From The Short Penguin History of English Literature, by Stephen Coote ("Victorian Values", 3):
(...) Bulwer-Lytton also developed many other genres of fiction. Paul Clifford (1850), for example, is a 'novel with a purpose' in which the author campaigned against 'a vicious prison-discipline, and a sanguinary penal code'. His resurrection of the eighteenth-century 'Newgate novel' was to influence the Dickens of Oliver Twist (1838), while occult fantasies such as Zanoni (1842), ghost stories such as 'The Haunted and the Haunters' (1859) and works of science fiction furthered Bulwer-Lytton's popularity. So did The Caxtons (1849), a gentle saga of domestic family life, and one of a trilogy of pleasantly reassuring works which include My Novel (1853) and What Will He Do with It? (1858). Compromise and good humour are the essence of these works.
Two contemporary exponents of comic fiction were Charles Lever (1806-72) and R. S. Surtees (1805-64). Lever's works were principally concerned with Ireland and the Irish, and range from picaresque military adventure through to Lord Kilgobbin (1872), a more sombre reflection on the life of the Irish aristocracy. The picaresque was also to be favoured by Surtees in Jorrocks's Jaunts and Jollities (1838), his sporting sketches of a rumbustious 'Fox 'unting' grocer whose Sancho-Panza-like servant Pigg is introduced in Handley Cross (1843).
With such novels as these, the enormous range of Victorian prose fiction had begun to be explored. Social and political theory, protest, and historical and domestic works had all been essayed, but it is with the comic possibilities opened up by social reportage that we come to the early career of one of the supreme figures of nineteenth-century English literature: Charles Dickens (1812-70).
Dickens began his career as a freelance journalist, reporting legal and parliamentary affairs with an accuracy that was to win him a high reputation. An increasingly informed and passionate response to Victorian social conditions sustained the great achievements of his maturity, while the exuberance apparent in his early pieces led to the writing of anecdotal sketches, character studies and tales. Derived in part from the essays of Leigh Hunt and the young Dickens's extensive reading in the novels and journalism of the eighteenth century, these very successful essays were issued in volume form and under Dickens's pseudonym as Sketches by Boz (1836).
The publishers Chapman and hall were aware of this early work, and when the failing artist Robert Seymour approached them with some sporting illustrations of cockneys in the countryside, they asked the newly contracted Boz for linking passages of narrative prose. Confident now of his imaginative power, Dickens insisted that the illustrations serve the narrative rather than the other way around. The publishers agreed, and at the close of March 1836 they began the monthly serial publication of one of the great comic works in the language, Pickwick Papers. As the novel developed along its haphazard route and the plump and prosperous hero acquired his worldly wise servant Sam Weller—a figure who shows Dickens's remarkable powers of characterization through speech—so this genial comedy of middle-class life slowly became a publishing phenomenon. The eighteenth-century picaresque novel had been given fresh life, and the newly married author of twenty-four eventually found his work circulated in print runs of 40,000 a month.
The commercial success of this experiment in serial publication was to have an immense influence on subsequent Victorian fiction. Authors and publishers were now often to issue their works in parts before republication in a 'three-decker' or later as a single volume. The demands and conventions of issuing a novel in what was often as many as twenty monthly parts of three or four chapters, with a concluding double issue, challenged authors to organize their themes, plots and character developments within a regular framework of climaxes. In addition, writers learned how to bind their material together through parallelism and imagery. The enormous length of such publications encouraged the depiction of a comprehensive social range, while the relatively low cost of serial publication—a shilling an issue compared to the guinea and a half charged for a bound novel—greatly enlarged the market.
In Pickwick Papers itself, many of the technical possibilities offered by serial form are still unexplored. However, with Jingle as the none-too-serious villain of the work and the humorously contrived misunderstanding whereby the innocent Pickwick is mistakenly supposed to have offered marriage to his landlady Mrs Bardell, the work develops via such hilrious scenes as Bob Sawyer's bachelor party (later one of Dickens's favourite recital episodes) towards the high comedy of the trial of Bardell v. Pickwick. Pickwick's refusal to pay damages and his consequent stay in the debtors' prison gave Dickens the chance to confront boyish innocence and the charitable high spirits of Dingley Dell with a suggestion of the claustrophobic horror that characterizes the world of his maturity. Against this he then set the hero's magnanimity—the essential Pickwickian benevolence—by which Pickwick himself contrives to relieve the wretchedness of his fellow prisoners. The rich man who intervenes to alleviate suffering was to remain a standard figure in Dickens's fiction.
With Pickwick gaining ever-greater popularity, Dickens began a work whose characters were to obsess his imagination and whose incidents began to probe the painful worlds of abused childhood and official incompetence in a manner that reveals the great social critic. The sentiment and high melodrama of Oliver Twist (1838) derive from the popularity of the Newgate novel, while the somewhat clumsily handled conventions of the wronged woman, the dispossessed heir and the death-bed secret explore the social horrors of Victorian England with considerable power.
Oliver in the Malthusian hell of the workhouse is an image of eternal innocence caught in Victorian corruption, in particular the evils of the 1834 Poor Laws and the blighted imagination and sheer ineptitude of Bumble the beadle. The institutionalized physical hunger of the workhouse is at one with the emotional starvation, and both lead to legendary pathos: 'The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the tabl; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: "Please, Sir, I want some more."' Here is an emblem of a heartless, system-dominated world that tries to crush the individual and stands perpetually indicted for failing to protect the innocent and the weak. Dickens's loathing of the mechanical inhumanity of systems places him firmly in the line of the great Victorian sages.
