February 8, 2012

On the Bicentenary: A Dickensian Hero Explores Dickens’s Dream

Dickens_dreamHis genius plays like a warm light on the characteristic aspects of homely England. No man ever loved England more; and the proof of it remains in picture after picture of her plain, old-fashioned life — in wayside inns and cottages, in little dwellings hidden amid the City’s vastness and tumult, in queer musty shops, in booths and caravans. Finding comfort or jollity, he enjoys it beyond measure, he rubs his hands, he sparkles, he makes us laugh with him from the very heart.

—George Gissing on Charles Dickens

The first night of my first trip to England, Ethel and Bertie, the suburban London couple I was staying with, took me to the pub described in the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841). They had treated my father to the same outing ten years earlier during the summer he’d spent in their guest room. When I left after a week of cheerful and caring English hospitality, they gave me a copy of Barnaby Rudge inscribed “In memory of a happy evening spent at the Dickens Maypole, King’s Head, Chigwell.” Ethel and Bertie’s parting gift to my father was a family treasure — a letter with the Gad’s Hill letterhead in Dickens’s hand, written not long before he died.

In a 1939 essay that aided the 20th century revival of Dickens’s literary reputation, Edmund Wilson blamed the lack of “serious attention” from British biographers, scholars, or critics on the fact that Dickens “has become for the English middle class so much one of the articles of their creed — a familiar joke, a favourite dish, a Christmas ritual — that it is difficult for British pundits to see in him the great artist and social critic that he was.”

Although Dickens meant more to Ethel and Bertie than “a familiar joke,” our trip to the Dickens Maypole fits with the “favorite dish” and “Christmas ritual” stereotype Wilson has in mind. But when I think of the way they opened their home to me and my father, it’s clear that Ethel and Bertie were themselves Dickensian, in the best sense of that hugely inclusive term. They were just the sort of warm, caring, pure-of-heart people who would have given refuge and nourishment to David Copperfield or Oliver Twist or Little Nell and her grandfather.

A Dickensian Hero

Wilson sees the “typical Dickens expert” circa 1939 as an “old duffer” primarily interested “in proving that Mr. Pickwick stopped at a certain inn or slept in a certain bed.” After chiding the Oxbridge literati and the Bloomsbury set for their haughty neglect of “the greatest English writer of his time,” Wilson singles out George Gissing (1857-1903), “whose prefaces and whose book … are not only the best thing on Dickens in English, but stand out as one of the few really first-rate pieces of literary criticism produced by an Englishman of the end of the century.”

A Dickensian hero in his own right, Gissing was born above his father’s chemist’s shop and had a brilliant career as a scholarship student at Owen College, Manchester, until he fell in love with Nell, a prostitute he’d rescued and attempted to reform, spending what little money he had to keep her off the streets. Caught stealing from fellow students, he was arrested, imprisoned, and expelled. After doing a month’s hard labor in prison, he spent a year in the U.S., taught school, wrote poems idealizing Nell, and published his first fiction in a Chicago paper. On his return to England, he married Nell and wrote Workers in the Dawn (1880) while struggling to care for his ailing alcoholic wife, who would be back on the streets five years after the marriage, and out of his life until he had to identify her body five years and six novels later.

By the time Gissing published Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1898), he’d written 18 novels, including major works such as The Nether World (1889) and New Grub Street (1891) and, along with Thomas Hardy and George Meredith, was among the most highly regarded British novelists of the late 19th century. Coming to his study of Dickens as an enlightened admirer who had “lived the life” while proving himself an expert practitioner of the same craft, Gissing balances a novelist’s insights with the uninhibited attitude of a reader who attacks the defects no less forthrightly than he celebrates the highlights.

Getting Personal 

Gissing’s fraught personal history with Nell may explain why his remarks on Dickens’s fallen or embattled women can at times take on a distinctly personal intensity. In the chapter titled “Women and Children,” Gissing appears to be drawn by the dynamic of his own experience to the issue of “English censorship” and the fact that showing the “actual course of things in a story of lawless (nay, or of lawful) love is utterly forbidden” while “a novelist may indulge in ghastly bloodshed to any extent of which his stomach is capable.” The example he offers is of Dickens himself performing scenes from his own work “on a public platform,” where he “recites with terrible power the murder of a prostitute by a burglar [in Oliver Twist] yet no voice is raised in protest. Gore is perfectly decent; but the secrets of an impassioned heart are too shameful to come before us even in a whisper.”

You can almost feel the negative charge flowing from Dickens to Gissing when he says, “On this account I do not think it worth while to speak of Nancy [the murdered prostitute], or of other lost creatures appearing in Dickens.” For the ex-husband who sacrificed his education and more than ten years of his life to one of those “lost creatures,” the response is an outraged citing of a passage from Little Dorrit where “a woman of the town” accosts Amy Dorrit “and her idiot friend Maggy” as they are “wandering about the streets at night.” Suddenly Gissing is right there, in your face as surely as if he were sitting across from you in a pub telling you “read, I beg, that passage” and “wonder that the same man who penned this shocking rubbish could have written in the same volume pages of a truthfulness beyond all eulogy.”

Contemporary readers accustomed to novels like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will find nothing shocking in the 14th chapter of Book I of Little Dorrit. And while it may cause an occasional awkward silence in my imaginary pub table dialogue with Gissing, his spontaneous, sometimes indecorous attitude is among the qualities that make him such an appealing and effective champion of Dickens. In fact, he’s doing it again on the same page, badmouthing Dora, David Copperfield’s lavishly idealized, ever-attentive wife: “Take Dora seriously,” he tells you, “and at once you are compelled to ask by what right an author demands your sympathy for such a brainless, nerveless, profitless simpleton.” Before you have time to say a word or two in Dora’s or Dickens’s defense, Gissing leans closer, his eyes shining as he completes another shocking rubbish-to-unparalleled truthfulness couplet, “Enter into the spirit of the chapter, and you are held by one of the sweetest dreams of humour and tenderness ever translated into language.”

Gissing’s approach is a critical version of tough love. When Dickens gets out of line, he holds him to account but through it all you know that he would agree with Edmund Wilson that Dickens was “incomparably the greatest English writer of his time” and the creator of “the largest and most varied world.”

For my long-ago hosts Ethel and Bertie, Dickens was as much a part of their homeland as high tea and a night at the King’s Head, but their notion of his greatness was closer to Gissing’s: “He lived to take his place in a society of wealth, culture, and refinement, but his heart was always with the people, with the humble-minded and those of low estate,” where “he had found the material for his genius to work upon,” as “the perfect mouthpiece of English homeliness.”

Born February 7, 1812, Charles Dickens died of a stroke on June 9, 1870. Shown here, Dickens’s Dream is a watercolor by Robert William Buss (1804-1875), who began it after Dickens’s death but did not live to finish it. An edition of George Gissing’s Charles Dickens: A Critical Study was published last year by Kessinger Legacy Reprints. The Princeton Public Library’s Charles Dickens (1812-1870) bicentenary celebration concludes tonight, Wednesday, February 8, with a 7 p.m. showing of George Cukor’s 1935 film David Copperfield in the Community Room.

Note: I’ve just been informed that Grayswood Press has published a 3-volume edition of the complete works of George Gissing on Charles Dickens  (http://grayswoodpress.clanteam.com/gissing.pdf). There are also several online e-versions of Gissing’s writings on Dickens.