Charles Dickens – Sidney Dark
“Dickens,” Mr. G. K. Chesterton has written, “is as individual as the sea and as English as Nelson.” The author of this biography has found no better excuse than this for writing another book about him. Dickens was a writer apart and the novelist of the lettered and of the unlettered. The man at the street corner who has hardly heard of Thackeray knows all about Sam Weller and Mrs. Gamp. This is the glory of Dickens In the pages of this book the author has retold, briefly and simply, the events of his life, summarized his ” cheery, gladsome message,” and endeavoured to suggest the particular value and significance of each of his principal books.
Excerpt from the text:
A man’s opinions are generally of small importance either to himself or to anybody else. When our views affect our dreams, they matter to ourselves. When they affect our conduct, they matter to our neighbours. And only then. But it is essential to all of us, both as individuals and as units of society, to think sanely of the world into which we have been born and of the life of which we form a part. It is impossible to live beautifully, which means to add to the total of happiness and to take away from the total of pain, or to dream beautifully, which means to be in complete harmony with the wonders of the universe, unless we have acquired an accurate sense of values, unless we have learned to distinguish the real from the sham, the ephemeral from the eternal, the glitter from the gold. The man, therefore, who can teach this to his fellows is the greatest of all public benefactors.
Charles Dickens is such a man. The gospel according to Dickens is a gospel which no one can afford to disregard. It is a restatement of eternal truth, and the manner of the restatement coming from a man who is almost a contemporary, adds to its importance, for it is obvious that eternal truth must always be capable of statement in terms of the present. Few things are therefore of more vital importance to the Englishman of to-day than that he should understand Dickens completely and rightly.
Thackeray as a literary artist was limited by the fact that he was always a gentleman. The glory of Dickens is that he was a common man writing about common men for common men. He was magnificently vulgar. He was never shocked by common ways. On the contrary, he realised their splendour and their humour. Sir Arthur Pinero once made the astounding discovery that comedy could only be found in the lives of the leisured and the wealthy. Dickens demonstrates the humour of the commonplace and the lovable heroism of the fool. Most of us are poor and commonplace. Many of us are fools, and Dickens tells us that our lives, as well as the lives of our betters, may be full of colour and thrills. Anyone can see the splendour of the Lord Mayor’s coachman. It took Dickens to see the splendour of Mr. Toots. The common man is the victim of his superiors. He is never left alone. He is always, in these ” social ” days, being inspected and reformed and ” chivied ” into discomfort and naturalness. But Dickens takes the common man by the hand, invites him to accompany Sam Weller to the “swarry” at Bath, and bids him rejoice in his commonness. The superior person ” in a bright crimson coat with longtails, vividly red breeches, and a cocked hat ” (or even if he wears less picturesque raiment) is a pernicious ass. The common man is the child of the gods.
Dickens more than any other great writer knew the life of the very poor and understood the tragedy of the everyday menace of the empty cupboard. But he never forgot the humanity and the humour (the two things are really identical) of the life of the very poor. He and John Bunyan are the only men in the whole pageant of English literature who speak for the inarticulate common poor man. Dickens died a world-famous novelist. He had earned heaps of money. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. But he remained the child of the mean street. Mr. H. G. Wells, a novelist in my opinion generally underestimated by his contemporaries, is nominally by birth of the lower middle class. He has described with great skill and accurate detail the every days of the struggling little shopkeeper. But compare his description of the small baker’s family in Tono Bungay with Dickens’ picture of the Kenwigs, and the difference between the two writers is at once apparent. Mr. Wells looks back with horror at a life from which he has escaped. Dickens writes of the Kenwigs with the joy and pride of the man who is one of the family. Mr. Wells was born in a strange land, and has moved into his own country. Dickens lived, spiritually, his whole life with his kin. Mr. Wells sees nothing to laugh at in the old squalor. Dickens finds the Kenwigs enormously funny. It is inhuman not to be amusing. All men are really amusing if one only understands, just because they are human. But it is bad manners to laugh when we do not understand. The man in the bowler is a cad if he laughs at a duke in his coronet. But most dukes are frightfully amusing to the other dukes, just as most dustmen are frightfully amusing to the other dustmen.
