Charles Dickens - Facts, Plot Summaries and Information

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Charles Dickens With a Receding Hairline

"Pickwick" had been a novel without any plot. The story, if story it can be called, bore every trace of its hasty origin. Scene succeeded scene, and incident incident, and Mr. Pickwick and his three friends were hurried about from place to place, and through adventures of all kinds, without any particularly defined purpose. In truth, many people, and myself among the number, find some difficulty in reading the book as a connected narrative, and prefer to take it piecemeal. But in "Oliver Twist" there is a serious effort to work out a coherent plot, and real unity of conception. Whether that conception be based on probability, is another point. Oliver is the illegitimate son of a young lady who has lapsed from virtue under circumstances of great temptation, but still lapsed from virtue, and who dies in giving him birth. He is brought up as a pauper child in a particularly ill-managed workhouse, and apprenticed to a low undertaker. Thence he escapes, and walks to London, where he falls in with a gang of thieves. His legitimate brother, an unutterable scoundrel, happens to see him in London, and recognizing him by a likeness to their common father, bribes the thieves to recapture him when he has escaped from their clutches. Now I would rather not say whether I consider it quite likely that a boy of this birth and nurture would fly at a boy much bigger than himself in vindication of the fair fame of a mother whom he had never known, or would freely risk his life to warn a sleeping household that they were being robbed, or would, on all occasions, exhibit the most excellent manners and morals, and a delicacy of feeling that is quite dainty. But this is the essence of the book. To show purity and goodness of disposition as self-sufficient in themselves to resist all adverse influences, is Dickens' main object. Take Oliver's sweet uncontaminated character away, and the story crumbles to pieces. With mere improbabilities of plot, I have no quarrel. Of course it is not likely that the boy, on the occasion of his first escape from the thieves, should be rescued by his father's oldest friend, and, on the second occasion, come across his aunt. But such coincidences must be accepted in any story; they violate no truth of character. I am afraid I can't say as much of Master Oliver's graces and virtues.

With this reservation, however, how much there is in the book to which unstinted admiration can be given! As "Pickwick" first fully exhibited the humorous side of Dickens' genius, so "Oliver Twist" first fully exhibited its tragic side;--the pathetic side was to come somewhat later. The scenes at the workhouse; at the thieves' dens in London; the burglary; the murder of poor Nancy; the escape and death of the horror-haunted Sikes,--all are painted with a master's hand. And the book, like its predecessor, and like those that were to follow, contains characters that have passed into common knowledge as types,--characters of the keenest individuality, and that yet seem in themselves to sum up a whole class. Such are Bill Sikes, whose ruffianism has an almost epic grandeur; and black-hearted Fagin, the Jew, receiver of stolen goods and trainer of youth in the way they should not go; and Master Dawkins, the Artful Dodger. Such, too, is Mr. Bumble, greatest and most unhappy of beadles.

Comedy had predominated in "Pickwick," tragedy in "Oliver Twist." The more complete fusion of the two was effected in "Nicholas Nickleby." But as the mighty actor Garrick, in the well-known picture by Sir Joshua Reynolds, is drawn towards the more mirthful of the two sisters, so, here again, I think that comedy decidedly bears away the palm,--though tragedy is not beaten altogether without a struggle either. Here is the story as it unfolds itself. The two heroes are Ralph Nickleby and his nephew Nicholas. They stand forth, almost from the beginning, as antagonists, in battle array the one against the other; and the story is, in the main, a history of the campaigns between them--cunning and greed being mustered on the one side, and young, generous courage on the other. At first Nicholas believes in his uncle, who promises to befriend Nicholas's mother and sister, and obtains for Nicholas himself a situation as usher in a Yorkshire school kept by one Squeers. But the young fellow's gorge rises at the sickening cruelty exercised in the school, and he leaves it, having first beaten Mr. Squeers,--leaves it followed by a poor shattered creature called Smike. Meanwhile Ralph, the usurer, befriends his sister-in-law and niece after his own fashion, and tries to use the latter's beauty in furtherance of his trade as a money-lender. Nicholas discovers his plots, frustrates all his schemes, rescues, and ultimately marries, a young lady who had been immeshed in one of them; and Ralph, at last, utterly beaten, commits suicide on finding that Smike, through whom he had been endeavouring all through to injure Nicholas, and who is now dead, was his own son. Such are the book's dry bones, its skeleton, which one is almost ashamed to expose thus nakedly. For the beauty of these novels lies not at all in the plot; it is in the incidents, situations, characters. And with beauty of this kind how richly dowered is "Nicholas Nickleby"! Take the characters alone. What lavish profusion of humour in the theatrical group that clusters round Mr. Vincent Crummles, the country manager; and in the Squeers family too; and in the little shop-world of Mrs. Mantalini, the fashionable dressmaker; and in Cheeryble Brothers, the golden-hearted old merchants who take Nicholas into their counting-house. Then for single characters commend me to Mrs. Nickleby, whose logic, which some cynics would call feminine, is positively sublime in its want of coherence; and to John Browdie, the honest Yorkshire cornfactor, as good a fellow almost as Dandie Dinmont, the Border yeoman whom Scott made immortal. The high-life personages are far less successful. Dickens had small gift that way, and seldom succeeded in his society pictures. Nor, if the truth must be told, do I greatly care for the description of the duel between Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Verisopht, though it was evidently very much admired at the time, and is quoted, as a favourable specimen of Dickens' style, in Charles Knight's "Half-hours with the Best Authors." The writing is a little too tall. It lacks simplicity, as is sometimes the case with Dickens, when he wants to be particularly impressive.

