“The art of enjoying everybody”

The art of Dickens was the most exquisite of arts: it was the art of enjoying everybody. Dickens, being a very human writer, had to be a very human being; he had his faults and sensibilities in a strong degree; and I do not for a moment maintain that he enjoyed everybody in his daily life. But he enjoyed everybody in his books: and everybody has enjoyed everybody in those books even till to-day. His books are full of baffled villains stalking out or cowardly bullies kicked downstairs. But the villains and the cowards are such delightful people that the reader always hopes the villain will put his head through a side window and make a last remark; or that the bully will say one thing more, even from the bottom of the stairs. The reader really hopes this; and he cannot get rid of the fancy that the author hopes so too. I cannot at the moment recall that Dickens ever killed a comic villain, except Quilp, who was deliberately made even more villainous than comic. There can be no serious fears for the life of Mr. Wegg in the muckcart; though Mr. Pecksniff fell to be a borrower of money, and Mr. Mantalini to turning a mangle, the human race has the comfort of thinking they are still alive: and one might have the rapture of receiving a begging letter from Mr. Pecksniff, or even of catching Mr. Mantalini collecting the washing, if one always lurked about on Monday mornings…

This is the artistic greatness of Dickens, before and after which there is really nothing to be said. He had the power of creating people, both possible and impossible, who were simply precious and priceless people; and anything subtler added to that truth really only weakens it.

– The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).
Published in: on October 29, 2014 at 9:41 am  Leave a Comment  

“A glittering gloaming”

Some little time ago I stood among immemorial English trees that seemed to take hold upon the stars like a brood of Ygdrasils. As I walked among these living pillars I became gradually aware that the rustics who lived and died in their shadow adopted a very curious conversational tone. They seemed to be constantly apologizing for the trees, as if they were a very poor show. After elaborate investigation, I discovered that their gloomy and penitent tone was traceable to the fact that it was winter and all the trees were bare. I assured them that I did not resent the fact that it was winter, that I knew the thing had happened before, and that no forethought on their part could have averted this blow of destiny. But I could not in any way reconcile them to the fact that it was winter. There was evidently a general feeling that I had caught the trees in a kind of disgraceful deshabille, and that they ought not to be seen until, like the first human sinners, they had covered themselves with leaves.

So it is quite clear that, while very few people appear to know anything of how trees look in winter, the actual foresters know less than anyone. So far from the line of the tree when it is bare appearing harsh and severe, it is luxuriantly indefinable to an unusual degree; the fringe of the forest melts away like a vignette. The tops of two or three high trees when they are leafless are so soft that they seem like the gigantic brooms of that fabulous lady who was sweeping the cobwebs off the sky. The outline of a leafy forest is in comparison hard, gross and blotchy; the clouds of night do not more certainly obscure the moon than those green and monstrous clouds obscure the tree; the actual sight of the little wood, with its gray and silver sea of life, is entirely a winter vision. So dim and delicate is the heart of the winter woods, a kind of glittering gloaming, that a figure stepping towards us in the chequered twilight seems as if he were breaking through unfathomable depths of spiders’ webs.

But surely the idea that its leaves are the chief grace of a tree is a vulgar one, on a par with the idea that his hair is the chief grace of a pianist. When winter, that healthy ascetic, carries his gigantic razor over hill and valley, and shaves all the trees like monks, we feel surely that they are all the more like trees if they are shorn, just as so many painters and musicians would be all the more like men if they were less like mops.

– The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on October 22, 2014 at 10:23 am  Leave a Comment  

On Jane Austen

No woman later has captured the complete common sense of Jane Austen. She could keep her head, while all the after women went about looking for their brains.

– The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).
Published in: on October 15, 2014 at 10:04 am  Leave a Comment  

“A necessity or a danger”

When your grandfathers and mine said that a man’s religion was his own affair, they meant a quite sensible thing, though they expressed it loosely. They meant that some have a hobby of theology, and are always founding sects. And they meant that these should not be allowed to interfere with others who had other hobbies, such as the making of money (that widely extended English hobby), the winning of the Battle of Waterloo (that more exclusive hobby), the discoveries of Darwin (that unpopular hobby), and so on. But all that was only true while a commonplace, but common-sense, morality encircled and solidified the whole society. We live in a time in which religion can only be one of two things: a necessity or a danger.

We are so divided at the roots, we are so separated at the very starting-places of thought, that a religion can no longer be a hobby. A religion must be something either holy or horrible. To make humanity sacred may seem a simple ideal: translated into another language, it is a human sacrifice. To melt into the universe may seem an optimistic idea; translated into another language, it means suicide. As things stand just now, it is really more common-sense than mysticism to say that everyone’s belief is everyone else’s concern.

