Posted by: zhiv | April 22, 2010

Dickens and the DNB #3: “His weaknesses are sufficiently obvious”

I finally read through Leslie Stephen’s relatively brief DNB entry on Charles Dickens. It was something that I carried around with me and ignored during my recent distraction. I had been excited to find it, along with a couple of folders full of other lives, and I jumped right in and read the first half of it. I think I made it up to the part I had been interested in previously, after having read The Man Who Invented Christmas, around the point where Dickens wrote Christmas Carol. It was a good digest of his family background and his childhood struggles and rise to fame. I don’t remember it so well, but there was nothing startling in it that I can recall. The general impression that comes to mind, and perhaps this might be said to be Stephen’s interest, is of a careful, brief study of the economic phenomenon of such a successful young author, and he recounts the twists and turns of Dickens’s relations with his publishers, along with sales and receipts. These are hard facts, and a good supplement to family history and education and the newspaper years, and they stand out perhaps because they were unprecedented.

In the second half, which I finally read just a few days ago, the Dickens-Stephen controversy becomes apparent, as long as you are looking for it. Still, I have to to wonder what it would be like to read this text if I didn’t know that Leslie Stephen’s brother, James Fitzjames, had mounted a sustained and savage attack on Dickens in the 1860s, twenty years earlier. And again, it’s my own sloppy reading effort, but Dickens’s life itself seems to be easily divided into two neat halves, something like a rise and fall. The rise is steady and spectacular, and then he learns to live with celebrity and the fact of being an important author. Much of the first part seems to be a product of his natural spirits and drive and talent, and he plunges forward, much like the intrepid Victorian explorers, although the unknown territory is literature. And he lives in London, incessantly walking its streets and observing the abundant life there. Looking back at Stephen’s digest, the tipping point is not marked exactly, but it comes somewhere between Copperfield in 1850 and Great Expectation a decade later. Stephen’s account concerns itself with CD’s editing work and then, even more so, with a record of his public readings. It’s as if Stephen is trying to show that Dickens was much more than just a novelist, but his reasons don’t seem entirely pure. The second half of Stephen’s piece is a strange piece of writing, a remarkable argument in its own way.

On Copperfield, Stephen states that it is “in many respects the most satisfactory of his novels, and especially remarkable for the autobiographical element, which is conspicuous in so many successful fictions. it contains less of the purely farcical or of the satirical caricature than most of his novels, and shows his literary genius mellowd by age without loss of spontaneous vigor.” In noting its sales figures LS says “He was now accepted by the largest class of readers as the undoubted leader among English novelists,” which of course begs the question about the opinions of the smaller classes of readers. And this is the point where we have to begin to consider Stephen’s sense of his own audience, the “readers” and students and scholars who will read and use the DNB. He is trying to place Dickens in what he considers a proper historical context, and it’s a bit of a rough go for Stephen as a former Cambridge don, intellectual historian, and philosopher.

Stephen was himself the editor of the Cornhill, Thackeray’s successor there for George Smith, who published the DNB. He gives Dickens solid credit as an editor, first of Household Words and later All the Year Round:

“He gathered many contributors, several of whom became intimate friends. He spared no pain in his editorial duty; he frequently amended his contributors’ work and occasionally inserted passages of his own. He was singularly quick and generous in recognizing and encouraging talent in hitherto unknown writers. Many of the best of his minor essays appeared in its pages. Dickens’s new relation to his readers helped to extend the extraordinary popularity which continued to increase during his life. On the other hand, the excessive strain which it involved soon began to tell seriously upon his strength.”

