Charles Dickens and Other Victorians

by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1925. 8vo. viii+284 pp. $2.50.
SIR ARTHUR QUILLER-COUCH is a Fellow of Jesus College and King Edward VII Professor of English Literature in the University of Cambridge, and this volume is made up of lectures read to undergraduates whose special interests lie in the field of English literature. Though they are printed as read and convey the atmosphere of the lecture-hall, that fact does not in the least impair their appeal for the general reader.
In the lectures on Dickens and Thackeray, which occupy two thirds of the book, the author is telling a familiar tale and applying the measuring rod of criticism to what has been already often and well measured. Nevertheless, in Sir Arthur’s voice, which we hear as if he were in presence at the reading-desk, the story is fresh and vivid, and thanks to his sympathy and scholarship the judgments are sound and illuminating. He is a friend and understander of the young; he loves the English country; in the store of his knowledge he has treasures, particularly of poetry, from which he draws quotations lovely in themselves and a grace to his thought. Even more of loveliness and grace must they have had when heard from his lips. Everywhere, too, there is a flickering humor which plays upon himself and his ‘notorious discursiveness’; upon his undergraduate audiences with their preoccupations and prejudices; upon the masters whom he is studying; upon their Victorian England; upon life itself. Thus he wins us to let him be our guide; by virtue of what he shows us of himself we accept his judgments with conviction.
The remaining lectures deal with the Industrial Revolution and its effect on two writers, Disraeli and Mrs. Gaskell. He speaks as the lover of children, and insists that it was the tale of their sufferings which woke British opinion and caused it, in the teeth of economic theory and dread of government interference, to put an end to the horrors of the mines and the ‘dark Satanic mills.’ To him the ‘Victorian Background’ of industrialism has a message full of meaning for the young men of the twentieth century; in all earnestness he presents it as an episode in English history which they must work into their philosophy of society. The study of the part played by Mrs. Gaskell in these times as a writer and as a worker is written with deep sincerity; it is also an exquisite appreciation of a remarkable woman, in which goodness is made fascinating and inspiring.
Life, the artist, the relation of one of these mysteries to the other — these, as in his other studies, are Sir Arthur’s themes; they are interpreted, here as there, by one who is himself an artist and a master.