The life story of Charles Dickens is, from several perspectives, a success story. Generally regarded today as one of the greatest novelists in the English language, Dickens had the unusual good fortune to have been recognized by his contemporaries as well as by posterity. He was not one of the neglected artists such as Keats, doomed to wait for later generations to discover his stature. Instead, Dickens's The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-1837), which began publication when he was twenty-four years old, was a phenomenally popular success on both sides of the Atlantic. Before he was thirty, when he had already produced five vastly scaled novels, he came to America for a visit and was accorded the most triumphant reception ever staged for a foreign visitor. As the newspapers said, even the enthusiastic reception of General Lafayette in 1824 did not equal the way Dickens was received. His success was also reflected in his earnings: in the 1850s Dickens was making as much as £11,000 for one of his novels, a figure to be contrasted with the mere £600 earned in a year by his eminent contemporary and fellow novelist Thackeray. After his death the success story continued. During the over 110-year period since then there have been times, of course, when his status among critical readers declined markedly, as during the decades following his death and during the early years of the twentieth century. Since 1950, however, the curve of his reputation has shot upward so high that recently there has been more written about Dickens each year than about any other author in the English language except Shakespeare.
In the history of novel writing, Dickens's early start stands out as especially unusual. Poets and musicians often create significant compositions in their youth. Novelists, contrariwise (at least major novelists), are generally late starters, perhaps because novel writing calls for perspectives of a special sort. The explanation for Dickens's early start is provided by the all-purpose word genius, with which the young man was evidently abundantly endowed. But genius in novel writing needs experiences to work with, painful experiences as well as pleasant ones. It was Dickens's fortune to have encountered both sorts while still a youth. Dickens's ancestry included a mixture of servants and office workers. His paternal grandfather, who died before Dickens was born, had been a steward in an aristocratic estate where Dickens's grandmother (who died when the boy was twelve) had been the housekeeper. One of her two sons, John Dickens (1785-1851), who had grown up on this country estate, obtained employment in London at the pay office of the British navy, a position that necessitated his moving to other localities from time to time. John Dickens was to be immortalized many years later by his son's portrait of him as Mr. Micawber. He reputedly resembled Micawber in loquaciousness and in pseudoelegance of manner, as well as in his fondness for libations--all of which make him sound like the father of another literary genius, James Joyce. In 1809 John Dickens married Elizabeth Barrow (1789-1863), whose father also worked in the pay office. Years later, she, too, would be the model for one of her son's characters, the fast-chattering Mrs. Nickleby. With two such talkers for parents, the son was to have a more than adequate early exposure to the spoken voice.
Eight children were born to John and Elizabeth, the first, Frances (Fanny), in 1810, and the second, Charles, over a year later. His birthplace was a house in Portsmouth, a town to which his father had been transferred some time previously. Except for a short stay in London, Dickens's boyhood was passed in towns on the south coast of England, especially in the twin towns of Rochester and Chatham, where the family settled when he was five. This pocket of preindustrial England had a powerful impact on Dickens's attitudes. He is conventionally thought of as the novelist of the big city, which he was; but it is noteworthy that during the last ten years of his life he chose to live not in London but near the town of Rochester, in Kent, in the region where he had spent his boyhood. Here in the town of Chatham he had attended a good school; discovered his favorite novelists, such as Smollett; and generally enjoyed himself. He did suffer from bouts of ill health; and sometimes he was afraid to go to bed after listening to the hair-raising bedtime stories inflicted on him by the nurse, especially a story called "Captain Murderer." Nevertheless, these first eleven years were happy ones.
This idyll was shattered after his family moved to London, where his father's casual mismanagement of his income finally led to his imprisonment for debt and to his twelve-year-old son's being sent to work in a blacking warehouse. The boy's job consisted of pasting labels on bottles of black shoe polish, this menial job being performed near a window within sight of passersby in the street. Living alone in cheap lodgings and nearly starving, Charles was overwhelmed with a sense of having been willfully abandoned by his parents and sentenced to remain in a rat hole for life. That his novels would be full of characters who are orphans is not surprising. The blacking warehouse experience lasted in reality only a few months, but to the boy, and to the grown man in retrospect, the time seemed endless. As he wrote in his autobiography more than twenty years later: "I never had the courage to go back to the place where my servitude began.... My old way home by the borough made me cry, after my eldest child could speak." Eventually he was rescued by his father, who had acquired some funds, and was sent to a school in London from the ages of twelve to fifteen. His mother, strangely unaware of her son's feelings, wanted him to stay at work rather than resume school, and Dickens never forgave her for her failure to provide the love and understanding he most desperately needed. A further twist of the knife had occurred before the ordeal was over. His older sister, Frances, had been fortunate enough to be enrolled in the Royal Academy of Music before her father was imprisoned and to continue her studies there while Charles worked in the warehouse. In June 1824, she was awarded a silver medal for her excellent playing and singing. Her young brother was present at the awards ceremony, and, as he later wrote, he "felt as if my heart were rent. I prayed ... that night, to be lifted out of the humiliation and neglect in which I was."
The importance of these unhappy experiences, especially in a career so seemingly happy and successful, cannot be exaggerated; it set up in Dickens's mind a specter of insecurity that was never to disappear. These experiences may also have contributed to his zealous resolution to excel and to his almost ruthless energy in all his pursuits, in particular his writing. As he noted in a letter of 1855: "Whoever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it." Dickens has often been characterized as the great recorder of life in the Victorian age, or as one of its major critics, but he was also, in his energetic pursuit of his goals, the embodiment of his age, the archetypal Victorian.
With the dark world behind him, Dickens began attending school at Wellington Academy in London. It was not as good a school as the one he had attended in Chatham, but it served his purposes, and at the end of his three years there he was head of his class and the winner of a prize for Latin. At fifteen he had finished his formal education and begun a lifetime of work. The possibility that he might go on to a university was apparently never considered by anyone. One of Dickens's sons, Henry, would attend Cambridge, but he himself was to acquire learning on his own; his college was the great library of the British Museum in London, where he was admitted as a reader on his eighteenth birthday. Here he soaked himself in works of history and literature (especially Shakespeare) that would make up a storehouse of knowledge to draw upon during the busy years ahead. In sum, Dickens's education, formal and informal, did not equip him to edit a learned journal such as the Westminster Review (of which George Eliot, the most erudite of novelists, would be an editor), but it did equip him to write novels. Perhaps a more extensive exposure to learning would have enabled him to write a better version of his embarrassingly crude potboiler A Child's History of England (1852-1854), but it is doubtful that it would have enabled him to write a better novel than the one he was writing at the same time, his great masterpiece Bleak House (1852-1853).
During the seven years after leaving school, the young Dickens lived at home with his family (although he was sometimes absent on trips). His experience during this apprentice period included exposure to the worlds of law, politics, journalism, and the theater. For the first two years he was a clerk in a law office, and it is remarkable how often in his novels he sets up scenes, usually comic ones, portraying the antics of junior clerks in lawyers' offices. For the next four years his employment involved the preparation of shorthand reports for lawyers who worked in Doctors' Commons. He had learned shorthand from one of his uncles, John Henry Barrow, an experienced reporter, who eventually obtained for Dickens a position as shorthand reporter in Parliament. Dickens's mastery of shorthand gained him some notoriety both for his speed and his accuracy, and these skills continued to be of use to him in his next position, that of a news reporter on the staff of the Morning Chronicle, which he joined in 1834. In this new role, he was frequently sent on journeys to report on election speeches in distant places. From his two years as a reporter of political events as well as from his years covering Parliament, Dickens acquired an extraordinary amount of information about the political life of his country during a crucial period following the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832. He also acquired from these experiences a realization that political oratory is often absurdly empty. During the rest of his life he was appalled at times by the ineptitude of some political leaders, but his more typical response was to find them funny, especially in their public speeches (of which he had listened to thousands). In an early sketch, "The House," he likened the House of Commons to a pantomime that was "strong in clowns." The members of Parliament, he comments, "twist and tumble about, till two, three and four o'clock in the morning; playing the strangest antics, and giving each other the funniest slaps on the face that can possibly be imagined, without evincing the smallest tokens of fatigue." The members, he adds, are "all talking, laughing, lounging, coughing, oh-ing, questioning, or groaning; presenting a conglomeration of noise and confusion, to be met with in no other place in existence, not even excepting Smithfield [the cattle market] on a market-day, or a cock-pit in its glory."
This awareness of political absurdities appears very early in Dickens's writings. In his first month as a news reporter, he had been sent to Edinburgh to report on a banquet being given in honor of Earl Grey, the retiring prime minister. Dickens's amusement on this occasion was prompted not by Grey's address but by the behavior of the dinner guests, who had become impatient because the guest of honor had not arrived on schedule. One of these guests, he reports, was so impressed by the fare available at the banquet, the "cold fowls, roast beef, lobster, and other tempting delicacies (for the dinner was a cold one)," that he decided "the best thing he could possibly do, would be to eat his dinner, while there was anything to eat. He accordingly laid about him with right good-will, the example was contagious, and the clatter of knives and forks became general. Hereupon, several gentlemen, who were not hungry, cried out 'Shame!' and looked very indignant; and several gentlemen who were hungry cried 'Shame!' too, eating, nevertheless, all the while, as fast as they possibly could. In this dilemma, one of the stewards mounted a bench and feelingly represented to the delinquents the enormity of their conduct, imploring them for decency's sake, to defer the process of mastication until the arrival of Earl Grey. This address was loudly cheered, but totally unheeded; and this is, perhaps, one of the few instances on record of a dinner having been virtually concluded before it began." Dickens was only twenty-two years old when he composed this report from Edinburgh, but already developed are some of the characteristic earmarks of his mature prose style, especially the imperturbable jocularity of tone with which the absurd episode is suffused--a jocularity enhanced when, as here, the episode involves man as a political animal.