We get a sense that something’s up when Stephen writes about the growth of Dickens’s absorption in public readings. These are significant biographical details, as they involve income and played an infamous role in the deterioration of Dickens’s health. A portrait is being shaped of a new sort of creature, a surprising product of the Industrial Age: the celebrity author as performer. the well-known agnostic Stephen is a priest of higher criticism and culture, and he’s not so comfortable with the new man, especially as the century’s primary exemplar of English Literature. Something must be done, but it must be done well, and fairly. Noel Annan, the esteemed biographer of Stephen, notably created the category of the Intellectual Aristocracy for the progeny of the Clapham Sect, which is an extremely helpful prism for understanding the background and inheritance of Virginia Woolf. Annan created the class–as if the British needed greater refinement of their class system–in part as a means of explaining who and what Leslie Stephen was a a man of letters, and by extension I suppose it serves to show something about how the DNB functions as a text. There’s no doubt that Leslie Stephen was an aristocrat of intellectualism. Charles Dickens was not.

So LS lets us know that Dickens eventually became an accomplished actor/reader, complementing his accomplishments as an author. The great beauty of the masterful short biography, as Stephen knew and passed down to his heirs, not just his daughter but Lytton Strachey as well, is that it can be a deep well of irony. We read into it what we will. We can surmise that Dickens was a performer who never stopped chasing money and recognition, or believe that he was a compassionate, beloved author with a unique connection to a clamorous public. It’s up to us.

But it’s also possible to read Stephen’s own concerns and identity between the lines of his portrait of Dickens. Stephen makes a number of references to Dickens’s “characteristic restlessness,” along with his “oddly characteristic craving for the streets.” These are famous Dickens attributes, but we read them differently when we remember that no Victorian walked further, longer, higher, and faster than Leslie Stephen. add to these notes on restlessness Stephen’s own infamous financial anxiety as an old man, which caused deep resentment in his daughters, especially Vanessa Bell. The portrait is much more personal than it first appears, and it’s possible to see beyond the troublesome class distinctions to a view of virtually catastrophic Victorian anxiety, which Dickens and Stephen shared.`Dickens’s “restlessness” and readings killed him, and Stephen himself was tirelessly working himself towards his own severe 1893 breakdown through editing this very dictionary and writing his own set of literary lives.

Here’s Stephen on the Staplehurst accident and Dickens in 1865:

He began a third series of readings under ominous symptoms. In February 1865 he had a severe illness. He ever afterwards suffered from a lameness in his left foot, which gave hi great pain and puzzled his physicians. On 9 June 1865 he was in a terrible reailway accident at Staplehurst. The carriage in which he traveled left the line, but did not, with others, fall over the viaduct. The shock to his nerves was great and permanent, and he exerted himself excessively to help the sufferers. The accident is vividly described in his letters (ii. 229-33). In spite of these injuries he never spared himself; after sleepless nights he walked distances too great for his strength, and he now undertook a series of readings which involved greater labour than the previous series. He was anxious to make a provision for his large family, and probably conscious that his strength would not long be equal to such performances, he resolved, as Forster says, to make the most money possible in the shortest time without regard to labour. Dickens was keenly affected by the sympathy of his audience, and the visible testimony to his extraordinary popularity and to his singular dramatic power was no doubt a powerful attraction to a man who was certainly not without vanity, and who had been a popular idol almost from boyhood.

One has to assume that Stephen saw Dickens perform, and he must have met him on numerous occasions. Stephen made his own trips to America, and he was a good friend of the Boston literary set and James T. and Annie Fields, who were Dickens’s hosts on his second trip to America in 1867-68. The Fields became obsessed with Dickens after this trip, and they came to London and visited both him and Stephen the next year. They were shocked at the deterioration of Dickens’s health, and seemed to realize for the first time the toll that his trip to America had taken.

