"Christmas stories" by Charles Dickens

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es; but it is due to him to say that memory is often more startling in him that prophecy in anybody else. They have the character which belongs to all his vivid incidental writing: that they attack themselves always to some text which is a fact rather than an idea. He was one of those sons of Eve who are fonder of the Tree of Life than of the Tree of Knowledge even of the knowledge of good and of evil. He was in this profoundest sense a realist. Critics have talked of an artist with his eye on the object. Dickens as an essayist always had his eye on an object before he had the faintest notion of a subject. All these works of his can best be considered as letters; they are notes of personal travel, scribbles in a diary about this or that that really happened. But Dickens was one of the few men who have the two talents that are the whole of literature and have them both together. First, he could make a thing happen over again; and second he could make it happen better. He can be called exaggerative; but mere exaggeration conveys nothing of his typical talent. Mere whirlwinds of words, mere melodramas of earth and heaven do not affect us as Dickens affects us, because they are exaggerations of nothing. If asked for an exaggeration of something, their inventors would be entirely dumb. They would not know how to exaggerate a broom-stick. He always began with a fact even when he was most fanciful; and even when he drew the long bow he was careful to hit the white. Other distinguished novelists contributed serials, including Mrs. Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, Charles Reade, and Bulwer Lytton. The poetry was uniformly feeble; Dickens was imperceptive here. The reportage, often solidly based, was bright (sometimes painfully so) in manner. His conduct of these weeklies shows his many skills as editor and journalist but also some limitations in his tastes and intellectual ambitions. The contents are revealing in relation to his novels: he took responsibility for all the opinions expressed (for articles were anonymous) and selected and amended contributions accordingly; thus comments on topical events and so on may generally be taken as representing his opinions, whether or not he wrote them. No English author of comparable status has devoted twenty years of his maturity to such unremitting editorial work, and the weeklies success been due not only to his illustrious name but also to his practical sagacity and sustained industry. Even in his creative work, as his eldest son said,

no city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged with more punctuality, or with more businesslike regularity.

The novels of these years, Bleak House (1852-53), Hard Times (1854), and Little Dorrit (1855-57), were much “darker” than their predecessors. Presenting a remarkably inclusive and increasingly somber picture of contemporary society, they were inevitably often seen at the time as fictionalized propaganda about ephemeral issues. They are much more than this, though it is never easy to state how Dickens imagination transforms their many topicalities into an artistically coherent vision that transcends their immediate historical context. Similar question are raised by his often basic fictional characters, places and institutions on actual originals. He once spoke of his minds taking “a fanciful photograph” of a scene, and there is a continual interplay between photographic realism and “fancy” (or imagination). “He describes London like a special correspondent for posterity” (Walter Bagehot, 1858) and posterity has certainly found in his fiction the response of an acute, knowledgeable, and concerned observer to the social and political developments of the “moving age.” In the novels of the 1850s, he is politically more despondent emotionally more tragic. The satire is harsher, the humor less genial and abundant, the “happy-endings” more subdued than in early fiction. Technically, the later novels are more coherent, plots being more fully related to themes, and themes being often expressed through a more insistent sue of imagery and symbols (grim symbols, too, such as the fog in Bleak House or the prison Little Dorrit). His art here is more akin to poetry than to what is suggested by the photographic or journalistic comparisons. “Dickensian” characterization continued in the sharply defined and simplified grotesque and comic figures, such as Chadband in Bleak House or Mrs. Sparsit in Hard Times but large-scale figures of this tyle are less frequent (the Gamps and Micawbers belong to the first half of his career). Characterization also has become more subordinate to “the general purpose and design” moreover Dickens is presenting characters of greater complexity provoke more complex responses in the reader (William Dorrit for instance). Even the juvenile leads had usually been thinly conceived conventional figures, are not often more complicated in their make-up and less easily rewarded by good fortune. With his secular hopes diminishing, Dickens becomes more concerned with “the great final secret of all life” a phrase from Little Dorrit, where the spiritual dimension of his work is most overt. Critics disagree as to how far so worldly a novelist succeeds artistically in enlarging his view to include the religious. These novels, too, being manifestly an ambitious attempt to explore the prospects of humanity at this time raise questions, still much debated, about the intelligence and profundity of his understanding of society.

Dickens spirits and confidence in the future had indeed declined. 1855 was “a year of much unsettled discontent for him,” his friend Forster recalled, partly for political reasons (or, as Forster hints, his political indignation was exacerbated by a “discontent” that had original purposes). The Crimean War, besides exposing governmental inefficiency, was distracting attention from the “poverty, hunger, and ignorant desperation” at home. In Little Dorrit, “I have been blowing off a little of indignant steam which would otherwise bow me up…,” he wrote, “but I have no present political faith or hope not a grain.” Not only were the present government and Parliament contemptible but “representative government is become altogether a failure with us …the whole thing has broken down…and has no hope in it.” Nor had he a coherent alternative to suggest. This desperation coincided with an acute state of personal unhappiness. The brief tragicomedy of Maria Beadnells reentry into his life, in 1855, finally destroyed one nostalgic illusion and also betrayed a perilous emotional immaturity and hunger. He how openly identified himself with some of the sorrows dramatized in the adult David Copperfield:

Why is it, as with poor David, a sense come always crushing on me, now, when I fall into low spirits, as of one happiness I have missed in life and one friend and companion I have never made?

This comes from the correspondence with Forster in 1854-55, which contains the first admissions of his marital unhappiness; by 1856 he is writing, “I find a skeleton in my domestic closet is becoming a pretty big one”; by 1857-58, as Forster remarks, an “unsettled feeling” had become almost habitual with him, “and the satisfactions which home should have supplied, and which indeed were essential requirements of his nature, he had failed to find in his home.” From May 1858, Catherine Dickens lived apart from him. A painful scandal arose, and Dickens did not act at this time with tact, patience, or consideration. The affair disrupted some of his friendships and narrowed his social circle, but surprisingly it seems not to have damaged his popularity with the public.

Catherine Dickens maintained a dignified silence, and most of Dickens family and friends, including his official biographer, Forster, were discreetly reticent about the separation. Not until 1939 did one of his children (Kate) speaking posthumously through conversations recorded by a friend, offer a candid inside account, it was discreditable to him, and his self-justifying letters must be viewed with caution. He there dated the unhappiness of his marriage back to 1838, attributed to his wife various “peculiarities” of temperament (including her sometimes laboring under “a mental disorder”), emphatically agreed with her statement that “she felt herself unfit for the life she had to lead as my wife, “ and maintained that she never cared for the children nor they for her. In more temperate letters, where he acknowledged her “amiable and complying” qualities, he simply and more acceptably asserted that their temperaments were utterly incomparable. She was, apparently, pleasant but rather limited such faults as she had were rather negative than positive. Though family traditions from a household that knew the Dickenses well speaks of her as “a whiney woman” and a shaving little understanding of, or patience with, the artistic temperament.

Dickens self-justifying letters lack candor in omitting to mention Ellen Ternan, an actress 27 years his junior his passion for whom had precipitated the separation. Two months earlier he had written more frankly to an intimate friend:

The domestic unhappiness remains so strong upon me that I can not write, and (waking) cannot rest, one minute. I have never known a moments peace or content, since the last night of The Frozen Deep.

The Frozen Deep was a play in which he and Nelly (as Ellen was called) had performed together in August 1857. She was an intelligent girl, of an old theatrical family reports speak of her as having “a pretty face and well-developed figure” or “passably pretty not much of an actress.” She left the stage in 1860; after Dickens death she married a clergyman and helped him run a school. The affair was hushed up until