The Shining Pyramid (collection)/The Art of Dickens

"I should like to quarrel—quite mildly—with Mr. John Ayscough over his pleasant article called "Sotto Voce." For Mr. Ayscough, in instituting his comparisons between Dickens, Thackeray, and Hardy, adopts in the main this matter of character-drawing as his great test and touchstone, and I think that he is unsound in his choice of a criterion; while, by the way, he does injustice to all the three great men that he names. "

THE ART OF DICKENS

Does one admire the "Odyssey" chiefly (or even at all) because of the clever and consistent character-drawing it contains? Do we read it because Ulysses is so admirably depicted; an individuality and yet typically Greek, adventurous and yet cautious, a lover of the Sirens' Song and yet wise enough to stop the ears of the crew and to get himself tied to the mast, brave enough when bravery is necessary but never foolhardy? Well, I doubt very much whether we admire the "Odyssey" for any such reason; and so I should like to quarrel—quite mildly—with Mr. John Ayscough over his pleasant article called "Sotto Voce."

For Mr. Ayscough, in instituting his comparisons between Dickens, Thackeray, and Hardy, adopts in the main this matter of character-drawing as his great test and touchstone, and I think that he is unsound in his choice of a criterion; while, by the way, he does injustice to all the three great men that he names. To take the least important question first, is it just to say that the spots on a man's face were dearer to Thackeray than the man himself? Nay; let us go gently, but surely this will never pass? I have no extravagant admiration for Thackeray, but surely the performance of the task he set himself is worthy of heartier commendation than this. The task in question seems to me by no means of the loftiest; it was simply the observation of the society about him with the keenest eyesight, the nicest accuracy, and then it was the task of combining all the mass of facts that had been gathered into some sort of a cosmos—say, into "Vanity Fair," into "The Newcomes," into "Pendennis." One admits, quite readily, that this task is by no means of the highest, that no message from the eternities ever reached Thackeray's ears, that he was never inspired to sing the inexpressive song, that neither dawn nor dusk made for him any sacrament of mystery, that the voice of the fairy birds never penetrated to his cosy and well-arranged study. But how well he did the work that he found at his hands, with what keenness, with what admirable talent, with what excellent good humour! I daresay Georgiana Farrer thought Mr. Thackeray a cynic; but Georgiana, with all respect to Mr. Ross and to Mr. Brock, who have the natural pride of discoverers, was an old fool. No; Thackeray was always good-humoured; he set his noble patient up with Spr. lavend. comp. and Spr. menth. pip., when the Dean would have put the irons in the fire to grow white-hot; and it cannot be maintained that he was a man who thought more of the pimples than of the face, more of the mincing accent than of the voice, while Dobbin, and Warrington, and Colonel Newcome remain to us. There were assuredly many better things than blemishes amongst his stock-in-trade; even Sedley, foolish old failure that he was, did not lack the dignity of repentance on his deathbed.

And, again, I think that Mr. Ayscough, while he lauds Thomas Hardy, does not really appreciate the true matter of the master's greatness. He stakes everything on character-drawing, and I will say boldly that I believe that in the greatest books and in the last resort character-drawing does not matter two pins; or, in other words, that the charm of the "Odyssey" does not depend upon the "character" of Ulysses. The "Odyssey" is a great mystery and enchantment book, it is a mirror of the world's wonder and beauty, it is a chart of fairy seas and of the shores of dreamland, and Ulysses is but the peg on which these marvels hang. And I claim for Mr. Hardy a place, though a lower place, in the hall where Homer is enthroned, and I am afraid I say "Bother!" to Mr. Ayscough's talk about the "bigness" of his characters. They are very good indeed, many of them, especially those admirable Dorset peasants; but their goodness is not the main point, and it is not the main point in the finest literature to draw people so well that the reader begins to think that they must be "real" people, and that the author is a sort of journalist with supernatural means of finding out all the "facts" about them. This would be a merit of a sort—the sort of merit that one would expect from first-rate wax works, the merit of the Greek painter who depicted grapes so cleverly that the birds came and pecked the picture. But this is not the merit of the high art of letters, which, like all the high arts, is an art of enchantment, the passage into a region which is earth, and yet earth translated, seen in a light neither of the sun nor of the moon. If we want to go to Margate, it would be idle to take a fairy barque, and simili modo it would be but faint praise of a Gothic cathedral to say that it was quite weatherproof. The face of a dyed saint in a stained-glass window may remind a man of his Aunt Jane, but that signifies nothing.

