A Short History of English Literature

By Harry Blamires | Go to book overview
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19

The Victorian novel

Charles Dickens (1812-70) is as central to the Victorian novel as Tennyson is to Victorian poetry. Dickens’s struggling, unhappy childhood, as the son of a poor, debt-ridden dock clerk, brought him into contact with debtors’ prisons and forced him into work in a blacking factory at the age of twelve. By perseverance he became office boy, journalist, and finally original contributor to periodicals. His satirical Sketches by Boz (in the Old Monthly Magazine) proved popular and the Pickwick Papers, following hard after, made his name. What began as an illustrated series of episodes in the lives of the Pickwick Club evolved into a loosely knit picaresque novel.

The experience of rising from poverty to affluence put feeling into Dickens’s indignant attack on the cruel exploitation of the poor, children especially, as is evident in Oliver Twist (1837-8) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9). In the former the savage Poor Law and the workhouse are under judgement: in the latter it is the brutal maltreatment of his charges by Wackford Squeers, schoolmaster of Dothe-boys Hall. Such social passion is a continuing factor in Dickens’s work and encourages reformers and revolutionaries to claim him for their own. A second strength is his keen eye for character and for the idiosyncrasies of habit (involving temperament, speech, physical peculiarities, dress and possessions) by which personality comes to life. The extent to which the wide gallery of Dickensian types, subtle or caricatured, is also the product of reading is not clear; but the influence of Smollett cannot be ignored. A third strength is the strange emotional power which makes Dickens’s revelation of suffering compelling if sometimes melodramatic (a good instance is the death of young Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son, 1846-7), and which makes his treatment of love, generosity and unselfishness something

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