Friday, December 09, 2011

Trollope on Dickens

I'm still really enjoying dipping into Philip Collins's Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage, which I drew on a couple of times last week. Today, I turned to some thoughts on Dickens that Anthony Trollope (whose brother, Thomas, was married to the sister of Dickens's mistress, Nelly Ternan) contributed to the magazine he edited, St Paul's Magazine on the occasion of Dickens's death. It's hard to imagine how Trollope as a writer could be less like Dickens: Trollope's language is calm, even stately. His casts are large, but he makes no pretense to take in the breadth of classes and conditions that Dickens does. His plots are effective, but contained, rarely straining credulity. And whereas Dickens, even at the height of his success, wrote as if he were an outsider--an outsider who, having seen how poorly the system worked, never quite believed that any real answers could come from within it--Trollope wrote of the very people who were making that system run, and, ever-so-slowly, improving it. That last difference is what Trollope gets at in this passage, while also nicely identifying Dickens's radicalism, not specifically with his championing of the poor, but with his general distrust of all those who hold and use power:
He thoroughly believed in literature; but in politics he seemed to have no belief at all. Men in so-called public life were to him, I will not say insincere men, but so placed as to be by their calling almost beyond the pale of sincerity. To his feeling, all departmental work was the bungled, muddled routine of the Circumlocution Office. Statecraft was odious to him; and though he would probably never have asserted that a country could be maintained without legislative or executive, he seemed to regard such devices as things so prone to evil, that the less of them the better it would be for the country,--and the farther a man kept himself from their immediate influence the better it would be for him. I never heard any man call Dickens a radical; but if any man was ever so, he was a radical at heart,--believing entirely in the people, writing for them, speaking for them, and always desirous to take their part against some undescribed and indiscernible tyrant, who to his mind loomed large as an official rather than as an autocratic despot.
That seems impressively acute for having been written in the moment and by a temperament so opposed. But having written in praise of Trollope's assessment I feel I should also point out where he goes wrong (though I'll cop to sharing this next passage largely because its air of bafflement is so much fun to quote):
Of DIckens's style it is impossible to speak in praise. It is jerky, ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of rules--almost as completely as that created by Carlyle. To readers who have taught themselves to regard language, it must therefore be unpleasant. . . . No young novelist should ever dare to imitate the style of Dickens. If such a one wants a model for his language, he can take Thackeray.
At least he had the restraint not to suggest himself as a model.

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