Charles Dickens and the Form of the Novel – full introduction

This is the original full introduction, omitted from the current printed edition

Charles Dickens is now almost universally accepted as a great writer. Recent criticism has compensated for any initial reluctance to treat his novels as serious works of art by discussing them in a bewildering variety of ways. What has nevertheless seemed consistently elusive is an approach to Dickens capable of telling us precisely why he is a great novelist. The repeated resort of criticism has been to apologise for what it has ultimately found to be missing, or present only sporadically, in Dickens’ novels, a sense of coherent purpose not undermined by what is seen as an archaic sentimentality. Such an approach has produced two dominant views; that Dickens is a great humourist, and that he is a great social critic.
Much perceptive criticism has been written about both of these parts of Dickens. Steven Marcus, John Carey, and J. R. Kincaid have all provided rich accounts of Dickens’ humour; while the ‘social’ imagery of the novels has been exhaustively documented, first of all by Humphrey House, to be followed by a plethora of critics giving us various versions of a ‘serious’ Dickens. A more recent production of this line of criticism is Schwarzbach’s impressive book on Dickens and the City.
What has remained the case, however, is that these two visions have been separated, often as a matter of strategy. J. R. Kincaid’s admirable discussion of the comic development of Dickens’ novels begins with what is effectively a disclaimer, as he tells us that “Instead of approaching the novels through imagery, structure, or theme, this is an attempt to approach them through humour”, so perpetrating the view that comedy and serious themes are alien and divided forces in Dickens’ novels. Only Robert Newsom, in his book, Dickens: on the Romantic Side of Familiar Things has provided any alternative to these readings, seeing Bleak House divided, in Dickens’ words, between ‘Romantic’ and ‘Familiar’, and telling us that:
Rather than simply merge the ‘romantic’ and the ‘familiar’ into some new synthesis,
Dickens sought to keep each quality intensely alive for his audience.

As Newsome says, Bleak House seems to evolve a double vision in which both the romantic and familiar are of equal if constantly conflicting importance and urgency. However ‘romantic’ and ‘familiar’ are not commonly used terms, and Dickens use of them is characteristically idiosyncratic. Newsome addresses this difficulty by turning in his final chapter to Schole’s and Kellogg’s definition of the novel’s ‘narrative’ as divided between ‘empirical’ and ‘fictional’ and relating Dickens’ meaning to this. It would appear to be more helpful however, to look at the context in which Dickens used them, and when we do so it is possible to understand that his terms can have much wider scope. It is necessary to consider the social and economic background to the novel at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the process of Dickens’ novel writing, and to understand more fully what ‘Romantic’ means in terms of the literary development of the form of the novel.
Dickens was born in 1812, and died in 1870; his first story was published in 1833, and his final completed novel Our Mutual Friend, in 1864.
These dates are of absolute importance in approaching Dickens’ work, for no other major novelist published continuously during these years. Dickens’ novels perfectly span the curious period of transition from what we call the Romantic age to the Victorian era and of all novelists his writing is perhaps best timed to do this. However instead of inspiring investigation and inquiry into how this special circumstance affects his writing, his work has repeatedly been misunderstood, and Dickens regarded as somehow atypical and eccentric. Dickens’ work has therefore been consistently regarded as an incongruity in the literary history of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and this incongruity has repeatedly been taken as a necessary starting point for critical or biographical accounts of Dickens. Few writers can have had their background and childhood more thoroughly investigated in a motion of apology for this awkwardness. His father’s insolvency and the portrayals in Macawber and Dorrit, the Marshalsea and the Blacking Warehouse as dominant images of his fiction; these things have become critical commonplaces.
Forster first helps to establish them in Dickens’ own words, quoting his ‘autobiographical fragment’ recalling the Blacking Warehouse episode:
From that hour until this at which I write, no word of that part of my childhood which I have now gladly brought of a close, has passed my lips to any human being. … I have never, until I now impart it to this paper, in any burst of confidence with any one, my own wife not excepted, raised the curtain I then dropped, thank God.
This admission suggested a secret Dickens which criticism has since found irresistible. Edgar Johnson tells us that these experiences were ‘formative’, continuing
In one sense the grieving child in the blacking warehouse might be said to have died, to be succeeded by a man of deadly determination, of insuperable resolve, hard and aggressive almost to fierceness. In another, that child never died, but was continually reborn in a host of children suffering or dying young and other innocent victims undergoing injustice and pain.
