THE LITERARY fame of Dickens stands much where it did at the time of his death; but it would be idle to pretend that at the present day his prose style satisfies all the critics who deserve the attention of his readers. Perhaps there is nothing astonishing in this; for when a humour and a pathos such as his have mastered an entire period of a national life, it is a common experience that in the succeeding generation a reaction should set in. While, however, the popular love for the writings of Dickens remains unabated, and only some very young ladies, like some very old gentlemen thirty years ago, can see nothing at all in him, the censures which his style has now frequently to undergo consist largely of cavils and of reservations, together with complaints of shortcomings such as no great writer can altogether escape. Many of these cavils are worth taking into account, but they are frequently applied with too little discrimination between the different periods and varying moods of his authorship. This is the more to be regretted, because Dickens has left behind him no special congregation of worshippers, sworn to uphold each word of the master both in season and out of season,such a sect as, although he had imitators enough and to spare in his lifetime, he was innocent of the faintest desire of founding for futurity. On the present occasion, when space only serves for a few brief extracts from those of his works in which he was beyond all dispute at his best in the chief successive stages of his literary career, it is impossible at length to discuss the dangers, or illustrate the injustice, of many of the generalisations that are so airily applied to his literary qualities. How often, for example, have we been told that the humour of Dickens is low, and his pathos melodramatic! And who would deny that there is an element characteristic of the Londoner in his style, as there was in the man himself; but have the partners in this recondite discovery noticed the further fact, that even where his humour may fairly be called Cockney, it is at the same time wonderfully cosmopolitan, and has rejoiced the hearts of many thousands of readers in all parts of the world, to whose ears the sound of Bow Bells and all that it carries with it are wholly unfamiliar? So again, melodramatic effects no doubt abound in Dickenss books from Oliver Twist to The Mystery of Edwin Drood; in truth, the production of such effects was an exercise of artistic power which, catholic as his tastes were in many respects, probably delighted and attracted him more than any other. But melodramatic situations are by no means unnatural as a matter of course, nor is all melodramatic speech hollow; and the only reason for objecting to their frequent employment lies in the fact that, when simple and strongly-marked effects are habitually produced and reiterated, opportunity is rarely left for the subtler strokes of tragic irony in the construction of plot or elaboration of character. Indeed, the art of Dickens is sometimes at its best, when the manner is melodramatic: as, for instance, in the whole of the Little Emily portion of David Copperfield, and in its thrilling last scene, which stands in close juxtaposition to the retrospect of Doras death, woven out of threads of idyllic delicacy.
The extracts which ensue are, with the exception of the last two, all taken from a period extending over little more than fifteen years. If the circumstances of Dickenss childhood and youth are taken into consideration, it must be accounted one of the rarest of literary experiences that so little should remain from his hand which can be fairly called crude, or partaking of the nature of promise rather than of achievement. He had produced no original work of any consequence beyond the Sketches by Boz, lightly conceived and lightly thrown off, when with Pickwick he leapt to the summit of fame as a humourist; and it was in the midst of the publication of Pickwick that he set hand to Oliver Twist, a story round the facts of which controversy still rages, but which unmistakably stamped its author as possessed of literary gifts hitherto, it is not too much to say, displayed by no English writer of prose fiction in a similar combination. Less than five years intervened between the completion of Oliver Twist and the commencement of Martin Chuzzlewit, a work of at least equal power, and of incomparably greater variety and richness; and a few weeks before the first number of this work there appeared the earliest of those little Christmas stories which, with a wholly original charm of diction, created a new romantic aspect for English domestic life. During the last five of the fifteen years in question, Dickenss genius was in the fulness of its vigour. About the middle of this period David Copperfield, the story to which all its authors other stories must yield the palm for both interest and beauty, was in progress, while the first of the two periodicals conducted by Dickens, and adorned by occasional as well as continuous contributions of his own, was beginning to run its course.
From 1852 or thereaboutsothers would perhaps date its commencement laterthe second period of Dickenss authorship seems to me to open. Of this Bleak House and Hard Times may be taken as representing the earlier, Little Dorrit and its successors the later, subdivisions. In this year the style of Dickens, whether grave or gay, already approaches his later and less delightful manner, or has fairly passed into it, while nothing could be easier than to select from any of his later booksand notably perhaps from the earlier and from the later in the grouppassage upon passage and chapter upon chapter showing that neither had his hand lost its cunning nor his imagination its elasticity; while furthermore they prove his genius to have still led him to the discovery of new and unworked veins in the invention of character, and even more frequently in that of plot or situation,yet each book as a whole, and the style of it as a whole, lacked the full freshness of Dickens when at his best. Above all, he was becoming less and less able to free himself from the mannerism of which the real origin is conscious self-imitation or self-accentuation. Accordingly, the most pleasing examples of his later style, apart from occasional passages in the novels, are to be found in some of those occasional papers which, more particularly under the happy designation of the Uncommercial Traveller, he composed, not without pains, for he took pains about everything, but without even the semblance of a strain. Some of them in originality of design and grace of execution equal anything of the sort that our literature, rich as it is in such-like delightful foliage, has put forth either in the eighteenth century or in the nineteenth.
Dickens sleeps near Garrick, whose art he loved better than almost any other, even than that which was most properly his own. In the admirable poem which was designed to prove the great English actor worthy of the vacant chair of Roscius, very little anxiety is displayed as to his shortcomings, natural or artificial. And so with Dickens. The best qualities of style adorn those among his worksfalling chiefly within the range indicated abovein which his literary merits of other kinds can hardly be contested. Those, therefore, who still think that he should take the chair before his rivals in English prose fiction, will prefer that his claims should be judged by the positive excellence of his best writings.