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    II. To Charles Dickens

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    Sir,--It has been said that every man is born a Platonist or an Aristotelian,
    though the enormous majority of us, to be sure, live and die without being
    conscious of any invidious philosophic partiality whatever. With more truth
    (though that does not imply very much) every Englishman who reads may be said
    to be a partisan of yourself or of Mr. Thackeray. Why should there be any
    partisanship in the matter; and why, having two such good things as your
    novels and those of your contemporary, should we not be silently happy in the
    possession? Well, men are made so, and must needs fight and argue over their
    tastes in enjoyment. For myself, I may say that in this matter I am what the
    Americans do not call a 'Mugwump,' what English politicians dub a 'superior
    person'--that is, I take no side, and attempt to enjoy the best of both.

    It must be owned that this attitude is sometimes made a little difficult by
    the vigour of your special devotees. They have ceased, indeed, thank Heaven!
    to imitate you; and even in 'descriptive articles' the touch of Mr. Gigadibs,
    of him whom 'we almost took for the true Dickens,' has disappeared. The young
    lions of the Press no longer mimic your less admirable mannerisms--do not
    strain so much after fantastic comparisons, do not (in your manner and Mr.
    Carlyle's) give people nick-names derived from their teeth, or their
    complexion; and, generally, we are spared second-hand copies of all that in
    your style was least to be commended. But, though improved by lapse of time in
    this respect, your devotees still put on little conscious airs of virtue,
    robust manliness, and so forth, which would have irritated you very much, and
    there survive some press men who seem to have read you a little (especially
    your later works), and never to have read anything else. Now familiarity with
    the pages of 'Our Mutual Friend'and 'Dombey and Son' does not precisely
    constitute a liberal education, and the assumption that it does is apt (quite
    unreasonably) to prejudice people against the greatest comic genius of modern
    times.

    On the other hand, Time is at last beginning to sift the true admirers of
    Dickens from the false. Yours, Sir, in the best sense of the word, is a
    popular success, a popular reputation. For example, I know that, in a remote
    and even Pictish part of this kingdom, a rural household, humble and under the
    shadow of a sorrow inevitably approaching, has found in 'David Copperfield'
    oblivion of winter, of sorrow, and of sickness. On the other hand, people are
    now picking up heart to say that 'they cannot read Dickens,' and that they
    particularly detest 'Pickwick.' I believe it was young ladies who first had
    the courage of their convictions in this respect. 'Tout sied aux belles,' and
    the fair, in the confidence of youth, often venture on remarkable confessions.
    In your 'Natural History of Young Ladies' I do not remember that you describe
    the Humorous Young Lady (1). She is a very rare bird indeed, and humour
    generally is at a deplorably low level in England.

    (1) I am informed that the _Natural_History_of_Young_Ladies_ is attributed,
    by some writers, to another philosopher, the author of _The_Art_of_Pluck_.

    Hence come all sorts of mischief, arisen since you left us; and, it may be
    said, that inordinate philanthropy, genteel sympathy with Irish murder and
    arson, Societies for Badgering the Poor, Esoteric Buddhism, and a score of
    other plagues, including what was once called Aestheticism, are all,
    primarily, due to want of humour. People discuss, with the gravest faces,
    matters which properly should only be stated as the wildest paradoxes. It
    naturally follows that, in a period almost destitute of humour, many
    respectable persons 'cannot read Dickens,' and are not ashamed to glory in
    their shame. We ought not to be angry with others for their misfortunes; and
    yet when one meets the _cre'tins_ who boast that they cannot read Dickens, one
    certainly does feel much as Mr. Samuel Weller felt when he encountered Mr. Job
    Trotter.

    How very singular has been the history of the decline of humour. Is there any
    profound psychological truth to be gathered from consideration of the fact
    that humour has gone out with cruelty? A hundred years ago, eighty years ago
    --nay, fifty years ago--we were a cruel but also a humorous people. We had
    bull-baitings, and badger-drawings, and hustings, and prize-fights, and
    cock-fights; we went to see men hanged; the pillory and the stocks were no
    empty 'terrors unto evil-doers,' for there was commonly a malefactor occupying
    each of these institutions. With all this we had a broad blown comic sense. We
    had Ho-garth, and Bunbury, and George Cruik-shank, and Gilray; we had Leech
    and Surtees, and the creator of Tittlebat Titmouse; we had the Shepherd of the
    'Noctes,' and, above all, we had _you_.

    From the old giants of English fun--burly persons delighting in broad
    caricature, in decided colours, in cockney jokes, in swashing blows at the
    more prominent and obvious human follies--from these you derived the splendid
    high spirits and unhesitating mirth of your earlier works. Mr. Squeers, and
    Sam Weller, and Mrs. Gamp, and all the Pickwickians, and Mr. Dowlet, and John
    Browdie--these and their immortal companions were reared, so to speak, on the
    beef and beer of that naughty, fox-hunting, badger-baiting old England, which
    we have improved out of existence. And these characters, assuredly, are your
    best; by them, though stupid people cannot read about them, you will live
    while there is a laugh left among us. Perhaps that does not assure you a very
    prolonged existence, but only the future can show.

