin Chuzzlewit." To this
generalisation some modification should be added. "Pickwick" stands by
itself, and has even a sort of unity in not pretending to unity. "David
Copperfield," in a less degree, stands by itself, as being the only book
in which Dickens wrote of himself; and "The Tale of Two Cities" stands
by itself as being the only book in which Dickens slightly altered
himself. But as a whole, this should be firmly grasped, that the units
of Dickens, the primary elements, are not the stories, but the
characters who affect the stories--or, more often still, the characters
who do not affect the stories.

This is a plain matter; but, unless it be stated and felt, Dickens may
be greatly misunderstood and greatly underrated. For not only is his
whole machinery directed to facilitating the self-display of certain
characters, but something more deep and more unmodern still is also true
of him. It is also true that all the moving machinery exists only to
display entirely static character. Things in the Dickens story shift and
change only in order to give us glimpses of great characters that do not
change at all. If we had a sequel of Pickwick ten years afterwards,
Pickwick would be exactly the same age. We know he would not have fallen
into that strange and beautiful second childhood which soothed and
simplified the end of Colonel Newcome. Newcome, throughout the book, is
in an atmosphere of time: Pickwick, throughout the book, is not. This
will probably be taken by most modern people as praise of Thackeray and
dispraise of Dickens. But this only shows how few modern people
understand Dickens. It also shows how few understand the faiths and the
fables of mankind. The matter can only be roughly stated in one way.
Dickens did not strictly make a literature; he made a mythology.

For a few years our corner of Western Europe has had a fancy for this
thing we call fiction; that is, for writing down our own lives or
similar lives in order to look at them. But though we call it fiction,
it differs from older literatures chiefly in being less fictitious. It
imitates not only life, but the limitations of life it not only
reproduces life, it reproduces death. But outside us, in every other
country, in every other age, there has been going on from the beginning
a more fictitious kind of fiction. I mean the kind now called folklore,
the literature of the people. Our modern novels, which deal with men as
they are, are chiefly produced by a small and educated section of
society. But this other literature deals with men greater than they
are--with demi-gods and heroes; and that is far too important a matter
to be trusted to the educated classes. The fashioning of these portents
is a popular trade, like ploughing or bricklaying; the men who made
hedges, the men who made ditches, were the men who made deities. Men
could not elect their kings, but they could elect their gods. So we find
ourselves faced with a fundamental contrast between what is called
fiction and what is called folklore. The one exhibits an abnormal degree
of dexterity operating within our daily limitations; the other exhibits
quite normal desires extended beyond those limitations. Fiction means
the common things as seen by the uncommon people. Fairy tales mean the
uncommon things as seen by the common people.

As our world advances through history towards its present epoch, it
becomes more specialist, less democratic, and folklore turns gradually
into fiction. But it is only slowly that the old elfin fire fades into
the light of common realism. For ages after our characters have dressed
up in the clothes of mortals they betray the blood of the gods. Even our
phraseology is full of relics of this. When a modern novel is devoted to
the bewilderments of a weak young clerk who cannot decide which woman he
wants to marry, or which new religion he believes in, we still give this
knock-kneed cad the name of "the hero"--the name which is the crown of
Achilles. The popular preference for a story with "a happy ending" is
not, or at least was not, a mere sweet-stuff optimism; it is the remains
of the old idea of the triumph of the dragon-slayer, the ultimate
apotheosis of the man beloved of heaven.

But there is another and more intangible trace of this fading
supernaturalism--a trace very vivid to the reader, but very elusive to
the critic. It is a certain air of endlessness in the episodes, even in
the shortest episodes--a sense that, although we leave them, they still
go on. Our modern attraction to short stories is not an accident of
form; it is the sign of a real sense of fleetingness and fragility; it
means that existence is only an impression, and, perhaps, only an
illusion. A short story of to-day has the air of a dream; it has the
irrevocable beauty of a falsehood; we get a glimpse of grey streets of
London or red plains of India, as in an opium vision; we see
people--arresting people with fiery and appealing faces. But when the
story is ended, the people are ended. We have no instinct of anything
ultimate and enduring behind the episodes. The moderns, in a word,
describe life in short stories because they are possessed with the
sentiment that life itself is an uncommonly short story, and perhaps not
a true one. But in this elder literature, even in the comic literature
(indeed, especially in the comic literature), the reverse is true. The
characters are felt to be fixed things of which we have fleeting
glimpses; that is, they are felt to be divine. Uncle Toby is talking for
ever, as the elves are dancing for ever. We feel that whenever we hammer
on the house of Falstaff, Falstaff will be at home. We feel it as a
Pagan would feel that, if a cry broke the silence after ages of
unbelief, Apollo would still be listening in his temple. These writers
may tell short stories, but we feel they are only parts of a long story.
And herein lies the peculiar significance, the peculiar sacredness even,
of penny dreadfuls and the common printed matter made for our
errand-boys. Here in dim and desperate forms, under the ban of our base
culture, stormed at by silly magistrates, sneered at by silly
schoolmasters,--here is the old popular literature still popular; here
is the unmistakable voluminousness, the thousand and one tales of Dick
Deadshot, like the thousand and one tales of Robin Hood. Here is the
splendid and static boy, the boy who remains a boy through a thousand
volumes and a thousand years. Here in mean alleys and dim shops,
shadowed and shamed by the police, mankind is still driving its dark
trade in heroes. And elsewhere, and in all other ages, in braver
fashion, under cleaner skies, the same eternal tale-telling goes on, and
the whole mortal world is a factory of immortals.

Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist; he was the last of the
mythologists, and perhaps the greatest. He did not always manage to make
his characters men, but he always managed, at the least, to make them
gods. They are creatures like Punch or Father Christmas. They live
statically, in a perpetual summer of being themselves. It was not the
aim of Dickens to show the effect of time and circumstance upon a
character; it was not even his aim to show the effect of a character on
time and circumstance. It is worth remark, in passing, that whenever he
tried to describe change in a character, he made a mess of it, as in the
repentance of Dombey or the apparent deterioration of Boffin. It was his
aim to show character hung in a kind of happy void, in a world apart
from time--yes, and essentially apart from circumstance, though the
phrase may seem odd in connection with the godlike horse-play of
"Pickwick." But all the Pickwickian events, wild as they often are, were
only designed to display the greater wildness of souls, or sometimes
merely to bring the reader within touch, so to speak, of that wildness.
The author would have fired Mr. Pickwick out of a can non to get him to
Wardle's by Christmas; he would have taken the roof off to drop him into
Bob Sawyer's party. But once put Pickwick at Wardle's, with his punch
and a group of gorgeous personalities, and nothing will move him from
his chair. Once he is at Sawyer's party, he forgets how he got there; he
forgets Mrs. Bardell and all his story. For the story was but an
incantation to call up a god, and the god (Mr. Jack Hopkins) is present
in divine power. Once the great characters are face to face, the ladder
by which they climbed is forgotten and falls down, the structure of the
story drops to pieces, the plot is abandoned; the other characters
deserted at every kind of crisis; the whole crowded thoroughfare of the
tale is blocked by two or three talkers, who take their immortal ease as
if they were already in Paradise. For they do not exist for the story;
the story exists for them; and they know it.

To every man alive, one must hope, it has in some manner happened that
he has talked with his more fascinating friends round a table on some
night when all the numerous personalities unfolded themselves like great
tropical flowers. All fell into their parts as in some delightful
impromptu play. Every man was more himself than he had ever been in this
vale of tears. Every man was a beautiful caricature of himself. The man
who has known such nights will understand the exaggerations of
"Pickwick." The man who has not known such nights will not enjoy
"Pickwick" nor (I imagine) heaven. For, as I have said, Dickens is, in
this matter, close to popular religion, which is the ultimate and
reliable religion. He conceives an endless joy; he conceives creatures
as permanent as Puck or Pan--creatures whose will to live aeons upon aeons
cannot satisfy. He is not come, as a writer, that his creatures may copy
life and copy its narrowness; he is come that they may have life, and
that they may have it more abundantly. It is absurd indeed that
Christians should be called the enemies of life because they wish life
to last for ever; it is more absurd still to call the old comic writers
dull because they wished their unchanging characters to last for ever.
Both popular religion, with its endless joys, and the old comic story,
with its endless jokes, have in our time faded together. We are too weak
to desire that undying vigour. We believe that you can have too much of
a good thing--a blasphemous belief, which at one blow wrecks all the
heavens that men have hoped for. The grand old defiers of God were not
afraid of an eternity of torment. We have come to be afraid of an
eternity of joy. It is not my business here to take sides in this
division between those who like life and long novels and those who like
death and short stories; my only business is to point out that those who
see in Dickens's unchanging characters and recurring catch-words a mere
stiffness and lack of living movement miss the point and nature of his
work. His tradition is another tradition altogether; his aim is another
aim altogether to those of the modern novelists who trace the alchemy of
experience and the autumn tints of character. He is there, like the
common people of all ages, to make deities; he is there, as I have said,
to exaggerate life in the direction of life. The spirit he at bottom
celebrates is that of two friends drinking wine together and talking
through the night. But for him they are two deathless friends talking
through an endless night and pouring wine from an inexhaustible bottle.

This, then, is the first firm fact to grasp about "Pickwick"--about
"Pickwick" more than about any of the other stories. It is, first and
foremost, a supernatural story. Mr. Pickwick was a fairy. So was old Mr.
Weller. This does not imply that they were suited to swing in a trapeze
of gossamer; it merely implies that if they had fallen out of it on
their heads they would not have died. But, to speak more strictly, Mr.
Samuel Pickwick is not the fairy; he is the fairy prince; that is to
say, he is the abstract wanderer and wonderer, the Ulysses of comedy;
the half-human and half-elfin creature--human enough to wander, human
enough to wonder, but still sustained with that merry fatalism that is
natural to immortal beings--sustained by that hint of divinity which
tells him in the darkest hour that he is doomed to live happily ever
afterwards. He has set out walking to the end of the world, but he knows
he will find an inn there.

And this brings us to the best and boldest element of originality in
"Pickwick." It has not, I think, been observed, and it may be that
Dickens did not observe it. Certainly he did not plan it; it grew
gradually, perhaps out of the unconscious part of his soul, and warmed
the whole story like a slow fire. Of course it transformed the whole
story also; transformed it out of all likeness to itself. About this
latter point was waged one of the numberless little wars of Dickens. It
was a part of his pugnacious vanity that he refused to admit the truth
of the mildest criticism. Moreover, he used his inexhaustible ingenuity
to find an apologia that was generally an afterthought. Instead of
laughingly admitting, in answer to criticism, the glorious improbability
of Pecksniff, he retorted with a sneer, clever and very unjust, that he
was not surprised that the Pecksniffs should deny the portrait of
Pecksniff. When it was objected that the pride of old Paul Dombey breaks
as abruptly as a stick, he tried to make out that there had been an
absorbing psychological struggle going on in that gentleman all the
time, which the reader was too stupid to perceive. Which is, I am
afraid, rubbish. And so, in a similar vein, he answered those who
pointed out to him the obvious and not very shocking fact that our
sentiments about Pickwick are very different in the second part of the
book from our sentiments in the first; that we find ourselves at the
beginning setting out in the company of a farcical old fool, if not a
farcical old humbug, and that we find ourselves at the end saying
farewell to a fine old England merchant, a monument of genial sanity.
Dickens answered with the same ingenious self-justification as in the
other cases--that surely it often happened that a man met us first
arrayed in his more grotesque qualities, and that fuller acquaintance
unfolded his more serious merits. This, of course, is quite true; but I
think any honest admirer of "Pickwick" will feel that it is not an
answer. For the fault in "Pickwick" (if it be a fault) is a change not
in the hero but in the whole atmosphere. The point is not that Pickwick
turns into a different kind of man; it is that "The Pickwick Papers"
turns into a different kind of book. And however artistic both parts may
be, this combination must, in strict art, be called inartistic. A man is
quite artistically justified in writing a tale in which a man as
cowardly as Bob Acres becomes a man as brave as Hector. But a man is not
artistically justified in writing a tale which begins in the style of
"The Rivals" and ends in the style of the "Iliad." In other words, we do
not mind the hero changing in the course of a book; but we are not
prepared for the author changing in the course of the book. And the
author did change in the course of this book. He made, in the midst of
this book, a great discovery, which was the discovery of his destiny,
or, what is more important, of his duty. That discovery turned him from
the author of "Sketches by Boz" to the author of "David Copperfield."
And that discovery constituted the thing of which I have spoken--the
outstanding and arresting original feature in "The Pickwick Papers."

"Pickwick," I have said, is a romance of adventure, and Samuel Pickwick
is the romantic adventurer. So much is indeed obvious. But the strange
and stirring discovery which Dickens made was this--that having chosen a
fat old man of the middle classes as a good thing of which to make a
butt, he found that a fat old man of the middle classes is the very best
thing of which to make a romantic adventurer. "Pickwick" is supremely
original in that it is the adventures of an old man. It is a fairy tale
in which the victor is not the youngest of the three brothers, but one
of the oldest of their uncles. The result is both noble and new and
true. There is nothing which so much needs simplicity as adventure. And
there is no one who so much possesses simplicity as an honest and
elderly man of business. For romance he is better than a troop of young
troubadours; for the swaggering young fellow anticipates his adventures,
just as he anticipates his income. Hence both the adventures and the
income, when he comes up to them, are not there. But a man in late
middle-age has grown used to the plain necessities, and his first
holiday is a second youth. A good man, as Thackeray said with such
thorough and searching truth, grows simpler as he grows older. Samuel
Pickwick in his youth was probably an insufferable young coxcomb. He
knew then, or thought he knew, all about the confidence tricks of
swindlers like Jingle. He knew then, or thought he knew, all about the
amatory designs of sly ladies like Mrs. Bardell. But years and real life
have relieved him of this idle and evil knowledge. He has had the high
good luck in losing the follies of youth to lose the wisdom of youth
also. Dickens has caught, in a manner at once wild and convincing, this
queer innocence of the afternoon of life. The round, moonlike face, the
round, moon-like spectacles of Samuel Pickwick move through the tale as
emblems of a certain spherical simplicity. They are fixed in that grave
surprise that may be seen in babies; that grave surprise which is the
only real happiness that is possible to man. Pickwick's round face is
like a round and honourable mirror, in which are reflected all the
fantasies of earthly existence; for surprise is, strictly speaking, the
only kind of reflection. All this grew gradually on Dickens. It is odd
to recall to our minds the original plan, the plan of the Nimrod Club,
and the author who was to be wholly occupied in playing practical jokes
on his characters. He had chosen (or somebody else had chosen) that
corpulent old simpleton as a person peculiarly fitted to fall down
trapdoors, to shoot over butter slides, to struggle with apple-pie beds,
to be tipped out of carts and dipped into horse-ponds. But Dickens, and
Dickens only, discovered as he went on how fitted the fat old man was to
rescue ladies, to defy tyrants, to dance, to leap, to experiment with
life, to be a deus ex machinâ and even a knight errant. Dickens made
this discovery. Dickens went into the Pickwick Club to scoff, and
Dickens remained to pray.

Molière and his marquises are very much amused when M. Jourdain, the fat
old middle-class fellow, discovers with delight that he has been talking
prose all his life. I have often wondered whether Molière saw how in
this fact M. Jourdain towers above them all and touches the stars. He
has the freshness to enjoy a fresh fact, the freshness to enjoy even an
old one. He can feel that the common thing prose is an accomplishment
like verse; and it is an accomplishment like verse; it is the miracle of
language. He can feel the subtle taste of water, and roll it on his
tongue like wine. His simple vanity and voracity, his innocent love of
living, his ignorant love of learning, are things far fuller of romance
than the weariness and foppishness of the sniggering cavaliers. When he
consciously speaks prose, he unconsciously thinks poetry. It would be
better for us all if we were as conscious that supper is supper or that
life is life, as this true romantic was that prose is actually prose. M.
Jourdain is here the type, Mr. Pickwick is elsewhere the type, of this
true and neglected thing, the romance of the middle classes. It is the
custom in our little epoch to sneer at the middle classes. Cockney
artists profess to find the bourgeoisie dull, as if artists had any
business to find anything dull. Decadents talk contemptuously of its
conventions and its set tasks; it never occurs to them that conventions
and set tasks are the very way to keep that greenness in the grass and
that redness in the roses--which they have lost for ever. Stevenson, in
his incomparable "Lantern Bearers," describes the ecstasy of a schoolboy
in the mere fact of buttoning a dark lantern under a dark great-coat. If
you wish for that ecstasy of the schoolboy, you must have the boy; but
you must also have the school. Strict opportunities and defined hours
are the very outline of that enjoyment. A man like Mr. Pickwick has been
at school all his life, and when he comes out he astonishes the
youngsters. His heart, as that acute psychologist, Mr. Weller, points
out, had been born later than his body. It will be remembered that Mr.
Pickwick also, when on the escapade of Winkle and Miss Allen, took
immoderate pleasure in the performances of a dark lantern which was not
dark enough, and was nothing but a nuisance to everybody. His soul also
was with Stevenson's boys on the grey sands of Haddington, talking in
the dark by the sea. He also was of the league of the "Lantern Bearers."
Stevenson, I remember, says that in the shops of that town they could
purchase "penny Pickwicks (that remarkable cigar)." Let us hope they
smoked them, and that the rotund ghost of Pickwick hovered over the
rings of smoke.

Pickwick goes through life with that god-like gullibility which is the
key to all adventures. The greenhorn is the ultimate victor in
everything; it is he that gets the most out of life. Because Pickwick is
led away by Jingle, he will be led to the White Hart Inn, and see the
only Weller cleaning boots in the courtyard. Because he is bamboozled by
Dodson and Fogg, he will enter the prison house like a paladin, and
rescue the man and the woman who have wronged him most. His soul will
never starve for exploits or excitements who is wise enough to be made a
fool of. He will make himself happy in the traps that have been laid for
him; he will roll in their nets and sleep. All doors will fly open to
him who has a mildness more defiant than mere courage. The whole is
unerringly expressed in one fortunate phrase--he will be always "taken
in." To be taken in everywhere is to see the inside of everything. It is
the hospitality of circumstance. With torches and trumpets, like a
guest, the greenhorn is taken in by Life. And the sceptic is cast out by


There is one aspect of Charles Dickens which must be of interest even to
that subterranean race which does not admire his books. Even if we are
not interested in Dickens as a great event in English literature, we
must still be interested in him as a great event in English history. If
he had not his place with Fielding and Thackeray, he would still have
his place with Wat Tyler and Wilkes; for the man led a mob. He did what
no English statesman, perhaps, has really done; he called out the
people. He was popular in a sense of which we moderns have not even a
notion. In that sense there is no popularity now. There are no popular
authors to-day. We call such authors as Mr. Guy Boothby or Mr. William
Le Queux popular authors. But this is popularity altogether in a weaker
sense; not only in quantity, but in quality. The old popularity was
positive; the new is negative. There is a great deal of difference
between the eager man who wants to read a book, and the tired man who
wants a book to read. A man reading a Le Queux mystery wants to get to
the end of it. A man reading the Dickens novel wished that it might
never end. Men read a Dickens story six times because they knew it so
well. If a man can read a Le Queux story six times it is only because he
can forget it six times. In short, the Dickens novel was popular not
because it was an unreal world, but because it was a real world; a world
in which the soul could live. The modern "shocker" at its very best is an
interlude in life. But in the days when Dickens's work was coming out in
serial, people talked as if real life were itself the interlude between
one issue of "Pickwick" and another.

In reaching the period of the publication of "Pickwick," we reach this
sudden apotheosis of Dickens. Henceforward he filled the literary world
in a way hard to imagine. Fragments of that huge fashion remain in our
daily language; in the talk of every trade or public question are
embedded the wrecks of that enormous religion. Men give out the airs of
Dickens without even opening his books; just as Catholics can live in a
tradition of Christianity without having looked at the New Testament.
The man in the street has more memories of Dickens, whom he has not
read, than of Marie Corelli, whom he has. There is nothing in any way
parallel to this omnipresence and vitality in the great comic characters
of Boz. There are no modern Bumbles and Pecksniffs, no modern Gamps and
Micawbers. Mr. Rudyard Kipling (to take an author of a higher type than
those before mentioned) is called, and called justly, a popular author;
that is to say, he is widely read, greatly enjoyed, and highly
remunerated; he has achieved the paradox of at once making poetry and
making money. But let anyone who wishes to see the difference try the
experiment of assuming the Kipling characters to be common property like
the Dickens characters. Let anyone go into an average parlour and allude
to Strickland as he would allude to Mr. Bumble, the Beadle. Let anyone
say that somebody is "a perfect Learoyd," as he would say "a perfect
Pecksniff." Let anyone write a comic paragraph for a halfpenny paper,
and allude to Mrs. Hawksbee instead of to Mrs. Gamp. He will soon
discover that the modern world has forgotten its own fiercest booms more
completely than it has forgotten this formless tradition from its
fathers. The mere dregs of it come to more than any contemporary
excitement; the gleaning of the grapes of "Pickwick" is more than the
whole vintage of "Soldiers Three." There is one instance, and I think
only one, of an exception to this generalisation; there is one figure in
our popular literature which would really be recognised by the populace.
Ordinary men would understand you if you referred currently to Sherlock
Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would no doubt be justified in rearing
his head to the stars, remembering that Sherlock Holmes is the only
really familiar figure in modern fiction. But let him droop that head
again with a gentle sadness, remembering that if Sherlock Holmes is the
only familiar figure in modern fiction Sherlock Holmes is also the only
familiar figure in the Sherlock Holmes tales. Not many people could say
offhand what was the name of the owner of Silver Blaze, or whether Mrs.
Watson was dark or fair. But if Dickens had written the Sherlock Holmes
stories, every character in them would have been equally arresting and
memorable. A Sherlock Holmes would have cooked the dinner for Sherlock
Holmes; a Sherlock Holmes would have driven his cab. If Dickens brought
in a man merely to carry a letter, he had time for a touch or two, and
made him a giant. Dickens not only conquered the world, he conquered it
with minor characters. Mr. John Smauker, the servant of Mr. Cyrus
Bantam, though he merely passes across the stage, is almost as vivid to
us as Mr. Samuel Weller, the servant of Mr. Samuel Pickwick. The young
man with the lumpy forehead, who only says "Esker" to Mr. Podsnap's
foreign gentleman, is as good as Mr. Podsnap himself. They appear only
for a fragment of time, but they belong to eternity. We have them only
for an instant, but they have us for ever.

In dealing with Dickens, then, we are dealing with a man whose public
success was a marvel and almost a monstrosity. And here I perceive that
my friend, the purely artistic critic, primed himself with Flaubert and
Turgenev, can contain himself no longer. He leaps to his feet, upsetting
his cup of cocoa, and asks contemptuously what all this has to do with
criticism. "Why begin your study of an author," he says, "with trash
about popularity? Boothby is popular, and Le Queux is popular, and
Mother Siegel is popular. If Dickens was even more popular, it may only
mean that Dickens was even worse. The people like bad literature. If
your object is to show that Dickens was good literature, you should
rather apologise for his popularity, and try to explain it away. You
should seek to show that Dickens's work was good literature, although it
was popular. Yes, that is your task, to prove that Dickens was
admirable, although he was admired!"

I ask the artistic critic to be patient for a little and to believe that
I have a serious reason for registering this historic popularity. To
that we shall come presently. But as a manner of approach I may perhaps
ask leave to examine this actual and fashionable statement, to which I
have supposed him to have recourse--the statement that the people like
bad literature, and even like literature because it is bad. This way of
stating the thing is an error, and in that error lies matter of much
import to Dickens and his destiny in letters. The public does not like
bad literature. The public likes a certain kind of literature and likes
that kind of literature even when it is bad better than another kind of
literature even when it is good. Nor is this unreasonable; for the line
between different types of literature is as real as the line between
tears and laughter; and to tell people who can only get bad comedy that
you have some first-class tragedy is as irrational as to offer a man who
is shivering over weak warm coffee a really superior sort of ice.

Ordinary people dislike the delicate modern work, not because it is good
or because it is bad, but because it is not the thing that they asked
for. If, for instance, you find them pent in sterile streets and
hungering for adventure and a violent secrecy, and if you then give them
their choice between "A Study in Scarlet," a good detective story, and
"The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford," a good psychological monologue,
no doubt they will prefer "A Study in Scarlet." But they will not do so
because "The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford" is a very good monologue,
but because it is evidently a very poor detective story. They will be
indifferent to "Les Aveugles," not because it is good drama, but because
it is bad melodrama. They do not like good introspective sonnets; but
neither do they like bad introspective sonnets, of which there are many.
When they walk behind the brass of the Salvation Army band, instead of
listening to harmonies at Queen's Hall, it is always assumed that they
prefer bad music. But it may be merely that they prefer military music,
music marching down the open street, and that if Dan Godfrey's band
could be smitten with salvation and lead them they would like that even
better. And while they might easily get more satisfaction out of a
screaming article in The War Cry than out of a page of Emerson about the
Oversoul, this would not be because the page of Emerson is another and
superior kind of literature. It would be because the page of Emerson is
another (and inferior) kind of religion.

Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great
literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community. For
this kinship was deep and spiritual. Dickens was not like our ordinary
demagogues and journalists. Dickens did not write what the people
wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted. And with this was
connected that other fact which must never be forgotten, and which I
have more than once insisted on, that Dickens and his school had a
hilarious faith in democracy and thought of the service of it as a
sacred priesthood. Hence there was this vital point in his popularism,
that there was no condescension in it. The belief that the rabble will
only read rubbish can be read between the lines of all our contemporary
writers, even of those writers whose rubbish the rabble reads. Mr.
Fergus Hume has no more respect for the populace than Mr. George Moore.
The only difference lies between those writers who will consent to talk
down to the people, and those writers who will not consent to talk down
to the people. But Dickens never talked down to the people. He talked up
to the people. He approached the people like a deity and poured out his
riches and his blood. This is what makes the immortal bond between him
and the masses of men. He had not merely produced something they could
understand, but he took it seriously, and toiled and agonised to produce
it. They were not only enjoying one of the best writers, they were
enjoying the best he could do. His raging and sleepless nights, his wild
walks in the darkness, his note-books crowded, his nerves in rags, all
this extraordinary output was but a fit sacrifice to the ordinary man.
He climbed towards the lower classes. He panted upwards on weary wings
to reach the heaven of the poor.

His power, then, lay in the fact that he expressed with an energy and
brilliancy quite uncommon the things close to the common mind. But with
this mere phrase, the common mind, we collide with a current error.
Commonness and the common mind are now generally spoken of as meaning in
some manner inferiority and the inferior mind; the mind of the mere mob.
But the common mind means the mind of all the artists and heroes; or
else it would not be common. Plato had the common mind; Dante had the
common mind; or that mind was not common. Commonness means the quality
common to the saint and the sinner, to the philosopher and the fool; and
it was this that Dickens grasped and developed. In everybody there is a
certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight
that thing enjoys Dickens. And everybody does not mean uneducated
crowds; everybody means everybody: everybody means Mrs. Meynell. This
lady, a cloistered and fastidious writer, has written one of the best
eulogies of Dickens that exist, an essay in praise of his pungent
perfection of epithet. And when I say that everybody understands Dickens
I do not mean that he is suited to the untaught intelligence. I mean
that he is so plain that even scholars can understand him.