In addition to his experiences as journalist during this period between leaving school and becoming a creative writer, the young Dickens was also deeply involved with the theater, both as a spectator and as a potential actor. If in the daytime he were committed to the law or to journalism, it was to the world of the footlights that he was committed at night. At the age of twenty, in fact, he decided to become an actor and wrote a letter to the manager of Covent Garden Theatre recommending himself as endowed with "a natural power of reproducing in his own person what he observed in others." The letter led to his being invited for an audition to offer a sample of his histrionic talents. When the day came, however, Dickens was stricken with a cold so severe that he had to excuse himself, proposing that he would reapply the following season. He never did reapply. Nevertheless, this incident of the audition usually prompts any admirer of Dickens's writings to a moment of reflection. Suppose the stagestruck young man had not been ill that day? Suppose that he had made a triumphant appearance? Might he have been lost to literature? As he himself remarked in a letter: "See how near I may have been to another life." And in his novel Great Expectations (1861) almost thirty years later, there is a passage about how one day in our lives can make changes lasting a lifetime. His protagonist Pip reflects about having spent his first day with the beautiful girl Estella: "That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been." Happily, the young man was, of course, not lost to literature; in fact, it was only a few months after that memorable day of the nonaudition that he was to send his first literary effort to a publisher.
In 1830, Dickens was introduced into the household of George Beadnell, a prosperous banker, and his wife and their three daughters. The youngest daughter, Maria, was twenty years old, and with her the eighteen-year-old Dickens fell overwhelmingly in love. Writing to her three years later, Dickens still affirmed: "I never have loved and I never can love any human creature breathing but yourself." The relationship developed happily for some time, and at the outset, Maria was apparently encouraging with her teenaged suitor. But by 1832, her parents began to discourage his attentions, perhaps having heard reports about his father's unreliability, or perhaps on the grounds that Dickens himself did not seem to have suitable prospects. In any event, Maria was sent abroad to a finishing school in Paris, and after her return, her interest in Dickens had cooled altogether. In March 1833, he returned all the letters she had written to him, lamenting his fate and reminding her, with a flourish, that she had been "the object of my first, and my last love." The infatuation lasted four years, and the frustrations of the relationship were even more painful for Dickens to look back upon than were his experiences in the blacking warehouse. His best friend and biographer, John Forster, at first found this story of Dickens's adolescent love to be incredible, especially incredible being the importance that the mature Dickens ascribed to it in his development. Only gradually did Forster come to realize how hurt his friend had been by a sense of social inferiority in this thwarted early love affair. The depth and long-lasting quality of these feelings are evident in the fact that while Dickens decided to share with Forster the autobiographical fragment he had written about his blacking warehouse experiences, he could not bring himself to share what he had written about the Maria Beadnell episode; and a few years later, he simply burned it.
One of the lasting effects of the thwarting was its influence on his desire to succeed and to become financially secure, just as David Copperfield, in his novel, would be impelled to strenuous efforts to succeed. As Dickens explained to Forster: "I went at it with a determination to overcome all the difficulties, which fairly lifted me up into that newspaper life, and floated me away over a hundred men's heads." When at last Dickens tried his hand at literature, the same driving energies persisted: with his pen he would show those unseeing banking Beadnells (by heaven!) what a paragon they had missed being allied to. But first he had to pass through his literary apprenticeship as he had passed through his earlier apprenticeships to law, journalism, and the stage. During the three years before launching his first full-length novel, Dickens was learning the craft of literature by writing occasional short pieces which he called sketches. Some of these pieces tell a story; others are simply descriptions of London localities such as Newgate Prison or Monmouth Street (the shopping center for secondhand clothing); and others offer portraits of picturesque characters such as a cabdriver or a circus clown.
The first sketch, "A Dinner at Poplar Walk," was submitted for publication in late 1833, when Dickens was twenty-one, and appeared in the Monthly Magazine in January 1834. Later in life he looked back upon the excitement he had felt on those occasions. This first sketch, he recalled, had been "dropped stealthily one evening at twilight, with fear and trembling, into a dark letter-box, in a dark office, up a dark court in Fleet Street." Some weeks later, when he bought a copy of the magazine and saw his sketch "in all the glory of print," he was overcome with emotion. "I walked down to Westminster Hall, and turned into it for half-an-hour, because my eyes were so dimmed with joy and pride, that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to be seen there." The emotional satisfaction of seeing his sketch in print was the only reward Dickens received for this publication; indeed, he received no payments whatever for the first nine of his sketches, which were all published in the Monthly Magazine. Thereafter, having established his literary credentials, he was able to require payments for his efforts when they appeared in magazines or newspapers and receive further payments when the sketches were collected and published in volumes in 1836. There were some sixty sketches in all, making up two volumes entitled Sketches by Boz. The pen name of Boz, used for this first publication, continued to be used to refer to Dickens by affectionate readers throughout his lifetime, even though the true identity of Boz had been established by the summer of 1836. The name was borrowed from the nickname that Dickens devised for his youngest brother, Augustus, calling him "Moses" after one of the Primrose children in Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield (1766). Augustus mispronounced this name as "Boses," which was shortened to "Bose" and eventually to "Boz" (which is pronounced as rhyming with "laws" rather than with "foes").
Sketches by Boz was well received by reviewers and had an encouraging sale. The favorable reception was partly attributable to the witty illustrations provided by George Cruikshank (1792-1878), the most popular illustrator of the period and an artist whose established reputation was especially helpful for a hitherto unknown writer. Many years later the two men became estranged, but in this earlier period they were good friends. Cruikshank was also Dickens's illustrator for Oliver Twist (1838) and Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi (1838). In any event, the initial collaboration worked well, and the Sketches by Boz caught the eye of several well-pleased reviewers. One of the first of these recommended it in particular to American readers because the volume would "save them the trouble of reading some hundred dull-written tomes on England, as it is a perfect picture of the morals, manners, habits of a great portion of English society." He added: "It is hardly possible to conceive of a more pleasantly reading book." Another reviewer noted that although parts of the book picture the "wretchedness" of London's slums, the writer's disposition "leads him to look on the bright and sunny side of things." Most acutely, this reviewer described Dickens as "a close and acute observer of character and manners, with a strong sense of the ridiculous."
This review, appearing in the Morning Chronicle on 11 February 1836, gave Dickens a special degree of pleasure because of its having been written by George Hogarth, his prospective father-in-law. Hogarth (1783-1870) was a cultivated man of many talents. After working some years as a lawyer in Edinburgh, where he had connections with Sir Walter Scott, he gave up law for journalism and moved to England as a newspaper editor. He was also an accomplished musician and the author of books and articles about music. In 1834, he and Dickens came to know each other at the offices of the Morning Chronicle, and Dickens was soon a frequent visitor at Hogarth's house, where he met the eldest daughter, Catherine (1815-1879), who was called Kate. George Hogarth was an admirer of the Sketches by Boz (as his review indicated), knowing them "by heart," as Dickens remarked. Dickens, in turn, became an admirer of Hogarth's pretty daughter. Early in 1835 he became engaged to her, and in April 1836, they were married. Kate's appearance at this time was described by a woman who had known her: she was "plump and fresh-coloured; with ... large, heavy-lidded blue eyes." Her mouth was "small, round and red-lipped, with a genial smiling expression of countenance, notwithstanding the sleepy look of the slow-moving eyes." During the year of their engagement, however, there were many occasions when Kate's expression must have been no longer genial and smiling, for her hardworking fiancé was frequently too busy to visit her. The curious letters he wrote to her during this period almost always involve his reporting that in order to meet some publisher's deadline, he must defer the pleasure of a visit; and if she complained of such neglect, she was likely to receive an admonishing lecture in Dickens's next letter urging her to change her ways. One such admonishment concluded by his sounding rather like his own Mr. Pecksniff: "You may rest satisfied that I love you dearly--far too well to feel hurt by what in any one else would have annoyed me greatly." These letters to Kate are sometimes affectionate and playful, but are clearly different in tone from the passionate infatuation that Dickens had expressed during his earlier courtship of Maria Beadnell. In defense of Dickens, it may be added that his repeated references to overwork during his courtship seem altogether justifiable. To obtain and furnish suitable living quarters demanded strenuous efforts from Dickens in his various employments. By Christmas 1835, he was able to rent a suite of three rooms in Furnival's Inn, where the young couple resided for their first year of marriage. Here at Furnival's Inn, his first child was born some nine months after his honeymoon; and here, too, he completed writing his first novel, which had been taking shape during the last months of his courtship.
Dickens's shift from being a writer of sketches to a writer of novels was effected in a remarkably haphazard way. A few days after his twenty-fourth birthday in 1836, he received a proposal from Chapman and Hall, who were planning to bring out a book of illustrations by a well-known comic artist, Robert Seymour (1798-1836). What the publishers wanted from Dickens was a series of comic stories and sketches that could provide materials for Seymour to illustrate. The series would eventually appear as a book, but its first appearance would be in twenty monthly installments. Dickens at once set to work, and by late March, within a day of his marriage to Catherine Hogarth, the first installment appeared of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club , later to be known simply as The Pickwick Papers .
Seymour's guiding idea was to portray the inept antics of a group of Londoners who had organized a hunting and fishing club, a "Nimrod Club," as he called it. Dickens tried to adapt his text to Seymour's idea by including some sporting transactions in the early installments--as when one of the Pickwickians, Mr. Winkle, is ignominiously unseated by a rented horse or when he goes shooting at a country estate and bungles his handling of his gun. Such episodes were what Seymour wanted for his illustrations; but there were not to be many of them, for as Dickens had forewarned his publishers, he "was no great sportsman" even though he had been "born and partly bred in the country." As publication got under way, it became evident that the novelist and the illustrator were in disagreement not only about how much emphasis was to be on the comedy of country sports. Dickens gradually began taking over as manager of the whole Pickwick project, with the twenty-four-year-old novelist, not the thirty-eight-year-old illustrator, calling the shots. Otherwise, as Dickens saw it, the tail would be wagging the dog. For Seymour, who was in a state of depression, the relationship with Dickens was intolerably galling, and in April, he shot himself. One of the illustrators who applied to be Seymour's replacement was William Makepeace Thackeray, later to be Dickens's rival as leading novelist of the age, but Thackeray was passed over in favor of Hablôt Browne (1815-1882). Browne was even younger than Dickens, and there was never any question from this time on that the novelist was fully in charge of the production.