Where supposedly respectable adults have abused their trust the Devil steps in, here as Fagin the red-bearded master of the underworld frying sausages with a toasting fork and ironically encouraging the cockney resilience of the Artful Dodger and his school of thieves in the Victorian values of hard work, family loyalty and useful education. If official charity is heartless, the criminal world at first appears warm. The irony is scathing, but it leads to the nightmare of the Devil trying to reclaim his own, of nancy mnenaced by Fagin and Sikes, and Dickens's portrayal of the wicked pusued by justice after the brutal murder of Nancy herself.
Perhaps no moment in Dickens more surely raises melodrama to high art than this last—the strands of Nancy's hair crackling in the fire as Sikes burns his murderous club echo forever in the mind—and it is the sheer imaginative force of Dickens's underworld that remains with the reader long after the machinery that leads to Oliver's security in the middle-class world of Mr Brownlow has been forgotten. A simplistic faith in acceptable Victorian values pales when confronted by the anarchic forces that underlay them and suggests that the artist and the moralist were not yet at one.
Such problems of focus are also evident in Nicholas Nickleby (1839) and The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), where they partly derive from both being novels of the road. However, where the first is comic and resilient, the second is often sentimental to a maudlin degree.
In his previous novels, Dickens's heroes had been a portly old gentleman and a child. In Nicholas Nickleby, he took what he described as 'a young man of impetuous temper and of little or no experience' and placed him in a plot that is too often dependent on eavesdropping and coincidence. It is also uncomfortably suspended between the stage villainy of Uncle Ralph and the sickly benevolence of the Cheeryble brothers. Such effects suggest the world of Victorian melodrama, and Dickens's love of the theatre is evident throughout. Popular culture, indeed, was one of the mainstays of his art.
If the stage villainy of Ralph, the pathos of the mentally defective Smike and the often rather priggish virtue of the hero strain credibility, what gives the novel its continuous fascination is Dickens's portrayal of a cast of grotesques acting out their roles with conscious hypocrisy like Ralph or the superabundant dottiness of Mrs Nickleby. The success and limitations of such a proceeding can be seen in the book's most famous character: Mr Squeers, the sadistic and rapacious principal of a nightmare school for the unwanted sons of the gentry. Evil is here tempered by broad comedy indignation Squeers certainly rouses but also laughter, and in the end it is sufficient that he is flogged by Nicholas who then absconds with his chief victim, Smike.
In contrast to Squeers are the Crummlees, that marvellous theatrical family who become ever more vivid as their plays become ever more absurd. Mr. Crummles's memory of falling in love with his consort as she stood 'on the butt-end of a spear surrounded with blazing fireworks' has a bizarre yet heart-warming innocence, a richly imaginative psychological verisimilitude. Such invention suggests that uniquely Dickensian gallery of snobs, fools and minor villains, obsessives who are often the life of his work. Among such figures here are Mrs Nickleby herself whose mental flutterings rise to the greatness of Mistress Quickly as she hears of the death of Smike:
'I am sure,' said Mrs Nickleby, wiping her eyes, and sobbing bitterly, 'I have lost the best, the most zealous, and most attentive creature that has ever been a companion to me in my life—putting you, my dear Nicholas, and Kate, and your poor papa, and that well-behaved nurse who ran away with the linen and the twelve small forks, out of the question of course.'
In The Old Curiosity Shop, a novel developed out of a story in Dickens's unsuccessful periodical Master Humphrey's Clock (1840), the death of Little Nell is a transfiguration of innocence in a corrupt world, the world of London and the industiral cities of the Midlands, of darkness, vain hope and the evil Quip.
In a world built on contrasts of light and dark, Quilp is the deformed embodiment of evil, the Rumpelstiltskin in the fiairy-tale elements of the plot. As a grotesque, he is a masterly creation. 'He ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on . . . and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon feats that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits, and began to doubt if he were really a human creature.' And therein lies the problem. Compelling as he is and revolting as the sexual and financial plots he hatches are, Quilp is unable fully to embody Dickens's loathing for 'the mountain heap of misery' in the novel. He is a figure of fear rather than a means of analysis. He belongs to fairy-tale, and the lurid hellisness of his death is too obviously his creator's revenge on horrors not yet fully understood.
By contrast, the plangently sentimental death of Little Nell, exhausted after forced wanderings with her grandfather, is too obviously an attempt by Dickens to come to terms with his own very personal feelings about the deaths of girls whose lives were too good for the world. Nell and her grandfather's flight from the city to the supposed innocence of the countryside is essentially a pursuit of sentiment and a place 'where sin and sorrow never came . . . a tranquil place of rest, where nothing evil entered'. Only here, Dickens seems to suggest, silent under a moonlit tomb, can innocence finally be left in peace with God. Meanwhile, the world goes on in the life of the stalwart Kit (one of Dickens's most delightful heroes) while the dead and the houses in which they lived pass away 'like a tale that is told'.
