페이지 이미지

morality on the subject. Had their difficulties been fewer—had something turned up at an earlier period, equally genteel and lucrative, in which Mr. Micawber's talents would have found scope—had he been above the necessity of selling bedsteads or signing bills—the chances are we should have known nothing about him: and this possible deprivation is one which we cannot contemplate philosophically.

Mr. Micawber even reconciles us in part to one of those wonderful and terrible explanation scenes which are Mr. Dickens's delight. We tolerate it because of the high crisis of feeling which it brings about in the Micawber household. The mystery with which it is introduced; the. terrible sense of estrangement which prompts his devoted wife to appeal to the sympathy of her friends, "though harrowing to myself to mention ;" Mr. Micawber's own tragic consciousness that with such a secret as weighs down his being, it is not with him as in former times, when "I could look my fellow-man in the face, and punch his head if he offended me: my fellow-man and myself are no longer on such glorious terms !"—all these preparations work us up into real excitement; and when the crisis is over, we turn from the villain and the victim with equal indifference, to be present at the reconciliation, or rather, as Mr. Micawber more eloquently expresses it, "the re-establishment of mutual confidence between myself and Mrs. Micawber." It is with the most delighted readiness that we hasten to assist at this explanation.

"'The evil that has been interposed between Mrs. Micawber and myself is now withdrawn,' said Mr. Micawber, 'and my children and the Author of their Being can now once more come in contact on equal terms.' His house was not far off: and as the street-door opened into the sitting-room, and he bolted in with a precipitation quite his own, we found ourselves at once in the bosom of his family. Mr. Micawber, exclaiming 'Emma, my life!' rushed into Mrs. Micawber's arms. Mrs. Micawber shrieked, and folded Mr. Micawber in her embrace. . . . 'Emma,' said Mr. Micawber, 'the cloud is past from my mind. Mutual confidence, so long promised between us once, is indeed to know no further interruption. Now, welcome poverty,' said Mr. Micawber, shedding tears, 'welcome misery, welcome houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary. Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end!' With these expressions, Mr. Micawber placed

Mrs. Micawber in a chair, and embraced the family all round: welcoming a variety of bleak prospects which appeared to my judgment to be anything but welcome to them: and calling upon them to come out into Canterbury and sing a chorus as nothing else was left for their support."

Still grander and more imposing is the last appearance of the Micawbers upon the stage. We pause, however, to say that we are morally certain Mr. Micawber, left to himself, would never have emigrated; and that only the delicious temptation of the novelty, and the sense of an opportunity for distinguishing himself as the typical emigrant, could have moved him to such a step. The tears with which he has been welcoming ruin are scarcely dry, and Mrs. Micawber has but newly recovered from the faint produced by the reconciliation.

"My aunt mused a little while, and then said:

"' Mr. Micawber, I wonder you have never turned your thoughts to emigration.'

"'Madam,' returned Mr. Micawber, 'it was the dream of my youth, and the fallacious aspiration of my riper years.' I am thoroughly persuaded, by the by, that he never thought of it in his life. . . .

"'There is but one question, my dear ma'am, I would wish to ask,' said Mrs. Micawber. 'The climate, I believe, is healthy?'

"' Finest in the world,' said my aunt.

"'Just so,' returned Mrs. Micawber. 'Then my question arises. Now, are the circumstances of the country such that a man of Mr. Micawber's abilities would have a fair chance of rising in the social scale? I will not say at present might he aspire to he governor, or anything of that sort; but would there be a reasonable opening for his talents to develop themselves—that would be amply sufficient—and find their own expansion?'

"' No better opening anywhere,' said mv aunt, 'for a man who conducts himself well, and is industrious.'

"' For a man who conducts himself well,* repeated Mrs. Micawber, with her clearest business manner, 'and is industrious. Precisely. It is evident to me that Australia is the legitimate sphere of action for Mr. Micawber.'

"' I entertain the conviction, my dear madam,' said Mr. Micawber, 'thatitis, under existing circumstances, the land, the only land, for myself and family, and that something of an extraordinary nature will turn up on that shore. It is not distance, comparatively speaking; and though consideration is due to the kindness of your proposal, I assure you that it is a mere matter of form."

"Shall I ever forget how, in a moment, he was the most sanguine of men, looking on to fortune; or how Mrs. Micawber presently discoursed about the habits of the kangaroos? Shall I ever recall that street of Canterbury on a market-day as he walked back with us, expressing, in the hardy roving manner he assumed, the unsettled habits of a temporary sojourner in the land, and looking at the bullocks as they came by with the eye of an Australian farmer?"

When be is found later, "with a bold, buccaneering air, not absolutely lawless, but defensive and prompt," we feel that it requires all the comfort we can derive from the spectacle of his preparation for every emergency, and all our sense of the infinite satisfaction it gives him, to console us for the parting with our friend and his family.

