The Life of Charles Dickens. By John Forster. Edited and Annotated with an Introduction by J. W. T. Ley. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc. $10.00. Charles Dickens, A Biography from New Sources. By Ralph Straus. New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation. $4.00. This Side Idolatry, A Novel Based on the Life of Charles Dickens. By C. E. Bechhofer Roberts (“Ephesian”). Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. $2.50. The Actor in Dickens. By J. B. Van Amerongen. New York: D. Appleton & Company. $2.50. Dickens Days in Boston. By Edward F. Payne. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $5.00. Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian. By William S. Holdsworth. New Haven: Yale University Press. $2.00.
Literary biography is even now just beginning to come into its own. In the old days it was the man of faction whom the biographer sought out as a subject. He whose days were crowded with incident and echoing to the tread of conflict—it has always seemed a comparatively simple matter to “tell the story” of such a life. But when a man spends his days making little black marks on white paper, when the most important dates he knows are those marking the publication of his various books, how could anybody possibly get a story out of that? Not every day can a “Grammarian’s Funeral” be written, nor does one often meet a Willa Cather who is dedicated to the revelation of “the meaning in common things.” To be sure, Sir Arthur Helps wrote in 1870, just after the death of Dickens: “When a great man departs from us, what we desire to know about him is not so much what he did, as what he was.” But I hardly think very many of his contemporaries agreed with him.
I have had occasion to point out before that what happened to the novel some time ago is now happening to biography. There was a time when the novelist was interested primarily in telling a story; today he centres his attention more and more upon revealing a character. There was a time when the novel was tied down to the chronological method: today a novel may begin anywhere and need not necessarily end at all! Literature of all types has gone mad over psychology: every year we are a little surer that there is nothing else in the world quite so fascinating as ourselves. So long as this interest continues, the man of letters must always be one of the best of all conceivable subjects. For when we attempt to reconstruct on paper the soul of a man who has gone, our material—to say nothing of our method—is words: the words of the subject himself and of others who knew him. And surely when you are dealing with an author, especially an author like Dickens, hundreds and thousands of whose own words you may spread out before you, then you may surely feel that you are on somewhat firmer ground than you would be if you were writing of a captain of industry like James J. Hill or a musician like Debussy or anybody else whose characteristic and habitual expression of himself is through another medium. This remains true, it seems to me, even if one does not go the whole way, as I do, with Middleton Murry’s saying that “To know a work of literature is to know the soul of the man who created it, and who created it in order that his soul should be known.”
It was inevitable that along with this marked interest in psychology there should go a strong tendency towards the re-evaluation of reputations. Much of this was and is necessary, and wholesome, but some of it is mere ignorant and wanton destructiveness, for there never was a time when the intelligentsia—self-styled—clung more passionately than they do today to the neither particularly novel nor particularly true doctrine that man is a filthy animal. During the fifty-eight years that have passed since his death, the life of Charles Dickens has been treated in literally thousands of books and articles. Yet four of the six volumes now on my desk are based on new or partially new materials, and at least one has as its avowed object that of compelling men to revise their opinions with regard to what kind of a human being Charles Dickens was.
Two of our books we may pass over rather quickly, and that without in any way implying disrespect to them. Mr. Payne’s “Dickens Days in Boston” and Professor Holdsworth’s “Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian” are good books, both of them, and they accomplish the comparatively modest tasks they set themselves with more complete success than can be said to crown every one of the more ambitious undertakings. It is partly because of this fact that they seem to invite less discussion than the other books.
It is often said of Carlyle’s “French Revolution”—one of Dickens’s favorite books—that to know it thoroughly with all its implications is equivalent to being an educated man. Nobody could say that to know Dickens’s novels in this fashion would mean the same thing, for he was completely indifferent to the “intellectual” interests of his day, and many of them are never mentioned in his pages. What he did touch and what he does reflect, in an astonishingly varied way, is the vivid moving panorama of the actual life of his time, and many books have been produced by means of the simple formula of collecting his references to one or another phase of this life and then generalizing on the basis of the evidence discovered. This is practically what Mr. Holdsworth does in the volume of Storrs Lectures (Yale) which he calls “Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian.” The book thus classifies itself with such other useful Dickens literature as James T. Lightwood s “Charles Dickens and Music” and Charles H. MacKenzie’s “The Religious Sentiments of Charles Dickens.”
