The Portable Dickens by Charles Dickens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When I was the age at which this rather collegiate series was aimed, I resisted the Viking Portables mightily. The very idea of excerption, specially from great, 19th Century novels struck me as condescending and plain wrong. That I would not live to read all the great novels ever written seemed to me ridiculously pessimistic; very much an old man's argument and a cocktail party excuse for knowing a little something rather than nothing, just for argument's sake. Now that I am, like Father William, old and my hair has become very white, I can of course see the sense of the thing better. The editors of the Viking series, and the novelist Angus Wilson, the editor of this particular volume obviously never meant these anthologies to be read in lieu of anything. Neither do I now think that that this sort of book would do as an introduction per se, as I can't imagine but that the better way to read Dickens -- or any of the other novelists in the series -- would just be to read the novels, or even just a novel and see where that leads. The very nature of novel reading requires and rewards exactly the same energy, I should think, that it might take to read, say, this fat little volume of more than 700 pages! A point I might have made at 18? Yes, but I now see that what is in these 700 odd pages, while by no means a substitute for reading Dickens "properly," isn't a bluff, but an examination of that most subjective and illusive quantity, style. If, as I did when young, we first read, and read, and read to know, in latter life we quite rightly read to be reminded, and to appreciate anew, then what better means? So long as the title's kept in mind and one can remember that this is just so much "walking-around" Dickens, then as it turns out, this can be a very good book indeed.
I became reacquainted with it only quite recently when, on an overnight trip to the great Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, my friend and traveling companion asked if I thought he might benefit from buying a nice, cheap copy? I endorsed the purchase, without envy, until, that is, we had our books back to the hotel room and I had the opportunity of a browse. When we came to discuss Dickens a bit more that night, I was moved to find herein, under the general heading of "Childhood," exactly the scene from Bleak House I wanted to quote. Under the title, "The Salvation of a Street Boy," I found the last few pages detailing the final illness and prayer of Jo, the sweep. It might seem a curious choice for the very unsentimental, very 20th Century Wilson to have included, were it not for that last very famous and very angry paragraph, in the novelist's own voice:
“Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.”
I can not read that passage without tears -- the point I was trying to make that night. For me, Dickens is not defined so much by the Victorian religiosity of such scenes, by what a later and more cynically self-aware age has consistently and, I'm convinced, erroneously dismissed as his sentimentality, but instead by his very real, and yes, righteous indignation. As much as his wild, comic invention, his wit and his general humanity, it is his wrath that makes him more than a major novelist, that puts him in the company of Shakespeare as among the greatest writers who ever lived. (It is the same vein of deep emotion that makes Fielding a greater writer than Smollett, the Hardy who wrote Tess a better novelist than the Hardy who wrote the Woodlanders, and Hardy the poet a better writer still than Hardy the novelist.)
Finding that scene in this book, and reading Wilson's introduction, made me want a copy of my own. Cost me all of five dollars when I found one.
Wilson's introduction, like his selection, reflects quite clearly the preferences and prejudices of the mid-century reader he was and to whom he directed his efforts. His Dickens is a psychologically complex but largely unaware artist; the perpetual Victorian writing machine who almost in spite of himself and his times made imperfect work, shot through with insight and genius. The modernist urge to detach art from either God or gaiety is clear. It's just that there's no way to make Dickens anything but what he was, edit him how you will. Again, like all the greatest artists, like Shakespeare, Dickens is a world unto himself. He can not quite ever be reduced to either themes or angles, as there will always be too much left out.
That then is the fault, I think, that will undo anyone who hasn't read him before from reading him here with anything like the pleasure to be had by someone more familiar with the novels at least. Reading around in the selections here, I found myself drawn not just to bits of the books before and after what was included, but drawn almost as by magnetism in each case to the very beginning of each book. So complete can the experience of reading such novels be that even in revisiting them, what's wanted is the whole over again. There's not much in the literature that I've read of which that is true, may I say.
As to style and the appreciation of it by example, this anthology does what it ought, I suppose in hurrying the reader back to the source. Of all the great novelists, I can think of almost no one who is better at greater length than Dickens. He needs every page, every line, good and bad, to breath. Yes, this sort of book might spare the casual reader some of the tedium that is in fact to be found in even Dickens best books; some of the endless virginal protestations of virtue defamed, the paeans to domesticity and sacrificial maternity, etc. But the worst of him and the best of him are so tightly woven as to resist, I think, the picking apart. There are writers, even great writers, who may benefit from being seen only in a better light, but Dickens isn't one of these. As a result, even some of his best things here can be unsatisfying, of themselves, for not being where they belong in the books.
Still, as just what it is, one writer's rather hefty commonplace book on another, there's value here. "Here's richness!" indeed.
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