THE TRUE MONUMENT FOR DICKENS.
THE question whether a statue of Dickens shall be erected, which has been discussed during the past few days, can only be answered, we should think, in one way. Dickens himself did not wish for a statue, and said so,—that, at all events, is the interpretation put upon his injunctions by the Dickens family; and at least, so long as his near relations are alive, their judgment should be received as final by decent people. It may be said that a man's fame cannot be adminis- tered by his own wishes, because it is a national possession, and that a liberal increment must always be allowed to his estimate of his own importance, because that estimate was presumably guided by modesty. And it actually is being said that the erection of a statue would not be more incompatible with the sense of Dickens's words than his burial in West- minster Abbey was with his injunction that he should be "buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner, without any public announcement of the time or place of his burial." Of course there must be room for dis- cretion in such matters, but we still think that discretion positively excludes the disregard of the wishes of near relations. We ourselves are in favour of statues in principle —when the statues are better than most of those in London— because they are picturesque, associate particular memories in a very desirable way with particular districts so that the very ground seems to speak its history, and provoke inquiry in laggard and inattentive brains. We are yet a long way from overdoing the erection of statues, and Professor Waidstein in his general praise of the habit of dotting them about a country apparently did not think it even necessary to mention the revulsion of feeling in Paris against " statueising " minor celebrities, and the resolution to stay what has at last become a veritable plague. But the fame of Dickens can get on very well without a statue. Wren's epitaph, si monumentum requiris eireumspice, is magnificently true of Dickens's novels.
The reaction which nearly always follows the exaltation of a writer to the heights has already passed in the case of Dickens. It has done good, because it has knocked away the rotten supports of his fame, and disclosed more clearly the mighty ones on which it will rest firmly for ever. A genera- tion which was specially aroused to the importance of being careful of the " p's " and "q's " of literary form found it easy to disparage the want of discipline in Dickens's writing ; but a very slight reaction from that particular reaction has con- vinced all but the incurable prigs that, after all, a majestic forest growth, even if sometimes too luxuriant, is preferable to a spick-and-span desert. Those who cry very loudly for the pruning of Dickens have generally nothing of their own worth pruning. But the reaction, as we have said, has done good. We no longer read Dickens all expectant for the nobility of his passages of sentiment; we no longer fly into tantrums or dissolve in tears at his disposal of this or that character. We have long since been reconciled to the death of Little Nell. We see the truth now that the gorgeous imagination, the whimsical observation, the geniality, and the wholesomeness of Dickens were all driven through the channels of circumstance which controlled the course of his plots, and that the plots, with their love-making and dying, matter hardly at all. We can conceive ourselves—if we may suppose for a moment that we are back in the days when Dickens was being published in monthly parts—fighting round a shop to obtain the latest issue, and read a new chapter in which Mr. Peckeniff improves the occasion ; but we cannot possibly conceive our- selves enduring the same labours to discover whether Martin Chuzzlewit married Mary. Yet that is really the kind of thing which many of our predecessors persuaded themselves that they wanted to know. The "monthly parts" were the explanation of nearly all the formlessness of Dickens's con- struction. "The Mystery of Edwin Drood " is not formless, and that is a novel, or part of one, in which Dickens set out with a definite and immutable plot in his mind ; but "Oliver Twist," which was written in "monthly parts," goes on and on inconsequently, often preparing to come to an end, like the sermon of an extempore preacher, but taking new life unex- pectedly and going off again at a tangent. "Oliver Twist," in fact, was kept alive just so long as the author's plans for other work were unsettled. Really the characters of Dickens are interchangeable ; they all might appear in any other novel than that in which they do appear; action does not grow pro- gressively out of character ; but the action or plot is a bare pretext for introducing the characters.
We read a paper some time ago in which Canon Benham demonstrated the chronological chaos of "Martin Chuzzlewit," and proved that the circumstances of the murder by Jonas Chuzzlewit could never have been fitted into the time allotted to them. Yet Canon Benham. declared that he enjoys "Martin Chuzzlewit" more than any of Dickens's novels.
