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Dickens, says Professor Cross," "spoke the heart and conscience of Britain."
One important quality for his work which he possessed and used with great effect, was humor. A host of humorous figures he created; and at least a hundred of them are familiar to all who claim to be well-read in English literature. The tone of his humor is suggested by his great rival, Thack
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FACSIMILE OF A LETTER OF DICKENS.
(New York Public Library.)
eray: "I am grateful for the innocent laughter and the sweet and unsullied page which the author of David Copperfield gives to my children."
Early Life. Dickens's early life contained very little in the way of preparation for a great career. He was born in Portsmouth, where his father, John Dickens, was a navyyard clerk. The senior Dickens was a poor financier; and
1 Development of the English Novel, page 183.
after several not helpful moves found himself and his family located in a wretched part of London. While Charles was still a child, his father was imprisoned for debt, leaving him to earn a living as best he could. Following his custom of turning personal experiences to account in novels, he has left in the early chapters of David Copperfield a record of these miserable days.
When John Dickens's for
Beginnings of Authorship. tunes improved, Charles obtained a few years' schooling. His real education, however, came from the London streets and from his work as a newspaper reporter, out of which grew his first independent writing, Sketches by Boz, published in periodicals in 1835-1836. From the success of this venture came his first long fiction, Pickwick Papers. Dickens was
engaged to write "something" to accompany drawings by one Robert Seymour. When, however, Seymour died after eight drawings were published, the fame of the stories which the "something" had become was great, and Dickens was empowered to secure an artist to illustrate them.
Variety of Work. Oliver Twist appeared in 1837-1838, Nicholas Nickleby in 1838-1839; and in the remainder of his life he wrote twelve other novels, some verse, The Child's History of England, and two Christmas stories of enduring charm The Cricket on the Hearth, and A Christmas Carol. In 1842 Dickens visited the United States on a lecture tour. He was disappointed at not finding "the republic of [his] imagination;" and on his return to England published two books satirizing the land that had welcomed him heartily.
Married Life. The novelist's home was not happy. In 1836 he married Catharine Hogarth, but soon discovered that they were "strangely ill-assorted." After twenty years of unsuccessful efforts at living together, they agreed to separate. He had already purchased Gad's Hill, an estate about twenty miles from London on the Canterbury road; and he took up his residence there shortly after the separation.
Last Years. Early in his period of residence at Gad's Hill, Dickens began to give public readings from his works. He travelled much for this purpose, not only in England but also in America, and was well received everywhere. Though he was not an old man, and though he was in reasonably good health, the work required too great effort. He died suddenly at Gad's Hill in June, 1870, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Some acquaintance with the novels of Dickens has for so long been considered a part of even the average child's intellectual equipment, that it seems almost unnecessary to characterize him. It is nevertheless a fact that the average reader does not always get all he could (and should) from Dickens. A few hints may therefore be given to show the best he stands for.
Dickens's Pathos. - The taste that is touched by the death-scenes of Dickens is hardly a healthy one, is certainly not a cultured one. Not that the death of Little Nell in Old Curiosity Shop has not in it the possibility of pathos
it has. So has the death of Paul in Dombey and Son. The trouble is the deliberateness with which the novelist
sets out to make us weep, not unlike the manner of the typical evangelist who tells harrowing tales to bring weeping crowds to the " mourners' bench."
His Plots. A thoughtful reader will find little to praise in Dickens's plots, which are as a rule artificial, melodra matic, and marked by repeated abuses of coincidence. These characteristics are frequently shown in his conclusions, such as notably that of David Copperfield, where all the still living villains of the story are assembled in a prison which David happens to visit. Other faults might readily be pointed out; but these are sufficient as hints" of shortcomings, and it is more desirable to indicate qualities of another sort.
Pictures of Contemporary Life. As a portrayer of contemporary life and manners, Dickens has not been surpassed. It must be admitted that he was more successful in handling the lower walks of life than the upper; but so, for that matter, was the aristocratic Sir Walter. Oliver Twist gives a quite convincing picture of the underworld in London; Nicholas Nickleby, of a large class of abominable schools for boys; Bleak House, of the tedious procedure of English courts. Exaggeration there is perhaps in all; but they remain in essentials true to conditions existing in his day.
Dickens's Humor. Nearly all the good things one might say about Dickens may be covered by a phrase applied to him by Andrew Lang-" the greatest comic genius of modern times." His humorous figures, though here also his proneness to exaggeration must be admitted, are an unfailing source of wholesome delight. The method, caricature as it is commonly called, "the heightening of non-essential characteristics," may seem simple; but though other