Mr. Holdsworth, an ardent Dickensian, does not claim inerrant or even exhaustive knowledge of the law for Charles Dickens. Instead he claims that what Dickens gives us is “that account of the human side of the rules of law and their working, which is essential to the legal historian.” Two of the four lectures are general considerations of the lawyers in Dickens’s novels and of the places they inhabit. A third gives an account of the Common Law in connection with Mr. Pickwick’s misadventures, and the remaining chapter is a study of Mr. Holdsworth’s favorite novel, “Bleak House,” from the point of view of the Chancery problems involved. If one must make a choice, this is the most valuable chapter in the book: it should be reprinted as an introduction to all editions of “Bleak House” that are designed for people who like to understand what they read.
“Dickens Days in Boston,” written by the President of the Boston Branch of the Dickens Fellowship, is the only American contribution to our list. Mr. Payne’s book is subtitled “A Record of Daily Events,” and it attempts to reconstruct a day-by-day and almost hour-by-hour record of what Dickens did during his two famous visits to Boston. Just how much labor such an undertaking involves can be properly appreciated only by those who have tried to do something similar: by patiently digging out and printing a considerable quantity of buried or forgotten information concerning these two episodes in Dickens’s life, Mr. Payne has made no trifling contribution to the store of our first-hand source material. But “Dickens Days in Boston” is more than a source-book: it is a book to read. If Dickensians are primarily in Mr. Payne’s debt for his patient research, he may still rest a strong secondary claim on his skilful and tasteful arrangement of materials.
I wish I had more space to devote to Mr. J. B. Van Amerongen’s book, “The Actor in Dickens.” After Pemberton’s “Dickens and the Stage” and Adair Fitzgerald’s “Dickens and the Drama” and Alexander Woollcott’s “Mr. Dickens Goes to the Play”—to say nothing of the host of magazine articles—it might seem almost as if everything worth saying on this subject had been said. The difference between Mr. Van Amerongen’s work and these earlier studies is that his is the work of a gifted scholar: indeed it is one of the few thoroughly scholarly books that have yet been written about any phase of Dickens’s work. Mr. Van Amerongen does not, like most of his predecessors in this field, content himself with collecting “references” bearing on Dickens’s interest in the theatre, nor is he satisfied to rehash the story of the amateur theatricals. Instead he has made a most absorbing study of the effect of Dickens’s theatrical temperament and theatrical interests on his work as a novelist, and here is the real value of his book. He is quite conscious of the cheapening effect on the one hand— the sensational plots, the vivid descriptions of people, the rapid dialogue—which other critics have already noted, but he is far more deeply concerned with the much more fundamental thing: that it was Dickens’s intense dramatic feeling that made his characters live. He identified himself with them, and his most striking scenes are “indelibly impressed on our minds” as seen through their eyes. This gives the theatre a larger share in Dickens’s art than it has ever seemed to have before, and lends a special appropriateness to Ward’s saying that, on the whole, it was fitting he should be buried in Westminster Abbey, close to the graves of Garrick and of Henderson. “. . . his generous spirit would not have disdained the thought that he would seem even in death the players’ friend.” It is interesting too to note that Katherine Mansfield sensed this same quality in Dickens to which Mr. Van Amerongen refers. In her recently published “Journal,” we read: “There are moments when Dickens is possessed by this power of writing: he is carried away. That is bliss. It certainly is not shared by writers to-day. The death of Cheedle: dawn falling upon the edge of night. One realizes exactly the mood of the writer and how he wrote, as it were, for himself, but it was not his will. He was the falling dawn, and he was the physician going to Bar.”
In the new edition of Forster’s “Life,” Mr. J. W. T. Ley has undertaken the task which the late Frederic G. Kitton was considering just before his untimely death. The ideal was to summarize in a series of annotations—as it happens, well over five hundred in all—everything we know of Dickens’s life that is not already included in Forster’s own text. The added material was to cover both those matters which Forster neglected and those of which he was unaware, and the result was to constitute a summary between a single pair of covers of all that we know concerning Charles Dickens.
