According to Henley's "Prefatory," which self-deprecatingly descibes Views and Reviews (1890) as "less a book than a mosaic of scraps and shreds recovered from the shot rubbish of some fourteen years of journalism" (vi), this essay was "pieced together" from articles in London, Vanity Fair, The Athenaeum. In editing this text for the Victorian Web, I have retained orginal spelling and punctuation, and I included numbers in brackets to indicate page breaks in the print edition in order to enable users of VW to cite or locate the original page numbers. [GPL].
Mr. Andrew Lang is delightfully severe on those who "cannot read Dickens," but in truth it is only by accident that he is not himself of that unhappy persuasion. For Dickens the humourist he has a most uncompromising enthusiasm; for Dickens the artist in drama and romance he has as little sympathy as the most practical. Of the prose of David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend, the The Tale of Two Cities and Mystery of Edwin Drood, he disdains to speak. He is almost fierce (for him) in his denunciation of Little Nell and Paul Dombey; he protests that Monks and Hall in Nicholas Nickleby are "too steep," as indeed they are. But of Bradley Headstone and Sydney Carton he says not a word; while of Martin Chuzzlewit — but here he shall speak for himself, the italics being a present to him. "I have read in that book a score of times," says he; "I never see [1/2] it but I revel in it — in Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp and the Americans. But what the plot is about, what Jonas did, what Montague Tigg had to make in the matter, what all the pictures with plenty of shading illustrate, I have never been able to comprehend." This is almost as bad as the reflection (in a magazine) that Jonas Chuzzlewit is "the most shadowy murderer in fiction." Yet it is impossible to be angry. In his own way and within his own limits Mr. Lang is such a thoroughgoing admirer of Dickens that you are moved to compassion when you think of the much he loses by "being constitutionally incapable" of perfect apprehension. "How poor," he cries, with generous enthusiasm, "the world of fancy would be, how dispeopled of life" if, in some ruin of the social were lost; if The Dodger, and Charley Yates, and Mr. Crinkle and Miss Squeers and Sam Weller, and Mrs. Gamp, and Dick Swiveller were to perish, or to vanish with Menander's men and women! We cannot think of our world without them; and, children of dreams as they are, they seem more essential than great statesmen, artists, soldiers, who have actually worn flesh and blood, ribbons and orders, gowns and uniforms." Nor is this all. He is almost prepared to welcome "free education," since every Englishman who can read, unless he "be an Ass, is a reader the more" for Dickens. Does it not give one pause to reflect that the writer of this charming eulogy can only read the half of Dickens, and is half the ideal of his own denunciation.
Dickens's imagination was diligent from the outset; with him conception was not less deliberate and careful than development; and much he confesses when he describes himself as "in the first stage of a new d__ned book, which Consists in going round and round the idea, as you see a bird in his cage go about and about his sugar before he touches it." "I have no means," he writes to a person seeking advice,
Of knowing whether you are in the pursuit of this art; but I am inclined to think that you are not, and that you do not discipline yourself enough. When one is impelled to write this or that, one has still to consider: "How much of this will tell for what I mean ? How much of it is my own wild emotion and superfluous energy — how much remains that is truly belonging to this ideal character and these ideal circumstances? It is in the laborious struggle to make this distinction, and in the determination to try for it, that the road to the correction of faults lies. [Perhaps I may remark, in support of the sincerity with which I write this, that I am an impatient and impulsive [3/4] person myself, but that it has been for many years the constant effort of my life to practise at my desk what I preach to you.]
Such golden words could only have come from one enamoured of his art, and holding the utmost endeavour in its behalf of which his heart and mind were capable for a matter of simple duty. They are a proof that Dickens — in intention at least, and if in intention then surely, the fact of his genius being admitted, to some extent in fact as well — was an artist in the best sense of this term.
. . . He developed into an artist in words as he developed into an artist in the construction and the evolution of a story. But his development was his own work, and it is a fact that should redound eternally to his honour that he began in newspaper English, and by the production of an imitation of the novella picturesque — a string of adventures as broken and disconnected as the adventures of Lazarillo de Tormes or Peregrine Pickle, and went on to become an exemplar. A man self-made and self-taught, if he knew anything at all about the "art for art" theory — which is doubtful — he may well have held it cheap enough. But he practised Millet's dogma — Dan l'art il faut sa peau — as resolutely as Millet himself, and that, too, under conditions that might have proved utterly demoralising had he been less robust and less sincere. He began as a serious novelist with Ralph Nickleby and Lord Frederick Verisopht; he went on to produce such masterpieces as Jonas Chuzzlwit; and Doubledick, and Eugene Wrayburn and the immortal Mrs. Gamp, and Fagin and Sikes and Sydney Carton, and many another. The advance one from positive weakness to positive strength, from ignorance to knowledge, from incapacity to mastery, from the manufacture of lay figures to the
His faults were many and grave. He wrote some nonsense; he sinned repeatedly against taste; he could be both noisy and vulgar; he was apt to be a caricaturist where he should have been a painter; he was often mawkish and often extravagant; and he was sometimes more inept than a great writer has ever been. But his work, whether bad or good, has in full measure the quality of sincerity. He meant what he did; and he meant it with his whole heart. He looked upon himself as representative [5/6] and national — as indeed he was; he regarded his work as a universal possession; and he determined to do nothing that for lack of pains should prove unworthy of his function. If he sinned it was unadvisedly and unconsciously; if he failed it was because he knew no better. You feel that as you read. The freshness and fun of Pickwick — a comic middle-class epic, so to speak — seem mainly due to high spirits; and perhaps that immortal book should be described as a first improvisation by a young man of genius not yet sure of either expression or ambition and with only vague and momentary la~ about the duties and necessities of art. But onwards to Edwin Drood improvement is manifest. What are lbmb~ and Dorritt themselves but two failures of a great and serious artist? In truth the man's genius did but ripen with years and labour; he spent his life in developing from a popular writer into an artist. He extemporised Pickwick, it may be, but into Copperfield and Chuzzlewit and the Tale of Two Cities and Our Mutual Friend he put his whole might, working at them with a passion of determination not exceeded by Balzac himself. He had enchanted the public without an effort; he was the best-beloved of modern writers almost from the outset of his career. But he had in him at least as much of the French artist as of the middle-class Englishman; and if all his life he never ceased from self-education but went unswervingly in pursuit of culture, it was out of love for his art and because his conscience as an artist would not let him do otherwise. We have been told so often to train ourselves by studying the practice of workmen like Gautier and Hugo and imitating the virtues of work like Hernani and Quatre-Vingt-Trieze and L'Education Sentimentale — we have heard so much of the aesthetic impeccability of Young France and the section of Young England that affects its qualities and reproduces its fashions — that it is hard to refrain from asking if, when all is said, we should not do well to look for models nearer home? if in place of such models of form as Mademoiselle de Maupin are we right not take to considering stuff like . . . Our Mutual Friend ?
Yes, he had many and grave fault. But so had Sir Walter and the good Dumas; so, to be candid, had Shakespeare himself — Shakespeare the king of poets. To myself he is always the man of his unrivalled and enchanting letters — is always an incarnation of generous and abounding gaiety, a type of beneficent earnestness, a great expression of intellectual vigour and emotional vivacity. I love to remember that I came into the world [7/8] contemporaneously with some of his bravest work, and to reflect that even as he was the inspiration of my boyhood so is he a delight of my middle age, I love to think that while English literature endures he will be remembered as one that loved his fellow-men, and did more to make them happy and amiable than any other writer of his time.
Henley, W. E. Views and Reviews: Essays in Appreciation. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons: 1890. 3-8.
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