I love today’s 200th birthday boy, Charles Dickens. I read him a lot in high school, and my favourite things of his were the big, long, rambling novels – I started with The Pickwick Papers, which is barely a novel at all for much of its length, and went on from there. I think I blame Dickens more than anyone else for my decision to become an English major. His novels can be tedious if you’re forced to read them, but if you pick one at the right time, and are in the right mood for it, they can enthrall you. I think the sense of detail is part of what accounts for Dickens’ power. A lot of novels either skimp on detail, or make the details very dry (dutifully cutting and pasting in all the research the author has done). Dickens not only describes everything, he puts his own personal spin on everything he describes. Every minor character has his or her own distinguishing details, catchphrases, and tics. Every place he takes us to is filtered through his unique perspective, his combination of realism and fantasy, so that you never see anything in a conventional way. It can be exhausting, but it can also teach you to see the world differently and not take anything for granted. And as a picture of life from another time – and most of his novels were period pieces, even at the time – it’s more vivid than a straightforward historical portrait.
You do have to be in the right mood for it, though. And one of the things you have to be in the mood for is a willingness to forgive, or to take the good with the bad. Almost any Dickens novel has good patches and bad patches all through, not just the inevitable falling-off at the end. (Most long novels lose steam towards the end, and since Dickens’ novels were serials, often written as he went along, they have the additional problem familiar from every serial: the author sets up something interesting that he can’t actually finish.) Every Dickens novel has unfunny comedy and gross sentimentality alternating with the funny and touching moments – though different people can have different opinions on which are the good parts. As long as you like some parts and some characters, this is a worthwhile trade-off; he tries so many things that some of them are bound to work better than others. A book like A Tale of Two Cities may be more unified than some of the longer books, but it’s also less interesting.
As a narrator, he never really lost his early style as a snarky journalist. As a journalist, he tried to make us feel and understand his subjects while still keeping us at a bit of a distance (so we don’t forget that it’s real) and also injecting his own personality into the true stories he tells. That style, applied to the novel, can produce very strange moments like the opening of Oliver Twist – a serious situation told in a dry, clinical way, almost like a parody of journalistic distance. But that journalistic style is part of who Dickens is, and it is part of what keeps his novels from turning into complete cardboard melodrama.
Dickens’ main weakness as a novelist was not his sentimentality, nor his unevenness, but his somewhat slapdash sense of theme. His early novels were famous for not really being unified – Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby, especially, were mostly a series of vignettes. He took this criticism to heart and tried to unify his books around a theme, but this sometimes caused more problems than it solved. Dombey and Son, one of the books I most enjoyed reading during my high school Dickens binge, is one of the clearest examples. Dickens intended to build it around the theme of pride, and what pride can do to people. Except that “pride,” as a theme, is too vague to be very interesting. What gives the novel its life are other themes, sub-themes, about what people do for money, about the danger of trying to mold other people, and the folly of the human belief that we can strictly plan our lives (around lines of succession, around technology, around marriage). But Dickens keeps coming back to “pride” as the explanation for what the characters do, because that is his theme and by God he’s going to stick to it. So we have a novel almost burying its own greatness under a schematic over-arching idea that the author couldn’t let go of. Later novels integrate the big themes more seamlessly, but there is always this problem for me: what Dickens says from moment to moment is often more interesting than what he thought the whole novel was supposed to say.
The moments, however, are magnificent. Never mind that Bleak House has its weak plot points and that the heroine has a tendency to simper. The third-person chapters, told entirely in the present tense, were unlike anything I had ever read before – cold and passionate at the same time, with a sense of gloom and terror in even the simplest actions of everyday life, a lesson in how much you can learn about people and their lives by observing them from the outside (since Dickens’ third-person narrator rarely tells us what the characters are thinking; he just watches them and makes us watch them). Little Dorrit is always relevant whenever we hear of bureaucracy – not just government bureaucracy – making it impossible to get things done, or some much-worshipped tycoon like Mr. Merdle turns out to be cheating his investors.