It may be doubted whether the unmodified ideal were capable of fulfilment. That Mr. Ley himself thinks not may be inferred from the fact that he prints a short list of other Dickens books to be read along with this one. Still it may be said without any hesitation whatever that Mr. Ley has produced that rara avis—an absolutely indispensable book. John Forster’s biography will always be the primary source for Dickens’s life. The future will be very foolish if it turns Forster’s pages in any, edition but this, where such a mass of carefully sifted information of the first importance has been added to what the biographer originally wrote. No other book on Dickens contains half so much.
But why annotate Forster at all? Why not write a fresh biography of Dickens, utilizing the information contained in the “Life,” but not in any way tying oneself to its outline? The objection is simply the objection to doing over again what has already been done and done well. Probably no great biography has irritated so many people as has Forster’s “Life of Dickens.” The man’s temperamental peculiarities were many and they were reflected in his work, but after all is said and done, he knew Dickens as no other man has ever known him or ever can. The writer of a “complete” biography, working independently, would need to take so large a share of his information from Forster that his footnotes would present almost a humourous spectacle. It is the dilettantes, the “general readers,” who detest Forster: nobody can attempt to do any real work on Dickens without coming each day to value him more. I have no desire whatever to minimize what later Dickens writers have done. They have brought much valuable material to light: there is considerably more which might still be revealed if only the Dickens family might be given the grace to see that Charles Dickens belongs to the world, not to the family into which he happened to be born. Yet it is only fair to say that if you read Forster and the “Letters,” the essential heart of the man is there. The hosts of other books amplify and modify, but never fundamentally in any way.
It is obviously impossible to attempt to summarize the information which Mr. Ley has collected. The best one can do for a book like this is to indicate a few of the things which seem most striking, most valuable, or most debatable. One of the best things in the book, it seems to me, is the very frank discussion of Dickens’s disputes with his various publishers. That Dickens was unjust to them all, and that Forster, who aided and abetted him at the time, wrote a distinctly partisan and unfair account afterwards, seems, in the light of the evidence now presented, absolutely incontrovertible. This does not mean that Dickens was mercenary or that he would willingly have done anyone an injustice. What it does mean is that we have here the most striking manifestation of his sovereign contempt for technicalities in all things. He recognized that in some cases his publishers had a legal hold upon him. But he was so constituted that legal right meant nothing to him unless he considered moral right to go along with it. It goes without saying that being the intensely self-absorbed being he always was, and with his instinctive tendency to dramatize everything that belonged to him, he nearly always succeeded in persuading himself that the moral right at least was on his side!
One of the most interesting episodes in Dickens’s life is his youthful love affair with Maria Beadnell, the original of Dora in “David Copperfield.” Maria seems to have been just about as close to nothing as a woman can get, but to Dickens at the time she was the incarnation of the ideal, and her influence on his life can hardly be overestimated. It was under the inspiration of his love for her that he began to write, first in the hope that it might incline her to look favorably upon his suit, then—after he had lost her—increasingly as a refuge from his sorrow and an end in itself. Though he married soon afterwards, he went on mooning about Maria almost mawkishly for a quarter of a century—if the initial writing impulse came from her, he more than paid for it with his restlessness and his domestic dissatisfaction, in which I am sure she had no small share.
The story of Maria Beadnell was told in full in the delightful volume, “Charles Dickens and Maria Beadnell,” edited by Professor George Pierce Baker, and published in 1908 by the Boston Bibliophile Society. This is one of the most charming of all Dickens books, and it is a thousand pities that it has never been reprinted and made available to the general public. There is no substitute for an actual reading of this volume if one would understand the true significance of the Beadnell episode in Dickens’s life. Many summaries have been made of it, but never one like Mr. Ley’s in his Note 69. What summary can do, that he has done.
