THE LETTERS OF CHARLES DICKENS.*
THE question whether it was necessary or desirable to add to. the number of the published letters of Charles Dickens is one- which will meet with very diverse answers, even among those who are really qualified to decide, and the very people whose qualifications are the highest will probably hesitate longest before giving either an unmodified affirmative or negative, by way of reply. We must frankly admit at starting that our own feeling is in favour of the latter kind of answer. While fully conceding that every utterance or outcome of an eminent man has a certain interest, it is clearly an interest which varies, both in quality and quantity ; and we have no sympathy with the feeling which—if we may judge from facts—seems to be gaining prevalence, that the ideal biographer or editor is. little else than a literary chiffonnier, whose duty it is to gather together, smooth out, and exhibit, every available scrap of paper over which this or that distinguished person had ever run his pen. It is an injustice to the dead celebrity to saddle him with an immortality of responsibility for the casual utterances of his careless moments, and it is an injustice to the living public to demand that it shall give ear even to the " hero as man of letters," when the hero gossips in the most unheroic manner about the dinner he has eaten to day, or the journey he is to. take to-morrow. Of course, the unheroic gossip may be char- acteristic and illuminating, and when it is so, we are glad to have it ; but we require that it shall be served out discreetly,. and when dinners, journeys, and the like, fill one large octavo. after another, our impulse is to cry, "Hold, enough !"
There are, of course, some things in this volume—though not so many as we had hoped—which are really interesting in themselves; and there are many more which would have been, interesting, as illustrating their writer's mind and character, had not their interest been discounted by the letters given in Mr. Forster's biography, and in the two preceding volumes of corre- spondence. The reader of those books probably knows Dickens as well as he can be known by any one who never came into personal contact with him, and when in the examination of these last gathered remains he finds that no addition is made to his knowledge, he is not unlikely to regard the collection as a. superfluity, almost an impertinence. The literary caterer has to think of something else than the mere quality of what he sets before his guests ; he has to remember that the dish which. might be very enjoyable as a first course, may be the reverse when served as a third or a fifth.
In one respect, however, these new letters, taken as a whole, impress us more pleasantly than their predecessors. With some exceptions, they have the ease, the spontaneity, the care- lessness, and even the common-placeness, which are welcome ands delightful, as a relief from the high-pressure style, so strained,. so feverish, so glittering, so apparently artificial—in which so. many of the previously-published letters were written. The cause of this difference may lie in the fact that the majority of
• The Letters of Charles Dickens. Edited by his Sister-in-Law and his Eldest; Daughter. Vol, 11386 to Ism London : Chapman and Han. the letters in this volume have a definite object; the writer has something to say ; and it is when Dickens has no special subject, but has to supply matter, as well as manner, that the strain makes itself unpleasantly manifest. What could Ise better, as an example of shrewd common-sense, expressed with lucid simplicity, than the following brief note to Mr. J. B. Harrison, who had offered to write an article for Household 1Vords on the injuries to health incurred in the manufacture of lucifer-matches ?- " I beg to thank you for your interesting pamphlet, and to add that I shall be very happy to accept an article from you on the sub- ject for Household Words Will you excuse my remarking that to make an article on this particular subject useful, it is essential to address the employed, as well as the employers ? In the case of the Sheffield grinders, the difficulty was, for many years, not with the masters, but the men. Painters who use white-lead are with the greatest difficulty persuaded to be particular in washing their hands, and I dare say that I need not remind you that one could not gener. ally induce domestic servants to attend to the commonest sanitary principles in their work, without absolutely forcing them to experience their comfort and convenience."
On the other hand, what could be worse, more utterly wanting in even the one quality of farcical humour which seems to be aimed at, than the following specimen of strenuous intellectual buffoonery, which is recommended by Dickens to his corre- spondent, Mr. Felton, as " a good piece of absurdity "?—
" I bad a good piece of absurdity in my head a night or two ago. I dreamed that somebody was dead. I don't know who, but it's not to the purpose. It was a private gentleman, and a particular friend, and I was greatly overcome when the news was broken to me (very delicately) by a gentleman in a cocked hat, top-boots, and a sheet. Nothing else. Good God :' I said, is he dead ?" He is as dead, sir,' rejoined the gentleman, as a door-nail. But we must all die, Mr. Dickens, sooner or later, my dear sir.' Ah !' I said, 'yes, to be sure. Very true. But what did he die of ?' The gentleman burst into a flood of tears, and said, in a voice broken by emotion, He christened his youngest child, sir, with a toasting-fork.' I never in my life was so affected as at his having fallen a victim to this com- plaint. It carried a conviction to my mind that he never could have recovered. 1 knew that it was the most interesting and fatal malady in the world, and I wrung the gentleman's hand in a convulsion of respectful admiration, for I felt that this explanation did equal honour to his head and heart."
