Dickens at Work
Dickens at Work
In this book we have examined several of Dickens's novels in the light of the conditions under which he wrote them. The surviving evidence of these conditions is extensive and has been generally neglected hitherto, but if we are right in our estimate of the importance of this material, it suggests more than one new direction in the criticism of his work.
Many writers, taking their point of departure from Dickens's childhood reading, have seen him as continuing the tradition of Fielding and Smollett; but he also continues another eighteenth- century tradition. In the original Preface to Nicholas Nickleby (1839) he chose to call himself a 'periodical essayist', and took leave of his readers in the words of Henry Mackenzie in the last paper of the Lounger:
Other writers submit their sentiments to their readers, with the reserve and circumspection of him who has had time to prepare for a public appearance . . . But the periodical essayist commits to his readers the feelings of the day, in the language which those feelings have prompted.
It is to the recovery of Dickens as a writer of 'periodical' novels that this book is especially devoted: how he responded to and conveyed 'the feelings of the day', what methods of work he evolved as best suited to his own genius and to the demands of monthly or weekly publication, and above all, how he eventually defeated Mackenzie's antithesis by learning to combine the 'circumspection' of preparation with the immediate and intimate relation to his readers which he valued so highly.
Our emphasis accordingly falls upon the process rather than the result, upon Dickens's craft rather than his art; but the inspiration and justification of our work is none the less a conviction of Dickens's greatness as a creative artist. This is widely shared. Yet, despite some excellent interpretative criticism and . . .