Like Twain, Dickens published no thorough aesthetic or theory of the short story or novella. However, throughout his essays, sketches, and novels Dickens addresses the necessity for fancy and emotional and imaginative release in an increasingly Utilitarian age. His letters are a particularly useful resource in attempting to determine his attitudes towards short fiction. Certainly, he seems to have regarded short fiction as a testing ground for ideas and narrative strategies that he might later use in full-length novels. As Michael Slater notes in his introduction to the two- volume Christmas Books, the shorter fiction is often characterized by an intimacy of tone and a style more colloquial than that found in the novels; furthermore, in the range of short fiction Dickens produced from 1833 to 1867, one often finds "the theme of memory and its beneficial effect on the moral life" (Slater vii), especially if those memories are painful rather than pleasant.

Under the heading of "Dickens on Short Fiction," "Frauds on the Fairies" (Household Words , 1 October 1853) underscores the necessity for unfettering works of the imagination from the service of dogma, creed, or cause. Dickens here is attacking his friend Cruikshank's turning fairy-tales into temperance propaganda. What Dickens hoped his readers would see through "the fairy literature of our childhood" (97) was "the romantic side of familiar things"; he wanted adults as well as children to accept the wonderful and the bizarre for their own sakes, not for any precept or homily they might assist in inculcating. He contends "that a nation without fancy, without some romance, never did, never can, never will, hold a great place under the sun." His method of attacking Cruikshank is one of parody, as he speculates on the various perspectives (such as those of the 'Total abstinence', the 'Vegetarian', and the 'Aborigines Protection Society') that could be applied to Robinson Crusoe , then presents various 'doctrinaire' additions to the traditional "Cinderella" that the factions of his day would impose in order to enlist child-readers in their causes. This is the method that Dickens applies in "A Christmas Tree" (in the Household Words Extra Christmas Number for 1850) when, to demonstrate the limitations of the traditional ghost story associated with the English great house, he satirizes all the hackneyed plot-gambits: the haunted chamber, the family curse, the stained floorboard, the haunted portrait, the closed-up room, the rattling of chains in the night, and so on. He notes that the ghosts in such stories are "reducible to a very few general types and classes; for ghosts have little originality, and 'walk' in a beaten track" (14).

The keynote here, the ingredient wanting in Dickens' estimation, is originality, a quality he underscores again and again in his correspondence. For example, even early in his career, Dickens expressed the notion that the hurrying public will allow its attention to be arrested only by the striking or unusual:

I am glad you like The Black Veil. I think the title is a good one, because it is uncommon and does not impair the interest of the story by partially explaining its main feature.("To John Macrone [30 December 1835]," The Letters of Charles Dickens , Pilgrim edn., I: 114)

The impression one receives throughout the many volumes in the Pilgrim edition is that Dickens was as fussy about editorial matters pertaining to his short fiction (and as enthusiastic about its public reception) as he was in those pertaining to his full-length novels. Even so slight a work as "The Lamplighter" stimulated his imagination and offered him scope for his considerable sense of humour, as we see in his letter to J. P. Harley on 28 November 1838 (VII: 794-5). Writing to Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts on 5 January 1855 he reveals obvious pleasure in announcing that "80,000 Poor Travellers have been sold" (VII: 498); a similar elation is conveyed in "To Thomas Beard," on 19 December 1848 with respect to sales of 18,000 copies of The Haunted Man , the last of The Christmas Books . The correspondence makes it plain, too, that Dickens throughout his life struggled in producing his short as well as his full-length fiction; to his fianc�e Catherine he complained on 5 February 1836 of "The Tuggses at Ramsgate": "I wish to Heaven it would clear up. . . I never worked with so little pleasure" (I: 125)--and yet how effortlessly the farcical little satire on the nouveau riche moves along as one reads it today.

