Description

This "Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens" was written by G. K. (Gilbert Keith) Chesterton in English language.

Page 1

Appreciations and
Criticisms of the
Works of Charles
Dickens
By
G. K. (Gilbert Keith)
Chesterton

Page 2

The Project Gutenberg EBook of Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works
of Charles Dickens, by G. K. Chesterton
This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with
almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or
re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included
with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org
Title: Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens
Author: G. K. Chesterton
Release Date: August 20, 2007 [EBook #22362]
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1
*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK DICKENS ***
Produced by Sigal Alon, LN Yaddanapudi and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net (This
file was produced from images generously made available
by The Internet Archive/Canadian Libraries)

Page 3

Charles Dickens, Circa 1840
From an oil painting by R. J. Lane.
APPRECIATIONS AND
CRITICISMS
OF
THE
WORKS
OF
CHARLES DICKENS
BY
G. K. CHESTERTON

Page 4

1911
LONDON
: J. M. DENT & SONS, L
TD
.
NEW
Y
ORK
: E. P. DUTTON & CO.
All rights reserved
CONTENTS
CHAPTER
I.
INTRODUCTION
II
.
SKETCHES
BY
B
OZ
III
.
PICKWICK
P
APERS
IV
.
NICHOLAS
N
ICKLEBY
V.
OLIVER
T
WIST
VI
.
OLD
C
URIOSITY
S
HOP
VII
.
BARNABY
R
UDGE
VIII
.
AMERICAN
N
OTES
IX
.
PICTURES
FROM
I
TALY
X.
MARTIN
C
HUZZLEWIT
XI
.
CHRISTMAS
B
OOKS
XII
.
DOMBEY
AND
S
ON
XIII
.
DAVID
C
OPPERFIELD
XIV
.
CHRISTMAS
S
TORIES
XV
.
BLEAK
H
OUSE
XVI
.
CHILD
’S H
ISTORY
OF
E
NGLAND
XVII
.
HARD
T
IMES
XVIII
.
LITTLE
D
ORRIT
XIX
.
A T
ALE
OF
T
WO
C
ITIES
XX
.
GREAT
E
XPECTATIONS
XXI
.
OUR
M
UTUAL
F
RIEND
XXII
.
EDWIN
D
ROOD
XXIII
.
MASTER
H
UMPHREY
’S C
LOCK
XXIV
.
REPRINTED
P
IECES
ILLUSTRATIONS
[iii]
PAGE
vii
1
13
26
38
50
65
76
87
90
103
114
129
140
148
160
169
[iv]
178
188
197
207
218
229
239
[v]

Page 5

CHARLES
D
ICKENS
, C
IRCA
1840
From an oil painting by R. J. Lane.
CHARLES
D
ICKENS
, 1842
From a bust by H. Dexter, executed during Dickens’s first
visit to America.
CHARLES
D
ICKENS
, 1844
From a miniature by Margaret Gillies.
CHARLES
D
ICKENS
, 1849
From a daguerreotype by Mayall.
CHARLES
D
ICKENS
, 1858
From a black and white drawing by Baughiet.
CHARLES
D
ICKENS
, 1859
From an oil painting by W. P. Frith, R.A.
CHARLES
D
ICKENS
, C
IRCA
1860
Photograph by J. & C. Watkins.
CHARLES
D
ICKENS
, 1868
From a photograph by Gurney.
INTRODUCTION
These papers were originally published as prefaces to the
separate books of Dickens in one of the most extensive of those
cheap libraries of the classics which are one of the real
improvements of recent times. Thus they were harmless, being
diluted by, or rather drowned in Dickens. My scrap of theory was a
mere dry biscuit to be taken with the grand tawny port of great
English comedy; and by most people it was not taken at all—like the
biscuit. Nevertheless the essays were not in intention so aimless as
they appear in fact. I had a general notion of what needed saying
about Dickens to the new generation, though probably I did not say
it. I will make another attempt to do so in this prologue, and, possibly
fail again.
There was a painful moment (somewhere about the eighties)
when we watched anxiously to see whether Dickens was fading from
the modern world. We have watched a little longer, and with great
relief we begin to realise that it is the modern world that is fading. All
that universe of ranks and respectabilities in comparison with which
Dickens was called a caricaturist, all that Victorian universe in which
he seemed vulgar—all that is itself breaking up like a cloudland. And
only the
caricatures of Dickens remain like things carved in stone.
This, of course, is an old story in the case of a man reproached with
any excess of the poetic. Again and again when the man of visions
was pinned by the sly dog who knows the world,
PAGE
Frontispiece
76
90
130
184
188
198
218
[vii]
[viii]