Christopher Hibbert tells the same story, asserting that “the very spirit of his imagined world reflects the atmosphere and experience of these days”:
Most of Dickens’ heroes begin their lives cut off from other people, insecure, obliged to make their way in a strange, discordant, threatening world, endeavouring to become accepted by it and a part of it, trying to understand themselves, and, in the meantime, sharing the sense of deprivation which makes Paul Dombey live with an aching void in his young hart, and all the outside world so cold, and bare and strange.
And, more recently, Steven Marcus has taken this further, suggesting that Dickens’ novels are conceived “under the pressure of a progressive returning into consciousness of urgent and crucial events from his past”.
But, while all these observations are to some extent both true and helpful, they also tend dangerously towards that too-familiar vision of Dickens as an atypical figure, in whom this suppressed autobiography is the key to his conformity to an everyday world which is in some way less demanding than the often harsh world we find in his novels. What this autobiographical investigation evades is the necessity of treating the world of Dickens’ novels seriously in terms of the hardships that they both represent and, at the same time, are generated by. It nevertheless remains true that Dickens’ experience was made possible by and belonged to the conditions of his age, and we will see that this is so from a brief examination of Dickens’ contemporary England.
The England of the peace following the Napoleonic wars was not the urbane and stabilised, ‘modern’ nation which existed, at least in the eyes of its prosperous classes, by the end of the century. In 1815, and even in mid-century, the country was characterised by social and economic change and instability, and by an accompanying general disorder.
While the industrial revolution played a major part in this condition of upheaval, it was by no means the only factor in it. In the course of the first fifty years of the century the population doubled from 8,893,000 in 1801 to 17,298,000 in 1851, while by that year 51% lived in towns and cities, compared to 30% in 1801. The proportion of the population under 20 in 1821 was around 50%; and this figure altered little during the next thirty years; in 1841 it was 46%, and in 1851 it was 48%. Without entering upon the vexed question of the birth and death rates behind these figures, it remains an extraordinary fact that of the 17 million people alive in 1851 it was unlikely that more than two million had been alive at the beginning of the century.
The radical changes in the structure of life produced by the growth of towns and the expansion of industry were underpinned by this continual flux in the very composition of the people. (Which, no doubt, helped to provide the flexibility and sheer inexperience necessary in the workforce in the acceptance of the new demands placed upon it.)
This transformation obviously affected the whole of society; but in terms of social position and economic status it most immediately and radically affected a new and emerging middle strata. This occurred in what might be described as a vacuum created by the conditions of the labouring and upper classes.
The labouring classes underwent a revolution in terms of conditions and environment; but insofar as the standard of living was concerned life changed less than is often supposed. Much publicity was given by the Victorians in the middle and later part of the century to the appalling sanitary conditions of the urban workforce, but the hardships arising from these were almost certainly transposed from country to town. Migration to the towns brought slightly better wages, but very little change in terms of social opportunity and mobility, or – as yet, at least – corporate identity and consciousness. The lower classes remained a disparate and disorganised mass, with few rights – they had no vote, of course even after the Act of 1867 – and little coherent will or power. In every practical sense the working classes remained a stable political and social factor during the period.
At the same time the real condition of the upper classes changed very little: “By and large, the power, wealth and even status of the landed elite survived more or less intact until 1880”, Lawrence Stone concludes. The structure of the state and government was such as to preserve the strength of the upper classes in spite, and ultimately perhaps because of the detachment of their still primarily landed interests from the general climate of economic and social change. Effectively, the aristocracy managed to exist side by side with the business of the nation, remaining as its figurehead, but taking on primarily external responsibilities, dealing with external relations, the defence of the realm, the regulation of trade and in the widest possible sense national order; but leaving local urban government, economic and social management, and every-day law and order enforcement to local authority, intervening only as a matter of necessity from time to time. The internal responsibilities of the aristocracy had really changed little from Tudor times, and were limited to the general concerns of tax-raising, and the provision of justice and an ultimate (military) sanction for the preservation of order.
The working and upper classes then remained relatively stable factors in English society for the time being; the middle classes, however, were affected by the changes we have outlined in the extreme. The new internal ‘business’ of the land from which the aristocracy remained dissociated fell principally upon their shoulders, in all its manifestations, as did the fluidity of status and opportunity produced necessarily by the rapid displacement and growth of the populace as a whole.
