I have recently reread The Old Curiosity Shop and
Great Expectations with the keenest of pleasure. Even those
who love Dickens concede his faults - sentimentality, characters
who are good or evil without nuance, contrived plots, and so on.
One ticks these off easily because at the end of any list will
come, "So what?" There is little point in trying to appraise
Charles Dickens by supposedly standard criteria of what he
should have done. He invented himself as a writer, beginning
with Sketches by Boz, then the Pickwick Papers and
on into David Copperfield and all the rest. The early
works, including the early novels, are picaresque, moving on
from one hilarious situation and character to the next; think of
Nicolas Nicholby. The Old Curiosity Shop gets
quickly out of London and on the road where comic situations and
characters can be encountered and enjoyed for themselves. And of
course it features the impossibly good Little Nell.
Dickens never really went to school and he was put to work at
any early age. Where did he acquire such a mastery of English?
Words run so readily from his pen that it may seem merely
natural, a gift bestowed on him complete. But surely Dickens is
always a conscious artist, mindful of what he is doing , the
effect he wants and how to achieve it.
Like most prolific writers he was disciplined, ever at his desk
in order to turn out the sections of the novel in progress,
sections that would appear one by one, like magazines. And often
the first number appeared before the novel was done. Only a
truly professional writer could have flourished in such
circumstances. And then there is his religion.
It has been said of Irving Berlin that he took the two greatest
feasts of the Christian year and turned them into, respectfully,
a nostalgic dream of a snowy home and parading one's spring
finery on Fifth Avenue. Where is the Nativity or Resurrection in
I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas and Easter Parade?
Is that what Charles Dickens did to Christianity? A Christmas
Carol puts before us greed and poverty and subjects Scrooge
to a review of his life which ends with his conversion,
whereupon he orders a goose for the Cratchit Christmas dinner,
resolved to be good and generous. Christianity is reduced to
practices, but the motive for them is left fairly obscure. This
is not always true of the novels. While not preachy, they make
overt appeal to prayer, the next life, this life as preparatory,
and so on. Jesus? He is there only by implication. If He weren't
there at all, the morality on which the stories rest would have
become political or worse
His surname has so many usages in English it is hard to connect
them. One is given the dickens (scolded), having a dickens of a
time (happy), a plate may be hot as the dickens, and so on. The
variety and equivocal character of these invocations seems
appropriate. And the most appropriate description of his novels
is that they are dickensian.