Gissing's early novels were not well received, but he achieved greater recognition in the 1890s, both in England and overseas. The increase in popularity was linked not just to his novels, but to the short stories he wrote in this period and his friendships with influential and respected literary figures such as the journalist Henry Norman, author J. M. Barrie and writer and critic Edmund Gosse. By the end of the 19th century, critics placed him alongside Thomas Hardy and George Meredith as one of the three leading novelists in England. Sir William Robertson Nicoll described Gissing as "one of the most original, daring and conscientious workers in fiction." Chesterton called him the "soundest of the Dickens critics, a man of genius." George Orwell was an admirer and in a 1943 Tribune article called Gissing "perhaps the best novelist England has produced". He believed his "real masterpieces" were the "three novels, The Odd Women, Demos, and New Grub Street, and his book on Dickens. The central theme can be stated in three words - 'not enough money'."
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A Critical Study
By George Gissing
The History PressCopyright © 2007 Nonsuch Publishing,
All rights reserved.
More than forty years have elapsed since the death of Charles Dickens. The time which shaped him and sent him forth is so far behind us, as to have become a matter of historical study for the present generation; the time which knew him as one of its foremost figures, and owed so much to the influences of his wondrous personality, is already made remote by a social revolution of which he watched the mere beginning. It seems possible to regard Dickens from the stand-point of posterity; to consider his career, to review his literary work, and to estimate his total activity, as belonging to an age clearly distinguishable from our own.
When Queen Victoria came to the throne Charles Dickens was twenty-five years old. To say that he was twenty in the year 1832 is to point more significantly the period of his growth into manhood. At least a year before the passing of that Reform Bill which was to give political power to English capitalism (a convenient word of our day) Dickens had begun work as a shorthand writer, and as journalist. Before 1837 he had written his Sketches, had published them in volumes which gave some vogue to the name of "Boz", and was already engaged upon Pickwick. In short, Dickens's years of apprenticeship to life and literature were those which saw the rise and establishment of the Middle Class, commonly called "Great" — of the new power in political and social England which owed its development to coal and steam and iron mechanism. By birth superior to the rank of proletary, inferior to that of capitalist, this young man, endowed with original genius, and with the invincible vitality demanded for its exercise under such conditions, observed in a spirit of lively criticism, not seldom of jealousy, the class so rapidly achieving wealth and rule. He lived to become, in all externals, and to some extent in the tone of his mind, a characteristic member of this privileged society; but his criticism of its foibles, and of its grave shortcomings, never ceased. The landed proprietor of Gadshill could not forget (the great writer could never desire to forget) a miserable childhood imprisoned in the limbo of squalid London; his grudge against this memory was in essence a class feeling; to the end his personal triumph gratified him, however unconsciously, as the vindication of a social claim.
Walter Scott, inheriting gentle blood and feudal enthusiasm, resisted to the last the theories of '32; and yet by irony of circumstance owed his ruin to commercial enterprise. Charles Dickens, humbly born, and from first to last fighting the battle of those in like estate, wore himself to a premature end in striving to found his title of gentleman on something more substantial than glory. The one came into the world too late; the other, from this point of view, was but too thoroughly of his time.
