Dickens is one of the masters of prose, but in
a sense that carries qualification. He cannot be compared with Thackeray
for flow of pure idiom, for command of subtle melodies. He is often mannered
to the last point of endurance; he has one fault which offends the prime
law of prose composition. For all that, he made unique use of the English
language, and his style must be examined as one of the justifications of
his place in literature.
In the beginning it had excellent qualities; his Sketches are phrased with vigour, with variety, and with a soundness of construction which he owed to his eighteenth-century studies. Dealing for the most part with vulgarity, his first book is very free from vulgarisms. In one of the earliest letters to Forster, he speaks of "your invite"; but no such abomination deforms his printed pages. Facetiousness is now and then to blame for an affected sentence, and this fault once or twice crops up in later books. Someone in Pickwick wears "a grin which agitated his countenance from one auricular organ to the other"; and in Bleak House, when grandfather Smallweed threw his cushion at the old woman, we are told that "the effect of this act of jaculation was twofold". Without much effort Dickens kept clear of such pitfalls; what might have befallen him but for his fine models and his good sense, we may surmise from the style of certain of his more or less conscious imitators, Slovenly English he never wrote; the nature of the man made it impossible. And in this respect he contrasts remarkably with all save the greatest of his day. As an illustration of what a generally sound writer could permit himself in the hurry of writing a "mere novel", I remember a passage in Henry Kingsley's Ravenshoe (chap. xxviii), where a dog is trying to attract his master's attention; we read, with a little shock of surprise, that "the dog wagged his tail and pawed his waistcoat". But Dickens respected both himself and his public -- never a common virtue in the everyday English novelist.
The gravest of his faults, from Oliver Twist onwards -- and he never wholly overcame it -- is the habit of writing metrically. He is not alone in this vice. Charles Kingsley illustrates it very badly in some of his prose; especially, I remember, in the Heroes. Should any one wish to see how far the trick (unconsciously, of course) can be carried, let him open Richard Jefferies' paper "The Open Air", where he will find several pages written, with very few breaks, precisely in a metre made familiar by Longfellow. As thus: "All the devious brooklet's sweetness / where the iris stays the sunlight; / all the wild woods hold of beauty: / all the broad hills' thyme and freedom: / thrice a hundred years repeated". This, of course, betrays an ear untrained in the harmonies of prose; the worst of it is, that many readers would discover it with delight, and point to it as admirable. A good many years since, I came upon a magazine article entitled "Dickens as a Poet", the absurd aim whereof was to show admiringly how many passages from the novels could be written and read as blank verse. The fact unfortunately cannot be disputed. Dickens wrote thus under the influence of strong emotion. He observed the tendency, speaks of it as something he cannot help, and is not disturbed by it. The habit overcame him in his moods of softness; and therefore is particularly noticeable towards the end of the Old Curiosity Shop. When his emotion is indignant, on the other hand, he is not thus tempted; simply as a bit of prose, the paragraph giving a general description of the children at Dotheboys, is good, well-balanced, with no out-of-place rhythm. But turn to a passage quoted by Forster (Book iii, chap. 8) from the American Notes; quoted as a fine expression of Dickens's sympathy with the poor. It is nobly felt, most admirably worded; yet the five-foot cadence is flagrant here and there. "But bring him here, upon this crowded deck. / Strip from his fair young wife her silken dress / . . . pinch her pale cheek with care and much privation" -- and so on. One is half inclined to think that Dickens did it deliberately, regarding it as an improvement on plain prose.
For a style simple, direct, and forcible, one may turn to Barnaby Rudge. Taking it all in all, this is perhaps the best written of his novels; best, that is to say, in the sense of presenting the smoothest and closest strain of narrative. There are no irruptions of metre; the periods are flowing, the language is full of subdued energy. Among the first few books it is very noticeable for this peculiar excellence. One reason, possibly, is its comparative shortness. Nickleby, on the other hand, has faults of style plainly due to the necessity of writing more than the author wished to say. One of its best-knit chapters is that describing Nicholas's walk from London through Surrey, with Smike. We breathe the very air of the downs, and smell the sweetness of wayside hedges. This power of suggesting a country atmosphere is remarkable in Dickens. He hardly ever mentions a tree or flower by its name; he never elaborates -- perhaps never even sketches -- a landscape; yet we see and feel the open-air surroundings. The secret is his own delight in the road and the meadow, and his infinite power of suggestion in seemingly unconsidered words.