The best expression of the fact, however, is to be found in noting the
two things in which he is most triumphant. In order of artistic value,
next after his humour, comes his horror. And both his humour and his
horror are of a kind strictly to be called human; that is, they belong
to the basic part of us, below the lowest roots of our variety. His
horror for instance is a healthy churchyard horror, a fear of the
grotesque defamation called death; and this every man has, even if he
also has the more delicate and depraved fears that come of an evil
spiritual outlook. We may be afraid of a fine shade with Henry James;
that is, we may be afraid of the world. We may be afraid of a taut
silence with Maeterlinck, that is, we may be afraid of our own souls.
But every one will certainly be afraid of a Cock Lane Ghost, including
Henry James and Maeterlinck. This latter is literally a mortal fear, a
fear of death; it is not the immortal fear, or fear of damnation, which
belongs to all the more refined intellects of our day. In a word,
Dickens does, in the exact sense, make the flesh creep; he does not,
like the decadents, make the soul crawl. And the creeping of the flesh
on being reminded of its fleshly failure is a strictly universal thing
which we can all feel, while some of us are as yet uninstructed in the
art of spiritual crawling. In the same way the Dickens mirth is a part
of man and universal. All men can laugh at broad humour, even the subtle
humorists. Even the modern flâneur, who can smile at a particular
combination of green and yellow, would laugh at Mr. Lammle's request for
Mr. Fledgeby's nose. In a word--the common things are common--even to
the uncommon people.

These two primary dispositions of Dickens, to make the flesh creep and
to make the sides ache, were a sort of twins of his spirit; they were
never far apart and the fact of their affinity is interestingly
exhibited in the first two novels.

Generally he mixed the two up in a book and mixed a great many other
things with them. As a rule he cared little if he kept six stories of
quite different colours running in the same book. The effect was
sometimes similar to that of playing six tunes at once. He does not mind
the coarse tragic figure of Jonas Chuzzlewit crossing the mental stage
which is full of the allegorical pantomime of Eden, Mr. Chollop and The
Watertoast Gazette, a scene which is as much of a satire as "Gulliver,"
and nearly as much of a fairy tale. He does not mind binding up a rather
pompous sketch of prostitution in the same book with an adorable
impossibility like Bunsby. But "Pickwick" is so far a coherent thing
that it is coherently comic and consistently rambling. And as a
consequence his next book was, upon the whole, coherently and
consistently horrible. As his natural turn for terrors was kept down in
"Pickwick," so his natural turn for joy and laughter is kept down in
"Oliver Twist." In "Oliver Twist" the smoke of the thieves' kitchen
hangs over the whole tale, and the shadow of Fagin falls everywhere. The
little lamp-lit rooms of Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie are to all
appearance purposely kept subordinate, a mere foil to the foul darkness
without. It was a strange and appropriate accident that Cruikshank and
not "Phiz" should have illustrated this book. There was about
Cruikshank's art a kind of cramped energy which is almost the definition
of the criminal mind. His drawings have a dark strength: yet he does not
only draw morbidly, he draws meanly. In the doubled-up figure and
frightful eyes of Fagin in the condemned cell there is not only a
baseness of subject; there is a kind of baseness in the very technique
of it. It is not drawn with the free lines of a free man; it has the
half-witted secrecies of a hunted thief. It does not look merely like a
picture of Fagin; it looks like a picture by Fagin. Among these dark and
detestable plates there is one which has, with a kind of black
directness, the dreadful poetry that does inhere in the story, stumbling
as it often is. It represents Oliver asleep at an open window in the
house of one of his humaner patrons. And outside the window, but as big
and close as if they were in the room, stand Fagin and the foul-laced
Monks, staring at him with dark monstrous visages and great white wicked
eyes, in the style of the simple devilry of the draughtsman. The very
naïveté of the horror is horrifying: the very woodenness of the two
wicked men seems to make them worse than mere men who are wicked. But
this picture of big devils at the window-sill does express, as has been
suggested above, the thread of poetry in the whole thing; the sense,
that is, of the thieves as a kind of army of devils compassing earth and
sky crying for Oliver's soul and besieging the house in which he is
barred for safety. In this matter there is, I think, a difference
between the author and the illustrator. In Cruikshank there was surely
something morbid; but, sensitive and sentimental as Dickens was, there
was nothing morbid in him. He had, as Stevenson had, more of the mere
boy's love of suffocating stories of blood and darkness; of skulls, of
gibbets, of all the things, in a word, that are sombre without being
sad. There is a ghastly joy in remembering our boyish reading about
Sikes and his flight; especially about the voice of that unbearable
pedlar which went on in a monotonous and maddening sing-song, "will wash
out grease-stains, mud-stains, blood-stains," until Sikes fled almost
screaming. For this boyish mixture of appetite and repugnance there is a
good popular phrase, "supping on horrors." Dickens supped on horrors as
he supped on Christmas pudding. He supped on horrors because he was an
optimist and could sup on anything. There was no saner or simpler
schoolboy than Traddles, who covered all his books with skeletons.

"Oliver Twist" had begun in Bentley's Miscellany, which Dickens edited
in 1837. It was interrupted by a blow that for the moment broke the
author's spirit and seemed to have broken his heart. His wife's sister,
Mary Hogarth, died suddenly. To Dickens his wife's family seems to have
been like his own; his affections were heavily committed to the sisters,
and of this one he was peculiarly fond. All his life, through much
conceit and sometimes something bordering on selfishness, we can feel
the redeeming note of an almost tragic tenderness; he was a man who
could really have died of love or sorrow. He took up the work of "Oliver
Twist" again later in the year, and finished it at the end of 1838. His
work was incessant and almost bewildering. In 1838 he had already
brought out the first number of "Nicholas Nickleby." But the great
popularity went booming on; the whole world was roaring for books by
Dickens, and more books by Dickens, and Dickens was labouring night and
day like a factory. Among other things he edited the "Memoirs of
Grimaldi," The incident is only worth mentioning for the sake of one
more example of the silly ease with which Dickens was drawn by criticism
and the clever ease with which he managed, in these small squabbles, to
defend himself. Somebody mildly suggested that, after all, Dickens had
never known Grimaldi. Dickens was down on him like a thunderbolt,
sardonically asking how close an intimacy Lord Braybrooke had with Mr.
Samuel Pepys.

"Nicholas Nickleby" is the most typical perhaps of the tone of his
earlier works. It is in form a very rambling, old-fashioned romance, the
kind of romance in which the hero is only a convenience for the
frustration of the villain. Nicholas is what is called in theatricals a
stick. But any stick is good enough to beat a Squeers with. That strong
thwack, that simplified energy is the whole object of such a story; and
the whole of this tale is full of a kind of highly picturesque
platitude. The wicked aristocrats, Sir Mulberry Hawk, Lord Verisopht and
the rest are inadequate versions of the fashionable profligate. But this
is not (as some suppose) because Dickens in his vulgarity could not
comprehend the refinement of patrician vice. There is no idea more
vulgar or more ignorant than the notion that a gentleman is generally
what is called refined. The error of the Hawk conception is that, if
anything, he is too refined. Real aristocratic blackguards do not
swagger and rant so well. A real fast baronet would not have defied
Nicholas in the tavern with so much oratorical dignity. A real fast
baronet would probably have been choked with apoplectic embarrassment
and said nothing at all. But Dickens read into this aristocracy a
grandiloquence and a natural poetry which, like all melodrama, is really
the precious jewel of the poor.

But the book contains something which is much more Dickensian. It is
exquisitely characteristic of Dickens that the truly great achievement
of the story is the person who delays the story. Mrs. Nickleby, with her
beautiful mazes of memory, does her best to prevent the story of
Nicholas Nickleby from being told. And she does well. There is no
particular necessity that we should know what happens to Madeline Bray.
There is a desperate and crying necessity that we should know Mrs.
Nickleby once had a foot-boy who had a wart on his nose and a driver who
had a green shade over his left eye. If Mrs. Nickleby is a fool, she is
one of those fools who are wiser than the world. She stands for a great
truth which we must not forget; the truth that experience is not in real
life a saddening thing at all. The people who have had misfortunes are
generally the people who love to talk about them. Experience is really
one of the gaieties of old age, one of its dissipations. Mere memory
becomes a kind of debauch. Experience may be disheartening to those who
are foolish enough to try to co-ordinate it and to draw deductions from
it. But to those happy souls, like Mrs. Nickleby, to whom relevancy is
nothing, the whole of their past life is like an inexhaustible
fairyland. Just as we take a rambling walk because we know that a whole
district is beautiful, so they indulge a rambling mind because they know
that a whole existence is interesting. A boy does not plunge into his
future more romantically and at random, than they plunge into their

Another gleam in the book is Mr. Mantalini. Of him, as of all the really
great comic characters of Dickens, it is impossible to speak with any
critical adequacy. Perfect absurdity is a direct thing, like physical
pain, or a strong smell. A joke is a fact. However indefensible it is it
cannot be attacked. However defensible it is it cannot be defended. That
Mr. Mantalini should say in praising the "outline" of his wife, "The two
Countesses had no outlines, and the Dowager's was a demd outline,"--this
can only be called an unanswerable absurdity. You may try to analyze it,
as Charles Lamb did the indefensible joke about the hare; you may dwell
for a moment on the dark distinctions between the negative
disqualification of the Countess and the positive disqualification of
the Dowager, but you will not capture the violent beauty of it in any
way. "She will be a lovely widow. I shall be a body. Some handsome women
will cry; she will laugh demnebly." This vision of demoniac
heartlessness has the same defiant finality. I mention the matter here,
but it has to be remembered in connection with all the comic
masterpieces of Dickens. Dickens has greatly suffered with the critics
precisely through this stunning simplicity in his best work. The critic
is called upon to describe his sensations while enjoying Mantalini and
Micawber, and he can no more describe them than he can describe a blow
in the face, Thus Dickens, in this self-conscious, analytical and
descriptive age, loses both ways. He is doubly unfitted for the best
modern criticism, His bad work is below that criticism. His good work is
above it.

But gigantic as were Dickens's labours, gigantic as were the exactions
from him, his own plans were more gigantic still. He had the type of
mind that wishes to do every kind of work at once; to do everybody's
work as well as its own. There floated before him a vision of a
monstrous magazine, entirely written by himself. It is true that when
this scheme came to be discussed, ho suggested that other pens might be
occasionally employed; but, reading between the lines, it is
sufficiently evident that he thought of the thing as a kind of vast
multiplication of himself, with Dickens as editor opening letters,
Dickens as leader-writer writing leaders, Dickens as reporter reporting
meetings, Dickens as reviewer reviewing books, Dickens, for all I know,
as office-boy opening and shutting doors. This serial, of which he spoke
to Messrs. Chapman & Hall, began and broke off and remains as a colossal
fragment bound together under the title of "Master Humphrey's Clock."
One characteristic thing he wished to have in the periodical. He
suggested an Arabian Nights of London, in which Gog and Magog, the
giants of the city, should give forth chronicles as enormous as
themselves. He had a taste for these schemes or frameworks for many
tales. He made and abandoned many; many he half-fulfilled. I strongly
suspect that he meant Major Jackman, in "Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings" and
"Mrs. Lirriper's Legacy," to start a series of studies of that lady's
lodgers, a kind of history of No. 81, Norfolk Street, Strand. "The Seven
Poor Travellers" was planned for seven stories; we will not say seven
poor stories. Dickens had meant, probably, to write a tale for each
article of "Somebody's Luggage": he only got as far as the hat and the
boots. This gigantesque scale of literary architecture, huge and yet
curiously cosy, is characteristic of his spirit, fond of size and yet
fond of comfort. He liked to have story within story, like room within
room of some labyrinthine but comfortable castle. In this spirit he
wished "Master Humphrey's Clock" to begin, and to be a big frame or
bookcase for numberless novels. The clock started; but the clock

In the prologue by Master Humphrey reappear Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller,
and of that resurrection many things have been said, chiefly expressions
of a reasonable regret. Doubtless they do not add much to their author's
reputation, but they add a great deal to their author's pleasure. It was
ingrained in him to wish to meet old friends. All his characters are, so
to speak, designed to be old friends; in a sense every Dickens character
is an old friend, even when he first appears. He comes to us mellow out
of many implied interviews, and carries the firelight on his face.
Dickens was simply pleased to meet Pickwick again, and being pleased, he
made the old man too comfortable to be amusing.

But "Master Humphrey's Clock" is now scarcely known except as the shell
of one of the well-known novels. "The Old Curiosity Shop" was published
in accordance with the original "Clock" scheme. Perhaps the most typical
thing about it is the title. There seems no reason in particular, at the
first and most literal glance, why the story should be called after the
Old Curiosity Shop. Only two of the characters have anything to do with
such a shop, and they leave it for ever in the first few pages. It is as
if Thackeray had called the whole novel of "Vanity Fair" "Miss
Pinkerton's Academy." It is as if Scott had given the whole story of
"The Antiquary" the title of "The Hawes Inn." But when we feel the
situation with more fidelity we realise that this title is something in
the nature of a key to the whole Dickens romance. His tales always
started from some splendid hint in the streets. And shops, perhaps the
most poetical of all things, often set off his fancy galloping. Every
shop, in fact, was to him the door of romance. Among all the huge serial
schemes of which we have spoken, it is a matter of wonder that he never
started an endless periodical called "The Street," and divided it into
shops. He could have written an exquisite romance called "The Baker's
Shop"; another called "The Chemist's Shop"; another called "The Oil
Shop," to keep company with "The Old Curiosity Shop." Some incomparable
baker he invented and forgot. Some gorgeous chemist might have been.
Some more than mortal oil-man is lost to us for ever. This Old Curiosity
Shop he did happen to linger by: its tale he did happen to tell.

Around "Little Nell," of course, a controversy raged and rages; some
implored Dickens not to kill her at the end of the story: some regret
that he did not kill her at the beginning. To me the chief interest in
this young person lies in the fact that she is an example, and the most
celebrated example of what must have been, I think, a personal
peculiarity, perhaps, a personal experience of Dickens. There is, of
course, no paradox at all in saying that if we find in a good book a
wildly impossible character it is very probable indeed that it was
copied from a real person. This is one of the commonplaces of good art
criticism. For although people talk of the restraints of fact and the
freedom of fiction, the case for most artistic purposes is quite the
other way. Nature is as free as air: art is forced to look probable.
There may be a million things that do happen, and yet only one thing
that convinces us is likely to happen. Out of a million possible things
there may be only one appropriate thing. I fancy, therefore, that many
stiff, unconvincing characters are copied from the wild freak-show of
real life. And in many parts of Dickens's work there is evidence of some
peculiar affection on his part for a strange sort of little girl; a
little girl with a premature sense of responsibility and duty; a sort of
saintly precocity. Did he know some little girl of this kind? Did she
die, perhaps, and remain in his memory in colours too ethereal and pale?
In any case there are a great number of them in his works. Little Dorrit
was one of them, and Florence Dombey with her brother, and even Agnes in
infancy; and, of course, Little Nell. And, in any case, one thing is
evident; whatever charm these children may have they have not the charm
of childhood. They are not little children: they are "little mothers."
The beauty and divinity in a child lie in his not being worried, not
being conscientious, not being like Little Nell. Little Nell has never
any of the sacred bewilderment of a baby. She never wears that face,
beautiful but almost half-witted, with which a real child half
understands that there is evil in the universe.

As usual, however, little as the story has to do with the title, the
splendid and satisfying pages have even less to do with the story. Dick
Swiveller is perhaps the noblest of all the noble creations of Dickens.
He has all the overwhelming absurdity of Mantalini, with the addition of
being human and credible, for he knows he is absurd. His high-falutin is
not done because he seriously thinks it right and proper, like that of
Mr. Snodgrass, nor is it done because he thinks it will serve his turn,
like that of Mr. Pecksniff, for both these beliefs are improbable; it is
done because he really loves high-falutin, because he has a lonely
literary pleasure in exaggerative language. Great draughts of words are
to him like great draughts of wine--pungent and yet refreshing, light
and yet leaving him in a glow. In unerring instinct for the perfect
folly of a phrase he has no equal, even among the giants of Dickens. "I
am sure," says Miss Wackles, when she had been flirting with Cheggs, the
market-gardener, and reduced Mr. Swiveller to Byronic renunciation, "I
am sure I'm very sorry if----" "Sorry," said Mr. Swiveller, "sorry in
the possession of a Cheggs!" The abyss of bitterness is unfathomable.
Scarcely less precious is the poise of Mr. Swiveller when he imitates
the stage brigand. After crying, "Some wine here! Ho!" he hands the
flagon to himself with profound humility, and receives it haughtily.
Perhaps the very best scene in the book is that between Mr. Swiveller
and the single gentleman with whom he endeavours to remonstrate for
having remained in bed all day: "We cannot have single gentlemen coming
into the place and sleeping like double gentlemen without paying
extra...An equal amount of slumber was never got out of one bed, and if
you want to sleep like that you must pay for a double-bedded room." His
relations with the Marchioness are at once purely romantic and purely
genuine; there is nothing even of Dickens's legitimate exaggerations
about them. A shabby, larky, good-natured clerk would, as a matter of
fact, spend hours in the society of a little servant girl if he found
her about the house. It would arise partly from a dim kindliness, and
partly from that mysterious instinct which is sometimes called,
mistakenly, a love of low company--that mysterious instinct which makes
so many men of pleasure find something soothing in the society of
uneducated people, particularly uneducated women. It is the instinct
which accounts for the otherwise unaccountable popularity of barmaids.

And still the pot of that huge popularity boiled. In 1841 another novel
was demanded, and "Barnaby Rudge" supplied. It is chiefly of interest as
an embodiment of that other element in Dickens, the picturesque or even
the pictorial. Barnaby Rudge, the idiot with his rags and his feathers
and his raven, the bestial hangman, the blind mob--all make a picture,
though they hardly make a novel. One touch there is in it of the richer
and more humorous Dickens, the boy-conspirator, Mr. Sim Tappertit. But
he might have been treated with more sympathy--with as much sympathy,
for instance, as Mr. Dick Swiveller; for he is only the romantic
guttersnipe, the bright boy at the particular age when it is most
fascinating to found a secret society and most difficult to keep a
secret. And if ever there was a romantic guttersnipe on earth it was
Charles Dickens. "Barnaby Rudge" is no more an historical novel than
Sim's secret league was a political movement; but they are both
beautiful creations. When all is said, however, the main reason for
mentioning the work here is that it is the next bubble in the pot, the
next thing that burst out of that whirling, seething head. The tide of
it rose and smoked and sang till it boiled over the pot of Britain and
poured over all America. In the January of 1842 he set out for the
United States.


The essential of Dickens's character was the conjunction of common sense
with uncommon sensibility. The two things are not, indeed, in such an
antithesis as is commonly imagined. Great English literary authorities,
such as Jane Austen and Mr. Chamberlain, have put the word "sense" and
the word "sensibility" in a kind of opposition to each other. But not
only are they not opposite words: they are actually the same word. They
both mean receptiveness or approachability by the facts outside us. To
have a sense of colour is the same as to have a sensibility to colour. A
person who realises that beef-steaks are appetising shows his
sensibility. A person who realises that moonrise is romantic shows his
sense. But it is not difficult to see the meaning and need of the
popular distinction between sensibility and sense, particularly in the
form called common sense. Common sense is a sensibility duly distributed
in all normal directions; sensibility has come to mean a specialised
sensibility in one. This is unfortunate, for it is not the sensibility
that is bad, but the specialising; that is, the lack of sensibility to
everything else. A young lady who stays out all night to look at the
stars should not be blamed for her sensibility to starlight, but for her
insensibility to other people. A poet who recites his own verses from
ten to five with the tears rolling down his face should decidedly be
rebuked for his lack of, sensibility--his lack of sensibility to those
grand rhythms of the social harmony, crudely called manners. For all
politeness is a long poem, since it is full of recurrences. This balance
of all the sensibilities we call sense; and it is in this capacity that
it becomes of great importance as an attribute of the character of

Dickens, I repeat, had common sense and uncommon sensibility. That is to
say, the proportion of interests in him was about the same as that of an
ordinary man, but he felt all of them more excitedly. This is a
distinction not easy for us to keep in mind, because we hear to-day
chiefly of two types, the dull man who likes ordinary things mildly, and
the extraordinary man who likes extraordinary things wildly. But Dickens
liked quiet ordinary things; he merely made an extraordinary fuss about
them. His excitement was sometimes like an epileptic fit; but it must
not be confused with the fury of the man of one idea or one line of
ideas. He had the excess of the eccentric, but not the defects, the
narrowness. Even when he raved like a maniac he did not rave like a
monomaniac. He had no particular spot of sensibility or spot of
insensibility: he was merely a normal man minus a normal self-command.
He had no special point of mental pain or repugnance, like Ruskin's
horror of steam and iron, or Mr. Bernard Shaw's permanent irritation
against romantic love. He was annoyed at the ordinary annoyances: only
he was more annoyed than was necessary. He did not desire strange
delights, blue wine or black women with Baudelaire, or cruel sights east
of Suez with Mr. Kipling. He wanted what a healthy man wants, only he
was ill with wanting it. To understand him, in a word, we must keep well
in mind the medical distinction between delicacy and disease. Perhaps we
shall comprehend it and him more clearly if we think of a woman rather
than a man. There was much that was feminine about Dickens, and nothing
more so than this abnormal normality. A woman is often, in comparison
with a man, at once more sensitive and more sane.

This distinction must be especially remembered in all his quarrels. And
it must be most especially remembered in what may be called his great
quarrel with America, which we have now to approach. The whole incident
is so typical of Dickens's attitude to everything and anything, and
especially of Dickens's attitude to anything political, that I may ask
permission to approach the matter by another, a somewhat long and
curving avenue.

Common sense is a fairy thread, thin and faint, and as easily lost as
gossamer. Dickens (in large matters) never lost it. Take, as an example,
his political tone, or drift throughout his life. His views, of course,
may have been right or wrong; the reforms he supported may have been
successful or otherwise: that is not a matter for this book. But if we
compare him with the other men that wanted the same things (or the other
men that wanted the other things) we feel a startling absence of cant, a
startling sense of humanity as it is and of the eternal weakness. He was
a fierce democrat, but in his best vein he laughed at the cocksure
Radical of common life, the red-faced man who said, "Prove it!" when
anybody said anything. He fought for the right to elect: but he would
not whitewash elections. He believed in Parliamentary government; but he
did not, like our contemporary newspapers, pretend that Parliament is
something much more heroic and imposing than it is. He fought for the
rights of the grossly oppressed Nonconformists, but he spat out of his
mouth the unction of that too easy seriousness with which they oiled
everything, and held up to them like a horrible mirror the foul fat face
of Chadband. He saw that Mr. Podsnap thought too little of places
outside England. But he saw that Mrs. Jellaby thought too much of them.
In the last book he wrote he gives us, in Mr. Honeythunder, a hateful
and wholesome picture of all the Liberal catchwords pouring out of one
illiberal man. But perhaps the best evidence of this steadiness and
sanity is the fact that, dogmatic as he was, he never tied himself to
any passing dogma: he never got into any cul de sac or civic or economic
fanaticism: he went down the broad road of the Revolution. He never
admitted that economically, we must make hells of workhouses, any more
than Rousseau would have admitted it. He never said the State had no
right to teach children or save their bones, any more than Danton would
have said it. He was a fierce Radical; but he was never a Manchester
Radical. He used the test of Utility, but he was never a Utilitarian.
While economists were writing soft words he wrote "Hard Times," which
Macaulay called "sullen Socialism," because it was not complacent
Whiggism. But Dickens was never a Socialist any more than he was an
Individualist; and, whatever else he was, he certainly was not sullen.
He was not even a politician of any kind. He was simply a man of very
clear, airy judgment on things that did not inflame his private temper,
and he perceived that any theory that tried to run the living State
entirely on one force and motive was probably nonsense. Whenever the
Liberal philosophy had embedded in it something hard and heavy and
lifeless, by an instinct he dropped it out. He was too romantic,
perhaps, but he would have to do only with real things. He may have
cared too much about Liberty. But he cared nothing about "Laissez

Now, among many interests of his contact with America this interest
emerges as infinitely the largest and most striking, that it gave a
final example of this queer, unexpected coolness and candour of his,
this abrupt and sensational rationality. Apart altogether from any
question of the accuracy of his picture of America, the American
indignation was particularly natural and inevitable. For the large
circumstances of the age must be taken into account. At the end of the
previous epoch the whole of our Christian civilisation had been startled
from its sleep by trumpets to take sides in a bewildering Armageddon,
often with eyes still misty. Germany and Austria found themselves on the
side of the old order, France and America on the side of the new.
England, as at the Reformation, took up eventually a dark middle
position, maddeningly difficult to define. She created a democracy, but
she kept an aristocracy: she reformed the House of Commons, but left the
magistracy (as it is still) a mere league of gentlemen against the
world. But underneath all this doubt and compromise there was in England
a great and perhaps growing mass of dogmatic democracy; certainly
thousands, probably millions expected a Republic in fifty years. And for
these the first instinct was obvious. The first instinct was to look
across the Atlantic to where lay a part of ourselves already Rebublican,
the van of the advancing English on the road to liberty. Nearly all the
great Liberals of the nineteenth century enormously idealised America.
On the other hand, to the Americans, fresh from their first epic of
arms, the defeated mother country, with its coronets and county
magistrates, was only a broken feudal keep.

So much is self-evident. But nearly half-way through the nineteenth
century there came out of England the voice of a violent satirist. In
its political quality it seemed like the half-choked cry of the
frustrated republic. It had no patience with the pretence that England
was already free, that we had gained all that was valuable from the
Revolution. It poured a cataract of contempt on the so-called working
compromises of England, on the oligarchic cabinets, on the two
artificial parties, on the government offices, on the J.P.'s, on the
vestries, on the voluntary charities. This satirist was Dickens, and it
must be remembered that he was not only fierce, but uproariously
readable. He really damaged the things he struck at, a very rare thing.
He stepped up to the grave official of the vestry, really trusted by the
rulers, really feared like a god by the poor, and he tied round his neck
a name that choked him; never again now can he be anything but Bumble.
He confronted the fine old English gentleman who gives his patriotic
services for nothing as a local magistrate, and he nailed him up as
Nupkins, an owl in open day. For to this satire there is literally no
answer; it cannot be denied that a man like Nupkins can be and is a
magistrate, so long as we adopt the amazing method of letting the rich
man of a district actually be the judge in it. We can only avoid the
vision of the fact by shutting our eyes, and imagining the nicest rich
man we can think of; and that, of course, is what we do. But Dickens, in
this matter, was merely realistic; he merely asked us to look on
Nupkins, on the wild, strange thing that we had made. Thus Dickens
seemed to see England not at all as the country where freedom slowly
broadened down from precedent to precedent, but as a rubbish heap of
seventeenth-century bad habits abandoned by everybody else. That is, he
looked at England almost with the eyes of an American democrat.