A time of suffering, of conflict, of expansion, of progress. In the year of Dickens's birth (1812) we read of rioting workmen who smash machinery, and are answered by the argument of force. Between then and 1834, the date of the Poor Law Amendment Act, much more machinery is broken, power-looms and threshing-engines, north and south; but hungry multitudes have no chance against steam and capital. Statisticians, with rows of figures, make clear to us the vast growth of population and commerce in these same years; we are told, for instance, that between 1821 and 1841 the people of Sheffield and of Birmingham increased by 80 per cent. It is noted, too, that savings-bank deposits increased enormously during the same years: a matter for congratulation. Nevertheless, with the new Poor Law comes such a demand for new workhouses that in some four-and-twenty years we find an expenditure of five millions sterling in this hopeful direction. To be sure, a habit of pauperdom was threatening the ruin of the country — or of such parts of it as could not be saved by coal and steam and iron. Upon the close of the Napoleonic wars followed three decades of hardship for all save the inevitably rich, and those who were able to take time by the forelock; so that side by side we have the beginnings of vast prosperity and wide prevalence of woe. Under the old law providing for the destitute by means of outdoor relief, pauperdom was doubtless encouraged; but the change to sterner discipline could not escape the charge of harshness, and among those who denounced the new rule was Dickens himself. Whilst this difference of opinion was being fought out, came a series of lean years, failure of harvests, and hunger more acute than usual, which led to the movement known as Chartism (a hint that the middle-class triumph of '32 was by no means a finality, seeing that behind that great class was a class, numerically at all events, much greater); at the same time went on the Corn-law struggles. Reading the verses of Ebenezer Elliott, one cannot but reflect on the scope in England of those days for a writer of fiction who should have gone to work in the spirit of the Rhymer, without impulse or obligation to make his books amusing. But the novelist of homely life was already at his task, doing it in his own way, picturing with rare vividness the England that he knew; and fate had blest him with the spirit of boundless mirth.
There are glimpses in Dickens of that widespread, yet obscure, misery which lay about him in his early years. As, for instance, where we read in Oliver Twist, in the description of the child's walk to London, that "in some villages large painted boards were fixed up, warning all persons who begged within the district, that they would be sent to jail". And in his mind there must ever have been a background of such knowledge, influencing his work, even when it found no place in the scheme of a story.
In a rapid view of the early nineteenth century, attention is demanded by one detail, commonly forgotten, and by the historian easily ignored, but a matter of the first importance as serving to illustrate some of Dickens's best work. In 1833, Lord Ashley (afterwards Lord Shaftesbury) entered upon his long strife with stubborn conservatism and heartless interest on behalf of little children who worked for wages in English factories and mines. The law then in force forbade children under thirteen years of age to engage in such labour for more than thirteen hours a day; legislators of that period were so struck by the humanity of the provision that no eloquence could induce them to think of superseding it. Members of the reformed House of Commons were naturally committed to sound economic views on supply and demand; they enlarged upon the immorality of interfering with freedom of contract; and, when Lord Ashley was guilty of persevering in his anti-social craze, of standing all but alone, year after year, the advocate of grimy little creatures who would otherwise have given nobody any trouble, howling insult, or ingenious calumny, long served the cause of his philosophic opponents.
Let anyone who is prone to glorify the commercial history of nineteenth-century England search upon dusty shelves for certain Reports of Commissioners in the matter of children's employments at this time of Lord Ashley's activity, and there read a tale of cruelty and avarice which arraigns the memory of a generation content so infamously to enrich itself. Those Reports make clear that some part, at all events, of modern English prosperity results from the toil of children (among them babies of five and six), whose lives were spent in the black depths of coal-pits and amid the hot roar of machinery. Poetry has found inspiration in the subject, but no verse can make such appeal to heart and conscience as the businesslike statements of a Commission. Lord Ashley's contemporaries in Parliament dismissed these stories with a smile. Employers of infant labour naturally would lend no ear to a sentimental dreamer; but it might have been presumed that at all events in one direction, that of the Church, voices would make themselves heard in defence of "these little ones". We read, however, in the philanthropist's Diary: "In very few instances did any mill-owner appear on the platform with me; in still fewer the representatives of any religious denomination". This quiet remark serves to remind one, among other things, that Dickens was not without his reasons for a spirit of distrust towards religion by law established, as well as towards sundry other forms of religion — the spirit which, especially in his early career, was often misunderstood as hostility to religion in itself, a wanton mocking at sacred things. Such a fact should always be kept in mind in reading Dickens. It is here glanced at merely for its historical significance; the question of Dickens's religious attitude will call for attention elsewhere.
