Charles Dickens - Facts, Plot Summaries and Information

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Charles Dickens at His Desk
Charles Dickens at His Desk

With the return from America began the old life of hard work and hard play. There was much industrious writing of "American Notes," at Broadstairs and elsewhere; and there were many dinners of welcome home, and strolls, doubtless, with Forster and Maclise, and other intimates, to old haunts, as Jack Straw's Castle on Hampstead Heath, and similar houses of public entertainment. And then in the autumn there was "such a trip ... into Cornwall," with Forster, and the painters Stanfield and Maclise for travelling companions. How they enjoyed themselves to be sure, and with what bubbling, bursting merriment. "I never laughed in my life as I did on this journey," writes Dickens, "... I was choking and gasping ... all the way. And Stanfield got into such apoplectic entanglements that we were often obliged to beat him on the back with portmanteaus before we could recover him." Immediately on their return, refreshed and invigorated by this wholesome hilarity and enjoyment, he threw himself into the composition of his next book, and the first number of "Martin Chuzzlewit" appeared in January, 1843.

"Martin Chuzzlewit" is unquestionably one of Dickens' great works. He himself held it to be "in a hundred points" and "immeasurably" superior to anything he had before written, and that verdict may, I think, be accepted freely. The plot, as plot is usually understood, can scarcely indeed be commended. But then plot was never his strong point. Later in life, and acting, as I have always surmised, under the influence of his friend, Mr. Wilkie Collins, he endeavoured to construct ingenious stories that turned on mysterious disappearances, and the substitution of one person for another, and murders real or suspected. All this was, to my mind, a mistake. Dickens had no real gift for the manufacture of these ingenious pieces of mechanism. He did not even many times succeed in disposing the events and marshalling the characters in his narratives so as to work, by seemingly unforced and natural means, to a final situation and climax. Too often, in order to hold his story together and make it move forward at all, he was compelled to make his personages pursue a line of conduct preposterous and improbable, and even antagonistic to their nature. Take this very book. Old Martin Chuzzlewit is a man who has been accustomed, all through a long life, to have his own way, and to take it with a high hand. Yet he so far sets aside, during a course of months, every habit of his life, as to simulate the weakest subservience to Pecksniff--and that not for the purpose of unmasking Pecksniff, who wanted no unmasking, but only in order to disappoint him. Is it believable that old Martin should have thought Pecksniff worth so much trouble, personal inconvenience, and humiliation? Or take again Mr. Boffin in "Our Mutual Friend." Mr. Boffin is a simple, guileless, open-hearted, open-handed old man. Yet, in order to prove to Miss Bella Wilfer that it is not well to be mercenary, he, again, goes through a long course of dissimulation, and does some admirable comic business in the character of a miser. I say it boldly, I do not believe Mr. Boffin possessed that amount of histrionic talent. Plots requiring to be worked out by such means are ill-constructed plots; or, to put it in another way, a man who had any gift for the construction of plots would never have had recourse to such means. Nor would he, I think, have adopted, as Dickens did habitually and for all his stories, a mode of publication so destructive of unity of effect, as the publication in monthly or weekly parts. How could the reader see as a whole that which was presented to him at intervals of time more or less distant? How, and this is of infinitely greater importance, how could the writer produce it as a whole? For Dickens, it must be remembered, never finished a book before the commencement of publication. At first he scarcely did more than complete each monthly instalment as required; and though afterwards he was generally some little way in advance, yet always he wrote by parts, having the interest of each separate part in his mind, as well as the general interest of the whole novel. Thus, however desirable in the development of the story, he dared not risk a comparatively tame and uneventful number. Moreover, any portion once issued was unalterable and irrevocable. If, as sometimes happened, any modification seemed desirable as the book progressed, there was no possibility of changing anything in the chapters already in the hands of the public, and so making them harmonize better with the new.

But of course, with all this, the question still remains how far Dickens' comparative failure as a constructor of plots really detracts from his fame and standing as a novelist. To my mind, I confess, not very much. Plot I regard as the least essential element in the novelist's art. A novel can take the very highest rank without it. There is not any plot to speak of in Lesage's "Gil Blas," and just as little in Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," and only a very bad one in Goldsmith's "Vicar of Wakefield." Coleridge admired the plot of "Tom Jones," but though one naturally hesitates to differ from a critic of such superb mastery and power, I confess I have never been struck by that plot, any more than by the plots, such as they are, in "Joseph Andrews," or in Smollett's works. Nor, if I can judge of other people's memories by my own, is it by the mechanism of the story, or by the intrigue, however admirably woven and unravelled, that one remembers a work of fiction. These may exercise an intense passing interest of curiosity, especially during a first perusal. But afterwards they fade from the mind, while the characters, if highly vitalized and strong, will stand out in our thoughts, fresh and full coloured, for an indefinite time. Scott's "Guy Mannering" is a well-constructed story. The plot is deftly laid, the events are prepared for with a cunning hand; the coincidences are so arranged as to be made to look as probable as may be. Yet we remember and love the book, not for such excellences as these, but for Dandie Dinmont, the Border farmer, and Pleydell, the Edinburgh advocate, and Meg Merrilies, the gipsy. The book's life is in its flesh and blood, not in its plot. And the same is true of Dickens' novels. He crowds them so full of human creatures, each with its own individuality and character, that we have no care for more than just as much story as may serve to show them struggling, joying, sorrowing, loving. If the incidents will do this for us we are satisfied. It is not necessary that those incidents should be made to go through cunning evolutions to a definite end. Each is admirable in itself, and admirably adapted to its immediate purpose. That should more than suffice.

