Charles Dickens - Facts, Plot Summaries and Information

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Dickens' career as a reader reading for money commenced on the 29th of April, 1858, while the trouble about his wife was at the thickest; and, after reading in London on sixteen nights, he made a reading tour in the provinces, and in Scotland and Ireland. In the following year he read likewise. But meanwhile, which is more important to us than his readings, he was writing another book. On the 30th of April, 1859, in the first number of All the Year Round,[26] was begun "The Tale of Two Cities," a simultaneous publication in monthly parts being also commenced.

Charles Dickens the Author - Surrounded by His Characters
Charles Dickens the Author - Surrounded by His Characters

"The Tale of Two Cities" is a tale of the great French Revolution of 1793, and the two cities in question are London and Paris,--London as it lay comparatively at peace in the days when George III. was king, and Paris running blood and writhing in the fierce fire of anarchy and mob rule. A powerful book, unquestionably. No doubt there is in its heat and glare a reflection from Carlyle's "French Revolution," a book for which Dickens had the greatest admiration. But that need not be regarded as a demerit. Dickens is no pale copyist, and adds fervour to what he borrows. His pictures of Paris in revolution are as fine as the London scenes in "Barnaby Rudge;" and the interweaving of the story with public events is even better managed in the later book than in the earlier story of the Gordon riots. And the story, what does it tell? It tells of a certain Dr. Manette, who, after long years of imprisonment in the Bastille, is restored to his daughter in London; and of a young French noble, who has assumed the name of Darnay, and left France in horror of the doings of his order, and who marries Dr. Manette's daughter; and of a young English barrister, able enough in his profession, but careless of personal success, and much addicted to port wine, and bearing a striking personal resemblance to the young French noble. These persons, and others, being drawn to Paris by various strong inducements, Darnay is condemned to death as a ci-devant noble, and the ne'er-do-well barrister, out of the great pure love he bears to Darnay's wife, succeeds in dying for him. That is the tale's bare outline; and if any one says of the book that it is in parts melodramatic, one may fitly answer that never was any portion of the world's history such a thorough piece of melodrama as the French Revolution.

With "The Tale of Two Cities" Hablôt K. Browne's connection with Dickens, as the illustrator of his books, came to an end. The "Sketches" had been illustrated by Cruikshank, who was the great popular illustrator of the time, and it is amusing to read, in the preface to the first edition of the first series, published in 1836, how the trembling young author placed himself, as it were, under the protection of the "well-known individual who had frequently contributed to the success of similar undertakings." Cruikshank also illustrated "Oliver Twist;" and indeed, with an arrogance which unfortunately is not incompatible with genius, afterwards set up a rather preposterous claim to have been the real originator of that book, declaring that he had worked out the story in a series of etchings, and that Dickens had illustrated him, and not he Dickens.[27] But apart from the drawings for the "Sketches" and "Oliver Twist," and the first few drawings by Seymour, and two drawings by Buss,[28] in "Pickwick," and some drawings by Cattermole in Master Humphrey's Clock, and by Samuel Palmer in the "Pictures from Italy," and by various hands in the Christmas stories--apart from these, Browne, or "Phiz," had executed the illustrations to Dickens' novels. Nor, with all my admiration for certain excellent qualities which his work undeniably possessed, do I think that this was altogether a good thing. Such, I know, is not a popular opinion. But I confess I am unable to agree with those critics who, from their remarks on the recent jubilee edition of "Pickwick," seem to think his illustrations so pre-eminently fine that they should be permanently associated with Dickens' stories. The editor of that edition was, in my view, quite right in treating Browne's illustrations as practically obsolete. The value of Dickens' works is perennial, and Browne's illustrations represent the art fashion of a time only. So, too, I am unable to see any great cause to regret that Cruikshank's artistic connection with Dickens came to an end so soon.[29] For both Browne and Cruikshank were pre-eminently caricaturists, and caricaturists of an old school. The latter had no idea of beauty. His art, very great art in its way, was that of grotesqueness and exaggeration. He never drew a lady or gentleman in his life. And though Browne, in my view much the lesser artist, was superior in these respects to Cruikshank, yet he too drew the most hideous Pecksniffs, and Tom Pinches, and Joey B.'s, and a whole host of characters quite unreal and absurd. The mischief of it is, too, that Dickens' humour will not bear caricaturing. The defect of his own art as a writer is that it verges itself too often on caricature. Exaggeration is its bane. When, for instance, he makes the rich alderman in "The Chimes" eat up poor Trotty Veck's little last tit-bit of tripe, we are clearly in the region of broad farce. When Mr. Pancks, in "Little Dorrit," so far abandons the ordinary ways of mature rent collectors as to ask a respectable old accountant to "give him a back," in the Marshalsea court, and leaps over his head, we are obviously in a world of pantomime. Dickens' comic effects are generally quite forced enough, and should never be further forced when translated into the sister art of drawing. Rather, if anything, should they be attenuated. But unfortunately exaggeration happened to be inherent in the draftsmanship of both Cruikshank and Browne. And, having said this, I may as well finish with the subject of the illustrations to Dickens' books. "Our Mutual Friend" was illustrated by Mr. Marcus Stone, R.A., then a rising young artist, and the son of Dickens' old friend, Frank Stone. Here the designs fall into the opposite defect. They are, some of them, pretty enough, but they want character. Mr. Fildes' pictures for "Edwin Drood" are a decided improvement. As to the illustrations for the later Household Edition, they are very inferior. The designs for a great many are clearly bad, and the mechanical execution almost uniformly so. Even Mr. Barnard's skill has had no fair chance against poor woodcutting, careless engraving, and inferior paper. And this is the more to be regretted, in that Mr. Barnard, by natural affinity of talent, has, to my thinking, done some of the best art work that has been done at all in connection with Dickens. His Character Sketches, especially the lithographed series, are admirable. The Jingle is a masterpiece; but all are good, and he even succeeds in making something pictorially acceptable of Little Nell and Little Dorrit.