Those are the perfectly compatible judgments of a just Dickens scholar. Chronology is a matter of indifference.
The sun is always ready obligingly to stand still while one revels in the company, independent of time or place or plot, of Pecksniff, and Mrs. Gamp, and Micawber, and Dick Swiveller, and Chadband, and Bumble, and Silas Wegg, and Sydney Carton, and Sam Weller, and Pickwick, and the rest.
If the contemporaries of Dickens relatively took too seriously the plots and the sentiment which often strayed into mawkish- ness, we must remember that they were also personally con- cerned in the social problems which Dickens tackled. The Poor Law is as real and as difficult a problem now as it was then, and it is arguable that the Circumlocution Office remains ; but the other problems have passed, and can never again be pleaded by any one, however blind, as the reasons of the abiding greatness of Dickens. The Yorkshire schools have perished as completely as the memory of Dotheboys Hall will last, and the casual and abominably negligent system of nursing of which Mrs. Gamp was the archetype has given place to a regularity and fostering care which are one of the chief prides of our civilisation. But the literary and human qualities shine on for all time and for universal enjoyment. A passage comes into our bead from "Nicholas Nickleby" as an example of Dickens's spacious use of subjects which are kept locked up by many brains,—academic, in- communicable, and dull :—
"'I hope you have preserved the unities, sir,' said Mr. Curdle. The original piece is a French one,' said Nicholas. There is abundance of incident, sprightly dialogue, strongly-marked characters— All unavailing without a strict observance of the unities, sir,' returned Mr. Curdle. The unities of the drama before everything.'—' Might I ask you,' said Nicholas, hesitating between the respect he ought to assume and his love of the whimsical, might I ask you what the unities are 2' Mr. Curdle coughed and considered. The unities, sir,' he said, are a com- pleteness—a kind of a universal dove-tailedness with regard to place and time—a sort of a general oneness, if I may be allowed to use so strong an expression. I take those to be the dramatic unities, so far as I have been enabled to bestow attention upon them, and I have read much upon the subject, and thought much. I find, running through the performances of this child,' said Mr. Curdle, turning to the phenomenon, 'a unity of feeling, a breadth, a light and shade, a warmth of colouring, a tone, a harmony, a glow, an artistica' development of original conceptions, which I look for in vain among older performers—I don't know whether
I make myself understood ? Perfectly,' replied Nicholas."
Surely Corneille and others were never justified better for their violation of the unities of the drama, even in thousands of pages of criticism ?
And then there is an eloquence in Dickens, which has perhaps never been appreciated as it should have been by his Critics; certainly it should never have been allowed to be swamped by the sentimentality or the mere magniloquence. We do not take the case of Dick Swiveller, because there are in him signs of being amused at his own torrents of words. But Pecksniff was never his own critic. The following passage is instinctively eloquent in form, though so deliberately broken up, and though completely safeguarding our concep- tion of Pecksniff's character, notably by the perfect inter- jection of the "pagan, I regret to say" :— "‘ Now,' said Mr. Pecksniff, crossing his two fore-fingers in a manner which was at once conciliatory and argumentative : • I will
not, upon the one hand, go so far as to say that she deserves all the inflictions which have been so very forcibly and hilariously suggested ; ' one 9f his ornamental sentences ; nor will I, upon the other, on any account compromise my common understanding as
a man by making the assertion that she does not. What I would observe is, that I think some practical means might be devised of
inducing our respected—shall I say our revered— ? No ! 'inter-
posed the strong-minded woman in a loud voice.—' Then I will not,' said Mr. Pecksniff. 'You are quite right, my dear madam, and I appreciate, and thank you for, your discriminating objection —our respected relative, to dispose himself to listen to the promptings of nature—and not to the—'—' Go on, Pa!' cried Mercy.—.' Why, the truth is, my dear,' said Mr. Pecksniff, smiling upon his assembled kindred, 'that I am at a loss for a word. The name of those fabulous animals (pagan, I regret to say) who used to sing in the water, has quite escaped me.' Mr. George Chuzzlewit suggested 'Swans.' No,' said Mr. Pecksniff. 'Not swans. Very like swans, too. Thank you.' The nephew with the outline of a countenance, speaking for the first and last time on that occasion, propounded 'Oysters.' No,' said Mr. Pecksniff, with his own peculiar urbanity, 'nor oysters. But by no means unlike oysters ; a very excellent idea ; thank you, my dear sir, very much. Wait! Sirens. Dear me ! sirens, of course. I think, I say, that means might be devised of disposing our respected relative to listen to the promptings of nature, and not to the siren-like delusions of art."
