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Happy Birthday Charles Dickens

February 7, 2016



Popular and critical acclaim make uneasy bedfellows.  Popular acclaim steals all the blankets and critical acclaim starts lecturing popular acclaim saying it didn’t want all those blankets in the first place and that (anyways) all those blankets probably aren’t good for you.

Few if any writers have stuffed as much popular and critical acclaim into the same small bed as Charles Dickens.  Happy Birthday Charles Dickens – you are 204 today.

There are some writers who can be separated from their own reputation, whose authentic brilliance can be extricated from popular misconceptions of their work.  Dickens is not one of those writers.  Dickens was not a genius who was accidentally popular, but someone whose genius derived from his popularity.  Serial publication was the key.  By keeping a close eye on how his story was selling, on what people were and weren’t enjoying, he adapted both his plots and characters accordingly.  Though broadly reformist and socially critical, Dickens never managed to get too far ahead of a certain version of public opinion.  If he attacked many Victorian (and pre-Victorian) institutions, he did so within Victorian (and pre-Victorian) mindsets and idioms.

Of course, childhood experience of poverty marked him forever.  The blacking factory haunted him not so much because of the physical experience of toil as because of the social stigma that enforced toil of that nature conferred, the loss of agency and independence that were key to any concept of gentility.  The idea of being a cog in a larger machine is terrifyingly rendered by Dickens – notably in Hard Times, his one great northern industrial novel.  But Dickens doesn’t really do structural consequences – doesn’t really sketch in political solutions.  The noblest character in Hard Times can offer nothing better than just falling into a hole and dying, while trade unionism is dismissed as a species of destructive demagoguery.  The abuses of capitalism depicted in Nicholas Nickleby are resolved by nicer capitalists.  A Dickens novel concludes once an island of virtue can be secured against the tide of violence and abuse.

But then, very few novelists do have a coherent political vision.  And fewer people with a coherent political programme are wonderful novelists.  The political limitations and prejudices that limit Charles Dickens are the very limitations that keep him in touch with a popular audience.  The energy that he brings to the table is very much the energy of someone who never gets too far ahead of his time.  It is the same kind of energetic populism that informs the anthropomorphic vigour of his descriptions – his ability to describe London (and sometimes other places) in the mass.  William Wordsworth, in Book VII of The Prelude was perhaps the first to see London as a monstrous living thing, and his example was infinitely adapted by Dickens.  Dickens’ most extended and memorable descriptions involve both human beings dissolving into their own sooty neighbourhoods while physical artifacts take on mysterious purpose and character.  Indeed, the Dickensian city is not a place where human beings happen to live, it is a creature that smudges where people stop and place begins.  It smudges the Who and the Where.

There are some things that you really can’t do, if you’re doing this.  And George Eliot’s kind of psychological penetration and moral archaeology is impossible in a Dickensian paragraph.  Eliot will tell you not only what someone is saying but what they are thinking – what they were almost thinking instead of what they were actually thinking – and what they should have been thinking instead of what they were almost thinking.

And on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I will acknowledge the superior literary claims of Eliot.  The other days belong to Dickens.


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