A bourgeois moralist

Contemporary book reviewers were often unkind to Charles Dickens. I am referring to the higher-browed Victorian periodicals, often unbearably pompous to the modern reader (though not, of course, to me). Rereading the Spectator’s review of Bleak House, I think they could have conceded more: that Dickens is a genius, and his novels are mesmerizing; that he silences his critics with magic sprawling art. His caricatures are unforgettable, and sometimes in the background of his plots there is a divine movement, rising independently of authorial intention.

But I agree on their main point: that Dickens is essentially mindless.

Consider Little Dorrit. It is apparent in the (often mawkish) scenes within the Marshalsea Prison (for debtors of the lower castes), where Dickens’s father was once an inmate. This was not a happy place, according to my historical information, but in son Charles’s treatment I detect an atmosphere that Solzhenitsyn would later capture, more purposefully, in the Gulag. The sense that, “We are rising,” floats in a ghostly way, through and above specific characters; who are only doing what they can to get by. In the worst sort of bureaucratic trap, constructed by a symbolic Circumlocution Office, the Marshalsea prisoners owe money, that they cannot possibly repay, because they have been gaoled. (This situation was revived by the feminists who rewrote Ontario family law in the 1990s.) And yet there is paradoxical hope.

Having no advantages of class, they would seem to have fallen to the cold cruel bottom of an unfeeling world. But they are free now. No one can do anything more to them; and the only way is up. These inmates are human, have committed no worse than petty crimes. They have no motive to envy one another. They make their prison into a neighbourhood. Friendless, except for each other, they’ll only ever get out by miracle — if some unlikely person on the outside suddenly pays their debts. Trust Dickens to contrive this happy escape.

By dei ex machina, the plot rumbles on. There’s good bits as he kills off his virtue-signallers in Italy, one by one. I discreetly cheer as each goes down.

Dickens plays his audience for laughs and tears. That’s what the reviewers condemned him for. He was, from beginning to end, a “popular” writer, though perhaps somewhat morbid at the last. He brilliantly engages the emotions of his reader, but goes almost out of his way not to engage their minds. Except that he trips into politics, often, and irresponsibly. For his politics are cheaply “good guys versus bad guys.”

He casts his victims, to win sympathy for them. Yes, crime produces victims. But Dickens leaves the deeper questions of “crime and punishment” alone.

All tabloid journalism is like this; and all our meejah at the present day. It is Dickensian (like our Christmases used to be). It is Church of Nice. While I must admit having myself fallen in love with little Amy Dorrit, born as she was in the Marshalsea (and thus, debtless, free to come and go), I resented the Dickensian manipulation. In the end I was glad to (mentally) dump her on Arthur Clennan. May they live happily ever after, on their unearned money.