We have various good authorities for the doctrine that,— " A little nonsense, now and then,
Is relished by the wisest men ;"
but in order to be really relishable, either by the wise or the foolish, nonsense must be the spontaneous outbreak of irre-
pressible light-heartedness ; it must be like the leaping and shouting of children at play, instinctive and unconscious ; and this is nonsense which is as far-fetched and mechanically elaborated as the hired jokes of the circus clown, as wooden and self-conscious as his facial contortions and tricks of gesture. If Mr. Felton could laugh at this obviously fabricated dream, he must like a man mentioned by Mr. Mark Twain, have had " a laugh hung on a hair-trigger," a sense of the ludicrous so abnormally acute as to respond even to a humorous intention, needing nothing so palpable as actual fun to waken a volley of cachinnatory echoes. It may be that our perception of humour is dull, but to us this " good piece of absurdity " seems as devoid of the true laughter-provoking quality as the orthographical horse-play of writing " arter " for " after," and " sich " for " such," which, it is humiliating to discover, Dickens did not think beneath him.
For some reason—perhaps the suggestion made above con- cerning want of subject may supply one—only two of the corre• spondents whose names figure in this volume, Mr. Felton and Mrs. Cowden Clarke, seem to have been regularly supplied with samples of this manufactured merriment, and fortunately the letters addressed to them are not very numerous. The friend whose name appears most frequently is the late Lord Lytton, or, more properly, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, for nearly all
the letters are of earlier date than the granting of the peerage. Some of them relate to the Guild of Literature and Art, of which Dickens, in spite of his real practical wisdom, had the most extravagant anticipations ; some to Sir Edward's comedy, Not 80 Bad as ?re Seem. ; but the most interesting are those which refer to his romance, A Strange Stoey, which, it will be remembered, appeared first in the pages of All the Year Round.
Sound critical discrimination is not one of the qualities with which Dickens is usually credited, but there is plenty of it to be found in the sentences in which he combats the misgiving of his fellow-novelist regarding the element of marvel which entered
so largely into the construction of his story. Dickens writes :— " I say, without the faintest hesitation, most decidedly there is not sufficient foundation for it. I do not share it in the least. I believe that the readers who have here [? never] given their minds (or perhaps had any to give) to those strange psychological mysteries in ourselves, of which we are all more or less conscious, will accept your wonders as curious weapons in the armoury of fiction, and will submit themselves to the art with which such weapons are used. Even to that class of intelligence the marvellous addresses itself from a very strong position ; and that class of intelligence is not accus- tomed to find the marvellous in such very powerful hands as yours. On more imaginative readers the tale will fall (or 1 am greatly mistaken) like a spell. By readers who combine some imagi- nation, some scepticism, and some knowledge and learning, 1 hope it will be regarded as full of strange fancy and curious study, startling reflections of their own thoughts and specu- lations at odd times, and wonder which a master has a right to evoke. In the last point lies, to my thinking, the whole case. If you were the Magician's servant instead of the Magician, these potent spirits would get the better of you ; but you are the Magician, and they don't, and you make them serve your purpose."
This is, of course, the criticism of an enthusiastic friend ; but it is criticism, not mere aimless eulogy, and the description of
the class of readers to whom the new romance would specially appeal is very happy. These letters to Sir Edward Bulwer
Lytton are, indeed, among the best in the book ; perhaps, because Dickens was simply writing as a friend to a friend upon matters in which both were interested, and did not feel it necessary to maintain the reputation of the eminent author of Pickwick. Even in the lighter parts of these letters there is nothing forced; the humour comes spontaneously and by the way, as in the pleasant letter written to decline one invitation, and to give another : " I am truly sorry to reply to your kind and welcome note, that we cannot come to Knebworth on a visit at this time firstly, because am tied by the leg to my book. Secondly, because my married daughter and her husband are with us. Thirdly, because my two boys are at home for their holidays. But if you would come out of that murky-electioneering atmosphere and come to us, you don't know how delighted we should be. You should have your own way as completely as though you were at home. You should have a cheery room, and you should have a Swiss chitlet all to yourself to write in. Smoking regarded as a personal favour by the family. Georgina is so insupportably vain on account of being a favourite of yours, that you might find her a drawback ; but nothing else would turn out in that way, I hope."
From one point of view, the most remarkable of all the con- tents of this volume are the letters, in some instances very long
and in all most careful and considerate, addressed to various would-be contributors to Household Words. To any one who has had experience of a professional literary life, particularly of a life burdened with the responsibility of editorial distribu-
bution, as well as of creative production, these letters seem little short of marvellous. The writer can find time to address, not only correspondents concerning whom he may entertain some measure of reasonable hope, but others of whom hope is forbidden to the most sanguine. Even the anonymous lady, who, when foiled in her attempts to storm the citadel of literature, writes the ordinary nonsense about " impenetrable barrier," " outsiders," and " charmed circles," is answered in a letter full of kindly consideration and sound conimou-seuse; and when an intending contributor seemed to have the root of the matter in him, there was—as various letters in this volume testify—no end to the pains which Dickens would take to set him on the track of success. We do not, as we said at the beginning, think that this volume was needed, but as other opinions have prevailed, and as the book is actually published, it is only fair to say of it that it contains much pleasant reading, and that, if it have any effect in modifying the public estimate of Dickens as a man, it will be in the direction of making that estimate more, instead of less, kindly.