And it seems to me that Thomas Hardy holds so high a place in literature that his character-drawing is quite unimportant, though good and pleasant in its place. His true praise is that he has made the Great Projection, that in his crucible the dull matter of earth has assumed the glory of the great dream that has always troubled or rejoiced the heart of man. There is a certain story of a rather thankless and heartless young clergyman who studied astronomy and got on in the world; also the story tells of an affectionate and rather indiscreet woman, belonging to a county family, who afterwards married the Bishop. I protest that I have said enough of these people as people—as characters; that their sayings as sayings, and their actions as actions are, in themselves, of no particular interest; that in mere logical analysis the story about them might be described as "painful" and "unpleasant," as good material for one of our "serious" dramatists; and no worse word can I utter than that. What? Great ladies are some times indiscreet; a peasant "on the make" has no doubt been hard and graceless; Bishops, for all I know, have been evilly entreated and (if I may borrow an expressive phrase from Mr. Edgar Jepson), "choused." I protest again that I take no particular interest in these people, and I protest more earnestly that I should quite despair of doing justice to that wonderful and supreme romance called "Two on a Tower." Long ago in a book which no one has read[1] I wrote:

"The old tower, standing in the midst of lonely, red plough-lands far from the highway, is at first only the convenient place where the young peasant studies astronomy; but as you read you feel the change coming; the tower is transmuted, glorified; every stone of it is aglow with mystic light, it is made the abode of the Lover and the Beloved; it is seen to be a symbol of Love, of an ecstasy remote, and passionate, and eternal, dwelling far from the ways of men."

Of such sort it still appears to me are the merits of Thomas Hardy, and these are surely the merits, the great enchantments, the supremest magistry of true literature, the revelation of the inner mysteries of life. I care nothing for the "character" of that Jude who was obscure; frankly, he strikes me as a feeble and foolish though pitiable personality, and his story qua story seems to me as insignificant and tiresome in the main. But who can forget that vision of Oxford that Jude once beheld—when, gazing from the verge of a lonely field, he saw the wet roofs and towers and spires suddenly glitter and shine golden in the flaming sunset, so that for a moment the material dream of the boy was unconsciously assumed and taken up into the great dream of the world's heart? For ever since man was man he has longed for that city of vision, for that golden and blessed place where all doles shall be healed, where all desires shall be fulfilled, where all delight shall be afforded, and the thirst of his soul shall be quenched fully at springs and fountains of quickening water. Man has called this city Syon, and Avalon, and the Glassy Isle, and the Fortunate Islands, and the Earthly Paradise, and also Mandalay; and his dreams and visions of this place and his desire for it are named art. It is this city that Jude saw for an instant at the sunset; and he who can speak of these things seems to me artist in the highest degree. He is the true "realist" who shows us realities that are eternal. To draw a major in Piccadilly who is just like a major in Piccadilly, a Dorsetshire peasant who is true to type, an old lady whom one fancies that one must have known years ago in Market Ditchwater—these are minor and unimportant, though amusing and interesting adventures.

And so one quite understands Mr. Ayscough's heresies about Dickens:

"Dickens was usually indoors, too, hanging about kitchens, and not always even knowing the difference between the kitchen and the housekeeper's room. Nor did he much care to know. He prefers parlours behind shops, or in mean lodgings, or in debtors' prisons. . . . Whether Dickens could draw real people or not his critics are not certain; but it is certain that he did draw chiefly caricatures, each character being chiefly differentiated by its absurdities and peculiarities. . . . Dickens never created off-hand—his people are mostly evolutions, at so many stages a month. Out of a bibulous, semi-imbecile little protoplasm evolved the amiable, almost respectable Mr. Pickwick, and out of the merely priggish Mr. Pecksniff evolved a complete villain."

Now, judged merely by the standard of the letter, this indictment may not pass. Dickens was not usually indoors; he was often on the great coach-roads, in the streets of old country towns, on the downs between Bristol and Marlborough, on the way from Dijon to Paris, on the Mississippi steamer, on the salt marshes, by highway and by way, by little villages and manufacturing towns with Codlin, Short, and Mrs. Jarley, lingering by ancient, mouldering shrines, snowbound on the wild Yorkshire moor, floating down the dark Thames at midnight. As for the evolution of Mr. Pickwick, Dickens is in good company, as any may ascertain by looking into Rabelais or Cervantes. The "note" of the early chapters of [Gargantua] is a very different one from that of the last chapters of Pantagruel, and the Don Quixote of the first pages is but a shadow in comparison with the figure which gradually emerges as one goes on that great pilgrimage of errantry. And then Mr. Pecksniff was never "merely priggish." He was never priggish at all; he was unctuous from first to last, and his essential scoundrelism is indicated within seven pages of his entrance on the scene.