And Dickens sometimes succeeds in reaching a higher unity than that of mere plot. He takes one central idea, and makes of it the soul of his novel, animating and vivifying every part. That central idea in "Martin Chuzzlewit" is the influence of selfishness. The Chuzzlewits are a selfish race. Old Martin is selfish; and so, with many good qualities and possibilities of better things, is his grandson, young Martin. The other branch of the family, Anthony Chuzzlewit and his son Jonas, are much worse. The latter especially is a horrible creature. Brought up to think of nothing except his own interests and the main chance, he is only saved by an accident from the crime of parricide, and afterwards commits a murder and poisons himself. As his career is one of terrible descent, so young Martin's is one of gradual regeneration from his besetting weakness. He falls in love with his cousin Mary--the only unselfish member of the family, by the bye--and quarrels about this love affair with his grandfather, and so passes into the hard school of adversity. There he learns much. Specially valuable is the teaching which he gets as a settler in the swampy backwoods of the United States in company with Mark Tapley, jolliest and most helpful of men. On his return, he finds his grandfather seemingly under the influence of Pecksniff, the hypocrite, the English Tartuffe. But that, as I have already mentioned, is only a ruse. Old Martin is deceiving Pecksniff, who in due time receives the reward of his deeds, and all ends happily for those who deserve happiness. Such is something like a bare outline of the story, with the beauty eliminated. For what makes its interest, we must go further, to the household of Pecksniff with his two daughters, Charity and Mercy, and Tom Pinch, whose beautiful, unselfish character stands so in contrast to that of the grasping self-seekers by whom he is surrounded; we must study young Martin himself, whose character is admirably drawn, and without Dickens' usual tendency to caricature; we must laugh in sympathy with Mark Tapley; we must follow them both through the American scenes, which, intensely amusing as they are, must have bitterly envenomed the wounds inflicted on the national vanity by "American Notes," and, according to Dickens' own expression, "sent them all stark staring raving mad across the water;" we must frequent the boarding establishment for single gentlemen kept by lean Mrs. Todgers, and sit with Sarah Gamp and Betsy Prig as they hideously discuss their avocations, or quarrel over the shadowy Mrs. Harris; we must follow Jonas Chuzzlewit on his errand of murder, and note how even his felon nature is appalled by the blackness and horror of his guilt, and how the ghastly terror of it haunts and cows him. A great book, I say again, a very great book.

Yet not at the time a successful book. Why Fortune, the fickle jade, should have taken it into her freakish head to frown, or half frown, on Dickens at this particular juncture, who shall tell? He was wooing her with his very best work, and she turned from him. The sale of "Pickwick" and "Nicholas Nickleby" had been from forty to fifty thousand copies of each part; the sale of Master Humphrey's Clock had risen still higher; the sale of even the most popular parts of "Martin Chuzzlewit" fell to twenty-three thousand. This was, as may be supposed, a grievous disappointment. Dickens' personal expenditure had not perhaps been lavish in view of what he thought he could calculate on earning; but it had been freely based on that calculation. Demands, too, were being made upon his purse by relations,--probably by his father, and certainly by his brother Frederic, which were frequent, embarrassing, and made in a way which one may call worse than indelicate. Any permanent loss of popularity would have meant serious money entanglements. With his father's career in full view, such a prospect must have been anything but pleasant. He cast about what he should do, and determined to leave England for a space, live more economically on the Continent, and gather materials in Italy or Switzerland for a new travel book. But before carrying out this project, he would woo fortune once again, and in a different form. During the months of October and November, 1843, in the intervals of "Chuzzlewit," he wrote a short story that has taken its place, by almost universal consent, among his masterpieces, nay, among the masterpieces of English literature: "The Christmas Carol."

All Dickens' great gifts seem reflected, sharp and distinct, in this little book, as in a convex mirror. His humour, his best pathos, which is not that of grandiloquence, but of simplicity, his bright poetic fancy, his kindliness, all here find a place. It is great painting in miniature, genius in its quintessence, a gem of perfect water. We may apply to it any simile that implies excellence in the smallest compass. None but a fine imagination would have conceived the supernatural agency that works old Scrooge's moral regeneration--the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and to come, that each in turn speaks to the wizened heart of the old miser, so that, almost unwittingly, he is softened by the tender memories of childhood, warmed by sympathy for those who struggle and suffer, and appalled by the prospect of his own ultimate desolation and black solitude. Then the episodes: the scenes to which these ghostly visitants convey Scrooge; the story of his earlier years as shown in vision; the household of the Cratchits, and poor little crippled Tiny Tim; the party given by Scrooge's nephew; nay, before all these, the terrible interview with Marley's Ghost. All are admirably executed. Sacrilege would it be to suggest the alteration of a word. First of the Christmas books in the order of time, it is also the best of its own kind; it is in its own order perfect.

Nor did the public of Christmas, 1843, fail to appreciate that something of very excellent quality had been brought forth for their benefit. "The first edition of six thousand copies," says Forster, "was sold" on the day of publication, and about as many more would seem to have been disposed of before the end of February, 1844. But, alas, Dickens had set his heart on a profit of £1,000, whereas in February he did not see his way to much more than £460,[18] and his unpaid bills for the previous year he described as "terrific." So something, as I have said, had to be done. A change of front became imperative. Messrs. Bradbury and Evans advanced him £2,800 "for a fourth share in whatever he might write during the ensuing eight years,"--he purchased at the Pantechnicon "a good old shabby devil of a coach," also described as "an English travelling carriage of considerable proportions"; engaged a courier who turned out to be the courier of couriers, a very conjurer among couriers; let his house in Devonshire Terrace; and so started off for Italy, as I calculate the dates, on the 1st of July, 1844.


[18] The profit at the end of 1844 was £726.

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