One important legacy of his having started working with Seymour was the distinctive method of publication in monthly numbers that they had adopted. As a way of publishing novels, this was an innovation, and one that gradually came to be looked upon with favor by the early Victorian reading public. All of Dickens's novels were to be published in installments; and for thirty-five years or so after The Pickwick Papers , other novelists, such as Thackeray, would also publish in monthly numbers. An interesting feature of serial publication was its enabling the novelist to get an early impression of how the work was being received by the public. The Pickwick Papers looked at first like a loser: the opening chapters failed to attract attention, and only 500 copies of the second installment were printed. Some months later, the publishers were frantically trying to print enough copies to meet the demands of thousands of Pickwick Papers enthusiasts. Of the final number (October 1837) some 40,000 copies were printed. What was the reason for this turnaround? Most of Dickens's contemporaries traced the change to the fourth number, in which he had introduced two strikingly colorful Cockney characters: Sam Weller and his father, Tony, the fat coachman. Sam's mixture of impudence and warmheartedness, and his worldly-wise anecdotes purveyed in a lively Cockney accent, made him an ideal foil for Mr. Pickwick's innocent and well-intentioned benevolence. By having Sam become Mr. Pickwick's servant, Dickens had recreated an endearing pair like Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, and his readers greeted the combination with a level of enthusiasm rarely to be matched in the history of literature. The Pickwick Papers ended up as the most sensational triumph in nineteenth-century publishing. For a full-scale account of this triumph, the opening chapter of Dickens and His Readers, by George Ford, may be consulted. As Ford shows, one of the most striking aspects of the popularity of The Pickwick Papers was that it appealed to all classes of readers, the highly educated as well as the ill educated. In June 1837, one early reader, Mary Russell Mitford, recommended The Pickwick Papers to a friend in a letter: "It is fun--London Life--but without anything unpleasant: a lady might read it all aloud.... All the boys and girls talk his fun... and yet they who are of the highest taste like it the most." As an example of high taste, Miss Mitford cited a judge, Lord Denman, who "studies Pickwick on the bench while the jury are deliberating." This letter provides several clues to account for the success of Dickens's first novel. That it could be read aloud, as she noted, without offensive references to sexual exploits, was an important element of Dickens's recipe. The Pickwick Papers was still being published in the year Victoria became queen, and its appearance coincided with a change of attitudes toward the laxity and lewdness that had been such prominent features of life and literature in the 1820s. There is plenty of hearty drinking and eating in The Pickwick Papers: in one scene even the saintly Mr. Pickwick imbibes so much cold punch that he passes out and awakes to find himself on exhibition in a village pound. But there are no comparable bedroom incidents in this rollicking tale, and in general the benevolence and warmheartedness of the protagonist tone down the rough horseplay of some of the scenes which resemble the so-called "novel of high spirits" written by Dickens's immediate predecessors, such as Pierce Egan (1772-1849).
Miss Mitford's mentioning of how the lord chief justice enjoyed The Pickwick Papers is a reminder of one of the many triumphs of this novel: its presentation of the lawyers and judges encountered by Mr. Pickwick on the occasion of his being sued for breach of promise by his landlady, Mrs. Bardell, a widow. The funniest of many funny scenes in the novel is the trial scene of Bardell v. Pickwick, featuring Mrs. Bardell's lawyer, Serjeant Buzfuz, whose ludicrously eloquent speech for the plaintiff is a magnificent parody of legalese and of courtroom tactics. After Mr. Pickwick loses the case he chooses to go to prison rather than pay the settlement, and in the scenes of life behind bars there is, of course, much less opportunity for comedy. In this part of the novel there is a sad seriousness that anticipates the prison scenes of some of the later novels such as Little Dorrit (1855-1857). In fact, some solemn readers misread The Pickwick Papers by arguing that the prison episode is the key to the whole book and that the funny parts are finally subordinate. To reinforce their argument, they point to some of the strangely melodramatic short stories interspersed throughout the novel, such as "A Madman's Manuscript," as further examples of seriousness unmixed with comedy. Such arguments may provide a useful corrective, but a fair-minded rereading of the whole novel would suggest its limitations. Humor is the chief quality of Dickens's first novel, as his own contemporaries recognized. In his later life, after his vision had become a much more somber one, many of his readers wished he would return to the vein of pure comedy in which they believed The Pickwick Papers to have been written. Despite the successes he was to achieve with other kinds of novels, it was this early sunshine-studded tale that was probably his best-liked book among Victorian readers. In the second half of the twentieth century this evaluation no longer holds. Most admirers of Dickens now would not recommend newcomers to his work to try their teeth first on The Pickwick Papers; instead they would urge postponing a reading of it until one has enjoyed some of the later writings in which the artist is more surefooted. The Pickwick Papers was a kind of slapdash production, and the result, as even Miss Mitford remarked, was "rather fragmentary." The artful construction evident in such a novel as Bleak House is not yet developed. What is already fully developed and abundantly present in dozens of episodes is a brilliant prose style--or styles, rather--and a command of dialogue, which variously combine for delightful comic effects unsurpassed by other novelists and even by Dickens himself. "The Inimitable," as he sometimes referred to himself in fun, had earned the right to his title at the early age of twenty-four.
Also at the age of twenty-four, Dickens began to earn enough from his writing of fiction so as to be able to give up working for the Morning Chronicle, which he did in November 1836. It was well that he could do so, for at this time he was absurdly over-committed to a long list of literary projects and deadlines. Sparked by the dizzying success of The Pickwick Papers and by a youthful faith that his energy was unfathomable, and also aware of his new responsibilities as husband and father-to-be, Dickens had signed one agreement after another with three different publishers during 1836. The Sketches by Boz would be completed, fortunately, in December, but The Pickwick Papers was only halfway complete at this date, and an installment had to be written for every month until November 1837. Dickens had also made a loose agreement with another publisher that he would have completed a novel, "Gabriel Vardon," by November 1836! Of this novel there was no sign at this date. Indeed, it did not surface until four and a half years later, in 1841, and then with a different publisher and different title (Barnaby Rudge). With Richard Bentley, another publis her, he had made even more extensive commitments late in 1836: he had contracted to write two novels and also to take on the role of editor of a new magazine, Bentley's Miscellany --a position he held until January 1839. In late 1836, he had also tried his hand at writing the libretto for a comic opera, The Village Coquettes, which was performed in December and was well received for a few weeks.
One review of the opera reported that the first-night audience insisted that Boz appear onstage at the end of the performance, and there was much astonishment among those who were seeing him for the first time. They seem to have expected that he would look like one of the Pickwickians or even like Tony Weller! Instead, they saw a thin young man, of medium height, modest in manner, but with long, wavy dark hair and wearing a flamboyantly colorful dandy-style vest. His expression was one of amiability and good humor. What the audience saw that night was the Dickens still visible today in the fine portrait painted three years later by his friend Daniel Maclise (1806-1870).
The following year, 1837, was a little less frantic. It opened with the publication of the first of the twenty-four monthly installments of his second novel, Oliver Twist . Unlike The Pickwick Papers and most of Dickens's other novels, which appeared first in separate numbers with each number having its own cover, the installments of Oliver Twist were part of a magazine, Bentley's Miscellany. Although there were four more installments than had been used for The Pickwick Papers, each installment was considerably shorter; so the whole novel, although appearing over a period of more than two years, was also considerably shorter than The Pickwick Papers. But there were more significant differences between the two novels than the differences in their forms of serialization. For readers who had grown fondly accustomed to the fun and frolics of successive numbers of The Pickwick Papers, this new novel by Boz must have prompted a sense of shock. Most of the adventures of the young protagonist consist of a succession of encounters with the worlds of brutality and crime. The story opens with the death of Oliver's mother in a dark, cold workhouse where she has given birth to him, and the child is raised in this bleak environment under the stern management of Mr. Bumble, the beadle. As a young boy Oliver escapes to London, where he is initiated into a gang of criminals headed by Fagin, a Jew, who has organized a number of boys into a team of pickpockets, the most expert of whom is the Artful Dodger. Fagin also receives other kinds of stolen property provided by the housebreaker and robber Bill Sikes, who lives with Nancy, a prostitute. Fagin's gang seeks to make Oliver work for them, but the boy escapes and eventually obtains protection in kindly households in the country. The novel ends with the gruesome death of Sikes after his brutal murder of his mistress and a scene of Fagin in his condemned cell in Newgate prison following his capture by the police. Oliver Twist thus exposes its readers to a world of crime and meanness, a dog-eat-dog world that is altogether different from the jolly world of The Pickwick Papers. To emphasize the difference further, this dark and sordid world is presented by Dickens from the perspective of an orphan, a lost child whose sense of bewilderment and fright reminds one of how the twelve-year-old Dickens had himself responded to the soul-crushing experiences of the blacking warehouse.
Dickens's decision to write in a mode so different from one that had already proven in his hands to be triumphantly successful must have taken a lot of nerve, for the expectation of a reading public is for the novelist to repeat. On this point there is a sympathetic comment by another successful and popular novelist, Angus Wilson, in his 1966 introductory essay on Oliver Twist. An "anxious question which would have pressed upon Dickens," Wilson notes, was "would his second novel maintain the fantastic popularity of Pickwick Papers? Every novel is a hurdle for the popular novelist, but certainly the second is the most alarming."
Dickens, however, seems to have had some good reasons for being less alarmed than might have been expected. He had chosen to write a kind of novel that had already become established as highly popular in the hands of his immediate predecessors, the so-called Newgate novel, such stories of crime and punishment as Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Paul Clifford (1830) or Harrison Ainsworth's Rookwood (1834). Indeed, it was this school of fiction that seems to have attracted him for models before he became immersed in the world of Mr. Pickwick. When he was only twenty-one, he spoke in a letter of "my proposed novel." One scholar, Kathleen Tillotson, argues persuasively that what Dickens was referring to at that date was not The Pickwick Papers but an incipient Oliver Twist, and that his second novel was, in effect, his first.