Chadband's oratory, as in "It is the ray of rays, the sun of suns, the moon of moons, the star of stars, it is the light of Terewth," is salubrious satire, and never likely to be super- fluous; but Micawber was absolutely eloquent even when most fatuous :—
" My dear Copperfield,' said Mr. Micawber, rising with one of his thumbs in each of his waistcoat pockets, 'the companion of my youth : if I may be allowed the expression—and my esteemed friend Traddles : if I may be permitted to call him so—will allow me, on the part of Mrs. Micawber, myself, and our offspring, to thank them in the warmest and most uncompromising terms for their good wishes. It may be expected that on the eve of a migration which will consign us to a perfectly new existence,' Mr. Micawber spoke as if they were going five hundred thousand miles, 'I should offer a few valedictory remarks to two such friends as I see before me. But all that I have to say in this way I have said. Whatever station in society I may attain, through the medium of the learned profession of which I am about to become an unworthy member, I shall endeavour not to disgrace, and Mrs. Micawber will be safe to adorn. Under the temporary pressure of pecuniary liabilities, contracted with a view to their immediate liquidation, but remaining unliquidated through a combination of circumstances, I have been under the necessity of assuming a garb from which my natural instincts recoil—I allude to spectacles—and possessing myself of a cognomen to which I can establish no legitimate pretensions. All I have to say on that score is, that the cloud has passed from the dreary scene, and the God of Day is once more high upon the mountain tops. On Monday next, on the arrival of the four o'clock after- noon coach at Canterbury, my foot will be on my native heath— my name, Micawber !' Mr. Micawber resumed his seat on the close of these remarks, and drank two glasses of punch in grave succession. He then said with much solemnity, 'One thing more I have to do, before this separa- tion is complete, and that is to perform an act of justice. My friend, Mr. Thomas Traddles, has, on two several occasions, "put his name," if I may use a common expression, to bills of exchange for my accommodation. On the first occasion Mr. Thomas Traddles was left—let me say, in short, in the lurch. The fulfilment of the second has not yet arrived. The amount of the first obligation,' here Mr. Micawber carefully referred to papers, 'was, I believe, twenty-three, four, nine and a half ; of the second, according to my entry of that transaction, eighteen, six, two. These sums, united, make a total, if my calculation is correct, amounting to forty-one, ten, eleven and a half. My friend Copperfield will perhaps do me the favour to check that total ? ' I did so and found it correct. 'To leave this Metropolis,' said Mr. Micawber, 'and my friend Mr. Thomas Traddles, without acquitting myself of the pecuniary part of this obligation, would weigh upon my mind to an insupportable extent. I have, there- fore, prepared for my friend Mr. Thomas Traddles, and I now hold in my hand, a document which accomplishes the desired object. I beg to hand to my friend, Mr. Thomas Traddles, my I 0 U for forty-one, ten, eleven and a half, and I am happy to recover my moral dignity, and to know that I can once more walk erect before my fellow man."
Every reader of Dickens, of course, will be able to match his favourite passages against ours. The enthusiasm with which such competitions are often conducted is the truest proof of the solace—we do not use too strong a word—which such memories bring in times of vexation, dullness, or grief. And in them—whichever they may be—detached, as they are and properly should be, but complete and memorable in them- selves, the true monument to Dickens is to be found.