And so, when the voice, swelling in volume, reached America and the
Americans, the Americans said, "Here is a man who will hurry the old
country along, and tip her kings and beadles into the sea. Let him come
here, and we will show him a race of free men such as he dreams of,
alive upon the ancient earth. Let him come here and tell the English of
the divine democracy towards which he drives them. There he has a
monarchy and an oligarchy to make game of. Here is a republic for him to
praise." It seemed, indeed, a very natural sequel, that having denounced
undemocratic England as the wilderness, he should announce democratic
America as the promised land. Any ordinary person would have prophesied
that as he had pushed his rage at the old order almost to the edge of
rant, he would push his encomium of the new order almost to the edge of
cant. Amid a roar of republican idealism, compliments, hope, and
anticipatory gratitude, the great democrat entered the great democracy.
He looked about him; he saw a complete America, unquestionably
progressive, unquestionably self-governing. Then, with a more than
American coolness, and a more than American impudence, he sat down and
wrote "Martin Chuzzlewit." That tricky and perverse sanity of his had
mutinied again. Common sense is a wild thing, savage, and beyond rules;
and it had turned on them and rent them.

The main course of action was as follows; and it is right to record it
before we speak of the justice of it. When I speak of his sitting down
and writing "Martin Chuzzlewit," I use, of course, an elliptical
expression. He wrote the notes of the American part of "Martin
Chuzzlewit" while he was still in America; but it was a later decision
presumably that such impressions should go into a book, and it was
little better than an afterthought that they should go into "Martin
Chuzzlewit." Dickens had an uncommonly bad habit (artistically speaking)
of altering a story in the middle as he did in the case of "Our Mutual
Friend." And it is on record that he only sent young Martin to America
because he did not know what else to do with him, and because (to say
truth) the sales were falling off. But the first action, which Americans
regarded as an equally hostile one, was the publication of "American
Notes," the history of which should first be given. His notion of
visiting America had come to him as a very vague notion, even before the
appearance of "The Old Curiosity Shop." But it had grown in him through
the whole ensuing period in the plaguing and persistent way that ideas
did grow in him and live with him. He contended against the idea in a
certain manner. He had much to induce him to contend against it. Dickens
was by this time not only a husband, but a father, the father of several
children, and their existence made a difficulty in itself. His wife, he
said, cried whenever the project was mentioned. But it was a point in
him that he could never, with any satisfaction, part with a project. He
had that restless optimism, that kind of nervous optimism, which would
always tend to say "Yes;" which is stricken with an immortal repentance,
if ever it says "No." The idea of seeing America might be doubtful, but
the idea of not seeing America was dreadful. "To miss this opportunity
would be a sad thing," he says. "...God willing, I think it must be
managed somehow!" It was managed somehow. First of all he wanted to take
his children as well as his wife. Final obstacles to this fell upon him,
but they did not frustrate him. A serious illness fell on him; but that
did not frustrate him. He sailed for America in 1842.

He landed in America, and he liked it. As John Forster very truly says,
it is due to him, as well as to the great country that welcomed him,
that his first good impression should be recorded, and that it should be
"considered independently of any modification it afterwards underwent."
But the modification it afterwards underwent was, as I have said above,
simply a sudden kicking against cant, that is, against repetition. He
was quite ready to believe that all Americans were free men. He would
have believed it if they had not all told him so. He was quite prepared
to be pleased with America. He would have been pleased with it if it had
not been so much pleased with itself. The "modification" his views
underwent did not arise from any modification of America as he first saw
it. His admiration did not change because America changed. It changed
because America did not change. The Yankees enraged him at last, not by
saying different things, but by saying the same things. They were a
republic; they were a new and vigorous nation; it seemed natural that
they should say so to a famous foreigner first stepping on to their
shore. But it seemed maddening that they should say so to each other in
every car and drinking saloon from morning till night. It was not that
the Americans in any way ceased from praising him. It was rather that
they went on praising him. It was not merely that their praises of him
sounded beautiful when he first heard them. Their praises of themselves
sounded beautiful when he first heard them. That democracy was grand,
and that Charles Dickens was a remarkable person, were two truths that
he certainly never doubted to his dying day. But, as I say, it was a
soulless repetition that stung his sense of humour out of sleep; it woke
like a wild beast for hunting, the lion of his laughter. He had heard
the truth once too often. He had heard the truth for the nine hundred
and ninety-ninth time, and he suddenly saw that it was falsehood.

It is true that a particular circumstance sharpened and defined his
disappointment. He felt very hotly, as he felt everything, whether
selfish or unselfish, the injustice of the American piracies of English
literature, resulting from the American copyright laws. He did not go to
America with any idea of discussing this; when, some time afterwards,
somebody said that he did, he violently rejected the view as only
describable "in one of the shortest words in the English language." But
his entry into America was almost triumphal; the rostrum or pulpit was
ready for him; he felt strong enough to say anything. He had been most
warmly entertained by many American men of letters, especially by
Washington Irving, and in his consequent glow of confidence he stepped
up to the dangerous question of American copyright. He made many
speeches attacking the American law and theory of the matter as unjust
to English writers and to American readers. The effect appears to have
astounded him. "I believe there is no country," he writes, "on the face
of the earth where there is less freedom of opinion on any subject in
reference to which there is a broad difference of opinion than in this.
There! I write the words with reluctance, disappointment, and sorrow;
but I believe it from the bottom of my soul...The notion that I, a
man alone by myself in America, should venture to suggest to the
Americans that there was one point on which they were neither just to
their own countrymen nor to us, actually struck the boldest dumb!
Washington Irving, Prescott, Hoffman, Bryant, Halleck, Dana, Washington
Allston--every man who writes in this country is devoted to the
question, and not one of them dares to raise his voice and complain of
the atrocious state of the law...The wonder is that a breathing man
can be found with temerity enough to suggest to the Americans the
possibility of their having done wrong. I wish you could have seen the
faces that I saw down both sides of the table at Hartford when I began
to talk about Scott. I wish you could have heard how I gave it out. My
blood so boiled when I thought of the monstrous injustice that I felt as
if I were twelve feet high when I thrust it down their throats."

That is almost a portrait of Dickens. We can almost see the erect little
figure, its face and hair like a flame.

For such reasons, among others, Dickens was angry with America. But if
America was angry with Dickens, there were also reasons for it. I do not
think that the rage against his copyright speeches was, as he supposed,
merely national insolence and self-satisfaction. America is a mystery to
any good Englishman; but I think Dickens managed somehow to touch it on
a queer nerve. There is one thing, at any rate, that must strike all
Englishmen who have the good fortune to have American friends; that is,
that while there is no materialism so crude or so material as American
materialism, there is also no idealism so crude or so ideal as American
idealism. America will always affect an Englishman as being soft in the
wrong place and hard in the wrong place; coarse exactly where all
civilised men are delicate, delicate exactly where all grown-up men are
coarse. Some beautiful ideal runs through this people, but it runs
aslant. The only existing picture in which the thing I mean has been
embodied is in Stevenson's "Wrecker," in the blundering delicacy of Jim
Pinkerton. America has a new delicacy, a coarse, rank refinement. But
there is another way of embodying the idea, and that is to say
this--that nothing is more likely than that the Americans thought it
very shocking in Dickens, the divine author, to talk about being done
out of money. Nothing would be more American than to expect a genius to
be too high-toned for trade. It is certain that they deplored his
selfishness in the matter; it is probable that they deplored his
indelicacy. A beautiful young dreamer, with flowing brown hair, ought
not to be even conscious of his copyrights. For it is quite unjust to
say that the Americans worship the dollar. They really do worship
intellect--another of the passing superstitions of our time.

If America had then this Pinkertonian propriety, this new, raw
sensibility, Dickens was the man to rasp it. He was its precise opposite
in every way. The decencies he did respect were old-fashioned and
fundamental. On top of these he had that lounging liberty and comfort
which can only be had on the basis of very old conventions, like the
carelessness of gentlemen and the deliberation of rustics. He had no
fancy for being strung up to that taut and quivering ideality demanded
by American patriots and public speakers. And there was something else
also, connected especially with the question of copyright and his own
pecuniary claims. Dickens was not in the least desirous of being thought
too "high-souled" to want his wages, nor was he in the least ashamed of
asking for them. Deep in him (whether the modern reader likes the
quality or no) was a sense very strong in the old Radicals--very strong
especially in the old English Radical--a sense of personal rights, one's
own rights included, as something not merely useful but sacred. He did
not think a claim any less just and solemn because it happened to be
selfish; he did not divide claims into selfish and unselfish, but into
right and wrong. It is significant that when he asked for his money, he
never asked for it with that shamefaced cynicism, that sort of
embarrassed brutality, with which the modern man of the world mutters
something about business being business or looking after number one. He
asked for his money in a valiant and ringing voice, like a man asking
for his honour. While his American critics were moaning and sneering at
his interested motives as a disqualification, he brandished his
interested motives like a banner. "It is nothing to them," he cries in
astonishment, "that, of all men living, I am the greatest loser by it"
(the Copyright Law). "It is nothing that I have a claim to speak and be
heard." The thing they set up as a barrier he actually presents as a
passport. They think that he, of all men, ought not to speak because he
is interested. He thinks that he, of all men, ought to speak because he
is wronged.

But this particular disappointment with America in the matter of the
tyranny of its public opinion was not merely the expression of the fact
that Dickens was a typical Englishman; that is a man with a very sharp
insistence upon individual freedom. It also worked back ultimately to
that larger and vaguer disgust of which I have spoken--the disgust at
the perpetual posturing of the people before a mirror. The tyranny was
irritating, not so much because of the suffering it inflicted on the
minority, but because of the awful glimpses that it gave of the huge and
imbecile happiness of the majority. The very vastness of the vain race
enraged him, its immensity, its unity, its peace. He was annoyed more
with its contentment than with any of its discontents. The thought of
that unthinkable mass of millions, every one of them saying that
Washington was the greatest man on earth, and that the Queen lived in
the Tower of London, rode his riotous fancy like a nightmare. But to the
end he retained the outlines of his original republican ideal and
lamented over America not as being too Liberal, but as not being Liberal
enough. Among others, he used these somewhat remarkable words: "I
tremble for a Radical coming here, unless he is a Radical on principle,
by reason and reflection, and from the sense of right. I fear that if he
were anything else he would return home a Tory...I say no more on
that head for two months from this time, save that I do fear that the
heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country, in
the failure of its example on the earth."

We are still waiting to see if that prediction has been fulfilled; but
nobody can say that it has been falsified.

He went west on the great canals; he went south and touched the region
of slavery; he saw America superficially indeed, but as a whole. And the
great mass of his experience was certainly pleasant, though he vibrated
with anticipatory passion against slave-holders, though he swore he
would accept no public tribute in the slave country (a resolve which he
broke under the pressure of the politeness of the South), yet his actual
collisions with slavery and its upholders were few and brief. In these
he bore himself with his accustomed vivacity and fire, but it would be a
great mistake to convey the impression that his mental reaction against
America was chiefly, or even largely, due to his horror at the negro
problem. Over and above the cant of which we have spoken; the weary rush
of words, the chief complaint he made was a complaint against bad
manners; and on a large view his anti-Americanism would seem to be more
founded on spitting than on slavery. When, however, it did happen that
the primary morality of man-owning came up for discussion, Dickens
displayed an honourable impatience. One man, full of anti-abolitionist
ardour, button-holed him and bombarded him with the well-known argument
in defence of slavery, that it was not to the financial interest of a
slave-owner to damage or weaken his own slaves. Dickens, in telling the
story of this interview, writes as follows: "I told him quietly that it
was not a man's interest to get drunk, or to steal, or to game, or to
indulge in any other vice; but he did indulge in it for all that. That
cruelty and the abuse of irresponsible power were two of the bad
passions of human nature, with the gratification of which considerations
of interest or of ruin had nothing whatever to do..." It is hardly
possible to doubt that Dickens, in telling the man this, told him
something sane and logical and unanswerable. But it is perhaps
permissible to doubt whether he told it to him quietly.

He returned home in the spring of 1842, and in the later part of the
year his "American Notes" appeared, and the cry against him that had
begun over copyright swelled into a roar in his rear. Yet when we read
the "Notes" we can find little offence in them, and, to say truth, less
interest than usual. They are no true picture of America, or even of his
vision of America, and this for two reasons. First, that he deliberately
excluded from them all mention of that copyright question which had
really given him his glimpse of how tyrannical a democracy can be.
Second, that here he chiefly criticises America for faults which are
not, after all, especially American. For example, he is indignant with
the inadequate character of the prisons, and compares them unfavourably
with those in England, controlled by Lieutenant Tracey, and by Captain
Chesterton at Coldbath Fields, two reformers of prison discipline for
whom he had a high regard. But it was a mere accident that American
gaols were inferior to English. There was and is nothing in the American
spirit to prevent their effecting all the reforms of Tracey and
Chesterton, nothing to prevent their doing anything that money and
energy and organisation can do. America might have (for all I know, does
have) a prison system cleaner and more humane and more efficient than
any other in the world. And the evil genius of America might still
remain--everything might remain that makes Pogram or Chollop irritating
or absurd. And against the evil genius of America Dickens was now to
strike a second and a very different blow.

In January, 1843, appeared the first number of the novel called "Martin
Chuzzlewit." The earlier part of the book and the end, which have no
connection with America or the American problem, in any case require a
passing word. But except for the two gigantic grotesques on each side of
the gateway of the tale, Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp, "Martin Chuzzlewit"
will be chiefly admired for its American excursion. It is a good satire
embedded in an indifferent novel. Mrs. Gamp is, indeed, a sumptuous
study, laid on in those rich, oily, almost greasy colours that go to
make the English comic characters, that make the very diction of
Falstaff fat, and quaking with jolly degradation. Pecksniff also is
almost perfect, and much too good to be true. The only other thing to be
noticed about him is that here, as almost everywhere else in the novels,
the best figures are at their best when they have least to do. Dickens's
characters are perfect as long as he can keep them out of his stories.
Bumble is divine until a dark and practical secret is entrusted to
him--as if anybody but a lunatic would entrust a secret to Bumble.
Micawber is noble when he is doing nothing; but he is quite unconvincing
when he is spying on Uriah Heep, for obviously neither Micawber nor
anyone else would employ Micawber as a private detective. Similarly,
while Pecksniff is the best thing in the story, the story is the worst
thing in Pecksniff. His plot against old Martin can only be described by
saying that it is as silly as old Martin's plot against him. His fall at
the end is one of the rare falls of Dickens. Surely it was not necessary
to take Pecksniff so seriously. Pecksniff is a merely laughable
character; he is so laughable that he is lovable. Why take such trouble
to unmask a man whose mask you have made transparent? Why collect all
the characters to witness the exposure of a man in whom none of the
characters believe? Why toil and triumph to have the laugh of a man who
was only made to be laughed at?

But it is the American part of "Martin Chuzzlewit" which is our concern,
and which is memorable. It has the air of a great satire; but if it is
only a great slander it is still great. His serious book on America was
merely a squib, perhaps a damp squib. In any case, we all know that
America will survive such serious books. But his fantastic book may
survive America. It may survive America as "The Knights" has survived
Athens. "Martin Chuzzlewit" has this quality of great satire that the
critic forgets to ask whether the portrait is true to the original,
because the portrait is so much more important than the original. Who
cares whether Aristophanes correctly described Kleon, who is dead, when
he so perfectly describes the demagogue, who cannot die? Just as little,
it may be, will some future age care whether the ancient civilisation of
the west, the lost cities of New York and St. Louis, were fairly
depicted in the colossal monument of Elijah Pogram. For there is much
more in the American episodes than their intoxicating absurdity; there
is more than humour in the young man who made the speech about the
British Lion, and said, "I taunt that lion. Alone I dare him;" or in the
other man who told Martin that when he said that Queen Victoria did not
live in the Tower of London he "fell into an error not uncommon among
his countrymen." He has his finger on the nerve of an evil which was not
only in his enemies, but in himself. The great democrat has hold of one
of the dangers of democracy. The great optimist confronts a horrible
nightmare of optimism. Above all, the genuine Englishman attacks a sin
that is not merely American, but English also. The eternal, complacent
iteration of patriotic half-truths; the perpetual buttering of one's
self all over with the same stale butter; above all, the big defiances
of small enemies, or the very urgent challenges to very distant enemies;
the cowardice so habitual and unconscious that it wears the plumes of
courage--all this is an English temptation as well as an American one.
"Martin Chuzzlewit" may be a caricature of America. America may be a
caricature of England. But in the gravest college, in the quietest
country house of England, there is the seed of the same essential
madness that fills Dickens's book, like an asylum, with brawling
Chollops and raving Jefferson Bricks. That essential madness is the idea
that the good patriot is the man who feels at ease about his country.
This notion of patriotism was unknown in the little pagan republics
where our European patriotism began. It was unknown in the Middle Ages.
In the eighteenth century, in the making of modern politics, a "patriot"
meant a discontented man. It was opposed to the word "courtier," which
meant an upholder of present conditions. In all other modern countries,
especially in countries like France and Ireland, where real difficulties
have been faced, the word "patriot" means something like a political
pessimist. This view and these countries have exaggerations and dangers
of their own; but the exaggeration and danger of England is the same as
the exaggeration and danger of The Watertoast Gazette. The thing which
is rather foolishly called the Anglo-Saxon civilisation is at present
soaked through with a weak pride. It uses great masses of men not to
procure discussion but to procure the pleasure of unanimity; it uses
masses like bolsters. It uses its organs of public opinion not to warn
the public, but to soothe it. It really succeeds not only in ignoring
the rest of the world, but actually in forgetting it. And when a
civilisation really forgets the rest of the world--lets it fall as
something obviously dim and barbaric--then there is only one adjective
for the ultimate fate of that civilisation, and that adjective is

Martin Chuzzlewit's America is a mad-house: but it is a mad-house we are
all on the road to. For completeness and even comfort are almost the
definitions of insanity. The lunatic is the man who lives in a small
world but thinks it is a large one: he is the man who lives in a tenth
of the truth, and thinks it is the whole. The madman cannot conceive any
cosmos outside a certain tale or conspiracy or vision. Hence the more
clearly we see the world divided into Saxons and non-Saxons, into our
splendid selves and the rest, the more certain we may be that we are
slowly and quietly going mad. The more plain and satisfying our state
appears, the more we may know that we are living in an unreal world. For
the real world is not satisfying. The more clear become the colours and
facts of Anglo-Saxon superiority, the more surely we may know we are in
a dream. For the real world is not clear or plain. The real world is
full of bracing bewilderments and brutal surprises. Comfort is the
blessing and the curse of the English, and of Americans of the Pogram
type also. With them it is a loud comfort, a wild comfort, a screaming
and capering comfort; but comfort at bottom still. For there is but an
inch of difference between the cushioned chamber and the padded cell.



In the July of 1844 Dickens went on an Italian tour, which he afterwards
summarised in the book called "Pictures from Italy." They are, of
course, very vivacious, but there is no great need to insist on them
considered as Italian sketches; there is no need whatever to worry about
them as a phase of the mind of Dickens when he travelled out of England.
He never travelled out of England. There is no trace in all these
amusing pages that he really felt the great foreign things which lie in
wait for us in the south of Europe, the Latin civilisation, the Catholic
Church, the art of the centre, the endless end of Rome. His travels are
not travels in Italy, but travels in Dickensland. He sees amusing
things; he describes them amusingly. But he would have seen things just
as good in a street in Pimlico, and described them just as well. Few
things were racier, even in his raciest novel, than his description of
the marionette play of the death of Napoleon. Nothing could be more
perfect than the figure of the doctor, which had something wrong with
its wires, and hence "hovered about the couch and delivered medical
opinions in the air." Nothing could be better as a catching of the
spirit of all popular drama than the colossal depravity of the wooden
image of "Sir Uudson Low." But there is nothing Italian about it.
Dickens would have made just as good fun, indeed just the same fun, of a
Punch and Judy show performing in Long Acre or Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Dickens uttered just and sincere satire on Plornish and Podsnap; but
Dickens was as English as any Podsnap or any Plornish. He had a hearty
humanitarianism, and a hearty sense of justice to all nations so far as
he understood it. But that very kind of humanitarianism, that very kind
of justice, were English. He was the Englishman of the type that made
Free Trade, the most English of all things, since it was at once
calculating and optimistic. He respected catacombs and gondolas, but
that very respect was English. He wondered at brigands and volcanoes,
but that very wonder was English. The very conception that Italy
consists of these things was an English conception. The root things he
never understood, the Roman legend, the ancient life of the
Mediterranean, the world-old civilisation of the vine and olive, the
mystery of the immutable Church. He never understood these things, and I
am glad he never understood them: he could only have understood them by
ceasing to be the inspired cockney that he was, the rousing English
Radical of the great Radical age in England. That spirit of his was one
of the things that we have had which were truly national. All other
forces we have borrowed, especially those which flatter us most.
Imperialism is foreign, socialism is foreign, militarism is foreign,
education is foreign, strictly even Liberalism is foreign. But
Radicalism was our own; as English as the hedgerows.

Dickens abroad, then, was for all serious purposes simply the Englishman
abroad; the Englishman man abroad is for all serious purposes simply the
Englishman at home. Of this generalisation one modification must be
made. Dickens did feel a direct pleasure in the bright and busy exterior
of the French life, the clean caps, the coloured uniforms, the skies
like blue enamel, the little green trees, the little white houses, the
scene picked out in primary colours, like a child's picture--book. This
he felt, and this he put (by a stroke of genius) into the mouth of Mrs.
Lirriper, a London landlady on a holiday: for Dickens always knew that
it is the simple and not the subtle who feel differences; and he saw all
his colours through the clear eyes of the poor. And in thus taking to
his heart the streets, as it were, rather than the spires of the
Continent, he showed beyond question that combination of which we have
spoken--of common sense with common sensibility. For it is for the sake
of the streets and shops and the coats and hats, that we should go
abroad; they are far better worth going to see than the castles and
cathedrals and Roman camps. For the wonders of the world are the same
all over the world, at least all over the European world. Castles that
throw valleys in shadow, minsters that strike the sky, roads so old that
they seem to have been made by the gods, these are in all Christian
countries. The marvels of man are at all our doors. A labourer hoeing
turnips in Sussex has no need to be ignorant that the bones of Europe
are the Roman roads. A clerk living in Lambeth has no need not to know
that there was a Christian art exuberant in the thirteenth century; for
only across the river he can see the live stones of the Middle Ages
surging together towards the stars. But exactly the things that do
strike the traveller as extraordinary are the ordinary things, the food,
the clothes, the vehicles; the strange things are cosmopolitan, the
common things are national and peculiar. Cologne spire is lifted on the
same arches as Canterbury; but the thing you cannot see out of Germany
is a German beer-garden. There is no need for a Frenchman to go to look
at Westminster Abbey as a piece of English architecture; it is not in
the special sense a piece of English architecture. But a hansom cab is a
piece of English architecture; a thing produced by the peculiar poetry
of our cities, a symbol of a certain reckless comfort which is really
English; a thing to draw a pilgrimage of the nations. The imaginative
Englishman will be found all day in a café; the imaginative Frenchman in
a hansom cab.

This sort of pleasure Dickens took in the Latin life; but no deeper
kind. And the strongest of all possible indications of his fundamental
detachment from it can be found in one fact. A great part of the time
that he was in Italy he was engaged in writing "The Chimes," and such
Christmas tales, tales of Christmas in the English towns, tales full of
fog and snow and hail and happiness.

Dickens could find in any street divergences between man and man deeper
than the divisions of nations. His fault was to exaggerate differences.
He could find types almost as distinct as separate tribes of animals in
his own brain and his own city, those two homes of a magnificent chaos.
The only two southerners introduced prominently into his novels, the two
in "Little Dorrit," are popular English foreigners, I had almost said
stage foreigners. Villainy is, in English eyes, a southern trait,
therefore one of the foreigners is villainous. Vivacity is, in English
eyes, another southern trait, therefore the other foreigner is
vivacious. But we can see from the outlines of both that Dickens did not
have to go to Italy to get them. While poor panting millionaires, poor
tired earls and poor God-forsaken American men of culture are plodding
about Italy for literary inspiration, Charles Dickens made up the whole
of that Italian romance (as I strongly suspect) from the faces of two
London organ-grinders.

In the sunlight of the southern world, he was still dreaming of the
firelight of the north. Among the palaces and the white campanili, he
shut his eyes to see Marylebone and dreamed a lovely dream of
chimney-pots. He was not happy, he said, without streets. The very
foulness and smoke of London were lovable in his eyes and fill his
Christmas tales with a vivid vapour. In the clear skies of the south he
saw afar off the fog of London like a sunset cloud and longed to be in
the core of it.

This Christmas tone of Dickens, in connection with his travels, is a
matter that can only be expressed by a parallel with one of his other
works. Much the same that has here been said of his "Pictures from
Italy," may be said about his "Child's History of England;" with the
difference that while the "Pictures from Italy" do in a sense add to his
fame, the "History of England" in almost every sense detracts from it.
But the nature of the limitation is the same. What Dickens was
travelling in distant lands, that he was travelling in distant ages; a
sturdy, sentimental English Radical with a large heart and a narrow
mind. He could not help falling into that besetting sin or weakness of
the modern progressive, the habit of regarding the contemporary
questions as the eternal questions and the latest word as the last. He
could not get out of his head the instinctive conception that the real
problem before St. Dunstan was whether he should support Lord John
Russell or Sir Robert Peel. He could not help seeing the remotest peaks
lit up by the raging bonfire of his own passionate political crisis. He
lived for the instant and its urgency; that is, he did what St. Dunstan
did. He lived in an eternal present like all simple men. It is indeed "A
Child's History of England;" but the child is the writer and not the

But Dickens in his cheapest cockney utilitarianism was not only English,
but unconsciously historic. Upon him descended the real tradition of
"Merry England," and not upon the pallid mediaevalists who thought they
were reviving it. The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of
the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the
present day. Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the
Middle Ages. He was much more mediaeval in his attacks on mediaevalism
than they were in their defences of it. It was he who had the things of
Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all
the white roads of England. Like Chaucer he loved story within story,
every man telling a tale. Like Chaucer he saw something openly comic in
men's motley trades. Sam Weller would have been a great gain to the
Canterbury Pilgrimage and told an admirable story. Rosetti's Damozel
would have been a great bore, regarded as too fast by the Prioress and
too priggish by the Wife of Bath. It is said that in the somewhat sickly
Victorian revival of feudalism which was called "Young England," a
nobleman hired a hermit to live in his grounds. It is also said that the
hermit struck for more beer. Whether this anecdote be true or not, it is
always told as showing a collapse from the ideal of the Middle Ages to
the level of the present day. But in the mere act of striking for beer
the holy man was very much more "medieval" than the fool who employed

It would be hard to find a better example of this than Dickens's great
defence of Christmas. In fighting for Christmas he was fighting for the
old European festival. Pagan and Christian, for that trinity of eating,
drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy
day which is really a holiday. He had himself the most babyish ideas
about the past. He supposed the Middle Ages to have consisted of
tournaments and torture-chambers, he supposed himself to be a brisk man
of the manufacturing age, almost a Utilitarian. But for all that he
defended the mediaeval feast which was going out against the
Utilitarianism which was coming in. He could only see all that was bad
in mediaevalism. But he fought for all that was good in it. And he was
all the more really in sympathy with the old strength and simplicity
because he only knew that it was good and did not know that it was old.
He cared as little for mediaevalism as the mediaevals did. He cared as
much as they did for lustiness and virile laughter and sad tales of good
lovers and pleasant tales of good livers. He would have been very much
bored by Ruskin and Walter Pater if they had explained to him the
strange sunset tints of Lippi and Botticelli. He had no pleasure in
looking on the dying Middle Ages. But he looked on the living Middle
Ages, on a piece of the old uproarious superstition still unbroken; and
he hailed it like a new religion. The Dickens character ate pudding to
an extent at which the modern mediaevalists turned pale. They would do
every kind of honour to an old observance, except observing it. They
would pay to a Church feast every sort of compliment except feasting.