In any event the gamble paid off, by and large. Inevitably, he did lose some readers who found the whole criminal scene to be "painful and revolting," as one of them said. Another, Lady Carlisle, commented loftily: "I know there are such unfortunate beings as pick-pockets and street walkers... but I own I do not much wish to hear what they say to one another." A different kind of reader was put off by the prominence of the social criticism in the opening chapters, in which Dickens exposes the cruel inadequacies of workhouse life as organized by the New Poor Law of 1834. This law had been the brainchild of the Utilitarians, and anyone attacking it would call down the ire of such Utilitarian readers as Harriet Martineau. After these exceptions are granted, however, there can be no doubt that this second novel was another extraordinary success. Its greatness was different from that of The Pickwick Papers, but it was still incontestably greatness. In the twentieth century it has remained one of Dickens's most popular and best-known novels; as Angus Wilson said of it; "perhaps more than any other it has a combination of sensationalism and sentiment that fixes it as one of the masterpieces of pop art." As proof of this comment, one may cite the remarkable popular success of Lionel Bart's musical comedy version, Oliver! First staged in 1960, this work established a London record for its more than six years of performances. The film version of Oliver! was seen by vaster audiences, although how much the status of Dickens benefited from the film is difficult to assess inasmuch as the only reference to Oliver Twist occurs in the long list of credits with which the film opens. There, in the midst of the names of technicians, costume designers, and suchlike is a line in small letters announcing that the production has been freely adapted from a novel by Charles Dickens ! Nevertheless, the film does have a virtue in reminding one that in the midst of the nightmare of Dickens's story there is also a good deal of comedy. In chapter seventeen of Oliver Twist, Dickens himself comments with amusement about the combination: "It is the custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon." Although his comment is only half serious, it is evident that he follows the streakybacon recipe in this novel by its effective appeal to both the reader's sense of humor and his sense of fear. The beadle, Mr. Bumble, for example, is on one level the despicable petty tyrant in uniform who flourished in Hitler's Germany and still flourished in other countries. He is like the nameless master of the workhouse from whom Oliver asks for "more," and who (according to Arnold Kettle, a Marxist critic) "is not anyone in particular but every agent of an oppressive system everywhere." But as Dickens presents Bumble, he is not only frightening but also a figure of fun, as in the scene of his proposing marriage to Mrs. Corney--a hilarious incident. In the later parts of the novel, Mr. Bumble becomes the stock comic figure of the henpecked husband with the domineering wife. When told that "the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction," Mr. Bumble comments: "If the law supposes that, the law is a ass--a idiot." An even more distinctly sustained comic scene is of the Artful Dodger in court demanding his "priwileges" as an Englishman and admonishing his judges that "this ain't the shop for justice." The humor in the presentation of Fagin is more complex, at least for later readers, in view of the repeated references to him as "the Jew." Responding to accusations of anti-Semitism, Dickens pointed out that at the time of the action of Oliver Twist all of the fences in London were Jewish, and, more important, that the most villainous characters in his novel are Sikes and Monks, rather than Fagin. In any event, the memorable early scenes of the Merry Old Gentleman, with his toasting fork and handkerchief tricks, are funny as well as vivid.
The successful launching of Oliver Twist inspired Dickens in the spring of 1837 to rent a terrace house at 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury, where he lived for the next two and a half years before moving to a larger house on Devonshire Place. Of the three houses in London in which he lived, only the Doughty Street one has survived (although the bomb damage it suffered in World War II required considerable restoration). In 1925 it was bought as a museum by the Dickens Fellowship, and, especially recently, has become one of the most successful literary museums in London, attracting every year thousands of visitors for a tour of its twelve small rooms, including a little back room displaying the desk on which Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby were written.
The Doughty Street household consisted not only of Dickens and Kate and their child but of Kate's younger sister, Mary Hogarth, who had sometimes stayed with them earlier at Furnival's Inn to help her sister during pregnancy and to be a companion for her brother-in-law--a not unusual arrangement in nineteenth-century families. What was unusual was the intensity of Dickens's feelings about this seventeen-year-old girl, whose animated company he had come to depend upon, and whose sweet innocence represented an ideal spirit, a shining lamp in a world of darkness. On 7 May 1837, the lamp was suddenly put out forever. After attending an evening showing of The Village Coquettes, the two sisters and Dickens had returned in high spirits to Doughty Street, where Mary was suddenly stricken with some unidentified illness, and the next day she died in his arms. After the funeral, he and Kate went to a country retreat for some weeks, and the numbers of both The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist were suspended from publication for a month.
The shock of Mary's death had profound effects on Dickens as a man and as a novelist. Until the day of his own death he wore the ring she had been wearing when she died. It was his wish that, like Heathcliff in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), he would be buried beside her (which proved to be impossible). And for ten months he dreamed of her every night, the dreams ceasing only after a visit to Yorkshire during which he wrote to Kate about them. According to a Freudian critic, Steven Marcus, the extraordinary cessation of these nightly visions may have been prompted not merely by his reporting the phenomenon to his wife but by an experience he had in Yorkshire at this same time, of his coming across the gravestone of a boy "eighteen long years old" who, Dickens said, had "died at that wretched place. I think his ghost put Smike into my head upon the spot." Thoughts of Smike, the boy who was to die in his projected novel The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1837-1839), may thus have affected thoughts of Mary and purged the vision. For the novel following Nicholas Nickleby, there can be no doubt how Dickens's feelings about the life and death of Mary Hogarth shaped Little Nell's portrait and the story of her dying. As he tried to write her death scene in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), he confessed in a letter: "I shan't recover from it for a long time.... Old wounds bleed afresh when I only think of the way of doing it.... Dear Mary died yesterday, when I think of this sad story." In later novels there are other young women characters who seem to be modeled on Mary Hogarth, even though they do not die. Of these women, several of whom are seventeen--Mary's age when she died--it was remarked by John Greaves, usually a most indulgent reader of Dickens, that they are "perhaps rather colourless creations."
Dickens was soon back at his desk, completing The Pickwick Papers late in 1837 and Oliver Twist in spring 1839; and then, before he was thirty, he published three more full-length novels: Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge. It was an extraordinary performance, and all of these novels were (Barnaby Rudge less so) popular and critical successes.
The main plot of Nicholas Nickleby involves some stock characters, heroes, and villains in stock situations of fortunes lost and found. The chief villain in a miserly businessman, Ralph Nickleby, who schemes to frustrate the career of his young nephew, Nicholas, who has come to London to seek his fortune after the death of his father. Ralph hates Nicholas and arranges for him to take a low-paying job as a teacher in Yorkshire, a job which the young man eventually quits after exposing corruption at the school. For a time Nicholas makes a living with a troupe of traveling actors headed by Mr. Vincent Crummles. On his travels Nicholas is accompanied by a crippled youth, Smike, whom he had defended at school. Later, Nicholas gets a good job in London in the office of two benevolent businessmen, the Cheeryble brothers; they introduce him to a wealthy heiress whom he finally marries. On various occasions, Nicholas prevents his uncle from carrying out wicked schemes--as, for example, his attempt to sell Kate, Nicholas's sister, to her aristocratic admirer, Lord Verisopht. Wicked Uncle Ralph finally loses his fortune and is driven to hang himself after he discovers that Smike, the unfortunate youth whom he had tried to persecute, was his own son.
In one of the best critical essays on this novel, Michael Slater admitted in 1978 that this main plot "is largely a lifeless bore" featuring some "crashing melodramatic clichés." A similar complaint was made by Dickens's best friend, John Forster, who, in reviewing the novel in 1839, contrasted its clumsy plot with Fielding's Tom Jones (1749): "A want of plan is apparent in it from the first, an absence of design. The plot seems to have grown as the book appeared by numbers, instead of having been mapped out beforehand." Both critics have put their fingers on the weakest aspect of Dickens's early novels, one that continues to be evident even in The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1842-1844). In his later novels, fortunately, Dickens would toil to correct his clumsy construction and to shape and plan his narratives. Yet it is misleading to cite Slater and Forster on Dickens's plot without remarking that almost everything else they have to say about Nicholas Nickleby is enthusiastic. What sustains this novel, as they and other critics have found, is its gallery of colorful characters whose vitality charges it with energy. The best known of these was and is Wackford Squeers, the semiliterate proprietor and master of a school in Yorkshire. As with Oliver Twist, part of the appeal of Nicholas Nickleby was its exposure of some contemporary corrupt institution. Dotheboys Hall, as Mr. Squeers's school is aptly called, was modeled in part on schools visited by Dickens in preparation for writing his novel. Also memorable is Nicholas's mother, said to have been modeled in part on Dickens's own mother. Mrs. Nickleby's loquacious monologues are full of most delightful absurdities, as are the speech and actions of some of the members of the theater troupe. Overall, Nicholas Nickleby is Dickens's most theatrical novel, and the theatricality is not limited to the scenes onstage. Perhaps its staginess may account for its having received "little attention from modern criticism," as Slater's essay notes. Perhaps the same quality might account for the remarkably successful stage version of Nicholas Nickleby put on in London and New York in 1980-1981, each two-part performance lasting a total of eight hours! Critics were astonished by how effective this awesome experiment turned out to be.