Dickens, if any writer, has associated himself with the thought of suffering childhood. The circumstances of his life confined him, for the most part, to London in his choice of matter for artistic use, and it is especially the London child whose sorrows are made so vivid to us by the master's pen. But we know that he was well acquainted with the monstrous wickedness of that child labour in mines and mills; and, find where he might the pathetic little figures useful to him in his fiction, he was always speaking, consciously, to an age remarkable for stupidity and heartlessness in the treatment of all its poorer children. Perhaps in this direction his influence was as great as in any. In recognizing this, be it remembered for how many years an Englishman of noble birth, one who, on all accounts, might have been thought likely to sway the minds of his countrymen to any worthy end, battled in vain and amid all manner of obloquy, for so simple a piece of humanity and justice. Dickens had a weapon more efficacious than mere honest zeal. He could make people laugh; and if once the crowd has laughed with you, it will not object to cry a little — nay, it will make good resolves, and sometimes carry them out.
It was a time by several degrees harsher, coarser, and uglier than our own. Take that one matter of hanging. Through all his work we see Dickens preoccupied with the gallows; and no wonder. In his Sketches there is the lurid story of the woman who has obtained possession of her son after his execution, and who seeks the aid of a doctor, in hope of restoring the boy to life; and in so late a book as Great Expectations occurs that glimpse of murderous Newgate, which is among his finest things. His description of a hanging, written to a daily paper, is said to have had its part in putting an end to public executions; but that was comparatively late in his life; at his most impressionable time the hanging of old and young, men and women, regularly served as one of the entertainments of Londoners. Undoubtedly, even in Dickens's boyhood, manners had improved to some extent upon those we see pictured in Hogarth; but from our present stand-point the difference, certainly in poorer London, is barely appreciable. It was an age in which the English character seemed bent on exhibiting all its grossest and meanest and most stupid characteristics. Sheer ugliness of everyday life reached a limit not easily surpassed; thickheaded national prejudice, in consequence of great wars and British victories, had marvellously developed; aristocracy was losing its better influence, and power passing to a well-fed multitude, remarkable for a dogged practicality which, as often as not, meant ferocious egoism. With all this, a prevalence of such ignoble vices as religious hypocrisy and servile snobbishness. Our own day has its faults in plenty: some of them perhaps more perilous than the worst here noted of our ancestors; but it is undeniably much cleaner of face and hands, decidedly more graceful in its common habits of mind.
One has but to open at any page of Pickwick to be struck with a characteristic of social life in Dickens's youth, which implies so much that it may be held to represent the whole civilization in which he was born and bred. Mr Pickwick and his friends all drank brandy; drank it as the simplest and handiest refreshment, at home or abroad; drank it at dawn or at midnight, in the retirement of the bed-chamber, or by the genial fireside; offered it as an invitation to good-fellowship, or as a reward of virtue in inferiors; and on a coach-journey, whether in summer or winter, held it among the indispensable comforts. "He", said Samuel Johnson, "who aspires to be a hero, must drink brandy"; and in this respect the Pickwickians achieve true heroism. Of course they pay for their glory, being frequently drunk in the most flagrant sense of the word; but to say that they "come up smiling" after it, is to use an inadequate phrase — however appropriate to those times; he would indeed have been a sorry Pickwickian who owned to a morning s headache. If such a thing existed, unavowed, there was the proverbial remedy at hand — "a hair of the dog". It is conceivable that, in an age to come, a student of Pickwick may point, as an obvious explanation of the marvellous flow of vitality and merriment among the people of Dickens's day, to their glorious beverage, doubtless more ethereal and yet more potent than any drink known to later mortals — the divine liquor called brandy.