Norman Gash, in his book Aristocracy and People quotes W. J. Fox who wrote in 1835 that “in the middle classes we note an almost universal unfixedness of position” and continues:
The middle classes as a whole showed perhaps wider variations of wealth, education, economic security, and political outlook than the classes above or below them. What can loosely be described as a middle class culture was beginning to be a dominant influence in morality, art and literature long before Victoria came to the throne. But it was not the work of a class that was united in its aspirations or conscious of its power. This lack of social and political homogeneity, important in itself, resulted from the even more important circumstance that the middle classes did not constitute a fixed or even easily definable social caste. They were emphatically the middle classes a plural concept as opposed to the singular noun bourgeoisie of European countries. This “universal unfixedness of position”, in Fox’s phrase, was no more than the fluidity of British society more actively at work than at any other level. The middle classes embraced the social detritus of the aristocracy, the upward migrants from the working classes, and much of the solid talent, wealth and intellect of the country. Their diversity, looseness and disunity were simply signs of a high degree of social mobility.

If mobility was the chief outcome of the special conditions in England in the first part of the nineteenth century, it was felt by the middle classes where it affected the social order of the state; and if no revolution in England affected all levels of society, certainly the turbulence and uncertainty of position which affected its middle strata produced a chaos of wealth, status, opportunity and danger which was in a limited way revolutionary in itself, creating an enormous social upheaval. This was not only catastrophically disturbing, but also hugely productive; the sheer activity of the middle classes in establishing themselves between labour and an un-interested aristocracy as the economic management of the nation made them extremely powerful. A very broad middle class rapidly became the productive organising class displaying furious mobility and equal insecurity.
‘Unfixedness’, lack of identity, activity and productivity are all closely related. It is the special nature of the structure of English society that it was able to contain this chaos and disorder without ever really producing direct political or ideological action from it, or political or ideological reaction against it. The ruling classes allowed its business to proceed unimpeded, never really seeing the arena in which he middle classes moved – the economic and social one – as its own. As Normal Gash comments at the end of his book, by mid-century the aristocracy “had played a useful and sometimes prominent part in the social, religious, educational and other philanthropic movements of the period and had been rewarded by the moral approval of the pubic in addition to their existing social and political advantages” – and they had done so out of what can only be described as a kind of landed uninterest.
This uninterest provides us with an insight into the two other key areas of fluidity and change.
The first of these concerns the relationship of country and city. The migration to the cities of course had an enormous social and economic effect. Laslett writes, “the economic transformation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries destroyed communality altogether in English rural life”; and that it ultimately did so is certainly true. In practical terms, the improvement of the road network and the coming of the railways gave those in a position to appreciate and exploit it a new geographical mobility and this produced two important and related effects. Firstly, work and leisure, and the accompanying class-consciousness of labour and aristocracy, became for the first time specifically located in town and country respectively, and secondly towns and cities became in every sense places of transition.
The English aristocracy had long cultivated an ideal of country retirement; Weir observed in Houses of the Old Nobility:
The stranger will seek in vain in London for palaces of the nobility, such as abound in Rome, Florence and Naples. … London is , less than the capital of any other country, the place where the power and prestige of the nobility and conspicuously displayed.
English cities had always been left to conduct their own business; and so it became the social and economic dream of every successful Victorian to escape the urban environment as a place of both opportunity and danger. The city was the place for business, and for the worker; and the country for aristocratic ease. The city was where fortunes were to be made, and the country where they were enjoyed. The city drew not only the labouring but the aspirant classes to its centre, so that the social fluidity of early nineteenth century England became concentrated upon the urban environment, and primarily, of course, upon London. The city became the unstable centre of national consciousness.
This point brings us to the third area of change. We have seen that mobility came to dominate Victorian perception in social and economic terms and in the sense of economic identity, and that in each case we can relate this fluidity to a dissociation of the ruling classes. But what, then, of government itself?
Once again, this third area of transformation concerns, not simply justice and government, but the way in which justice and government were perceived.
Already, we have seen the development of a unique and strange situation, in which one system of government, which represents what is essentially a Tudor concept of Crown and country, existed side by side with the middle class, urban regime of the developing Victorian economy. We see a peculiar social dichotomy emerging, in which the aristocracy retained sufficient general power to maintain national order, but in which the middle classes were left to find a way of ruling and managing themselves, at a local level, through local bodies. In rural areas little really changed; but where the middle classes were dominant, in the towns and cities, they were confronted by a need for their own values of law and order.