And (as I have said) as were his unconscious relations to our European
past, so were his unconscious relations to England. He imagined himself
to be, if anything, a sort of cosmopolitan; at any rate to be a champion
of the charms and merits of continental lands against the arrogance of
our island. But he was in truth very much more a champion of the old and
genuine England against that comparatively cosmopolitan England which we
have all lived to see. And here again the supreme example is Christmas.
Christmas is, as I have said, one of numberless old European feasts of
which the essence is the combination of religion with merry-making. But
among those feasts it is also especially and distinctively English in
the style of its merry-making and even in the style of its religion. For
the character of Christmas (as distinct, for instance, from the
continental Easter) lies chiefly in two things; first on the terrestrial
side the note of comfort rather than the note of brightness; and on the
spiritual side, Christian charity rather than Christian ecstasy. And
comfort is, like charity, a very English instinct. Nay, comfort is, like
charity, an English merit; though our comfort may and does degenerate
into materialism, just as our charity may and does degenerate into
laxity and make-believe.

This ideal of comfort belongs peculiarly to England; it belongs
peculiarly to Christmas; above all, it belongs pre-eminently to Dickens.
And it is astonishingly misunderstood. It is misunderstood by the
continent of Europe; it is, if possible, still more misunderstood by the
English of to-day. On the Continent the restaurateurs provide us with
raw beef, as if we were savages; yet old English cooking takes as much
care as French. And in England has arisen a parvenu patriotism which
represents the English as everything but English; as a blend of Chinese
stoicism, Latin militarism, Prussian rigidity, and American bad taste.
And so England, whose fault is gentility and whose virtue is geniality,
England with her tradition of the great gay gentlemen of Elizabeth, is
represented to the four quarters of the world (as in Mr. Kipling's
religious poems) in the enormous image of a solemn cad. And because it
is very difficult to be comfortable in the suburbs, the suburbs have
voted that comfort is a gross and material thing. Comfort, especially
this vision of Christmas comfort, is the reverse of a gross or material
thing. It is far more poetical, properly speaking, than the Garden of
Epicurus. It is far more artistic than the Palace of Art. It is more
artistic because it is based upon a contrast, a contrast between the
fire and wine within the house and the winter and the roaring rains
without. It is far more poetical, because there is in it a note of
defence, almost of war; a note of being besieged by the snow and hail;
of making merry in the belly of a fort. The man who said that an
Englishman's house is his castle said much more than he meant. The
Englishman thinks of his house as something fortified and provisioned,
and his very surliness is at root romantic. And this sense would
naturally be strongest in wild winter nights, when the lowered
portcullis and the lifted drawbridge do not merely bar people out, but
bar people in. The Englishman's house is most sacred, not merely when
the King cannot enter it, but when the Englishman cannot get out of it.

This comfort, then, is an abstract thing, a principle. The English poor
shut all their doors and windows till their rooms reek like the Black
Hole. They are suffering for an idea. Mere animal hedonism would not
dream, as we English do, of winter feasts and little rooms, but of
eating fruit in large and idle gardens. Mere sensuality would desire to
please all its senses. But to our good dreams this dark and dangerous
background is essential; the highest pleasure we can imagine is a
defiant pleasure, a happiness that stands at bay. The word "comfort" is
not indeed the right word, it conveys too much of the slander of mere
sense; the true word is "cosiness," a word not translatable. One, at
least, of the essentials of it is smallness, smallness in preference to
largeness, smallness for smallness' sake. The merry-maker wants a
pleasant parlour, he would not give twopence for a pleasant continent.
In our difficult time, of course, a fight for mere space has become
necessary. Instead of being greedy for ale and Christmas pudding we are
greedy for mere air, an equally sensual appetite. In abnormal conditions
this is wise; and the illimitable veldt is an excellent thing for
nervous people. But our fathers were large and healthy enough to make a
thing humane, and not worry about whether it was hygienic. They were big
enough to get into small rooms.

Of this quite deliberate and artistic quality in the close Christmas
chamber, the standing evidence is Dickens in Italy. He created these dim
firelit tales like little dim red jewels, as an artistic necessity, in
the centre of an endless summer. Amid the white cities of Tuscany he
hungered for something romantic, and wrote about a rainy Christmas. Amid
the pictures of the Uffizi he starved for something beautiful, and fed
his memory on London fog. His feeling for the fog was especially
poignant and typical. In the first of his Christmas tales, the popular
"Christmas Carol," he suggested the very soul of it in one simile, when
he spoke of the dense air, suggesting that "Nature was brewing on a
large scale." This sense of the thick atmosphere as something to eat or
drink, something not only solid but satisfactory, may seem almost
insane, but it is no exaggeration of Dickens's emotion. We speak of a
fog "that you could cut with a knife." Dickens would have liked the
phrase as suggesting that the fog was a colossal cake. He liked even
more his own phrase of the Titanic brewery, and no dream would have
given him a wilder pleasure than to grope his way to some such
tremendous vats and drink the ale of the giants.

There is a current prejudice against fogs, and Dickens, perhaps, is
their only poet. Considered hygienically, no doubt this may be more or
less excusable. But, considered poetically, fog is not undeserving, it
has a real significance. We have in our great cities abolished the clean
and sane darkness of the country. We have outlawed night and sent her
wandering in wild meadows; we have lit eternal watch-fires against her
return. We have made a new cosmos, and as a consequence our own sun and
stars. And as a consequence also, and most justly, we have made our own
darkness. Just as every lamp is a warm human moon, so every fog is a
rich human nightfall. If it were not for this mystic accident we should
never see darkness, and he who has never seen darkness has never seen
the sun. Fog for us is the chief form of that outward pressure which
compresses mere luxury into real comfort. It makes the world small, in
the same spirit as in that common and happy cry that the world is small,
meaning that it is full of friends. The first man that emerges out of
the mist with a light, is for us Prometheus, a saviour bringing fire to
men. He is that greatest and best of all men, greater than the heroes,
better than the saints, Man Friday. Every rumble of a cart, every cry in
the distance, marks the heart of humanity beating undaunted in the
darkness. It is wholly human; man toiling in his own cloud. If real
darkness is like the embrace of God, this is the dark embrace of man.

In such a sacred cloud the tale called "The Christmas Carol" begins, the
first and most typical of all his Christmas tales. It is not irrelevant
to dilate upon the geniality of this darkness, because it is
characteristic of Dickens that his atmospheres are more important than
his stories. The Christmas atmosphere is more important than Scrooge, or
the ghosts either; in a sense, the background is more important than the
figures. The same thing may be noticed in his dealings with that other
atmosphere (besides that of good humour) which he excelled in creating,
an atmosphere of mystery and wrong, such as that which gathers round
Mrs. Clennam, rigid in her chair, or old Miss Havisham, ironically robed
as a bride. Here again the atmosphere altogether eclipses the story,
which often seems disappointing in comparison. The secrecy is
sensational; the secret is tame. The surface of the thing seems more
awful than the core of it. It seems almost as if these grisly figures,
Mrs. Chadband and Mrs. Clennam, Miss Havisham, and Miss Flite, Nemo and
Sally Brass, were keeping something back from the author as well as from
the reader. When the book closes we do not know their real secret. They
soothed the optimistic Dickens with something less terrible than the
truth. The dark house of Arthur Clennam's childhood really depresses us;
it is a true glimpse into that quiet street in hell, where live the
children of that unique dispensation which theologians call Calvinism
and Christians devil-worship. But some stranger crime had really been
done there, some more monstrous blasphemy or human sacrifice than the
suppression of some silly document advantageous to the silly Dorrits.
Something worse than a common tale of jilting lay behind the masquerade
and madness of the awful Miss Havisham. Something worse was whispered by
the misshapen Quilp to the sinister Sally in that wild, wet summer-house
by the river, something worse than the clumsy plot against the clumsy
Kit. These dark pictures seem almost as if they were literally visions;
things, that is, that Dickens saw but did not understand.

And as with his backgrounds of gloom, so with his backgrounds of
good-will, in such tales as "The Christmas Carol." The tone of the tale
is kept throughout in a happy monotony, though the tale is everywhere
irregular and in some places weak. It has the same kind of artistic
unity that belongs to a dream. A dream may begin with the end of the
world and end with a tea-party; but either the end of the world will em
as trivial as a tea-party or that tea-party will be as terrible as the
day of doom. The incidents change wildly; the story scarcely changes at
all. "The Christmas Carol" is a kind of philanthropic dream, an
enjoyable nightmare, in which the scenes shift bewilderingly and seem as
miscellaneous as the pictures in a scrap-book, but in which there is one
constant state of the soul, a state of rowdy benediction and a hunger
for human faces. The beginning is bout a winter day and a miser; yet the
beginning is in no way bleak. The author starts with a kind of happy
howl; he bangs on our door like a drunken carol singer; his style is
festive and popular; he compares the snow and hail to philanthropists
who "come down handsomely;" he compares the fog to unlimited beer.
Scrooge is not really inhuman at the beginning any more than he is at
the end. There is a heartiness in his inhospitable sentiments that is
akin to humour and therefore to humanity; he is only a crusty old
bachelor, and had (I strongly suspect) given away turkeys secretly all
his life. The beauty and the real blessing of the story do not lie in
the mechanical plot of it, the repentance of Scrooge, probable or
improbable; they lie in the great furnace of real happiness that glows
through Scrooge and everything around him; that great furnace, the heart
of Dickens. Whether the Christmas visions would or would not convert
Scrooge, they convert us. Whether or no the visions were evoked by real
Spirits of the Past, Present, and Future, they were evoked by that truly
exalted order of angels who are correctly called High Spirits. They are
impelled and sustained by a quality which our contemporary artists
ignore or almost deny, but which in a life decently lived is as normal
and attainable as sleep, positive, passionate, conscious joy. The story
sings from end to end like a happy man going home; and, like a happy and
good man, when it cannot sing it yells. It is lyric and exclamatory,
from the first exclamatory words of it. It is strictly a Christmas

Dickens, as has been said, went to Italy with this kindly cloud still
about him, still meditating on Yule mysteries. Among the olives and the
orange-trees he wrote his second great Christmas tale, "The Chimes," at
Genoa in 1844, a Christmas tale only differing from "The Christmas
Carol" in being fuller of the grey rains of winter and the north. "The
Chimes" is, like the "Carol," an appeal for charity and mirth, but it is
a stern and fighting appeal: if the other is a Christmas carol, this is
a Christmas war-song. In it Dickens hurled himself with even more than
his usual militant joy and scorn into an attack upon a cant, which he
said made his blood boil. This cant was nothing more nor less than the
whole tone taken by three-quarters of the political and economic world
towards the poor. It was a vague and vulgar Benthamism with a rollicking
Tory touch in it. It explained to the poor their duties with a cold and
coarse philanthropy unendurable by any free man. It had also at its
command a kind of brutal banter, a loud good humour which Dickens
sketches savagely in Alderman Cute. He fell furiously on all their
ideas: the cheap advice to live cheaply, the base advice to live basely,
above all, the preposterous primary assumption that the rich are to
advise the poor and not the poor the rich. There were and are hundreds
of these benevolent bullies. Some say that the poor should give up
having children, which means that they should give up their great virtue
of sexual sanity. Some say that they should give up "treating" each
other, which means that they should give up all that remains to them of
the virtue of hospitality. Against all of this Dickens thundered very
thoroughly in "The Chimes." It may be remarked in passing that this
affords another instance of a confusion already referred to, the
confusion whereby Dickens supposed himself to be exalting the present
over the past, whereas he was really dealing deadly blows at things
strictly peculiar to the present. Embedded in this very book is a
somewhat useless interview between Trotty Veck and the church bells, in
which the latter lecture the former for having supposed (why, I don't
know) that they were expressing regret for the disappearance of the
Middle Ages. There is no reason why Trotty Veck or anyone else should
idealise the Middle Ages, but certainly he was the last man in the world
to be asked to idealise the nineteenth century, seeing that the smug and
stingy philosophy, which poisons his life through the book, was an
exclusive creation of that century. But, as I have said before, the
fieriest mediaevalist may forgive Dickens for disliking the good things
the Middle Ages took away, considering how he loved whatever good things
the Middle Ages left behind. It matters very little that he hated old
feudal castles when they were already old. It matters very much that he
hated the New Poor Law while it was still new.

The moral of this matter in "The Chimes" is essential. Dickens had
sympathy with the poor in the Greek and literal sense; he suffered with
them mentally; for the things that irritated them were the things that
irritated him. He did not pity the people, or even champion the people,
or even merely love the people; in this matter he was the people. He
alone in our literature is the voice not merely of the social
substratum, but even of the subconsciousness of the substratum. He
utters the secret anger of the humble. He says what the uneducated only
think, or even only feel, about the educated. And in nothing is he so
genuinely such a voice as in this fact of his fiercest mood being
reserved for methods that are counted scientific and progressive. Pure
and exalted atheists talk themselves into believing that the
working-classes are turning with indignant scorn from the churches. The
working-classes are not indignant against the churches in the least. The
things the working-classes really are indignant against are the
hospitals. The people has no definite disbelief in the temples of
theology. The people has a very fiery and practical disbelief in the
temples of physical science. The things the poor hate are the modern
things, the rationalistic things--doctors, inspectors, poor law
guardians, professional philanthropy. They never showed any reluctance
to be helped by the old and corrupt monasteries. They will often die
rather than be helped by the modern and efficient workhouse. Of all this
anger, good or bad, Dickens is the voice of an accusing energy. When, in
"The Christmas Carol," Scrooge refers to the surplus population, the
Spirit tells him, very justly, not to speak till he knows what the
surplus is and where it is. The implication is severe but sound. When a
group of superciliously benevolent economists look down into the abyss
for the surplus population, assuredly there is only one answer that
should be given to them; and that is to say, "If there is a surplus, you
are a surplus." And if anyone were ever cut off, they would be. If the
barricades went up in our streets and the poor became masters, I think
the priests would escape, I fear the gentlemen would; but I believe the
gutters would be simply running with the blood of philanthropists.

Lastly, he was at one with the poor in this chief matter of Christmas,
in the matter, that is, of special festivity. There is nothing on which
the poor are more criticised than on the point of spending large sums on
small feasts; and though there are material difficulties, there is
nothing in which they are more right. It is said that a Boston
paradox-monger said, "Give us the luxuries of life and we will dispense
with the necessities." But it is the whole human race that says it, from
the first savage wearing feathers instead of clothes to the last
costermonger having a treat instead of three meals.

The third of his Christmas stories, "The Cricket on the Hearth," calls
for no extensive comment, though it is very characteristic. It has all
the qualities which we have called dominant qualities in his Christmas
sentiment. It has cosiness, that is the comfort that depends upon a
discomfort surrounding it. It has a sympathy with the poor, and
especially with the extravagance of the poor; with what may be called
the temporary wealth of the poor. It has the sentiment of the hearth,
that is, the sentiment of the open fire being the red heart of the room.
That open fire is the veritable flame of England, still kept burning in
the midst of a mean civilisation of stoves. But everything that is
valuable in "The Cricket on the Hearth" is perhaps as well expressed in
the title as it is in the story. The tale itself, in spite of some of
those inimitable things that Dickens never failed to say, is a little
too comfortable to be quite convincing. "The Christmas Carol" is the
conversion of an anti-Christmas character. "The Chimes" is a slaughter
of anti-Christmas characters. "The Cricket," perhaps, fails for lack of
this crusading note. For everything has its weak side, and when full
justice has been done to this neglected note of poetic comfort, we must
remember that it has its very real weak side. The defect of it in the
work of Dickens was that he tended sometimes to pile up the cushions
until none of the characters could move. He is so much interested in
effecting his state of static happiness that he forgets to make a story
at all. His princes at the start of the story begin to live happily ever
afterwards. We feel this strongly in "Master Humphrey's Clock" and we
feel it sometimes in these Christmas stories. He makes his characters so
comfortable that his characters begin to dream and drivel. And he makes
his reader so comfortable that his reader goes to sleep.

The actual tale of the carrier and his wife sounds somewhat sleepily in
our ears; we cannot keep our attention fixed on it, though we are
conscious of a kind of warmth from it as from a great wood fire. We know
so well that everything will soon be all right that we do not suspect
when the carrier suspects, and are not frightened when the gruff
Tackleton growls. The sound of the festivities at the end come fainter
on our ears than did the shout of the Cratchits or the bells of Trotty
Veck. All the good figures that followed Scrooge when he came growling
out of the fog fade into the fog again.


Dickens was back in London by the June of 1845. About this time he
became the first editor of The Daily News, a paper which he had largely
planned and suggested, and which, I trust, remembers its semi-divine
origin. That his thoughts had been running, as suggested in the last
chapter, somewhat monotonously on his Christmas domesticities, is again
suggested by the rather singular fact that he originally wished The
Daily News to be called The Cricket. Probably he was haunted again with
his old vision of a homely, tale-telling periodical such as had broken
off in "Master Humphrey's Clock." About this time, however, he was
peculiarly unsettled. Almost as soon as he had taken the editorship he
threw it up; and having only recently come back to England, he soon made
up his mind to go back to the Continent. In the May of 1846 he ran over
to Switzerland and tried to write "Dombey and Son" at Lausanne. Tried
to, I say, because his letters are full of an angry impotence. He could
not get on. He attributed this especially to his love of London and his
loss of it, "the absence of streets and numbers of figures...My
figures seem disposed to stagnate without crowds about them." But he
also, with shrewdness, attributed it more generally to the laxer and
more wandering life he had led for the last two years, the American
tour, the Italian tour, diversified, generally speaking, only with
slight literary productions. His ways were never punctual or healthy,
but they were also never unconscientious as far as work was concerned.
If he walked all night he could write all day. But in this strange exile
or interregnum he did not seem able to fall into any habits, even bad
habits. A restlessness beyond all his experience had fallen for a season
upon the most restless of the children of men.

It may be a mere coincidence: but this break in his life very nearly
coincided with the important break in his art. "Dombey and Son," planned
in all probability some time before, was destined to be the last of a
quite definite series, the early novels of Dickens. The difference
between the books from the beginning up to "Dombey," and the books from
"David Copperfield" to the end may be hard to state dogmatically, but is
evident to every one with any literary sense. Very coarsely, the case
may be put by saying that he diminished, in the story as a whole, the
practice of pure caricature. Still more coarsely it may be put in the
phrase that he began to practise realism. If we take Mr. Stiggins, say,
as a clergyman depicted at the beginning of his literary career, and Mr.
Crisparkle, say, as a clergyman depicted at the end of it, it is evident
that the difference does not merely consist in the fact that the first
is a less desirable clergyman than the second. It consists in the nature
of our desire for either of them. The glory of Mr. Crisparkle partly
consists in the fact that he might really exist anywhere, in any country
town into which we may happen to stray. The glory of Mr. Stiggins wholly
consists in the fact that he could not possibly exist anywhere except in
the head of Dickens. Dickens has the secret recipe of that divine dish.
In some sense, therefore, when we say that he became less of a
caricaturist we mean that he became less of a creator. That original
violent vision of all things which he had seen from his boyhood began to
be mixed with other men's milder visions and with the light of common
day. He began to understand and practise other than his own mad merits;
began to have some movement towards the merits of other writers, towards
the mixed emotion of Thackeray, or the solidity of George Eliot. And
this must be said for the process; that the fierce wine of Dickens could
endure some dilution. On the whole, perhaps, his primal personalism was
all the better when surging against some saner restraints. Perhaps a
flavour of strong Stiggins goes a long way. Perhaps the colossal
Crummles might be cut down into six or seven quite creditable
characters. For my own part, for reasons which I shall afterwards
mention, I am in real doubt about the advantage of this realistic
education of Dickens. I am not sure that it made his books better; but I
am sure it made them less bad. He made fewer mistakes undoubtedly; he
succeeded in eliminating much of the mere rant or cant of his first
books; he threw away much of the old padding, all the more annoying,
perhaps, in a literary sense, because he did not mean it for padding,
but for essential eloquence. But he did not produce anything actually
better than Mr. Chuckster. But then there is nothing better than Mr.
Chuckster. Certain works of art, such as the Venus of Milo, exhaust our
aspiration. Upon the whole this may, perhaps, be safely said of the
transition. Those who have any doubt about Dickens can have no doubt of
the superiority of the later books. Beyond question they have less of
what annoys us in Dickens. But do not, if you are in the company of any
ardent adorers of Dickens (as I hope for your sake you are), do not
insist too urgently and exclusively on the splendour of Dickens's last
works, or they will discover that you do not like him.

"Dombey and Son" is the last novel in the first manner: "David
Copperfield" is the first novel in the last. The increase in care and
realism in the second of the two is almost startling. Yet even in
"Dombey and Son" we can see the coming of a change, however faint, if we
compare it with his first fantasies such as "Nicholas Nickleby" or "The
Old Curiosity Shop." The central story is still melodrama, bat it is
much more tactful and effective melodrama. Melodrama is a form of art,
legitimate like any other, as noble as farce, almost as noble as
pantomime. The essence of melodrama is that it appeals to the moral
sense in a highly simplified state, just as farce appeals to the sense
of humour in a highly simplified state. Farce creates people who are so
intellectually simple as to hide in packing-cases or pretend to be their
own aunts. Melodrama creates people so morally simple as to kill their
enemies in Oxford Street, and repent on seeing their mother's
photograph. The object of the simplification in farce and melodrama is
the same, and quite artistically legitimate, the object of gaining a
resounding rapidity of action which subtleties would obstruct. And this
can be done well or ill. The simplified villain can be a spirited
charcoal sketch or a mere black smudge. Carker is a spirited charcoal
sketch: Ralph Nickleby is a mere black smudge. The tragedy of Edith
Dombey teems with unlikelihood, but it teems with life. That Dombey
should give his own wife censure through his own business manager is
impossible, I will not say in a gentleman, but in a person of ordinary
sane self-conceit. But once having got the inconceivable trio before the
footlights, Dickens gives us good ringing dialogue very different from
the mere rants in which Ralph Nickleby figures in the unimaginable
character of a rhetorical money-lender. And there is another point of
technical improvement in this book over such books as "Nicholas
Nickleby." It has not only a basic idea, but a good basic idea. There is
a real artistic opportunity in the conception of a solemn and selfish
man of affairs, feeling for his male heir, his first and last emotion,
mingled of a thin flame of tenderness and a strong flame of pride. But
with all these possibilities, the serious episode of the Dombeys serves
ultimately only to show how unfitted Dickens was for such things, how
fitted he was for something opposite.

The incurable poetic character, the hopelessly non-realistic character
of Dickens's essential genius could not have a better example than the
story of the Dombeys. For the story itself is probable; it is the
treatment that makes it unreal. In attempting to paint the dark pagan
devotion of the father (as distant from the ecstatic and Christian
devotion of the mother) Dickens was painting something that was really
there. This is no wild theme, like the wanderings of Nell's grandfather,
or the marriage of Gride. A man of Dombey's type would love his son as
he loves Paul. He would neglect his daughter as he neglects Florence.
And yet we feel the utter unreality of it all, while we feel the utter
reality of monsters like Stiggins or Mantalini. Dickens could only work
in his own way, and that way was the wild way. We may almost say this:
that he could only make his characters probable if he was allowed to
make them impossible. Give him licence to say and do anything, and he
could create beings as vivid as our own aunts and uncles. Keep him to
likelihood and he could not tell the plainest tale so as to make it seem
likely. The story of "Pickwick" is credible, although it is not
possible. The story of Florence Dombey is incredible although it is

An excellent example can be found in the same story. Major Bagstock is a
grotesque, and yet he contains touch after touch of Dickens's quiet and
sane observation of things as they are. He was always most accurate when
he was most fantastic. Dombey and Florence are perfectly reasonable, but
we simply know that they do not exist. The Major is mountainously
exaggerated, but we all feel that we have met him at Brighton. Nor is
the rationale of the paradox difficult to see; Dickens exaggerated when
he had found a real truth to exaggerate. It is a deadly error (an error
at the back of much of the false placidity of our politics) to suppose
that lies are told with excess and luxuriance, and truths told with
modesty and restraint. Some of the most frantic lies on the face of life
are told with modesty and restraint; for the simple reason that only
modesty and restraint will save them. Many official declarations are
just as dignified as Mr. Dombey, because they are just as fictitious. On
the other hand, the man who has found a truth dances about like a boy
who has found a shilling; he breaks into extravagances, as the Christian
churches broke into gargoyles. In one sense truth alone can be
exaggerated; nothing else can stand the strain. The outrageous Bagstock
is a glowing and glaring exaggeration of a thing we have all seen in
life--the worst and most dangerous of all its hypocrisies. For the worst
and most dangerous hypocrite is not he who affects unpopular virtue, but
he who affects popular vice. The jolly fellow of the saloon bar and the
racecourse is the real deceiver of mankind; he has misled more than any
false prophet, and his victims cry to him out of hell. The excellence of
the Bagstock conception can best be seen if we compare it with the much
weaker and more improbable knavery of Pecksniff. It would not be worth a
man's while, with any worldly object, to pretend to be a holy and
high-minded architect. The world does not admire holy and high-minded
architects. The world does admire rough and tough old army men who swear
at waiters and wink at women. Major Bagstock is simply the perfect
prophecy of that decadent jingoism which corrupted England of late
years. England has been duped, not by the cant of goodness, but by the
cant of badness. It has been fascinated by a quite fictitious cynicism,
and reached that last and strangest of all impostures in which the mask
is as repulsive as the face.

