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Letters To Dead Authors
LETTER--To Charles Dickens
by Lang, Andrew

Sir,--It has been said that every man is born a Platonist or an Aristotelian, though the enormous majority of us, to be sure, live and die without being conscious of any invidious philosophic partiality whatever. With more truth (though that does not imply very much) every Englishman who reads may be said to be a partisan of yourself or of Mr. Thackeray. Why should there be any partisanship in the matter; and why, having two such good things as your novels and those of your contemporary, should we not be silently happy in the possession? Well, men are made so, and must needs fight and argue over their tastes in enjoyment. For myself, I may say that in this matter I am what the Americans do NOT call a "Mugwump," what English politicians dub a "superior person"--that is, I take no side, and attempt to enjoy the best of both.

It must be owned that this attitude is sometimes made a little difficult by the vigour of your special devotees. They have ceased, indeed, thank Heaven! to imitate you; and even in "descriptive articles" the touch of Mr. Gigadibs, of him whom "we almost took for the true Dickens," has disappeared. The young lions of the Press no longer mimic your less admirable mannerisms--do not strain so much after fantastic comparisons, do not (in your manner and Mr. Carlyle's) give people nick-names derived from their teeth, or their complexion; and, generally, we are spared second-hand copies of all that in your style was least to be commended. But, though improved by lapse of time in this respect, your devotees still put on little conscious airs of virtue, robust manliness, and so forth, which would have irritated you very much, and there survive some press men who seem to have read you a little (especially your later works), and never to have read anything else. Now familiarity with the pages of "Our Mutual Friend" and "Dombey and Son" does not precisely constitute a liberal education, and the assumption that it does is apt (quite unreasonably) to prejudice people against the greatest comic genius of modern times.

On the other hand, Time is at last beginning to sift the true admirers of Dickens from the false. Yours, Sir, in the best sense of the word, is a popular success, a popular reputation. For example, I know that, in a remote and even Pictish part of this kingdom, a rural household, humble and under the shadow of a sorrow inevitably approaching, has found in "David Copperfield" oblivion of winter, of sorrow, and of sickness. On the other hand, people are now picking up heart to say that "they cannot read Dickens," and that they particularly detest "Pickwick." I believe it was young ladies who first had the courage of their convictions in this respect. "Tout sied aux belles," and the fair, in the confidence of youth, often venture on remarkable confessions. In your "Natural History of Young Ladies" I do not remember that you describe the Humorous Young Lady. {1} She is a very rare bird indeed, and humour generally is at a deplorably low level in England.

Hence come all sorts of mischief, arisen since you left us; and it may be said that inordinate philanthropy, genteel sympathy with Irish murder and arson, Societies for Badgering the Poor, Esoteric Buddhism, and a score of other plagues, including what was once called AEstheticism, are all, primarily, due to want of humour. People discuss, with the gravest faces, matters which properly should only be stated as the wildest paradoxes. It naturally follows that, in a period almost destitute of humour, many respectable persons "cannot read Dickens," and are not ashamed to glory in their shame. We ought not to be angry with others for their misfortunes; and yet when one meets the cretins who boast that they cannot read Dickens, one certainly does feel much as Mr. Samuel Weller felt when he encountered Mr. Job Trotter.

How very singular has been the history of the decline of humour! Is there any profound psychological truth to be gathered from consideration of the fact that humour has gone out with cruelty? A hundred years ago, eighty years ago--nay, fifty years ago--we were a cruel but also a humorous people. We had bull-baitings, and badger- drawings, and hustings, and prize-fights, and cock-fights; we went to see men hanged; the pillory and the stocks were no empty "terrors unto evil-doers," for there was commonly a malefactor occupying each of these institutions. With all this we had a broad-blown comic sense. We had Hogarth, and Bunbury, and George Cruikshank, and Gilray; we had Leech and Surtees, and the creator of Tittlebat Titmouse; we had the Shepherd of the "Noctes," and, above all, we had YOU.

From the old giants of English fun--burly persons delighting in broad caricature, in decided colours, in cockney jokes, in swashing blows at the more prominent and obvious human follies--from these you derived the splendid high spirits and unhesitating mirth of your earlier works. Mr. Squeers, and Sam Weller, and Mrs. Gamp, and all the Pickwickians, and Mr. Dowler, and John Browdie--these and their immortal companions were reared, so to speak, on the beef and beer of that naughty, fox-hunting, badger-baiting old England, which we have improved out of existence. And these characters, assuredly, are your best; by them, though stupid people cannot read about them, you will live while there is a laugh left among us. Perhaps that does not assure you a very prolonged existence, but only the future can show.