What this position produced in the short term in the larger towns and cities, and again particularly in London, was a chaos which was both actual and moral. The middle classes, as they were represented by their prominence in the economy and business of the nation, had no real sanctions, and no code. They existed between the primitive justice of what was essentially feudal law, which prescribed ferocious penalties for minor criminals it was largely incapable of detecting, and a freedom which in the absence of a strong central government was also a freedom of enterprise.
London, then continued to have the worst reputation in Europe for prostitution and petty crime throughout the period to mid-century; and it is fair to say that England, in comparison to other European countries, was notoriously disorderly and undisciplined. But at the same time the first fifty years of the nineteenth century saw the development of a newly mobile middle class which had to conceive of its own rights and prerogatives before it could produce government. Contemporary society often saw the dangers of over-governance chiefly in economic terms; the best government was held to be the cheapest. What we see initiating this attitude is the beginning of the belief that government must be directed by business; and what emerges by mid-century is the beginning of a general recognition that the country as a whole is a business, and that the function of government is the middle class function of management. We find the expression of this belief in the change of the franchise from the old value of possession of land to the grounding of right in the possession of money; and in this gradual way the middle classes came to dominate the government of the nation, more by prevalence and necessity of attitude than by any act of volition.
This process took a very long time. Even today, we see aristocratic machinery of government still in existence alongside the fully developed organs of democracy. At its beginning during this period, the characteristics of transition dominated the process of change. It went almost unrecognised by the ruling classes, for it represented for them, not so much an abdication of power as the gradual establishment of a new power-base. The aristocracy remained detached from urban economic culture. Just as the dominant consciousness of the nation was left free to establish itself socially and economically between labour and aristocracy, city and country, so it found itself too with what we can only describe as a moral freedom, to establish itself somewhere between chaos and order.
At each of these important points of class, location and government, then, we see the early Victorians torn between the fragmentary and the coherent, between freedom and restriction.
This state of flux and opportunity was of course also reflected in education and readership. Literacy in England grew from around 50% of less than eight million people in 1800 to nearly 70% of 17 million by 1850, meaning that there was a mass reading public exceeding ten million people well before mid century. This huge and growing reading population has of course a direct impact on the development of the novel and the role (and economic status) of the writer, and it is the questioning of and uncertainty about this that links Dickens’ writing with Romantic literature, providing what might be seen as a missing link between Romantic and Victorian sensibilities. Far from combining a dominant author with a new and authoritative realism, the novel absorbs uncertainties about the status and interests of the reader into a newly accommodating form.
This uncertainty is suggested by Marilyn Butler when she identifies an opposition of a Romantic concern with ‘inwardness’ and the writer to a Gothic and Sentimental deference to the reader, observing of the latter that: “Our romantic and post-Romantic interest in the writer intrudes when we encounter a literature which keeps a partnership with the reader so steadily in mind”.
Marilyn Butler’s vision of ‘Romanticism’ here is not so much a literary movement as an ideal interpretation of a complex situation. Many Romantic writers, moreover, had a much more sophisticated understanding of this situation than the simple identification of their concern with ‘inwardness’ and a cult of the writer would seem to allow. Marilyn Butler specifically notes the tendency in poetry towards ‘ballad imitations’ as a sentimental characteristic; and yet we find such ballads in Blake’s Songs and in Wordsworth’s contribution to Lyrical Ballads.
Wordsworth, in particular, would seem to be central to Marilyn Butler’s argument, as the paragon of a Romantic sensibility. The egotistical sublime of the Wordsworthian consciousness would seem to exemplify the ‘inwardness’ of the Romantic writers and to represent the “Romantic interest in the writer” at its extremity; but if we read Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads we find assertions which do not seem to accord with this Romantic vision. He undertakes to write in “the real language of men”; and asserts “that there neither is nor can be any essential difference” between poetry and prose, continuing:
Rhyme and metre is regular and uniform, and not, like that which is produced by what is usually called poetic diction, arbitrary … In the one case the reader is utterly at the mercy of the Poet respecting what imagery or diction he may choose to connect with the passion, whereas in the other the metre obeys certain rules, to which Poet and Reader both willingly submit because they are certain.
Wordsworth’s object would seem to be not to elevate but to humble poet and reader alike. The ‘certainty’ which he sets out to test here is not the defensive certainty of the writer so much as a certainty of audience and of readership; nobody, it would seem, could “keep a partnership with the reader” more steadily in mind, or be more optimistic about the audience of his writing.
