Most words are writ in water, some in lemon juice, only a few in indelible ink. The last meet the test for literature suggested by C. S. Lewis: what you will read again. When one reaches the age when buying green bananas smacks of presumption, rereading becomes even more consoling. The tried and the true attract ever so much more than the latest water-colored publishing phenomenon, a category not confined to the multimillion-dollar memoirs of politicians or the fictionalized apologias of mendacious reporters. This is a prelude for the fact that I have been wallowing in Dickens yet again.
Our Mutual Friend is arguably Dickens’s best (as Italo Calvino, among others, has argued) and, like so many of the novels, transferred well to film. The portrayal of Mr. Venus is superb, as is that of the one-legged villain, Silas Wegg. But nothing could ever substitute for the novels themselves. To begin one is to enter a world that in some respects is as fantastic as that of P. G. Wodehouse but somehow makes realism seem thin. Landscapes become characters, like the fog at the beginning of Bleak House and the Thames in Our Mutual Friend. Everything and everyone is suffused with the personality of the author and made to do his bidding. Coincidences carry the plot, the improbable becomes everyday; we weep and rage with the injustice done the hero, often some surrogate of Dickens. The flagship of the fleet is undoubtedly David Copperfield.
One could make a list of the characters, major and minor, in this novel and find the majority are more familiar to many of us than historical figures. Aunt Betsy; Murdstone and his odious sister, Jane; Peggoty; Little Emily; Mrs. Gammidge; Barkis the carrier—all these, along with David, his mother, and Chillip the doctor, are in play in the first chapters, and there are dozens more to come. Dickens is not given to subtlety in portraying his places or people: They are either good or bad from the outset, and the good get better and the bad get worse. More often than not, they are characterized by an oft-repeated phrase or a physical characteristic of memorable proportions.
The wooing of Peggoty by Mr. Barkis is an all but wordless campaign with David as go-between, entrusted with the expressive message to the object of the carrier’s affection: “Barkis is willin’.” A similar sentiment fills Dickens’s faithful reader. We are willing, we are eager, to be swept along by events, to meet again the familiar cast of characters. So what if the good young women are by and large unbelievably good, too sweet for words, unless it is Dickens who is pouring forth the words. They are never too sweet for him, and we are willing to follow his lead.
In his little book on Dickens, surely one of his best, Chesterton begins with the remark that it is self-evident that Dickens is a great author. A statement is self-evident when anyone who knows the meaning of its terms immediately assents to it. The whole is greater than its part. Charles Dickens is a great author. It is in reading him that his greatness is manifest to us. That is not established by critics, only assumed and then dilated upon. So too the reader putting down the novel may ruminate about its strengths and weaknesses. What we are unlikely to do, in this reflective phase, is to measure Dickens by some other author. He is sui generis. The criteria for appraisal are what we know about our kind and the world in which we live. Dickens’s social conscience has proved a puzzle to many, perhaps particularly for those who want to see him as a sort of John the Baptist to 20th-century socialism. After all, the debtor’s prison was a government solution and so was the parish home for the poor, two institutions that are on the same side of the moral divide that runs through the novels.
The truth is that Dickens could not have written a novel to theoretical specifications. Is Hard Times an indictment of capitalism? If that ever was Dickens’s intention, it gets swamped by the characters who are far more interesting in their exaggerated individuality than any idea they might be carriers of. In Little Dorrit, the prison is almost as homey as any other dwelling in the story.
I exaggerate, of course, but I am writing about Dickens, and that is the note to strike. One does not reread in order to carp. Rereading figures in David Copperfield, the books he read as a child, recalled for classmates at school, recurring in thought throughout his life. Did Dickens already know that he would play that role for so many of us?