I am glad to have Mr. Ley put his foot down firmly on the nonsensical supposition that Dickens was in love with his wife’s sister, Mary Hogarth, the original of Little Nell, Florence Dombey, and all the other spirituelle heroines. Mary, died in Dickens’s arms with frightful suddenness, shortly after his marriage to her sister, when she herself was only seventeen years old, and he cherished her memory all his life as the incarnation of his ideal of girlhood. Mr. Ley is specifically attacking the famous paragraph in which Mr. G. K. Chesterton declares that Dickens fell in love with all the Hogarth girls and unfortunately married the wrong one. “Mary Hogarth,” says Mr. Ley sensibly, “was barely sixteen when the marriage took place. Presumably Dickens had been in love with Catherine sometime before there was thought of marriage. What reason can there be for suggesting that a girl of fifteen was a stimulant to a young man of twenty-three who had already achieved front rank in his own profession?” Other writers, however, have gone farther than Chesterton, notably Percy Fitzgerald, in a fatuous article published in “Harper’s Magazine” in 1902, in which the supposition that Mary and not Catherine Hogarth was the woman Dickens really loved, was worked out with ridiculous and offensive detail. I am sorry to see Mr. Straus in his new biography swallowing the same story though in a less elaborate form. The truth is Mary Hogarth was never a woman to Dickens at all. In the days of her flesh she was a child: when she was set free she became a saint. It is only a very low order of mind that assumes because a man honors a woman and cherishes her memory, he must have been desirous of establishing sex relations with her.
More perhaps than any other recent writer, Mr. Ley emphasizes the real extent of Dickens’s education. Once when John Dickens was asked where his son had been educated, he replied that he might be said to have educated himself. So he did in all essential matters, and so do we all. But that he was not exactly left to grow up like a young savage is somewhat clearer in the light of Mr. Ley’s discussion than it has ever been before.
It is also rather refreshing to find an orthodox Dickensian finally evaluating, instead of ignoring, the testimony of Eleanor Christian. In all our past discussions concerning Dickens’s character, Eleanor has been just about the principal witness for the prosecution. In her famous “Temple Bar” article, reprinted in Richard Henry, Stoddard’s “Anecdote Biographies of Dickens and Thackeray,” Mrs. Christian has spoken more freely than any other Victorian of some of the outstanding weaknesses of Dickens’s character—his arrogance, his egotism, and his clownishness. Unfortunately there is an evident trail of spleen over all Mrs. Christian’s testimony which makes it somewhat difficult to use. Mr. Ley accepts it with certain important and specific reservations, and since his acceptance and his reservations both happen to co-incide exactly with mine, they seem to me to be quite right.
Of the more debatable matters I will refer to only a few. It seems to me that Mr. Ley goes entirely too far in minimizing Dickens’s interest in the theatre. “It may seem rather a strange thing to say,” he writes, “but I incline to the opinion that almost every writer on Dickens has over-stressed his passion for the stage. We have here his own explicit statement that he never thought of the stage save as a means of making money. It is certain that he regarded his famous Readings in later years almost exclusively from the same point of view.” That, it seems to me, is an extreme statement, which Mr. Van. Amerongen’s study alone is amply sufficient to contradict. Dickens’s readings, wearing as they were, satisfied something in him that was never satisfied in any other way, and to me he seems predestined towards the stage or the reading platform—he made the reading platform a stage—virtually from the beginning of his career. In stressing the financial aspect exclusively, Mr. Ley is relying too much on the letter of Dickens’s particular statements here and there and ignoring the general spirit of his eager response to all things theatrical. He makes the same mistake when—on the basis of Dickens’s letter of May 31, 1841, written in reply to a request that he stand for Parliament—”My principles and inclinations would lead me to aspire to the distinction you invite me to seek, if there were any reasonable chance of success, and I hope I should be no discredit to such an honor if I won it and wore it.”—Mr. Ley leaves the impression that he believes Dickens would certainly have sought Parliamentary office except that he felt he could not afford it. Now if there is anything that is clear in the life of Dickens, it is that he entertained a thorough-going contempt for all legislative and legal matters and for most of the people connected with them. Moreover his contempt deepened steadily as he grew older. In 1857 he sent Bulwer his opinion “that the House of Commons and the Parliament altogether, is just the dreariest failure and nuisance that has bothered this much-bothered world.” Even more suggestive and more delightful is his remark after meeting Disraeli : “What a delightful man he is! what an extraordinary pity it is that he should ever have given up literature for politics!” It is conceivable, of course, in spite of all this, that Dickens might in some contingency have assumed the Parliamentary burden, just as, in the “Daily News” experiment, he foolishly, even enthusiastically, assumed a task for which he was so supremely unfitted as the editorship of a daily newspaper. But being the man he was, I am sure he would have wearied of his duties quite as quickly as he did in that connection, and there would have been no kindly John Forster around to take the burden off his shoulders.