Still, these be trifles. It is probable, again, that the theory of Dickens the caricaturist has been pushed much too far; that a great deal that seems strange, uncouth, impossible to us, is faithful representation enough—only the society that Dickens knew has passed away and the fashion of it, and we, who may be well-instructed as to the social life of Athens 400 B.C, or of mediæval Paris in the fourteenth century, are so ignorant of the petite bourgeoisie of eighty years ago in England that its manners and customs seem to us the odd inventions of a whimsical and fantastic writer. The social structure of the eighteenth century persisted for some years of the nineteenth, and Dr. Johnson's visiting-list in the year 1752 gives us a glimpse of a state of things for which there is now, perhaps, no parallel. Mrs. Micawber was, no doubt, quite a possible person socially, and her "Family" can be readily envisaged by those who are familiar with the time. It is quite likely that one of her brothers kept a large grocer's shop at Plymouth, another may have been a captain in the Navy, a third—it is quite possible—founded a famous firm in the City, while a fourth may have become a general in the Company's service. And the opening scene of "Pickwick," which is very bad indeed, is most likely a literal transcript, so far as the mise en scene and the social status of the members of the club are concerned, of an actual club that Dickens had frequented. Retired English tradesmen did once like to meet each other over a "social glass" in a tavern-parlour, and the discussion of literary and "philosophical" questions (after an odd fashion, doubtless) would be a quite usual proceeding.

But this is not the point. The true point is that Mr. Ayscough, considering Dickens, has fallen into an error similar to that of a Mr. Tilley[2], whose book on Rabelais was reviewed some months ago. The reviewer, so far as I remember, showed that the vital (and fatal) error in Mr. Tilley's book lay in the author's regarding Gargantua, Pantagruel, Panurge, and Brother John as "characters in a novel." In the criticism of Rabelais the result of such a point of view appeared to be the most fatal nonsense, error, and confusion; in the criticism of Dickens similar premises lead to similar disasters. It is the horrible fallacy in each case of regarding Pantagruel and Pickwick as "people one might have met," as possible acquaintances in some literal Touraine and literal London; it is precisely the same fallacy which has induced certain persons to regard Galahad as "a very odd man" with the most strained and unpractical ideas on certain subjects. And then there is another great example to which reference has been already made—does Mr. Ayscough regard Don Quixote as a possible person, inhabiting a material La Mancha in the early years of the seventeenth century? Surely not; but is Don Quixote then to be dismissed as a caricature? For heaven's sake let us rid ourselves of this notion that literature is a sort of glass in which we may behold our friends, or some people like our friends, whether of South Kensington or Little Pedlington.

Dickens, then, was a symbolist. Let it be said quite frankly, without shame, that no persons such as Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Micawber, or Mr. Pecksniff ever walked this earth. They are creatures of the world of vision, of that other world which is beside us always, which transcends the sight of unpurged eyes. I think it is Mr. G. K. Chesterton that has pointed out that somewhere in the heavens there is an immortal tavern where there sits an immortal company. Pantagruel, who is ever athirst, is there enthroned, Falstaff there renews his abjuration of thin potations, and Mr. Pickwick, having cast off the dust of Goswell Street, drinks a brandy that was vinted and distilled in Sirius. Here is the true doctrine of the high mysteries—the doctrine that this doited, envenomed age can never understand. Not for the common critics of these days is there any parting of the veil: it is thick before their eyes; Mr. Pickwick can only summon to their vision the image of the Licensing Bill; they read of Falstaff, and wonder how the County Council would have dealt with such a case; and as for Pantagruel he would manifestly have been scheduled as an habitual drinker.

But Dickens will long be a refuge to those who refuse all assent to these follies, who care not twopence for all the "problems" of the "serious" drama. For Dickens is, as I have said, the true realist—the man who symbolizes, by means of phenomena, eternal verities. One has never seen anybody like Mr. Pickwick, like Mr. Micawber. Precisely; and for that very reason one knows that the creator of these immortals is of the greatest. Have we ever seen anyone like Galahad, like Don Quixote, like Pantagruel? Do the gargoyles of the mediæval cathedral browse in our meadows or run in our backyards? Do we receive the saints in dyed vestments with golden aureoles on the first and third Wednesdays in our comfortable villas? Are we to suppose that the nymphs and fauns went into the best Athenian society? Alas! what foolish talk is this about character-drawing—about characters who are "big," and "life-like," and the rest of it? What does it profit a painter to delineate a tree which is very like a tree, unless it is something much more—unless it is also the symbol and the revelation of some great secret of Nature? If this were not so, then the camera would be the superior of Turner, and the shorthand-writer would look down from his desk on poor blind Homer, who talks of gods and goddesses, and fairy isles, and giants with one eye in their foreheads.

The great world of Homer is not to be reborn in these days; the greater world of mediæval romance, of the Sangraal, is a far vision of holy, splendid, and glorious mysteries. We have eaten too long of the accursed fruit, we have drunk too much poisonous doctrine to be worthy to receive such high things as these. Let us be thankful, therefore, that in the nineteenth century, while we worked every abomination, every madness, there was a certain Charles Dickens who caught a glimpse of the enchanted land, who retold, under grotesque cockney disguises, the old tale of wonder, who showed us once more, in ugly costume enough, the mystery-play of this our mortal life.


  1. Hieroglyphics.
  2. Arthur Tilley.