One of the most alarming horrors faced by Little Nell was violent industrial unrest in the Midlands. With Barnaby Rudge (1841), Dickens's historical novel on the Gordon Riots of 1780, the mob surges to the centre of attention. While the Scott of The Heart of Midlothian was an important influence here, the range of Dickens's social analysis had now been deepened by his contact with Carlyle, and in Barnaby Rudge itself a number of important elements from Carlyle's thought are clearly present. In the opening chapter, for example, we are shown the sins of the fathers that are to be visited on the sons. Sir John Chester—'soft-spoken, delicately made, precise and elegant'—personifies Carlyle and Dickens's loathing of the eighteenth-century 'Dandiacal Body', of feckless patrician government and of the paternal irresponsibility by which Chester himself casts off his son Edward while also causing the bestial Hugh, his 'natural' or illegitimate child, to join in the destruction of the Maypole inn and the traditional values suggested by the nearby great house. Hugh is the personification of the corrupt old order, 'that black tree of which I am the ripened fruit'. In this, he forms the perfect complement to the simple-minded Barnaby Rudge, the 'natural' or idiot son of a murderous servant. Together, Hugh and Barnaby suggest the brutality and idiocy which will lead a rebellion in society against the values their parents have betrayed.
The forces of the Terror as presented by Carlyle made a deep impression on Dickens, and the wanton destructiveness of the mob roars throughout his novel with a power that is as ruthlessly conceived as his master's. The mob gives frightening expression to contemporary fears of a Chartist uprising, and its mindless fury is exactly caught when Dickens describes the sacking of Lord Mansfield's house. To ravage the work of the father of the common law is to bring about a society where all coherence has gone. In the end, the heroes of the novel—Varden, Joe, Edward Chester—are obliged to align themselves with the older forces whose weakness they all too painfully know. For Dickens, society must redeem itself through traditional resources, however corrupt these may have become.
Between the completion of Barnaby Rudge and starting on Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), Dickens made the journey described in his American Notes (1842), much of which had in fact been toned down from the private letters on which his book was based. In Martin Chuzzlewit—and partly as a response to criticism levelled at American Notes—Dickens painted an even harsher picture of the United States. It becomes a morass where the 'cash nexus' had reached such appalling dimensions that 'men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioned, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars'. Dickens's powerful symbol of this thin self-destructive greed is the putrid swamp which his hero is tricked into investing in and which goes by the name of Eden.
The American scenes in Martin Chuzzlewit, excellent though their satire is, are nonetheless too loosely connected to a novel which is itself messily constructed. Martin is sent to the States (partly, it has been suggested, to boost the book's poor sales) after falling in love with his grandfather's ward and becoming a victim of the machinations of that ogre of hypocrisy, Mr Pecksniff. And it is with figures like Pecksniff and Sarah Gamp that Dickens's genius for moral caricature is seen at its most developed. The energy with which these figures have been created takes over the book, while their actions and speech lead in the case of Pecksniff especially to a portrait of hypocritical duplicity and self-seeking that was without parallel in Dickens's work so far.
Pecksniff is financially ruined by the trickster Montague Tigg, a character who again took Dickens's imagination into areas that had never been so powerfully explored, a world not just of financial chicanery, but of claustrophobic criminal psychology, nightmare and murder. The death of Tigg at the hands of Jonas Chuzzlewit points forward to Edwin Drood (1870) and the horrors of Doestoevesky's Crime and Punishment (1866). If the focus of Martin Chuzzlewit as a whole is rather too diffuse, it is nonetheless one of the most richly inventive of all Dickens's works and suggests powers that his mature genius was to harness to triumphant effect.
Part of this discipline was provived by Dickens's deepening awareness of social problems, and throughout his career he was to turn to journalism as a means of publicizing abuses and venting his anger. For a brief period he was editor of the Daily News, but the most telling of his journalistic pieces from this period are the 'Letters on Social Questions' (1846-50), published in his friend and biographer John Forster's Examiner. In these articles (so superior in their passion to the contemporary Pictures from Italy (1846) and their labored travelogues) Dickens railed against capital punishment, ragged schools, 'Ignorance and Crime', the vile exploitation to be found on paupers' farms and the wretchedness of a legal system where 'A Truly British Judge' could linger over the possibilities of flogging, transporting or imprisoning a ten-year-old child who had stolen 5s 3d.
In A Christmas Carol (1843), the first and finest of the Christmas Books Dickens issued up to 1848, the heartless forces of Malthus, the Utilitarians and the market-place are presented by means of a fairy-tale that has become a permanent part of the mythology of modern man. Scrooge—'hard and sharp as a flint, from which no steel had ever struck out a generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster'—is the eternal type of the miser. His solipsistic existence is at once a psychological deformity and a satire on the hard-faced Victorian business man bound to his work, dutifully contributing a pittance to the workhouse, yet ultimately indifferent to the means that serve to 'decrease the surplus population'.
The ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the reverse of this state. The domestic virtues of Bob Cratchit his wretched clerk—values which, in The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), Dickens was to dwell on a maudlin degree—reveal a Christian benevolence that allows the Cratchits to toast Scrooge's health amid the poverty he has inflicted on them. When the ghost of Chistmas Future shows Scrooge the scenes after his own death, the miser is finally converted into that essential Dickensian figure, the wealthy but benevolent man who, far from seeing money as his chief business, can say with the ghost of Jacob Marley: 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.'
Dickens's next work again conveys the conversion of a hard and life-denying business man, but where A Christmas Carol is a moral fable, Dombey and Son (1848) is the first work of Dickens's maturity and a novel of exceptional range and subtle suggestiveness. In offering a panoramic view of a society in the throes of change, Dickens here emerges as one of the supreme figures of nineteenth-century fiction, the first great English novelist to describe the discontents of urban industrial life. His genius at last stands fully revealed.
So great an advance required a major extension of technique. What in Dickens's earlier works often appears improvided or even careless is here focused through telling juxtapositions of character and a play of imagery that at once probes the personal and social influences at work in the late 1840s and relates these to a view of the ultimately mysterious forces of life, a view that is truly poetic in its subtle comprehensiveness.
