Charles Dickens Through the Lens of Canonicity

Mark Wallace

Critical discourse on Charles Dickens – especially late Dickens, most especially of all Bleak House – has gotten out of hand, and finds itself concentrating on virtues that Dickens doesn’t actually possess in a bid to shoehorn him into our notion of what a great writer is and what his writing does.

The BBC was and remains in the midst of a mammoth season of all things Dickensian over the Christmas period, in honour of the fact that 2012 is the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth. Also to commemorate this anniversary, two major Dickens biographies have appeared in the last couple of months: Claire Tomalin's imaginatively titled Charles Dickens: A Life, and Becoming Dickens by Robert Douglas Fairhurst. A recent article in the Sunday Times (September 25, Culture magazine) by Brian Appleyard tried to cast a cold eye over all this by asking: “But does the writer deserve to be ranked second only to Shakespeare?", but it didn't take long before the article settled on awed hero-worship to join the chorus. Dickens's standing has never been higher – he's always been popular, but it's never been this fashionable to invoke him as a paragon of high literary virtues.

In fact, what's quite interesting,and what calls into question our whole basis for according Dickens “greatest novelist in the English language" status – and, what the hell, maybe our whole value system for what constitutes great literature – is the fact that what the Victorians saw in him were virtues almost diametrically opposed to what modern-day critics see. That is, both periods have admired Dickens, but have come up with opposing rationales to explain his eminence.

It is well known that Dickens was a 19th century man of the people, and writer of the people. What invariably goes along with this is an amount of condescension and dismissal from the more intellectual levels of society, and Dickens got his fair share of this. George Eliot gave a summation that fairly sums up attitudes to Dickens among the thinking classes. First, she praised his humour, then noted that he "hardly ever passes from the humourous and external to the emotional and tragic, without becoming as transcendent in his unreality as he was a moment before in his artistic truthfulness. But for the precious salt of his humour […] his preternaturally virtuous poor children and artisans, his melodramatic boatmen and courtesans, would be as noxious as Eugene Sue's idealized proletaires."

Ok, so he was a funny guy, but he could only do humour and the “external". Henry James, in an 1865 review of Dickens' last completed novel Our Mutual Friend, wrote along the same lines, concluding that Dickens was “the greatest of superficial novelists[…] It were, in our opinion, an offense against humanity to place Mr Dickens among the greatest novelists." In a similar vein is an anonymous article from the Saturday Review in 1858. It is about Dickens' world view: “In the main, it is a very lovely world, a very good and a very happy world, in which we live. We ought all to be particularly fond of each other and infinitely pleased with our position" In the light of what is now written about Dickens, the ideas that he is superficial, able to portray only externalities, and unreasonably optimistic seem strange, but yet they are representative of how the Victorians saw Dickens.

Another quote from James's article is also worth noting: “For the last ten years it seems to us that Mr Dickens has been unmistakeably forcing himself; Bleak House was forced; Little Dorrit was laboured; the present work is dug out, as with a spade and pickaxe." In the last ten years, at the time James was writing (actually Bleak House was published 12 years before), Dickens had also published A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations – so, in judging Dickens' career, James is saying he was past his best before he ever wrote the books that are now judged his masterpieces. And James's view was the common one – right up to his death Dickens' most acclaimed work was his first novel The Pickwick Papers.

Which makes it all the stranger that in the early 21st century it's taken as a given that the works of Dickens' maturity are masterpieces of social criticism and psychological insight. Somehow, the Victorians – all of them, even such figures as Eliot and James – missed all of this. As for Pickwick Papers and the early works, they nowadays get little attention. In Harold Bloom's introduction to the Modern Critical Views series' book on Dickens, he notes approvingly that “there is now something approaching critical agreement that Bleak House is Dickens' most complex and memorable single achievement". An unexceptionable statement, I think; everyone seems to hold that up as the big one nowadays – it's long, it's complicated, it seems to be dealing with big social issues, its humour is satirical, not whimsical. But yet there was a time, and it lasted well into the 20th century, when Bleak House was not so esteemed; it was just another Dickens novel, one that was less read and less beloved than several others. One, that for Henry James and others (Dickens' friend and first biographer John Forster was another who espoused this opinion), actually seemed to herald a decline in Dickens creative faculties. How, the 21th century critic might wonder, did they get it so wrong?

Bleak House has become the Great Victorian Novel, an unflinching account of the condition of England in the mid-19th century. It's a “sustained moral inquiry into the evil that manmade systems do to the people they're supposed to help", said Kathryn Hughes, of Guardian on September 23, 2011. A “sustained moral inquiry" into anything, especially “the evil of manmade systems," is exactly the stuff of which canonical literature is made. By thus describing Bleak House, we are justifying the fact that it's still read over 150 years later and demonstrating how it fits the criteria of high literature. But my question is, does this description, which is representative of the critical discourse around Bleak House and Dickens generally, in any way fit the reading experience that the average reader will have with this text, or is this description based on preconceptions of what serious literature should do, and a wish to see Dickens in these terms so we can read him in good conscience?