"Dombey and Son" provides us with yet another instance of this general
fact in Dickens. He could only get to the most solemn emotions
adequately if he got to them through the grotesque. He could only, so to
speak, really get into the inner chamber by coming down the chimney,
like his own most lovable lunatic in "Nicholas Nickleby." A good example
is such a character as Toots. Toots is what none of Dickens's dignified
characters are, in the most serious sense, a true lover. He is the twin
of Romeo. He has passion, humility, self-knowledge, a mind lifted into
all magnanimous thoughts, everything that goes with the best kind of
romantic love. His excellence in the art of love can only be expressed
by the somewhat violent expression that he is as good a lover as Walter
Gay is a bad one. Florence surely deserved her father's scorn if she
could prefer Gay to Toots. It is neither a joke nor any kind of
exaggeration to say that in the vacillations of Toots, Dickens not only
came nearer to the psychology of true love than he ever came elsewhere,
but nearer than anyone else ever came. To ask for the loved one, and
then not to dare to cross the threshold, to be invited by her, to long
to accept, and then to lie in order to decline, these are the funny
things that Mr. Toots did, and that every honest man who yells with
laughter at him has done also. For the moment, however, I only mention
this matter as a pendant case to the case of Major Bagstock, an example
of the way in which Dickens had to be ridiculous in order to begin to be
true. His characters that begin solemn end futile; his characters that
begin frivolous end solemn in the best sense. His foolish figures are
not only more entertaining than his serious figures, they are also much
more serious. The Marchioness is not only much more laughable than
Little Nell; she is also much more of all that Little Nell was meant to
be; much more really devoted, pathetic, and brave. Dick Swiveller is not
only a much funnier fellow than Kit, he is also a much more genuine
fellow, being free from that slight stain of "meekness," or the
snobbishness of the respectable poor, which the wise and perfect
Chuckster wisely and perfectly perceived in Kit. Susan Nipper is not
only more of a comic character than Florence; she is more of a heroine
than Florence any day of the week. In "Our Mutual Friend" we do not, for
some reason or other, feel really very much excited about the fall or
rescue of Lizzie Hexam. She seems too romantic to be really pathetic.
But we do feel excited about the rescue of Miss Podsnap, because she is,
like Toots, a holy fool; because her pink nose and pink elbows, and
candid outcry and open indecent affections do convey to us a sense of
innocence helpless among human dragons, of Andromeda tied naked to a
rock. Dickens had to make a character humorous before he could make it
human; it was the only way he knew, and he ought to have always adhered
to it. Whether he knew it or not, the only two really touching figures
in "Martin Chuzzlewit" are the Misses Pecksniff. Of the things he tried
to treat unsmilingly and grandly we can all make game to our heart's
content. But when once he has laughed at a thing it is sacred for ever.

"Dombey," however, means first and foremost the finale of the early
Dickens. It is difficult to say exactly in what it is that we perceive
that the old crudity ends here, and does not reappear in "David
Copperfield" or in any of the novels after it. But so certainly it is.
In detached scenes and characters, indeed, Dickens kept up his farcical
note almost or quite to the end. But this is the last farce; this is the
last work in which a farcical licence is tacitly claimed, a farcical
note struck to start with. And in a sense his next novel may be called
his first novel. But the growth of this great novel, "David
Copperfield," is a thing very interesting, but at the same time very
dark, for it is a growth in the soul. We have seen that Dickens's mind
was in a stir of change; that he was dreaming of art and even of
realism. Hugely delighted as he invariably was with his own books, he
was humble enough to be ambitious. He was even humble enough to be
envious. In the matter of art, for instance, in the narrower sense, of
arrangement and proportion in fictitious things, he began to be
conscious of his deficiency, and even, in a stormy sort of way, ashamed
of it; he tried to gain completeness even while raging at anyone who
called him incomplete. And in this manner of artistic construction, his
ambition (and his success too) grew steadily up to the instant of his
death. The end finds him attempting things that are at the opposite pole
to the frank formlessness of "Pickwick." His last book, "The Mystery of
Edwin Drood," depends entirely upon construction, even upon a
centralised strategy. He staked everything upon a plot; he who had been
the weakest of plotters, weaker than Sim Tappertit. He essayed a
detective story, he who could never keep a secret; and he has kept it to
this day. A new Dickens was really being born when Dickens died.

And as with art, so with reality. He wished to show that he could
construct as well as anybody. He also wished to show that he could be as
accurate as anybody. And in this connection (as in many others) we must
recur constantly to the facts mentioned in connection with America and
with his money-matters. We must recur, I mean, to the central fact that
his desires were extravagant in quantity, but not in quality; that his
wishes were excessive, but not eccentric. It must never be forgotten
that sanity was his ideal, even when he seemed almost insane. It was
thus with his literary aspirations. He was brilliant; but he wished
sincerely to be solid. Nobody out of an asylum could deny that he was a
genius and an unique writer; but he did not wish to be an unique writer,
but an universal writer. Much of the manufactured pathos or rhetoric
against which his enemies quite rightly rail, is really due to his
desire to give all sides of life at once, to make his book a cosmos
instead of a tale. He was sometimes really vulgar in his wish to be a
literary Whiteley, an universal provider. Thus it was that he felt about
realism and truth to live. Nothing is easier than to defend Dickens as
Dickens, but Dickens wished to be everybody else. Nothing is easier than
to defend Dickens's world as a fairyland, of which he alone has the key;
to defend him as one defends Maeterlinck, or any other original writer.
But Dickens was not content with being original, he had a wild wish to
be true. He loved truth so much in the abstract that he sacrificed to
the shadow of it his own glory. He denied his own divine originality,
and pretended that he had plagiarised from life. He disowned his own
soul's children, and said he had picked them up in the street.

And in this mixed and heated mood of anger and ambition, vanity and
doubt, a new and great design was born. He loved to be romantic, yet he
desired to be real. How if he wrote of a thing that was real and showed
that it was romantic? He loved real life; but he also loved his own way.
How if he wrote his own real life, but wrote it in his own way? How if
he showed the carping critics who doubted the existence of his strange
characters, his own yet stranger existence? How if he forced these
pedants and unbelievers to admit that Weller and Pecksniff, Crummles and
Swiveller, whom they thought so improbably wild and wonderful, were less
wild and wonderful than Charles Dickens? What if he ended the quarrels
about whether his romances could occur, by confessing that his romance
had occurred?

For some time past, probably during the greater part of his life, he had
made notes for an autobiography. I have already quoted an admirable
passage from these notes, a passage reproduced in "David Copperfield,"
with little more alteration than a change of proper names--the passage
which describes Captain Porter and the debtor's petition in the
Marshalsea. But he probably perceived at last what a less keen
intelligence must ultimately have perceived, that if an autobiography is
really to be honest it must be turned into a work of fiction. If it is
really to tell the truth, it must at all costs profess not to. No man
dare say of himself, over his own name, how badly he has behaved. No man
dare say of himself over his own name, how well he has behaved.
Moreover, of course, a touch of fiction is almost always essential to
the real conveying of fact, because fact, as experienced, has a
fragmentariness which is bewildering at first hand and quite blinding at
second hand. Facts have at least to be sorted into compartments and the
proper head and tail given back to each. The perfection and pointedness
of art are a sort of substitute for the pungency of actuality. Without
this selection and completion our life seems a tangle of unfinished
tales, a heap of novels, all volume one. Dickens determined to make one
complete novel of it.

For though there are many other aspects of "David Copperfield," this
autobiographical aspect is, after all, the greatest. The point of the
book is that, unlike all the other books of Dickens, it is concerned
with quite common actualities, but it is concerned with them warmly and
with the warlike sympathies. It is not only both realistic and romantic;
it is realistic because it is romantic. It is human nature described
with the human exaggeration. We all know the actual types in the book;
they are not like the turgid and preternatural types elsewhere in
Dickens. They are not purely poetic creations like Mr. Kenwigs or Mr.
Bunsby. We all know that they exist. We all know the stiff-necked and
humorous old-fashioned nurse, so conventional and yet so original, so
dependent and yet so independent. We all know the intrusive stepfather,
the abstract strange male, coarse, handsome, sulky, successful, a
breaker-up of homes. We all know the erect and sardonic spinster, the
spinster who is so mad in small things and so sane in great ones. We all
know the cock of the school; we all know Steerforth, the creature whom
the gods love and even the servants respect. We know his poor and
aristocratic mother, so proud, so gratified, so desolate. We know the
Rosa Dartle type, the lonely woman in whom affection itself has
stagnated into a sort of poison.

But while these are real characters they are real characters lit up with
the colours of youth and passion. They are real people romantically
felt; that is to say, they are real people felt as real people feel
them. They are exaggerated, like all Dickens's figures: but they are not
exaggerated as personalities are exaggerated by an artist; they are
exaggerated as personalities are exaggerated by their own friends and
enemies. The strong souls are seen through the glorious haze of the
emotions that strong souls really create. We have Murdstone as he would
be to a boy who hated him; and rightly, for a boy would hate him. We
have Steerforth as he would be to a boy who adored him; and rightly, for
a boy would adore him. It may be that if these persons had a mere
terrestrial existence, they appeared to other eyes more insignificant.
It may be that Murdstone in common life was only a heavy business man
with a human side that David was too sulky to find. It may be that
Steerforth was only an inch or two taller than David, and only a shade
or two above him in the lower middle classes; but this does not make the
book less true. In cataloguing the facts of life the author must not
omit that massive fact, illusion.

When we say the book is true to life we must stipulate that it is
especially true to youth: even to boyhood. All the characters seem a
little larger than they really were, for David is looking up at them.
And the early pages of the book are in particular astonishingly vivid.
Parts of it seem like fragments of our forgotten infancy. The dark house
of childhood, the loneliness, the things half understood, the nurse with
her inscrutable sulks and her more inscrutable tenderness, the sudden
deportations to distant places, the seaside and its childish
friendships, all this stirs in us when we read it, like something out of
a previous existence. Above all, Dickens has excellently depicted the
child enthroned in that humble circle which only in after years he
perceives to have been humble. Modern and cultured persons, I believe,
object to their children seeing kitchen company or being taught by a
woman like Peggotty. But surely it is more important to be educated in a
sense of human dignity and equality than in anything else in the world.
And a child who has once had to respect a kind and capable woman of the
lower classes will respect the lower classes for ever. The true way to
overcome the evil in class distinction is not to denounce them as
revolutionists denounce them, but to ignore them as children ignore

The early youth of David Copperfield is psychologically almost as good
as his childhood. In one touch especially Dickens pierced the very core
of the sensibility of boyhood; it was when he made David more afraid of
a manservant than of anybody or anything else. The lowering Murdstone,
the awful Mrs. Steerforth are not so alarming to him as Mr. Littimer,
the unimpeachable gentleman's gentleman. This is exquisitely true to the
masculine emotions, especially in their undeveloped state. A youth of
common courage does not fear anything violent, but he is in mortal fear
of anything correct. This may or may not be the reason that so few
female writers understand their male characters, but this fact remains
that the more sincere and passionate and even headlong a lad is the more
certain he is to be conventional. The bolder and freer he seems the more
the traditions of the college or the rules of the club will hold him
with their gyves of gossamer; and the less afraid he is of his enemies
the more cravenly he will be afraid of his friends. Herein lies indeed
the darkest period of our ethical doubt and chaos. The fear is that as
morals become less urgent, manners will become more so; and men who have
forgotten the fear of God will retain the fear of Littimer. We shall
merely sink into a much meaner bondage. For when you break the great
laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the
small laws.

The sting and strength of this piece of fiction, then, do (by a rare
accident) lie in the circumstance that it was so largely founded on
fact. "David Copperfield" is the great answer of a great romancer to the
realists. David says in effect: "What! you say that the Dickens tales
are too purple really to have happened! Why, this is what happened to
me, and it seemed the most purple of all. You say that the Dickens
heroes are too handsome and triumphant! Why, no prince or paladin in
Ariosto was ever so handsome and triumphant as the Head Boy seemed to me
walking before me in the sun. You say the Dickens villains are too black
I Why, there was no ink in the devil's inkstand black enough for my own
step-father when I had to live in the same house with him. The facts are
quite the other way to what you suppose. This life of grey studies and
half-tones, the absence of which you regret in Dickens, is only life as
it is looked at. This life of heroes and villains is life as it is
lived. The life a man knows best is exactly the life he finds most full
of fierce certainties and battles between good and ill--his own. Oh yes,
the life we do not care about may easily be a psychological comedy.
Other people's lives may easily be human documents. But a man's own life
is always a melodrama."

There are other effective things in "David Copperfield;" they are not
all autobiographical, but they nearly all have this new note of quietude
and reality. Micawber is gigantic; an immense assertion of the truth
that the way to live is to exaggerate everything. But of him I shall
have to speak more fully in another connection. Mrs. Micawber,
artistically speaking, is even better. She is very nearly the best thing
in Dickens. Nothing could be more absurd, and at the same time more
true, than her clear argumentative manner of speech as she sits smiling
and expounding in the midst of ruin. What could be more lucid and
logical and unanswerable than her statement of the prolegomena of the
Medway problem, of which the first step must be to "see the Medway," or
of the coal-trade, which required talent and capital. "Talent Mr.
Micawber has. Capital Mr. Micawber has not." It seems as if something
should have come at last out of so clear and scientific an arrangement
of the ideas. Indeed if (as has been suggested) we regard "David
Copperfield" as an unconscious defence of the poetic view of life, we
might regard Mrs. Micawber as an unconscious satire on the logical view
of life. She sits as a monument of the hopelessness and helplessness of
reason in the face of this romantic and unreasonable world.

As I have taken "Dombey and Son" as the book before the transition, and
"David Copperfield" as typical of the transition itself, I may perhaps
take "Bleak House" as the book after the transition, and so complete the
description. Bleak House has every characteristic of his new realistic
culture. Dickens never now, as in his early books, revels in the parts
he likes and scamps the parts he does not, after the manner of Scott. He
does not, as in previous tales, leave his heroes and heroines mere
walking gentlemen and ladies with nothing at all to do but walk: he
expends upon them at least ingenuity. By the expedients (successful or
not) of the self-revelation of Esther or the humorous inconsistencies of
Rick, he makes his younger figures if not lovable at least readable.
Everywhere we see this tighter and more careful grip. He does not, for
instance, when he wishes to denounce a dark institution, sandwich it in
as a mere episode in a rambling story of adventure, as the debtor's
prison is embedded in the body of "Pickwick" or the low Yorkshire school
in the body of "Nicholas Nickleby." He puts the Court of Chancery in the
centre of the stage, a sombre and sinister temple, and groups round it
in artistic relation decaying and frantic figures, its offspring and its
satirists, An old dipsomaniac keeps a rag and bone shop, type of
futility and antiquity, and calls himself the Lord Chancellor. A little
mad old maid hangs about the courts on a forgotten or imaginary lawsuit,
and says with perfect and pungent irony, "I am expecting a judgment
shortly. On the Day of Judgment." Rick and Ada and Esther are not mere
strollers who have strayed into the court of law, they are its children,
its symbols, and its victims. The righteous indignation of the book is
not at the red heat of anarchy, but at the white heat of art. Its anger
is patient and plodding, like some historic revenge. Moreover, it slowly
and carefully creates the real psychology of oppression. The endless
formality, the endless unemotional urbanity, the endless hope deferred,
these things make one feel the fact of injustice more than the madness
of Nero. For it is not the activeness of tyranny that maddens, but its
passiveness. We hate the deafness of the god more than his strength.
Silence is the unbearable repartee.

Again we can see in this book strong traces of an increase in social
experience. Dickens, as his fame carried him into more fashionable
circles, began really to understand something of what is strong and what
is weak in the English upper class. Sir Leicester Dedlock is a far more
effective condemnation of oligarchy than the ugly swagger of Sir
Mulberry Hawk, because pride stands out more plainly in all its
impotence and insolence as the one weakness of a good man, than as one
of the million weaknesses of a bad one. Dickens, like all young
Radicals, had imagined in his youth that aristocracy rested upon the
hardness of somebody; he found, as we all do, that it rests upon the
softness of everybody. It is very hard not to like Sir Leicester
Dedlock, not to applaud his silly old speeches, so foolish, so manly, so
genuinely English, so disastrous to England. It is true that the English
people love a lord, but it is not true that they fear him; rather, if
anything, they pity him; there creeps into their love something of the
feeling they have towards a baby or a black man. In their hearts they
think it admirable that Sir Leicester Dedlock should be able to speak at
all. And so a system, which no iron laws and no bloody battles could
possibly force upon a people, is preserved from generation to generation
by pure, weak good-nature.

In "Bleak House" occurs the character of Harold Skimpole, the character
whose alleged likeness to Leigh Hunt has laid Dickens open to so much
disapproval. Unjust disapproval, I think, as far as fundamental morals
are concerned. In method he was a little clamorous and clumsy, as,
indeed, he was apt to be. But when he said that it was possible to
combine a certain tone of conversation taken from a particular man with
other characteristics which were not meant to be his, he surely said
what all men who write stories know. A work of fiction often consists in
combining a pair of whiskers seen in one street with a crime seen in
another. He may quite possibly have really meant only to make Leigh
Hunt's light philosophy the mask for a new kind of scamp, as a variant
on the pious mask of Pecksniff or the candid mask of Bagstock. He may
never once have had the unfriendly thought, "Suppose Hunt behaved like a
rascal!" he may have only had the fanciful thought, "Suppose a rascal
behaved like Hunt!"

But there is a good reason for mentioning Skimpole especially. In the
character of Skimpole, Dickens displayed again a quality that was very
admirable in him--I mean a disposition to see things sanely and to
satirise even his own faults. He was commonly occupied in satirising the
Gradgrinds, the economists, the men of Smiles and Self-Help. For him
there was nothing poorer than their wealth, nothing more selfish than
their self-denial. And against them he was in the habit of pitting the
people of a more expansive habit--the happy Swivellers and Micawbers,
who, if they were poor, were at least as rich as their last penny could
make them. He loved that great Christian carelessness that seeks its
meat from God. It was merely a kind of uncontrollable honesty that
forced him into urging the other side. He could not disguise from
himself or from the world that man who began by seeking his meat from
his neighbour without apprising his neighbour of the fact. He had shown
how good irresponsibility could be; he could not stoop to hide how bad
it could be. He created Skimpole; and Skimpole is the dark underside of

In attempting Skimpole he attempted something with a great and urgent
meaning. He attempted it, I say; I do not assert that he carried it
through. As has been remarked, he was never successful in describing
psychological change; his characters are the same yesterday, to-day, and
for ever. And critics have complained very justly of the crude villainy
of Skimpole's action in the matter of Joe and Mr. Bucket. Certainly
Skimpole had no need to commit a clumsy treachery to win a clumsy bribe;
he had only to call on Mr. Jarndyce. He had lost his honour too long to
need to sell it.

The effect is bad; but I repeat that the aim was great. Dickens wished,
under the symbol of Skimpole, to point out a truth which is perhaps the
most terrible in moral psychology. I mean the fact that it is by no
means easy to draw the line between light and heavy offence. He desired
to show that there are no faults, however kindly, that we can afford to
flatter or to let alone; he meant that perhaps Skimpole had once been as
good a man as Swiveller. If flattered or let alone, our kindliest fault
can destroy our kindliest virtue. A thing may begin as a very human
weakness and end as a very inhuman weakness. Skimpole means that the
extremes of evil are much nearer than we think. A man may begin by being
too generous to pay his debts, and end by being too mean to pay his
debts. For the vices are very strangely in league, and encourage each
other. A sober man may become a drunkard through being a coward. A brave
man may become a coward through being a drunkard. That is the thing
Dickens was darkly trying to convey in Skimpole--that a man might become
a mountain of selfishness if he attended only to the Dickens virtues.
There is nothing that can be neglected; there is no such thing (he
meant) as a peccadillo.

I have dwelt on this consciousness of his because, alas, it had a very
sharp edge for himself. Even while he was permitting a fault originally
small to make a comedy of Skimpole, a fault originally small was making
a tragedy of Charles Dickens. For Dickens also had a bad quality, not
intrinsically very terrible, which he allowed to wreck his life. He also
had a small weakness that could sometimes become stronger than all his
strengths. His selfishness was not, it need hardly be said, the
selfishness of Gradgrind; he was particularly compassionate and liberal.
Nor was it in the least the selfishness of Skimpole. He was entirely
self-dependent, industrious, and dignified. His selfishness was wholly a
selfishness of the nerves. Whatever his whim or the temperature of the
instant told him to do must be done. He was the type of man who would
break a window if it would not open and give him air. And this weakness
of his had, by the time of which we speak, led to a breach between
himself and his wife which he was too exasperated and excited to heal in
time. Everything must be put right, and put right at once, with him. If
London bored him, he must go to the Continent at once; if the Continent
bored him, he must come back to London at once. If the day was too
noisy, the whole household must be quiet; if night was too quiet, the
whole household must wake up. Above all, he had the supreme character of
the domestic despot--that his good temper was, if possible, more
despotic than his bad temper. When he was miserable (as he often was,
poor fellow), they only had to listen to his railings. When he was happy
they had to listen to his novels. All this, which was mainly mere
excitability, did not seem to amount to much; it did not in the least
mean that he had ceased to be a clean-living and kind-hearted and quiet
honest man. But there was this evil about it--that he did not resist his
little weakness at all; he pampered it as Skimpole pampered his. And it
separated him and his wife. A mere silly trick of temperament did
everything that the blackest misconduct could have done. A random
sensibility, started about the shuffling of papers or the shutting of a
window, ended by tearing two clean, Christian people from each other,
like a blast of bigamy or adultery.


I have deliberately in this book mentioned only such facts in the life
of Dickens as were, I will not say significant (for all facts must be
significant, including the million facts that can never be mentioned by
anybody), but such facts as illustrated my own immediate meaning. I have
observed this method consistently and without shame because I think that
we can hardly make too evident a chasm between books which profess to be
statements of all the ascertainable facts, and books which (like this
one) profess only to contain a particular opinion or a summary deducible
from the facts. Books like Forster's exhaustive work and others exist,
and are as accessible as St. Paul's Cathedral; we have them in common as
we have the facts of the physical universe; and it seems highly
desirable that the function of making an exhaustive catalogue and that
of making an individual generalisation should not be confused. No
catalogue, of course, can contain all the facts even of five minutes;
every catalogue, however long and learned, must be not only a bold, but,
one may say, an audacious selection. Bat if a great many facts are
given, the reader gains a blurred belief that all the facts are being
given. In a professedly personal judgment it is therefore clearer and
more honest to give only a few illustrative facts, leaving the other
obtainable facts to balance them. For thus it is made quite clear that
the thing is a sketch, an affair of a few lines.

It is as well, however, to make at this point a pause sufficient to
indicate the main course of the later life of the novelist. And it is
best to begin with the man himself, as he appeared in those last days of
popularity and public distinction. Many are still alive who remember him
in his after-dinner speeches, his lectures, and his many public
activities; as I am not one of these, I cannot correct my notions with
that flash of the living features without which a description may be
subtly and entirely wrong. Once a man is dead, if it be only yesterday,
the new-comer must piece him together from descriptions really as much
at random as if he were describing Caesar or Henry II. Allowing, however,
for this inevitable falsity, a figure vivid and a little fantastic, does
walk across the stage of Forster's "Life."

Dickens was of a middle size and his vivacity and relative physical
insignificance probably gave rather the impression of small size;
certainly of the absence of bulk. In early life he wore, even for that
epoch, extravagant clusters of brown hair, and in later years a brown
moustache and a fringe of brown beard (cut like a sort of broad and
bushy imperial) sufficiently individual in shape to give him a faint air
as of a foreigner. His face had a peculiar tint or quality which is hard
to describe even after one has contrived to imagine it. It was the
quality which Mrs. Carlyle felt to be, as it were metallic, and compared
to clear steel. It was, I think, a sort of pale glitter and animation,
very much alive and yet with something deathly about it, like a corpse
galvanised by a god. His face (if this was so) was curiously a
counterpart of his character. For the essence of all Dickens's character
was that it was at once tremulous and yet hard and sharp, just as the
bright blade of a sword is tremulous and yet hard and sharp. He vibrated
at every touch and yet he was indestructible; you could bend him, but
you could not break him. Brown of hair and beard, somewhat pale of
visage (especially in his later days of excitement and ill-health), he
had quite exceptionally bright and active eyes that were always darting
about like brilliant birds to pick up all the tiny things of which he
made more, perhaps, than any novelist has done; for he was a sort of
poetical Sherlock Holmes. The mouth behind the brown beard was large and
mobile, like the mouth of an actor; indeed he was an actor, in many
things too much of an actor. In his lectures, in later years, he could
turn his strange face into any of the innumerable mad masks that were
the faces of his grotesque characters. He could make his face fall
suddenly into the blank inanity of Mrs. Raddle's servant, or swell, as
if to twice its size, into the apoplectic energy of Mr. Serjeant Buzfuz.
But the outline of his face itself, from his youth upwards, was cut
quite delicate and decisive and in repose, and in its own keen way, may
even have looked effeminate.

The dress of the comfortable classes during the later years of Dickens
was, compared with ours, somewhat slipshod and somewhat gaudy. It was
the time of loose pegtop trousers of an almost Turkish oddity, of large
ties, of loose short jackets and of loose long whiskers. Yet even this
expansive period, it must be confessed, considered Dickens a little too
flashy or, as some put it, too Frenchified in his dress. Such a man
would wear velvet coats and wild waistcoats that were like incredible
sunsets; he would wear those old white hats of an unnecessary and
startling whiteness. He did not mind being seen in sensational
dressing-gowns; it is said he had his portrait painted in one of them.
All this is not meritorious; neither is it particularly discreditable;
it is a characteristic only, but an important one. He was an absolutely
independent and entirely self-respecting man. But he had none of that
old lusty, half-dignified English feeling upon which Thackeray was so
sensitive; I mean the desire to be regarded as a private gentleman,
which means at bottom the desire to be left alone. This again is not a
merit; it is only one of the milder aspects of aristocracy. But
meritorious or not, Dickens did not possess it. He had no objection to
being stared at, if he were also admired. He did not exactly pose in the
oriental manner of Disraeli; his instincts were too clean for that; but
he did pose somewhat in the French manner, of some leaders like Mirabeau
and Gambetta. Nor had he the dull desire to "get on" which makes men die
contented as inarticulate Under-Secretaries of State. He did not desire
success so much as fame, the old human glory, the applause and wonder of
the people. Such he was as he walked down the street in his Frenchified
clothes, probably with a slight swagger.

His private life consisted of one tragedy and ten thousand comedies. By
one tragedy I mean one real and rending moral tragedy--the failure of
his marriage. He loved his children dearly, and more than one of them
died; but in sorrows like these there is no violence and above all no
shame. The end of life is not tragic like the end of love. And by the
ten thousand comedies I mean the whole texture of his life, his letters,
his conversation, which were one incessant carnival of insane and
inspired improvisation So far as he could prevent it, he never permitted
a day of his life to be ordinary. There was always some prank, some
impetuous proposal, some practical joke, some sudden hospitality, some
sudden disappearance. It is related of him (I give one anecdote out of a
hundred) that in his last visit to America, when he was already reeling
as it were under the blow that was to be mortal, he remarked quite
casually to his companions that a row of painted cottages looked exactly
like the painted shops in a pantomime. No sooner had the suggestion
passed his lips than he leapt at the nearest doorway and in exact
imitation of the clown in the harlequinade, beat conscientiously with
his fist, not on the door (for that would have burst the canvas scenery
of course), but on the side of the doorpost. Having done this he lay
down ceremoniously across the doorstep for the owner to fall over him if
he should come rushing out. He then got up gravely and went on his way.
His whole life was full of such unexpected energies, precisely like
those of the pantomime clown. Dickens had indeed a great and fundamental
affinity with the landscape, or rather house-scape, of the harlequinade.
He liked high houses, and sloping roofs, and deep areas. But he would
have been really happy if some good fairy of the eternal pantomime had
given him the power of flying off the roofs and pitching harmlessly down
the height of the houses and bounding out of the areas like an
indiarubber ball. The divine lunatic in "Nicholas Nickleby" comes
nearest to his dream. I really think Dickens would rather have been that
one of his characters than any of the others. With what excitement he
would have struggled down the chimney. With what ecstatic energy he
would have hurled the cucumbers over the garden wall.