Just a year, almost to a day, elapsed between the conclusion of "The Tale of Two Cities," and the commencement of "Great Expectations." The last chapter of the former appeared in the number of All the Year Round for the 26th of November, 1859, and the first chapter of the latter in the number of the same periodical for the 1st of December, 1860. Poor Pip--for such is the name of the hero of the book--poor Pip, I think he is to be pitied. Certainly he lays himself open to the charge of snobbishness, and is unduly ashamed of his connections. But then circumstances were decidedly against him. Through some occult means he is removed from his natural sphere, from the care of his "rampageous" sister and of her husband, the good, kind, honest Joe, and taken up to London, and brought up as a gentleman, and started in chambers in Barnard's Inn. All this is done through the instrumentality of Mr. Jaggers, a barrister in highest repute among the criminal brotherhood. But Pip not unnaturally thinks that his unknown benefactress is a certain Miss Havisham, who, having been bitterly wronged in her love affairs, lives in eccentric fashion near his native place, amid the mouldering mementoes of her wedding day. What is his horror when he finds that his education, comfort, and prospects have no more reputable foundation than the bounty of a murderous criminal called Magwitch, who has showered all these benefits upon him from the antipodes, in return for the gift of food and a file when he, Magwitch, was trying to escape from the hulks, and Pip was a little lad. Magwitch, the transported convict, comes back to England, at the peril of his life, to make himself known to Pip, and to have the pleasure of looking at that young gentleman. He is again tracked by the police, and caught, notwithstanding Pip's efforts to get him off, and dies in prison. Pip ultimately, very ultimately, marries a young lady oddly brought up by the queer Miss Havisham, and who turns out to be Magwitch's daughter.

Such, as I have had occasion to say before in speaking of similar analyses, such are the dry bones of the story. Pip's character is well drawn. So is that of Joe. And Mr. Jaggers, the criminal's friend, and his clerk, Wemmick, are striking and full of a grim humour. Miss Havisham and her protégée, Estella, whom she educates to be the scourge of men, belong to what may be called the melodramatic side of Dickens' art. They take their place with Mrs. Dombey and with Miss Dartle in "David Copperfield," and Miss Wade in "Little Dorrit"--female characters of a fantastic and haughty type, and quite devoid, Miss Dartle and Miss Wade especially, of either verisimilitude or the milk of human kindness.

"Great Expectations" was completed in August, 1861, and the first number of "Our Mutual Friend" appeared in May, 1864. This was an unusual interval, but the great writer's faculty of invention was beginning to lose its fresh spring and spontaneity. And besides he had not been idle. Though writing no novel, he had been busy enough with readings, and his work on All the Year Round. He had also written a short, but very graceful paper[30] on Thackeray, whose death, on the Christmas Eve of 1863, had greatly affected him. Now, however, he again braced himself for one of his greater efforts.