This is not, of course, to suggest that Wordsworth was a ‘Sentimental’ writer; in the Lyrical Ballads, “Tintern Abbey” is recognisably Romantic in the terms Marilyn Butler suggests, being closely concerned with ‘inwardness’ and the writer, and so too is “Michael”; and both anticipate the form and style of The Prelude. What it does suggest, however, is that Wordsworth is a very much more uncertain writer than this ‘Romantic’ designation would in isolation allow us to believe, and that the ethos at the heart of his work is deeply divided between writer and reader in these terms. Two factors have tended to conceal this division. The first is Wordsworth’s genuine but much exaggerated reaction to the French Revolution, which has been used to establish reactionary conservatism as the dominant force of his poetry; and the second factor is the intervention of Coleridge, both in his capacity as Wordsworth’s friend, and as his critic.
Coleridge, of course, dissented strongly from the terms of the Preface; writing in disagreement that, “in the intercourse of uneducated men”,
There is a want of that prospectiveness of mind, that surview, which enables a man to foresee the whole of what he is to convey, appertaining to any one point; and by this means so to subordinate and arrange the different parts according to their relative importance as to convey it at once and as an organised whole.
Coherence, for Coleridge, is the value that separates high from low, educated from ignorant, and necessarily writer from reader. At the same time, it is almost an aristocratic value, and certainly, as he shows us in The Friend, it is a moral one:
What place then is left in the heart for virtue to build on, if in any case we may dare practice on others what we should feel as a cruel and contemptuous wrong in our own persons? Every parent possesses the opportunity of observing how deeply children resent the injury of a delusion; and if men laugh at the falsehood that were imposed on themselves during their childhood, it is because they are not good and wise enough to contemplate the past in the present, and so to produce by a virtuous and thoughtful sensibility that continuity in their self-consciousness which Nature made the law of their animal life. Ingratitude, sensuality, and hardness of heart, all flow from this source. Men are ungrateful to others only when they have ceased to look back on their former selves with joy and tenderness. They exist in fragments. Annihilated as to the Past, they are dead to the Future, and seek for proofs of it everywhere, only not (where alone they can be found) in themselves.
Coleridge attempts to resolve the uncertainty surrounding the status of the imagination by making the two terms with which it finds itself faced into two moral values. ‘Continuity’, which the period seemed to lack desperately, is made into virtue, and fragmentation into a cruelty and danger. In making this distinction we see Coleridge facing the instability of the period as a matter of both narrative and counter-narrative forces. Continuity exists upon the side of consequence and cognition which, we saw, provided only one half of a literary vision of a reality that seems (to Coleridge) all too conductive to what is contrary to narrative. This Coleridgean ethos is both reactionary and conservative; and it is not surprising that it should have so strongly endorsed the great autobiographical continuum that was to have been the unity of Wordsworth’s poetry and life. Its values have come to dominate a perception of both Wordsworth and Romanticism itself: and this domination seems secured by Wordsworth’s later poetry. In The Excursion, the Wanderer tells us of solitude:
What more than that the severing should confer
Fresh power to commune with the invisible world,
And hear the mighty stream of tendency
Uttering, for elevation of our thought,
A clear sonorous voice, inaudible
To the vast multitude; whose doom it is
To run the giddy round of vain delight
Or fret and labour on the Plain below.
“The mighty stream of Tendency” becomes an image both for the continuity of life, and of poetry itself. But this is the Miltonic language to which Wordsworth was always susceptible, the language of seeing things whole, as a great and single prospect of narrative. This Miltonic voice is not solely characteristic of the poetry, and, even here, represents not so much a complete vision as a set of choices. It is no coincidence that these words belong to the Wanderer, and not to the poet himself, and that the life he leads is seen as admirable, but also as something beyond ordinary human capability. Even in writing this vision, Wordsworth faces the choices it makes; and he confronts them from the beginning of his writing. In the second part of the 1799 Prelude he tells us, speaking, like Coleridge, of childhood, that:
A tranquillizing spirit presses now
On my corporeal frame, so wide appears
The vacancy between me and those days,
Which yet have such self-presence in my heart
That sometimes when I think of them I seem
Two consciousnesses – conscious of myself,
And of some other being.