The statement about little attention being paid to Nicholas Nickleby in modern criticism is equally applicable to The Old Curiosity Shop , and, in this instance, stage or screen treatment does not modify the situation. (The 1970s film musical Quilp was an embarrassment.) Much of the discussion of this novel has been historical, such as George Ford's chapter "Little Nell: The Limits of Explanatory Criticism," which deals with the striking contrast between how Dickens's contemporaries responded to the life and death of Nell and how later generations have rejected that story as an absurdity. Her impact on early readers was simply overwhelming, and her death sent thousands of households into a state of mourning. Francis Jeffrey, a sophisticated and sometimes severe literary critic, was so moved by the story that he likened the young novelist to Shakespeare as a writer of great tragedy. There had been "nothing so good as Nell since Cordelia," Jeffrey affirmed. Sales figures--soaring to an unprecedented 100,000 copies--indicate what a hit Dickens had made. Little Nell became Dickens's trademark, a household word in England and America and also in the Russia of Dostoevski. In the late Victorian period there occurred a distinct shift of taste whereby Nell was no longer appreciated. Even Swinburne, who idolized Dickens's writings, asserted that Nell was about as real as a child with two heads; and Oscar Wilde capped the reaction by observing that one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing. In the twentieth century it has been Wilde's verdict on Nell rather than Francis Jeffrey's that has prevailed.
A once-familiar formula for achieving success with novel readers was: "Make 'em laugh; make 'em shudder; make 'em cry." Dickens's first novel fitted the first category, and his second fitted the second. The Old Curiosity Shop, his fourth novel, is best known for fitting the "cry" category, and because of what seems today to be an ineffective use of pathos in this early novel, its other qualities have tended to be overlooked. This neglect is to be regretted, for Little Nell is not the only character in The Old Curiosity Shop. Indeed, Nell's situation leads to her being connected with some of the most colorful characters ever created by Dickens. At the age of fourteen, she discovers that her grandfather, keeper of the Old Curiosity Shop in London, has become a maniacal gambler. In order to get him away from the moneylenders who have him in their power, the girl persuades the old man to join her on a journey on foot through the English countryside. Such a journey, as in Nicholas Nickleby, leads to encounters with all sorts of characters on the road, such as Mrs. Jarley, the owner of a traveling waxworks show. Nell works for Mrs. Jarley for a time before becoming ill and dying in a remote hamlet, where her repentant grandfather soon follows her into his own grave. Even more memorable than the characters encountered on the road are the persons associated with Nell and her grandfather back in London. The chief moneylender, Daniel Quilp, is a dwarf with the head of a giant, a combination of prankster and villain, a creature who participates in some haunting scenes of terror and fun. Quilp's gouging of his victims is aided by the legal research of his lawyer, Sampson Brass, and Sampson's awesome sister, Sally--these three make a striking trio of gargoyles. In a different vein, there is the song-singing Dick Swiveller, a law clerk who works in the offices of the Brasses. Dick and his illiterate companion, a servant girl he calls "The Marchioness," provide a combination of fun with tender affection. The endearing scenes between these two outcasts show how beautifully Dickens can handle tender relations when he avoids the heavy mawkishness that mars his accounts of the affectionate nature of Little Nell.
His fifth novel, Barnaby Rudge , again demonstrates his versatility. In it he tries his hand at a historical novel (his other venture in this vein would be A Tale of Two Cities almost twenty years later). Barnaby Rudge is also a murder mystery, the murderer being a former servant named Rudge, who had been employed at an estate in the country. His son, Barnaby, is a picturesque half-wit, devoted to his mother and to a pet raven named Grip. During the Gordon Riots of 1780, a central incident in the novel, Barnaby is induced to join one of the mobs in London which burned and pillaged the houses and property of Roman Catholic citizens. For his part in the rioting Barnaby is sentenced to death, although he is finally granted a reprieve. This story of civic anarchy had a special appeal for Dickens's contemporaries because of its relevance to political and economic conditions in England during the 1840s. A severe economic depression during the "Hungry Forties," together with the spread of the radical Chartist movement, inspired among the ruling classes a dread of violent rioting. Barnaby Rudge was thus a topical novel and fared well. In recent decades it has not continued to do so. In 1970, for example, a survey was made of publishers in the United States and England to discover the sales figures for Dickens's novels: Barnaby Rudge was at the bottom of the list of fifteen novels in both countries. Nevertheless, a few critics have made high claims for it: Angus Wilson's opinion is that it represents "the turning point in Dickens's growth from an extraordinary to a great novelist." Wilson's comment also dates from 1970, and perhaps this novel will be treated to fresh reappraisals in future decades.
Mention needs to be made of the distinctive way in which Barnaby Rudge was published. Like The Old Curiosity Shop, it appeared in weekly installments in Master Humphrey's Clock , a special kind of periodical that Dickens had launched in April 1840. Early in the previous year he had given up being editor of Bentley's Miscellany, but the urge to run a periodical remained with him and, if done successfully, would--he hoped--enable him to take a rest from writing novels. The rest, however, was very shortlived. His original aim with Master Humphrey's Clock had been to feature assorted sketches, essays, and episodes, rather than to provide another full-length novel; it was to be somewhat in the vein of Addison's Spectator papers--much beloved by Dickens. But the scheme did not find favor with the public, and Dickens found himself back at his novelist's desk. His hoped-for rest from the labors of novel writing had to be postponed until January 1842, when he and Kate sailed to America, leaving their children with friends. For the next five months, the only writings he would turn out were letters home to friends and family.
After his tour of America, Dickens claimed that he had traveled some 10,000 miles. The exaggeration was pardonable, for he and Kate did cover a lot of territory. After landing in Boston, they spent considerable time on the eastern seaboard in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, followed by a brief excursion into the slave states ending at Richmond, Virginia. More adventurously, they traveled west by riverboat from Pittsburgh to Saint Louis, where they saw a prairie. The return route included crossing Ohio by coach, a visit to Toronto and Montreal, and back to New York via Lake Champlain. What Dickens was seeking was a rest from novel writing and also, presumably, some materials for a travel book to be written at a later date. He did not come to America to lecture or, as he did in 1868, to offer paid public readings. In 1842 he spoke at only a few banquets, and such performances were not for pay. On this first visit he came simply to see and to be seen.
His reactions to the American scene changed dramatically during these five months. In January and February he was as enthusiastic about America as Americans were enthusiastic about him. By June he was almost totally disillusioned. Because his two books about America were written after disillusionment had set in, they do not give a reliable account of the change in his opinions. The most effective way of following what happened is to read Dickens's letters and to watch a love match gradually turning sour. When he arrived in Boston he was an ardent pro-American, full of great expectations. Politically, Dickens is always hard to categorize, but at this stage he could be described as a Liberal-Radical, impatient with the whole English establishment of aristocratic privilege. In a letter he speaks of the "swine-headed" obstinacy of George III and notes how lucky Americans are to live in a "kingless country freed from the shackles of class rule." A self-made man, Dickens rejoiced to be in a country in which the self-made man seemed to be king. The New York Herald responded by asserting: "Dickens's mind is American--his soul is republican--his heart is democratic." But within two months the honeymoon was over, and Dickens's letters are full of laments about the failure of the American experiment. Slavery appalled him, and so did Congress: Washington, he said, is where one encounters "slavery, spittoons, and senators." Above all, American newspapers appalled him. In an early speech, he had ventured to make a reasonable plea for international copyright, whereupon many newspapers set about attacking him viciously. Upon reading such "unmanly" attacks Dickens commented: "I have never in my life been so shocked and disgusted." Despite his enjoyment of hospitality and many friendly encounters (his closest friendship was with Cornelius Felton, a professor of classics at Harvard), Dickens's overall response to America was one of keen disappointment. On the ship from New York back to England he encountered some steerage passengers who had tried living in America and had found the environment hostile. "They had gone out to New York," Dickens says, "expecting to find its streets paved with gold; and had found them paved with very hard and very real stones." Metaphorically at least, Dickens's own experience during his five-month visit resembled the experiences of these returning immigrants.
Dickens landed in England on 29 June 1842. After six months of vacation he was eager to resume his writing schedule. Following a happy reunion with children and friends in London, the family moved to Broadstairs for the summer. This "little fishing town on the sea coast," as Dickens described it in a letter, had become since 1837 a favorite summer locality in which to rent a house for himself and his family. Ideal working conditions were combined at Broadstairs with the relaxations of long walks and sea bathing. Here he began work on his two-volume travel book American Notes for General Circulation , which he completed in a burst of speed and published in October 1842. The book sold well and was usually reviewed with approval. Thomas Hood observed that the work would please any readers who could be "content with good sense, good feeling, good fun, and good writing." Nothing in the book, he said, had been "set down in malice." This verdict might be generally shared by later readers. Knowing from his letters how critical he had eventually become about America, one can watch his efforts to tone down his disappointment and to be fair. About the American newspapers, however, there was no pulling of punches, and with good cause. On 11 August there appeared on the front page of a New York paper a forged letter purportedly written by Dickens consisting of diatribes against his American hosts, and many Americans were taken in by it. The effect of this scurrilous trick was to give edge to Dickens's attacks on American journalism in the American Notes. The press in America responded predictably to Dickens's criticisms, as did some private individuals. Most of Dickens's American admirers, however, accepted the book as a fair sketch, although many of them would not accept what he was to say about America in his next novel, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit .
Martin Chuzzlewit is the first novel by Dickens that is unified by a theme, although this unification is only loosely sustained. Its theme is selfishness. As originally conceived, the novel would confine its examples of selfishness to the English scene. The young protagonist, Martin, suffers from a mild infection of selfishness, but he is finally cured of it and thereby reaps his reward by becoming heir to his Grandfather Chuzzlewit's fortune. Other characters infected with selfishness are represented as incurable. The most striking of these are Seth Pecksniff and Jonas Chuzzlewit. Pecksniff professes to be a teacher of architecture (Martin is one of his students for a time), but in this role, as in all others, he is a colorful and eloquent fraud, the archembodiment of the hypocrite--and also, it must be added, a great comic creation. Jonas Chuzzlewit is much less a comic figure. A greedy man of business who murders his father, Jonas has as his motto: "Do other men, for they would do you." Less clearly allied to the theme is a gin-drinking nurse, the immortal Mrs. Gamp, who fulfills her need for praise by inventing an imaginary spokesman, Mrs. Harris, whom she quotes with pleasurable relish. Her praises are also voiced by the undertaker, Mr. Mould, who observes that Mrs. Gamp is the sort of woman one would bury for nothing, and do it neatly, too.