Page 6

“The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.”
To call Thackeray a cynic, which means a sly dog, was indeed
absurd; but it is fair to say that in comparison with Dickens he felt
himself a man of the world. Nevertheless, that world of which he was
a man is coming to an end before our eyes; its aristocracy has grown
corrupt, its middle class insecure, and things that he never thought of
are walking about the drawing-rooms of both. Thackeray has
described for ever the Anglo-Indian Colonel; but what on earth would
he have done with an Australian Colonel? What can it matter
whether Dickens’s clerks talked cockney now that half the duchesses
talk American? What would Thackeray have made of an age in which
a man in the position of Lord Kew may actually be the born brother
of Mr. Moss of Wardour Street? Nor does this apply merely to
Thackeray, but to all those Victorians who prided themselves on the
realism or sobriety of their descriptions; it applies to Anthony Trollope
and, as much as any one, to George Eliot. For we have not only
survived that present which Thackeray described: we have even
survived that future to which George Eliot looked forward. It is no
longer adequate to say that Dickens did not understand that old
world of gentility,
of parliamentary politeness and the balance of the
constitution. That world is rapidly ceasing to understand itself. It is
vain to repeat the complaint of the old Quarterly Reviewers, that
Dickens had not enjoyed a university education. What would the old
Quarterly Reviewers themselves have thought of the Rhodes
Scholarships? It is useless to repeat the old tag that Dickens could
not describe a gentleman. A gentleman in our time has become
something quite indescribable.
Now the interesting fact is this: That Dickens, whom so many
considered to be at the best a vulgar enthusiast, saw the coming
change in our society much more soberly and scientifically than did
his better educated and more pretentious contemporaries. I give but
one example out of many. Thackeray was a good Victorian radical,
who seems to have gone to his grave quite contented with the early
Victorian radical theory—the theory which Macaulay preached with
unparalleled luminosity and completeness; the theory that true
progress goes on so steadily through human history, that while
reaction is indefensible, revolution is unnecessary. Thackeray seems
to have been quite content to think that the world would grow more
and more liberal in the limited sense; that Free Trade would get
freer; that ballot boxes would grow more and more secret; that at last
(as some satirist of Liberalism puts it) every man would have two
votes instead of one. There is no trace in Thackeray of the slightest
consciousness that progress could ever change its direction. There is
in Dickens. The whole of
Hard Times
is the expression of just such a
realisation. It is not true to say that Dickens was a Socialist, but it is
not absurd
to say so. And it would be simply absurd to say it of any of
[ix]
[x]

Page 7

the great Individualist novelists of the Victorian time. Dickens saw far
enough ahead to know that the time was coming when the people
would be imploring the State to save them from mere freedom, as
from some frightful foreign oppressor. He felt the society changing;
and Thackeray never did.
As talking about Socialism and Individualism is one of the
greatest bores ever endured among men, I will take another instance
to illustrate my meaning, even though the instance be a queer and
even a delicate one. Even if the reader does not agree with my
deduction, I ask his attention to the fact itself, which I think a curiosity
of literature. In the last important work of Dickens, that excellent book
Our Mutual Friend
, there is an odd thing about which I cannot make
up my mind; I do not know whether it is unconscious observation or
fiendish irony. But it is this. In
Our Mutual Friend
is an old patriarch
named Aaron, who is a saintly Jew made to do the dirty work of an
abominable Christian usurer. In an artistic sense I think the patriarch
Aaron as much of a humbug as the patriarch Casby. In a moral
sense there is no doubt at all that Dickens introduced the Jew with a
philanthropic idea of doing justice to Judaism, which he was told he
had affronted by the great gargoyle of Fagin. If this was his motive, it
was morally a most worthy one. But it is certainly unfortunate for the
Hebrew cause that the bad Jew should be so very much more
convincing than the good one. Old Aaron is not an exaggeration of
Jewish virtues; he is simply not Jewish, because he is not human.
There is nothing about him
that in any way suggests the nobler sort
of Jew, such a man as Spinoza or Mr. Zangwill. He is simply a public
apology, and like most public apologies, he is very stiff and not very
convincing.
So far so good. Now we come to the funny part. To describe the
high visionary and mystic Jew like Spinoza or Zangwill is a great and
delicate task in which even Dickens might have failed. But most of us
know something of the make and manners of the low Jew, who is
generally the successful one. Most of us know the Jew who calls
himself De Valancourt. Now to any one who knows a low Jew by
sight or hearing, the story called
Our Mutual Friend
is literally full of
Jews. Like all Dickens’s best characters they are vivid; we know
them. And we know them to be Hebrew. Mr. Veneering, the Man
from Nowhere, dark, sphinx-like, smiling, with black curling hair, and
a taste in florid vulgar furniture—of what stock was he? Mr. Lammle,
with “too much nose in his face, too much ginger in his whiskers, too
much sparkle in his studs and manners”—of what blood was he? Mr.
Lammle’s friends, coarse and thick-lipped, with fingers so covered
with rings that they could hardly hold their gold pencils—do they
remind us of anybody? Mr. Fledgeby, with his little ugly eyes and
social flashiness and craven bodily servility—might not some fanatic
like M. Drumont make interesting conjectures about him? The
particular types that people hate in Jewry, the types that are the
[xi]