    The dismal seriousness of the time cannot, let us hope, last for ever and a
    day. Honest old Laughter, the true _lutin_ of your inspiration, must have life
    left in him yet, and cannot die; though it is true that the taste for your
    pathos, and your melodrama, and plots constructed after your favourite fashion
    ('Great Expectations' and the 'Tale of Two Cities' are exceptions) may go by
    and never be regretted. Were people simpler, or only less clear-sighted, as
    far as your pathos is concerned, a generation ago? Jeffrey, the hard-headed
    shallow critic, who declared that Wordsworth 'would never do,' cried, 'wept
    like any-thing,' over your Little Nell. One still laughs as heartily as ever
    with Dick Swiveller; but who can cry over Little Nell?

    Ah, Sir, how could you--who knew so intimately, who remembered so strangely
    well the fancies, the dreams, the sufferings of childhood--how could you
    'wallow naked in the pathetic,' and massacre holocausts of the Innocents? To
    draw tears by gloating over a child's death-bed, was it worthy of you? Was it
    the kind of work over which our hearts should melt? I confess that Little Nell
    might die a dozen times, and be welcomed by whole legions of Angels, and I
    (like the bereaved fowl mentioned by Pet Marjory) would remain unmoved.

    She was more than usual calm,
    She did not give a single dam,

    wrote the astonishing child who diverted the leisure of Scott. Over your
    Little Nell and your Little Dombey I remain more than usual calm; and probably
    so do thousands of your most sincere admirers. But about matter of this kind,
    and the unsealing of the fountains of tears, who can argue? Where is taste?
    where is truth? What tears are 'manly, Sir, manly,' as Fred Bayham has it; and
    of what lamentations ought we rather to be ashamed? _Sunt_lacrymae_rerum_; one
    has been moved in the cell where Socrates tasted the hemlock; or by the
    river-banks where Syracusan arrows slew the parched Athenians among the mire
    and blood; or, in fiction, when Colonel Newcome said _Adsum_, or over the
    diary of Clare Doria Forey, or where Aramis laments, with strange tears, the
    death of Porthos. But over Dombey (the Son), or Little Nell, one declines to
    snivel.

    When an author deliberately sits down and says, 'Now, let us have a good cry,'
    he poisons the wells of sensibility and chokes, at least in many breasts, the
    fountain of tears. Out of 'Dombey and Son ' there is little we care to
    remember except the deathless Mr. Toots; just as we forget the melodramatics
    of 'Martin Chuzzlewit.' I have read in that book a score of tinms; I never see
    it but I revel in it--in Pecksniff, and Mrs. Gamp, and the Americans. But what
    the plot is all about, what Jonas did, what Montagu Tigg had to make in the
    matter, what all the pictures with plenty of shading illustrate, I have never
    been able to comprehend. In the same way, one of your most thorough-going
    admirers has al-lowed (in the licence of private conver-sation) that 'Ralph
    Nickleby and Monk are too steep;' and probably a cultivated taste will always
    find them a little precipitous.

    'Too steep:'--the slang expresses that defect of an artlent genius, carried
    above itself, and out of the air we breathe, both in its grotesque and in its
    gloomy imaginations. To force the note, to press fantasy too hard, to deepen
    the gloom with black over the indigo, that was the failing which proved you
    mortal. To take an instance in little: when Pip went to Mr. Pumblechook's, the
    boy thought the seedsman 'a very happy man to have so many little drawers in
    his shop.' The reflection is thoroughly boyish; but then you add, 'I wondered
    whether the flower. seeds and bulbs ever wanted of a fine day to break out of
    those jails and bloom.' That is not boyish at all; that is the hard-driven,
    jaded literary fancy at work.

    'So we arraign her; but she,' the Genius of Char]es Dickens, how brilliant,
    how kindly, how beneficent she is! dwelling by a fountain of laughter
    imperishable; though there is something of an alien salt in the neighbouring
    fountain of tears. How poor the world of fancy would be, how 'dispeopled of
    her dreams,' if, in some ruin of the social system, the books of Dickens were
    lost; and if The Dodger, and Charley Bates, and Mr. Crinkle, and Miss Squeers,
    and Sam Weller, and Mrs. Gamp, and Dick Swiveller were to perish, or to vanish
    with Menander's men and women! We cannot think of our world without them; and,
    children of dreams as they are, they seem more essential than great statesmen,
    artists, soldiers, who have actually worn flesh and blood, ribbons and orders,
    gowns and uniforms. May we not almost welcome 'Free Education'? for every
    Englishman who can read, unless he be an Ass, is a reader the more for you.
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