BOOKS MARCH 4, 1940
The world of the early Dickens is organized according to a dualism which is based—in its artistic derivation—on the values of melodrama: there are bad people and there are good people, there are comics and there are characters played straight. The only complexity of which Dickens is capable is to make one of his noxious characters become wholesome, one of his clowns turn out to be a serious person. The most conspicuous example of this process is the reform of Mr. Dombey, who, as Taine says, “turns into the best of fathers and spoils a fine novel.” But the reform of Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” shows the phenomenon in its purest form.
We have come to take Scrooge so much for granted that he seems practically a piece of Christmas folklore; we no more inquire seriously into the mechanics of his transformation than we do into the transformation of the Beast into the young prince that marries Beauty in the fairy tale. Yet Scrooge represents a principle fundamental to the dynamics of Dickens’ world and derived from his own emotional constitution—though the story, of course, owes its power to the fact that most of us feel ourselves capable of the extremes of both malignity and benevolence. It was not merely that Dickens’ passion for the theatre had given him a taste for melodramatic contrasts. It was rather that the lack of balance between the opposite impulses of his nature stimulated an appetite for melodrama. For emotionally Dickens was unstable. Allowing for the English restraint, which masks what the Russian expressiveness indulges and perhaps overexpresses, and for the pretense of English biographers, he seems almost as unstable as Dostoevsky. He was capable of great hardness and cruelty, and not merely toward those whom he had cause to resent: people who patronized or intruded on him. On one occasion, in the presence of other guests, he ordered Forster out of his house over some discussion that had arisen at dinner; and his treatment of Mrs. Dickens suggests, as we shall see, the behavior of a Renaissance monarch summarily consigning to a convent the wife who had served her turn. There is more of emotional reality behind Quilp in “The Old Curiosity Shop” than there is behind Little Nell. If Little Nell sounds bathetic today, Quilp has lost none of his fascination. He is ugly, malevolent, perverse; he delights in making mischief for its own sake; yet he exercises over the members of his household a power which is almost an attraction and which resembles what was known in Dickens’ day as “malicious animal magnetism.” Though Quilp is ceaselessly tormenting his wife and browbeating the boy who works for him, they never attempt to escape: they admire him; in a sense they love him.
So Dickens’ daughter, Kate Perugini, who had destroyed a memoir of her father that she had written, because it gave “only half the truth,” told Miss Gladys Storey, the author of “Dickens and Daughter,” that the spell which Dickens had been able to cast on his daughters was so strong that, after his separation from their mother, they refrained, though he never spoke to them about it, from going to see her, because they knew he did not like it, and would even take music lessons in a house opposite the one where she was living without daring to pay her a call. “I loved my father,” Miss Storey reports her as saying, “better than any man in the world—in a different way of course. … I loved him for his faults.” And she added, as she rose and walked to the door: “My father was a wicked man—a very wicked man.” But from the memoir of his other daughter Mamie, who also adored her father and seems to have viewed him uncritically, we hear of his colossal Christmas parties, of the vitality, the imaginative exhilaration, which swept all the guests along. It is Scrooge bursting in at the Cratchits. Shall we ask what Scrooge would actually be like if we were to follow him beyond the frame of the story? Unquestionably he would relapse when the merriment was over—if not while it was still going on—into moroseness, vindictiveness, suspicion. He would, that is to say, reveal himself the victim of a manic-depressive cycle, and a very uncomfortable person.
This dualism runs all through Dickens. There always has to be a good and a bad of everything: each of the books has its counterbalancing values, and pairs of characters sometimes counterbalance from different books. There has to be a good manufacturer, Mr. Rouncewell, and a bad manufacturer, Mr. Bounderby; a bad old Jew, Fagin, and a good old Jew, Riah; an affable lawyer who is really unscrupulous, Vholes, and a kindly lawyer who pretends to be unfeeling, Jaggers; a malicious dwarf, Quilp, and a beneficent dwarf, Miss Mowcher (though Dickens had originally intended her to be bad); an embittered and perverse illegitimate daughter, Miss Wade, and a sweet and submissive illegitimate daughter, Esther Summerson. Another example of this tendency is Dickens’ habit, noted by Mr. Kingsmill, of making the comic side of his novels a kind of parody of the sentimental side. Pecksniff is a satire on that domestic sentiment which wells up so profusely in Dickens when it is a question of a Christmas story; the performances of the Vincent Crummleses are a parody of the stagy plot upon which “Nicholas Nickleby” is based.