But if Dickens proclaims the humanity of the common man by laughing at him, he also demonstrates over and over again his fine dignity. Reginald Wilfer who endured dull work, the nickname of Rumty and a wife, ” a tall woman and an angular,” and remained a cheerful little cherub, and the more picturesque but not a whit more adorable Bob Cratchit, are evidence of the novelist’s understanding of the courage, the self-sacrifice, the lovableness of the man in the street. Only men with souls can be happy when the wind is in the east, and the amazing happiness of the common man is the evidence of his affinity with the eternal. An omnibus on a wet day may appear to be filled with dull fellows journeying from dull offices to dull homes, but Dickens would find it full of heroes journeying with dignity along the pathway trodden before them by heroes and saints.
His attitude to his villains must also be considered in the endeavour fully to understand the Dickens gospel. Sikes is altogether hateful and melodramatic. So are Ralph Nickleby and Sir John Chester and Jonas Chuzzlewit. But the villains that we really remember are comic — Quilp and Squeers, Mr. Pecksniff and Jingle, even Fagin; and Dickens’ attitude to naughtiness is extremely characteristic. Squeers is a most complete and audacious rascal, and yet Squeers makes us laugh. Fagin is a villain of the deepest dye, but for all that he is obviously designed as a comic figure. Under the influence of superior persons we have grown absurdly exclusive. We do not only hate sin (or profess to hate it), but we refuse to regard the sinner as a man and a brother. Consequently we torture the sinners against society’s laws, not as our forefathers tortured with easy human neglect, but with soul-killing rules and regulations. We wash them and half -feed them and give them a little work, and we drown their souls in whitewash. I profess that I would sooner be half-starved with Jingle and Job on the poor prisoner’s side of the old Fleet than be locked up in the grim modern horror that deadens the beauty of Dartmoor. Dickens was never superior. He was not too refined or too virtuous to laugh at the Artful Dodger. Modern reformers and philanthropists are forever thanking God that they are not as the other men whom they profess to help. Only the Salvation Army has the real Dickens spirit. Its officers call burglars ” brother ” and harlots ” sister,” and they mean it, and, in consequence, the Salvation Army is practically the only organisation that persuades burglars to give up burgling and harlots to abandon their calling. Dickens bids us laugh at his virtuous characters, at Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller, at Mark Tapley and Tom Pinch, at Captain Cuttle and Mr. Boffin. If he did not also bid us laugh at his vicious creations, he would be at once suggesting that virtue was more amusing than vice, and that the vicious have no souls to be saved. Man is indeed essentially funny, and in this he stands alone among created things. A lion is not funny, or a cow or a nightingale, or even a hippopotamus, and apes and dogs are only funny when they have been taught to imitate man. It is man’s birthright to be funny. The guilelessness of Mr. Pickwick, the good-nature of Mark Tapley, the tender consideration of Captain Cuttle, the weak-mindedness of Mrs. Nickleby, the hypocrisy of Mr. Pecksniff, the dissipation of Dick Swiveller, the smugness of Mrs. Chadband, the devotion of Miss Tox are all funny, and it should be noted that we do not like Mark Tapley any the less or hate Pecksniff any the less because we laugh at them both. The everyday remark, ” This is a funny world,” is profoundly true. It is a splendid world, a thrilling world, a disappointing world, perhaps at times a sad world, but all the time it is a funny world. Dickens realised this, and it is not without significance that the characters in his novels that we cannot laugh at are the failures, unconvincing and unreal. Mrs. Nickleby, Squeers, Tim Linkinwater, the Brothers Cheeryble, Newman Noggs, are all splendidly human. Kate Nickleby, Nicholas, and Ralph are lay figures. There is blood in the veins of Mr. Podsnap, but only sawdust in the veins of John Harmon. The man you can never laugh at is not a real man, and to confess that we can see nothing amusing in any man or any woman is to prove that we do not really know them.
It has been said (it is not true) that Dickens invented the English Christmas, and he decidedly found good cheer and much food and drink eminently human and desirable. He loved parties and described them with a relish — Mr. Wardle’s party, the Kenwigs’ party, the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner, old Chuzzlewit’s party. Man is a social being and he can only rejoice with his friends, and most of us have far too few parties and festivities. Food and wine loosen tongues and help to destroy the absurd reticence which is the most insistent of our national vices. Who are we that we should desire to hide ourselves from our fellows? If all men were open and candid the world would be ever so much more interesting, and suspicion, dislike, and misunderstanding would be almost completely destroyed. The Dickens man is eager to tell all his secrets and to hear all the secrets of his next-door neighbour. Men tell secrets over the dinner table if the dinner has been good and the company well assorted.