The Prelude is written in an attempt to confront and repair this division of past and present and not, after Coleridge, to deny its moral validity or existence. The poem is not so much the first statement of a new vision of things as an attempt to apply a narrative unity to contemporary reality. This unifying voice is the ‘Miltonic’ one; but Wordsworth does not sound like Milton here and we find in the course of The Prelude that the stream of life and reality lies somewhere other than in the ‘stream of tendency’. In the part of The Prelude that deals with life in London we hear of “The endless stream of men and moving things” (VII, 158), partly in rejection of the middle class business of the city, but partly in fascination at a kind of continuity that defeats continuity. The stream of writing and narrative is for Wordsworth something very different from the stream of the fragmentary and counter-narrative energies which are repeatedly the energies of the poetry.
While Wordsworth seems to make similar choices to the ones upheld by Coleridge, these are evidently based upon knowledge of the inevitability and insistence of a fragmentary world. ‘Men and moving things’ are half seen as the inevitable substance of life (reciprocated by Wordsworth’s own frequent half-visions) and provide an energy for the poetry, as well as a source of bewilderment and frustration. In the same way, the ‘two consciousnesses’ are the unavoidable and regrettable consequences of looking back; but they also provide a real source of energy and feeling, a voice in the poetry that is distinctly Wordsworthian.
Clearly, then, there is within ‘Romanticism’ a division and uncertainty of literary language which is as pronounced and dominant as those other economic and social divisions and uncertainties of the period, and which is closely related to them. While we saw that the society of the period was torn between aristocratic and egalitarian impulses, between country and city, freedom and government, these uncertainties can in literary terms be characterised as an equivocation between continuity and fragmentation. Even at its most ‘written’ and apparently authoritative, English Romanticism conceals a division which is effectively one between interests of unity and authorship and that chaotic ‘stream’ of people Wordsworth would speak to as a man speaking to men.
A divided and ambivalent Romanticism gives us a valuable insight into the nature of Dickens’ novel, for it no longer seems adequate to see the novel simply as a new vehicle of a narrative realism – a realism which we have seen the ‘Romantic’ narrative, Coleridgean ideal defensive against. If we look at the pre-Romantic novel, meanwhile, we find that the eighteenth-century novelists had found the genre to be divided about precisely that relation of narrative and counter-narrative which we see at the heart of Romantic uncertainty. The early novelists uncovered this same uncertainty about the moral status of the writer in relation to a reality which seemed to offer no precise moral values. We see this developing as a crisis of realism through the works of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding; it raises the question of whether the chaotic and fragmentary is to appear in the novel as we have seen that it appears in reality, or whether the novel is to remain under the narrative control of the writer. The important point that emerges from these early novels, moreover, is that the novel, unlike the Romantic poetry we discussed above, can accommodate both narrative and counter-narrative without the insistence or disruption of a ‘poetic’ writing voice. What we saw as a disturbance in the unity of the Romantic poem is natural to the novel, which effectively conceals two radically different genres within its single form. ‘Narrative’ and ‘counter-narrative’ no longer seem adequate terms for what are two modes as separate as those of tragedy and comedy.
On the one hand, the novel can contain a Coleridgean narrative, the product of the writer’s close control of his writing, whose values are those of coherence, and a confidence in the consequences of a cognitive vision. Its concerns are to see life and the details of life as a coherent and self-transforming whole; its medium is the wakefulness and intelligence of clear consciousness, and its ideals are those of veracity and truth.
On the other hand, when the novel is concerned with a counter-narrative that views reality, not as a consequential place, but as a fragmented and mysterious world, with its obligation not to select from and control but to experience the whole of that world, these values undergo a complete transformation. If the novel depends both upon the author’s attempt at narrative and also upon the endlessly shifting consciousness of the reader, it is cast into that ‘endless stream of men and moving things’ in the midst of which continuity itself seems to be chaotic and disordered. Under these conditions, the values of writing are dominated by the fascination and attractiveness of a constantly shifting world, depending, not upon continuity and coherence, but on the pretences and fantasies which have the strange authority of an unconscious, uncontrolled life. This way of understanding the world is naturally incoherent and fragmentary; but it is able to grasp and reflect reality in a way that the authors narrative alone never could; for where the latter kind of writing claims to be at the centre of reality, and claims that its author, too, is at that centre, the former acknowledges its place upon the periphery of things, as the innocence of life which accompanies and complements life’s actions. But this fragmentary narrative is more than merely a peripheral function of coherences. Where it remains mysterious to the novel – as a part of a bewildering reality – the counter-narrative of entertainment and amusement is like a kind of deathly life, a world outside but oddly complementary to and affirmative of the life that the orderly world lays claim to. Clearly, we need two terms for these different but integral functions of the novel, and I will call them ‘narrative’ where they tend towards authorial coherence, and ‘fiction’ where they tend towards existence in a fragmentary, diversionary world.
