Irresistible Dickens

The World of Charles Dickens

by Angus Wilson
Viking, 320, 200 illustrations, 40 color plates pp., $12.95

Dickens the Craftsman: Strategies of Presentation

edited by Robert B. Partlow Jr.
Southern Illinois University, 240 pp., $6.95

The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence

by Raymond Williams
Oxford, 224 pp., $5.00

Dickens 1970

edited by Michael Slater
Stein & Day, 241 pp., $7.95

Charles Dickens' Uncollected Writings from Household Words

edited by Harry Stone
Indiana University, 2 volumes, 748, 132 illustrations pp., $25.00

The Moral Art of Dickens (to be published later this fall)

by Barbara Hardy
Oxford, 150 pp., $6.00

A hundred years after his death Dickens’s reputation stands higher than ever before and he is generally recognized as the greatest creative force in English after Shakespeare. Would the pair be surprised to find themselves on this pinnacle? Tolstoy and Goethe knew what was in store for them, or what ought to be in store for them, as they knew everything else about their powerful personalities; but very likely Shakespeare and Dickens rarely reflected on their future status: they had neither the time nor the inclination, nor enough sense of their persons. In spite of the countless portraits and photographs it is not easy to see what Dickens looked like—the “countenance clear as steel” that Carlyle admired melts into unrecapturable shapes which suggest only the actor of a given moment, playing the part of author at his desk, public figure, or Christmas uncle. We can imagine Shakespeare acting on the stage as we can imagine Dickens acting off it, but Dickens as Dickens is no more credible than Shakespeare as Shakespeare. Their proper existence lies in their creations, and nowhere else.

Dickens told G.H. Lewes that “every word said by his characters was distinctly heard by him.” The reader hears, too, but less what the character is saying than what he thinks he is saying. Dickens and Shakespeare are the supreme masters of giving a local habitation and a name to the airy nothing of inner eloquence. Out of the obsessional patter of consciousness they mold pyramids and colonnades of speech, which seem both the essence of the individual and his natural voice. The prose of Dickensian speech is far closer to Shakespearean poetry than Browning’s monologues are, for though Dickens venerated the author of A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon as Shakespeare’s lineal descendant, the voice that comes through Browning’s actor is always the author’s.

And yet Dickens’s greatest linguistic creations are solipsists, living in a world of their own and holding no rational exchange with their fellows. After Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp have spoken there is nothing to reply. Angus Wilson enlarges the point in his superb—and superbly illustrated—critical biography, one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind.

The male verbal maniacs deal in abstractions, in empty rhetoric, as befits man’s education. But the women of the species pour out the folklore of their age in concrete images that form a visual mosaic. Mrs. Nickleby’s is a mosaic of the folklore of gentility, Flora Finching’s of romanticism, Mrs. Gamp’s of the lives of the poor…. The squalor, the greed and the brutality of Mrs. Gamp are woven as closely into all the tag ends of religiosity, folk wisdom, macabrerie, coy salaciousness and sickly sentiment that make up her speech, as the brutality of the lives of the Victorian poor was blended with all their desperate attempts to evade it.

That is it. Type and idiosyncrasy, reality and wish fulfillment merge as inevitably in these speeches as they do in life. And though the rhetoric of…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.