The Speaker, July 18, 1903
It is an excellent sign of the reviving interest in Dickens that two good new editions should be published, one the "Biographical Edition" and the other "The Fireside Edition," both by Messrs. Chapman and Hall. They are both well treated in the matter of print and form, and are especially to be commended as they include, even in the smallest instances, as many as possible of those glorious and absurd old illustrations which were the life of Dickens. Dickens cannot be illustrated now: the trick is lost, like Gothic. We cannot see ourselves in a Cockney fantasia, a fairyland of clerks.
Once there was a decadent who expressed all the views of his school about Dickens by waving his hands in the air lightly and saying, "a vulgar optimist." The phrase is a common one, and he would no doubt have preferred an uncommon phrase. But though he did not know it, he was in truth uttering a paradox more brilliant than all those of his school, a paradox in two words and a paradox justifying and exalting all the things they both detested- the unwise, the ordinary life, the ignorant and the mob. For what a concentrated and startling notion is packed into the phrase "a vulgar optimist." Of all queer things in a queer world this surely is the queerest, that "optimism" should be "vulgar." In an old and sad and enigmatic world in which burdens lie heavy upon all and especially heavy upon the majority, in which only a few have ever attained to leisure or self-culture, in which the overwhelming mass has toiled desperately between the breast and the grave from the beginning of time- it is yet the sublime riddle that a cheerful philosophy is not derided as insane, but simply despised as common-place. A rich and elegant class look down at optimism, and what they have to complain of is that it is too widespread; they look down at the wretched toilers, and what they have to complain of is that they are too "jolly." Happiness in this den of oppression has to be rebuked like a mob riot. Misery, in this vale of misery, has to be preached like a curious piece of refinement.
There is that about the human race that makes us feel that it has never done exactly as it should have done on rationalistic lines. There are instances of this too numerous to detail, but they keep strong that dark doubt of rationalism, that revolt below a revolt, which is so characteristic of this time. One would think, for instance, that primitive people would have been materialistic, would have sharpened and perfected the tools that conquer the earth and the foods that fill the belly. Instead of that we find that they were idiots at practical matters, but made themselves really remarkable by singing the most exquisite poems and starting the deepest arguments about metaphysics. One would think that early poems, however vigorous, would be coarse and lustful; instead of that, barbaric literature, like the Iliad, is generally very pure, and civilised literature, like the Arabian Nights, full of a revolting candour. And whatever one might think would ever happen to be said against optimism, nobody could possibly have imagined, in the abstract, that it would be called vulgar. One would have imagined that whatever there was to say against the world would be said by the poor and the coerced; that whatever there was to say for it would be said by the prosperous and the free. But in this divine topsy-turvydom in which we live the very reverse has been the fact. Of the pessimists, the great majority have been aristocrats, like Byron or Swinburne. Of the optimists, the vast majority have risen, like Dickens, from the people.
This is the simplest and the greatest of all the greatnesses of Dickens. It was precisely because he "could not describe a gentleman" that he could never really describe a villain. When he tried to picture the aristocratic pessimist, as in Sir John Chester, in Barnaby Rudge, he failed entirely, and had every reason to be proud of that manly and glorious failure. For the world from which he came was one full of furies and acquainted with grief, but unacquainted at least with that cold turret and those discolouring windows of the empty soul; unacquainted with the last and most final curse that can fall from heaven, that which Mr. Myers finely summarised in words that might be an epitaph on the age:
The most vivid and personal of all his works, David Copperfield, contains that incomparable description of a dim and ignominious boyhood, the changed and sinister home, the coarse, unwholesome school, the vast dull office and the mean wage, the sickening solitude of London. Even our most gruesomely prosaic moderns could scarcely leave on the memory an impression so black and genuine as "Murdstone and Grinby's," of the deadly sadness of childhood. But Dickens having written that added something else. He added the following words: "A curtain had for ever fallen upon my life at Murdstone and Grinby's. No one has ever raised that curtain since. I have lifted it, for a moment, even in this narrative with a reluctant hand and dropped it gladly. Whether it lasted for a year or more or less I do not know. I only know that it was and ceased to be, and that I have written, and there I leave it." That is a far truer account of the place of these bitter times in a life that has had any healthy fulfilment afterwards than the spiritual vivisections and incurable manglings in the works of the modern realist. There are scores of David Copperfields talking in the parlours and pot-houses of the real world (the glorious lower middle classes); they have been through the unrepeatable and made their bed in hell for weeks at a time; but when they tell of their lives they do not generally speak of this- they speak precisely as Copperfield does with his Miss Trotwood and his Wilkins Micawber. They tell, that is, with exuberant joy and amazing exaggeration, tales of the admirable rudeness of a maiden aunt or the admirable bankruptcies of a commercial traveller.
"What art thou, man, and why art thou despairing
God shall forgive thee all but thy despair."
The "Biographical" edition of Dickens, which has just appeared, has appended to it (somewhat after the manner of the Thackeray edition which appeared some time ago) a life divided into sections; and the life of Dickens, however fragmentarily read, is quite sufficient to establish this general view. It was, as everybody knows, Dickens himself who went to Murdstone and Grinby's, Dickens who toiled in his mere boyhood in a vast ugly business without money or friends. If he came to whitewash the world it is at least odd that he came from a blacking-factory to do it.