Dickens’ difficulty in his middle period, and indeed more or less to the end, is to get good and bad together in one character. He had intended in “Dombey and Son” to make Walter Gay turn out badly, but hadn’t been able to bring himself to put it through. In “Bleak House,” however, he had had Richard Carstone undergo a progressive demoralization. But the real beginnings of a psychological interest may be said to appear in “Hard Times,” which, though parts of it have the crudity of a cartoon, is the first novel in which Dickens tries to trace with any degree of plausibility the processes by which people become what they are. We given a certain sympathetic insight into what has happened to the Gradgrind children; and the conversion of Mr. Gradgrind is very much better prepared for that than that of Mr. Dombey. In “Great Expectations,” we see Pip pass through a whole psychological cycle. At first, he is sympathetic, then by a more or less natural process he turns into something unsympathetic, then he becomes sympathetic again. Here the effects of both poverty and riches are seen from the inside in one person. This is for Dickens a great advance; and it is a development which, if carried far enough, would end by dissolving the familiar Dickens of the lively but limited stage characters, with their tag lines and their unvarying make-ups.
The crisis of Dickens’ later life had already come before “Great Expectations.” That “old unhappy loss or want of something” which he makes David Copperfield feel after his marriage to Dora, had driven him into a dream of retreating to the monastery of the Great St. Bernard, where it had been his original idea to have the whole of “Little Dorrit” take place. But he had ended by resorting to another order which, in mimicking the life of men, manages to remain almost as impenetrably cut off from it as the monks of St. Bernard themselves. Dickens embarked upon a series of theatricals, which, semi-professional and undertaken as benefits, came to look more and more like pretexts for Dickens to indulge his appetite for acting.
He had written Forster of “the so happy and yet so unhappy existence which seeks its realities in unrealities, and finds its dangerous comfort in a perpetual escape from the disappointment of heart around it.” But now the pressure of this disappointment was to force him to an addiction even more complete to that dangerous comfort of unrealities. It was as if he had actually to embody, to act out in his own person, the life of his imagination. He had always loved acting. As a child, he had projected himself with intensity into the creatures of the plays he had seen. He had always loved amateur theatricals and charades. He used to say that it relieved him, if only in a game, to throw himself into the personality of someone else. His whole art had been a kind of impersonation, in which he had exploited this or that of his impulses by incorporating it in an character rather than—up to this point, at any rate—exploring his own personality. The endings of his novels, in which the villain was smashingly confounded and the young juvenile got the leading woman, had been the conventional denouements of Drury Lane. Whole scenes in “Barnaby Rudge” had been high-flown declamations in a blank verse which connects Dickens almost as vitally with the dramatic tradition of Shakespeare as with the fictional tradition of Fielding. In “Bleak House,” he had found a way to make this theatrical instinct contribute effectively to a novel: the theatrical present tense of the episodes which alternate with Esther Summerson’s diary does heighten the excitement of the narrative, and the theatrical Lady Dedlock is an improvement on Edith Dombey. Yet in the novels that follow “Bleak House,” this stagy element recurs as something never either assimilated by or eliminated from Dickens’ more serious art, an element which remains unreal if it is not precisely insincere and on which his stories sometimes run aground. Certain deficiencies he could never get over: Dickens had a strain of the ham, and, in the desperation of his later life, he gave in to the old ham and let him rip.
That this satisfied the deeper needs of Dickens as little as it does his readers seems to be proved by what followed. He met behind the scenes of the theatre some time in ’57 or ’58 a young girl named Ellen Ternan, the daughter of a well know actress. She was hiding behind one of the properties and crying because she had to appear in a dress that offended her modesty. She was eighteen, and she evidently appealed to that compassionate interest in young women which had made him apotheosize Mary Hogarth, his sister-in-law and the original of Little Nell. He assured her about her costume; saw her again and became infatuated with her. He had been complaining to Forster that “a sense comes always crashing on me now, when I fall into low spirits, as of one happiness I have missed in life, and one friend and companion I have never made”; and it must have seemed to him that now he had found her. He had made an agreement with Catherine in the early days of their marriage that if either should fall in love with anyone else, he should frankly explain to the other. He now told her that he was in love with Miss Ternan and compelled her against her will to go and pay the girl a call.
Dickens conducted the whole affair with what appears to have been the worst possible taste, though, as we shall see, it seemed quite natural to him. He arranged to have Ellen Ternan appear in his benefit performances and even wrote in scenes for her and himself which intimated his feeling for her. Mr. Thomas Wright, who first made this whole episode public, in 1934, believes, probably rightly, that Sydney Carton is Dickens’ dramatization of the first hopeless phase of his love. In the spring of ’58, however, Dickens arranged a separation from Catherine and left her with one of their sons in London while he removed with the rest of the children and Georgina to the new place he had bought at Gadshill. He made a statement in Household Words and circularized a singular letter which was not long in getting into print, in which he explained that he and Catherine had nothing whatever in common and should never have gotten married, defended, without naming her, Ellen Ternan, and denounced as “two wicked persons” his mother-in-law and his sister-in-law Helen for having intimated that there could be “on this earth a more virtuous and spotless creature” than Ellen. It was true that he had played straight; but now he induced Ellen to be his mistress and set her up in London in an establishment of her own. He wrote her name into his last three novels as Estella Provis, Bella Wilfer, and finally Helena Landless—her full name was Ellen Landless Ternan.