And Dickens was usually great with children: Dombey and Son is at its best when told through the eyes of little Paul, and David Copperfield loses something when David grows up. Dickens may have been, in his sensibility, an adult child: he had a naive belief that all the wrongs of the world could be solved if grown-ups would notice them, but he noticed all the things that bored adults have learned to take for granted. The adult world is like the pedantic schoolmaster Dr. Blimber, whose method is to educate all the imagination out of children, and Dickens is like Paul Dombey, who never stopped seeing the world as a fantastic place.
After the lapse of some minutes, which appeared an immense time to little Paul Dombey on the table, Doctor Blimber came back. The Doctor’s walk was stately, and calculated to impress the juvenile mind with solemn feelings. It was a sort of march; but when the Doctor put out his right foot, he gravely turned upon his axis, with a semi-circular sweep towards the left; and when he put out his left foot, he turned in the same manner towards the right. So that he seemed, at every stride he took, to look about him as though he were saying, ‘Can anybody have the goodness to indicate any subject, in any direction, on which I am uninformed? I rather think not.’
Mrs Blimber and Miss Blimber came back in the Doctor’s company; and the Doctor, lifting his new pupil off the table, delivered him over to Miss Blimber.
‘Cornelia,’ said the Doctor, ‘Dombey will be your charge at first. Bring him on, Cornelia, bring him on.’
Miss Blimber received her young ward from the Doctor’s hands; and Paul, feeling that the spectacles were surveying him, cast down his eyes.
‘How old are you, Dombey?’ said Miss Blimber.
‘Six,’ answered Paul, wondering, as he stole a glance at the young lady, why her hair didn’t grow long like Florence’s, and why she was like a boy.
‘How much do you know of your Latin Grammar, Dombey?’ said Miss Blimber.
‘None of it,’ answered Paul. Feeling that the answer was a shock to Miss Blimber’s sensibility, he looked up at the three faces that were looking down at him, and said:
‘I have’n’t been well. I have been a weak child. I couldn’t learn a Latin Grammar when I was out, every day, with old Glubb. I wish you’d tell old Glubb to come and see me, if you please.’
‘What a dreadfully low name’ said Mrs Blimber. ‘Unclassical to a degree! Who is the monster, child?’
‘What monster?’ inquired Paul.
‘Glubb,’ said Mrs Blimber, with a great disrelish.
‘He’s no more a monster than you are,’ returned Paul.
‘What!’ cried the Doctor, in a terrible voice. ‘Ay, ay, ay? Aha! What’s that?’
Paul was dreadfully frightened; but still he made a stand for the absent Glubb, though he did it trembling.
‘He’s a very nice old man, Ma’am,’ he said. ‘He used to draw my couch. He knows all about the deep sea, and the fish that are in it, and the great monsters that come and lie on rocks in the sun, and dive into the water again when they’re startled, blowing and splashing so, that they can be heard for miles. There are some creatures, said Paul, warming with his subject, ‘I don’t know how many yards long, and I forget their names, but Florence knows, that pretend to be in distress; and when a man goes near them, out of compassion, they open their great jaws, and attack him. But all he has got to do,’ said Paul, boldly tendering this information to the very Doctor himself, ‘is to keep on turning as he runs away, and then, as they turn slowly, because they are so long, and can’t bend, he’s sure to beat them. And though old Glubb don’t know why the sea should make me think of my Mama that’s dead, or what it is that it is always saying—always saying! he knows a great deal about it. And I wish,’ the child concluded, with a sudden falling of his countenance, and failing in his animation, as he looked like one forlorn, upon the three strange faces, ‘that you’d let old Glubb come here to see me, for I know him very well, and he knows me.
‘Ha!’ said the Doctor, shaking his head; ‘this is bad, but study will do much.’
Mrs Blimber opined, with something like a shiver, that he was an unaccountable child; and, allowing for the difference of visage, looked at him pretty much as Mrs Pipchin had been used to do.
‘Take him round the house, Cornelia,’ said the Doctor, ‘and familiarise him with his new sphere. Go with that young lady, Dombey.’
Dombey obeyed; giving his hand to the abstruse Cornelia, and looking at her sideways, with timid curiosity, as they went away together. For her spectacles, by reason of the glistening of the glasses, made her so mysterious, that he didn’t know where she was looking, and was not indeed quite sure that she had any eyes at all behind them.