With regard to the great crux in Dickens’s life—his separation from his wife—Mr. Ley is in his notes somewhat less frank than his preface might lead the reader to expect. His best contribution here is his suggestion—so far as I know, now advanced for the first time — that Forster’s friendship for Dickens was one of the elements which drew him and his wife apart: “. . . the most intimate domestic matters were decided in consultation with Forster and without reference to her to whom the novelist should have turned first of all; . . . in fact, she was for years, so far as any voice in household affairs was concerned, a nonentity in her own home.” This is conjecture, as Mr. Ley carefully stipulates, but on the basis of his discussion in Note 448, I am ready unhesitatingly to accept it.
Mr. Ley reprints both the famous “Personal” statement which Dickens published in 1858 to deny the rumours that were current concerning his separation from his wife and the “violated” letter which came out afterwards in the New York Tribune. There is no doubt that the “violated” letter was a mistake, but I am sorry to see Mr. Ley re-stating all the squeamish, silly objections to the dignified “Personal” statement. I confess I am quite at a loss to understand how so thoroughly-grounded a Dickensian can have written the following statement: “They [that is, Dickens’s critics at the time] could not understand, nor can we understand today, what his relations with the public as a writer of fiction could conceivably have to do with his conjugal relations, which, in the very act of broadcasting them to the world, he described as ‘of a sacredly private nature.’ ” Now if there is anything that stands out in the unparalleled vogue of Dickens, it is that his relations with his public were of a more intimately personal nature than we find in the case of any other man of letters of similar eminence. He was an artist, but he was more than an artist: he was a guide and a friend, and his career could no more remain unaffected by rumours concerning his personal character than, say, Madame Schumann-Heink’s could today, or Miss Mary Pickford’s, in the motion pictures. Dickens was wiser than his critics: he understood this situation fully and repeatedly referred to it. In a very real sense, his work was bound up with his life: if faith in the one were destroyed, the power of the other would depart from it. Dickens did the only thing he could do when he issued the “Personal” statement: one cannot read it even to-day without sensing in it a clean man’s horror of an ugly lie that has been put upon him.
In one respect, Mr. Ley subscribes to the conspiracy of silence which, chosen and persistently clung to by Dickens’s family, is primarily responsible for the whispering campaign that has been conducted against him. He simply, sidesteps the whole episode of Ellen Ternan, the young actress in whom Dickens was so much interested in his later years, and Ellen’s name is printed in his book only where it appeared in the original Forster, that is in Dickens’s will. On Dickens’s own veiled reference to Miss Ternan in the “violated” letter, Mr. Ley comments, amazingly, as follows: “If there was another lady whom slander had touched—and that seems to be the implication of the penultimate paragraph of the document proper—her name is not mentioned, never could have been known to any but a limited number of people, and to-day is completely forgotten.” Well, Mr. Straus and Mr. Roberts do not seem to know that it is forgotten.
It is to these books that we must now turn. “This Side Idolatry” is a “biographical novel.” I have explained my objections to that particular type of literary abortion before this in The Virginia Quarterly Review: Mr. Bechhofer Roberts’s particular contribution to the species is one of the worst that it has been my misfortune to read. It is too bad the author does not know his Shakespeare better: with a little more patience he might have found in the plays themselves four words which would have furnished him with a more suitable title than the Jonsonian phrase he has chosen. The words to which I refer are: Set Down in Malice.
