“Charles Dickens” by G. K. Chesterton

As I already had my Chesterton out, I decided to knock out another biography. In this case I chose Charles Dickens. I have read a few Dickens novels previously, all as reading assignments in high school: A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and A Christmas Carol. But about the author himself, I knew little. The most common Dickens fact passed around by English teachers though seems to be that, Dickens got paid by the word (used to explain his long wandering sentences and large words). Probably true? But I have yet to read a source backing that up (Chesterton doesn’t confirm it).

Chesterton, writing in 1903 thirty-three years after Dickens’ death, made a prediction about Dickens: Dickens will dominate the whole England of the nineteenth century; he will be left on that platform alone. And from a 2019 perspective, it seems to have come true. Other authors he mentions, Thackeray and Swinburne, aren’t assigned as high school reading assignments. Everyone knows Scrooge, and has at least heard the name of Oliver Twist, but no characters from Macaulay. Dickens is easily recognized as a great author. But even at the turn of the 19th century, Chesterton’s contemporaries seemed to already be mourning the end of the greats: Why have we no great men? Chesterton’s diagnosis is: We have no great men chiefly because we are always looking for them. We are connoisseurs of greatness, and connoisseurs can never be great; we are fastidious, that is, we are small.

Reading this biography of Dickens is less of biographical details and more an explication of each of Dickens’ works, from Pickwick to Edwin Drood. Chesterton has an amazing grasp of Dickens, pulling out names of minor characters in every book Dickens ever wrote. I am assuming it would be difficult to keep up unless you read every single book by Dickens first. Chesterton explains his method of biography:

I have deliberately in this book mentioned only such facts in the life of Dickens as were, I will not say significant (for all facts must be significant, including the million facts that can never be mentioned by anybody), but such facts as illustrated my own immediate meaning. I have observed this method consistently without shame because I think that we can hardly make too evident a chasm between books which profess to be statements of all the ascertainable facts, and books which (like this one) profess only to contain a particular opinion or a summary deducible from the facts. Books like Forster’s exhaustive work and others exist, and are as accessible as St. Paul’s Cathedral; we have them in common as we have the facts of the physical universe; and it seems highly desirable that the function of making an exhaustive catalogue and that of making an individual generalisation should not be confused. No catalogue, of course, can contain all the facts even of five minutes; every catalogue, however long and learned, must be not only a bold, but, one may say, an audacious selection. But if a great many facts are given, the reader gains a blurred belief that all the facts are being given. In a professedly personal judgment it is therefore clearer and more honest to give only a few illustrative facts, learning the other obtainable facts to balance them. For thus it is made quite clear that the thing is a sketch, an affair of a few lines.


And Chesterton does a great job at making Dickens his own, interpreting him as part of a larger Christian worldview. First, Dickens didn’t make a literature; he made a mythology. Chesterton remarks that Dickens’ characters are timeless. His characters are more important than his plots, and they don’t change throughout the book (but doesn’t Scrooge really change? Maybe not?). Pickwick embodies loveable tomfoolery and romance like Aphrodite embodies love.

Similar to Robert Browning, Dickens is used by Chesterton as a champion of democracy– representing all voices, the common man. It is the custom of our little epoch to sneer at the middle classes. Cockney artists profess to find the bourgeoisie dull, as if artists had any business to find anything dull. Decadents talk contemptuously of its conventions and its set tasks; it never occurs to them that conventions and set tasks are the very way to keep the greenness in the grass and that redness in the roses– which they have lost for ever. Dickens takes the ordinary and everyday and makes them into heroes. You don’t have to be a princess. You don’t even have to be that talented. You can have idiosyncrasies and flaws. You can even be a fool and be a hero: Pickwick goes through life with that god-like gullibility which is the key to all adventures. The greenhorn is the ultimate victor in everything; it is he that gets most out of life… His soul will never starve for exploits or excitements who is wise enough to be made a fool of.

Optimism and Reform

Chesterton also paints Dickens as an optimist. How is he an optimist? In the way he portrays his characters: the poor are made great. The weak things are made strong. But optimism doesn’t mean indifference, or acceptance. Dickens used his literature to spark change, and I think reformers could perhaps learn a few things from Dicken’s approach. Chesterton sets Dickens next to Rousseau, the philosopher who asserted than man is inherently good: There is a great man who makes every man feel small. But the real great man is the man who makes every man feel great. The spirit of the early century produced great men, because it believed that men were great. It made strong men by encouraging weak men. This is the spirit that inhabits Dickens’ works.

And it was this spirit that got things done. When Dickens’ took aim at an issue of the day in a book, the public took notice and things changed. Workhouses, debtors’ prison– all were reformed because Dickens wrote about them:

He gave every one an interest in Mr. Bumble’s existence; and by the same act gave every one an interest in his destruction. It would be difficult to find a stronger instance of the utility and energy of the method which we have, for the sake of argument, called the method of the optimistic reformer. As long as the low Yorkshire schools were entirely colourless and dreary, they continued quietly tolerated by the public and quietly intolerable to the victims. So long as Squeers was dull as well as cruel he was permitted; the moment he became amusing as well as cruel he was destroyed…

As long as Bumble was merely inhuman he was allowed. When he became human humanity wiped him right out. For in order to do these great acts of justice we must always realise not only the humanity of the oppressed, but even the humanity of the opporessor. The satirist had, in a sense, to create the images in the mind before, as an iconoclast, he could destroy them. Dickens had to make Squeers live before he could make him die.

I would add that John Oliver perhaps has learned this lesson? John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has also been able to bring issues to light that would likely go unnoticed. He can make “boring” topics, like prison reform and mobile home parks and loan sharks, all come alive. Different genre, but simimlar approach.

The closing words of Chesterton on Dickens are poignant, and reminded me of similar sentiments from C. S. Lewis on the eternal significance of each person around you:

If we are to look for lessons, here at least is the last and deepest lesson of Dickens. It is in our own daily life that we are to look for the portents and prodigies. This is the truth, not merely of the fixed figures of our life; the wife, the husband, the fool that fills the sky. It is true of the whole stream and substance of our daily experience; every instant we reject a great fool merely because he is foolish. Every day we neglect Tootses and Swivellers, Guppys and Joblings, Simmerys and Flashers. Every day we lose the last sight of some Jobling and Chuckster, the Analytical Chemist, or the Marchioness. Every day we are missing a monster whom we might easily love, and an imbecile whom we should certainly admire.

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