Although Mrs. Gamp and Pecksniff are two of Dickens's most memorable creations, the novel in which they appear was not well received. Some years earlier a reviewer had said of the author of The Pickwick Papers that "he has risen like a rocket, and will come down like the stick." Not until this sixth novel, however, did the prediction seem to come true. Sales of the early installments were alarmingly poor, and reviews were alarmingly hostile. In an effort to give his failing novel a turnaround with his public, Dickens hit upon a scheme to have his protagonist seek his fortune in America, where further exhibits of selfishness would be abundantly available. The American scenes in Martin Chuzzlewit are open-stopped satire, beginning with Martin's arrival in America and encounter with the shouting newsboys: "Here's this morning's New York Sewer! Here's this morning's New York Stabber! ... Here's the New York Keyhole Reporter!" The scenes of Martin in the swampy land development called Eden bring to mind Gulliver among the Yahoos. But however powerful as satire, even these American episodes did not generate satisfaction with the work on the part of the English reading public; and in America, as Carlyle said in his picturesque vein: "All Yankee-Doodle-Dum blew up like one universal soda-bottle."
In the midst of these discouragements in 1843, Dickens found a way to restore his sagging selfconfidence. Instead of beginning another novel, he tried his hand at a short fable also dealing, like Martin Chuzzlewit, with the theme of selfishness. It was the first and best of his Christmas books, A Christmas Carol , which caught on at once and has become his most widely known piece of writing. It illustrates most effectively his theory that a Christmas fable should exhibit what he called "fancy" in ways that would be inappropriate in the more realistic world of a long novel. These fanciful ways include the three memorable ghosts who show Scrooge the past, present, and future.
Despite the reassurance provided by the reception of his Christmas Carol, Dickens was ill at ease about his finances. To increase his income, he shifted to a new firm, Bradbury and Evans, who promised him more profitable contracts. But more drastic measures were required to enable him to make up for the various drains upon his earnings. One of these drains involved looking after his parents: his father, an inveterate sponger, had run up heavy debts while Dickens was in America. One of John Dickens's letters seeking a loan from Charles's bankers at this time glitters with Micawber-like flourishes: "Contemporaneous events place me in a difficulty which without some anticipatory pecuniary effort I cannot extricate myself from." The extricating was later to be performed, of course, by his son. More significant expenditures were called for by Dickens's household of wife and five children, a household recently enlarged by the addition of Kate's sixteen-year-old sister, Georgina Hogarth (1827-1917). At times Georgina reminded him strongly of Mary Hogarth, then dead for seven years--"her spirit shines out in this sister," he wrote. But Georgina was not to suffer Mary's fate; she was a member of his household and his intimate companion until his death. "Aunt Georgy," as she was called by the children, who adored her, soon became a crucially important member of the family, reliable and energetic in ways her indolent (and frequently pregnant) sister Kate seemed unable to manage. But she, like all members of the household, needed to be provided for, and one efficient way of doing so, in Dickens's view, was to sublet his London house and to move his "whole menagerie" to the Continent for a year's residence, where living expenses would be less than half what they were in England. In July 1844, they settled in Genoa, traveling there via Paris and Marseilles. This year in Italy was devoted primarily to sight-seeing and traveling. Eventually, it would provide materials for his second book of travel, Pictures from Italy, published in May 1846. On the whole, it was a period of rest for Dickens. His only significant writing was his second Christmas book, The Chimes (1845), a short fable relating to the "Condition of England Question" with emphasis upon the inhumanity of Utilitarian theories of social and economic relationships. In November, he returned by himself to London in order to try out the story by reading it aloud to a group of his friends, who were overwhelmed by his performance.
In July 1845, the whole family returned to England. During the next eleven months, Dickens continued to abstain from writing novels; instead, he completed his Italian travel book and also his third Christmas story, The Cricket on the Hearth (1846). Much of his time was taken up with other pursuits. In October he accepted the editorship of a newly founded liberal newspaper, the Daily News. Hardly had the paper begun publication in January 1846 when Dickens resigned from the editorship, having discovered that he was temperamentally unsuited for the position. Much more successful were his ventures into amateur acting. In 1845 he and a group of friends successfully produced Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour with Dickens playing Bobadil, as well as being director and stage manager. Dickens reveled in this chance to act before an audience, and for the rest of his life he welcomed opportunities to throw himself into performing in farces and tragedies.
In the summer of 1846, Dickens again moved his whole family to the Continent, this time to Switzerland. One of the worst of his Christmas stories, The Battle of Life (1846), was written during this period, and also one of his better novels, Dombey and Son (1846-1848). There is a noteworthy gap of four years between his launching of this novel and the start of his previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. His pace of writing was thus strikingly different from the sprawling productivity of his earlier years, and this restraint affected the quality of his art as a novelist. Philip Collins notes that there is today a "critical consensus" that Dombey and Son is Dickens's "first mature masterpiece." It is also the first of his novels in which the action occurs at about the same date as when it was published, rather than being set in earlier decades: in Dombey and Son the characters travel by railroad rather than by stagecoach. Indeed, as Steven Marcus states in his brilliant chapter on this novel, the railroad is one of the two "massive images" around which the story is organized, the other being the sea. Both images are associated with change--overall change in social and economic life, and, in particular, change in the life of a family, "a single and rather small family as it persists through time." The head of this family, Mr. Dombey, is a proud man of business and the widowed father of two children. The younger child, Paul, is doted upon by his father; the older child, Florence, who herself dotes on her father, is strangely resented by him and treated with an icy coldness that chills the whole household. Mr. Dombey suffers a terrible blow when little Paul dies shortly after beginning school, and a further blow when his second wife, Edith, runs away from home to have an affair with one of his employees. Finally, his family business, the House of Dombey, collapses into bankruptcy. At the end, having his eyes opened by such adversities, Dombey learns the real value of his daughter's steady devotion to him; with her and her husband, Walter Gay, he will spend the rest of his days. Perhaps the title might more appropriately have been "Dombey and Daughter," for it is the complex relationship between Florence Dombey and her father that is the central concern of this mature novel.
The generally high regard in which the story of Mr. Dombey and his children is held by modern criticism was anticipated by its reception among its first readers. After the relative failure of Martin Chuzzlewit, the response to Dombey and Son was reassuring to Dickens. The critical reaction was generally enthusiastic, and the sales were like earlier days. In fact, after this novel, the gnawing anxieties about financial survival which had plagued him in the early 1840s were no longer a serious issue. From this time forward, to all intents and purposes, he was secure.
In April 1847, in the midst of writing Dombey and Son, he had again returned to England from the Continent but this time was disinclined to write his expected Christmas story (which he postponed until 1848, when it would appear under the title The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain, the last of these stories). Much of his energy was expended in 1847 upon a charitable project fostered by Baroness Burdett-Coutts, a wealthy heiress. The project aimed to provide a friendly shelter for prostitutes seeking rehabilitation. Urania Cottage, as the shelter was named by Dickens, also served as a refuge for other women in distress. Urania Cottage was but one of several good works participated in by Dickens in his role as responsible citizen. He was also concerned with such problems as water pollution, as in his speeches before the Metropolitan Sanitary Association in the 1850s, and with popular education, as advocated in his speeches to working-class audiences. He served as a trustee of a fund to assist retired actors, and he was a founder of the Guild of Literature and Art. Some of these causes called for unobtrusively working behind the scenes; others called for more conspicuous performances as a public speaker, and all reports indicate that Dickens was a superb speaker and an extraordinarily effective advocate. (The collection of his speeches edited by K. J. Fielding in 1960 gives some idea of his powers of persuasion.)
Despite these diversions, his principal efforts during the two remaining decades of his life were expended on the writing of novels. Following the final number of Dombey and Son there was a rest period of about a year before the fresh and delightful opening number of The Personal History of David Copperfield was published in May 1849. It was an immediate hit, and after seven months, Dickens could report in a letter: "I think it is better liked than any of my other books." According to Edgar Johnson, it is still today "the best-loved of all Dickens' novels" and it was Dickens's own "favourite child." Part of its appeal depends on its use of the first person, an innovation in the Dickens canon, which is handled with consummate skill, especially in the scenes of David's childhood. George Orwell reports that when he first began reading this novel at the age of nine, its mental atmosphere was "so immediately intelligible" that he thought it must have been written "by a child." Also innovative, for Dickens, is that here is a true Bildungsroman; the protagonist changes and develops and learns, as contrasted with the static character of Oliver Twist. Perhaps most skillful of all is how Dickens combines personal history with imagined characters and events. The core of the novel is the autobiographical fragment about his experiences in the blacking warehouse, and in those blacking scenes of David Copperfield it could be said that David is the boy Charles. But most of the novel is not based on historical correspondence. Even in the character of the protagonist there are marked differences from that of his creator: combined with his demonstrated tenderness there was in Dickens a hard, almost ruthless streak which is omitted entirely from the character of his consistently gentle hero. This difference in character results, in turn, in a different attitude toward the exposure of the wrongs of social institutions. There is hence less crusading in this work than in most of Dickens's novels--except, perhaps, Great Expectations, his other first-person Bildungsroman, which also features a gentle protagonist as narrator.
David Copperfield is one of Dickens's novels that is commonly read in childhood. Among other qualities it has the virtues of a children's classic: it is memorable because of the special kind of fears it arouses, as in the scenes with Mr. Murdstone or Mr. Creakle, or even the gargoylelike menacings of Uriah Heep; it is memorable, too, for its fun. But David Copperfield is also a classic for adults; and while continuing to respond to its frightening parts and its wonderful humor, one may find, as George Ford suggests in an essay, upon rereading it as a grown-up, that this is a sadder book than one had remembered it to be. "Dickens himself recognized its predominant tone when in later years he was looking back over his own life from the lonely pinnacle of the monumentally successful man, and asked: 'Why is it, that as with poor David, a sense comes always crushing on me now, when I fall into low spirits, as of one happiness that I have missed in life, and one friend and companion I have never made?' All the steam that rises from Mr. Micawber's delectable hot rum punch cannot obscure the nostalgic impression, in almost every chapter, of roads not taken and of doors that never opened."
