“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)