Approaching literature: Reading Great Expectations
Approaching literature: Reading Great Expectations

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Approaching literature: Reading Great Expectations

2.2 Dickens and his critics

With rare exceptions (generally from critics in other countries, such as Edgar Allan Poe or Ludwig Tieck), the published response to Dickens during his lifetime stressed the realist and ignored or disparaged the non-realist element in his work. However, as his use of caricature and fantasy became more apparent (for example, in A Christmas Carol, 1843), and as his popularity increased, some reviewers felt an obligation at least to try to come to terms with his kind of writing. Thus, G.H. Lewes hailed the early Dickens for his descriptive observation and truthful perception of character. Lewes subscribed to a simple but comprehensive definition of realism, according to which all art was a representation of reality, and the best art, like that of his partner George Eliot, was an accurate representation of reality. However, he could not define ‘by what peculiar talent Boz is characterised’, because the novelist mixed in so many other qualities, including such ‘absurdities’ against ‘nature’ as exaggerated characters, and incredible coincidences of plot (‘Sketches, Pickwick and Oliver Twist’, 1837, in Collins, Dickens, 1971, pp.64–8).

When Dickens responded to such criticism, which was rarely, he pointed out that ‘what is exaggeration to one class of minds and perceptions, is plain truth to another’ (preface to Martin Chuzzlewit (1867): 1951 edn, p.xv). Furthermore, as he argued in a letter to Forster:

It does not seem to me to be enough to say of any description that it is the exact truth. The exact truth must be there; but the merit or art in the narrator, is the manner of stating the truth. As to which thing in literature, it always seems to me that there is a world to be done. And in these times, when the tendency is to be frightfully literal and catalogue-like – to make the thing, in short, a sort of sum in reduction that any miserable creature can do in that way – I have an idea that the very holding of popular literature through a kind of popular dark age, may depend on such fanciful treatment.

(Life of Charles Dickens, 1928 edn, pp.727–8)

Despite having been praised for it, Dickens opposed the ‘literal and catalogue-like’ tendency of the literature of his time, preferring a ‘fanciful treatment’ of his subject, by which he meant incorporating popular or subliterary genres like melodrama, fairy stories, Gothic tales and romances. Since this was at a time when writers such as Eliot and critics such as Lewes were trying to establish the novel as a serious, ‘high’ art form, increasingly realist in orientation, his approach was easily misunderstood.

The critic David Masson, in comparing Thackeray as a novelist ‘of the Real school’ with Dickens as a novelist ‘of the Ideal, or Romantic’, sensibly argued that ‘each writer is to be tried within his own kind [of writing] by the success he has attained within it’ (‘British novelists since Scott’, 1859, in Eigner and Worth, Victorian Criticism of the Novel, 1985, p.150). However, the distinction is too absolute, although Dickens would have agreed with Masson that his writing was ‘romantic’ in the sense that, as he said in the preface to Bleak House (1853), he ‘dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things’ (1951 edn, p.xiv). This did not mean that he excluded everyday reality, or a certain level of representational accuracy. When he was criticised for the fact that a character in Bleak House was portrayed as dying by ‘spontaneous combustion’ (a widespread idea that the human body could burn up through internally generated chemical reactions), he referred to the ‘scientific’ evidence to support its plausibility. It was Lewes who attacked him for going beyond the bounds of the plausible, just as it was Lewes who, after the novelist's death, summed up Dickens's achievement by repeating all the standard charges against him, in particular his ‘susceptibility to the grotesque’, suggesting unreality to the point of madness (‘Dickens in relation to criticism’, 1872, in Collins, Dickens, 1971, p.573).

Views such as these typified the ‘cultivated’ or upper-middle-class response to Dickens for many years, with the result that, although his works have always been read in vast numbers, it has only been comparatively recently that they have been thought to deserve serious attention. The views of the critic F.R. Leavis were mentioned in Chapter Four, but Dickens's reputation as worthy of study at the highest level rests upon three pieces of criticism that preceded Leavis's The Great Tradition (1948) by several years. These are George Orwell's ‘Charles Dickens’ (Inside the Whale, 1940), Humphry House's The Dickens World (1941) and Edmund Wilson's ‘Dickens: the Two Scrooges’ (The Wound and the Bow, 1941). When Leavis argued that ‘Dickens is a great genius and is permanently among the classics’, he added to the growing weight of critical attention Dickens was receiving, only to undermine it at the same time by excluding all except one of Dickens's novels from the ‘great tradition’ of the English novel.

Leavis's argument, like Lewes's before him, turned on the legitimacy of Dickens's mixed kind of writing, in particular his use of melodrama. This, for Leavis, was a ‘low’ art form, making Dickens's art by association equally low, or at least just that of ‘a great entertainer’. For Leavis, the ‘adult mind doesn't as a rule find in Dickens a challenge to an unusual and sustained seriousness’ (The Great Tradition, 1960, p.19). Hard Times, escaped this damning judgement, despite the melodrama that most of us might find in it, because of its status as a ‘fable’, capturing the ‘key characteristics of Victorian civilization’ (ibid., p.20). Leavis's viewpoint, for all its narrow cultural élitism, was sympathetic to Dickens, but it was over twenty years before he and his wife Q.D. Leavis published Dickens the Novelist (1970), extending the ‘great tradition’ to all Dickens's ‘mature’ novels, of which Great Expectations was the last. According to Q.D. Leavis (whose broader knowledge of nineteenth-century fiction may have contributed to this revision): ‘The sense in which Great Expectations is a novel at all is certainly not to be arrived at by applying to it the ordinary conventions and assumptions derived from Victorian novels in general’ (Dickens the Novelist, 1970, p.288). In a chapter rather alarmingly called ‘How We Must Read Great Expectations’, she argued that Dickens found in this novel a ‘freer form of dealing with experience’ than the realist inheritance provided or than his readers expected, enabling readers to move ‘without protest, or uneasiness even, from the “real” world of everyday experience into the non-rational life of the guilty conscience or spiritual experience, outside time and place and with its own logic’ (ibid., p.289).


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