Dickens: Orwell’s assessment

February 7, 2012 at 6:54 pm (capitalism, history, humanism, Jim D, literature, Orwell, socialism)

Charles Dickens

Claire Tomalin, author of the magnificent Charles Dickens – A Life (Viking, 2011) has written a very moving and politically pertinent 200th birthday letter to her subject, published in today’s Guardian. It’s essentially a distillation of her book, emphasising  Dickens’s role as humane, liberal social commentator:
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“[Y]ou would see the same gulf between the rich, at ease enjoying their money and power, and the poor, relying on out-of-date food thrown out by supermarkets and food parcels from charities, and fearing for their jobs. And since you were obsessively interested in prisons all your life, you might be daunted by the huge increase in our prisons and number of prisoners.“A glance at the newspapers would tell you that your crooked financier, Mr Merdle, has many successors, and that Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle and his Etonian friends and relations are still running things.” (Read the rest here)
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But with all due respect to Ms Tomalin (who, in her book, is not uncritical of either Dickens’s character or his literary style), she strikes me as rather too willing to take his supposedly progressive stance at face value. George Orwell in 1939, in what is probably the longest and most detailed essay he ever produced about another writer, took a more nuanced and critical view. He notes that Dickens was no political campaigner, let alone any kind of revolutionary or socialist in the usually understood sense. Dickens was dismissive of trade unionism (in Hard Times and Barnaby Rudge) and bitterly hostile to political revolution (A Tale of Two Cities). In fact, argues Orwell, Dickens wasn’t really political at all: “The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusievly moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places…There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown…it would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system.”
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And yet Orwell writes with warmth and obvious affection about Dickens, and makes it clear that he’s immersed himself in Dickens’s stories since childhood. His conclusion is positive, as on balance, is mine:
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“If Dickens had been merely a comic writer, the chances are that no one would now remember his name. Or at best a few of his books would survive in rather the same way as books like Frank Fairleigh, Mr. Verdant Green and Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures, as a sort of hangover of the Victorian atmosphere, a pleasant little whiff of oysters and brown stout. Who has not felt sometimes that it was ‘a pity’ that Dickens ever deserted the vein of Pickwick for things like Little Dorrit and Hard Times? What people always demand of a popular novelist is that he shall write the same book over and over again, forgetting that a man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once. Any writer who is not utterly lifeless moves upon a kind of parabola, and the downward curve is implied in the upper one. Joyce has to start with the frigid competence of Dubliners and end with the dream-language of Finnegan’s Wake, but Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist are part of the trajectory. The thing that drove Dickens forward into a form of art for which he was not really suited, and at the same time caused us to remember him, was simply the fact that he was a moralist, the consciousness of ‘having something to say’. He is always preaching a sermon, and that is the final secret of his inventiveness. For you can only create if you can care. Types like Squeers and Micawber could not have been produced by a hack writer looking for something to be funny about. A joke worth laughing at always has an idea behind it, and usually a subversive idea. Dickens is able to go on being funny because he is in revolt against authority, and authority is always there to be laughed at. There is always room for one more custard pie.

“His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, ‘Behave decently’, which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence. What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, ‘an expression on the human face.’ Roughly speaking, his morality is the Christian morality, but in spite of his Anglican upbringing he was essentially a Bible-Christian, as he took care to make plain when writing his will. In any case he cannot properly be described as a religious man. He ‘believed’, undoubtedly, but religion in the devotional sense does not seem to have entered much into his thoughts. Where he is Christian is in his quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressors. As a matter of course he is on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere. To carry this to its logical conclusion one has got to change sides when the underdog becomes an upperdog, and in fact Dickens does tend to do so. He loathes the Catholic Church, for instance, but as soon as the Catholics are persecuted (Barnaby Rudge) he is on their side. He loathes the aristocratic class even more, but as soon as they are really overthrown (the revolutionary chapters in A Tale of Two Cities) his sympathies swing round. Whenever he departs from this emotional attitude he goes astray. A well-known example is at the ending of David Copperfield, in which everyone who reads it feels that something has gone wrong. What is wrong is that the closing chapters are pervaded, faintly but not noticeably, by the cult of success. It is the gospel according to Smiles, instead of the gospel according to Dickens. The attractive, out-at-elbow characters are got rid of, Micawber makes a fortune, Heep gets into prison — both of these events are flagrantly impossible — and even Dora is killed off to make way for Agnes. If you like, you can read Dora as Dickens’s wife and Agnes as his sister-in-law, but the essential point is that Dickens has ‘turned respectable’ and done violence to his own nature. Perhaps that is why Agnes is the most disagreeable of his heroines, the real legless angel of Victorian romance, almost as bad as Thackeray’s Laura.

“No grown-up person can read Dickens without feeling his limitations, and yet there does remain his native generosity of mind, which acts as a kind of anchor and nearly always keeps him where he belongs. It is probably the central secret of his popularity. A good-tempered antinomianism rather of Dickens’s type is one of the marks of Western popular culture. One sees it in folk-stories and comic songs, in dream-figures like Mickey Mouse and Pop-eye the Sailor (both of them variants of Jack the Giant-killer), in the history of working-class Socialism, in the popular protests (always ineffective but not always a sham) against imperialism, in the impulse that makes a jury award excessive damages when a rich man’s car runs over a poor man; it is the feeling that one is always on the wrong side of the underdog, on the side of the weak against the strong. In one sense it is a feeling that is fifty years out of date. The common man is still living in the mental world of Dickens, but nearly every modern intellectual has gone over to some or other form of totalitarianism. From the Marxist or Fascist point of view, nearly all that Dickens stands for can be written off as ‘bourgeois morality’. But in moral outlook no one could be more ‘bourgeois’ than the English working classes. The ordinary people in the Western countries have never entered, mentally, into the world of ‘realism’ and power-politics. They may do so before long, in which case Dickens will be as out of date as the cab-horse. But in his own age and ours he has been popular chiefly because he was able to express in a comic, simplified and therefore memorable form the native decency of the common man. And it is important that from this point of view people of very different types can be described as ‘common’. In a country like England, in spite of its class-structure, there does exist a certain cultural unity. All through the Christian ages, and especially since the French Revolution, the Western world has been haunted by the idea of freedom and equality; it is only an idea, but it has penetrated to all ranks of society. The most atrocious injustices, cruelties, lies, snobberies exist everywhere, but there are not many people who can regard these things with the same indifference as, say, a Roman slave-owner. Even the millionaire suffers from a vague sense of guilt, like a dog eating a stolen leg of mutton. Nearly everyone, whatever his actual conduct may be, responds emotionally to the idea of human brotherhood. Dickens voiced a code which was and on the whole still is believed in, even by people who violate it. It is difficult otherwise to explain why he could be both read by working people (a thing that has happened to no other novelist of his stature) and buried in Westminster Abbey.

“When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

3 Comments

  1. Rosie said,

    It’s a great essay, and was ground-breaking in its time.

  2. Rosie said,

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00nz0qs

    Really good dramatic presentation of one of Dickens’s essays – sounds like the germ of Bleak House.

  3. SteveH said,

    Marx on Dickens and the other moralists:

    “…issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together…”

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