His letters exhibit even more the same incessant creative force. His
letters are as creative as any of his literary creation. His shortest
postcard is often as good as his ablest novel; each one of them is
spontaneous; each one of them is different. He varies even the form and
shape of the letter as far as possible; now it is in absurd French; now
it is from one of his characters; now it is an advertisement for himself
as a stray dog. All of them are very funny; they are not only very
funny, but they are quite as funny as his finished and published work.
This is the ultimately amazing thing about Dickens; the amount there is
of him. He wrote, at the very least, sixteen thick important books
packed full of original creation. And if you had burnt them all he could
have written sixteen more, as a man writes idle letters to his friend.

In connection with this exuberant part of his nature there is another
thing to be noted, if we are to make a personal picture of him. Many
modern people, chiefly women, have been heard to object to the Bacchic
element in the books of Dickens, that celebration of social drinking as
a supreme symbol of social living, which those books share with almost
all the great literature of mankind, including the New Testament.
Undoubtedly there is an abnormal amount of drinking in a page of
Dickens, as there is an abnormal amount of fighting, say, in a page of
Dumas. If you reckon up the beers and brandies of Mr. Bob Sawyer, with
the care of an arithmetician and the deductions of a pathologist, they
rise alarmingly like a rising tide at sea. Dickens did defend drink
clamorously, praised it with passion, and described whole orgies of it
with enormous gusto. Yet it is wonderfully typical of his prompt and
impatient nature that he himself drank comparatively little. He was the
type of man who could be so eager in praising the cup that he left the
cup untasted. It was a part of his active and feverish temperament that
he did not drink wine very much. But it was a part of his humane
philosophy, of his religion, that he did drink wine. To healthy European
philosophy wine is a symbol; to European religion it is a sacrament.
Dickens approved it because it was a great human institution, one of the
rites of civilisation, and this it certainly is. The teetotaller who
stands outside it may have perfectly clear ethical reasons of his own,
as a man may have who stands outside education or nationality, who
refuses to go to a University or to serve in an Army. But he is
neglecting one of the great social things that man has added to nature.
The teetotaller has chosen a most unfortunate phrase for the drunkard
when he says that the drunkard is making a beast of himself. The man who
drinks ordinarily makes nothing but an ordinary man of himself. The man
who drinks excessively makes a devil of himself. But nothing connected
with a human and artistic thing like wine can bring one nearer to the
brute life of nature. The only man who is, in the exact and literal
sense of the words, making a beast of himself is the teetotaller.

The tone of Dickens towards religion, though like that of most of his
contemporaries, philosophically disturbed and rather historically
ignorant, had an element that was very characteristic of himself. He had
all the prejudices of his time. He had, for instance, that dislike of
defined dogmas, which really means a preference for unexamined dogmas.
He had the usual vague notion that the whole of our human past was
packed with nothing but insane Tories. He had, in a word, al the old
Radical ignorances which went along with the old Radical acuteness and
courage and public spirit. But this spirit tended, in almost all the
others who held it, to a specific dislike of the Church of England; and
a disposition to set the other sects against it, as truer types of
inquiry, or of individualism. Dickens had a definite tenderness for the
Church of England. He might have even called it a weakness for the
Church of England, but he had it. Something in those placid services,
something in that reticent and humane liturgy pleased him against all
the tendencies of his time; pleased him in the best part of himself, his
virile love of charity and peace. Once, in a puff of anger at the
Church's political stupidity (which is indeed profound), he left it for
a week or two and went to an Unitarian Chapel; in a week or two he came
back. This curious and sentimental hold of the English Church upon him
increased with years. In the book he was at work on when he died he
describes the Minor Canon, humble, chivalrous, tender-hearted, answering
with indignant simplicity the froth and platform righteousness of the
sectarian philanthropist. He upholds Canon Crisparkle and satirises Mr.
Honeythunder. Almost every one of the other Radicals, his friends, would
have upheld Mr. Honeythunder and satirised Canon Crisparkle.

I have mentioned this matter for a special reason. It brings us back to
that apparent contradiction or dualism in Dickens to which, in one
connection or another, I have often adverted, and which, in one shape or
another, constitutes the whole crux of his character. I mean the union
of a general wildness approaching lunacy, with a sort of secret
moderation almost amounting to mediocrity. Dickens was, more or less,
the man I have described--sensitive, theatrical, amazing, a bit of a
dandy, a bit of a buffoon. Nor are such characteristics, whether weak or
wild, entirely accidents or externals. He had some false theatrical
tendencies integral in his nature. For instance, he had one most
unfortunate habit, a habit that often put him in the wrong, even when he
happened to be in the right. He had an incurable habit of explaining
himself. This reduced his admirers to the mental condition of the
authentic but hitherto uncelebrated little girl who said to her mother,
"I think I should understand if only you wouldn't explain." Dickens
always would explain. It was a part of that instinctive publicity of his
which made him at once a splendid democrat and a little too much of an
actor. He carried it to the craziest lengths. He actually printed, in
Household Words, an apology for his own action in the matter of his
marriage. That incident alone is enough to suggest that his external
offers and proposals were sometimes like screams heard from Bedlam. Yet
it remains true that he had in him a central part that was pleased only
by the most decent and the most reposeful rites, by things of which the
Anglican Prayer-book is very typical. It is certainly true that he was
often extravagant. It is most certainly equally true that he detested
and despised extravagance.

The best explanation can be found in his literary genius. His literary
genius consisted in a contradictory capacity at once to entertain and to
deride--very ridiculous ideas. If he is a buffoon, he is laughing at
buffoonery. His books were in some ways the wildest on the face of the
world. Rabelais did not introduce into Paphlagonia or the Kingdom of the
Coqcigrues satiric figures more frantic and misshapen than Dickens made
to walk about the Strand and Lincoln's Inn. But for all that, you come,
in the core of him, on a sudden quietude and good sense. Such, I think,
was the core of Rabelais, such were all the far-stretching and violent
satirists. This is a point essential to Dickens, though very little
comprehended in our current tone of thought. Dickens was an immoderate
jester, but a moderate thinker. He was an immoderate jester because he
was a moderate thinker. What we moderns call the wildness of his
imagination was actually created by what we moderns call the tameness of
his thought. I mean that he felt the full insanity of all extreme
tendencies, because he was himself so sane; he felt eccentricities,
because he was in the centre. We are always, in these days, asking our
violent prophets to write violent satires; but violent prophets can
never possibly write violent satires. In order to write satire like that
of Rabelais--satire that juggles with the stars and kicks the world
about like a football--it is necessary to be one's self temperate, and
even mild. A modern man like Nietzsche, a modern man like Gorky, a
modern man like d'Annunzio, could not possibly write real and riotous
satire. They are themselves too much on the borderlands. They could not
be a success as caricaturists, for they are already a great success as

I have mentioned his religious preference merely as an instance of this
interior moderation. To say, as some have done, that he attacked
Nonconformity is quite a false way of putting it. It is clean across the
whole trend of the man and his time to suppose that he could have felt
bitterness against any theological body as a theological body; but
anything like religious extravagance, whether Protestant or Catholic,
moved him to an extravagance of satire. And he flung himself into the
drunken energy of Stiggins, he piled up to the stars the "verbose
flights of stairs" of Mr. Chadband, exactly because his own conception
of religion was the quiet and impersonal Morning Prayer. It is typical
of him that he had a peculiar hatred for speeches at the grave-side.

An even clearer case of what I mean can be found in his political
attitude. He seemed to some an almost anarchic satirist. He made equal
fun of the system which reformers made war on, and of the instruments on
which reformers relied. He made no secret of his feeling that the
average English premier was an accidental ass. In two superb sentences
he summed up and swept away the whole British constitution: "England,
for the last week, has been in an awful state. Lord Coodle would go out,
Sir Thomas Doodle wouldn't come in, and there being no people in England
to speak of except Coodle and Doodle, the country has been without a
government." He lumped all cabinets and all government offices together,
and made the same game of them all. He created his most staggering
humbugs, his most adorable and incredible idiots, and set them in the
highest thrones of our national system. To many moderate and progressive
people, such a satirist seemed to be insulting heaven and earth, ready
to wreck society for some mad alternative, prepared to pull down St.
Paul's, and on its ruins erect a gory guillotine. Yet as a matter of
fact, this apparent wildness of his came from his being, if anything, a
very moderate politician. It came, not at all from fanaticism, but from
a rather rational detachment. He had the sense to see that the British
Constitution was not democracy, but the British Constitution. It was an
artificial system--like any other, good in some ways, bad in others. His
satire of it sounded wild to those that worshipped it; but his satire of
it arose not from his having any wild enthusiasm against it, but simply
from his not having, like every one else, a wild enthusiasm for it.
Alone, as far as I know, among all the great Englishmen of that age, he
realised the thing that Frenchmen and Irishmen understand. I mean the
fact that popular government is one thing, and representative government
another. He realised that representative government has many minor
disadvantages, one of them being that it is never representative. He
speaks of his "hope to have made every man in England feel something of
the contempt for the House of Commons that I have." He says also these
two things, both of which are wonderfully penetrating as coming from a
good Radical in 1855, for they contain a perfect statement of the peril
in which we now stand, and which may, if it please God, sting us into
avoiding the long vista at the end of which one sees so closely the
dignity and the decay of Venice--

"I am hourly strengthened," he says, "in my old belief, that our
political aristocracy and our tuft-hunting are the death of England. In
all this business I don't see a gleam of hope. As to the popular spirit,
it has come to be so entirely separated from the Parliament and the
Government, and so perfectly apathetic about them both, that I seriously
think it a most portentous sign." And he says also this: "I really am
serious in thinking--and I have given as painful consideration to the
subject as a man with children to live and suffer after him can possibly
give it--that representative government is become altogether a failure
with us, that the English gentilities and subserviences render the
people more unfit for it, and the whole thing has broken down since the
great seventeenth-century time, and has no hope in it."

These are the words of a wise and perhaps melancholy man, but certainly
not of an unduly excited one. It is worth noting, for instance, how much
more directly Dickens goes to the point than Carlyle did, who noted many
of the same evils. But Carlyle fancied that our modern English
government was wordy and long-winded because it was democratic
government. Dickens saw, what is certainly the fact, that it is wordy
and long-winded because it is aristocratic government, the two most
pleasant aristocratic qualities being a love of literature and an
unconsciousness of time. But all this amounts to the same conclusion of
the matter. Frantic figures like Stiggins and Chadband were created out
of the quietude of his religious preference. Wild creations like the
Barnacles and the Bounderbys were produced in a kind of ecstasy of the
ordinary, of the obvious in political justice. His monsters were made
out of his level and his moderation, as the old monsters were made out
of the level sea.

Such was the man of genius we must try to imagine; violently emotional,
yet with a good judgment; pugnacious, but only when he thought himself
oppressed; prone to think himself oppressed, yet not cynical about human
motives. He was a man remarkably hard to understand or to reanimate. He
almost always had reasons for his action; his error was that he always
expounded them. Sometimes his nerve snapped; and then he was mad. Unless
it did so he was quite unusually sane.

Such a rough sketch at least must suffice us in order to summarise his
later years. Those years were occupied, of course, in two main additions
to his previous activities. The first was the series of public readings
and lectures which he now began to give systematically. The second was
his successive editorship of Household Words and of All the Year Round.
He was of a type that enjoys every new function and opportunity. He had
been so many things in his life, a reporter, an actor, a conjuror, a
poet. As he had enjoyed them all, so he enjoyed being a lecturer, and
enjoyed being an editor. It is certain that his audiences (who sometimes
stacked themselves so thick that they lay flat on the platform all round
him) enjoyed his being a lecturer. It is not so certain that the
sub-editors enjoyed his being an editor. But in both connections the
main matter of importance is the effect on the permanent work of Dickens
himself. The readings were important for this reason, that they fixed,
as if by some public and pontifical pronouncement, what was Dickens's
interpretation of Dickens's work. Such a knowledge is mere tradition,
but it is very forcible. My own family has handed on to me, and I shall
probably hand on to the next generation, a definite memory of how
Dickens made his face suddenly like the face of an idiot in
impersonating Mrs. Raddle's servant, Betsy. This does serve one of the
permanent purposes of tradition; it does make it a little more difficult
for any ingenious person to prove that Betsy was meant to be a brilliant
satire on the over-cultivation of the intellect.

As for his relation to his two magazines, it is chiefly important, first
for the admirable things that he wrote in the magazines himself (one
cannot forbear to mention the inimitable monologue of the waiter in
"Somebody's Luggage"), and secondly for the fact that in his capacity of
editor he made one valuable discovery. He discovered Wilkie Collins.
Wilkie Collins was the one man of unmistakable genius who has a certain
affinity with Dickens; an affinity in this respect, that they both
combine in a curious way a modern and cockney and even commonplace
opinion about things with a huge elemental sympathy with strange oracles
and spirits and old night. There were no two men in Mid-Victorian
England, with their top-hats and umbrellas, more typical of its
rationality and dull reform; and there were no two men who could touch
them at a ghost-story. No two men would have more contempt for
superstitions; and no two men could so create the superstitious thrill.
Indeed, our modern mystics make a mistake when they wear long hair or
loose ties to attract the spirits. The elves and the old gods when they
revisit the earth really go straight for a dull top-hat. For it means
simplicity, which the gods love.

Meanwhile his books, appearing from time to time, while as brilliant as
ever, bore witness to that increasing tendency to a more careful and
responsible treatment which we have remarked in the transition which
culminated in "Bleak House." His next important book, "Hard Times,"
strikes an almost unexpected note of severity. The characters are indeed
exaggerated but they are bitterly and deliberately exaggerated; they are
not exaggerated with the old unconscious high spirits of Nicholas
Nickleby or Martin Chuzzlewit. Dickens exaggerates Bounderby because he
really hates him. He exaggerated Pecksniff because he really loved him.
"Hard Times" is not one of the greatest books of Dickens; but it is
perhaps in a sense one of his greatest monuments. It stamps and records
the reality of Dickens's emotion on a great many things that were then
considered unphilosophical grumblings, but which since have swelled into
the immense phenomena of the socialist philosophy. To call Dickens a
Socialist is a wild exaggeration; but the truth and peculiarity of his
position might be expressed thus: that even when everybody thought that
Liberalism meant individualism he was emphatically a Liberal and
emphatically not an individualist. Or the truth might be better still
stated in this manner: that he saw that there was a secret thing, called
humanity, to which both extreme socialism and extreme individualism were
profoundly and inexpressibly indifferent, and that this permanent and
presiding humanity was the thing he happened to understand; he knew that
individualism is nothing and non-individualism is nothing but the
keeping of the commandment of man. He felt, as a novelist should, that
the question is too much discussed as to whether a man is in favour of
this or that scientific philosophy; that there is another question,
whether the scientific philosophy is in favour of the man. That is why
such books as "Hard Times" will remain always a part of the power and
tradition of Dickens. He saw that economic systems are not things like
the stars, but things like the lamp-posts, manifestations of the human
mind, and things to be judged by the human heart.

Thenceforward until the end his books grow consistently graver, and as
it were, more responsible; he improves as an artist if not always as a
creator. "Little Dorrit" (published in 1857) is at once in some ways so
much more subtle and in every way so much more sad than the rest of his
work that it bores Dickensians and especially pleases George Gissing. It
is the only one of the Dickens tales which could please Gissing, not
only by its genius, but also by its atmosphere. There is something a
little modern and a little sad, something also out of tune with the main
trend of Dickens's moral feeling, about the description of the character
of Dorrit as actually and finally weakened by his wasting experiences,
as not lifting any cry above the conquered years. It is but a faint
fleck of shadow. But the illimitable white light of human hopefulness,
of which I spoke at the beginning, is ebbing away, the work of the
revolution is growing weaker everywhere; and the night of
necessitarianism cometh when no man can work. For the first time in a
book by Dickens perhaps we really do feel that the hero is forty-five.
Clennam is certainly very much older than Mr. Pickwick.

This was indeed only a fugitive grey cloud; he went on to breezier
operations. But whatever they were, they still had the note of the later
days. They' have a more cautious craftsmanship; they have a more mellow
and a more mixed human sentiment. Shadows fell upon his page from the
other and sadder figures out of the Victorian decline. A good instance
of this is his next book, "The Tale of Two Cities" (1859). In dignity
and eloquence it almost stands alone among the books by Dickens. But it
also stands alone among his books in this respect, that it is not
entirely by Dickens. It owes its inspiration avowedly to the passionate
and cloudy pages of Carlyle's "French Revolution." And there is
something quite essentially inconsistent between Carlyle's disturbed and
half-sceptical transcendentalism and the original school and spirit to
which Dickens belonged, the lucid and laughing decisiveness of the old
convinced and contented Radicalism. Hence the genius of Dickens cannot
save him, just as the great genius of Carlyle could not save him from
making a picture of the French Revolution, which was delicately and yet
deeply erroneous. Both tend too much to represent it as a mere elemental
outbreak of hunger or vengeance; they do not see enough that it was a
war for intellectual principles, even for intellectual platitudes. We,
the modern English, cannot easily understand the French Revolution,
because we cannot easily understand the idea of bloody battle for pure
common sense; we cannot understand common sense in arms and conquering.
In modern England common sense appears to mean putting up with existing
conditions. For us a practical politician really means a man who can be
thoroughly trusted to do nothing at all; that is where his practicality
comes in. The French feeling--the feeling at the back of the
Revolution--was that the more sensible a man was, the more you must look
out for slaughter.

In all the imitators of Carlyle, including Dickens, there is an obscure
sentiment that the thing for which the Frenchmen died must have been
something new and queer, a paradox, a strange idolatry. But when such
blood ran in the streets, it was for the sake of a truism; when those
cities were shaken to their foundations, they were shaken to their
foundations by a truism.

I have mentioned this historical matter because it illustrates these
later and more mingled influences which at once improve and as it were
perplex the later work of Dickens. For Dickens had in his original
mental composition capacities for understanding this cheery and sensible
element in the French Revolution far better than Carlyle. The French
Revolution was, among other things, French, and, so far as that goes,
could never have a precise counterpart in so jolly and autochthonous an
Englishman as Charles Dickens. But there was a great deal of the actual
and unbroken tradition of the Revolution itself in his early radical
indictments; in his denunciation of the Fleet Prison there was a great
deal of the capture of the Bastille. There was, above all, a certain
reasonable impatience which was the essence of the old Republican, and
which is quite unknown to the Revolutionist in modern Europe. The old
Radical did not feel exactly that he was "in revolt"; he felt if
anything that a number of idiotic institutions had revolted against
reason and against him. Dickens, I say, had the revolutionary idea,
though an English form of it, by clear and conscious inheritance;
Carlyle had to rediscover the Revolution by a violence of genius and
vision. If Dickens, then, took from Carlyle (as he said he did) his
image of the Revolution, it does certainly mean that he had forgotten
something of his own youth and come under the more complex influences of
the end of the nineteenth century. His old hilarious and sentimental
view of human nature seems for a moment dimmed in "Little Dorrit." His
old political simplicity has been slightly disturbed by Carlyle.

I repeat that this graver note is varied, but it remains a graver note.
We see it struck, I think, with particular and remarkable success in
"Great Expectations" (1860-61). This fine story is told with a
consistency and quietude of individuality which is rare in Dickens. But
so far had he travelled along the road of a heavier reality, that he
even intended to give the tale an unhappy ending, making Pip lose
Estella for ever; and he was only dissuaded from it by the robust
romanticism of Bulwer Lytton. But the best part of the tale--the account
of the vacillations of the hero between the humble life to which he owes
everything, and the gorgeous life from which he expects something,
touches a very true and somewhat tragic part of morals; for the great
paradox of morality (the paradox to which only the religions have given
an adequate expression) is that the very vilest kind of fault is exactly
the most easy kind. We read in books and ballads about the wild fellow
who might kill a man or smoke opium, but who would never stoop to lying
or cowardice or to "anything mean." But for actual human beings opium
and slaughter have only occasional charm; the permanent human temptation
is the temptation to be mean. The one standing probability is the
probability of becoming a cowardly hypocrite. The circle of the traitors
is the lowest of the abyss, and it is also the easiest to fall into.
That is one of the ringing realities of the Bible, that it does not make
its great men commit grand sins; it makes its great men (such as David
and St. Peter) commit small sins and behave like sneaks.

Dickens has dealt with this easy descent of desertion, this silent
treason, with remarkable accuracy in the account of the indecisions of
Pip. It contains a good suggestion of that weak romance which is the
root of all snobbishness: that the mystery which belongs to patrician
life excites us more than the open, even the indecent virtues of the
humble. Pip is keener about Miss Havisham, who may mean well by him,
than about Joe Gargery, who evidently does. All this is very strong and
wholesome; but it is still a little stern. "Our Mutual Friend," 1864,
brings us back a little into his merrier and more normal manner; some of
the satire, such as that upon Veneering's election, is in the best of
his old style, so airy and fanciful, yet hitting so suddenly and so
hard. But even here we find the fuller and more serious treatment of
psychology; notably in the two facts that he creates a really human
villain, Bradley Headstone, and also one whom we might call a really
human hero, Eugene, if it were not that he is much too human to be
called a hero at all. It has been said (invariably by cads) that Dickens
never described a gentleman; it is like saying that he never described a
zebra. A gentleman is a very rare animal among human creatures, and to
people like Dickens, interested in all humanity, not a supremely
important one. But in Eugene Wrayburne he does, whether consciously or
not, turn that accusation with a vengeance. For he not only describes a
gentleman but describes the inner weakness and peril that belong to a
gentleman, the devil that is always rending the entrails of an idle and
agreeable man. In Eugene's purposeless pursuit of Lizzie Hexam, in his
yet more purposeless torturing of Bradley Headstone, the author has
marvellously realised that singular empty obstinacy that drives the
whims and pleasures of a leisured class. He sees that there is nothing
that such a man more stubbornly adheres to, than the thing that he does
not particularly want to do. We are still in serious psychology.

His last book represents yet another new departure, dividing him from
the chaotic Dickens of days long before. His last book is not merely an
attempt to improve his power of construction in a story: it is an
attempt to rely entirely on that power of construction. It not only has
a plot, it is a plot. "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," 1870, was in such a
sense, perhaps the most ambitious book that Dickens ever attempted. It
is, as every one knows, a detective story, and certainly a very
successful one, as is attested by the tumult of discussion as to its
proper solution. In this, quite apart from its unfinished state, it
stands, I think, alone among the author's works. Elsewhere, if he
introduced a mystery, he seldom took the trouble to make it very
mysterious. "Bleak House" is finished, but if it were only half finished
I think anyone would guess that Lady Dedlock and Nemo had sinned in the
past. "Edwin Drood" is not finished; for in the very middle of it
Dickens died.

He had altogether overstrained himself in a last lecturing tour in
America. He was a man in whom any serious malady would naturally make
very rapid strides; for he had the temper of an irrational invalid. I
have said before that there was in his curious character something that
was feminine. Certainly there was nothing more entirely feminine than
this, that he worked because he was tired. Fatigue bred in him a false
and feverish industry, and his case increased, like the case of a man
who drinks to cure the effects of drink. He died in 1870 and the whole
nation mourned him as no public man has ever been mourned; for prime
ministers and princes were private persons compared with Dickens. He had
been a great popular king, like a king of some more primal age whom his
people could come and see, giving judgment under an oak tree. He had in
essence held great audiences of millions, and made proclamations to more
than one of the nations of the earth. His obvious omnipresence in every
part of public life was like the omnipresence of the sovereign. His
secret omnipresence in every house and hut of private life was more like
the omnipresence of a deity. Compared with that popular leadership all
the fusses of the last forty years are diversions in idleness. Compared
with such a case as his it may be said that we play with our
politicians, and manage to endure our authors. We shall never have again
such a popularity until we have again a people.

He left behind him this almost sombre fragment, "The Mystery of Edwin
Drood." As one turns it over the tragic element of its truncation
mingles somewhat with an element of tragedy in the thing itself; the
passionate and predestined Landless, or the half maniacal Jasper carving
devils out of his own heart. The workmanship of it is very fine; the
right hand has not only not lost, but is still gaining its cunning. But
as we turn the now enigmatic pages the thought creeps into us again
which I have suggested earlier, and which is never far off the mind of a
true lover of Dickens. Had he lost or gained by the growth of technique
and probability in his later work? His later characters were more like
men; but were not his earlier characters more like immortals? He has
become able to perform a social scene so that it is possible at any
rate; but where is that Dickens who once performed the impossible? Where
is that young poet who created such majors and architects as Nature will
never dare to create? Dickens learnt to describe daily life as Thackeray
and Jane Austen could describe it; but Thackeray could not have thought
such a thought as Crummles; and it is painful to think of Miss Austen
attempting to imagine Mantalini. After all, we feel there are many able
novelists; but there is only one Dickens, and whither has he fled?

He was alive to the end. And in this last dark and secretive story of
Edwin Drood he makes one splendid and staggering appearance, like a
magician saying farewell to mankind. In the centre of this otherwise
reasonable and rather melancholy book, this grey story of a good
clergyman and the quiet Cloisterham Towers, Dickens has calmly inserted
one entirely delightful and entirely insane passage. I mean the frantic
and inconceivable epitaph of Mrs. Sapsea, that which describes her as
"the reverential wife" of Thomas Sapsea, speaks of her consistency in
"looking up to him," and ends with the words, spaced out so admirably on
the tombstone, "Stranger pause. And ask thyself this question, Canst
thou do likewise? If not, with a blush retire." Not the wildest tale in
Pickwick contains such an impossibility as that; Dickens dare scarcely
have introduced it, even as one of Jingle's lies. In no human churchyard
will you find that invaluable tombstone; indeed, you could scarcely find
it in any world where there are churchyards. You could scarcely have
such immortal folly as that in a world where there is also death. Mr.
Sapsea is one of the golden things stored up for us in a better world.

Yes, there were many other Dickenses: a clever Dickens, an industrious
Dickens, a public-spirited Dickens; but this was the great one. This
last outbreak of insane humour reminds us wherein lay his power and his
supremacy. The praise of such beatific buffoonery should be the final
praise, the ultimate word in his honour. The wild epitaph of Mrs. Sapsea
should be the serious epitaph of Dickens.


All criticism tends too much to become criticism of criticism; and the
reason is very evident. It is that criticism of creation is so very
staggering a thing. We see this in the difficulty of criticising any
artistic creation. We see it again in the difficulty of criticising that
creation which is spelt with a capital C. The pessimists who attack the
Universe are always under this disadvantage. They have an exhilarating
consciousness that they could make the sun and moon better; but they
also have the depressing consciousness that they could not make the sun
and moon at all. A man looking at a hippopotamus may sometimes be
tempted to regard a hippopotamus as an enormous mistake; but he is also
bound to confess that a fortunate inferiority prevents him personally
from making such mistakes. It is neither a blasphemy nor an exaggeration
to say that we feel something of the same difficulty in judging of the
very creative element in human literature. And this is the first and
last dignity of Dickens; that he was a creator. He did not point out
things, he made them. We may disapprove of Mr. Guppy, but we recognise
him as a creation flung down like a miracle out of an upper sphere; we
can pull him to pieces, but we could not have put him together. We can
destroy Mrs. Gamp in our wrath, but we could not have made her in our
joy. Under this disadvantage any book about Dickens must definitely
labour. Real primary creation (such as the sun or the birth of a child)
calls forth not criticism, not appreciation, but a kind of incoherent
gratitude. This is why most hymns about God are bad; and this is why
most eulogies on Dickens are bad. The eulogists of the divine and of the
human creator are alike inclined to appear sentimentalists because they
are talking about something as very real. In the same way love-letters
always sound florid and artificial because they are about something

Any chapter such as this chapter must therefore in a sense be
inadequate. There is no way of dealing properly with the ultimate
greatness of Dickens, except by offering sacrifice to him as a god; and
this is opposed to the etiquette of our time. But something can perhaps
be done in the way of suggesting what was the quality of this creation.
But even in considering its quality we ought to remember that quality is
not the whole question. One of the godlike things about Dickens is his
quantity, his quantity as such, the enormous output, the incredible
fecundity of his invention, I have said a moment ago that not one of us
could have invented Mr. Guppy. But even if we could have stolen Mr.
Guppy from Dickens we have still to confront the fact that Dickens would
have been able to invent another quite inconceivable character to take
his place. Perhaps we could have created Mr. Guppy; but the effort would
certainly have exhausted us; we should be ever afterwards wheeled about
in a bath-chair at Bournemouth.

