In the twenties, according to V.S. Pritchett, it was fashionable to disparage Charles Dickens, at least among the modernist set. Two disparate writers from that period, Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf, seem to bear Pritchett out. Waugh, famously, employed Dickens work as a tool of torture in Handful of Dust, when the hapless Tony Last is captured by an Amazonian eccentric and forced to read to him from Dickens’ collected works, an unhappy end if there ever was one. In Waugh’s one extended essay on Dickens, a review of the large Life of Dickens published by Edgar Johnson, he had a lot of fun shooting spitballs at the “disgusting hypocrite”. Dickens wishy washy liberalism and complete absense of a sense of original sin put him outside Waugh’s ultramontane disposition. No man is a hero to his letter readers – especially Dickens, whose hypocrisies can be tracked with cruel accuracy. Even in the 1870s, when the first collection of Dickens letters were published, an anonymous writer at the Spectator commented that Dickens’ vaunted radicalism never amounted to much, and certainly didn’t prevent him from supporting the South over the North in the American Civil war, nor from sympathizing ardently with Governer Eyre, the crown’s ruler in Jamaica, who put down a rebellion by randomly hanging black people. For his methods, John Stuart Mill tried ardently to have him imprisoned. He not only failed, but his outraged white constituents voted him out of office.
However, this is Dickens the public figure – and private man. Even Waugh admits that Dickens is a “mesmerist” as a writer – which had become, by the time, a great cliché of Dickens criticism. It is rooted in some fact: Dickens fancied himself a mesmerist, and even attempted a mesmeric cure on one Madame de la Rue, an acquaintance from Genoa. After Dickens took to spending the night with her, giving her the benefit of his “visual ray”, Dickens’ wife made him break off his ‘cure’ – which Dickens held forever against her. He was a miserable husband. The list of things Dickens held against his wife could fill a three decker novel. Their domestic scene is not a pretty picture.
Virginia Woolf, who is, in most ways, a much more intelligent critic than Evelyn Waugh, was also uneasy with Dickens. Her family had extensive acquaintance with Thackeray, and this may have made set her tribally against Dickens – there was no love lost between the two Victorian novelists. However, one of the best essays about Dickens, Virginia Woolf’s reflections on David Copperfield, is a critical lodestone for me – it so exactly describes my own varied reaction to Dickens writing. She begins the essay with references to seasonal occurences, to the ripening of fruit and to sunshine, as if Dickens were not a writer but a phenomenon of the same sort – which is just what he seems to be, Woolf implies, when read in childhood. But can a Dickens novel survive a second reading? Or are his characters – for Woolf’s idea, ultimately, is that Dickens novels are crowds of characters, that he keeps going in his novels by “throwing another character on the pyre” – “been attacked by the parching wind which blows about books and, without our reading them, remodelsm them and changes their features while we sleep?” Again, we note the confusion of culture and nature – the kind of thing Roland Barthes loved to disentangle. That parching wind and our sleep are definitely social phenomena, although they do take on the authoritative, irresistable shape of natural forces at play. The closed book does seem to sleep – or we seem to close ourselves up like a book when we sleep. The parallel is inexhaustible, and rediscoveries aspects of both sleeping and books – or trivializes them.
The next two lines of the essay are often quoted as though they reflected Woolf’s opinion, rather than the opinion of the fashion of her time, to which she is responding: “The rumor about Dickens is to the effect that his sentiment is disgusting and his style commonplace; that in reading him every refinement must be hidden and every sensibility kept under glass; but that with these precaustions and reservations, he is of course Shakespearean; like Scott a born creator; like Balzac prodigious in his fecundity; but, rumor adds, it is strange that while one reads Shakespeare and one reads Scott, the precise moment for reading Dickens seldom comes our way.”
I think we would substitute Austin for Scott now, but with this qualification, what rumor has whispered into Woolf’s ear does not seem far fetched to me. It is against that rumor that Woolf makes – in an act of culture over nature – the choice to take up Dickens, to make this the precise moment for re-reading David Copperfield.