At the centre of the novel stands Dombey himself, the representative of the great business house of Dombey and Son. And it is the implications of a 'house' as both a commercial enterprise and a home for living souls that lie near the heart of the work. In a world of pride and money-consciousness however the first meaning brutally crushes the second:
The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprise; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre.Dombey is stiff and cold with commercial pride, a man whose blinkered, utilitarian vision reduces all around him to the chilling soullessness of the cash nexus, a brutal, masculine and ultimately self-defeating rigidity. The birth of his son, little Paul Dombey, is seen by him not as the coming into the world of a human being but as the arrival of a commodity that will extend the life-denying existence of the firm. Paul's coldly funereal christening at which Dombey's glance seems to freeze even the water at the font is a brilliantly ironic rendering of a heartlessness that turns all to ice.
But the boy's birth has been accompanied by his mother's death, and with this comes a source of imagery opposed to that associated with Dombey. We are shown the warm salt tears of his daughter Florence, the novel's heroine and the apparently redundant female embodiment of sentiment and love. And with Florence's tears are associated the great, ever-moving expanses of the sea. Throughout the novel, the ocean suggests death, eternity and the natural rhythms of life—mysterious, profound, but ultimately spiritual and free. It is to such forces as these that she dying Mrs Dombey surrenders when, with Florence in her tearful embrace, and 'clinging fast to that slight spar within her arms, the mother drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world'. The dying Paul is also identified with the waves. Later, the sea cruelly separates Florence from her father's clerk Walter Gay when Dombey and Son has become merely Dombey and Daughter. Nautical images also sustain the warm but threatened world of Captain Cuttle and his kin.
One threat posed to these old and often decaying forces of life is that of modern industrial progress, here symbolized by the railway. Dickens's handling of this theme shows the power of his imagination whereby social forces can be portrayed almost as characters. The railway invades lives, is praised or reacted against, but changes all about it irrecoverably. People like the inhabitants of Staggs Gardens see an old-fashioned life transformed into a new world of threat and promise. As the tracks are laid, so such characters are forced to recognize how 'the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilization and improvement'.
But if the railway is a power fro new life in the novel it is also a force for death. After he has been left a widower, Dombey marries into a hollow and heartless aristocracy (the ancient nobility and the nouveaux riches are lethally described) only to have his new wife deceive him with his villainous employee Carker. But Carker himself is eventually crushed beneath the iron forces of progress. In addition, Florence deserts her father and Dombey's business fails. His house is reduced to a hollow shell for thoughts of suicide and despair.
The ending of Dombey and Son is not pessimistic however. The man who frozed his daughter with a stare is humanized and redeemed. Florence returns amid rain and tears in a scene of the greatest Dickensian melodrama. Nor are Walter and Florence herself finally parted. The sea brings the boy home while turning to good his uncle's investments. Walter's path to success is now assured and is tempered by our knowledge of his humanity. Hearts do change. An improvement in the sometime leaders of society can be wrought. As the ageing Dombey sheds tears of love over his family, so a mechanistic world is redeemed by natural feeling.
David Copperfield (1850) was Dickens's own favorite among his novels and has remained so with generations of his readers. The reasons for such popularity are not far to seek. In this work, Dickens drew on the traumas of his own childhood and the unhappiness of his youth to create a fictional autobiography in which the psychological forces of personal experience are revealed through a series of the most vivid characters and incidents, thereby suggesting a richly human passage to maturity.
The hero's boyhood is deprived of strong parents (David's father is dead, his mother is flighty and empty-headed) and it is populated by good fairies and ogres: Peggotty, the loving, rough-handed opposite to David's mother, and the sadistic Murdstone and his repellent sister by whom David is humiliated on his return from his idyllic stay at Yarmouth. It is Murdstone who also sends the boy first to a cruel school and then to the horrors of the blacking factory. Here Dickens the novelist touches the anguished centre of Dickens the man. His own parents, confined to the debtors' prison, had obliged him to similar degradation, and it left a permanent scar on his emotions. As Dickens wrote to Forster:
The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing away from me, never to be brought back any more; cannot be written. My whole nature was so penetrated with the grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time in my life.
In the novel, only the Micawbers, feckless and irresponsible asthey are, can bring laughter into this hell. Mr Micawber—comically orotund, hopelessly optimistic that 'something will turn up'—is an image of Dickens's father and one of the most memorable of the author's inventions. That he is later used to work the downfall of Uriah Heep, whose hypocritical fawning makes him an equally effective character, suggests the novel's intricate patterning of good and evil, of thwarted childhood innocence and fallen idols, themes personified in the lubricious Steerforth and his seduction of Little Em'ly. Similarly, David's first wife Dora, a psychologically telling simulacrum of his mother, proves to be an illusory angel. It is only when David has married Agnes Wickfield, dispatched many of the figures of his childhood to Australia and then established himself as a successful novelist that this archetypal Victorian hero finally feels able to count his blessings.
During the composition of David Copperfield, Dickens launched his weekly periodical Household Words (1850-59). 'Conducted', as the rubric expressed it, by Dickens himself, this twopenny magazine was to reach a circulation of 40,000. Dickens's own contributions, some of which were later issued as Reprinted Pieces (1858), reveal the passionate social commentator. In 'A Nightly Scene in London' (January 1856), for example, we see him shaking a ragged bundle by the workhouse door. 'The rags began to be slowly stirred within, as little by little a head was unshrouded.' Asked if she has eaten, the woman twice denies it. But proof leads to helpless compassion. 'She bared her neck, and I covered it up again.'
