It would be understating matters to say that Thackeray rather looked down on Dickens, but, even as Vanity Fair was first being serialized in 1847, he picked up the fifth installment of Dombey and Son and then brought it down with a smack on the table, exclaiming the while, “There’s no writing against such power as this—one has no chance! Read that chapter describing young Paul’s death: it is unsurpassed—it is stupendous!”
Almost a decade later, Dickens was dispatching an admiring note to George Eliot on the publication of her very first fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life. He felt he had penetrated the guileless disguise of her nom de plume: “If [the sketches] originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began.”
So I find the plan of my original enterprise falling away from me; I must give it up; there is something formidable about Dickens that may not be gainsaid.
He may not have had Shakespeare’s or Eliot’s near omniscience about human character, but he did say, in an address on the anniversary of the Bard’s birthday: “We meet on this day to celebrate the birthday of a vast army of living men and women who will live for ever with an actuality greater than that of the men and women whose external forms we see around us.” As Peter Ackroyd commented in his Dickens (1990), he must have been “thinking here of Hamlet and Lear, of Macbeth and Prospero, but is it not also true” that in Portsmouth in February 1812 were born “Pecksniff and Scrooge, Oliver Twist and Sairey Gamp, Samuel Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby … the Artful Dodger and Wackford Squeers …?” I cite this occasion for a reason. In Michael Slater’s volume, we learn only that on April 22, 1854, Dickens chaired “a Garrick Club dinner to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday.” This is of course worth knowing in its own right, but is perhaps a little bloodless by comparison. Slater is invariably flattering toward Ackroyd’s work, but could perhaps have taken a leaf or two from its emotional eloquence.
Who does not know of the formative moments in the life of Dickens the boy? The feeble male parent, the death of a sibling, the awful indenture to “the blacking factory,” the pseudo-respectable school where the master slashed the boys with a cane as if to satisfy what was later identified in Mr. Creakle as “a craving appetite.” The sending of the father to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, the refuge taken by a quakingly sensitive child in the consoling pages of fiction … all this we have long understood. So great was the dependence of Dickens on his own life experience that he almost resented the fact and was very guarded, even with his loyal biographer, John Forster, on the question, as if unwilling to admit such a (very non-Shakespearean) limitation. This is why it is so good to have the “autobiographical fragment” that Forster preserved and later published, which formed a sort of posthumous codicil to David Copperfield and still helps explain why that novel above all others was its author’s favorite. Forster diagnosed in his subject a syndrome of “the attraction of repulsion,” which, while simple enough in its way, goes far to explain why Dickens was at his best when evoking childhood misery, incarceration, premature mortality, hard labor, cheating and exploitation by lawyers and doctors, and the other phenomena that were the shades of his own early prison house. With these, as we now slackly say, he could “identify.”
If valid, this analysis would also go some distance to explain the very severe constraints on Dickens’s legendary compassion. This is the man who had a poor woman arrested for using filthy language in the street; who essentially recast his friend Thomas Carlyle’s pessimistic version of the French Revolution in fictional form in A Tale of Two Cities (Slater is especially good on this); who dreaded the mob more than he disliked the Gradgrinds. It would also account for his weakest and most contrived novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, and its companion nonfiction compilation, American Notes. Genuine radicals and reformers in mid-19th-century England were to be defined above all as sympathizers with the American Revolution and with the cause of the Union in the Civil War. Dickens was scornful of the first and hostile to the second. His exiguous chapter on slavery in American Notes was lazily annexed word-for-word from a famous abolitionist pamphlet of the day, and employed chiefly to discredit the whole American idea. But when it came to a fight on the question, he was on balance sympathetic to the Confederate states, which he had never visited, and made remarks about Negroes that might have shocked even the pathologically racist Carlyle. I had not understood, before Slater’s explanation, that the full title, American Notes for General Circulation, was a laborious pun on the supposed bankruptcy of the whole “currency” of the United States. Karl Marx, that great supporter of Lincoln and the Union, was therefore probably lapsing into a rare sentimentality when he wrote to Friedrich Engels that Dickens had “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.” (Ackroyd mentions this letter, while Slater does not.)