"He had provided himself, among other things, with a complete suit of oilskin, and a straw-hat with a very low crown, pitched or caulked on the outside. In this rough clothing^ with a common mariner's telescope under his arm, and a shrewd trick of casting up his eye at the sky as looking out for dirty weather, he was far more nautical after his manner than Mr. Peggotty. His whole family, if I may so express it, were cleared for action. I found Mrs. Micawber in the closest and most uncompromising of bonnets, made fast under the chin, and in a shawl which tied her up (as I had been tied up when my aunt first received me) like a bundle, and was secured behind at the waist in a strong knot. Miss Micawber I found made snug for stormy weather in the same way, with nothing superfluous about her. Master Micawber was hardly visible in a Guernsey shirt and the shaggiest suit of slops I ever saw ; and the children were done up like preserved meats in impervious cases. Both Mr. Micawber and his eldest son wore their sleeves loosely turned back at their wrists, as being ready to lend a hand in any direction, and to tumble up, or sing out, 'Yoe— heave—yeo!' on the shortest notice."

Thus our friends disappear from the scene, and we sympathize with the author in making them prosperous and magnificent in that future which they were always so comfortable about. We do not much believe in it, but still he is only yielding to a natural impulse, and commands our sympathy, if not the concurrence of our judgment. In all his works there is nothing better, and not much that is half so good. From beginning to end he never flags in carrying out his conception—the Micawbers are as good the first day as the last, and the last as the first;

they are always themselves, ready for any emergency, and acting nobly up to it. We will not say that the humor is as high and fine as that which produced Dick Swiveiler, but it closely approaches the proportion of that inimitable sketch; and as time goes on, and all that is to die of Dickens dies as it must—a process which seems to us to be progressing quickly at the present moment—his real fame, «vhich depends upon a very much smaller foundation than that which has been given him by contemporary opinion, will be found to rest more upon these two pictures than on anything else he has done.

We may say here that of all his books "Copperfield" is the one which the reader has most satisfaction in. It has, besides this matchless group, many of Dickens's pleasantest sketches and best characters. Even the hero himself is capable of attracting us in a way not usually achieved by a jeune premier, and there is actually an interest apart from any drollery in the story of his childish life, the curious loneliness and independence of its introductory chapter, and the pleasant reality of growing up and youthful experience which marks the boy's progress into manhood. Miss Betsy Trotwood, too, is an admirable sketch, the very best of Dickens's women; and though the touch of melodrama in her is quite unnecessary, it is not sufficiently offensive to demand any strong protest; everything (let us add as a general axiom) that can be skipped, and does not thrust itself into the complications of the tale, may be forgiven. The episode of poor little foolish Dora is both amusing and touching, though after the marriage the child wife is often on the point of growing tedious. Simple silliness is one of the most difficult things in the world to manage at length, and the author is prevented from adding anything to make it piquant by all the circumstances of the story, and the human prejudice which protects the little bride; but barring this touch of tediousness, there is truth enough in the picture to make it very amusing; and there is an amount of natural pathos involved in the very idea of the fading and death of the young which Dickens has taken much advantage of on other occasions, with a tendency to false sentiment, and the easy effects of conventional melancholy. Dora, however, is better than little Nell and Paul Dombey, both highly artificial pictures, relying for their effect upon the far deeper and more real picture which most people carry in their hearts of something sufficiently like to blind the reader's eyes with tears, and overpower his judgment. Before their marriage, David and his lovemaking are charming; and all through, the puzzled, troubled, saddened, but always loyal young husband, retains our sympathy—as he does, indeed, on most occasions when he is personally prominent. Perhaps, however, it is by contrast with the superior excellence of the story otherwise that the melodramatic part of "David Copperfield" is more repulsive than usual. Steerforth and his mother, and the monstrous imagination called Rosa Dartle, are the nightmare of the book, and even the despair of little Emily and the virtuousness of Peggotty are tiresome. "Skip the pathos," was the earnest injunction which we lately heard addressed to a benevolent reader who was reading "Copperfield" aloud. Perhaps this is too much to say, but yet the reader will find it safe to pass over a great deal of the more touching portions; the strength of Dickens did not lie there.