And this leads me, by a kind of natural sequence, to what I have to say about his next book, "The Old Curiosity Shop;" for here, again, though in a very much more marked degree, I fear I shall have to run counter to a popular opinion.

But first a word as to the circumstances under which the book was published. Casting about, after the conclusion of "Nicholas Nickleby," for further literary ventures, Dickens came to the conclusion that the public must be getting tired of his stories in monthly parts. It occurred to him that a weekly periodical, somewhat after the manner of Addison's Spectator or Goldsmith's Bee, and containing essays, stories, and miscellaneous papers,--to be written mainly, but not entirely, by himself,--would be just the thing to revive interest, and give his popularity a spur. Accordingly an arrangement was entered into with Messrs. Chapman and Hall, by which they covenanted to give him £50 for each weekly number of such a periodical, and half profits;--and the first number of Master Humphrey's Clock made its appearance in the April of 1840. Unfortunately Dickens had reckoned altogether without his host. The public were not to be cajoled. What they expected from their favourite was novels, not essays, short stories, or sketches, however admirable. The orders for the first number had amounted to seventy thousand; but they fell off as soon as it was discovered that Master Humphrey, sitting by his clock, had no intention of beguiling the world with a continuous narrative,--that the title, in short, did not stand for the title of a novel. Either the times were not ripe for the Household Words, which, ten years afterwards, proved to be such a great and permanent success, or Dickens had laid his plans badly. Vainly did he put forth all his powers, vainly did he bring back upon the stage those old popular favourites, Mr. Pickwick, Sam Weller, and Tony Weller. All was of no avail. Clearly, in order to avoid defeat, a change of front had become necessary. The novel of "The Old Curiosity Shop" was accordingly commenced in the fourth number of the Clock, and very soon acted the cuckoo's part of thrusting Master Humphrey and all that belonged to him out of the nest. He disappeared pretty well from the periodical, and when the novel was republished, the whole machinery of the Clock had gone;--and with it I may add, some very characteristic and admirable writing. Dickens himself confessed that he "winced a little," when the "opening paper, ... in which Master Humphrey described himself and his manner of life," "became the property of the trunkmaker and the butterman;" and most Dickens lovers will agree with me in rejoicing that the omitted parts have now at last been tardily rescued from unmerited neglect, and finds [Transcriber's Note: sic] a place in the recently issued "Charles Dickens" edition of the works.

There is no hero in "The Old Curiosity Shop,"--unless Mr. Richard Swiveller, "perpetual grand-master of the Glorious Apollos," be the questionable hero; and the heroine is Little Nell, a child. Of Dickens' singular feeling for the pathos and humour of childhood, I have already spoken. Many novelists, perhaps one might even say, most novelists, have no freedom of utterance when they come to speak about children, do not know what to do with a child if it chances to stray into their pages. But how different with Dickens! He is never more thoroughly at home than with the little folk. Perhaps his best speech, and they all are good, is the one uttered at the dinner given on behalf of the Children's Hospital. Certainly there is no figure in "Dombey and Son" on which more loving care has been lavished than the figure of little Paul, and when the lad dies one quite feels that the light has gone out of the book. "David Copperfield" shorn of David's childhood and youth would be a far less admirable performance. The hero of "Oliver Twist" is a boy. Pip is a boy through a fair portion of "Great Expectations." The heroine of "The Old Curiosity Shop" is, as I have just said, a girl. And of all these children, the one who seems, from the first, to have stood highest in popular favour, and won most hearts, is Little Nell. Ay me, what tears have been shed over her weary wanderings with that absurd old gambling grandfather of hers; how many persons have sorrowed over her untimely end as if she had been a daughter or a sister. High and low, literate and illiterate, over nearly all has she cast her spell. Hood, he who sang the "Song of the Shirt," paid her the tribute of his admiration, and Jeffrey, the hard-headed old judge and editor of The Edinburgh Review, the tribute of his tears. Landor volleyed forth his thunderous praises over her grave, likening her to Juliet and Desdemona. Nay, Dickens himself sadly bewailed her fate, described himself as being the "wretchedest of the wretched" when it drew near, and shut himself from all society as if he had suffered a real bereavement. While as to the feeling which she has excited in the breasts of the illiterate, we may take Mr. Bret Harte's account of the haggard golddiggers by the roaring Californian camp fire, who throw down their cards to listen to her story, and, for the nonce, are softened and humanized.[14]--Such is the sympathy she has created. And for the description of her death and burial, as a superb piece of pathetic writing, there has been a perfect chorus of praise broken here and there no doubt by a discordant voice, but still of the loudest and most heartfelt. Did not Horne, a poet better known to the last generation than to this, point out that though printed as prose, these passages were, perhaps as "the result of harmonious accident," essentially poetry, and "written in blank verse of irregular metres and rhythms, which Southey and Shelley and some other poets have occasionally adopted"? Did he not print part of the passages in this form, substituting only, as a concession to the conventionalities of verse, the word "grandames" for "grandmothers"; and did he not declare of one of the extracts so printed that it was "worthy of the best passages in Wordsworth"?

