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Dickens at 200

by M. D. Aeschliman

Dickens was born in 1812, and there are celebrations and commemorative activities taking place in this bicentennial year all over the English-speaking world and beyond it. Along with the works of Shakespeare, his fictions now define what English-speaking people have come to mean by “classic” literary art, and although his critical reception has been variable over the 140 years since his death — it stands supremely high now — his popularity has never waned: The dozen great novels have never been out of print.

In the lowest period of critical opinion of Dickens, G. K. Chesterton wrote a great 1906 book on him and followed it with introductions to each of the novels in the Everyman edition. Chesterton saw something radically Christian and radically democratic in Dickens, in this regard unwittingly supporting Dostoevsky’s earlier view of him. In a 1965 reprint of Chesterton’s book on Dickens, the American literary critic Steven Marcus asserted that Chesterton was right to trace Dickens’s profound “feeling for” and sympathy with “common humanity . . . not only to the French Revolution and the radical humanitarianism of Dickens’s time, but to Dickens’s Christianity, his literal, his primitive Christianity. Dostoevsky, who called Dickens his master, also called him ‘the great Christian’ [and he] knew whereof he spoke.”

This is evident in Dostoevsky’s well-known January 1868 letter to his niece about Dickens, whom he had first read in Russian translation in prison in Siberia in the early 1850s. But we also now know that Dostoevsky and Dickens actually met and conversed in London in 1862 and that they discussed the internal duality of the human person — that perennial inner moral conflict — the frequent, eloquent, often unforgettable depiction of which makes both of them among the very greatest moralists and imaginative writers who ever lived.

Like their great novelist-contemporaries Tolstoy and Alessandro Manzoni, Dickens and Dostoevsky were initially inspired by the liberal reform ideals identified with the American and French revolutions: all men being “created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights” and desires for “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” But all of them knew that the French Revolution went badly, as Burke had predicted as early as 1790: that it passed through anarchic, sanguinary violence and ended in the wolfish military despotism of Napoleon. Simon Schama’s celebrated bicentennial volume on the French Revolution, Citizens (1989), asserted that violence was the very essence of the French Revolution, affirming much of Carlyle’s view in his 1837 history The French Revolution, which had such a massive influence on Dickens and especially on his Tale of Two Cities (1859). The conservative French Catholic émigré and critic of the Revolution Joseph de Maistre exercised an important influence on Tolstoy and the characterizations in War and Peace.

The repeated disappointment of revolutionary and utopian hopes and outbursts in France in the 19th century led to a wild oscillation between secular messianism and brutal Realpolitik-based cynicism. That cynicism, in turn, produced a literature of sinister “realism,” absurdist irony, and aestheticism in Stendhal, Flaubert, Balzac, Maupassant, and many others, and went on to stain and disfigure much subsequent literature, not only in France.

Dickens dealt with social and political issues in a uniquely sensitive way. He depicted and critiqued the cynical selfishness in the upper classes in England, as well as the outraged reaction to it of the “anti-popery” English mobs of the Gordon Riots in London in 1780 (Barnaby Rudge) and the anger of the Parisian sans-culotte mobs of Paris a decade later (A Tale of Two Cities). Like Dostoevsky, he had a prophetic insight into these human dynamics. The tormented Rousseau’s explosive, revolutionary critique of the competitive, invidious social egotism, or “amour propre,” that he thought characterized most aristocrats, bourgeois, and intellectuals (“philosophes”) in pre-revolutionary France was probably not known to Dickens, but he apprehended it imaginatively in ways that have proved to be unforgettably vivid and profound, not only in A Tale of Two Cities but also in the genteel, satanic figure of the Frenchman Blandois in Little Dorrit. It is a mark of Dickens’s supreme, almost angelic disinterestedness and fairness that he also depicts it in English characters such as Sir John Chester in Barnaby Rudge. As Lionel Trilling pointed out, in one of the greatest essays on Dickens, figures such as Chester and Blandois are exemplifications of the line in King Lear that “the prince of darkness is” often “a gentleman.” Trilling goes on to argue that the heartlessly clever cosmopolitanism of these figures is “rationalistic and subversive of the very assumption of society.” Dostoevsky and Dickens felt and depicted this invidious, egotistical social snobbery, and its terrible effects, with hallucinatory clarity and force.