The Illustrated London News, 6 September 1913.

Published in: on October 8, 2014 at 10:06 am  Comments (1)  

“Matters in which we are at one”

The equality of men needs preaching quite as much as regards the ages as regards the classes of men. To feel infinitely superior to a man in the twelfth century is just precisely as snobbish as to feel infinitely superior to a man in the Old Kent Road. There are differences between the man and us, there may be superiorities in us over the man; but our sin in both cases consists in thinking of the small things wherein we differ when we ought to be confounded and intoxicated by the terrible and joyful matters in which we are at one.

– Charles Dickens (1906).

Published in: on October 1, 2014 at 10:02 am  Comments (1)  

“The guilty secret”

Faith has not faded like a fable; faith is concealed like a sin. Religion is not now the mask; religion is the guilty secret.

– The Daily News, 9 June 1906.

Published in: on September 24, 2014 at 10:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

“A sentimentalist”

Ordinary men will always be sentimentalists: for a sentimentalist is simply a man who has feelings and does not trouble to invent a new way of expressing them.

The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on September 17, 2014 at 8:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Fiction is a necessity”

One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy’s novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that a modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically—it is the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.

In former centuries the educated class ignored the ruck of vulgar literature. They ignored, and therefore did not, properly speaking, despise it. Simple ignorance and indifference does not inflate the character with pride. A man does not walk down the street giving a haughty twirl to his moustaches at the thought of his superiority to some variety of deep-sea fishes. The old scholars left the whole under-world of popular compositions in a similar darkness.

To-day, however, we have reversed this principle. We do despise vulgar compositions, and we do not ignore them. We are in some danger of becoming petty in our study of pettiness; there is a terrible Circean law in the background that if the soul stoops too ostentatiously to examine anything it never gets up again. There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys’ literature of the lowest stratum. This class of composition has presumably always existed, and must exist. It has no more claim to be good literature than the daily conversation of its readers to be fine oratory, or the lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be sublime architecture. But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personæ, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac. In the East the professional story-teller goes from village to village with a small carpet; and I wish sincerely that anyone had the moral courage to spread that carpet and sit on it in Ludgate Circus. But it is not probable that all the tales of the carpet-bearer are little gems of original artistic workmanship. Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity. A work of art can hardly be too short, for its climax is its merit. A story can never be too long, for its conclusion is merely to be deplored, like the last halfpenny or the last pipelight. And so, while the increase of the artistic conscience tends in more ambitious works to brevity and impressionism, voluminous industry still marks the producer of the true romantic trash. There was no end to the ballads of Robin Hood; there is no end to the volumes about Dick Deadshot and the Avenging Nine. These two heroes are deliberately conceived as immortal.

– The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on September 10, 2014 at 8:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

“You ought to publish it”

In matters of truth the fact that you don’t want to publish something is, nine times out of ten, a proof that you ought to publish it.

– A Miscellany of Men (1912).

Published in: on September 3, 2014 at 10:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

On Macbeth

Calvinists object to stage-plays. Yet all stage-plays are forced to be Calvinistic. They are forced, by the very nature of art, to damn or save a man from the beginning. That is why the old Greek plays about fatality succeeded. Such dramas were popular in spite of everything that could be unpopular, and everything that could be undramatic — in spite of masks and monologues and a shallow stage and an absence of incident. They suited the drama because they were full of destiny. And yet I still think that the greatest drama of all is that in which the throne of destiny is shaken for an instant. I think the greatest drama in the world is “Macbeth.”

I think “Macbeth” the one supreme drama because it is the one Christian drama; and I will accept the accusation of prejudice. But I mean by Christian (in this matter) the strong sense of spiritual liberty and of sin; the idea that the best man can be as bad as he chooses. You may call Othello a victim of chance. You may call Hamlet a victim of temperament. You cannot call Macbeth anything but a victim of Macbeth. The evil spirits tempt him, but they never force him; they never even frighten him, for he is a very brave man.

I have often wondered that no one has made so obvious a parallel as that between the murders of Macbeth and the marriages of Henry VIII. Both Henry and Macbeth were originally brave, good-humoured men, better rather than worse than their neighbours. Both Henry and Macbeth hesitated over their first crime — the first stabbing and the first divorce. Both found out the fate which is in evil — for Macbeth went on murdering and poor Henry went on marrying. There is only one fault in the parallel. Unfortunately for history, Henry VIII was not deposed.

– The Illustrated London News, 16 March 1912.

Published in: on August 27, 2014 at 11:23 am  Leave a Comment  
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