In narrative, he is always excellent when describing rapid journeys. The best coach-drive ever put into words is that of the Muggleton coach, in Pickwick. It surpasses the much longer description in Chuzzlewit, which comes near to being monotonous after many paragraphs beginning with the same words; it is incredibly exhilarating, and would put a healthy glow, as of a fine frosty morning, into the veins of a man languishing in the tropics. We are asked to believe that the story (in Bleak House) of the posting journey conducted by Inspector Bucket, came from the pen of Miss Esther Summerson; the brain, at all events, was Dickens's, and working with its most characteristic vigour. He knew every stage covered by the travellers; he saw the gleam of the lamps, the faces they illumined but for a moment; the very horses brought out fresh were his old acquaintances. Such writing is no mere question of selecting and collocating words; there must first be vision, and that of extraordinary clearness. Dickens tells us that in times of worry or of grave trouble he could still write; he had but to sit down at his desk, and straightway he saw. Where -- as would happen -- he saw untruly, a mere fantasm thrown forward by the mind, his hand at once had lost its cunning. When vision was but a subtly enhanced memory, he never lacked the skill to make it seen by others.
Think of the easy graphic power that Dickens possessed, and compare it for a moment with the results of such laborious effort to the same ends as was put forth by the French novelist Flaubert. On the one hand, here is a man who works hard indeed, and methodically, but whose work is ever a joy to him, and not seldom a rapture. On the other, we have growls and groans; toil advancing at snail's pace, whilst sweat drips from the toiler's brow; little or no satisfaction to him in the end from all his suffering. And not one page of Flaubert gives proof of sight and grasp equal to that evinced in a thousand of Dickens. This thing cometh not by prayer and fasting, nor by any amount of thinking about art. You have it or you have it not. As a boy or youth Dickens was occupied in seeing; as a young man he took his pen and began to write of what he had seen. And the world saw with him -- much better than with its own poor, purblind eyes.
In the story of David Copperfield's journey on the Dover road, we have as good a piece of narrative prose as can be found in English. Equally as good, in another way, are those passages of rapid retrospect, in which David tells us of his later boyhood; a concentration of memory perfumed with the sweetest humour. It is not an easy thing to relate with perfect proportion of detail, with interest that never for a moment drops, the course of a year or two of wholly uneventful marriage; but read the chapter entitled "Our Domestic Life" and try to award adequate praise to the great artist who composed it. One can readily suggest how the chapter might have been spoiled; ever so little undue satire, ever so little excess of sentiment; but who can point to a line in which it might be bettered? It is perfect writing; one can say no more and no less.
Another kind of descriptive writing appears in the nineteenth chapter of Chuzzlewit: the funeral of old Anthony conducted by Mr. Mould. What of the scope declared in a contrast of this chapter with the one in Copperfield just mentioned? I should not like to say that one excels the other; I should find it impossible to decide between their merits. Where is the "extravagance" which, we are told, has pronounced Dickens's doom? Mr. Mould and his retainers, the whole funeral from house to grave, seems to me realism of the finest; it is clearest vision and narrative, without a hint of effort; and there stands the thing for ever.
A fine piece of the grimly picturesque is Quilp's death. Better, because more human, is the narrative in Barnaby Rudge of the day and night before the gaol-delivery when the rioters are to be hung. It has the effect of rapidity, but contains an immense amount of detail, actual and imaginative. Dennis, Hugh, and Barnaby, together in their cell, are seen by us as the swift hours pass, and at the same time we know what is going on without. Of all the broad and the delicate touches in which these pages abound, not one could be omitted as superfluous; and the impression aimed at is obtained with absolute success.
Narrative, of course, includes description; but in description by itself and in elaborate picturing, as distinguished from the hints which so often serve his purpose, Dickens is very strong. Before speaking of the familiar instances let me mention that chapter at the beginning of Little Dorrit, which opens with a picture of London as seen on a gloomy Sunday -- if the phrase be not tautological. It is very curious reading. For once we have Dickens quite divested of his humour, and beholding the great city in something like a splenetic mood. As conveying an impression, the passage could not be better; it makes us feel precisely what one has felt times innumerable amid the black lifeless houses, under a sky that crushes the spirit. But seldom indeed can Dickens have seen and felt thus. Compare with it his picture of the fog -- Mr. Guppy's "London particular" -- at the opening of Bleak House. This darkness visible makes one rather cheerful than otherwise, for we are spectators in the company of a man who allows nothing to balk his enjoyment of life, and who can jest unaffectedly even in such circumstances. Those few pages of Little Dorrit, admirable as art, suggest the kind of novels Dickens might have written without his humour. But in that case he would not have written them at all.