Scarcely, I think, as all will agree, with the old success. In "Our Mutual Friend" he is not at his best. It is a strange complicated story that seems to have some difficulty in unravelling itself: the story of a man who pretends to be dead in order that he may, under a changed name, investigate the character and eligibility of the young woman whom an erratic father has destined to be his bride. A golden-hearted old dust contractor, who hides a will that will give him all that erratic father's property, and disinherit the man aforesaid, and who, to crown his virtues, pretends to be a miser in order to teach the young woman, also aforesaid, how bad it is to be mercenary, and to induce her to marry the unrecognized and seemingly penniless son; their marriage accordingly, with ultimate result that the bridegroom turns out to be no poor clerk, but the original heir, who, of course, is not dead, and is the inheritor of thousands; subsidiary groups of characters, of course, one which I think rather uninteresting, of some brand-new people called the Veneerings and their acquaintances, for they have no friends; and some fine sketches of the river-side population; striking and amusing characters too--Silas Wegg, the scoundrelly vendor of songs, who ferrets among the dust for wills in order to confound the good dustman, his benefactor; and the little deformed dolls' dressmaker, with her sot of a father; and Betty Higden, the sturdy old woman who has determined neither in life nor death to suffer the pollution of the workhouse; such, with more added, are the ingredients of the story.

One episode, however, deserves longer comment. It is briefly this: Eugene Wrayburn is a young barrister of good family and education, and of excellent abilities and address, all gifts that he has turned to no creditable purpose whatever. He falls in with a girl, Lizzie Hexham, of more than humble rank, but of great beauty and good character. She interests him, and in mere wanton carelessness, for he certainly has no idea of offering marriage, he gains her affection, neither meaning, in any definite way, to do anything good nor anything bad with it. There is another man who loves Lizzie, a schoolmaster, who, in his dull, plodding way, has made the best of his intellect, and risen in life. He naturally, and we may say properly, for no good can come of them, resents Wrayburn's attentions, as does the girl's brother. Wrayburn uses the superior advantages of his position to insult them in the most offensive and brutal manner, and to torture the schoolmaster, just as he has used those advantages to win the girl's heart. Whereupon, after being goaded to heart's desire for a considerable time, the schoolmaster as nearly as possible beats out Wrayburn's life, and commits suicide. Wrayburn is rescued by Lizzie as he lies by the river bank sweltering in blood, and tended by her, and they are married and live happy ever afterwards.

Now the amazing part of this story is, that Dickens' sympathies throughout are with Wrayburn. How this comes to be so I confess I do not know. To me Wrayburn's conduct appears to be heartless, cruel, unmanly, and the use of his superior social position against the schoolmaster to be like a foul blow, and quite unworthy of a gentleman. Schoolmasters ought not to beat people about the head, decidedly. But if Wrayburn's thoughts took a right course during convalescence, I think he may have reflected that he deserved his beating, and also that the woman whose affection he had won was a great deal too good for him.

Dickens' misplaced sympathy in this particular story has, I repeat, always struck me with amazement. Usually his sympathies are so entirely right. Nothing is more common than to hear the accusation of vulgarity made against his books. A certain class of people seem to think, most mistakenly, that because he so often wrote about vulgar people, uneducated people, people in the lower ranks of society, therefore his writing was vulgar, nay more, he himself vulgar too. Such an opinion can only be based on a strange confusion between subject and treatment. There is scarcely any subject not tainted by impurity, that cannot be treated with entire refinement. Washington Irving wrote to Dickens, most justly, of "that exquisite tact that enabled him to carry his reader through the veriest dens of vice and villainy without a breath to shock the ear or a stain to sully the robe of the most shrinking delicacy;" and added: "It is a rare gift to be able to paint low life without being low, and to be comic without the least taint of vulgarity." This is well said; and if we look for the main secret of the inherent refinement of Dickens' books, we shall find it, I think, in this: that he never intentionally paltered with right and wrong. He would make allowance for evil, would take pleasure in showing that there were streaks of lingering good in its blackness, would treat it kindly, gently, humanly. But it always stood for evil, and nothing else. He made no attempt by cunning jugglery to change its seeming. He had no sneaking affection for it. And therefore, I say again, his attachment to Eugene Wrayburn has always struck me with surprise. As regards Dickens' own refinement, I cannot perhaps do better than quote the words of Sir Arthur Helps, an excellent judge. "He was very refined in his conversation--at least, what I call refined--for he was one of those persons in whose society one is comfortable from the certainty that they will never say anything which can shock other people, or hurt their feelings, be they ever so fastidious or sensitive."


[26] His foolish quarrel with Bradbury and Evans had necessitated the abandonment of Household Words.

[27] See his pamphlet, "The Artist and the Author." The matter is fully discussed in his life by Mr. Blanchard Jerrold.

[28] Buss's illustrations were executed under great disadvantages, and are bad. Those of Seymour are excellent.

[29] I am always sorry, however, that Cruikshank did not illustrate the Christmas stories.

[30] See Cornhill Magazine for February, 1864.

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Charles Dickens

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