“To Meet A Man Is Not To Know Him”: The Novel and Charles Dickens

"You know him, he's yours ..."

For a writer so proud of his dog-like tendencies when handed a bone, the late, lamented Christopher Hitchens changed his mind on at least one great issue of our day: not the Iraq War, which of course was an unalloyed Good Thing; certainly not the trifle of God, claims to the existence of Whom were a Bad Thing; but on the relative merits of TV’s finest Victorian novelist, Charles Dickens. Here he is on Dickens in an Atlantic article of 2010: “a vain actor-manager type who used pathetic victims as tear-jerking raw material, and who actually detested the real subjects of High Victorian power and hypocrisy when they were luckless enough to dwell overseas”. The acorn of admiration in that article, however (“there is something formidable about Dickens that may not be gainsaid”), had grown into a rather more robust oak by the time of his final column for Vanity Fair, published this month:

But imagine the power that Dickens had. By a few brilliant strokes of the pen, he revived and restored a popular festival and made it into a sort of social solidarity: a common defense against the Gradgrinds and the Bounderbys and the men who had been responsible for the misery of the Hungry Forties. For the first time, the downtrodden English people were able to see a celebrity, a man of wealth and fame, who was on their side.

This is the unacountable power of Dickens’s writing, of course, and it has been an influence, a sway, an accessibility, which his novels have – remarkably – retained over time. This year’s 200th birthday celebrations are so intense precisely because Dickens remains central not merely to the literary, but most importantly to the popular imagination. Or at least, this is my expalnation for the reason why Edith Wharton, whose 150th birthday was last week, has been so comparatively lost in the flood of Dickensia: for, with her supple style and acute psychological insight, her discipline and depth, is Wharton not the better novelist? Dickens is a chronicler, a Chaucer in stovepipe and cravat; his literary effect, it seems to me, is divorced from his form.

Take Our Mutual Friend, a book I read for the first time this month, as my own tribute to an author with whom I have never got on. Its pages are populated entirely by tools and tricks rather than characters: Mr Boffin, who exists in one state for most of the novel but, in order to enable an authorly flourish at its close, undergoes a transformation (or rather, reveals we never knew him at all); Eugene Wrayburn, the chancing young lawyer metamorphosed from uninteresting walk-on to uninteresting romantic lead; and Lizzie Hexam, the impossibly virtuous and eloquent daughter of a querulous, tyrannical waterman.

These are types, of course, and ones Dickens used more than once. Even his symbols and imagery are taken from the literary equivalent of clipart: the river standing both for death and rebirth, the cripple for incompleteness. Dickens’s particular vitality is instead that of episodic wit, of well-turned bon mots: “No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.” But even that sentence-for-the-ages focuses on the surface of things – on looking, on what people are, on unopened books for heaven’s sake. In a work about the brittleness, the untrustworthiness, of surfaces – two prominent characters are Mr and Mrs Veneering (geddit?) – perhaps this is fitting. But the novel’s art has been to burrow under. Dickens’s dioramas are too artfully arranged for him to disturb.

Not that this renders his work inert – far from it, Dickens continues to speak to us despite – because of? – his formal kinks. “As is well known to the wise in their generation,” he writes apparently yesterday, “traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world. Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners; have Shares.” We might also add, “have opinions,” and, oh, how Dickens does. Reading Dickens – as opposed to Hitchens’s (laudable) Victorian preference, George Eliot – is to leave behind subtelty and sinew in favour of breadth and muscle. One might see, in the ecumenical cast of his novels, something of Shakespeare’s commitment both to the highest and the lowest; but where with even the rudest of mechanicals Shakespeare insists upon shades of meaning, for Dickens his boys with their bootstraps always insist upon one meaning, his old roués another.

This leads Dickens to make statements of authorial fiat which read at first as true and then, on reflection, as anything but: “The person of the house,” he writes of the doll’s dressmaker where Lizzie finds sanctuary following the death of her degenerate progenitor, “had attained that dignity while yet of very tender years indeed, through being the only trustworthy person IN the house.” Ah, yes, smiles the indulgent reader; wait, no, frowns the cynic. The novel is for Dickens a laboratory, a place to conduct experiments: real life has no sway here, and this is the root of the Jamesian criticism of his art. It is not one with which I hold much truck – Dickens never claimed to be a realist – but it goes some way to explaining why I have never got on with his novels as novels. Our Mutual Friend is a one-sided disputation, in which Dickens sets the terms of reference to arrive uncontested at the conclusion he lays on the line thus, in an appraisal of the (for the most part, until she isn’t anymore) unpardonably conceited Bella Wilfer: “the spoilt girl: spoilt first by poverty, and then by wealth.” Self-improvement, in the darkening days of a late work by a past master, is no end in itself. We are pummelled for a thousand pages to this end.

All of which is to howl at the moon. Dickens is far-sighted and wise. He prefigures Eliot – “The set of humanity outward from the City is as a set of prisoners departing from a goal” – and he revises Shakespeare himself – “they take the worst of us as samples of the best,” opines the kindly money-lender, Mr Riah; “they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say ‘All Jews are alike.'” The Hitchens of 2011, too, gives the great man his due: Riah is, like so many of Dickens’s sentimental totems, “almost too altruistic to be true, but it says something for Dickens, surely, that he would take someone who had the same occupation as the infamous Shylock, but none of Shylock’s vices, and insert him at the heart of business, at a time when vulgar prejudice was easy to stir up.” Quite so, and if Riah is again an example of Dickens allowing thesis to mar form, he is nevertheless a powerful (if limited) argument for why we still need him – although, I might argue, we should read him differently.

To which end, I’ll be tackling Great Expectations for the rest of the year. First published over nine months between 1860 and 1861, I’ll be following that schedule. What I hope is that reading Dickens occassionally over a longer period of time, as he wrote to be read, will better enable me to appreciate his strengths and forgive his trespasses. In a recent piece for the Guardian, Howard Jacobson wrote, “You don’t have to like Dickens. Literature is a house with many mansions. But if Dickens gets up your nose, as he clearly gets up the BBC’s, the question has to be asked why you simply don’t leave him alone.” I’ll take this permission for my philistinism and run with it. In answer to Jacobson’s appeal to my raging, disdainful, impotent frustration with Dickens, however, I’ll return to the Christopher Hitchens of 2010: “I can still think in this way if I choose, but I know I am protesting too much.”


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