MANY people still read Dickens for his records and criticism of social abuses, as if he were a great historian or a great reformer. Any history, of course, is a splendid field for benevolence and love of justice and indignation; for there they require no action, no awkward politics: but history which is both truth and fiction too, dressed up with caricatures and jokes, set in every kind of devised excitement and pathos, allows uplifting emotions to play upon the past with a freedom that no professed historian could decently encourage. Dickens's novels are now historical documents of this kind; and many readers who would be bored by the reports of the Poor Law Commissioners or Garratt Suggestions for a Reform of the Proceedings in Chancery can look in Oliver Twist and Bleak House for pictures of their times, and contributions to the cure of the evils they describe.
In addition to this, few English novelists have been treated with such respect by the professional historians themselves. He is quoted often as indicating the trend of opinion and taste, but also on matters of fact, not merely because his familiar words will give extra point to an illustration from another source, but because his words are so often the best illustration to be had. And as history filters down from original researchers and creative historians through the various strata of text- books, references to Dickens become more frequent (one might add more careless), and of proportionately greater importance. The extreme is reached in one of the most popular History Text-Books for children between the ages of 11 and 14; the whole introductory chapter to the nineteenth century is given to Dickens, starting with a portrait and a short biography. The