Lytton Strachey let us know a long time ago that the Victorians presented a much more complicated biographical equation than they might have liked us to believe. The first of Stephen’s DNB lives that I wrote about, that of Carlyle, delicately covered a famous controversy, Carlyle’s treatment of his wife Jane, which had been exposed by the sage’s biographer James Anthony Froude. Were any of the Eminent Vicotrians not deeply problematic and flawed in their personal lives? Probably not, since they were human, and the impossibly high moral standard of the day and the psychic burden of Empire and Industry generated corresponding levels of conflict. Stephen writes of Dickens that “A growing restlessness and a craving for any form of distraction were connected with domestic unhappiness.” Stephen rather amusingly (to us) defers to Carlyle on the subject of Dickens’s separation: “Fact of separation, I believe is true, but all the rest is mere lies and nonsense. No crime and no misdemeanor specifiable on either side; unhappy together, these two, good many years past, and they at length end it.” Ellen Ternan doesn’t appear in the Dickens entry in the old DNB, but it would be interesting to read her own entry in the Dictionary, and this is of course an important point for compariason to Michael Slater’s entry on Dickens in the new DNB. I’ve just mentioned Carlyle and Dickens, George Eliot was a social pariah, though not a literary one, because she lived with another (unfaithful) woman’s husband, and Thackeray’s wife jumped off her boat and lost her mind. The general domesticity of the major Victorian novelists is not a pretty picture.

The conclusion contains Stephen’s critical assessment of Dickens’s shortcomings: “his weaknesses are sufficiently obvious.” The intellectual aristocrat Stephen creates his own category to measure the success of Dickens, making a deft hit with his critical rapier: “If literary fame could safely be measureed by popularity with the half-educated, Dickens must claim the highest position among English novelists.” Tell us what you really think, LS! That “highest position,” then, is exactly what Stephen refuses to cede to Dickens. He goes right back to his patrician term, to make his point again: “The criticism of more severe critics chiefly consists in the assertion that his merits are such that suit the half-educated:”

They admit his fun to be irresistible; his pathos, they say, though it shows boundless vivacity, implies little real depth or tenderness of feeling; and his amazing powers of observation were out of proportion to his powers of reflection. The social and political views, which he constantly inculcates, imply a deliberate preference of spontaneous instinct to genuine reasoned conviction; his style is clear, vigorous, and often felicitous, but mannered and more forcible than delicate; he writes too clearly for readers who cannot take a joke till it has been well-hammered into their heads; his vivid perception of external oddities passes into something like hallucination; and in his later books the constant strain to produce effects only legitimate when spontaneous becomes painful. his books are therefore inimitable caricatures of contemporary ‘humours’ rather than the masterpieces of a great observer of human nature.

There you have it. Thusly does Stephen carve away at Dickens and his reputation, making quick, clean work of him. Us too, for that matter, since who isn’t “half-educated” in these latter days? Stephen has painted an unvarnished portrait of dickens the man, acknowledging the importance of his fame and figure in Victorian culture, but he carefully withholds his critical praise, even as he makes sure to mention the author’s strengths. Of course he doesn’t mention that Dickens’s “more severe critics” were led by the brutal attacks of James Fitzjames Stephen, his own brother. Or that perhaps the Stephen family was biased against Dickens because they believed that James Stephen was the model for Tite Barnacle in Little Dorrit.

Stephen writes a characteristic pithy sentence about Dickens’s appearance: “Dickens was frequently compared in later life to a bronzed sea captain.” It’s an apt image, tying the novelist to the fearless explorers and adventurers of the Victorian age and throughout English history, men of action whom the DNB was attempting to enshrine. Dickens didn’t even look like a literary figure, let alone a literary giant, but he did strongly resemble the many British who went boldly where no one had gone before. Perhaps this, like so much else in Stephen’s brief, means more than he says. Stephen concludes with a final word on Dickens that is accompanied by recognition of his own bias and shortcomings: “The decision between these (his critical conclusions, quoted above) and more eulogistic opinions must be left to a future edition of this dictionary.”

The interesting thing is that we now have that future edition. So it’s time, finally (I move so slowly!) to look at Michael Slater’s version in the new DNB and make some comparisons. Does anyone think he’s going to rest his critical summation on statements about “the half-educated”?


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