Woolf provides an interesting reading of the ‘rumor’ – Dickens, in her version, has pre-eminently the virtues of the male writer, and also the vices. He has humor, but curiously fumbles the emotional; he has description, but is curiously unable or unwilling to plumb the interior. He is, Woolf thinks, a genius when it comes to movement, but a failure when we need to slow down and reflect. She puts her finger on something that exactly reproduces my experience of Dickens: “Then, indeed, he fails grotesquely, and the pages in which he describes what, to our convention, are the peaks and pinnacles of human life, the explanation of Mrs. Strong, the despair of Mrs. Steerforth, or the anguish of Ham, are of an indescribable unreality – of that uncompfortable complexion which, if we heard Dickens talking so in real life, would either make us blush to the roots of our hair, or dash out of the room to conceal our laughter.”
I think that one can be embarrassed by Dickens in exactly this way. It is why one resists the re-reading. Remembering the almost sickly sweetness of Esther Summerson in Bleak House makes me wary of reading the novel one more time. And Esther is probably his most developed female figure. There are, of course, self suppressing, virtuous women in Balzac, but they show themselves capable of robbery and murder if their passions are lit. They have a sexual life, even if it is on hold, and one feels that they like to have it.
However, what is strange, to me, about Woolf’s assessment of Dickens is that she never comments on what must surely have struck her, especially in David Copperfield: the theme of extreme cruelty to children.
I’m re-reading David Copperfield. It is a striking novel. Like those bridges that are supposedly alluded to in London Bridge is falling down, at the beginning of it we find a sacrificed child. Dickens was a master of the story of cruelty to children, but I think David Copperfield’s betrayal by his mother and his beating and expulsion by the Murdstones is the culminating episode in the series. The equation of the family and the cult is seen all too often in the news. Cults often seem to develop around an initial separation of the child from the family and his or her subjection to extreme violence of one type or another. These are not separate moments, or need not be. In Copperfield’s case, Mr. Murdstone’s control and humiliation of the child, leading up to the scene of David being beaten with a cane and retaliating by biting Murdstone’s hand, is doublesided: it is also a process in which Mrs. Copperfield, now Murdstone’s bride, is completely dominated. Mrs. Copperfield is one of those unfortunate Dickens women. In a conversation with Steerforth – Copperfield’s schoolmate and hero, with whom he accepts a relationship much like that of his mother to Murdstone – there’s a perfect expression of all that is wrong, genderwise, with Dickens:
'Good night, young Copperfield,' said Steerforth. 'I'll take care of you.' 'You're very kind,' I gratefully returned. 'I am very much obliged to you.'
'You haven't got a sister, have you?' said Steerforth, yawning.
'No,' I answered.
'That's a pity,' said Steerforth. 'If you had had one, I should think she would have been a pretty, timid, little, bright-eyed sort of girl. I should have liked to know her. Good night, young Copperfield.'
Although Dickens is warning us about Steerforth’s character, through his mouth we get Dickens own compulsively presented heroine. Unlike, say, Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, Dickens could never conceive of a woman with a real intellectual life,
Dickens is an artist of exaggeration, and this spirit even visits his restraint. The key to the first part of the book is David Copperfield’s feeling of betrayal by his mother – and the hatred that it generates. That hatred is not expressed in words, but instead, in a strained attempt to continue to love this woman.
But to continue with the cultic undertext: it is interesting that Copperfield’s expulsion from his house is accompanied by a comically treated fasting as the boy makes his way to London. Though he begins with a meal, he doesn’t eat it – the waiter does, keeping up a standard kind of Dickens waiter patter. In fact, he doesn’t eat until he reaches London, right before he is taken to Salem, the deserted school – which, as we will learn, is presided over by the sadistic Creakle – and fitted with a banner: TAKE CARE OF HIM. HE BITES. This is the end of the initiatory period in Copperfield’s life.
This violence and its suppression create such a profound disequilibrium in the story that it becomes political – Copperfield’s sense of Murdstone and Creakle as tyrants tells us something very dirty about the formation of the political father, or the boss. The child and the “timid, bright woman” are brought together as exemplary victims – their vulnerability is their attraction. But, of course, children are not women – in that neurotic equation, the chance to overthrow the political father is lost.
It is this, I think, which makes Dickens sentimentality so disheartening. He comes so far, and then he falls so short.