If satirical exposures of institutional inadequacies were kept to the minimum in David Copperfield, Dickens seems to have decided to make up for his restraint when he began writing his next novel, Bleak House. This work seethes with discontents sometimes expressed in fiery invectives, discontents which are also prominent in others of his novels of the 1850s and 1860s: Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865). This group, anticipated by Dombey and Son , was labeled by Lionel Stevenson as Dickens's "Dark Period" novels, and the term seems apt. What is strange about the chronology, however, is that the 1850s and 1860s, economically and in other areas, were not a dark period, but rather a rare bright one. These were decades when the English seemed at last to have solved some of the big problems that had looked to be insoluble in the 1830s and 1840s. As the historian G. M. Young has said: "Of all the decades in our history, a wise man would choose the eighteen-fifties to be young in."
Dickens evidently would not have agreed with Young's cheerful report; he preferred to write as an angry outsider, critical of the shortcomings (as he saw them) of mid-Victorian values. Predictably, these Dark Period novels cost him some readers who felt that the attacks on institutions were misguided, unfair, and finally, tiresome. Such a reader was Fitzjames Stephen, whose irritated response to Dickens's account of the Circumlocution Office (in Little Dorrit) led to his writing the nastiest review of a Dickens novel ever to appear in England during Dickens's lifetime. According to Stephen, Dickens's literary fare was simply "puppy pie and stewed cat." More temperate and representative was an article of 1857 entitled "Remonstrance with Dickens," lamenting all the Dark Period novels. "We admit that Mr. Dickens has a mission," writes this critic, "but it is to make the world grin, not to recreate and rehabilitate society." Citing in particular what he calls the "wilderness" of Little Dorrit, he adds: "We sit down and weep when we remember thee, O Pickwick!" Obviously not all of Dickens's contemporaries felt likewise, for among the reading public, from Bleak House onward, the Dark Period novels fared well, as they have continued to do in the second half of the twentieth century. In fact, these are the novels that have been chiefly responsible for the remarkable "Dickens boom," as Hillis Miller called it, of the 1960s and after. Among this group it is Bleak House that seems to have been most highly regarded by modern criticism.
During the thirteen-month interval between the final number of David Copperfield and the great opener of Bleak House , Dickens had been engaged in various other activities. Most important was his effort to make a success as editor of a new weekly magazine--a success that had hitherto eluded him. This time, as both owner and editor, he made it, and handsomely. Household Words, founded in January 1850, flourished exceedingly, with an average sale of 40,000 copies a week. Its title page announced that it was "conducted" by Charles Dickens . What this meant was that all contributions would appear anonymously, no matter how eminent the contributor, including those by Dickens himself. "Conducted" also meant the assurance for readers that Dickens had approved the contribution, whether it was a sketch, an installment of a novel, or some journalistic report on current issues such as sewage disposal or juvenile illiteracy or the role of detectives in the expanding metropolis. In his role as citizen, as well as editor, Dickens became increasingly involved with such issues during the 1850s. In 1852, in fact, he was asked to run for Parliament but decided that he could do more good for the world by sticking to his journalism in Household Words and to his craft as a novelist in Bleak House. Also during this thirteen-month interval, he moved his family into a larger residence, Tavistock House, where the tenth and last of his children was born (his infant daughter, Dora, had died a few months earlier).
The narrative technique of Bleak House is much more experimental than that of David Copperfield and involves the use of two narrators. Half the book is told in the first person and is again, like David Copperfield, the story of one character's growing up and self-discovery--in this case the story of a girl, Esther Summerson, an illegitimate child. The other half of the novel, told in the third person, deals with lives and institutions which variously relate to Esther's story, such as what happens to her mother, Lady Dedlock, and how legal delays, enacted in the fogbound Court of Chancery, cripple the spirits and empty the pockets of generations of litigants who have been involved with the "mighty maze" of a law case known as "Jarndyce and Jarndyce." As G. K. Chesterton observes (alluding to Hamlet): "The whole theme is what another Englishman as jovial as Dickens defined shortly and finally as the law's delay. The fog of the first chapter never lifts." But Bleak House is not only a novel of social criticism; it is also a detective novel, perhaps the first detective novel in English. The shooting death of Mr. Tulkinghorn, a lawyer, leads to a relentless hunt for the murderer directed by a colorful detective, Inspector Bucket.Among Bucket's suspects is Esther's mother, Lady Dedlock, who, although innocent of the murder, dies from exposure and exhaustion during the pursuit and finds her resting place at the grave of her former lover, Captain Hawdon. Meanwhile, Inspector Bucket tracks down the true murderer, Hortense, a Frenchwoman who had been Lady Dedlock's maid. Esther is thereafter free to marry Alan Woodcourt, a surgeon, and to reside with him in a house that is, despite its name--"Bleak House"--a generally cheerful and happy home for her and for her family.
The closing number of Bleak House was written in France at a house near Boulogne that Dickens had rented for the summer. In the autumn he took a two-month vacation trip to Italy and returned to Tavistock House in time for Christmas. His plan had been not to think about writing another novel until the next summer, but special circumstances once again put him back to work at an earlier date. Late in 1853, it was noticed that the circulation of Household Words was for the first time slipping, and Bradbury and Evans proposed to Dickens that a rescue operation might be effected if he would bring out a new novel to appear in its pages as a weekly serial. In January he reluctantly started writing, and on 1 April 1854 the first chapter of Hard Times was published. Although the rescue operation worked, with the circulation of Household Words doubling after the novel began appearing, Dickens found that the task of writing short weekly installments was formidably difficult. He felt hemmed in; the lack of adequate space was, as he said in a letter, "crushing." As a result of this mode of publication, Hard Times is Dickens's shortest novel (117,000 words as compared with the 350,000 words of Bleak House). Its shortness may account for its having some resemblances to Dickens's fables, such as A Christmas Carol, in its making prominent an anti-Utilitarian moral, and even in the names of some of the characters, such as the bullying factory owner, Mr. Bounderby, or the fact-crammed school teacher, Mr. M'Choakumchild. The central drama in Hard Times is the conflict between the world of Mr. Gradgrind, a hardware merchant who believes in the exclusive values of fact and rational calculation, and the world of affection and imagination. The latter includes the enjoyment of poetry (which Gradgrind despises) but is more prosaically represented by the entertainments of Mr. Sleary's circus and its horse riders. Such an account unduly emphasizes the abstract aspects of Hard Times, for despite the prominence of its fable, its core is distinctly realistic, as was illustrated in the excellent television version of 1977 (which was shown on national networks in the United States as well as in Great Britain). This vivid and sensitive interpretation was filmed in an industrial area of the English Midlands like the town of Preston, near Manchester, which Dickens had visited to report on a strike in January 1854, and which served as the model for Coketown in his novel.
Because of its hard-hitting social criticism, Hard Times was a favorite for such readers as George Bernard Shaw and John Ruskin; others, such as George Gissing, found its bleakness so harsh as to make the book unreadable. A similar harshness marks Dickens's next novel, Little Dorrit , although the effect of it is different because of a difference in length. Dickens was forty-three years old when he began Little Dorrit, about the same age as his protagonist, Arthur Clennam, whose unhappiness seems to reflect his creator's unhappiness at this time. The action takes place almost thirty years earlier, but significantly the principal setting of this novel is a debtors' prison, the Marshalsea, where Dickens as a boy used to visit his imprisoned father during the blacking warehouse period of his life. That had been in 1824; the novel opens in 1826. As John Holloway said of the characters in this book, "the present is imprisoned in the past"; his statement also seems applicable to Dickens himself in 1855. For in Little Dorrit Dickens was looking back not only to the shameful memories of the Marshalsea days but also to the painful memories of his frustrated love for Maria Beadnell. In February 1855, Maria had written to her former admirer, and a meeting was arranged by him with the now forty-four-year-old wife and mother. Dickens was crushed with disappointment when they met, an experience which he drew upon almost literally when he described Arthur Clennam's reunion with Flora Finching, "his old passion." Not only had Flora changed physically (once a "lily" and now a "peony"), she had become a bore; everything she said was "diffuse and silly." The coyness in her manner that had allured him when she was twenty was still there but was now intolerable to him. So Clennam's "old passion," like Dickens's, "shivered and broke to pieces." For these and other reasons, Little Dorrit is the saddest of Dickens's novels, a quality which did not prevent its being admired by its early readers (it sold more copies than Bleak House) and by later critics. Two important appreciations are Lionel Trilling's classic essay and a chapter by F. R. Leavis, who discovered Dickens's greatness late in life and came to the conclusion that Little Dorrit is "his greatest book."
The financial rewards from Little Dorrit and from Household Words enabled Dickens, as he was finishing the novel, to realize a dream of his early boyhood. Gad's Hill Place, a beautiful eighteenth-century brick house on a hill outside of Rochester, which he had admired during walks with his father, came up for sale, and he bought it. (The owner had been one of his contributors for Household Words, Mrs. Lynn Linton.) It had plenty of room for guests (it is today a boarding school for girls), attractive gardens, and a surrounding landscape ideal for walks. Dickens lived there for the final ten years of his life (he sold Tavistock House in 1860). This happy realization of a boyhood dream coincided with an opposite kind of development: the gradual breaking up of his marriage, culminating in a legal separation from Kate in May 1858.
