- Dickens the Novelist:A Love Letter
This Christmas I did what I have not done since childhood, in those years when I annually swiped my sister's highly desirable Arthur Rackham-decorated hardback and holed myself up in a corner with Scrooge and a box of Cheez-Its: I prepared for the holiday by rereading Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol.
A Christmas Carol is a snug, well-organized, moralizing fairy tale, and I enjoyed it this season, as I always enjoy it; but I have to conclude, regretfully, that I don't adore it. Though I have a high tolerance for Victorian sentiment, even I became tired of festive holly branches and oversized Christmas geese and kindly dancing warehouse owners and jolly kissing games and pathetic but cheery invalids and that endless parade of pedagogical phantoms. Unlike Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend and Little Dorrit and many of Dickens's other novels, A Christmas Carol is an aphorism, a holiday card, a cheerful handshake. It celebrates and instructs; but it refuses to branch and spin and leap, to overflow history and reinvent memory, to skewer and mourn and laugh and hopelessly, restlessly yearn. I've spent most of a lifetime alongside Dickens's novels; and to me the imaginative risk and intelligence of these brilliant structural and physical adventures are the essence of his greatness. They are what make him—as F. R. and Q. D. Leavis declare in a joint preface to their series of critical essays collected as Dickens the Novelist—such a "profound, serious and wonderfully resourceful practising novelist, a master of [his art]."
Nonetheless Dickens, even in his lesser moments, always manages to stun me; and on this year's reading of A Christmas Carol, he did it again by page 13: "Marley's face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up upon its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot-air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be, [End Page 419] in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression."
Copying out this passage, I begin to realize how closely my own rhetorical style resembles Dickens's. Having read his novels intensely for many years, I'm not altogether surprised at my mimicry, though I hadn't really recognized the extent of my grammatical imitations. Like him I have a tendency to build my clauses on principles of repetition and opposition: "It was not . . . but. . . . It was not . . . but. . . ." Those rhetorical repetitions also infiltrate our descriptive imagery ("with ghostly spectacles turned up upon its ghostly forehead") and the words we choose to shift readers from one independent clause to another ("That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be, in spite of the face and beyond its control"). I, too, have an old-fashioned reliance on the subtle rhythmic and emotive powers of a judiciously placed adverb, as in Dickens's "curiously stirred." (Do not get me started on the ignorant adverb-hating tendencies promoted by contemporary self-help writing manuals.) I also pay close attention to punctuation as sentence drama, in particular the vast theatrical differences between a comma and a semicolon (another much-maligned grammatical tool). But all of this, while technically intriguing, only spotlights what Dickens and nobody else can do: conjure up, in a handful of words, a situation or a character who feels incredibly, three-dimensionally clumsy and dirty and smelly and real while being as impossible and far-fetched as Aladdin or Ali Baba. (Well, maybe Shakespeare can do it, too, in his own way.)
Consider, for instance, the two sentences that open the quoted paragraph: "Marley's face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had...