Thursday, March 08, 2007
Notes on Dickens 1
Dickens was constantly innovative, and consciously pushing his art to the limits, running businesses, editing journals, organizing theatricals and siring a string of children on his exhausted wife, the Dynamo of the Victorian age.
This energy is reflected in his prose which buzzes and fizzes with life. Hazlitt would surely have applied his term ‘gusto’ to Dickens’s prose had he lived long enough. There is always the feeling in reading Dickens that he is not quite in control. In his early work especially, he appears to be a naive writer, carried away by the energy of his voice and imagination, struggling to keep up, running after the horses, quill and notebook at the ready, coat tails flying. His prose is always on the verge.
Dickens lives in the realm of the superlative: the best of times, the worst of times, Mr Boythorn in Bleak House, whose superlatives seemed to go off like blank cannons and hurt nothing, John Westlock lifting Ruth Pinch over an obstruction in the street the lightest, easiest, neatest thing. So much in Dickens is the kindest in the world, the most true nature ever to be beheld, the most virtuous or vilest, and at those moments where he most wants to pack an emotional punch, he reaches for the superlative. At the same time, a superlative denies an alternative: once the best has been reached, where can we go from here? The danger of such an approach is that it can entrench an ideology. On the other hand, Dickens himself seems to be aware of this, as sometimes the writing simply stops, simply gives up, as words become inadequate to describe the intensity of his vision, the pace of his thoughts: which no one can imagine who has not witnessed it, and of which any description would convey a very faint idea. Or this: Why should we attempt to describe that of which no description can convey an adequate idea? Or this: A degree of spirit which is quite indescribable.
His characters are also infected with the same energy and gusto. They often do the unexpected and make you gasp with delighted astonishment. I’m quite sure that Mrs. Gamp was as surprising to her creator as she is to us: The severely ironical character of this reply was strengthened by a very slow nod, and a still slower drawing down of the corners of Mrs. Gamp’s mouth. She added with extreme stateliness of manner, after indulging in a short doze: “ But I’m a keeping of you gentlemen, and time is precious.”
So many of the minor characters in Dickens are of course completely bonkers mad or mentally handicapped, a madness equally matched by the spirited incredulity of the narrator. Paul saw the weak-eyed young man who had that morning given such offence to Mrs. Pipchin, suddenly seize a very large drumstick, and fly at a gong that was hanging up, as if he had gone mad or wanted vengeance. Instead of receiving warning, however, or being instantly taken into custody, the young man left off unchecked, after having made a dreadful noise. Then Cornelia Blimber said dinner would be ready in a quarter of an hour. This is pure Camphill.