Hints of his growing dissatisfaction as a husband can be detected in his letters of the early 1850s in references to his "miserable" marriage, and in his report to Forster: "Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other, and there is no help for it." But the formal break did not occur until Dickens had met an attractive eighteen-year-old actress, Ellen Ternan, who eventually became his mistress. They first came to know each other in 1856-1857 when Dickens had once again thrown himself into amateur theatricals in order to raise funds for charities. In a new play, The Frozen Deep, written by his young friend Wilkie Collins, Dickens made a hit playing the leading role. This production led to Dickens's making acquaintance with a professional acting family consisting of Mrs. Ternan, a widow, and her three daughters, of whom Ellen was the youngest. Although some twenty-seven years younger than Dickens, Ellen fascinated him from the outset, and this infatuation confirmed his resolve to set Kate up in a separate establishment with Charlie, their eldest child. The rest of the children, and also Georgina Hogarth, remained with him at Gad's Hill. According to accounts of his relationship with Ellen published during the past fifty years, Dickens was also responsible in the 1860s for a third household, having bought a residence for the Ternans in London and later at Peckham. This arrangement put more than financial strains upon Dickens, for he knew that it would be disastrous to his reputation as a writer, especially as a proponent of family and home and editor of Household Words, if his relationship became public knowledge. During his lifetime there were rumors, of course; at the time of the separation there was an abundance of gossip. At the Garrick Club some members were overheard by Thackeray airing a story that Dickens was having an affair with his sister-in-law. Thackeray corrected them by affirming, instead, that the affair was with an actress! Dickens became so enraged by such talk that he wrote letters to the newspapers denying all whispered reports of any amorous relations with "a young lady for whom I have great attachment and regard." His gesture of protest was certainly misguided but fortunately did not lead to any disclosures in the press. However, he came dangerously close to public exposure in the summer of 1865: returning from visiting France with Ellen and her mother, Dickens was sharing a train compartment with them when a serious wreck occurred, one extensively reported in the news. Afterward, the possibility of publicity must have haunted Dickens, like Banquo's ghost, for anxious months. But for the most part, this skeleton in his closet remained hidden from his public while he was alive and also for more than sixty years after his death. In the 1920s, his daughter Kate Perugini decided that the truth about her father ought to be known and reported the Ellen Ternan story that appeared in Dickens and Daughter by Gladys Storey in 1939. In some quarters the disclosures were dismissed as scandalmongering, but further evidence kept surfacing that seemed to substantiate them. There was even a story that Dickens had had a son by Ellen Ternan, a story most emphatically denied by dedicated Dickensians. Yet in some newly discovered papers left after her death by Gladys Storey, and published in 1980 in the Dickensian, there is fresh evidence that the story was probably true.
At the earlier stage, in 1858, incidents involving the Ellen Ternan story led to a quarrel between Dickens and his publishers Bradbury and Evans and to his starting a new periodical to replace Household Words. Published by Chapman and Hall, All the Year Round was another success with the reading public, reaching a circulation of 100,000 in the 1860s. Part of its success is attributable to Dickens's publishing in its pages two of his best-known novels: A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861). The first of these has been one of his most popular novels, especially in the United States, where, in 1970, more copies were sold than of any other novel by Dickens. Philip Collins suggests that its popularity may be due to its shortness and to its having been "dramatized with notable success." This explanation is helpful, but it should be remarked that the popularity of A Tale of Two Cities may also derive simply from its being an exceptionally lively story, full of fast-paced action. Like Barnaby Rudge it is a historical novel set in the 1770s and 1780s in a period of riot and violence, this time the French Revolution. It was a period that had always fascinated Dickens; he once remarked that he had read Carlyle's The French Revolution: A History (1837) "five hundred times." In his Tale of Two Cities, London and Paris are linked through a relatively small cast of characters, in particular through Sydney Carton, a London lawyer who falls in love with a young Frenchwoman, Lucie Manette. Carton's love is a hopeless one, for, although talented, he is a confirmed drunkard and knows he is unworthy of his beloved. Instead she marries his look-alike, Charles Darnay, a former French aristocrat who immigrated to London before the revolution. Back in France, Darnay's family members are doomed to be guillotined if captured. Darnay nevertheless takes the risk of returning to France on a mission. As might have been predicted, he is captured there and would most certainly have suffered the fate prescribed for his family had he not been rescued by Carton, who substitutes himself for Darnay and gives up his life in order to save the husband of the woman he loves. Confronting death, Carton affirms his credo: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done."
Despite its popularity, A Tale of Two Cities has never received much serious attention from critics. On the other hand, his next novel, Great Expectations , has been both popular and a favorite topic for critical discussions. Many of his Victorian readers welcomed this novel for its humor; after the Dark Period novels, Great Expectations seemed to them a return to the good-hearted vein of The Pickwick Papers. Consonant with this seemingly cheerful vein was Pip's growth from "ugly duckling" into a "proud swan." As Barry Westburg noted in 1977, "The mode of consciousness that defines Pip is 'expectation'--his mind is typically directed toward the future rather than toward the past"--as contrasted with David Copperfield, for example. Most critical discussions since 1950 argue that the Victorians were misled by some of its great comic scenes such as Mr. Wopsle's playing Hamlet, and also by Pip's career (the alternate endings not affecting the point). Unlike the Victorians, modern critics see Great Expectations as a brilliant study of guilt, another very sad book--another Dark Period novel, that is--and one of Dickens's finest in any vein. David Lean's successful screen version, first shown in 1946 and many times revived, has no doubt added to the popularity of this novel, but its critical status is so firmly based as not to require any reinforcements from the camera.
At the time of Dickens's changing his publishers, his career underwent another and more important change: in April 1858, he finally decided, after much hesitation, to start a tour during which he would do readings from his own writings, such as A Christmas Carol and the trial scene in The Pickwick Papers. At this date he was already an experienced and highly successful reader, but heretofore his performances had been to raise money for charities. Now, instead, he was starred as a professional, raising money for himself. Yet it is evident that he took on this new career not just to earn money; he needed the direct contact with vast audiences of his readers in order to compensate for a sense of loneliness and dissatisfaction which afflicted him powerfully in these late years. The readings exhausted him (his first tour called for eighty-seven performances), but they also exhilarated him. Another result of his readings was one that Forster had predicted when he had urged Dickens not to engage in them--his productivity as novelist inevitably suffered. After finishing Great Expectations in the summer of 1861, he was soon launched on another season of readings, and it was three years before he started another novel, the last that he would live to complete: Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865). About this novel, there would be no mistaking the tone, as Victorian readers had done with the previous one. Our Mutual Friend is grim and bleak, with an air of darkness even more oppressive than that of Bleak House. What humor there is is predominantly in a satirical vein, as in the memorable dinner-party scenes at the homes of Mr. and Mrs. Podsnap and of Mr. and Mrs. Veneering. Many readers, from Dickens's generation onward, find that the creaky plot--involving the presumed death by drowning of the hero, John Harmon, and an elaborate sequence of deceptions about his hidden inheritance--makes the book hard to read. Such readers might even agree with a review by the young Henry James, who called it "the poorest of Mr. Dickens's works.... And it is poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion." James's insights were shrewd, for it is now known that Dickens was exhausted while writing this novel; but a writer's state of exhaustion does not necessarily lead to a failure of his art. In fact, some critics today, who have given Our Mutual Friend a serious and close reading, find it to be his most impressive creation, praising it for its unified presentation of the theme of money and for its brilliant use of recurring images of dust and foul water to evoke a sense of death in modern life.
After completing Our Mutual Friend in November 1865, Dickens resumed his reading tours and occasionally wrote some short fictions, such as "Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings." It was four years before he tried his hand again at a novel--the longest break between novels in his career and a marked contrast to his pace in the 1830s. Not that he was idle during the interval. In late 1867, he sailed to America for a scheduled tour of eighty readings, which netted him a vast sum of money and a further chance to bask in the warm receptions of enthusiastic audiences in New York, Boston, Baltimore, and Buffalo. (On this visit he limited his travels almost entirely to the eastern seaboard.) On 22 April 1868, he sailed for home. It had been a triumphant visit, and the bad feelings of the Martin Chuzzlewit phase of his relations with America had been erased after the passing of twenty-six eventful years. The triumph had, however, been a costly one. Most of the readings had been performed when Dickens was ill with colds and an assortment of other ailments. His determination to continue to meet his engagements, instead of retiring to a sickbed, impressed those of his friends who knew what he was going through but also impressed others that his behavior was suicidal. Back in England, he continued to drive himself. In October he began a projected series of a hundred readings, of which he had completed eighty-six by April 1869. In this series he introduced for the first time the scene of Nancy's murder in Oliver Twist. His final series of readings, early in 1870, ended in March with a brief farewell: "From these garish lights I vanish now for evermore."
Some months earlier he had started writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood , which was scheduled to be published in twelve monthly numbers, of which he completed six. The early numbers, starting in April 1870, had a sale of 50,000 copies, "outstripping," as he was pleased to note, "every one of its predecessors." Not much significant criticism has been written about The Mystery of Edwin Drood: as Philip Collins noted wittily in 1978, "Recent Dickens critics seem to have worn out their brains by the time they arrive at 1870." This is not to say that little has been written about this tantalizing fragment: there are shelfloads of books with The Mystery of Edwin Drood as their subject, but they are not critical studies; instead, they are attempts to solve the mystery by conjecture or by simply inventing six more books of the story as Dickens might have written them. (One of the more successful attempts in the latter mode was by Leon Garfield in 1981.) Like Keats's urn, the mystery of Drood doth tease us out of thought, for what is involved is not just the mystery of what happened to Edwin Drood and his uncle but the mystery of how the ailing novelist achieved in this book some of the most extraordinary stylistic feats of his whole career. Graham Greene spoke once of Dickens's "secret prose" with its "music of memory" in David Copperfield, and when Dickens writes of time passing and the crumbling cathedral of Cloisterham in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, he most tellingly illustrates Greene's comments about his stylistic wizardry.
The last completed page of The Mystery of Edwin Drood was written at Gad's Hill on the afternoon of 8 June 1870. That evening Dickens was stricken with an aneurysm in the brain and died the following day without regaining consciousness. Even though he had wanted to be buried in the Rochester area which was so deeply associated with both his lost childhood and with recent triumphs and losses, his wish had to be overruled in favor of Westminster Abbey. On 14 June, in a private ceremony, he was buried in Poet's Corner, which the Times described on this occasion as "the peculiar resting place of English literary genius."
From: Ford, George H. "Charles (John Huffam) Dickens." Victorian Novelists Before 1885, edited by Ira Bruce Nadel and William E. Fredeman, Gale, 1983. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 21.