The separation and difference of these two tendencies to create narrative order and fictional play characterises the form of the novel, but to Dickens, exploring the powers of storytelling, they are often highly problematic. No way of approaching the structure of the story told within the novel is is capable of writing the world into a single, coherent whole since it is the function of the novel to include both. To enter the world of fiction is to deny the value of a coherence that nevertheless remains in anything that is to be recognisably a novel; while to accept the sequential values of narrative is to deny the nature of fiction, which must also remain in order for the story to entertain and engage the reader. Unlike previous dramatic conventions, the problem is not so much one of the tension involved in a given form such as comedy or tragedy, as the impossibility of separating these things, as recognisable artistic wholes, from one another: for the novel has its two essential characteristics, to be narrative and to be fiction, invested upon opposite sides of the dramatic spectrum – yet supposedly working to the same end. The fragmentary, episodic storytelling of fiction is the descendent of comedy, while the conscious, sequential storytelling of narrative is similarly descended from the preoccupations of classical tragedy with order and coherence; and the problem for the novelist would seem to be that these claim to be the same thing, and to exist in the same place. Somehow, the novel must combine the essential roles of the comic and the tragic, and be both innocent and cynic, both the controller and the victim of the action, both narrative and fiction.
We are now in a position to understand that Dickens’ career is subject to and generated by the changes and difficulties we have described, and stands as a means of gaining insight into the form of the novel. While it is clear that Dickens’ childhood was as disorganised and chaotic as it could have been it is now equally clear that it is a mistake to attribute this disorganisation directly to Dickens’ individuality, or to suppose that his background was exceptional or atypical. His past was unprecedented only in terms of his status as a writer, and it was unprecedented because it brought about a new kind of artistic career, and not the odd, constrained, or spoilt one we have so often been presented with by his critics.
We have seen the features which characterise the rise of the middle classes as a predominance of social and economic mobilities; and we see these mobilities dominating Dickens’ childhood, and dominating in the most painful of ways. W. J. Fox continues the comments on ‘unfixedness’ quoted above, telling us that “Every man is rising or falling, or hoping that he shall rise, or fearing that he shall sink”.
‘Unfixedness’ dominates Dickens’ background through precisely such hopes and fears. His father’s career was as complete a demonstration of the vulnerability of the middle class position as could be imagined.
John Dickens occupied in the course of his life precisely such an economic and social position as I have described as typical of the middle classes. His father was steward to the Crewe family, his mother housekeeper at Crewe Hall. After the death of William Dickens in 1785 the Crewes took an interest in both John and his brother William and found employment for them, establishing John at Somerset House. He remained a clerk in the civil service until he was pensioned off in 1825. He married Elizabeth Barrow in 1809, whose father held the position of Chief Conductor of Moneys in Town, and whose brother was a friend and fellow clerk of John Dickens. Both the father and the brother of his wife had respectable and well-paid positions, and his own prospects seemed bright.
By 1810, however, things had begun to go wrong. Elizabeth’s father was prosecuted for embezzlement, and one source of the financial security of the Dickens family was removed with his abscondment to the Continent.
John Dickens, moreover, had begun to show his worst weakness, one not uncharacteristic of the aspiring middle classes. As N. and J. Mackenzie tells us, he “had to earn a living as a government clerk while he fancied himself as an eighteenth-century gentleman”; or in Edgar Johnson’s words, “he simply could not live within his income”.
The world around him invited social aspiration; and status, more than ever before, was a commodity temptingly close to the reach of a civil service clerk. The result was a betrayal into poverty which was the bitterer for the hopes and aspirations of which it was born.
In 1812, then, came the first of a long series of changes of house which reached its crisis with the return of a by now large family to London in 1822, and with the events which led to the employment of the young Charles in the Blacking Warehouse, and to his father’s confinement at the Marshalsea.
The death of Elizabeth Dickens in 1823 and a bequest of £450 relieved these difficulties, releasing John Dickens from prison, and his son Charles from his menial labour; but John Dickens remained more or less in poverty until the establishment of his son’s fortunes, and the return of a source of financial security to the family.
As I have already indicated, these details have been comprehensively documented. The point I want to re-emphasise, however, is that the Dickens family experienced, not so much the shame and disgrace of an individual (although John Dickens was evidently not a sensible man) as the worst consequence of a new social and economic climate; a climate in which a clerk could set up as a gentleman, if he had the money – and a climate in which a gentleman could go to prison like a clerk, if he didn’t.