If it "argues an insensibility" to stand somewhat unmoved among all these tears and admiration, I am afraid I must be rather pebble-hearted. To tell the whole damaging truth, I am, and always have been, only slightly affected by the story of Little Nell; have never felt any particular inclination to shed a tear over it, and consider the closing chapters as failing of their due effect, on me at least, because they are pitched in a key that is altogether too high and unnatural. Of course one makes a confession of this kind with diffidence. It is no light thing to stem the current of a popular opinion. But one can only go with the stream when one thinks the stream is flowing in a right channel. And here I think the stream is meandering out of its course. For me, Little Nell is scarcely more than a figure in cloudland. Possibly part of the reason why I do not feel as much sympathy with her as I ought, is because I do not seem to know her very well. With Paul Dombey I am intimately acquainted. I should recognize the child anywhere, should be on the best of terms with him in five minutes. Few things would give me greater pleasure than an hour's saunter by the side of his little invalid's carriage along the Parade at Brighton. How we should laugh, to be sure, if we happened to come across Mr. Toots, and smile, too, if we met Feeder, B.A., and give a furtive glance of recognition at Glubb, the discarded charioteer. Then the classic Cornelia Blimber would pass, on her constitutional, and we should quail a little--at least I am certain I should--as she bent upon us her scholastic spectacles; and a glimpse of Dr. Blimber would chill us even more; till--ah! what's this? Why does a flush of happiness mantle over my little friend's pale face? Why does he utter a faint cry of pleasure? Yes, there she is--he has caught sight of Floy running forward to meet him.--So am I led, almost instinctively, whenever the figure of Paul flashes into my mind, to think of him as a child I have actually known. But Nell--she has no such reality of existence. She has been etherealized, vapourized, rhapsodized about, till the flesh and blood have gone out of her. I recognize her attributes, unselfishness, sweetness of disposition, gentleness. But these don't constitute a human being. They don't make up a recognizable individuality. If I met her in the street, I am afraid I should not know her; and if I did, I am sure we should both find it difficult to keep up a conversation.

Do the passages describing her death and burial really possess the rhythm of poetry? That would seem to me, I confess, to be as ill a compliment as to say of a piece of poetry that it was really prose. The music of prose and of poetry are essentially different. They do not affect the ear in the same way. The one is akin to song, the other to speech. Give to prose the recurring cadences, the measure, and the rhythmic march of verse, and it becomes bad prose without becoming good poetry.[15] So, in fairness to Dickens, one is bound, as far as one can, to forget Horne's misapplied praise. But even thus, and looking upon it as prose alone, can we say that the account of Nell's funeral is, in the high artistic sense, a piece of good work. Here is an extract: "And now the bell--the bell she had so often heard, by night and day, and listened to with solemn pleasure almost as a living voice--rang its remorseless toll, for her, so young, so beautiful, so good. Decrepit age, and vigorous life, and blooming youth, and helpless infancy, poured forth--on crutches, in the pride of strength and health, in the full blush of promise, in the mere dawn of life--to gather round her tomb. Old men were there, whose eyes were dim and senses failing--grandmothers, who might have died ten years ago, and still been old,--the deaf, the blind, the lame, the palsied, the living dead in many shapes and forms, to see the closing of that earthly grave. What was the death it would shut in, to that which still could crawl and creep above it?" Such is the tone throughout, and one feels inclined to ask whether it is quite the appropriate tone in which to speak of the funeral of a child in a country churchyard? All this pomp of rhetoric seems to me--shall I say it?--as much out of place as if Nell had been buried like some great soldier or minister of state--with a hearse, all sable velvet and nodding plumes, drawn by a long train of sable steeds, and a final discharge of artillery over the grave. The verbal honours paid here to the deceased are really not much less incongruous and out of keeping. Surely in such a subject, above all others, the pathos of simplicity would have been most effective.