Only after his early period does Dickens begin to regret using himself up in short fiction, as one sees in the following letter to Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton:

What you said of the Battle of Life, gave me great pleasure. I was thoroughly wretched at having to use the idea for so short a story. I did not see its full capacity until it was too late to think of another Subject and I have always felt that I might have done a great deal with it, if I had taken it for the groundwork of a more extended book. (10 April 1848; Letters 5: 274)

Not surprisingly, in the coming decade he attempted to develop a collaborative framework that would release him from completing his 'somethings for Christmas' in their entirety. As Stone remarks in his Uncollected Writings (1968), Dickens' object was to have "the storytelling interludes [grow] naturally out of what came before and what went after, and [form] a subordinate and yet functional part of the whole" (II: 563). And yet he felt that a short story should never be treated in a cavalier fashion, but rather as a serious artistic work. To Frank Stone on 1 June 1857 he wrote:

These Notes are destroyed with too much smartness. . . . Airiness and good spirits are always delightful, and are inseparable from notes of a cheerful trip; but they should sympathise with many things as well as see them in a lively way. It is but a word or a touch that expresses this humanity, but without that little embellishment of good nature there is no such thing as humour. [The Letters of Charles Dickens , ed. Walter Dexter, II: 851]

Evident here is his belief in moving the reader through sentiment, which very much marks Dickens as a Romantic. However, as the quintessential Victorian, Dickens prided himself on knowing precisely what his readers wanted in short fiction. In this regard, a letter of rejection that he wrote one contributor, the Rev. Edward Tagart, is quite enlightening.

I have read the story, carefully, and am sorry to say it will not do for Household Words. I need not say to you, that something more is wanted in such a Narrative, than its literal truth that it is in the very nature of such Truths as are treated of here, to require to be told, artistically, and with great discretion. Now, the young man's illness appears to me to be very common- place ditto, the proposal of the married gentleman to the heroine ditto, Helen Winslow's narrative, in the last degree. In the last-named lady, I discern a diluted remembrance of a little book called (if I remember right) the Chimes; and the heroine's dread about her own child, was shadowed out, I think, in the same little Volume. On the whole, our readers would decidedly think that there is nothing in it to excuse its length. (Letters , Pilgrim ed., VI: 177)

In short, what Dickens wanted for his readers was what he wanted for himself when he read (and wrote) short stories: he wanted to be "moved." As he remarked of "The Tale of Richard Doubledick," one of The Seven Poor Travellers , to W. W. F. de Cerjat on the 3rd of January, 1855: "I hope you will find, in the story of the Soldier which [the pages of the recent number of Household Words] contain, something that may move you a little. It moved me not a little in the writing, and I believe has touched a vast number of people" (VII: 495). That was the greatest value Dickens saw in the short fiction he published in his own weekly periodicals: its power to move a readership far vaster than Lionized by his age as Dickens was, his works were not always received by the critics with that same enthusiasm that Dickens published them.

Related Materials


Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: U. P., 1991.

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

Boyle, Thomas. Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead: Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Browning, Robert. "Sketches by Boz." Dickens and the Twentieth Century. Ed. John Gross and Gabriel Pearson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962. Pp. 19- 34.

Cresswell, Julia. The Tuttle Dictionary of First Names. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, 1992.

Dickens, Charles. "The Public Life of Mr. Tulrumble, Once Mayor of Mudfog." The Mudfog Papers. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880. Pp. 1-46.

---. "The Tuggses at Ramsgate." (1836). Sketches by Boz Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People, il. George Cruikshank. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, rpt. 1987. Pp. 335-354.

Dryden, John. "Cymon and Iphigenia, from Boccace." Fables Ancient and Modern; Translated into Verse from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, & Chaucer: With Original Poems. London: Jacob Tonson, 1700. Pp. 541-564.

Easson, Angus. "Who is Boz? Dickens and his Sketches." Dickensian 81 (1985): 13-22.

Davis, Earle. The Flint and the Flame: The Artistry of Charles Dickens. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1963.

Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book: A Record of the Dickens Illustrators. London: Educational Book Co., n. d.

Hamilton, Ellis. British Railway History, 1830-1876. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954.

Ingham, Patricia. Dickens, Women, and Language. Toronto: Toronto U. P., 1992.

Partridge, Eric. A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Ed. Paul Beale. 8th edn. New York: Macmillan, 1984.

Thomas, Deborah A. Dickens and the Short Story. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Thompson, G. R. "Literary Politics and the 'Legitimate Sphere': Poe, Hawthorne, and the 'Tale Proper'." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 49, 2 (September, 1994): 167-195.

Last modified 20 February 2024