The times were such that it was very easy for a man of limited awareness and ability to mistake his position as John Dickens did; and such that the consequences were dire, should he do so. The fate that he suffered was becoming increasingly common. Figures for the eighteenth and early nineteenth century are difficult to estimate; but what is certain is that by 1857 there were over 14000 people in prison for debt, accounting for 10 percent of the whole prison population. That there was a dramatic increase in an already large number of imprisoned debtors can be gathered if we take into account John Howard’s estimate of 1776 that 2437 people were then in prison for debt.
Insolvency was a peculiar crime in that it affected all layers of society; so that it carried with it a certain aura of respectability. This perhaps explains the continued distinction of debtors from ordinary criminals;
Until 1869 imprisoned debtors could not be subject to the same regime as those charged with or convicted of criminal offences. They were allowed extensive visiting privileges, their own food and clothing, could continue to work at their trade or profession to the extent that their confinement allowed, and were exempt from many of the prison rules.
The medieval and feudal policy of regarding crime largely in relation to social position continued in the Insolvency laws until mid-century. That the laws were reformed was an acknowledgement that aristocratic privilege had finally become an irrelevance even to this part of the criminal law; in the meantime, to the newly educated and newly monied – or unmonied – those privileges only added further to a confusion of status, as they do to William Dorrit’s. While it is not possible to say that insolvency was a middle class crime, it seems reasonable to conclude that in contemporary eyes John Dickens’ fate must have seemed an occupational hazard of a respectable life, neither extraordinary in its nature nor unusual in its occurrence. As much is implicitly acknowledged in the contemporary advocacy of self-help. As Samuel Smiles tells us:
There is a constant struggle and pressure for front seats in the social amphitheatre; in the midst of which all noble self-denying resolve is trodden down, and many fine natures are inevitably crushed to death.
Cobett, writing very much earlier, absolved the individual from most of the blame, observing that:
A great misfortune of the present day is, that everyone is, in his own estimates, raised above his real state of life; everyone seems to think himself entitled, if not to title and great estate, at least to live without work. This mischievous, this most destructive way of thinking has, indeed, been produced, like almost all other evils, by the Acts of our Septennial and Unreformed Parliament. That body, by its Acts, had caused an enormous debt to be created, and, in consequence, a prodigious sum to be raised annually in taxes. It has caused, by these means, a race of loan-mongers and stock-jobbers to arise.
Both of these writers direct their advice at a middle class, respectable audience, clearly in their eyes at risk from the dangers of extravagancy, and in Cobbett’s view the loose government which we saw was central to the rise of the middle classes.
It is evident that Dickens experiences a world that was socially and economically competitive to the point of ruthlessness, and that he was exposed from childhood both to the opportunities and possibilities that the possession of money offered – for life was intermittently comfortable – and to the hardships and cruelties Smiles and Cobbett warn against, brought about by joining in that general competition.
Before we decide then that the difficulties of his childhood were a stigma which blighted Dickens’ vision and prevented the open assimilation of his past into the substance of his novels, it would seem expedient first of all to ask more carefully what it might have meant to him. The changes and transitions of the times were only partially understood by contemporary commentators, and it would seem to be folly either to ignore them ourselves, or to assume that the young Dickens wrote independently and in spite of them.
It is clear from the remarks I quoted above from the much discussed ‘autobiographical fragment’ that one of the ways in which Dickens was able to understand his own position and his wealth and status as a successful novelist by the middle of his career was by a ‘Romantic’ guilt which concealed the past in an autobiographical silence which was never openly and fully broken, and which had to be continually and secretly revisited.
But might it not be possible that at the same time Dickens rejected autobiography as a means of self-expression in the novel? That he found the ‘Romantic’ values of coherence in isolation to be inadequate to the world he inhabited – just as the Romantics had done before him? That his chaotic and disrupted background was not just a force of alienation from such values, but an opportunity to understand a different world, in a different way? And that Dickens used and explored the novel in its ability to contain and unify the contrary impulses of the fictive and the narrative, and in doing so shows us what both the form of the novel and the social context it represents is fully capable of achieving in its moral, religious, political, economic and sexual life?
My purpose in this book will be to answer all of these questions in the positive, and to show categorically that Dickens’ novels are not flawed, but that his imagination instead offers us a unity which challenges any understanding of his own age, of the novel, or of a contemporary vision which is incapable of comprehending or of profiting from the intelligent reading of his work.