Such was the Victorian England of Malthus and the disciples of laissez-faire, the butts of Dickens's profound moral indignation. 'I utterly renounce and abominate them in their insanity,' he wrote, 'and I address people with respect for the spirit of the New Testament, who do mind such things, and who think them infamous in our streets.' These streets were now those of the richest capital in the Western world, of an England mounting to the high plateau of mid-Victorian prosperity, and celebrating its confidence in the Great Exhibition of 1851. Against the vulgarity of the Crystal Palace however, Dickens now juxtaposed the nightmare of Bleak House (1853). The most famous novelist of Victorian England became one of its greatest critics. Dickens's engagement with his age was complete.
Bleak House is a labyrinthine indictment of contemporary conditions and a work in which Dickens's range of techniques was wrougth to its hightest pitch and then augmented with a new daring. Brooding over the whole is the court of Chancery and the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, Dickens's fog-bound, life-denying symbol or what John Jarndyce himself calls 'trickery, evasion, procrastination, spoliation, botheration . . . false pretences of all sorts'. The Court of Chancery and the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce itself which eventually swallows the disputants' moneys are Dickens's images of an England debilitated by 'the system' and a hideously perverse society.
This last ranges from the magisterial pomposity of Sir [Leicester] Dedlock to little Jo the crossing-sweeper, ignorant, abused, neglected, yet central to the whole vast and hideous machinery of the Victorian England that crushes him. As in his life, so in his death from smallpox, Jo is a figure who links the highest to the lowest. He is the most pathetic of many victims of political mismanagement and complacency, of filth, the slums and the absurdity of philanthropists who ignore the wretched sitting on their own doorsteps. In Bleak House, these forces collide as Victorian society gropes its way through a fog of corruption, greed and terrible spiritual deadness.
Dickens's imagery of corruption is one of his supreme techniques for exposing the society about him while binding together a novel whose social range—the awareness of a whole society— is an imaginative achievement of the highest order. Yet within the complex entanglements of Bleak House, and worked out with an assured narrative mastery, are other devices which, for original readers of the monthly parts, provided a degree of suspense comparble to the detective fiction Dickens here helped to inaugurate. These techniques also offered a diversity of comment and a range of incidents that were without precedent. The interconnectedness of this huge work is phenomenal achievement, and repeated readings bear out Forster's claim that 'nothing is introduced at random, everything tends to the catastrophe, the various lines of the plot converge and fit to its centre'.
The narrative of Esther Summerson is one of these devices. Virginal, self-deprecating and sensitive, Esther is Dickens's largely passive voice of human decency and a figure who develops from a maudlin dependence on John Jarndyce, through a recognition of her love for the worthy Alan Woodcourt and the ravages of smallpox (no figure is immune to the contaminations of society), and on to the nightmare revelation that she is the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock. Finally, she achieves happiness.
Esther observes nearly all the characters in the novel and provides a moral register against which to measure them. She is involved, for example, with many of the victims of Chancery: Ada Clare and the weak Richard Carstone, who inevitable deteriorates as he is drawn into its workings; Gridley, another figure destroyed by the system; and the marvellous figure of Miss Flite, half-crazed yet full of humanity and suggesting in her confused way that the day of judgment in Jardndyce and Jarndyce will be at one with the Day of Doom itself. Miss Flite's cracked mind prompts thoughts of the fall of the mighty and the coming of divine vengeance. We might laugh at her obsessions, but she also suggests that in this corrupt land the day of the Apocalypse may well be nigh.
Such an awareness of doom is also suggested through other grotesquer yet sinister figures in the subplot, above all 'Chancellor' Krook, the villainous rag-and-bone dealer with his 'liking for rust and must and cobwebs' and his sadistic sense of power and greed. The masterpiece of symbolic narrative that is Krook's death by 'Spontaneous Combustion' suggests the inevitable end of an entire way of life. 'Chancellor' Krook is incinerated by a force 'inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupt humours of the vicious body itself'. An incident so amazing that only a novelist of genius could have risked it provides a grotesque summation of all the evils in Victorian society.
Dickens's comic genius flays the social parasites in the novel with merciless inventiveness, while Esther's appalled response deepens his criticism of such figures as Mr Skimpole, the irresponsible and mercenary aesthete, and Turveydrop, the dandy and exploiter of his wife. Other grotesques include Chadband, the nauseating voice of evangelical Anglicanism; Mrs Pardiggle, the High Church philantropist 'pouncing upon the poor, and applying benevolence to them like a strait-jacket'; and Mrs Jellyby, reducing her home to slovenly chaos and ignoring the likes of Jo as she pursues plans for 'cultivating coffee and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha on the left bank of the Niger'.
Yet the comic grotesque is only one aspect of the rottenness in Bleak House. Nearer Chancery and the rapacious centre of a corrupt society move figures of sinister and sterile energies. There are the Smallweeds, that 'horny-skinned, two-legged, monkey-getting species of spider'. There is 'Conversation' Kenge, who, as he praises the law, gently moves 'his right hand as if it were a silver trowel, with which to spread the cement of his words on the structure of the system and consolidate it for a thousand ages'. There is Vholes the solicitor glimpsed as he 'takes off his close black gloves as if he were skinning his hands', and, above all, there is Tulkinghorn. Lone, sadistic, secret, 'mechanically faithful without attachment', dead to all feelings save his own perverse relish of power, Tulkinghorn stals through Chancery, the slums and the houses of the great, closing in on Lady Dedlock in order to blackmail her over her long-dead affair with Jo's friend the drug-addict Nemo and his knowledge of Esther, the child of Lady Dedlock's liaison. Tulkinghorne's murder is one of the novel's greatest moments and ironically deprives the lawer of his victory over his prey.
