The Books: Arguably, ‘The Dark Side of Dickens’, by Christopher Hitchens

Arguably Hitchens

On the essays shelf:

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens

In his review of Michael Slater’s Charles Dickens, Hitchens compares it to Peter Ackroyd’s 1990 biography of Dickens. He seems to admire both. But he does clock a couple of interesting omissions, on the part of Slater, that seems to indicate a bias, or at least a wish on the part of Slater to skip over some of Dickens’ more unsavory opinions. Stuff like that is a huge red flag for me with biographies. Let the person stand there, warts and all. Don’t apologize. Just present it. It’s not for you, the biographer, to stand on high and say, “Here is how his views were correct and lovely and admirable …” and then leave OUT stuff that doesn’t fit your thesis. Dickens’ spot on the canon is secure. He is one of the most beloved authors of all time, and that status occurred during his lifetime. Politically, he was not what you might assume, and showed many of the prejudices of his day, things that cannot be reconciled (if you think like a simpleton, that is) with his lovely “liberal” humanist views. There are comments in some of his letters about various atrocities committed by the British Empire which he wholeheartedly supported. I have not read Slater’s biography so I cannot comment. Hitchens does not blast Slater, he finds a lot to like in the book. But Hitchens thinks a biography should embrace the “stark chiaroscuro” of Dickens, and not try to whitewash it away.

Hitchens mentions that there were “very severe constraints on Dickens’s legendary compassion.” He gives some examples. Hitchens loves Dickens, finds him hilarious, and his success awe-inspiring, and also thinks that the man deserves a proper clear-headed unapologetic treatment.

Here’s an excerpt from the opening. I love his comment about George Eliot.

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, ‘The Dark Side of Dickens’, by Christopher Hitchens

If offered the onetime chance to travel back into the world of the nineteenth-century English novel, I once heard myself saying, I would brush past Messrs. Dickens and Thackeray for the opportunity to hold speech with George Eliot. I would of course be wanting to press Mary Ann Evans on her theological capacities and her labor in translating the liberal German philosophers, as well as on her near-Shakespearean gift for divining the well-springs of human motivation. When compared to that vista of the soul and the intellect, why trouble even with the creator of Rebecca Sharp, let alone with the man who left us the mawkish figures of Smike and Oliver and Little Nell, to say nothing of the grisly inheritance that is the modern version of Christmas? Putting it even more high-mindedly, ought one not to prefer an author like Eliot, who really did give her whole enormous mind to religious and social and colonial questions, over a vain actor-manager type who used pathetic victims as tear-jerking raw material, and who actually detested the real subjects of High Victorian power and hypocrisy when they were luckless enough to dwell overseas?

I can still think in this way if I choose, but I know I am protesting too much. The first real test is that of spending a long and arduous evening in the alehouses and outer purlieus of London, and here it has to be in the company of Dickens and nobody else. The second real test is that of passing the same evening in co many with the possessor of an anarchic sense of humor: This yields the same result. What did oyster shuckers do, Dickens demanded to know, when the succulent bivalves were out of season?

Do they commit suicide in despair, or wrench open tight drawers and cupboards and hermetically-sealed bottles – for practice? Perhaps they are dentists out of the oyster season? Who knows?

This pearl was contained in a private letter not intended for publication (Dickens was almost always “on”) and is somewhat more searching than the dull question – “Where do the ducks in Central Park go in winter?” – that was asked by the boy who spoke so scornfully of “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”

It would be understating matters to say that Thackeray rather looked down on Dickens, but, even as Vanity Fair was first being serialized in 1847, he picked up the fifth installment of Dombey and Son and then brought it down with a smack on the table, exclaiming the while, “There’s no writing against such power as this – one has no chance! Read that chapter describing young Paul’s death: It is unsurpassed – it is stupendous!”

Almost a decade later, Dickens was dispatching an admiring note to George Eliot on the publication of her very first fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life. He felt he had penetrated the guileless disguise of her nom de plume: “If [the sketches] originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began.”

So I find the plan of my original enterprise falling away from me; I must give it up; there is something formidable about Dickens that may not be gainsaid.

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