- Dickens, Miscellanies, and Classical Traditions of Satire
Adetailed examination of Charles Dickens's influence on the genesis and development of the periodical that was originally advertised in the Autumn of 1836 as "The Wits' Miscellany" has yet to be made. Nevertheless I am going to argue that the context of its establishment was something of a watershed in the development of Dickens's approach to satirical writing as a journalist, editor and author.1 "The Wits' Miscellany" was the planned title for the new monthly magazine that the publisher was projecting in 1836, to be jointly penned by the leading humorists of the day, and edited by the intensely fashionable "Boz," creative force behind a strange monthly confection of narratives known as The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, then taking literary London by storm. At Dickens's suggestion, we are led to believe, the title soon mutated from "The Wits' Miscellany" to Bentley's Miscellany, prompting R. H. Barham's quip "but why go to the other extreme?" The joke acts as an illustration of something that will also be touched on in this article, namely the place in satirical traditions of the hit which depends for its effect upon the identification of an individual victim. This gives satire a particular kind of hold which is more of a bite than an embrace. In exploring such matters, Dickensian satire will inevitably be brought into conversation–perhaps even criminal conversation–with the central Dickensian theme of conviviality.2 With its emphasis on shared [End Page 221] enjoyment, sociability and consensus, the convivial would seem to be at odds with the properly satirical, which has to leave its sting in somebody's flesh, and which usually exposes two sides to any question, leaving some unfortunate soul–at times even its readers–uncomfortably stranded on the wrong bank, and scrambling for safety.
This naturally prompts the question of what Dickens himself, as a young writer already being lionized for his wit in the mid 1830s, understood by such terms, as they affected the practice of his craft. In other words, how did Dickens orientate himself as a budding humorist against the existing satirical and comic traditions of his day? To be sure, this is not a fashionable line of enquiry.3 Following the great twentieth-century re-evaluation of Dickens as an artist, we have perhaps become conditioned to look for ways in which his works anticipated, predicted and prototyped his Modernist and postmodern successors and influenced the international current of prose fiction that was to come after. Nevertheless, it must occasionally be permissible to glance upstream as well as down, and try to understand Dickens's aesthetic and ethical development as a writer in terms of those he acknowledged and navigated amongst as forerunners: in this case well-established exponents of classical traditions of literary attack and reform. Dickens's "small Latin and less Greke" as a schoolboy is, in this respect, irrelevant, because such traditions were so widely diffused in Regency, Georgian and Victorian print culture, partly though the periodical press, but also through the warp and weft of parliamentary rhetoric, which of course, Dickens himself was as responsible as anyone for weaving into text during the 1830s (Hessell ch. 5). As George Augustus Sala would put it, in his book-length obituary of his mentor and former employer, Dickens as a young journalist "had listened to masters in every style of rhetoric: he had followed Henry Brougham the Demosthenes, Shiel the Cicero, O'Connell the Mirabeau, of their age" (36–37). A classical education was by no means a prerequisite to participation in a literary culture imbued with neoclassical tendencies, and which was thoroughly accustomed to adapting familiar stylistic formulae and imaginative reference points in the contest between conservative and radical traditions. Dickens was literally and literarily in the thick of it. [End Page 222]
Party spirits, party warfare and the satirical stakes were all high during the stormy passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829), the "Great Reform" Act (1832), and the implementation of the radical Whig reform agenda during the Grey and first two Melbourne ministries (1830–39)–in particular as effects of the...