On Dickens (Part 1): Art and Life

Considerably before there was dada, surrealism, magic realism, or animation, there was Dickens, who foreshadowed them all. He was born two hundred years ago last month into a world that he would later give his nameDickens' study at Gad's Hill to. His childhood was what can only be described as Dickensian - financially precarious, socially liminal, involving stints in a blacking factory. He grew up, somewhat embittered, to skewer a succession of fat, juicy Victorianisms on the spit of his genius, and roast them to a delicious crispness. He’s praised and censured for how much larger his imaginary world is than life, but it’s this largeness, more than anything else, that makes him great. 

What first grabbed me about Dickens was his sheer energy. His narratives rush at and past you. His prose feels like some winged creature swooping and wheeling, circling upwards then suddenly diving, pecking savagely at the nasty characters, tenderly enfolding the sweet ones in soft feathers. His language is elastic, inventive, rhythmic, even onomatapoeic; jazz is latent in it. There are jokes, or at least barbs, embedded in the very syntax. Perhaps my favourite sentence in all of Dickens (it’s the one Miriam Margulyes ends her show with) is the names of the birds that, in Bleak House, Miss Flite keeps caged: “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.” This sentence runs the reeling gamut of Dickens’ portraiture. Here, and everywhere, he seems to skitter along the edge of the fantastic, the unbelievable. But this, after all, is his most consistent comment: life is unbelievable. 

In his speech at the official wreath-laying in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, the Archbishop used words like ‘exuberance’ and ‘excess’ to describe the essence of Dickens.   What appeals is the exaggeration and caricature, but more because they reach for something truthful than because they go beyond it: “The truth is extreme, the truth is excessive. The truth about human beings is more grotesque and bizarre than we can imagine. And Dickens' generous embrace of human beings does not arise out of a chilly sense of what is due to them, but out of a celebratory feeling that there is always more to be discovered.”  

This is a thought GK Chesterton took up in his marvellous biography of Dickens, published in 1906. He answers the critics who found Dickens’ works unlike life.  “Dickens is ‘like life’ in the truer sense, in the sense that he is akin to the living principle in us and in the universe; he is like life, at least in this detail, that he is alive. His art is like life, because, like life, it cares for nothing outside itself, and goes on its way rejoicing. Both produce monsters with a kind of carelessness... Art indeed copies life in not copying life, for life copies nothing. Dickens's art is like life because, like life, it is irresponsible, because, like life, it is incredible.”