Both writers imaginatively apprehended the fact that the ascendant utilitarian accounts of ethics were profoundly wrong, despite being articulated by the most influential intellectuals of their time — the philosophes and Jacobins in France, Bentham and the Mills in England, Chernyshevsky in Russia. As orthodox moralists from Bishop Butler, Burke, Tocqueville, and Newman to Reinhold Niebuhr have cogently argued, no ethical or political theory affirming the primacy of self-interest can provide a basis for ethics; and Dickens and Dostoevsky mocked and assaulted such utilitarian conceptions in their fictions. In his superb The Victorian Age in Literature (1913), Chesterton asserted that the great secular, progressive “utilitarian citadel” was “heavily bombarded by one lonely and unlettered man of genius”: Dickens, who knew that the “fundamental sense of human fraternity can only exist in the presence of positive religion.” The final triumph of Polish Catholicism over Communist utilitarianism at the end of the 20th century, the first domino in the destruction of European Communism, may be said to illustrate the point.

Fagin in Oliver Twist, Ralph Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby, and Gradgrind in Hard Times are particularly explicit and effective satires on “looking out for number one” as a basis for society, ethics, education, or even self-respect. Lester G. Crocker showed in detail 50 years ago in Nature and Culture: Ethical Thought in the French Enlightenment that scientistic French naturalism led logically and inevitably to the “nihilist dissolution” of ethics that has intermittently tormented and distorted Western societies since the 18th century, a point also made apologetically by the reformed cynic Aldous Huxley in 1938 in Ends and Means. In 1972, Lionel Trilling noted the disfiguring “scientistic conception of the mind that prevailed among intellectuals at the time of the French Revolution.” Dickens’s moral imagination intuitively apprehended and powerfully depicted these truths in fictional forms that remain triumphs of psychological, social, and ethical insight, narrative energy, and literary excellence, astonishing feats of human perception by that “unlettered man of genius.”

To read Dickens is, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “to grow in mental health,” because he has capacities of moral imagination that characterize only the greatest of artists in any medium: to “hold up the mirror to nature”; to “instruct by delighting”; to “paint virtue,” making us love the good and hate the bad, rejuvenating our sense of justice and moral beauty; to make us, in the phrase from King Lear, “see feelingly” the value, sufferings, and pathos of the lives of others; “to assert Eternal Providence / And justify the ways of God to men”; to refresh hope and commend moral earnestness.

After Dickens’s death, this “moral earnestness,” so characteristic of him and other great Victorian writers such as Carlyle, Hawthorne, Newman, Tennyson, Melville, Longfellow, and Ruskin, came to be mocked by aesthetes, atheists, and cynics such as Oscar Wilde (“The Importance of Being Earnest,” 1895) and his Bloomsbury successors such as Lytton Strachey, who cleverly attacked such earnest Victorians as the nurse Florence Nightingale, the Christian educator Thomas Arnold, and the Catholic convert Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, quite effectively distorting and wounding the reputations of these noble individuals. Of Strachey’s portrayal of Queen Victoria (1921) and other eminent Victorians (in the 1918 book of that title), Paul Johnson wrote 20 years ago: Strachey was “far more destructive to the old British values than any legion of enemies.” But no society — no decent individual — can live long or well without moral sincerity as an ideal. It is an ideal that suffuses Dickens’s life and fiction, though with humor and without self-righteousness.

F. R. Leavis claimed that Dickens was “a great poet,” arguing that in his “command of word, phrase, rhythm, and image,” his “endless resource in felicitously varied expression,” and his “ease and range,” there is “surely no greater master in English except Shakespeare.” And T. S. Eliot said of Dickens’s characters that they had “greater intensity than human beings” and a “kind of reality which is almost supernatural, which hardly seems to belong to the character by natural right, but seems rather to descend upon him by a kind of inspiration or grace.” His “figures belong to poetry, like figures of Dante or Shakespeare, in that a single phrase, either by them or about them, may be enough to set them wholly before us.”

But we may leave a last word on Dickens, mysterious but pregnant with good tidings, to that ambiguous and acerbic figure George Santayana: Dickens is “one of the best friends mankind has ever had.”

– Mr. Aeschliman is professor emeritus of education at Boston University and professor of anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland. He has just published a new edition of A Tale of Two Cities(Ignatius Critical Editions).

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