Pickwick, whom all the world loves (Dickens began, by the way, to create a completely ridiculous character and ended quite naturally by making him completely lovable), often drank too much, so did Dick Swiveller. Gabriel Varden was always emptying Toby, and Pips ” knocked off his wine pretty handsomely.” Dickens certainly had no sort of sympathy with tee-totallers (the red-nosed shepherd was a most pernicious humbug) or with any form of asceticism. We cannot imagine him dining at a vegetarian restaurant or adopting a fruitarian diet. I suggest that it is of the first importance that the man whose books, from the first page he wrote to the last, breathe the most splendid humanity should have given the characters he loved best what the man in the street regards as ” a good time,” and should have had no little sympathy with the roisterer. I am bold enough to believe that man was born to eat red meat and to drink good wine, and that the lentil-fed ascetic (in Europe anyhow — the Asiatic man has different passions, different dreams, and different hopes) is only half a man. It may be the best half, but he is sharply differentiated from the man in the omnibus and he cannot understand. The trail of the lentil lies on much of the literature and much of the legislation of our time, and in consequence the literature is freakish and in its essence divorced from the workaday realities, and the legislation is harassing and ineffective. When we speak of ” life “we do not mean life as it is lived by the members of the Fabian Society, by teetotal fanatics, or by super-refined ladies and gentlemen with ample means and leisure, but life as it is led by the common multitude, and it is the glory of Dickens that he understood this common multitude, that he shared its tastes and its prejudices, that he recognised its sorrows and its humours, and that with his seer’s eyes he saw how its living could be made fuller and more splendid and more satisfying. Mr. Bernard Shaw can never help the world very much, for Mr. Shaw, disliking the world that God created, has created a world for himself. He will talk to us, and sell his books and plays to us. But he will not eat with us or drink with us, and he cannot pray with us for he does not understand our prayers. But Dickens was, in the best sense, a man of the world. He is the fellow of the man in the street and the man in the public-house, and he finds it quite amusing that the elderly gentleman should drink too much milk punch on a hot afternoon, and part of the manliness of an excellent locksmith that he should have frequent jugs of beer.
The attitude of Dickens to the criminal is the common attitude of the common man in mean streets. The man in prison is gently spoken of as the man in trouble. His attitude to the weak-witted is similarly common and kind. If I wanted to find an argument against such a law as the Mental Deficiency Act (and heaven knows, it would be easy to find a score!) I should just say ” Mr. Toots.” There is nothing more profound than the folly of the wise. There is nothing more beautiful than the wisdom of the foolish. The one idea of the Christian religion is summed up in the sentence, ” Thou hast hid those things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.” It is inevitable that the wise and prudent should be always with ns and that they should never allow us to forget their presence. But sweetness, light, and love and sympathy are best understood by the simple-minded. They give them to us with open hands. Dickens knew this. Mr. Dick would have been, if he had lived to-day, inevitably locked up in an admirably arranged asylum. But happy with his kite and Betsey Trotwood, he did no end of good. Mr. Toots was very silly, but he was the very soul of kindness and consideration and as true a gentleman as Colonel Newcome himself. Dr. Saleeby and his fellow-eugenists must read of his marriage with the Nipper with utter horror, but I am quite certain that their children were altogether delightful and desirable. Almost all the completely lovable characters in the Dickens novels are rather stupid — Mr. Dick and Micawber, Mr. Toots and Captain Cuttle, Tom Pinch, Mr. Pickwick, Joe Gargery, Mr. Boffin, George the trooper, even Sydney Carton. In The Pickwick Papers he makes the beautiful Arabella Allen fall in love with the emptyheaded Mr. Winkle, and once more demonstrated his profound knowledge of life. No woman really loved a wise man. Women love men that appear wise, but that only means they have discovered some heavenly folly that is hidden from the rest of the world. We vastly overestimate the value of cleverness, and society is unquestionably in grave danger of falling under the heel of a clever minority. Their tyranny will be the hardest that history has ever known, and it will lead to a revolution, compared to which the French Revolution will be mere child’s play. Dickens asserts the fact that in all essentials the simple man — the average common man — understands far more clearly than the learned and the wise. No man by reasoning can discover God, and indeed the man of subtle reasoning is leagues farther from God than the fool. ” You are an ignorant man, you say,” old Martin Chuzzlewit observed to Mark Tapley. ” Wery much so,” Mr. Tapley replied. ” And I am a learned, well-instructed man, you think? ” ” Likewise wery much so,” Mr. Tapley answered. But the whole story of Martin Chuzzlewit is a demonstration of the blindness of the man who was learned and well-instructed and the splendid sane judgment of the ignorant.