Nation and Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day

By Patrick Parrinder | Go to book overview

9
'Turn Again, Dick Whittington!':
Dickens and the Fiction of the City

IF any single writer has been said to embody the Englishness of the English novel it is Dickens. The novelist George Gissing wrote of his great predecessor that 'No man ever loved England more'.1 G. K. Chesterton called him 'the most English of our great writers'.2 Dickens's reputation rests above all on his characters, who are portrayed with marvellous vividness and symbolic power, and in a register that veers melodramatically between satire and sentiment. Their variety is that of a whole nation—of a nation centring on its metropolis—but the nation in Dickens's novels is sharply divided between public and private spheres, one of which inspires his mockery and the other his reverence. Many of his most famous satirical creations gleefully debunk the professional classes and holders of minor public office—beadles, midwives, lawyers, clerks, schoolteachers, and ministers of religion—and figures such as Bumble, Gradgrind, and Squeers have become proverbial monsters outliving the fictional contexts in which they first appeared. Their power over the lives of Dickens's ordinary heroes and heroines produces a sense of monstrous oppression and injustice. Dickens, then, is a radical novelist, but his reflection of national character has certain manifest limitations. Gissing wrote that 'his art, splendidly triumphant, made visible to all mankind the characteristic virtues, the typical shortcomings, of the homely English race'.3 The key word here is 'homely'. He has no interest in the ceremonial aspects of English history or the national life, nor is his fiction international in outlook. What he wishes most for his protagonists is an untroubled, unambitious domestic happiness. He is the novelist as instinctive republican but also as Little Englander.

George Orwell contrasted Dickens's lack of 'vulgar nationalism' with the jingoism of his Victorian contemporaries:

never anywhere does he indulge in the typical English boasting, the 'island
race', 'bulldog breed', 'right little, tight little island' style of talk.… He is

-213-

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