His normal manner is seen in the description of the Fleet, in Pickwick. It would appear difficult to make a vivid picture of such a place, a picture which convinces, and yet to omit things vile or intolerable to the feelings; but here it is done. The same art manifests itself as in his masterpieces of characterization; something is obscured, nothing falsified. At times, he could make a sketch in what is known as the impressionist manner; rapid, strong, and in the broadest lines suggesting a vast amount of detail; as in the description of the Gordon rioters seen, passing in their drunken fury along the street, from an upper window (Barnaby, chapter L). Dickens was rather proud of this passage; he calls attention to it in a letter written at the time. Innumerable the aspects of London presented in his books; what a wonderful little volume might be made by collecting such passages! Of the West-end we have glimpses only; one remembers, however, that very genteel but stuffy corner inhabited by the house of Barnacle, and the similar locality where dwelt Miss Tox. Stately and wealthy London he does not show us; his artistic preference is for the quaint, out-of-the-way quarters, or for the grim and the lurid, out of which he made a picturesque of his own. Writing once from Naples (where he was merely disappointed and disgusted, we can see why), he says, "I am afraid the conventional idea of the picturesque is associated with such misery and degradation that a new picturesque will have to be established as the world goes onward". Conventional his own ideas and presentments certainly were not, but for the most part they are closely connected with misery and degradation. Jacob's Island and Tom-all-alone's have the affect of fine, wild etchings lighted only just sufficiently to show broad features and suggest details one does not desire to pry into. Krook's house and its surroundings make an essential part of the world shadowed by Chancery; unutterably foul and stifling, yet so shown as to hold the imagination in no painful way. Dickens views such scenes in a romantic light. It is the property of his genius to perceive romance in the commonplace and the squalid, no less than in clean and comfortable homeliness.
What he can make out of a wretched little room a few feet square, in a close-packed, sordid neighbourhood, is shown in chapter xlvi of Chuzzlewit. Jonas, become a murderer, is lurking in his own house, and chooses a corner of it where he is not likely to be observed. "The room in which he had shut himself up was on the ground-floor, at the back of the house. It was lighted by a dirty sky-light, and had a door in the wall, opening into a narrow, covered passage or blind alley. . . . It was a blotched, stained, mouldering room, like a vault; and there were water-pipes running through it, which, at unexpected times in the night, when other things were quiet, clicked and gurgled suddenly, as if they were choking." Nothing could be more insignificant, and at the same time more grim. An out-of-doors companion to it may be found in Great Expectations. I came into Smithfield; the shameful place, being all filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me. So I rubbed it off with all possible speed by turning into a street where I saw the great black dome of St. Paul's bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison. Following the wall of the jail, I found the roadway covered with straw to dead<!----><!---->en the sound of passing vehicles; and from the quantity of people standing about, smelling strongly of spirits and beer, I inferred that the trials were on" (chap. xx). This is "locality" as good as the bit of human portraiture which follows (Mr. Jaggers walking through the throng of his clients); and higher praise could not be bestowed.
I suppose there is no English writer, perhaps no writer in any literature, who so often gives proof of wonderfully minute observation. It is an important source of his strength; it helps him to put people and things before us more clearly than, as a rule, we should ourselves see them. Two examples only can I find room for; but they will suffice. Peggotty's purse, given to little David on his departure from Yarmouth, was found to contain "three bright shillings, which Peggotty had evidently polished up with whiting for my greater delight". And again, little Pip, after being washed by his sister, is led to make the remark: "I suppose myself to be better acquainted than any living authority with the ridgy effect of a wedding-ring, passing unsympathetically over the human countenance". You will come across no such instances as these in any other novelist, of observation, memory, and imaginative force, all evinced in a touch of detail so indescribably trivial; its very triviality being the proof of power in one who could so choose for his purposes among the neglected incidents of life.
When Dickens writes in his pleasantest mood of things either pleasant in themselves, or especially suggestive of humorous reflection, his style is faultless; perfectly suited, that is to say, to the author's aim and to the matter in hand. His Christmas number called The Holly Tree begins with a chapter on Inns; we rise from it feeling that on that subject the last word has been said, and said in the best possible way. His book of collected papers, The Uncommercial Traveller, consists almost wholly of such writing. Whether its theme is City of London Churches, or Shy Neighbourhoods, Tramps, or Night-walks, or London Chambers, he is invariably happy in phrase, and in flow of language which, always easy, never falls below the level of literature. In such work he must be put beside the eighteenth-century essayists, whom he always had in mind. His English is not less idiomatic than theirs, and his views of life find no less complete expression through the medium of a style so lightly and deftly handled.
©George Gissing, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study