Monday, December 05, 2011

Dickens and Eliot

Last week I quoted from an anonymous review of The Mystery of Edwin Drood that appeared in the Spectator on October 1, 1870, written in response to some early critical reviews. The reviewer--thought to be R. H. Hutton--did a good job of arguing for Dickens's strengths, but he also acknowledged Dickens's reliable weak points:
No doubt there are all Mr Dickens's faults in this story quite unchanged. He never learned to draw a human being as distinct from an oddity, and all his characters which are not oddities are false. Again he never learned the distinguishing signs of genuine sentiment; and just as nothing can be vulgarer than the sentimental passages of Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewith, so nothing can, at any rate, be much falser or in worse tase than the sentimental scenes in Edwin Drood. Mr Dickens could not get over the notion that a love scene was a rich and luscious sort of juice, to be sucked up in the sort of way in which a bowl of punch and a Christmas dinner are so often enjoyed in his tales; and not only so, but all beauty, all that he thinks lovable, is apt to be treated by him as if it were a pot of raspberry jam, something luscious to the palate, instead of something fascinating to the imagination and those finer powers by which harmony of expression is perceived.
While I'd argue that to say that "all his characters which are not oddities are false" is going way too far--what about Pip, or David Copperfield, or, to dip into the second ranks, Steerforth or Jaggers?--the reviewer's description of Dickens's susceptibility and approach to sentiment is right on.

I've found that weakness coming to mind again and again over the past week as I've been reading Middlemarch, a novel that, after a diet of Dickens, seems fully to justify Virginia Woolf's oft-repeated claim that it is "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." Eliot has none of the linguistic verve of Dickens, and when she tries to introduce the traditional dramatic elements (secrets from the past, for example) of which he makes such inventive use, the attempt feels mechanical. But she makes up for all of that with the acuity of her insight and her willingness to speak honestly and plainly about human feelings and failings. Nearly a century and a half on, it's still bracing. She has Henry James's interest in the shadings of thought and emotion, and if she doesn't have quite his fineness of perception, she also doesn't suffer from his finickiness.

Almost every page of Middlemarch offers something worth noting, from an aphoristic flash ("Duty has a way of behaving unexpectedly"; "The troublesome ones in a family are usually either the wits or the idiots") to a fully fleshed-out passage of a character's thought. Here, for instance, is a scene that seems right to set against the above indictment of Dickens's treacle:
Dorothea had again taken up her abode at Lowick Manor. After three months, Freshitt had become rather oppressive: to sit like a model for Saint Catherine looking rapturously at Celia's baby would not do for many hours in the day, and to remain in that momentous babe's presence with persistent disregard was a course that could not have been tolerated in a childless sister. Dorothea would have been capable of carrying baby joyfully for a mile if there had been need, and of loving it the more tenderly for that labour; but to an aunt who does not recognize her infant nephew as Bouddha, and has nothing to do for him but to admire, his behaviour is apt to appear monotonous, and the interest of watching him exhaustible.
The irony is gentle, but the undercutting of the home-and-hearth cliches is genuine and serious.

Mere pages later comes the following exchange, in which the well-intentioned Mrs Cadwallader offers Dorothea advice, privately:
"You will certainly go mad in that house alone, my dear. You will see visions. We have all got to exert ourselves a little to keep sane, and call things by the same names as other people call them by. To be sure, for younger sons and women who have no money, it is a sort of provision to go mad: they are taken care of then. But you must not run into that. I daresay you are a little bored here with our good dowager; but think what a bore you might become yourself to your fellow-creatures if you were always playing tragedy queen and taking things sublimely. Sitting alone in that library at Lowick you may fancy yourself ruling the weather; you must get a few people round you who wouldn't believe you if you told them. That is a good lowering medicine."

"I never called everything by the same name that all the people about me did," said Dorothea, stoutly.

"But I suppose you have found out your mistake, my dear," said Mrs Cadwallader, "and that is proof of sanity."

Dorothea was aware of the sting, but it did not hurt her. "No," she said, "I still think that the greater part of the world is mistaken about many things. Surely one may be sane and yet think so, since the greater part of the world has often had to come round from its opinion."
Mrs Cadwallader couches her advice in humor, but she's no less serious about it; the oscillation between the two tones--and Dorothea's restrained bristle at the guidance--seems so natural, so convincing, and so much more subtle than Dickens could ever have hoped for. This feels like the realism, the attempt to explicate the reality of human interactions, that novelists continue to grapple with today, hardly dated at all.

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