Posted by: zhiv | February 23, 2010

The DNB and Dickens #2: Leslie Stephen, James Fitzjames Stephen, and Virginia Woolf

Okay, back to Dickens. After I picked up Gillian Fenwick’s book on Leslie Stephen I stopped in at the library, thinking I might find Stephen’s life of Dickens in the old DNB. No luck, no old DNB. Didn’t ask if there was any place to find one on campus. Someday I should buy my own, and now is probably not a bad time to do so, with libraries and bookmen–the DNB was one of the bookman’s best friends over the last century–upgrading and updating. I did get to take a look at the new DNB, a hard copy rather than the online version, and it was crisp and impressive, a tidy mass of thick volumes. I looked at the life of Dickens, which seemed to be of manageable length, complete with a photo. It was written by Michael Slater, Dickens scholar par excellence, according to my current studies, who has recently published his own important full length biography of Dickens.

In my first installment here I intended to write about “The Dickens Industry,” by Lawrence Mazzeno, but I was sidetracked by the Fenwick book. I started reading Lawrence Mazzeno’s book from the beginning. The introduction is simple enough and informative, giving lots of credit to important predecessors. The first chapter tells the story of the early critical reception quite efficiently. It’s called “The Dickens Phenomenon (1836-1870).” James Fitzjames Stephen appears right in the middle of the account. “The appearance of Vanity Fair in 1847 sparked immediate comparisons between Thackeray and Dickens,” Mazzeno mentions, and he notes generally that “the novels after David Copperfield were not as well-received as Dickens’s earlier work.” “Hippolyte Taine (1856) thought him shallow,” and “Flaubert dismissed him even more vigorously, calling him an ‘ignoramus! A giant of good fellows,’ perhaps, but ‘second rate.'” “(George) Eliot and (theologian Peter) Bayre were part of a growing movement that would find Dickens deficient in ways the early Victorians did not.”

And here comes young James Fitzjames Stephen:

An important voice among these revolutionaries was James Fitzjames Stephen, who at age twenty-six published his “theory of the novel” in an essay titled “The Relation of Novels to Life” (1855). That Stephen was brash and overly self-confident in his judgments of literature seems obvious in hindsight. (A lawyer by training, he gave up writing about literature later in his career.) Philip Collins calls Stephen’s tone “a blend of undergraduate iconoclasm, patrician contempt for the masses, and mandarin defence of cultural tradition against the inroads of commercial barbarians.” He attacked Dickens’s methods and his choice of subjects in “License of Modern Novelists” (1857). But his harshest criticisms appeared in four essays written for the Saturday Review, a relatively new journal that devoted considerable space to literary matters. Ford describes Stephen’s series of hostile Saturday Review articles as “a head-on attack with a cudgel” (151). Stephen takes Dickens to task in “Mr. Dickens as a Politician” (1857) for his naive approach to social reform, and ridicules him for his poor skills at construction–and his attack on the legal profession–in a review of Little Dorrit (1857). A year later, Stephen blasts away at Dickens again for his sentimentality, heavy-handed characterization, and general muddle-headedness in “Mr. Dickens” (1858)–a critique so savage that nearly seventy years later Albert Mordell would think it worthy of inclusion in his collection Notorious Literary Attacks (1926).

The vitriolic tone of Stephen’s criticism is nowhere better exemplified than in his review of A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Comparing this novel to an ill-prepared meal, Stephen says that in the Tale the discerning reader “will have an opportunity of studying in its elements a system of cookery which procured for its ingenious inventor unparalleled popularity, and enabled him to infect the literature of his country with a disease” that corrupts long-accepted standards of literature. If one accepts the principles Dickens follows in writing novels, one can only conclude that “the principal results of a persistent devotion to literature are an incurable vulgarity of mind and of taste, and intolerable arrogance of temper” (Ford and Lane 39). Dickens cannot create a plausible plot or believable, complex characters. Instead, Stephen says, he achieves his popularity by “working upon the feelings by the coarsest stimulants” and “setting common occurrences in a grotesque and unexpected light” (41).

Mazzeno (through the well-credited Ford) thus shows that JF Stephen was a determined, consistent and harsh critic of Dickens. But then we get the payoff tidbit, a rather stunning bit of Stephen-Woolf (and Dickens) studies that I have never encountered, at least not to my recollection:

As he does in earlier essays on Dickens, Stephen once again lambastes the novelist for his inaccurate portrayal of the workings of the law. In that observation, George Ford suggests, lies the real reason for Stephen’s visceral dislike of Dickens. Stephen thought the character of Tite Barnacle, head of the family that profits from the nefarious and Byzantine workings of the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, was modeled on his father, Judge James Stephen. For that unforgivable sin, Dickens deserved to be punished.

Mazzeno continues, interestingly:

One might wonder, too, if that motivated other members of the distinguished Stephen family. Fitzjames’s younger brother Leslie wrote much about the novel as a genre but almost nothing about Dickens, and his 1885 DNB article on Dickens offers only begrudging admiration for some of the novelist’s accomplishments while relishing his many limitations. The muted appreciation of Dickens offered by Leslie Stephen’s daughter Virginia Woolf in her 1925 essay on David Copperfield is only slightly more positive in its assessment of Dickens’s abilities. (pg. 20-21)

This is all apparently a well-known war. It should be said that James Stephen was not a judge, but the Undersecretary of the Colonial Office. James Fitzjames Stephen became a judge, later in life. Mazzeno credits George Ford’s “Dickens and his Readers” (1955) as the primary text covering this controversy (next library trip?). The thing for me to do at this point is to look at and remember somehow Little Dorrit and Tite Barnacle and the Circumlocution Office, which I don’t really recall. I mentioned recently that I have never read Nicholas Nickleby and wanted to get to it. It could take quite awhile to get through all this stuff, but I guess there’s hardly any rush.


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