To ask how much of the malice is inspired primarily by Charles Dickens himself—(“He was, in my view, a very great writer and a very small man.”)—and how much by his only surviving son, Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, it were perhaps to inquire too curiously. Originally, Mr. Roberts planned to write not a novel but a biography. He was refused permission to quote from the unpublished letters: accordingly he chose instead to write a novel, in which he says all the nasty things he intended to say in his biography, and escapes the necessity of presenting his evidence! American readers might have known what to expect of “This Side Idolatry” as soon as Mr. Sinclair Lewis’s fulsome praise of it drifted over the Atlantic. “This is a book which stirs me—” wrote Mr. Lewis, “sometimes to anger, but always to a feeling that here is that elusive truth, which is one high goal of life.” This pronouncement is about as valuable as an analysis of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony written by a man who is tone-deaf. For if Mr. Lewis’s novels have demonstrated anything, it is that “that elusive truth, which is one high goal of life” is something that has never entered at all into his consciousness. His is a realism of the microscopic order: absorbed completely, in what Mr. Percy MacKaye once called “the low down facts,” he sees with the eyes of the body, never with the eyes of the soul. And like all observers who observe without sympathy, he overlooks much.
The same is true of Mr. Roberts. A friend in London writes me that so far he thinks Mr. Roberts has won every point in the press arguments concerning his book. On first consideration, a man whose reply to his critics is: “I have evidence for all the nasty things I say, but I am not allowed to present it”—would seem to be in a rather contemptible position. But that is a secondary matter. It is too bad that the London critics, not knowing Dickens literature as well as they should, have made the sad tactical error of challenging Mr. Roberts’s facts. His facts are, in general, I should say, unassailable. Though he has had access to much material that I have not seen, I could go through his book now and annotate it, giving chapter and verse for practically everything he says. The point is that he has collected all the evidence available concerning Dickens’s faults and weaknesses and combined them into a picture unrelieved by any suggestion of the man’s finer qualities. There never was a better illustration of how a book may be completely true and yet not bear the faintest semblance of Truth. For Mr. Roberts’s facts are so distorted by his own malice that the impression they give is quite the same as if he had deliberately set out to lie.
This is unfair, but what is more to the point and more damning, so far as Mr. Roberts’s own book is concerned, is that it results in his presenting not a man but a caricature. He attacks Forster’s “fantastically false picture of him,” which has “deceived the world for half a century.” Well, Forster’s picture is at least that of a human being, not of a clown cavorting through a comic strip and chortling an ungodly lingo faintly reminiscent of a comic opera Indian. I have not discussed “This Side Idolatry” as a work of art because it does not exist as a work of art. The proportions are ridiculous: it starts leisurely and with a rather pleasant old-fashioned flavor: as a result, far too much space is given to the earlier years and the latter unnecessarily crowded in consequence. The only clever things in the book are the speeches Mr. Roberts puts into the mouths of Dickens’s parents, which are fairly amusing imitations of Micawber and Mrs. Nickelby.
Of Mr. Straus’s book I have nothing so unkind to say. The advertising did indeed suggest that there might be an element of cheap sensationalism in “Charles Dickens, A Biography from New Sources,” but in the book itself there is nothing either cheap or sensational. Mr. Straus is a member of the house of Chapman and Hall: he has had unusual opportunities to collect unpublished materials, and he has used them all with taste and discretion. It is, I think, not too much to say, that next to Forster’s own work, his is the most valuable life of Dickens that we have.
It is a little unfortunate, however, that with so much material at his disposal, Mr. Straus should have chosen to produce a half-journalistic sketch of Dickens’s life rather than a carefully considered exhaustive and critical biography. And it is inexcusable that his book appears without an index and without documentation of any kind. Unless you happen to have the whole of Dickensian literature in your head, you cannot tell in reading Mr. Straus’s pages when he is quoting from manuscript and when he is using material previously published. There is an excellent reconstruction of social life at Gad’s Hill and another, almost equally vivid, of Dickens’s only meeting with Robert Seymour. Mr. Straus discusses the shortcomings of Dickens’s family with entire frankness—”And here, it may be, is the place to state very bluntly that few men have been unluckier in their families than Dickens”—and quotes from a letter to Collins in which Dickens presents himself for public recognition on the score of “having brought up the largest family ever known, with the smallest disposition to do anything for themselves.” With regard to the separation from his wife, he quotes the statement from the “violated” letter in which Dickens suggests that his wife was suffering from a mental derangement, and adding to it from another letter, hitherto unpublished, does not scruple to suggest that this element played a much larger role than has hitherto been supposed in leading up to the separation.