Page 8

shame of all good Jews, absolutely run riot in this book, which is
supposed to contain an apology to them. It looks at first sight as if
Dickens’s apology were one hideous sneer. It looks as if he put
in
one good Jew whom nobody could believe in, and then balanced him
with ten bad Jews whom nobody could fail to recognise. It seems as
if he had avenged himself for the doubt about Fagin by introducing
five or six Fagins—triumphant Fagins, fashionable Fagins, Fagins
who had changed their names. The impeccable old Aaron stands up
in the middle of this ironic carnival with a peculiar solemnity and
silliness. He looks like one particularly stupid Englishman pretending
to be a Jew, amidst all that crowd of clever Jews who are pretending
to be Englishmen.
But this notion of a sneer is not admissible. Dickens was far too
frank and generous a writer to employ such an elaborate plot of
silence. His satire was always intended to attack, never to entrap;
moreover, he was far too vain a man not to wish the crowd to see all
his jokes. Vanity is more divine than pride, because it is more
democratic than pride. Third, and most important, Dickens was a
good Liberal, and would have been horrified at the notion of making
so venomous a vendetta against one race or creed. Nevertheless the
fact is there, as I say, if only as a curiosity of literature. I defy any
man to read through
Our Mutual Friend
after hearing this suggestion,
and to get out of his head the conviction that Lammle is the wrong
kind of Jew. The explanation lies, I think, in this, that Dickens was so
wonderfully sensitive to that change that has come over our society,
that he noticed the type of the oriental and cosmopolitan financier
without even knowing that it was oriental or cosmopolitan. He had, in
fact, fallen a victim to a very simple fallacy affecting this problem.
Somebody said, with great wit and truth, that treason
cannot prosper,
because when it prospers it cannot be called treason. The same
argument soothed all possible Anti-Semitism in men like Dickens.
Jews cannot be sneaks and snobs, because when they are sneaks
and snobs they do not admit that they are Jews.
I have taken this case of the growth of the cosmopolitan financier,
because it is not so stale in discussion as its parallel, the growth of
Socialism. But as regards Dickens, the same criticism applies to
both. Dickens knew that Socialism was coming, though he did not
know its name. Similarly, Dickens knew that the South African
millionaire was coming, though he did not know the millionaire’s
name. Nobody does. His was not a type of mind to disentangle either
the abstract truths touching the Socialist, nor the highly personal truth
about the millionaire. He was a man of impressions; he has never
been equalled in the art of conveying what a man looks like at first
sight—and he simply felt the two things as atmospheric facts. He felt
that the mercantile power was oppressive, past all bearing by
Christian men; and he felt that this power was no longer wholly in the
hands even of heavy English merchants like Podsnap. It was largely
[xii]
[xiii]