The real cause of this strange exhibitionism of Dickens was his peculiar relation to his public. Perhaps no other kind of writer depends so much on his audience as the novelist. If he is popular, he may substitute his relation to the public for the ordinary human relations. And for this reason he responds to his sales in a way which may seem ridiculous to a writer in a different field; yet to the novelist the drop or the rise in the number of the people who buy his books may be felt in much the same way as the coolness or the passion of a loved one. In Dickens’ case, a falling-off in the popularity of his monthly instalments would plunge him into anxiety and depression. He had played up Sam Weller because he saw that the character was going well, and he sent Martin Chuzzlewit to America because he found that interest in the story was flagging. And now it had come to be true that his only companion in that imaginary world in which he seemed doomed to live was the public who read his novels. When he began, as he did that same spring, to give regular public readings—which enabled him to live them more actively and to feel the direct impact on his audience—the relation became more intimate still. For Dickens, the public he addressed in this statement about his marriage was probably closer than the wife by whom he had had ten children; and now that he had fallen in love with Ellen, instead of finding in her a real escape from the eternal masquerade of his fiction, his impulse was to transport her to dwell with him in that fictitious world itself, to make her a character in a novel or play, and to pay court to her in the presence of his public.
But the old sense of “loss or want” does not have been cured by all this. “My father was like a madman,” says Mrs. Perugini, “when my mother left home. This affair brought out all that was worst—all that was weakest in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home.” And this misery still hung over the household, in spite of Dickens’ festive hospitality, even after the separation had been arranged. Poor Mrs. Dickens in her exile was wretched—“Do you think he is sorry for me?” she asked Kate on one of the only two occasions when she ever heard her mother mention her father—and there was always at the back of their consciousness this sense of incurable wounds. Young Kate, with more independence than Mamie, does not seem much to have liked having Ellen Ternan come to visit; and she finally married a brother of Wilkie Collins, without really caring about him, in order to get away from Gadshill. After the wedding, which Mrs. Dickens had not attended, Mamie found her father weeping in Kate’s bedroom, with his face in her wedding dress: “But for me,” he told her, “Katey would not have left home.”
The affair with Ellen Ternan has been hushed up so effectively, and the information about it is still so meager, that it is difficult to get an impression of Ellen. We do, however, know what Dickens thought of her from the heroines in his last books who are derived from her. Estella is indifferent and tortures Pip, who loves her “against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be”; she marries a man she does not love for his money. Bella Wilfer up to her very conversion by Mr. Boffin is equally intent upon money—which was certainly one of the things that Ellen got out of her liaison with Dickens. Both Estella and Bella are petulant, spoiled and proud. They represent, as it were, the Edith Dombey-Lady Dedlock type combined with the capriciousness of Dora Spenlow—the old elements of Dickens’ women simply mixed in a new way. And these novels of Dickens in which Ellen figures show perhaps more real desperation than “Little Dorrit” itself, with its closing note of modest resignation. It seems to be the general opinion that Ellen was neither so fascinating nor so gifted as Dickens thought her. After his death, she married a clergyman and she confided to Canon Benham that she had loathed her relationship with Dickens and deeply regretted the whole affair. She had borne Dickens a child, which did not live. It may be—though we have no date—that Dickens’ short story, “Doctor Marigold” (1865), which became one of his favorite readings, the monologue of a first traveling “cheap jack,” who keeps an audience amused with his patter while his child is dying in his arms, is a reflection of this event.
The creative strain of a lifetime—despite the energy of a diable au corps, which enabled him to put on his plays and to perform prodigies of walking and mountain-climbing at the same time that he was composing his complicated novels—was beginning to tell heavily on Dickens. He had always felt under an obligation to maintain a standard of living conspicuously lavish for a literary man: in his statement about his separation from his wife, he boasts that he has provided for her as generously “as if Mrs. Dickens were a lady of distinction and I a man of fortune.” And now he was compelled by the demon that drove him and by the necessity of earning money in order to keep up the three establishments for which he had made himself responsible and to launch his sons and daughters on the world, to work frenetically at his public readings. His nervous disorders persisted: he was troubled while he was writing “Great Expectations” with acute pains in the face; and he developed a lameness in his left foot, which, though he blamed it on taking walks in heavy snowstorms, was also evidently due to the burning-out of his nerves and which maimed him all the rest of his life. “Twice last week,” he writes in ’66, “I was seized in a most distressing manner—apparently in the heart; but, I am persuaded, only in the nervous system.”