Nevertheless there is something that is worth saying about the quality
of Dickens. At the very beginning of this review I remarked that the
reader must be in a mood, at least, of democracy. To some it may have
sounded irrelevant; but the Revolution was as much behind all the books
of the nineteenth century as the Catholic religion (let us say) was
behind all the colours and carving of the Middle Ages. Another great
name of the nineteenth century will afford an evidence of this; and will
also bring us most sharply to the problem of the literary quality of

Of all these nineteenth-century writers there is none, in the noblest
sense, more democratic than Walter Scott. As this may be disputed, and
as it is relevant, I will expand the remark. There are two rooted
spiritual realities out of which grow all kinds of democratic conception
or sentiment of human equality. There are two things in which all men
are manifestly and unmistakably equal. They are not equally clever or
equally muscular or equally fat, as the sages of the modern reaction
(with piercing insight) perceive. But this is a spiritual certainty,
that all men are tragic. And this, again, is an equally sublime
spiritual certainty, that all men are comic. No special and private
sorrow can be so dreadful as the fact of having to die. And no freak or
deformity can be so funny as the mere fact of having two legs. Every man
is important if he loses his life; and every man is funny if he loses
his hat, and has to run after it. And the universal test everywhere of
whether a thing is popular, of the people, is whether it employs
vigorously these extremes of the tragic and the comic. Shelley, for
instance, was an aristocrat, if ever there was one in this world. He was
a Republican, but he was not a democrat: in his poetry there is every
perfect quality except this pungent and popular stab. For the tragic and
the comic you must go, say, to Burns, a poor man. And all over the
world, the folk literature, the popular literature, is the same. It
consists of very dignified sorrow and very undignified fun. Its sad
tales are of broken hearts; its happy tales are of broken heads.

These, I say, are two roots of democratic reality. But they have in more
civilised literature, a more civilised embodiment of form. In literature
such as that of the nineteenth century the two elements appear somewhat
thus. Tragedy becomes a profound sense of human dignity. The other and
jollier element becomes a delighted sense of human variety. The first
supports equality by saying that all men are equally sublime. The second
supports equality by observing that all men are equally interesting.

In this democratic aspect of the interest and variety of all men, there
is, of course, no democrat so great as Dickens. But in the other matter,
in the idea of the dignity of all men, I repeat that there is no
democrat so great as Scott. This fact, which is the moral and enduring
magnificence of Scott, has been astonishingly overlooked. His rich and
dramatic effects are gained in almost every case by some grotesque or
beggarly figure rising into a human pride and rhetoric. The common man,
in the sense of the paltry man, becomes the common man in the sense of
the universal man. He declares his humanity. For the meanest of all the
modernities has been the notion that the heroic is an oddity or
variation, and that the things that unite us are merely flat or foul.
The common things are terrible and startling, death, for instance, and
first love: the things that are common are the things that are not
commonplace. Into such high and central passions the comic Scott
character will suddenly rise. Remember the firm and almost stately
answer of the preposterous Nicol Jarvie when Helen Macgregor seeks to
browbeat him into condoning lawlessness and breaking his bourgeois
decency. That speech is a great monument of the middle class. Molière
made M. Jourdain talk prose; but Scott made him talk poetry. Think of
the rising and rousing voice of the dull and gluttonous Athelstane when
he answers and overwhelms De Bracy. Think of the proud appeal of the old
beggar in the "Antiquary" when he rebukes the duellists. Scott was fond
of describing kings in disguise. But all his characters are kings in
disguise. He was, with all his errors, profoundly possessed with the old
religious conception, the only possible democratic basis, the idea that
man himself is a king in disguise.

In all this Scott, though a Royalist and a Tory, had in the strangest
way, the heart of the Revolution. For instance, he regarded rhetoric,
the art of the orator, as the immediate weapon of the oppressed. All his
poor men make grand speeches, as they did in the Jacobin Club, which
Scott would have so much detested. And it is odd to reflect that he was,
as an author, giving free speech to fictitious rebels while he was, as a
stupid politician, denying it to real ones. But the point for us here is
this that all this popular sympathy of his rests on the graver basis, on
the dark dignity of man. "Can you find no way?" asks Sir Arthur Wardour
of the beggar when they are cut off by the tide. "I'll give you a
farm...I'll make you rich...." "Our riches will soon be equal," says
the beggar, and looks out across the advancing sea.

Now, I have dwelt on this strong point of Scott because it is the best
illustration of the one weak point of Dickens. Dickens had little or
none of this sense of the concealed sublimity of every separate man.
Dickens's sense of democracy was entirely of the other kind; it rested
on the other of the two supports of which I have spoken. It rested on
the sense that all men were wildly interesting and wildly varied. When a
Dickens character becomes excited he becomes more and more himself. He
does not, like the Scott beggar, turn more and more into man. As he
rises he grows more and more into a gargoyle or grotesque. He does not,
like the fine speaker in Scott, grow more classical as he grows more
passionate, more universal as he grows more intense. The thing can only
be illustrated by a special case. Dickens did more than once, of course,
make one of his quaint or humble characters assert himself in a serious
crisis or defy the powerful. There is, for instance, the quite admirable
scene in which Susan Nipper (one of the greatest of Dickens's
achievements) faces and rebukes Mr. Dombey. But it is still true (and
quite appropriate in its own place and manner) that Susan Nipper remains
a purely comic character throughout her speech, and even grows more
comic as she goes on. She is more serious than usual in her meaning, but
not more serious in her style. Dickens keeps the natural diction of
Nipper, but makes her grow more Nipperish as she grows more warm. But
Scott keeps the natural diction of Baillie Jarvie, but insensibly sobers
and uplifts the style until it reaches a plain and appropriate
eloquence. This plain and appropriate eloquence was (except in a few
places at the end of "Pickwick") almost unknown to Dickens. Whenever he
made comic characters talk sentiment comically, as in the instance of
Susan, it was a success, but an avowedly extravagant success. Whenever
he made comic characters talk sentiment seriously it was an extravagant
failure. Humour was his medium; his only way of approaching emotion.
Wherever you do not get humour, you get unconscious humour.

As I have said elsewhere in this book Dickens was deeply and radically
English; the most English of our great writers. And there is something
very English in this contentment with a grotesque democracy; and in this
absence of the eloquence and elevation of Scott. The English democracy
is the most humorous democracy in the world. The Scotch democracy is the
most dignified, while the whole abandon and satiric genius of the
English populace come from its being quite undignified in every way. A
comparison of the two types might be found, for instance, by putting a
Scotch Labour Leader like Mr. Keir Hardie alongside an English Labour
Leader like Mr. Will Crooks. Both are good men, honest, and responsible
and compassionate; but we can feel that the Scotchman carries himself
seriously and universally, the Englishman personally and with an
obstinate humour. Mr. Keir Hardie wishes to hold up his head as Man, Mr.
Crooks wishes to follow his nose as Crooks. Mr. Keir Hardie is very like
a poor man in Walter Scott. Mr. Crooks is very like a poor man in

Dickens then had this English feeling of a grotesque democracy. By that
is more properly meant a vastly varying democracy. The intoxicating
variety of men--that was his vision and conception of human brotherhood.
And certainly it is a great part of human brotherhood. In one sense
things can only be equal if they are entirely different. Thus, for
instance, people talk with a quite astonishing gravity about the
inequality or equality of the sexes; as if there could possibly be any
inequality between a lock and a key. Wherever there is no element of
variety, wherever all the items literally have an identical aim, there
is at once and of necessity inequality. A woman is only inferior to man
in the matter of being not so manly; she is inferior in nothing else.
Man is inferior to woman in so far as he is not a woman; there is no
other reason. And the same applies in some degree to all genuine
differences. It is a great mistake to suppose that love unites and
unifies men. Love diversifies them, because love is directed towards
individuality. The thing that really unites men and makes them like to
each other is hatred. Thus, for instance, the more we love Germany the
more pleased we shall be that Germany should be something different from
ourselves, should keep her own ritual and conviviality and we ours. But
the more we hate Germany the more we shall copy German guns and German
fortifications in order to be armed against Germany. The more modern
nations detest each other the more meekly they follow each other; for
all competition is in its nature only a furious plagiarism. As
competition means always similarity, it is equally true that similarity
always means inequality. If everything is trying to be green, some
things will be greener than others; but there is an immortal and
indestructible equality between green and red. Something of the same
kind of irrefutable equality exists between the violent and varying
creations of such a writer as Dickens. They are all equally ecstatic
fulfilments of a separate line of development. It would be hard to say
that there could be any comparison or inequality, let us say between Mr.
Sapsea and Mr. Elijah Pogram. They are both in the same difficulty; they
can neither of them contrive to exist in this world; they are both too
big for the gate of birth.

Of the high virtue of this variation I shall speak more adequately in a
moment; but certainly this love of mere variation (which I have
contrasted with the classicism of Scott) is the only intelligent
statement of the common case against the exaggeration of Dickens. This
is the meaning, the only sane or endurable meaning, which people have in
their minds when they say that Dickens is a mere caricaturist. They do
not mean merely that Uncle Pumblechook does not exist. A fictitious
character ought not to be a person who exists; he ought to be an
entirely new combination, an addition to the creatures already existing
on the earth. They do not mean that Uncle Pumblechook could not exist;
for on that obviously they can have no knowledge whatever. They do not
mean that Uncle Pumblechook's utterances are selected and arranged so as
to bring out his essential Pumblechookery; to say that is simply to say
that he occurs in a work of art. But what they do really mean is this,
and there is an element of truth in it. They mean that Dickens nowhere
makes the reader feel that Pumblechook has any kind of fundamental human
dignity at all. It is nowhere suggested that Pumblechook will some day
die. He is felt rather as one of the idle and evil fairies, who are
innocuous and yet malignant, and who live for ever because they never
really live at all. This dehumanised vitality, this fantasy, this
irresponsibility of creation, does in some sense truly belong to
Dickens. It is the lower side of his hilarious human variety. But now we
come to the higher side of his human variety, and it is far more
difficult to state.

Mr. George Gissing, from the point of view of the passing
intellectualism of our day, has made (among his many wise tributes to
Dickens) a characteristic complaint about him. He has said that Dickens,
with all his undoubted sympathy for the lower classes, never made a
working man, a poor man, specifically and highly intellectual. An
exception does exist, which he must at least have realised--a wit, a
diplomatist, a great philosopher. I mean, of course, Mr. Weller.
Broadly, however, the accusation has a truth, though it is a truth that
Mr. Gissing did not grasp in its entirety. It is not only true that
Dickens seldom made a poor character what we call intellectual; it is
also true that he seldom made any character what we call intellectual.
Intellectualism was not at all present to his imagination. What was
present to his imagination was character--a thing which is not only more
important than intellect, but is also much more entertaining. When some
English moralists write about the importance of having character, they
appear to mean only the importance of having a dull character. But
character is brighter than wit, and much more complex than sophistry.
The whole superiority of the democracy of Dickens over the democracy of
such a man as Gissing lies exactly in the fact that Gissing would have
liked to prove that poor men could instruct themselves and could
instruct others. It was of final importance to Dickens that poor men
could amuse themselves and could amuse him. He troubled little about the
mere education of that life; he declared two essential things about
it--that it was laughable, and that it was livable. The humble
characters of Dickens do not amuse each other with epigrams; they amuse
each other with themselves. The present that each man brings in hand is
his own incredible personality. In the most sacred sense, and in the
most literal sense of the phrase, he "gives himself away." Now, the man
who gives himself away does the last act of generosity; he is like a
martyr, a lover, or a monk. But he is also almost certainly what we
commonly call a fool.

The key of the great characters of Dickens is that they are all great
fools. There is the same difference between a great fool and a small
fool as there is between a great poet and a small poet. The great fool
is a being who is above wisdom rather than below it. That element of
greatness of which I spoke at the beginning of this book is nowhere more
clearly indicated than in such characters. A man can be entirely great
while he is entirely foolish. We see this in the epic heroes, such as
Achilles. Nay, a man can be entirely great because he is entirely
foolish. We see this in all the great comic characters of all the great
comic writers of whom Dickens was the last. Bottom the Weaver is great
because he is foolish; Mr. Toots is great because he is foolish. The
thing I mean can be observed, for instance, in innumerable actual
characters. Which of us has not known, for instance, a great rustic?--a
character so incurably characteristic that he seemed to break through
all canons about cleverness or stupidity; we do not know whether he is
an enormous idiot or an enormous philosopher; we know only that he is
enormous, like a hill. These great, grotesque characters are almost
entirely to be found where Dickens found them--among the poorer classes.
The gentry only attain this greatness by going slightly mad. But who has
not known an unfathomably personal old nurse? Who has not known an
abysmal butler? The truth is that our public life consists almost
exclusively of small men. Our public men are small because they have to
prove that they are in the commonplace interpretation clever, because
they have to pass examinations, to learn codes of manners, to imitate a
fixed type. It is in private life that we find the great characters.
They are too great to get into the public world. It is easier for a
camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a great man to enter
into the kingdoms of the earth. The truly great and gorgeous
personality, he who talks as no one else could talk and feels with an
elementary fire, you will never find this man on any cabinet bench, in
any literary circle, at any society dinner. Least of all will you find
him in artistic society; he is utterly unknown in Bohemia. He is more
than clever, he is amusing. He is more than successful, he is alive. You
will find him stranded here and there in all sorts of unknown positions,
almost always in unsuccessful positions. You will find him adrift as an
impecunious commercial traveller like Micawber. You will find him but
one of a batch of silly clerks, like Swiveller. You will find him as an
unsuccessful actor, like Crummles. You will find him as an unsuccessful
doctor, like Sawyer. But you will always find this rich and reeking
personality where Dickens found it--among the poor. For the glory of
this world is a very small and priggish affair, and these men are too
large to get in line with it. They are too strong to conquer.

It is impossible to do justice to these figures because the essential of
them is their multiplicity. The whole point of Dickens is that he not
only made them, but made them by myriads; that he stamped his foot, and
armies came out of the earth. But let us, for the sake of showing the
true Dickens method, take one of them, a very sublime one, Toots. If
affords a good example of the real work of Dickens, which was the
revealing of a certain grotesque greatness inside an obscure and even
unattractive type. It reveals the great paradox of all spiritual things;
that the inside is always larger than the outside.

Toots is a type that we all know as well as we know chimney-pots. And of
all conceivable human figures he is apparently the most futile and the
most dull. He is the blockhead who hangs on at a private school,
overgrown and under-developed. He is always backward in his lessons, but
forward in certain cheap ways of the world; he can smoke before he can
spell. Toots is a perfect and pungent picture of the wretched youth.
Toots has, as this youth always has, a little money of his own; enough
to waste in a semi-dissipation he does not enjoy, and in a gaping regard
for sports in which he could not possibly excel. Toots has, as this
youth always has, bits of surreptitious finery, in his case the
incomparable ring. In Toots, above all, is exactly rendered the central
and most startling contradiction; the contrast between a jauntiness and
a certain impudence of the attire, with the profound shame and
sheepishness of the visage and the character. In him, too, is expressed
the larger contrast between the external gaiety of such a lad's
occupations, and the infinite, disconsolate sadness of his empty eyes.
This is Toots; we know him, we pity him, and we avoid him.
Schoolmasters deal with him in despair or in a heart-breaking patience.
His family is vague about him. His low-class hangers-on (like the Game
Chicken) lead him by the nose. The very parasites that live on him
despise him. But Dickens does not despise him. Without denying one of
the dreary details which make us avoid the man, Dickens makes him a man
whom we long to meet. He does not gloss over one of his dismal
deficiencies, but he makes them seem suddenly like violent virtues that
we would go to the world's end to see. Without altering one fact, he
manages to alter the whole atmosphere, the whole universe of Toots. He
makes us not only like, but love, not only love, but reverence this
little dunce and cad. The power to do this is a power truly and
literally to be called divine.

For this is the very wholesome point. Dickens does not alter Toots in
any vital point. The thing he does alter is us. He makes us lively where
we were bored, kind where we were cruel, and above all, free for an
universal human laughter where we were cramped in a small competition
about that sad and solemn tiling, the intellect. His enthusiasm fills
us, as does the love of God, with a glorious shame; after all, he has
only found in Toots what we might have found for ourselves. He has only
made us as much interested in Toots as Toots is in himself. He does not
alter the proportions of Toots; he alters only the scale; we seem as if
we were staring at a rat risen to the stature of an elephant. Hitherto
we have passed him by; now we feel that nothing could induce us to pass
him by; that is the nearest way of putting the truth. He has not been
whitewashed in the least; he has not been depicted as any cleverer than
he is. He has been turned from a small fool into a great fool. We know
Toots is not clever; but we are not inclined to quarrel with Toots
because he is not clever. We are more likely to quarrel with cleverness
because it is not Toots. All the examinations he could not pass, all the
schools he could not enter, all the temporary tests of brain and culture
which surrounded him shall pass, and Toots shall remain like a mountain.

It may be noticed that the great artists always choose great fools
rather than great intellectuals to embody humanity. Hamlet does express
the aesthetic dreams and the bewilderments of the intellect; but Bottom
the Weaver expresses them much better. In the same manner Toots
expresses certain permanent dignities in human nature more than any of
Dickens's more dignified characters can do it. For instance, Toots
expresses admirably the enduring fear, which is the very essence of
falling in love. When Toots is invited by Florence to come in, when he
longs to come in, but still stays out, he is embodying a sort of insane
and perverse humility which is elementary in the lover.

There is an apostolic injunction to suffer fools gladly. We always lay
the stress on the word "suffer," and interpret the passage as one urging
resignation. It might be better, perhaps, to lay the stress upon the
word "gladly," and make our familiarity with fools a delight, and almost
a dissipation. Nor is it necessary that our pleasure in fools (or at
least in great and godlike fools) should be merely satiric or cruel. The
great fool is he in whom we cannot tell which is the conscious and which
the unconscious humour; we laugh with him and laugh at him at the same
time. An obvious instance is that of ordinary and happy marriage. A man
and a woman cannot live together without having against each other a
kind of everlasting joke. Each has discovered that the other is a fool,
but a great fool. This largeness, this grossness and gorgeousness of
folly is the thing which we all find about those with whom we are in
intimate contact; and it is the one enduring basis of affection, and
even of respect. When we know an individual named Tomkins, we know that
he has succeeded where all others have failed; he has succeeded in being
Tomkins. Just so Mr. Toots succeeded; he was defeated in all scholastic
examinations, but he was the victor in that visionary battle in which
unknown competitors vainly tried to be Toots.

If we are to look for lessons, here at least is the last and deepest
lesson of Dickens. It is in our own daily life that we are to look for
the portents and the prodigies. This is the truth, not merely of the
fixed figures of our life; the wife, the husband, the fool that fills
the sky. It is true of the whole stream and substance of our daily
experience; every instant we reject a great fool merely because he is
foolish. Every day we neglect Tootses and Swivellers, Guppys and
Joblings, Simmerys and Flashers. Every day we lose the last sight of
Jobling and Chuckster, the Analytical Chemist, or the Marchioness. Every
day we are missing a monster whom we might easily love, and an imbecile
whom we should certainly admire.

This is the real gospel of Dickens; the inexhaustible opportunities
offered by the liberty and the variety of man. Compared with this life,
all public life, all fame, all wisdom, is by its nature cramped and cold
and small. For on that defined and lighted public stage men are of
necessity forced to profess one set of accomplishments, to rise to one
rigid standard. It is the utterly unknown people who can grow in all
directions like an exuberant tree. It is in our interior lives that we
find that people are too much themselves. It is in our private life that
we find them swelling into the enormous contours, and taking on the
colours of caricature. Many of us live publicly with featureless public
puppets, images of the small public abstractions. It is when we pass our
own private gate, and open our own secret door, that we step into the
land of the giants.


In one of the plays of the decadent period, an intellectual expressed
the atmosphere of his epoch by referring to Dickens as "a vulgar
optimist." I have in a previous chapter suggested something of the real
strangeness of such a term. After all, the main matter of astonishment
(or rather of admiration) is that optimism should be vulgar. In a world
in which physical distress is almost the common lot, we actually
complain that happiness is too common. In a world in which the majority
is physically miserable we actually complain of the sameness of praise;
we are bored with the abundance of approval. When we consider what the
conditions of the vulgar really are, it is difficult to imagine a
stranger or more splendid tribute to humanity than such a phrase as
vulgar optimism. It is as if one spoke of "vulgar martyrdom" or "common

First, however, let it be said frankly that there is a foundation for
the charge against Dickens which is implied in the phrase about vulgar
optimism. It does not concern itself with Dickens's confidence in the
value of existence and the intrinsic victory of virtue; that is not
optimism but religion. It is not concerned with his habit of making
bright occasions bright, and happy stories happy; that is not optimism,
but literature. Nor is it concerned even with his peculiar genius for
the description of an almost bloated joviality; that is not optimism, it
is simply Dickens. With all these higher variations of optimism I deal
elsewhere. But over and above all these there is a real sense in which
Dickens laid himself open to the accusation of a vulgar optimism, and I
desire to put the admission of this first, before the discussion that
follows. Dickens did have a disposition to make his characters at all
costs happy, or, to speak more strictly, he had a disposition to make
them comfortable rather than happy. He had a sort of literary
hospitality; he too often treated his characters as if they were his
guests. From a host is always expected, and always ought to be expected
as long as human civilisation is healthy, a strictly physical
benevolence, if you will, a kind of coarse benevolence. Food and fire
and such things should always be the symbols of the man entertaining
men; because they are things which all men beyond question have in
common. But something more than this is needed from a man who is
imagining and making men, the artist, the man who is not receiving men,
but rather sending them forth.

As I shall remark in a moment in the matter of the Dickens villains, it
is not true that he made every one thus at home. But he did do it to a
certain wide class of incongruous characters, he did it to all who had
been in any way unfortunate. It had needed its origin (a very beautiful
origin) in his realisation of how much a little pleasure was to such
people. He knew well that the greatest happiness that has been known
since Eden is the happiness of the unhappy. So far he is admirable. And
as long as he was describing the ecstasy of the poor, the borderland
between pain and pleasure, he was at his highest. Nothing that has ever
been written about human delights, no Earthly Paradise, no Utopia has
ever come so near the quick nerve of happiness as his descriptions of
the rare extravagances of the poor; such an admirable description, for
instance, as that of Kit Nubbles taking his family to the theatre. For
he seizes on the real source of the whole pleasure; a holy fear. Kit
tells the waiter to bring the beer. And the waiter, instead of saying,
"Did you address that language to me," said, "Pot of beer, sir; yes,
sir." That internal and quivering humility of Kit is the only way to
enjoy life or banquets; and the fear of the waiter is the beginning of
dining. People in this mood "take their pleasures sadly"; which is the
only way of taking them at all.

So far Dickens is supremely right. As long as he was dealing with such
penury and such festivity his touch was almost invariably sure. But when
he came to more difficult cases, to people who for one reason or another
could not be cured with one good dinner, he did develop this other evil,
this genuinely vulgar optimism of which I speak. And the mark of it is
this: that he gave the characters a comfort that had no especial
connection with themselves; he threw comfort at them like alms. There
are cases at the end of his stories in which his kindness to his
characters is a careless and insolent kindness. He loses his real
charity and adopts the charity of the Charity Organisation Society; the
charity that is not kind, the charity that is puffed up, and that does
behave itself unseemly. At the end of some of his stories he deals out
his characters a kind of out-door relief. I will give two instances. The
whole meaning of the character of Mr. Micawber is that a man can be
always almost rich by constantly expecting riches. The lesson is a
really important one in our sweeping modern sociology. We talk of the
man whose life is a failure; but Micawber's life never is a failure,
because it is always a crisis. We think constantly of the man who if he
looked back would see that his existence was unsuccessful; but Micawber
never does look back; he always looks forward, because the bailiff is
coming to-morrow. You cannot say he is defeated, for his absurd battle
never ends; he cannot despair of life, for he is so much occupied in
living. All this is of immense importance in the understanding of the
poor; it is worth all the slum novelists that ever insulted democracy.
But how did it happen that the man who created this Micawber could
pension him off at the end of the story and make him a successful
colonial mayor? Micawber never did succeed, never ought to succeed; his
kingdom is not of this world. But this is an excellent instance of
Dickens's disposition to make his characters grossly and incongruously
comfortable. There is another instance in the same book. Dora, the first
wife of David Copperfield, is a very genuine and amusing figure; she has
certainly far more force of character than Agnes. She represents the
infinite and divine irrationality of the human heart. What possessed
Dickens to make her such a dehumanised prig as to recommend her husband
to marry another woman? One could easily respect a husband who after
time and development made such a marriage, but surely not a wife who
desired it. If Dora had died hating Agnes we should know that everything
was right, and that God would reconcile the irreconcilable. When Dora
dies recommending Agnes we know that everything is wrong, at least if
hypocrisy and artificiality and moral vulgarity are wrong. There, again,
Dickens yields to a mere desire to give comfort. He wishes to pile up
pillows round Dora; and he smothers her with them, like Othello.

This is the real vulgar optimism of Dickens: it does exist; and I have
deliberately put it first. Let us admit that Dickens's mind was far too
much filled with pictures of satisfaction and cosiness and repose. Let
us admit that he thought principally of the pleasures of the oppressed
classes; let us admit that it hardly cost him any artistic pang to make
out human beings as much happier than they are. Let us admit all this,
and a curious fact remains.

For it was this too easily contented Dickens, this man with cushions at
his back and (it sometimes seems) cotton wool in his ears; it was this
happy dreamer, this vulgar optimist who alone of modern writers did
really destroy some of the wrongs he hated and bring about some of the
reforms he desired. Dickens did help to pull down the debtors' prisons;
and if he was too much of an optimist he was quite enough of a
destroyer. Dickens did drive Squeers out of his Yorkshire den; and if
Dickens was too contented, it was more than Squeers was. Dickens did
leave his mark on parochialism, on nursing, on funerals, on public
executions, on workhouses, on the Court of Chancery. These things were
altered; they are different. It may be that such reforms are not
adequate remedies; that is another question altogether. The next
sociologists may think these old Radical reforms quite narrow or
accidental. But such as they were, the old Radicals got them done; and
the new sociologists cannot get anything done at all. And in the
practical doing of them Dickens played a solid and quite demonstrable
part; that is the plain matter that concerns us here. If Dickens was an
optimist he was an uncommonly active and useful kind of optimist. If
Dickens was a sentimentalist he was a very practical sentimentalist.