There are some, indeed, who deny to Dickens the gift of pathos altogether. Such persons acknowledge, for the most part a little unwillingly, that he was a master of humour of the broader, more obvious kind. But they assert that all his sentiment is mawkish and overstrained, and that his efforts to compel our tears are so obvious as to defeat their own purpose. Now it will be clear, from what I have said about Little Nell, that I am capable of appreciating the force of any criticism of this kind; nay, that I go so far as to acknowledge that Dickens occasionally lays himself open to it. But go one inch beyond this I cannot. Of course we may, if we like, take up a position of pure stoicism, and deny pathos altogether, in life as in art. We may regard all human affairs but as a mere struggle for existence, and say that might makes right, and that the weak is only treated according to his deserts when he goes to the wall. We may hold that neither sorrow nor suffering call for any meed of sympathy. Such is mainly the attitude which the French novelist adopts towards the world of his creation.[16] But once admit that feeling is legitimate; once allow that tears are due to those who have been crushed and left bleeding by this great world of ours as it crashes blundering on its way; once grant that the writer's art can properly embrace what Shakespeare calls "the pity of it," the sorrows inwoven in all our human relationships; once acknowledge all this, and then I affirm, most confidently, that Dickens, working at his best, was one of the greatest masters of pathos who ever lived. I can myself see scarce a strained discordant note in the account of the short life and early death of Paul Dombey, and none in the description of the death of Paul Dombey's mother, or in the story of Tiny Tim, or in the record of David Copperfield's childhood and boyhood. I consider the passage in "American Notes" describing the traits of gentle kindliness among the emigrants as being nobly, pathetically eloquent. Did space allow, I could support my position by quotations and example to any extent. And my conclusion is that, though he failed with Little Nell, yet he succeeded elsewhere, and superbly.

The number of Master Humphrey's Clock, containing the conclusion of "The Old Curiosity Shop," appeared on the 17th of January, 1841, and "Barnaby Rudge" began its course in the ensuing week. The first had been essentially a tale of modern life. All the characters that made a kind of background, mostly grotesque or hideous, for the figure of Little Nell, were characters of to-day, or at least of the day when the book was written; for I must not forget that that day ran into the past some six and forty years ago. Quilp, the dwarf,--and a far finer specimen of a scoundrel by the by, in every respect, than that poor stage villain Monks; Sampson Brass and his legal sister Sally, a goodly pair; Kit, golden-hearted and plain of body, who so barely escapes from the plot laid by the afore-mentioned worthies to prove him a thief; Chuckster, most lady-killing of notaries' clerks; Mrs. Jarley, the good-natured waxwork woman, in whose soul there would be naught save kindliness, only she cannot bring herself to tolerate Punch and Judy; Short and Codlin, the Punch and Judy men; the little misused servant, whom Dick Swiveller in his grandeur creates a marchioness; and the magnificent Swiveller himself, prince among the idle and impecunious, justifying by his snatches of song, and flowery rhetoric, his high position as "perpetual grand-master" among the "Glorious Apollers,"--all these, making allowance perhaps for some idealization, were personages of Dickens' own time. But in "Barnaby Rudge," Dickens threw himself back into the last century. The book is a historical novel, one of the two which he wrote, the other being the "Tale of Two Cities," and its scenes are many of them laid among the No Popery Riots of 1780.

A ghastly time, a time of aimless, brutal incendiarism and mad turbulence on the part of the mob; a time of weakness and ineptitude on the part of the Government; a time of wickedness, folly, and misrule. Dickens describes it admirably. His picture of the riots themselves seems painted in pigments of blood and fire; and yet, through all the hurry and confusion, he retains the clearness of arrangement and lucidity which characterize the pictures of such subjects when executed by the great masters of the art--as Carlyle, for example. His portrait of the poor, crazy-brained creature, Lord George Gordon, who sowed the wind which the country was to reap in whirlwind, is excellent. Nor is what may be called the private part of the story unskilfully woven with the historical part. The plot, though not good, rises perhaps above the average of Dickens' plots; for even we, his admirers, are scarcely bound to maintain that plot was his strong point. Beyond this, I think I may say that the book is, on the whole, the least characteristic of his books. It is the one which those who are most out of sympathy with his peculiar vein of humour and pathos will probably think the best, and the one which the true Dickens lovers will generally regard as bearing the greatest resemblance to an ordinary novel.


[14] "Dickens in Camp."

[15] Dickens himself knew that he had a tendency to fall into blank verse in moments of excitement, and tried to guard against it.

[16] M. Daudet, in many respects a follower of Dickens, is a fine and notable exception.

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Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens

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