Page 9

in the hands of a feverish and unfamiliar type, like Lammle and
Veneering. The fact that he felt these things is almost more
impressive because he did not understand them.
Now for this reason Dickens must definitely be considered in the
light of the changes which his soul foresaw. Thackeray has become
classical; but Dickens has done more: he has remained modern. The
grand retrospective spirit of Thackeray is by its nature
attached to
places and times; he belongs to Queen Victoria as much as Addison
belongs to Queen Anne, and it is not only Queen Anne who is dead.
But Dickens, in a dark prophetic kind of way, belongs to the
developments. He belongs to the times since his death when Hard
Times grew harder, and when Veneering became not only a Member
of Parliament, but a Cabinet Minister; the times when the very soul
and spirit of Fledgeby carried war into Africa. Dickens can be
criticised as a contemporary of Bernard Shaw or Anatole France or
C. F. G. Masterman. In talking of him one need no longer talk merely
of the Manchester School or Puseyism or the Charge of the Light
Brigade; his name comes to the tongue when we are talking of
Christian Socialists or Mr. Roosevelt or County Council Steam Boats
or Guilds of Play. He can be considered under new lights, some
larger and some meaner than his own; and it is a very rough effort so
to consider him which is the excuse of these pages. Of the essays in
this book I desire to say as little as possible; I will discuss any other
subject in preference with a readiness which reaches to avidity. But I
may very curtly apply the explanation used above to the cases of two
or three of them. Thus in the article on
David Copperfield
I have done
far less than justice to that fine book considered in its relation to
eternal literature; but I have dwelt at some length upon a particular
element in it which has grown enormous in England after Dickens’s
death. Thus again, in introducing the
Sketches by Boz
I have felt
chiefly that I am introducing them to a new generation insufficiently in
sympathy with such palpable and unsophisticated fun. A Board
School education,
evolved since Dickens’s day, has given to our
people a queer and inadequate sort of refinement, one which
prevents them from enjoying the raw jests of the
Sketches by Boz
,
but leaves them easily open to that slight but poisonous
sentimentalism which I note amid all the merits of David Copperfield.
In the same way I shall speak of
Little Dorrit
, with reference to a
school of pessimistic fiction which did not exist when it was written, of
Hard Times
in the light of the most modern crises of economics, and
of
The Child’s History of England
in the light of the most matured
authority of history. In short, these criticisms are an intrinsically
ephemeral comment from one generation upon work that will delight
many more. Dickens was a very great man, and there are many
ways of testing and stating the fact. But one permissible way is to
say this, that he was an ignorant man, ill-read in the past, and often
confused about the present. Yet he remains great and true, and even
essentially reliable, if we suppose him to have known not only all that
[xiv]
[xv]

Page 10

went before his lifetime, but also all that was to come after.
From this vanishing of the Victorian compromise (I might say the
Victorian illusion) there begins to emerge a menacing and even
monstrous thing—we may begin again to behold the English people.
If that strange dawn ever comes, it will be the final vindication of
Dickens. It will be proved that he is hardly even a caricaturist; that he
is something very like a realist. Those comic monstrosities which the
critics found incredible will be found to be the immense majority of
the citizens of this country. We shall find that Sweedlepipe cuts our
hair and Pumblechook sells
our cereals; that Sam Weller blacks our
boots and Tony Weller drives our omnibus. For the exaggerated
notion of the exaggerations of Dickens (as was admirably pointed
out by my old friend and enemy Mr. Blatchford in a
Clarion
review) is
very largely due to our mixing with only one social class, whose
conventions are very strict, and to whose affectations we are
accustomed. In cabmen, in cobblers, in charwomen, individuality is
often pushed to the edge of insanity. But as long as the Thackerayan
platform of gentility stood firm all this was, comparatively speaking,
concealed. For the English, of all nations, have the most uniform
upper class and the most varied democracy. In France it is the
peasants who are solid to uniformity; it is the marquises who are a
little mad. But in England, while good form restrains and levels the
universities and the army, the poor people are the most motley and
amusing creatures in the world, full of humorous affections and
prejudices and twists of irony. Frenchmen tend to be alike, because
they are all soldiers; Prussians because they are all something else,
probably policemen; even Americans are all something, though it is
not easy to say what it is; it goes with hawk-like eyes and an irrational
eagerness. Perhaps it is savages. But two English cabmen will be as
grotesquely different as Mr. Weller and Mr. Wegg. Nor is it true to
say that I see this variety because it is in my own people. For I do not
see the same degree of variety in my own class or in the class
above it; there is more superficial resemblance between two
Kensington doctors or two Highland dukes. No; the democracy is
really composed of Dickens characters,
for the simple reason that
Dickens was himself one of the democracy.
There remains one thing to be added to this attempt to exhibit
Dickens in the growing and changing lights of our time. God forbid
that any one (especially any Dickensian) should dilute or discourage
the great efforts towards social improvement. But I wish that social
reformers would more often remember that they are imposing their
rules not on dots and numbers, but on Bob Sawyer and Tim
Linkinwater, on Mrs. Lirriper and Dr. Marigold. I wish Mr. Sidney
Webb would shut his eyes until he
sees
Sam Weller.
A great many circumstances have led to the neglect in literature
of these exuberant types which do actually exist in the ruder classes
[xvi]
[xvii]

show more

Comments