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The Dickens Pot Boils

ISSUE:  Summer 1934

The Life of Our Lord. By Charles Dickens. New York: Simon and Schuster. $1.75. Charles Dickens, His Life and Work. By Stephen Leacock. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company, $3.00. David Copper field. Condensed by Robert Graves. Edited by Merrill P. Paine. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $1.00.

A dickens first edition in 1934! Who among us can ever have anticipated it? The manuscript sold outright to the London Daily Mail at fifteen dollars a word. New York publishers burning up the wires to London in competitive bidding for the American rights. Book publication preceded spectacularly by serialization in a chain of American newspapers. Full page advertisements; posters (in defiance of the law) on the telegraph poles. And all this for a Life of Jesus written by the great novelist for the exclusive use of his children and the children of Mark Lemon and never intended for publication at all! We turn to the list of American best-sellers compiled recently by Mr. Edward Weeks, of the Atlantic Monthly Press, to discover that Charles M. Sheldon’s “In His Steps” has actually piled up the amazing total of eight million copies sold, outdistancing its nearest competitor by a cold six million, and we begin to wonder if, after all, the sophisticates have not made a much smaller dent upon the world that we had, according to our individual temperaments, hoped or feared.

“The Life of Our Lord” was made available to the general public following the death, last December, of Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, the writer’s last surviving son. An American “authority” on Dickens has since expressed his amazement that the existence of such a manuscript should have been concealed so long. If this gentleman will take the trouble to re-read his Forster, he may moderate His transports. The work was written in Lausanne in 1846; that is, just before Dickens set to work on “Dombey and Son.”

Whether it ought now to be printed—as against his express injunction—is a rather nice question. Personally I should be disposed to defend its publication. The author of “The Pickwick Papers” has long since ceased to be “the late Mr. Dickens.” He has become one of the glories of English literature; he is the property of the world. Both these things are true to a far, far greater extent than he himself had any idea they ever would be. When a man has attained such eminence, the ordinary reticences no longer apply. The world, which has all too few of his stamp, is entitled to all the material there is.

What I think he would resent, however, is the commercialized ballyhoo that has accompanied the publication in the newspapers. “Charles Dickens’s $200,000 Masterpiece” is not the happiest possible way of announcing the appearance of any piece of literature, and it is more than usually shocking when a Life of Christ happens to be the piece in question.

What, then, shall be said of the book itself? It is what he wanted it to be, an utterly simple summary of the Gospel story for very young children. Great expectations are aroused when one remembers that though the life of Jesus has been retold in thousands of books, this is the only time the task has ever been undertaken by one of the great creative writers of the world. There is less originality, however, than one might have hoped for. Dickens is handicapped by the extreme youth of his audience; he seems constrained also by a sense of reverence; few traces of his characteristic style appear. “My Dear Children,” he begins, “I am very anxious that you should know something about the History of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about him. No one ever lived, who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in any way ill or miserable as he was.” It is this gentle, loving aspect of Jesus that he has stressed, as all readers of the religious passages in “Dombey” might have known that he would, but his hero is no mere human being, however noble. He is “Jesus Christ,” and this book about him is a child’s guide to salvation; we must live right here, so that in the world to come we may live with Jesus forevermore. Jesus chose poor men to be his disciples “in order that the Poor might know always after that . . . Heaven was made for them as well as for the rich.” Dickens makes the somewhat common error of identifying Mary of Bethany with the woman who anointed Jesus with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, and the wholly inexplicable one of describing Herodias as the daughter of Herod and having her, not Salome, ask the head of John the Baptist as a reward for her dance. The meeting with Zacchaeus becomes the inspiration of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and when Joseph of Arimathaea places the body of Jesus in the tomb, he leaves “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, sitting there, watching it.” The woman taken in adultery becomes, for obvious reasons, simply “a woman who had done wrong,” but he might have spared the children his account of the death of Judas, which he achieves by telescoping the two contradictory New Testa-ment accounts: in his version, Judas hangs himself but the rope breaks and his body is “all bruised and burst—a dreadful sight to see!” After telling of the child set in the midst of the disciples, Dickens makes Jesus say, “The angels are all children.” He puts words into the mouth of the angel, too, who announces the birth of Christ to the shepherds: “There is a Child born to-day in the city of Bethlehem near here, who will grow up to be so good that God will love Him as His own Son, and He will teach Men to love one another, and not to quarrel and hurt one another.” It is beautifully said, and it neatly avoids all the metaphysical problems which Dickens disliked. I am rather surprised at the attention he gives the miracles. He wisely passes over the Virgin Birth —”His father’s name was Joseph, and his mother’s name was Mary”—but he gives many of Jesus’s own mighty works, especially the miracles of healing, possibly because these show the Saviour as ministering to human need.

There was no particular reason why Stephen Leacock should write a new life of Dickens. Except that he corrects Forster on the name of the hotel where Dickens stayed in Montreal (he remarks slyly that “All research workers in the history of our literature will find in the correction of a standing error a distinct contribution to our knowledge of the life and character of Dickens and an ample justification of the present volume”) he has no new material; he has nothing particularly original to say; in method, he follows the old-fashioned chronological outline. But nothing can prevent people from telling over again the lives of the writers they love. Mr. Leacock has loved Dickens all his life; he simply had to get a book out of his system sooner or later.

Moreover, his enthusiasm has served him well. I have read his book with great enjoyment; he tells the tale with the gusto that the subject deserves, and which I think he would have relished; on the whole, I do not believe there is a better short life of Dickens available. As all who have followed his work know, Mr. Leacock is not strong as a critic. He is a very careless writer, and he is inclined to take the position that a given assertion is true because he makes it. In the present work, however, he has been very successful in differentiating the elements of varying value in Dickens’s work, and he has given us too an absorbing chapter “solving” the mystery of Edwin Drood. I only wish he had not written his last page! Dickens’s place in our literature is secure. One cannot serve him by making such patently ridiculous assertions as that Shakespeare was “a man—or a collection of men—of far less genius,” or that “Milton seems to the colleges profound [in contradistinction to Dickens] because he wrote of hell, a great place, and is dead.”

There remains the Robert Graves version of “David Cop-perfield,” which is one book too many. It is presented in an educational edition, with undistinguished, misleading, none too accurate annotation; one opens it under the impression that Mr. Graves has prepared one of those condensed versions for high school use that are popular among those educators who believe that no child must ever be asked to use his brains, for fear he may suffer a cerebral haemorrhage. Tennyson’s only complaint concerning “Clarissa Harlowe” was that it was not long enough. What sane man wants “Copperfield” shortened? If it could be expanded to three or four times its length that would be something else again.

But let us not deceive ourselves. Mr. Graves has not simply condensed. He has rewritten! And his aim has been to make “David Copperfield” a novel suited to the needs of the modern reader. Ye gods! is there no lightning left in the heavens that a man can commit such a crime as this and be permitted to go on living? “Yet I can truly say I have made it into a play,” wrote Thomas Shadwell of his “adaptation” of “Timon of Athens.” And in cold fact, there has been no such desecration as this of an accepted classic since the Restoration playwrights butchered Shakespeare for the amusement of the pimps and whores of the court of Charles the Second.


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