This is specially true of the short stories published on successive Christmases, the first of which produced an effect which at this distance we find it very difficult to account for. Dickens was then at the highest pinnacle of his fame, and everything that fell from his lips was eagerly received by an admiring public; and the "Christmas Carol," the apotheosis of turkey and plum-pudding, addressed perhaps the widest audience that is capable of being moved by literature. The story of how Scrooge was converted from avarice and misery into the very jovialest of Pickwickian old gentlemen moved us all in those days as if it had been a new gospel. There was nothing recondite about it, no finer meaning that escaped the common eye; everybody understood the moral, and perceived at a glance how beneficent was the training which prompted an old Skinflint to send a prize turkey for his poor clerk's Christmas dinner, and poke him in the ribs and raise his salary next day. The " Christmas Carol" was the beginning of the flood of terrible joviality and sentimentality which since that time has poured upon us with every Christmas, which detracts from our gratitude; but its

effect at the time of its publication was extraordinary, and it must, we presume, have been attended by good practical results. It is seldom that the teacher of charity can lay hold upon so vast an audience; and the kindly moral was perhaps all the more generally acceptable, that it required no great elevation of sentiment or spiritual discrimination. This, however, is the only one of these smaller productions which will retain its position. The succeeding stories, though all bearing the same good meaning, dwindled by degrees into the maudlin vein. "Scrooge" retains a certain vigor still, but not by right of any vivid character or striking scene. Its interest is almost entirely forced, and its power quite artificial. Goose and stuffing are its most ethereal influences; and the episode of Tiny Tim is like the others we have instanced, only touching because of the personal recollections which any allusion to a feeble or dying child inevitably recall. The episode, however, must have been a favorite with the author, since it remained one ot his selected passages in his readings till the end of his career.

It is perhaps too early as yet to decide which of the later books are likely to retain any permanent place in English literature; nor do we recollect sufficiently the order in which they were published (which, by the way, is not retained in any printed list we can lay our hands on), to say when it was that the current slackened, that the indications of genius began to grow less frequent, and the creative impulse to fail. Our own impression is, that in "Copperfield" Mr. Dickens's genius culminated, and that everything after gives symptoms of decay.. "Bleak House11 and "Little Dorrit" stand on a much lower elevation, and "Our Mutual Friend" on a humbler level still. The impulse and spontaneity are gone; by times a gleam of the original energy comes back, but as a rule the work is a manufacture, bearing painful marks of the hammer, and brought into being by an act of will, not by the spontaneous movement of life. Even the type of character deteriorates. The smug, self-conscious, professional goodness of the heroine of "Bleak House," which it always astonishes her so much to find appreciated and applauded, takes up a great deal more room than it has any right to do, and irritates and wearies the reader. What fun Mr. Dickens, in his earlier vigor, could have made of Esther Summering's consciousness, and her well-feigned surprise at everybody's good opinion of her! but by this time he is too languid for such an effort, and is compelled to take, as it were, to a kind of imaginative dram-drinking to rouse him up, in the shape of spontaneous combustion and other horrors. Little Miss Flite, who has been crazed by the Court of Chancery, is a fantastic figure, worthy of a place in the permanent collection of oddities which this author has added to his more important pictures; and there is a languid sketch of one of the many prodigals of fiction, with some novelty in it, in the person of Richard, who considers himself to have saved the money which he is prevented from throwing away, and consequently throws it away the second time, with the clearest conscience and a gentle sense of duty. Perhaps, however, the only real hold which this book ever had upon the popular imagination was through Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle, who belong to that class of female philanthropists whom the English public has a certain savage delight in annihilating. Mrs. Jellyby's pleasant placidity in the midst of all the miseries of her household, her perfect temper and good-humored indifference to everybody's sufferings, are very much more true and amusing, however, than the strained fun of Borrioboolagha, and it is a phase of character the author is fond of. "Little Dorrit" is, again, a step lower down in the scale than "Bleak House." There is an effective situation, that of the Marshalsea prison, and the strange squalid life of the family, which has no other home; but Mr. Dorrit is but the Diddler development of Mr. Dickens's favorite character; his grandeur and his meanness are all gleaned from previous sketches, and the result is neither interesting nor agreeable; whereas the heroine is one of those inconceivably and foolishly devoted little persons, mawkishly fond of some disagreeable relation, and delighting in making victims and sacrifices of themselves, who represent the highest type of female* character to the author. The best thing in the book is the Circumlocution Office, there set forth at full length; and the talk of the retainers and poor relations of the Barnacle and Stiltstalking families, the two statesmen races,

which is a not unmeaning though feeble echo of the talk which may be heard every day among the decayed members of the governing classes.