The dismal seriousness of the time cannot, let us hope, last for ever and a day. Honest old Laughter, the true LUTIN of your inspiration, must have life left in him yet, and cannot die; though it is true that the taste for your pathos, and your melodrama, and plots constructed after your favourite fashion ("Great Expectations" and the "Tale of Two Cities" are exceptions) may go by and never be regretted. Were people simpler, or only less clear-sighted, as far as your pathos is concerned, a generation ago? Jeffrey, the hard- headed shallow critic, who declared that Wordsworth "would never do," cried, "wept like anything," over your Little Nell. One still laughs as heartily as ever with Dick Swiveller; but who can cry over Little Nell?

Ah, Sir, how could you--who knew so intimately, who remembered so strangely well the fancies, the dreams, the sufferings of childhood- -how could you "wallow naked in the pathetic," and massacre holocausts of the Innocents? To draw tears by gloating over a child's death-bed, was it worthy of you? Was it the kind of work over which our hearts should melt? I confess that Little Nell might die a dozen times, and be welcomed by whole legions of Angels, and I (like the bereaved fowl mentioned by Pet Marjory) would remain unmoved.

She was more than usual calm,
She did not give a single dam,

wrote the astonishing child who diverted the leisure of Scott. Over your Little Nell and your Little Dombey I remain more than usual calm; and probably so do thousands of your most sincere admirers. But about matter of this kind, and the unseating of the fountains of tears, who can argue? Where is taste? where is truth? What tears are "manly, Sir, manly," as Fred Bayham has it; and of what lamentations ought we rather to be ashamed? Sunt lacrymae rerum; one has been moved in the cell where Socrates tasted the hemlock; or by the river-banks where Syracusan arrows slew the parched Athenians among the mire and blood; or, in fiction, when Colonel Newcome says Adsum, or over the diary of Clare Doria Forey, or where Aramis laments, with strange tears, the death of Porthos. But over Dombey (the Son), or Little Nell, one declines to snivel.

When an author deliberately sits down and says, "Now, let us have a good cry," he poisons the wells of sensibility and chokes, at least in many breasts, the fountain of tears. Out of "Dombey and Son" there is little we care to remember except the deathless Mr. Toots; just as we forget the melodramatics of "Martin Chuzzlewit." I have read in that book a score of times; I never see it but I revel in it--in Pecksniff, and Mrs. Gamp, and the Americans. But what the plot is all about, what Jonas did, what Montagu Tigg had to make in the matter, what all the pictures with plenty of shading illustrate, I have never been able to comprehend. In the same way, one of your most thorough-going admirers has allowed (in the licence of private conversation) that "Ralph Nickleby and Monk are too steep;" and probably a cultivated taste will always find them a little precipitous.

"Too steep:"--the slang expresses that defect of an ardent genius, carried above itself, and out of the air we breathe, both in its grotesque and in its gloomy imaginations. To force the note, to press fantasy too hard, to deepen the gloom with black over the indigo, that was the failing which proved you mortal. To take an instance in little: when Pip went to Mr. Pumblechook's, the boy thought the seedsman "a very happy man to have so many little drawers in his shop." The reflection is thoroughly boyish; but then you add, "I wondered whether the flower-seeds and bulbs ever wanted of a fine day to break out of those jails and bloom." That is not boyish at all; that is the hard-driven, jaded literary fancy at work.

"So we arraign her; but she," the Genius of Charles Dickens, how brilliant, how kindly, how beneficent she is! dwelling by a fountain of laughter imperishable; though there is something of an alien salt in the neighbouring fountain of tears. How poor the world of fancy would be, how "dispeopled of her dreams," if, in some ruin of the social system, the books of Dickens were lost; and if The Dodger, and Charley Bates, and Mr. Crinkle, and Miss Squeers and Sam Weller, and Mrs. Gamp, and Dick Swiveller were to perish, or to vanish with Menander's men and women! We cannot think of our world without them; and, children of dreams as they are, they seem more essential than great statesmen, artists, soldiers, who have actually worn flesh and blood, ribbons and orders, gowns and uniforms. May we not almost welcome "Free Education"? for every Englishman who can read, unless he be an Ass, is a reader the more for you.

P.S.--Alas, how strangely are we tempered, and how strong is the national bias! I have been saying things of you that I would not hear an enemy say. When I read, in the criticism of an American novelist, about your "hysterical emotionality" (for he writes in American), and your "waste of verbiage," I am almost tempted to deny that our Dickens has a single fault, to deem you impeccable!

{1} I am informed that the Natural History of Young Ladies is attributed, by some writers, to another philosopher, the author of The Art of Pluck.


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