Wouldn't it be just as accurate to describe Bleak House as a hodge-podge of eccentric but one-dimensional characters thrown together by a highly implausible and contrived plot? Wouldn't it also be true to say that ideologically, the book is characterized as much by an insistence on paternal authority as it is by empathy with the poor? Regarding this last point, note that Esther is granted her status as the book's hero because she submits to Jarndyce's authority, to the point of agreeing to marry him, against her own inclinations but in obedience to her sense of duty to a man who she has regarded as a father-figure – now, Esther doesn't marry Jarndyce, but this is Jarndyce's choice, and we are left in no doubt that she would have carried through this odd match had she been called upon to do so. Because Jarndyce knows best, and as figure of benevolent paternalism, he can be expected to make the right call, as he does. Even his choice of words as he renounces his claim to Esther before Allan Woodcourt reinforces his authority over her, his ownership in Chapter 64: “Allan, take from me, a willing gift, the best wife that ever a man had". Esther has no self-control at this point, she's a gift; where this is insidious is that this state of affairs is so obviously condoned, enjoyed, crowed over, by Dickens. He's very careful to portray his figure of paternal authority in the most benign light, a light under which Jarndyce's attitude to Esther is not just normalized but beatified (and, of course, desexualized – what does he want to marry her for, anyway? Some more of those “fatherly kisses" she mentions?), and the readership is assured that Jarndyce can be relied upon to make the right decision for everybody. On this occasion, Jarndyce chooses to renounce Esther, but the implication is that had he chosen otherwise, that would also have been right. Next time, he may make his catch.

This aspect of Bleak House, central to its ideology, rarely gets the same press as Dickens' vaunted empathy with the poor. And, sure, Jo pops up every now and again to wring our hearts with his “I don't know nuffinks", before dying in a scene that has in recent times regularly been upheld as a pinnacle of Dickensian art. In his article mentioned above, Brian Appleyard singles out Bleak House as Dickens' greatest book, and the scene of Jo's death in particular as “a moment of purest genius". You know the one from chapter 47: “Dead, your majesty. Dead, my ladies and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order, etc." It's effective enough, I suppose, though its heavy use of the Lord's Prayer (aka Our Father) rather dilutes its effect for me. Jo's last words, if you remember, are the opening words of the Prayer, repeated after Allan Woodcourt. A little obvious, a little heavy-handed as a choice of last words, a little tendentious, but for many it seems to hit the spot.

But though there are several episodes depicting the poor slums of London, this is, first and foremost, a bourgeois romance. That is why it's not a sustained moral inquiry into the evil of manmade systems. It is an occasional inquiry of that sort, but when Dickens is read nowadays, all we see is the righteous anger on behalf of the poor. The fact is, Dickens spends more of the book drooling over Esther and Ada's quasi-sapphic relations than in worrying about the wretched of the earth. When Esther first meets Ada early in the book, she is really quite taken with her, saying in chapter 3 "I saw the young lady, with the fire shining upon her, such a beautiful girl! With such rich golden hair, such soft blue eyes, and such a bright, innocent trusting face! […] [S]he had such a natural, captivating, winning manner, that in a few minutes we were sitting in the window-seat, with the light of the fire upon us, talking together, as free and happy as could be."

This Ada sounds like quite a gal, but this does wear thin, and all the petting and hand-holding and embracing that goes on between the two is described in such unctuously indulgent terms as to become seriously cloying. It's irredeemable stuff. Or is it? It's interesting to see how more recent commentators have seen in Esther's irritating and disingenuous narrative something else, something that makes it more Dickensian in the modern sense, where Dickensian connotes high literature and all that entails. How about this, according to Hughes in The Guardian, "Anyone too who likes to trot out that old line about Dickens not being able to do psychology, or women, or both, should try Bleak House. In Esther Summerson, the little busybody with the jangling keys and the plain face, he created an uncannily accurate portrait of how sanctimoniously awful someone with low self-esteem can be. Once you realise it's OK to want to slap Esther around a bit, she becomes a wonder of psychological observation."

This is surely a prime example of a reading through a canonical lens. That is, no one who read the book without first having been assured that Dickens was a literary mastermind would ever reach this conclusion about Esther; rather they would find her, as George Bernard Shaw once did, “a maddening prig". Of course, it is OK to want to slap Esther around a bit, but for Dickens she was a saintly figure. It's believed she was based on Dickens' sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth, and anyone who knows anything about Dickens' life knows that he held his sister-in-law up as a paragon of docile, self-denying femininity – and that was his favourite kind.

So, when we're reading Bleak House, what are we reading? The text or the canonicity? I'm not trying to argue against Dickens' genius, as he was obviously a one-off with some extraordinary gifts, and I suspect he'll be read as long as books are read. However, I would argue that critical discourse on Dickens – especially late Dickens, most especially of all Bleak House – has gotten out of hand, and finds itself concentrating on virtues that Dickens doesn't actually possess in a bid to shoehorn him into our notion of what a great writer is and what his writing does. So, go on, give Dickens a great birthday present and read him as he is, and if that means denouncing the obvious rubbish that peppers most of his books, or if it means throwing his books across the room in exasperation or just boredom, then so be it. It's a valid reaction to one of the most aesthetically problematic writers in our culture, a guy who can sometimes make you laugh, occasionally make you cry, and, not infrequently, make you sick.






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