Dickens Then and Now

MY eldest and most literary niece has just remarked as we sat playing Ruth Ashmore over the mending, ‘Aunt Jane, I loathe Dickens. I am simply drowned in the melodrama of it. I hold my breath, plunge in, manage to get my head above water when a quarter through the book, and climb out dripping on the bank.’ Dickens has been a state of mind with me for so many years that I argue about him poorly, so we turned to Tolstoï’s idea of Art, which she was preparing for her next college recitation in Slavic 5, and we said no more about it.

Is there a reason or no reason why this is not a Dickens generation? I have experimented with some care among the young people I know best, and this is what it comes to. My last hope among the girls is only eleven, but I sent her last winter the fairest copy I could find of one of my favorites, only to overhear her brother say a little later, ‘Theodora says she is almost sorry she told any one she liked Dickens. Seven people sent her that for Christmas, and she did not have any other books.’ I’ve given my nephews football and baseball stories and boardingschool exploits till my conscience is sore, but what else can I do? The only Dickens I ever saw on their shelves was a blue and gold, diluted version of the Death of Little Nell, and I was glad to see that the leaves were uncut.

C. has read all the best of Thackeray three times or more. She knows Kipling by heart and picks up Ruskin for pleasure, but she ‘loathes Dickens.’ Last winter we tried to have a church Dickens party. But none of the young people knew Captain Cuttle from Tommy Traddles, and after all my best endeavor to show how Mrs. Jellyby really looked and spoke, to be met with, ‘I think you must be the Little Marchioness,’ was chilling. More than half the poeple who were asked to take part said blithely, ‘I never read the book, but if you will tell me what to wear and what to do, I shall be glad to help.’ Imagine telling Sam Weller what to wear and what to do!

Now forty and fifty years ago it certainly was different, and the Dickens love I know best of all began with a cradle. There are a few cradles still left in attics and, as I remember, the Great Napoleon never took his away from Fontainebleau, but to a modern baby a cradle is more to be feared than a germ. The latest little lad I love lies all day in a firmly anchored, pink-ribboned basket. I found him the other day with not a parent or grandparent or nurse in sight, and I picked him up, wrapped in one of his twenty-seven pink blankets, and tucking him comfortably under one ear as I used to carry his father some thirty-five years ago, I snuggled him up and down the room in great content till I heard the door squeak. If he had been in a cradle now, how easy to have slipped down on the floor beside him, and with one hand on a rocker in case he moved, with the other to turn the pages of — well, Bleak House, we will say, and go back through the years to one of my dearest memories — for ‘that’s where it all began, my dears, that’s where it all began.’

Morning naps for the babies were the fashion in our family, and what more helpful task for the daughter older than the rest than to let her prolong this peaceful period by jogging the cradle when necessary, and seeing that no one disturbed the quiet of the darkened room? So, flat on the floor, on her stomach, she lay, ready at the slightest sign to sway the simple little wicker bed, but all the time hearing, really, the rain on the terrace at Chesney Wold — or the dip of oars by Wapping Old Stairs. What races there were sometimes when the baby thought two hours long enough for a nap just as Sidney Carton was ready to take The Only Way or the schoolmaster had come up behind Eugene Wrayburn at the lock? So between ten and fourteen, or thereabouts, it was all done, with one or two small exceptions. The spring days were the best. Do you know that first forenoon, when the sun is warm enough to make closing green blinds attractive, and leaving the window wide open lets the cool little breeze stir the ruffles on the white curtain? The light is like no other light then, and the air is sweet with locust blossoms from a neighbor’s trees. Then, if there were no books, there is nothing that smooths the wrinkles out of your soul like looking at a sleeping baby; and though the souls of little girls of ten are not so very wrinkled, it was a still little island in the stream to creep to every day — even if there were no book. But there was always the book. Why it was always Dickens I do not know. I cannot remember that any one suggested it, and the only volume of Dickens the house afforded in those days was Pickwick Papers, which was the only one I never read. But the college library had a mottled-covered, Browne-illustrated set, with softcream paper and type for dim rooms; and volume by volume they became for the time being my books. The pictures were very good, and the dismal memory of how Lady Dedlock looked lying at the gate of the little cemetery, and the oily black water through which Lizzie Hexam rowed, lured me many miles in London once to find the places. That same set of books, discredited now, removed from circulation and piled away on a dusty shelf, is waiting for a time when college sentiment yields to mine, for it is understood that whenever they move to new shelves it will be to my shelves.