Amid this life of the young century — cruel, unlovely, but abounding in vital force — there arose two masters in the art of fiction. To one of them was given the task of picturing England on its brighter side, the world of rank and fashion and wealth, with but rare glances (these, however, more noteworthy than is generally recognized) at the populace below. The other had for his field that vast obscurity of lower town life which till then had never been turned to literary uses. Of the country poor, at a somewhat earlier date, admirable presentment had been made in the verse of Crabbe, a writer (in truth the forerunner of what is now called "realism") whose most unmerited neglect may largely be accounted for by the unfortunate vehicle of his work, the "riding-rhyme", which has lost its charm for the English ear; but poverty amid a wilderness of streets, and that class of city population just raised above harsh necessity, no one had seriously made his theme in prose or verse. Thackeray and Dickens supplement each other, and, however wide apart the lives they depict, to a striking degree confirm each other's views of a certain era in the history of England. In their day, both were charged with partiality, with excessive emphasis. Both being avowedly satirists, the charge can be easily understood, and to a certain point may be admitted. In the case of Dickens, with whom alone I am here concerned, it will be part of my endeavour to vindicate him against the familiar complaint that, however trustworthy his background, the figures designed upon it, in general, are mere forms of fantasy. On re-reading his work, it is not thus that Dickens's characters, on the whole, impress me. With reserves which will appear in the course of my essay, I believe him to have been, what he always claimed to be, a very accurate painter of the human beings, no less than of the social conditions, he saw about him. He has not a wide scope; he is always noticeably at his best in dealing with an ill-defined order of English folk, a class (or classes) characterized by dulness, prejudice, dogged individuality, and manners, to say the least, unengaging. From this order he chose the living figures of his narrative, and they appear to me, all in all, no less truly representative than the persons selected by Thackeray to illustrate a higher rank of life. Readers of Dickens who exclaim at the "unreality" of his characters (I do not here speak of his conduct of a story) will generally be found unacquainted with the English lower classes of today; and one may remark in passing that the English people is distinguished among nationalities by the profound mutual ignorance which separates its social ranks.
One often hears it said that Dickens gives us types, not individuals; types, moreover, of the most abstract kind, something like the figures in the old Moralities: embodied hypocrisy, selfishness, pride, and so on, masking as everyday mortals. This appears to me an unconsidered judgment. Dickens's characters will pass before us and be attentively reviewed; speaking of them generally, I see in them, not abstractions, but men and women of such loud peculiarities, so aggressively individual in mind and form, in voice and habit, that they for ever proclaim themselves the children of a certain country, of a certain time, of a certain rank. Clothed abstractions do not take hold upon the imagination and the memory as these people of Dickens did from the day of their coming into life. The secret of this subtle power lay in the reality of the figures themselves. There are characters in Dickens (meant, moreover, to be leading persons of the drama) which have failed thus to make good their being; their names we may remember, but all else has become shadowy; and what is the reason of this vanishment, in contrast with the persistence of figures less important? Simply that here Dickens has presented us with types, abstractions. The social changes of the last sixty years are not small; but to anyone who really knows the lower middle class in London it will be obvious that many of the originals of Dickens still exist, still pursue the objectionable, or amusing, tenor of their way, amid new names and new forms of ugliness. Sixty years ago, grotesques and eccentricities were more common than nowadays; the Englishman, always angular and self-assertive, had grown flagrant in his egoism during the long period of combat with menacing powers; education had not set up its grindstone for all and sundry; and persons esteemed odd even in such a society abounded among high and low. For these oddities, especially among the poorer folk, Dickens had an eager eye; they were offered to him in measure overflowing; nowadays he would have to search for them amid the masses drilled into uniformity, but there they are — the same creatures differently clad. Precisely because his books are rich in extravagances of human nature is Dickens so true a chronicler of his day and generation.
Excerpted from Charles Dickens by George Gissing. Copyright © 2007 Nonsuch Publishing,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
Introduction to the Modern Edition,
Charles Dickens: A Critical Study by George Gissing,
I His Times,
II The Growth of Man and Writer,
III The Story-Teller,
IV Art, Veracity, and Moral Purpose,
VI Satiric Portraiture,
VII Women and Children,
VIII Humour and Pathos,
X The Radical,
XII The Latter Years,
Dickens-Land by J.A. Nicklin,
A Dictionary of Characters, Places, otc., in the Novels & Stories of Dickens,
Notes on the Illustrations by F.G. Kitton,