In these terrible areas, the voice of the third-person narrator carries the weight of Dickens's indignation by the exhilarated variety of his language. This range is one of the supreme achievements of nineteenth-century fiction. Here is the voice that can create the image of a fog-bound Chancery and connect it to the inertness and horror of the Dedlocks' home at Chesney Wold. It is the voice of invocation and apostrophe that winds about Nemo in his pauper's grave, the voice that conjures up the slum of Tom-All-Alone's. The narrator's is a voice that explores every variety of hell and hypocrisy in Victorian England and, as a result, it is finally the voice of righteous indignation. Nowhere does Dickens more effectivelly combine pathos with prophetic denunciation than as Woodcourt watches over the dying Jo:
'Jo, can you say what I say?'
'I'll say anythink as you say, sir, fur I knows it's good.'
'Our Father!—yes that's weery good, sir.'
'WHICH ART IN HEAVEN.'
'Art in Heaven—is the ligth a-comin', sir?'
'It is close at hand.
'HALLOWED BE THY NAME!'
The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead! Dead, your majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, both with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.
As Dickens here speaks out in his own person and addresses the whole community of his readers, so, in a manner of the greatest importance to nineteenth-century fiction, we hear the novelist himself rousing what he can assume o be the best, fundamental and shared values of his audience. His art is an appeal to the experience of stable and universal moral truths. However bizarre his characters, however contrived his events and however far the wrold he criticizes has veered from these assumptions, Dickens believes he can share with his readers an essetially New Testament morality, a core of timeless values against which to denounce the aberrations of the present.
In Hard Times (1854), Dickens's voice of denunciation is levelled at the irresponsible excesses of industrial laissez-faire and the blighting force of utilitarianism. Coketown, Dickens's image of the industrial cities of the North, is an unnatural hell sweltering in machine oil, a place where nature has been ousted by insdustry and 'the whir of shafts and wheels'. Such an environment is the hideous outcome of a hideous philosophy, the utilitarianism caricatured (much to Mill's annoyance) in Dickens's portrayal of Gradgrind and his school:
Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle upon which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!
This is a philosophy tht brings its terrible revenges. The life of Gradgrind's daughter is blighted, while his son finds relief in compulsive gambling. When Tom Gradgrind is eventually tracked down by Bitzer, a product of Gradgrind's school, a callous system rebounds on its patron's head. Bitzer brings a villain to justice but also serves his own ends. He will be promoted to Tom's job. Gradgrind himself is horrified at this, but he is the victim of the very rules he has promulgated. '"I beg your pardon for interrupting, sir," returned Bitzer; "But I am sure you know that the whole social system is a question of self-interest."'
The paranoid logic of this belief is personified in Josiah Bounderby the self-made industrialist, a man wholly devoid of compassion and yet, by a telling paradox, driven partly by the forces of imagination he himself would deny. So obsessive is his ideal of the self-made man that he himself would deny. So obsessive is his ideal of the self-made man that he invents for himself a destitute childhood, an imaginary gutter from which he has risen by a triumph of commercial drive. In his delusion, Bounderby believes that he has genuinely brought about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. For him, the pollution and industry of Coketown are not a nightmare but a dream come true. Smoke becomes 'the healthiest thing in the world', while the grinding toil of the factory is 'the pleasantest of work there is, and it's the lightest work there is, and it's the best paid work there is'. with a bizarre flight of fantasy, Bounderby even claims that Turkey carpets on the factory floors might be a final refinement of felicity, but this is an expense he will not be put to. Inflated with self-satisfied delusion, Bounderby is Dicken's horrific image of the trumph of modern industrial man and laissez-faire gone mad.
Dickens's portrayal of his working-class characters is less successful, and points to the limits of his social criticism. Massively indignant though his response to contemporary suffering was, his anger was essentially what Walter Bagehot (1826-1877), the miscellaneous gentleman journalist and mildly progressive authority on The English Constitution (1867), was to call 'sentimental radicalism'.
The crushing effect of the mechanical and unimaginative is sharply delineated in Hard Times, yet in the character of Stephen Blackpool, Dickens fails to give a wholly adequate account of the industrial proletariat. Blackpool is too easily the martyr, a victim of the plot as much as of the system. His refusal to join a trade union leads to him being ostracized by his fellow workers and paradoxically to his being sacked. Dickens's portrayal of the union movement itself as a hectoring and aggressive centre of self-interest is crude and suggests the author's failure adequately to come to terms with the forces of the industrial world about him. In the end, what stands against heartless exploitation is not the genuine efforts of the workers and a real engagement with society but a retreat into the innocent glitter of the circus world of Mr Sleary and his kind. 'There was a remarkable gentleness and childishness about these people,' Dickens wrote, 'a special inaptitude for any kind of sharp practice and an untiring readiness to help and pity one another, deserving often of as much respect, and alwas of as much generous construction, as the everyday virtues of any class of people in the world.' But this is mere sentimentality, and its obverse was the profound pessimism embodied in Little Dorrit (1857).