Do we need, then, in the light of this new evidence and near-evidence, radically to revise our conception of Dickens the man? Do the clay feet of the image seem larger and fouler today than they appeared before? Both questions must be answered unequivocally in the negative. “I am aware of nothing in his life—” writes Mr. Ley, “and he lived in the limelight as no other man of letters has done—which those who loved him best need wish to conceal.” Mr. Straus is equally emphatic in assuring us that Dickens was never “guilty, of any action whatsoever which could not be told in detail today.” Dickens’s interest in Ellen Ternan is discussed quite frankly by Mr. Straus, but neither he nor Mr. Roberts—the Devil’s Advocate—suggests that it was in any way other than essentially innocent.
Myself I am a good deal more worried about Wilkie Collins than I am about Ellen Ternan. Even in the printed correspondence with that gentleman there are suggestions that one does not often find elsewhere in Dickens and the suggestions are strengthened considerably by the unpublished letters which Mr. Straus quotes. Lest rash conclusions be drawn from this statement, I hasten to quote the very fair and, as I see it, very apt deduction which Mr. Straus himself has made: “It seems to me that Collins was providing the over-wrought man with a rougher, slightly more cynical philosophy. Collins liked to do himself well; he enjoyed the little adventures in which a man of not too scrupulous taste will sometimes indulge. I do not say that he led Dickens astray; but after Forster’s starchified and ultra-respectable ways it must have been a relief to have somebody about you at once capable of holding his own in intellectual argument and not unwilling to be pleasantly vulgar on occasions.” That is as far as we can go. But it must have caused some soreness of spirit to John Forster, in the last years of Dickens’s life, to find this vulgarian challenging his place as Dickens’s closest friend.
From all this uncertainty and all this debate, one conclusion clearly emerges. It is this: that the surest way and the only way to prevent the recurrence of such malicious attacks as Mr. Bechhofer Roberts’s in the future is to publish all the material, withholding nothing. If Dickens did nothing of which his family is ashamed, what is there to conceal? And if he did, what grounds can they have for complaint? A miserable whispering campaign has gone on now for seventy years. I, for one, have faith enough in Dickens to be sure that the whole truth would be far less shocking than this mess of miserable insinuation, against which Dickens’s best friends are powerless to defend him.
I hope I may not be accused of surrendering the citadel in my admission that many of the things Mr. Bechhofer Roberts says are true. Let us remember that there has always been considerable disagreement concerning Dickens’s art and his personality both. How have loyal Dickensians met the charges against Dickens as artist—the accusation, for example, of mawkish sentimentality on occasion? By denying it? By pretending that “The Old Curiosity Shop” is literature on a level with the plays of Sophocles, and that the intellectual appeal of Dickens’s novels is quite as high as that of George Meredith’s? Well, that sort of Dickensian exists and flourishes vigorously in the imagination of Dickens’s enemies, but I do not happen to know of any in life. There is room in this world for much literature that is not like Sophocles and much that is not like Meredith. There are spots on the sun but it still gives warmth. Dickens was neither a flawless artist nor a flawless man, but there are not many whose lives have added more to the happiness of mankind. And as I read the iconoclasts, whatever their point of attack, there runs through my mind the closing words of the most charming book that was ever written about him—Kate Douglas Wiggin’s “A Child’s Journey with Dickens”:
He had his literary weaknesses, Charles Dickens, but they were all dear, big, attractive ones, virtues grown a bit wild and rank. Somehow when you put him—with his elemental humor, his inexhaustible vitality, his humanity, sympathy, and pity;—beside the Impeccables, he always looms large! Just for a moment, when the heart overpowers the reason, he even makes the flawless ones look a little faded and colorless!
So also, it seems to me, in his life.