And the reason of this is one that goes deep into Dickens's social
reform, and like every other real and desirable thing, involves a kind
of mystical contradiction. If we are to save the oppressed, we must have
two apparently antagonistic emotions in us at the same time. We must
think the oppressed man intensely miserable, and at the same time
intensely attractive and important. We must insist with violence upon
his degradation; we must insist with the same violence upon his dignity.
For if we relax by one inch the one assertion, men will say he does not
need saving. And if we relax by one inch the other assertion, men will
say he is not worth saving. The optimists will say that reform is
needless. The pessimists will say that reform is hopeless. We must apply
both simultaneously to the same oppressed man; we must say that he is a
worm and a god; and we must thus lay ourselves open to the accusation
(or the compliment) of transcendentalism. This is, indeed, the strongest
argument for the religious conception of life. If the dignity of man is
an earthly dignity we shall be tempted to deny his earthly degradation.
If it is a heavenly dignity we can admit the earthly degradation with
all the candour of Zola. If we are idealists about the other world we
can be realists about this world. But that is not here the point. What
is quite evident is that if a logical praise of the poor man is pushed
too far, and if a logical distress about him is pushed too far, either
will involve wreckage to the central paradox of reform. If the poor man
is made too admirable he ceases to be pitiable; if the poor man is made
too pitiable he becomes merely contemptible. There is a school of smug
optimists who will deny that he is a poor man. There is a school of
scientific pessimists who will deny that he is a man.

Out of this perennial contradiction arises the fact that there are
always two types of the reformer. The first we may call for convenience
the pessimistic, the second the optimistic reformer. One dwells upon the
fact that souls are being lost; the other dwells upon the fact that they
are worth saving. Both, of course, are (so far as that is concerned)
quite right, but they naturally tend to a difference of method, and
sometimes to a difference of perception. The pessimistic reformer points
out the good elements that oppression has destroyed; the optimistic
reformer, with an even fiercer joy, points out the good elements that it
has not destroyed. It is the case for the first reformer that slavery
has made men slavish. It is the case for the second reformer that
slavery has not made men slavish. The first describes how bad men are
under bad conditions. The second describes how good men are under bad
conditions. Of the first class of writers, for instance, is Gorky. Of
the second class of writers is Dickens.

But here we must register a real and somewhat startling fact. In the
face of all apparent probability, it is certainly true that the
optimistic reformer reforms much more completely than the pessimistic
reformer. People produce violent changes by being contented, by being
far too contented. The man who said that "revolutions are not made with
rose-water" was obviously inexperienced in practical human affairs. Men
like Rousseau and Shelley do make revolutions, and do make them with
rose-water; that is, with a too rosy and sentimental view of human
goodness. Figures that come before and create convulsion and change (for
instance, the central figure of the New Testament) always have the air
of walking in an unnatural sweetness and calm. They give us their peace
ultimately in blood and battle and division; not as the world giveth
give they unto us.

Nor is the real reason of the triumph of the too-contented reformer
particularly difficult to define. He triumphs because he keeps alive in
the human soul an invincible sense of the thing being worth doing, of
the war being worth winning, of the people being worth their
deliverance. I remember that Mr. William Archer, some time ago,
published in one of his interesting series of interviews, an interview
with Mr. Thomas Hardy. That powerful writer was represented as saying,
in the course of the conversation, that he did not wish at the
particular moment to define his opinion with regard to the ultimate
problem of whether life itself was worth living. There are, he said,
hundreds of remediable evils in this world. When we have remedied all
these (such was his argument), it will be time enough to ask whether
existence itself under its best possible conditions is valuable or
desirable. Here we have presented, with a considerable element of what
can only be called unconscious humour, the plain reason of the failure
of the pessimist as a reformer. Mr. Hardy is asking us, I will not say
to buy a pig in a poke; he is asking us to buy a poke on the remote
chance of there being a pig in it. When we have for some few frantic
centuries tortured ourselves to save mankind, it will then be "time
enough" to discuss whether they can possibly be saved. When, in the case
of infant mortality, for example, we have exhausted ourselves with the
earthshaking efforts required to save the life of every individual baby,
it will then be time enough to consider whether every individual baby
would not have been happier dead. We are to remove mountains and bring
the millennium, because then we can have a quiet moment to discuss
whether the millennium is at all desirable. Here we have the low-water
mark of the impotence of the sad reformer. And here we have the reason
of the paradoxical triumph of the happy one. His triumph is a religious
triumph; it rests upon his perpetual assertion of the value of the human
soul and of human daily life. It rests upon his assertion that human
life is enjoyable because it is human. And he will never admit, like so
many compassionate pessimists, that human life ever ceases to be human.
He does not merely pity the lowness of men; he feels an insult to their
elevation. Brute pity should be given only to brutes. Cruelty to animals
is cruelty and a vile thing; but cruelty to a man is not cruelty, it is
treason. Tyranny over a man is not tyranny, it is rebellion, for man is
royal. Now, the practical weakness of the vast mass of modern pity for
the poor and the oppressed is precisely that it is merely pity; the pity
is pitiful, but not respectful. Men feel that the cruelty to the poor is
a kind of cruelty to animals. They never feel that it is justice to
equals; nay, it is treachery to comrades. This dark scientific pity,
this brutal pity, has an elemental sincerity of its own; but it is
entirely useless for all ends of social reform. Democracy swept Europe
with the sabre when it was founded upon the Rights of Man. It has done
literally nothing at all since it has been founded only upon the wrongs
of man. Or, more strictly speaking, its recent failure has been due to
its not admitting the existence of any rights, or wrongs, or indeed of
any humanity. Evolution (the sinister enemy of revolution) does not
especially deny the existence of God; what it does deny is the existence
of man. And all the despair about the poor, and the cold and repugnant
pity for them, has been largely due to the vague sense that they have
literally relapsed into the state of the lower animals.

A writer sufficiently typical of recent revolutionism--Gorky--has called
one of his books by the eerie and effective title "Creatures that once
were Men." That title explains the whole failure of the Russian
revolution. And the reason why the English writers, such as Dickens, did
with all their limitations achieve so many of the actual things at which
they aimed was that they could not possibly have put such a title upon a
human hook. Dickens really helped the unfortunate in the matters to
which he set himself. And the reason is that across all his books and
sketches about the unfortunate might be written the common title,
"Creatures that Still are Men."

There does exist, then, this strange optimistic reformer; the man whose
work begins with approval and ends with earthquake. Jesus Christ was
destined to found a faith which made the rich poorer and the poor rich;
but even when He was going to enrich them, He began with the phrase,
"Blessed are the poor." The Gissings and the Gorkys say, as an universal
literary motto, "Cursed are the poor." Among a million who have faintly
followed Christ in this divine contradiction, Dickens stands out
especially. He said, in all his reforming utterances, "Cure poverty;"
but he said in all his actual descriptions, "Blessed are the poor." He
described their happiness, and men rushed to remove their sorrow. He
described them as human, and men resented the insults to their humanity.
It is not difficult to see why, as I said at an earlier stage of this
book, Dickens's denunciations have had so much more practical an effect
than the denunciations of such a man as Gissing. Both agreed that the
souls of the people were in a kind of prison. But Gissing said that the
prison was full of dead souls. Dickens said that the prison was full of
living souls. And the fiery cavalcade of rescuers felt that they had not
come too late.

Of this general fact about Dickens's descriptions of poverty there will
not, I suppose, be any serious dispute. The dispute will only be about
the truth of those descriptions. It is clear that whereas Gissing would
say, "See how their poverty depresses the Smiths or the Browns," Dickens
says, "See how little, after all, their poverty can depress the
Cratchits." No one will deny that he made a special feature of the poor.
We will come to the discussion of the veracity of these scenes in a
moment. It is here sufficient to register in conclusion of our
examination of the reforming optimist, that Dickens certainly was such
an optimist, and that he made it his business to insist upon what
happiness there is in the lives of the unhappy. His poor man is always a
Mark Tapley, a man the optimism of whose spirit increases if anything
with the pessimism of his experience. It can also be registered as a
fact equally solid and quite equally demonstrable that this optimistic
Dickens did effect great reforms.

The reforms in which Dickens was instrumental were indeed, from the
point of view of our sweeping social panaceas, special and limited. But
perhaps, for that reason especially, they afford a compact and concrete
instance of the psychological paradox of which we speak. Dickens did
definitely destroy--or at the very least help to destroy--certain
institutions; he destroyed those institutions simply by describing them.
But the crux and peculiarity of the whole matter is this, that, in a
sense, it can really be said that he described these things too
optimistically. In a real sense, he described Dotheboys Hall as a better
place than it is. In a real sense, he made out the workhouse as a
pleasanter place than it can ever be. For the chief glory of Dickens is
that he made these places interesting; and the chief infamy of England
is that it has made these places dull. Dullness was the thing that
Dickens's genius could never succeed in describing; his vitality was so
violent that he could not introduce into his books the genuine
impression even of a moment of monotony. If there is anywhere in his
novels an instant of silence, we only hear more clearly the hero
whispering with the heroine, the villain sharpening his dagger, or the
creaking of the machinery that is to give out the god from the machine.
He could splendidly describe gloomy places, but he could not describe
dreary places. He could describe miserable marriages, but not monotonous
marriages. It must have been genuinely entertaining to be married to Mr.
Quilp. This sense of a still incessant excitement he spreads over every
inch of his story, and over every dark tract of his landscape. His idea
of a desolate place is a place where anything can happen, he has no idea
of that desolate place where nothing can happen. This is a good thing
for his soul, for the place where nothing can happen is hell. But still,
it might reasonably be maintained by the modern mind that he is hampered
in describing human evil and sorrow by this inability to imagine tedium,
this dullness in the matter of dullness. For, after all, it is certainly
true that the worst part of the lot of the unfortunate is the fact that
they have long spaces in which to review the irrevocability of their
doom. It is certainly true that the worst days of the oppressed man are
the nine days out of ten in which he is not oppressed. This sense of
sickness and sameness Dickens did certainly fail or refuse to give. When
we read such a description as that excellent one--in detail--of
Dotheboys Hall, we feel that, while everything else is accurate, the
author does, in the words of the excellent Captain Nares in Stevenson's
"Wrecker," "draw the dreariness rather mild." The boys at Dotheboys
were, perhaps, less bullied, but they were certainly more bored. For,
indeed, how could anyone be bored with the society of so sumptuous a
creature as Mr. Squeers? Who would not put up with a few illogical
floggings in order to enjoy the conversation of a man who could say,
"She's a rum 'un is Natur'...Natur' is more easier conceived than
described." The same principle applies to the workhouse in "Oliver
Twist." We feel vaguely that neither Oliver nor anyone else could be
entirely unhappy in the presence of the purple personality of Mr.
Bumble. The one thing he did not describe in any of the abuses he
denounced was the soul-destroying potency of routine. He made out the
bad school, the bad parochial system, the bad debtor's prison as very
much jollier and more exciting than they may really have been. In a
sense, then, he flattered them; but he destroyed them with the flattery.
By making Mrs. Gamp delightful he made her impossible. He gave every one
an interest in Mr. Bumble's existence; and by the same act gave every
one an interest in his destruction. It would be difficult to find a
stronger instance of the utility and energy of the method which we have,
for the sake of argument, called the method of the optimistic reformer.
As long as low Yorkshire schools were entirely colourless and dreary,
they continued quietly tolerated by the public and quietly intolerable
to the victims. So long as Squeers was dull as well as cruel he was
permitted; the moment he became amusing as well as cruel he was
destroyed. As long as Bumble was merely inhuman he was allowed. When he
became human, humanity wiped him right out. For in order to do these
great acts of justice we must always realise not only the humanity of
the oppressed, but even the humanity of the oppressor. The satirist had,
in a sense, to create the images in the mind before, as an iconoclast,
he could destroy them. Dickens had to make Squeers live before be could
make him die.

In connection with the accusation of vulgar optimism, which I have taken
as a text for this chapter, there is another somewhat odd thing to
notice. Nobody in the world was ever less optimistic than Dickens in his
treatment of evil or the evil man. When I say optimist in this matter I
mean optimism, in the modern sense, of an attempt to whitewash evil.
Nobody ever made less attempt to whitewash evil than Dickens. Nobody
black was ever less white than Dickens's black. He painted his villains
and lost characters more black than they really are. He crowds his
stories with a kind of villain rare in modern fiction--the villain
really without any "redeeming point." There is no redeeming point in
Squeers, or in Monks, or in Ralph Nickleby, or in Bill Sikes, or in
Quilp, or in Brass, or in Mr. Chester, or in Mr. Pecksniff, or in Jonas
Chuzzlewit, or in Carker, or in Uriah Heep, or in Blandois, or in a
hundred more. So far as the balance of good and evil in human characters
is concerned, Dickens certainly could not be called a vulgar optimist.
His emphasis on evil was melodramatic. He might be called a vulgar

Some will dismiss this lurid villainy as a detail of his artificial
romance. I am not inclined to do so. He inherited, undoubtedly, this
unqualified villain as he inherited so many other things, from the whole
history of European literature. But he breathed into the blackguard a
peculiar and vigorous life of his own. He did not show any tendency to
modify his black-guardism in accordance with the increasing
considerateness of the age; he did not seem to wish to make his villain
less villainous; he did not wish to imitate the analysis of George
Eliot, or the reverent scepticism of Thackeray. And all this works back,
I think, to a real thing in him, that he wished to have an obstreperous
and incalculable enemy. He wished to keep alive the idea of combat,
which means, of necessity, a combat against something individual and
alive. I do not know whether, in the kindly rationalism of his epoch, he
kept any belief in a personal devil in his theology, but he certainly
created a personal devil in every one of his books.

A good example of my meaning can be found, for instance, in such a
character as Quilp. Dickens may, for all I know, have had originally
some idea of describing Quilp as the bitter and unhappy cripple, a
deformity whose mind is stunted along with his body. But if he had such
an idea, he soon abandoned it. Quilp is not in the least unhappy. His
whole picturesqueness consists in the fact that he has a kind of hellish
happiness, an atrocious hilarity that makes him go bounding about like
an indiarubber ball. Quilp is not in the least bitter; he has an
unaffected gaiety, an expansiveness, an universality. He desires to hurt
people in the same hearty way that a good-natured man desires to help
them. He likes to poison people with the same kind of clamorous
camaraderie with which an honest man likes to stand them drink. Quilp is
not in the least stunted in mind; he is not in reality even stunted in
body--his body, that is, does not in any way fall short of what he wants
it to do. His smallness gives him rather the promptitude of a bird or
the precipitance of a bullet. In a word, Quilp is precisely the devil of
the Middle Ages; he belongs to that amazingly healthy period when even
lost spirits were hilarious.

This heartiness and vivacity in the villains of Dickens is worthy of
note because it is directly connected with his own cheerfulness. This is
a truth little understood in our time, but it is a very essential one.
If optimism means a general approval, it is certainly true that the more
a man becomes an optimist the more he becomes a melancholy man. If he
manages to praise everything, his praise will develop an alarming
resemblance to a polite boredom. He will say that the marsh is as good
as the garden; he will mean that the garden is as dull as the marsh. He
may force himself to say that emptiness is good, but he will hardly
prevent himself from asking what is the good of such good. This optimism
does exist--this optimism which is more hopeless than pessimism--this
optimism which is the very heart of hell.

Against such an aching vacuum of joyless approval there is only one
antidote--a sudden and pugnacious belief in positive evil. This world
can be made beautiful again by beholding it as a battlefield. When we
have defined and isolated the evil thing, the colours come back into
everything else. When evil things have become evil, good things, in a
blazing apocalypse, become good. There are some men who are dreary
because they do not believe in God; but there are many others who are
dreary because they do not believe in the devil. The grass grows green
again when we believe in the devil, the roses grow red again when we
believe in the devil.

No man was more filled with the sense of this bellicose basis of all
cheerfulness than Dickens. He knew very well the essential truth, that
the true optimist can only continue an optimist so long as he is
discontented. For the full value of this life can only be got by
fighting; the violent take it by storm. And if we have accepted
everything, we have missed something--war. This life of ours is a very
enjoyable fight, but a very miserable truce. And it appears strange to
me that so few critics of Dickens or of other romantic writers have
noticed this philosophical meaning in the undiluted villain. The villain
is not in the story to be a character; he is there to be a danger--a
ceaseless, ruthless, and uncompromising menace, like that of wild beasts
or the sea. For the full satisfaction of the sense of combat, which
everywhere and always involves a sense of equality, it is necessary to
make the evil thing a man; but it is not always necessary, it is not
even always artistic, to make him a mixed and probable man. In any tale,
the tone of which is at all symbolic, he may quite legitimately be made
an aboriginal and infernal energy. He must be a man only in the sense
that he must have a wit and will to be matched with the wit and will of
the man chiefly fighting. The evil may be inhuman, but it must not be
impersonal, which is almost exactly the position occupied by Satan in
the theological scheme.

But when all is said, as I have remarked before, the chief fountain in
Dickens of what I have called cheerfulness, and some prefer to call
optimism, is something deeper than a verbal philosophy. It is, after
all, an incomparable hunger and pleasure for the vitality and the
variety, for the infinite eccentricity of existence. And this word
"eccentricity" brings us, perhaps, nearer to the matter than any other.
It is, perhaps, the strongest mark of the divinity of man that he talks
of this world as "a strange world," though he has seen no other. We feel
that all there is is eccentric, though we do not know what is the
centre. This sentiment of the grotesqueness of the universe ran through
Dickens's brain and body like the mad blood of the elves. He saw all his
streets in fantastic perspectives, he saw all his cockney villas as top
heavy and wild, he saw every man's nose twice as big as it was, and very
man's eyes like saucers. And this was the basis of his gaiety--the only
real basis of any philosophical gaiety. This world is not to be
justified as it is justified by the mechanical optimists; it is not to
be justified as the best of all possible worlds. Its merit is not that
it is orderly and explicable; its merit is that it is wild and utterly
unexplained. Its merit is precisely that none of us could have conceived
such a thing, that we should have rejected the bare idea of it as
miracle and unreason. It is the best of all impossible worlds.


The hardest thing to remember about our own time, of course, is simply
that it is a time; we all instinctively think of it as the Day of
Judgment. But all the things in it which belong to it merely as this
time will probably be rapidly turned upside down; all the things that
can pass will pass. It is not merely true that all old things are
already dead; it is also true that all new things are already dead; for
the only undying things are the things that are neither new nor old. The
more you are up with this year's fashion, the more (in a sense) you are
already behind next year's. Consequently, in attempting to decide
whether an author will, as it is cantly expressed, live, it is necessary
to have very firm convictions about what part, if any part, of man is
unchangeable. And it is very hard to have this if you have not a
religion or, at least, a dogmatic philosophy.

The equality of men needs preaching quite as much as regards the ages as
regards the classes of men. To feel infinitely superior to a man in the
twelfth century is just precisely as snobbish as to feel infinitely
superior to a man in the Old Kent Road. There are differences between
the man and us, there may be superiorities in us over the man; but our
sin in both cases consists in thinking of the small things wherein we
differ when we ought to be confounded and intoxicated by the terrible
and joyful matters in which we are at one. But here again the difficulty
always is that the things near us seem larger than they are, and so seem
to be a permanent part of mankind, when they may really be only one of
its parting modes of expression. Few people, for instance, realise that
a time may easily come when we shall see the great outburst of Science
in the nineteenth century as something quite as splendid, brief, unique,
and ultimately abandoned, as the outburst of Art at the Renascence. Few
people realise that the general habit of fiction, of telling tales in
prose, may fade, like the general habit of the ballad, of telling tales
in verse, has for the time faded. Few people realise that reading and
writing are only arbitrary, and perhaps temporary sciences, like

The immortal mind will remain, and by that writers like Dickens will be
securely judged. That Dickens will have a high place in permanent
literature there is, I imagine, no prig surviving to deny. But though
all prediction is in the dark, I would devote this chapter to suggesting
that his place in nineteenth-century England will not only be high, but
altogether the highest. At a certain period of his contemporary fame, an
average Englishman would have said that there were at that moment in
England about five or six able and equal novelists. He could have made a
list, Dickens, Bulwer Lytton, Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot,
perhaps more. Forty years or more have passed and some of them have
slipped to a lower place. Some would now say that the highest platform
is left to Thackeray and Dickens; some to Dickens, Thackeray, and George
Eliot; some to Dickens, Thackeray, and Charlotte Brontë. I venture to
offer the proposition that when more years have passed and more weeding
has been effected, Dickens will dominate the whole England of the
nineteenth century; he will be left on that platform alone.

I know that this is an almost impertinent thing to assert, and that its
tendency is to bring in those disparaging discussions of other writers
in which Mr. Swinburne brilliantly embroiled himself in his suggestive
study of Dickens. But my disparagement of the other English Novelists is
wholly relative and not in the least positive. It is certain that men
will always return to such a writer as Thackeray, with his rich
emotional autumn, his feeling that life is a sad but sacred retrospect
in which at least we should forget nothing. It is not likely that wise
men will forget him. So, for instance, wise and scholarly men do from
time to time return to the lyrists of French Renascence, to the delicate
poignancy of Du Bellay: so they will go back to Thackeray. But I mean
that Dickens will bestride and dominate our time as the vast figure of
Rabelais dominates Du Bellay, dominates the Renascence and the world.

Let me put a negative reason first. The particular things for which
Dickens is condemned (and justly condemned) by his critics, are
precisely those things which have never prevented a man from being
immortal. The chief of them is the unquestionable fact that he wrote an
enormous amount of bad work. This does lead to a man being put below his
place in his own time: it does not affect his permanent place, to all
appearance, at all. Shakespeare, for instance, and Wordsworth wrote not
only an enormous amount of bad work, but an enormous amount of
enormously bad work. Humanity edits such writers' works for them. Virgil
was mistaken in cutting out his inferior lines; we would have undertaken
the job. Moreover in the particular case of Dickens there are special
reasons for regarding his bad work, as I have previously suggested,
under a kind of general ambition that had nothing to do with his special
genius; an ambition to be a public provider of everything, a warehouse
of all human emotions. He held a kind of literary day of judgment. He
distributed bad characters as punishments and good characters as
rewards. My meaning can be best conveyed by one instance out of many.
The character of the kind old Jew in "Our Mutual Friend" (a needless and
unconvincing character) was actually introduced because some Jewish
correspondent complains that the bad old Jew in "Oliver Twist" conveyed
the suggestion that all Jews were bad. The principle is so
light-headedly absurd that it is hard to imagine any literary man
submitting to it for an instant. If ever he invented a bad auctioneer he
must immediately balance him with a good auctioneer; if he should have
conceived an unkind philanthropist, he must on the spot, with whatever
natural agony and toil, imagine a kind philanthropist. The complaint is
frantic; yet Dickens, who tore people in pieces for much fairer
complaints, liked this complaint of his Jewish correspondent. It pleased
him to be mistaken for a public arbiter: it pleased him to be asked (in
a double sense) to judge Israel. All this is so much another thing, a
non-literary vanity, that there is much less difficulty than usual in
separating it from his serious genius: and by his serious genius, I need
hardly say, I mean his comic genius. Such irrelevant ambitions as this
are easily passed over, like the sonnets of great statesmen. We feel
that such things can be set aside, as the ignorant experiments of men
otherwise great, like the politics of Professor Tyndall or the
philosophy of Professor Haeckel. Hence, I think, posterity will not care
that Dickens has done bad work, but will know that he has done good.

Again, the other chief accusation against Dickens was that his
characters and their actions were exaggerated and impossible. But this
only meant that they were exaggerated and impossible as compared with
the modern world and with certain writers (like Thackeray or Trollope)
who were making a very exact copy of the manners of the modern world.
Some people, oddly enough, have suggested that Dickens has suffered or
will suffer from the change of manners. Surely this is irrational. It is
not the creators of the impossible who will suffer from the process of
time: Mr. Bunsby can never be any more impossible than he was when
Dickens made him. The writers who will obviously suffer from time will
be the careful and realistic writers, the writers who have observed
every detail of the fashion of this world which passeth away. It is
surely obvious that there is nothing so fragile as a fact, that a fact
flies away quicker than a fancy. A fancy will endure for two thousand
years. For instance, we all have fancy for an entirely fearless man, a
hero; and the Achilles of Homer still remains. But exactly the thing we
do not know about Achilles is how far he was possible. The realistic
narrators of the time are all forgotten (thank God), so we cannot tell
whether Homer slightly exaggerated or wildly exaggerated or did not
exaggerate at all, the personal activity of a Mycenaean captain in
battle; for the fancy has survived the facts. So the fancy of Podsnap
may survive the facts of English commerce: and no one will know whether
Podsnap was possible, but only know that he is desirable, like Achilles.

The positive argument for the permanence of Dickens comes back to the
thing that can only be stated and cannot be discussed: creation. He made
things which nobody else could possibly make. He made Dick Swiveller in
a very different sense from that in which Thackeray made Colonel
Newcome. Thackeray's creation was observation: Dickens's was poetry, and
is therefore permanent. But there is one other test that can be added.
The immortal writer, I conceive, is commonly he who does something
Universal in a special manner. I mean that he does something interesting
to all men in a way in which only one man or one land can do. Other men
in that land, who do only what other men in other lands are doing as
well, tend to have a great reputation in their day and to sink slowly
into a second or a third or a fourth place. A parallel from war will
make the point clear. I cannot think that anyone will doubt that,
although Wellington and Nelson were always bracketed, Nelson will
steadily become more important and Wellington less. For the fame of
Wellington rests upon the fact that he was a good soldier in the service
of England, exactly as twenty similar men were good soldiers in the
service of Austria or Prussia or France. But Nelson is the symbol of a
special mode of attack, which is at once universal and yet especially
English, the sea. Now Dickens is at once as universal as the sea and as
English as Nelson. Thackeray and George Eliot and the other great
figures of that great England, were comparable to Wellington in this,
that the kind of thing they were doing,--realism, the acute study of
intellectual things, numerous men in France, Germany and Italy were
doing as well or better than they. But Dickens was really doing
something universal, yet something that no one but an Englishman could
do. This is attested by the fact that he and Byron are the men who, like
pinnacles, strike the eye of the continent. The points would take long
to study: yet they may take only a moment to indicate. No one but an
Englishman could have filled his books at once with a furious caricature
and with a positively furious kindness. In more central countries, full
of cruel memories of political change, caricature is always inhumane. No
one but an Englishman could have described the democracy as consisting
of free men, but yet of funny men. In other countries where the
democratic issue has been more bitterly fought, it is felt that unless
you describe a man as dignified you are describing him as a slave. This
is the only final greatness of a man; that he does for all the world
what all the world cannot do for itself. Dickens, I believe, did it.

The hour of absinthe is over. We shall not be much further troubled with
the little artists who found Dickens too sane for their sorrows and too
clean for their delights. But we have a long way to travel before we get
back to what Dickens meant: and the passage is along a rambling English
road, a twisting road such as Mr. Pickwick travelled. But this at least
is part of what he meant; that comradeship and serious joy are not
interludes in our travel; but that rather our travels are interludes in
comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn
does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads
point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all
his characters: and when we drink again it shall be from the great
flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.


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