To "Our Mutual Friend" Jmd "The Tale of Two Cities" we can give'no place at all. The latter might have been written by any new author, so little of Dickens there is in it. In short, we believe there are at least half-a-dozen writers extant who could have produced a piece a great deal more like the master, and with much, more credible marks of authenticity. "Edwin Drood" has been supposed by many a kind of resurrection, or at least the forerunner of a resurrection, of his characteristic force. But we cannot say that such is the impression produced upon our own mind. Of all undesirable things to be deprecated by an admirer of Dickens, we should say that the resurrection of his peculiar style of tragedy would be about the greatest—and this is all which could be hoped from the opening of "Edwin Drood." Jasper did indeed give promise of being one of the blackest of the impossible scoundrels whom from time to time he has brought into being for our gratification; but Durdles is one of the weakest ghosts of the past, and the Deputy a most pitiful shadow of those gamins who were ever so full of life and spirit. This fire, we think, there can be little doubt, had died out. Fun and high spirits are perhaps of all other qualities of the mind the ones which do rub out most easily. We do not doubt that Dickens was as strong as ever in constructive power, in pathos, and in philosophy; but then these are precisely the points at which our understanding leaves him. So far as we are concerned, we could dispense with all, or almost all, he has done in these particulars. _ The higher fount of humor, from which, indeed, at the best of times, he drew but sparingly, was dry; and even the abundant flood of cheerful wit, and large, laughing, though superficial, observation, had failed : never, we think, has there been a more distinct decadence. But natural decadence is no shame to any man: the only thing that can give it a sting is the desperate effort some men are compelled to make to keep up lost fame and do impossible work after the fiat has gone out against them. And this Dickens was not called upon to do.

There is a gleam, however, of departing energy in the curious book called " Great Expectations," which is worth noticing. It is not in the old strain, nor specially characteristic of Dickens, but there is a certain power in the conception. The horror of the young hero, who has been adopted and " made a gentleman of" by a convict, when he finds out who his benefactor is—the strange wild love and pride of the man in the "gentleman" whom he has made—the faithfulness with which, when his loathed and feared patron is in danger, the young fellow holds by him and schemes to save him—have considerable impressiveness and power. The book is painful in the highest degree; and nothing could be imagined more artificial and false than the picture of Miss Havisham, the vindictive deserted bride, who has shut herself up for a quarter of acentury in her dressingroom, where she sits in her wedding-dress, which apparently has lasted all that time too, with but one shoe on, exactly as she was when the news of her lover's falsehood reached her. This mad figure, seated with a still madder disregard of possibility amid her absurd surroundings, is neither tragical, as she is meant to be, nor amusing, but simply foolish : but the story of Pip's horror at the sudden apparition of his benefactor, the sense of repulsion with which he struggles, while he tries to be kind to him, and his exertions to get him free at the last, are boldy conceived and well told. Had another man done it, the likelihood is that the new author would have been much applauded for an effective and powerful bit of work ; but all that was characteristic in Dickens, all that was best in him, had faded off the scene before we received this with the applause which attends a popular actor's best performance. How changed he is from what we have known him ! we say to each other, as we fling our bouquets on the stage: we withdraw behind the curtains of our box that he may not see us, and shake our heads as he raises, with tremulous loudness, that voice which once rang easily through the house without labor or effort. Poor old fellow, how he has gone off! we say—and applaud all the more.

And when we look back upon the works of Dickens, they divide themselves at once into these two classes—the works of his heyday and prime, and the works of his decadence. The natural vigor of the one contrasts in the most singular manner with the strain and effort of the other ; and yet

if we examine into the matter, the change is very natural and explainable. The great source of his popularity is the immense flow of sprits, the abundant tide of life, which runs through his early works. He never spares himself in this respect, but pours forth crowds of supernumeraries upon his stage, like an enterprising manager at Christmas time, sparing no expense, as it were, and giving himself infinite trouble merely to provide a rich and varied background for his principal figures. He leaves upon our minds an impression of unbounded wealth and illimitable resources. We know that it will be no trouble to him to fill up any vacant corner with a group ; and even while the thought crosses our mind, his eye has caught the vacancy, and a half-dozen of living creatures are tossed into the gap in the twinkling of an eye. This overflowing abundance has a wonderful effect upon the public mind. A sense of something like infinity grows upon us as we see the new forms appear out of the void without even a word, at a glance from the painter's eye. And then his creative energy was such that a stream of fun passed into the dulness along with this strain of life. These new people amused their author. He dressed them in the first fantastic garb that might come to his hand, and set them free to dance through their eccentric circle as they chose. This immense energy, fertility and plentifulness is, however, one of the gifts that can least be warranted to last. It belongs to the first half of life, and could scarcely be expected to survive beyond that period. When the intellectual pulse began to beat slower, and the tide of existence to run less full, this power abated, as was natural. Though there were still as many people on the canvas, these people were but the ghosts of the lusty crowds of old ; and even the numbers got reduced; the supers began to be dismissed; and economy stole in where prodigality had once ruled the day. If the reader will look at the later works, he will preceive at once this lessened fulness. When the author himself became aware of it, the knowledge roused hiin to preternatural exertions. The absurdei* oddities of Dickens are crowded into these later books in a forlorn attempt to make extravagance do the work of energy. Such weird and grotesque figures, for instance, as the doll's dress-maker, and Mr. Venus, the

« 이전계속 »