Little Dorrit is an intricate maze of real and metaphorical prisons and of characters trapped in the worlds of self-seeking aristocratic patronage, bungling bureaucracy, criminal financial schemes, rigid class loyalties, wretched families and corrupting self-deceit. It is Dickens's darkest work. 'I have no present political faith or hope—not a grain,' Dickens had written to a friend in 1855. His disillusion with public life is conveyed in Little Dorrit through one of his most telling social symbols: the Circumlocution Office. Here, under the pompous sway of the Barnacle and Stilstalking families, nepotism and incompetence thrive, while the England that this corrupt civil service is supposed to administer is paralysed by institutional inertia and jobbery. 'The Circumlocution Office went on mechanically, every day, keeping this wonderful, all-sufficient wheel of statesmanship, How not to do it, in motion . . . The Circumlocution Office was down upon any ill-advised public servant who was going to do it, with a minute, and a memorandum, and a letter of instructions, that extinguished him.'
Where the Circumlocution Office is an image of corruption in high and public places and of a system that emasculates those who come into contact with it, Bleeding Heart Yard is a prison for the unfortunate, a poverty trap of soul-destroying squalor. Here live families like the Plornishes whose father has eventually to be consigned to the workhouse. This prison of the spirit has its governor in Casby 'the Last of the Patriarchs', the useless and exploitative langlord who in his turn is the victim of his agent who eventually exposes him for the sham he is. It is part of Dickens's purpose in the novel to show that Casby is a bad father, a man who has played his part in separating the novel's middle-aged and depressive hero Arthur Clennam from his first love. Dickens's most telling image of parental irresponsibility and the effects of imprisonment however is William Dorrit, the 'Father of the Marshalsea'. Twenty-three years in the debtors' prison turn the feckless Dorrit into a foolish and often heartless victim of self-delusion. Just as society outside the prison is conceived as a series of gaols and cells, of lying and hypocritical characters trapped in the confinement of their fantasies, so the Marshalsea sets up its own absurd and debilitating illusions. As Mr Dorrit languishes his life away, 'a disposition began to be observed in him, to exaggerate the number of years he had been there; it was generally understood that you must deduct a few from his account; he was vain, the fleeting generation of debtors said'.
Among these drunken and shabby inmates, Dorrit himself acquires a spurious social status and with it an ever-deepening moral blindness. This is suggested when he suddenly inherits the money that frees him, throws a party for the prisoners and leaves the Marshalsea in a triumphal procession but without Little Dorrit herself who has fainted and been forgotten. Shades of the prison house never leave the family however. The proudly nouveaux riches Dorrits roam Europe, constantly meeting people whose empty lives 'greatly resembled a superior sort of Marshalsea'. Finally, in Dorrit's pathetic speech to his horrified dinner guests in Rome, the senile recidivist is transported back in his imagination to the gaol he has never really left.
The world of high society is likewise a gaol and place of corruption. Mrs Merdle the financier's wife believes society has 'made its mind up on the subject, and there is nothing more to be said'. Her caged parrot hideously mimics such attitudes, and together mistress and bird suggest a claustrophobic and foolish world that is a sham beneath. Mr Merdle the financier, as mysterious in his origins as in his activities, admired and courted by society, proves to be a villain whose suicide removes from the world 'the greatest Forger and the greatest Thief that ever cheated the gallows'. This was nonetheless the man whom bishops courted and politicians praised.
But just as society is seen in terms of fraud and the prisons in which it would place its erring members, so the dour religion of Mrs Clennam is a monstrous hypocrisy which masks criminal actions, emasculates the man she pretends is her son and reduces the woman herself to a neurotic cripple imprisoned in a crumbling house. The worst excesses of Victorian piety are here revealed as a festering gaol of the spirit. In such a world, heroes and heroines can be no glittering figures. Amy Dorrit, living by the New Testament, forgiving, meek and loving, and Arthur Clennam, blighted yet eventually finding love and a home, suggest by their marriage the only positives Dickens could now offer. After a ceremony solemnized in the shadow of the Marshalsea, they go down the church steps together and to 'a modest life of usefulness and happiness . . . and as they passed along in sunshine and in shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar'. The couple find an autumnal happiness in a world of stifling corruption and psychological constraint. The romantic triumphalism that concludes David Copperfield is here chastened to a brave and modest ordinariness which marks the deepening of Dickens's mature thought.
The psychological effects of long imprisonment are one of the more telling areas in a novel that is otherwise a historical melodrama written to launch Dickens's magazine All the Year Round (1859-95). A Tale of Two Cities (1859) clearly shows the influence of Dickens's reading of The French Revolution and Carlyle's analysis of a decadent aristocracy. Dickens's use of the identical figures of Charles Darnay and Sidney Carton is deft rather than analytical however. Much of the tension and historical detail are well handled, while Carton's last speech is perhaps the best-known passage in all of Dickens's work—a highly professional tear-jerker. It is in the figure of Dr Manette however, imprisoned for nearly eighteen years and just holding on to his sanity through the exercise of his shoemaking craft, that the novel's most telling power resides.
Great Expectations (1861) is an altogether finer work. Here Dickens turned from corruption in society to the corruption of the individual. The novel is much concerned with the nature of true gentility and discusses this theme through the voiceof an autobiographical narrator. Pip's chastened reflections after the collapse of his hopes reveal his youthful aspirations to status to have been a hollow and heartless sham. Such a procedure allowed Dickens to ally shrewd and sensitive moral awareness to a plot in which mystery and suspense are expertly controlled. Great Expectations also reveals the mature dramatic mastery that allowed its author to create some of his greatest set-piece scenes.
