“If it were possible I would like to devote the fifty minutes of every class meeting to mute meditation, concentration, and admiration of Dickens.” Vladimir Nabokov
If it were possible, I would like to similarly devote my life. This year is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, and a whole industry has grown up dedicated to celebrating this and convincing us to read his novels. For myself, I needed no convincing, having been deep in a love affair with his books when I first heard of the great man’s approaching birthday. Now, more than two years after the first date, I still, happily, have not reached the end of the affair. I see no end to it. As someone pointed out, no one who has read him thinks of him as a writer, but as a friend. He is, and will remain, a constant companion:
“How often one really thinks about any writer, even a writer one cares for, is a difficult thing to decide; but I should doubt whether anyone who has actually read Dickens can go a week without remembering him in one context or another. Whether you approve of him or not, he is there, like the Nelson Column. At any moment some scene or character, which may come from some book you cannot even remember the name of, is liable to drop into your mind. Micawber’s letters! Winkle in the witness-box! Mrs. Gamp! Mrs. Wititterly and Sir Tumley Snuffim! Todgers’s! (George Gissing said that when he passed the Monument it was never of the Fire of London that he thought, always of Todgers’s.) Mrs. Leo Hunter! Squeers! Silas Wegg and the Decline and Fall-off of the Russian Empire! Miss Mills and the Desert of Sahara! Wopsle acting Hamlet! Mrs. Jellyby! Mantalini, Jerry Cruncher, Barkis, Pumblechook, Tracy Tupman, Skimpole, Joe Gargery, Pecksniff — and so it goes on and on. It is not so much a series of books, it is more like a world.”
Dickens captures and transforms your mind – his books don’t just portray a world, but, through a kind of magic often to be found at work in the stories, the inanimate comes to life and enchants and interferes in the lives of the living. The characters detach themselves from the narrative and the dead matter in which they are embedded, and put on a dance for us, like the second-hand clothes in the shop on Monmouth Street. Dickens’s world comes to seem as vivid, if not more so, than the scenes of our own childhood. Our own world constantly reminds us of his, but as a paler reflection. No, Dickens is no writer, nor even just a friend, but a magician with extraordinary powers.
These powers may, it is true, somewhat spoil the magic of reading in general, at least for a time. I offer here an apology to all those authors over the past two years who I have meant to read, authors I have loved, and do love, but who must for ever sit gathering dust on the shelf when the question is asked, ‘What shall we read next?’ Worthy candidates may be legion, but who in the whole world of literature has the power to elbow their way to the front of the queue when The Inimitable is at the head of it? What other author can combine the sheer charm and joy of a good story, presented as effortlessly as if it were a favourite tale remembered from childhood, with the additional pleasures that only normally come from an exhausting battle with ‘serious literature’?
And yet, what could be more serious than Dickens’s tales? John Cowper Powys, I think following GK Chesterton, perhaps others, has described the works of Dickens and Dostoevsky as a kind of Fifth Gospel. But how much more likely are these Fifth Gospels to speak to our hearts than the first four! It is probably no longer possible, for people of my own background and historical and social context, to read the gospels as Dickens and Powys did. The Fifth Gospel, at least for fiction lovers like myself, retains its power, and thereby keeps alive a wisdom tradition that deserves to be separated from the oily, creepy hypocrisy of the Christian churches – and indeed must be separated from Christianity and religion in all its guises if it is to have living relevance for our own age.
I do not at all feel obliged here to enter into any discussion of Dickens’s faults as a writer, or political thinker, or human being. No doubt they exist – I have heard tell of them – but to give them too much notice, though indispensible in literary criticism, perhaps, is entirely out of place in a love letter. Dickens was very much a man of his class and times, and undoubtedly suffered from some of the blindnesses and weaknesses predictable for a man of his class and times. Popular and class struggles since his day have made such faults obvious and sometimes obnoxious to us, but how daft it is to reproach for their blindness those who, ahead of their times, made such heroic and dedicated efforts to see.
I will take just one criticism, and that is the one, levelled at Dickens himself in his own time, of exaggerating and creating caricatures, rather than fully realized, rounded, human characters. Dickens’s own answer to this charge, in a preface to Martin Chuzzlewit, was that people were blind to their own faults. Dickens found that the Pecksniffs of this world found his portrayal of, say, a Mrs Gamp, to be perfectly realized, but the character of Pecksniff a gross exaggeration, a type never met with. Perhaps, but I much prefer to think of these caricatures, not so much as a fancy of Dickens’s imagination, still less as a fault of his writing, but as an accurate portrayal of the grotesqueries that result when we too seriously believe in the character and stories created by our own egos; when we mistake these fictions for reality itself, and then defend the fictions from the imagined insults we receive, hardening our hearts as we do so against our fellow creatures, and launching furious attacks on all around us, in opposition to all reason, to all wisdom, to all feelings of solidarity, sympathy and compassion. Dickens’s caricatures are indeed grotesque – but the grotesquery is to be met with every day, wherever people forget or suppress their true nature and act out the roles dictated to them by their minds and social positions. It takes a writer of genius to see what is right in front of our eyes.