None of these is more powerful than the boy Pip's first encounter with the convict Magwitch. The superbly sensationalistic effects are nonetheless subtly related to the book's main themes. The innocent and frightened charity that provides food and a file for the starving prisoner, for example, is finely contrasted to the disdain with which the adult Pip observes Magwitch's gross manners on his illicit return from transportation. We see not only how the child has matured to a snob, but how the snob is a product of his ignorance of his true nature and circumstances. Pip's growing charity and Christian forgiveness however show a reawakening of moral virtue. In addition, the dawning realization that it is the criminal Magwitch who is both the true source of his wealth and the father of his beloved Estella unites the narrative to the theme of growing self-awareness.
Pip slowly realizes that his aspirations to gentility have been founded on money rather than goodness of heart. But that money itself proves illusory. As the worldly wealth of an illegally returned convict it is forfeit to the Crown. In the midst of growing self-awareness, Pip is suddenly left penniless. He has been trained for nothing useful and is also deeply in debt after a feckless life spent dancing attendance on Estella. The discovery that this superbly characterized embodiment of frigid sexual allure—the product of the jilted Miss Havisham's desire for revenge on men—is also Magwitch's childe reduces all Pip's expectations to dust.
At the nadir of his fortunes he is saved by the resources of true gentility. First, Herbert Pocket, the natural gentleman, offers his friend a job. Pip must now earn his keep. He must also recognize who his true benefactors are. The orphan boy, who, led into moral delusion by Magwitch's money, thought he was Miss Havisham's heir and wilfully adopted her values, finally discovers that his real mainstay is neither a criminal nor an old and embittered woman but Joe the blacksmith who first took him in as a child. Big-hearted, honestly simple, well adapted to his world and his work, it is Joe who nurses Pip in his sickness and Joe who wins Biddy, the country girl Pip in his pride had shunned.
Self-awareness and the knowledge that human goodness is true gentility are bought by Pip at the cost of painful isolation and suffering, a process that Dickens, swayed by his friend Bulwer-Lytton, brought to an end in the revised close to the novel by hinting that Pip would eventually marry Estella. many readers however may prefer his first thoughts and the original anticlimax of Pip's last meeting with the chasteneed woman who has wrecked his emotional life and who, in truth, he can never marry.
Dicken's concern with the moral damage inflicted by the obsessive pursuit of wealth and social position is again central to his last completed novel. In Our Mutual Friend (1865), the blighting effect of money on individuals and their society and environment is luridly symbolized by the mounds of 'dust'—the accumulated piles of human waste—that are at once the sources of wealth and of corruption in the work. At the centre of the immensely intricate plot, and suggesting the forces of death and power Dickens associated with money, are the will of old Harmon and the wealth he has built up from 'coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery-dust, rough dust and sifted dust—all manner of Dust'. In life a mise gaoling the spirits of those around him, in death Harmon still asserts his power. His servants the Boffins inherit his wealth, while his son, required by the terms of his father's will to marry Bella Wilfer, is obliged to watch the seeming corruption of both the Boffins and his future bride as they appear to sink into the depths of mercenary corruption.
Around the Boffins gather the forces of society in a world where money is all and the vulgarity of the nouveaux riches is triumphant. 'Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manner; have shares.' Such a society becomes a chorus of bigotry and banality. We are shown the Veneerings whose name aptly suggests the brittle and gaudy surface glued over the rotten wood beneath, and Podsnap that incarnation of the worst excesses of Victorian jingoism and prudery who waves aside any topic whose impropriety misght raise a blush on his repellent daugher's cheek. A bored, languid and trivial aristocracy swells these ranks. As Boffin's money buys him position, so we see 'all manner of crawling, creeping, fluttering and buzzing creatures, attracted by the gold dust of the Golden Dustman'. Dickens offers a compelling picture of the gaudy and complacent society of the new rich in alliance with an emasculated nobility. These voices are his most powerful satire of a money-obsessed world and of a Victorian England whose leaders are portrayed as gilded scavengers on a waste tip.
Around and beneath these stifling figures, choking in the shadows of the dust mounds or drawn to the polluted waters of the Thames, move other figures variously caught in speculation and fraud. The Lammels, victims of the mutual deceit by which each wrongly believed the other to be rich, batten on society to exploit it. Dickens's presentation of this couple, his mixing of narrative with symbol, reveals depths of psychological and technical resource which are again reflected in his presentation of extreme resource which are again reflected in his presentation of extreme states of violent and barely repressed emotion. Indeed, the most successul parts of the novel are much concerned with sterile lives and dark forces. The grotesquely gilded London of high society, of lowering dust heaps and emotional death, is also the London of the night river, murder and attempted murder.
Of the two rivals for Lizzie Hexam the boatman's child, Bradley Headstone is Dickens's portrait of emotional and social dislocation and of suppressed passion. Eugene Wrayburn, his victim, is initially presented as his perfect complement: blasé, privileged and spiteful. His love for a girl wholly outside his class and his symbolic rebirth after Headstone has nearly drowned him in the Thames suggest Dickens's concern with the regeneration of society through the education of the heart. Nonetheless, it is Headstone himself we most vividly recall as, in defeat, he sinks to the floor 'and grovelled there, with the palms of his hands tight-clasping his hot temples, in unutterable misery, and unrelieved by a single tear'. Such melodrama points forward to Dickens's last and uncompleted novel, Edwin Drood (1870) with its atmosphere of murder, drug addiction and confused identity.
Charles Dickens (Oxford Companion to English Literature)