Contemporary Writers' Criticisms of Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens was the most popular novelist of his day, but many of his fellow writers were critical of his approach.

Charles Dickens was the most widely-read author of his day, from his breakthrough at the age of 24 with The Pickwick Papers up until his death at age 58. Yet, like most purveyors of popular culture, he was often criticized by more intellectual elements of the reading public. Indeed, many of Dickens’s writer contemporaries were somewhat dismissive of his talents.

Thackeray's Love of Dickens Work

Of Dickens’ great English contemporaries, only William Makepeace Thackeray was unstinting in his praise. On reading A Christmas Carol (1844), Thackeray said: “It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness.” On reading an installment of Dombey and Son in 1847, Thackeray burst into his and Dickens’s publisher’s office and exclaimed: “There’s no writing against such power as this – one has no chance!” Thackeray and Dickens were never personally close, and fell out in the late 1850s, becoming reconciled shortly before Thackeray’s 1863 death.

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Eliot and Lewes: Voices of the Intelligentsia

Less impressed by Dickens was George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), as she made clear in an 1856 essay. Here she admitted that Dickens was adept at rendering the “external traits” of characters, he had no proficiency in drawing “psychological character”. She went on to say: “He scarcely ever passes from the humourous and external to the emotional and tragic, without becoming as transcendent in his unreality as he was a moment before in his artistic truthfulness.”

Eliot’s partner was the literary critic G. H. Lewes, who wrote one of the most influential critiques of Dickens in 1872, two years after Dickens’s death. In “Dickens in Relation to Criticism”, Lewes allowed that Dickens was great in “fun”, and possessed a “glorious energy of imagination”, so intense that for Lewes it seemed hallucinatory. Then Lewes went on to accuse Dickens’s work of an absence of thought, and noting “his was an animal intelligence, i.e., restricted to perceptions”. Lewes concludes his reflections on Dickens thus:

We do not turn over the pages in search of thought, delicate psychological observation, grace of style, charm of composition; but we enjoy them like children at play, laughing and crying at the images before us.

This is, at best, a back-handed compliment, with a notable element of condescension, and most modern commentators have found in Dickens far more psychological depth than Lewes or Eliot allowed.

Bleak House: John Stuart Mill and Charlotte Bronte

The publication of Bleak House in 1852-53 brought Dickens criticism from several angles. Renowned philosopher and social commentator John Stuart Mill disliked the book intensely: “Much the worst of his things and the only one of them I altogether dislike, has the vulgar impudence in this way to ridicule rights of women. It is done in the very vulgarest way, just the style in which vulgar men used to ridicule ‘learned ladies’ as neglecting their children and household.” This refers to the character of Mrs. Jellyby, the “telescopic philanthropist” obsessed with the deprived people of the Borrioboola-Gha region, while her own children live in squalor and neglect.

Charlotte Bronte was also unimpressed by Bleak House. On reading the first instalment, she announced of the presentation of the central character Esther Summerson: “It seems to me too often weak and twaddling – an amiable nature is caricatured – not faithfully rendered.” This is interesting, as Esther Summerson, in her emotional reserve and self-denying nature, and her propensity for self-deprecation, seems to owe something to Bronte’s depiction of Jane Eyre, though Dickens never acknowledged an influence.

Anthony Trollope and Mr. Popular Sentiment

Anthony Trollope satirized Dickens in his novel The Warden as Mr. Popular Sentiment, whose “good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard; and the genuinely honest so very honest”, who is more interested in “imaginary agonies… than true sorrows”, and who engages in ridicule rather than argument. But while noting that Mr. Popular Sentiment’s heroes and heroines “walk on stilts”, he admitted that his secondary characters “are as natural as though one met them in the street… and will live till the names of their callings shall be forgotten in their own, and Bucket and Mrs. Gamp will be the only words left to us to signify detective police officer or a monthly nurse.” By mentioning two Dickens characters by name, Trollope dispels any lingering doubt about the true identity of Mr. Popular Sentiment.

So Dickens did not please all his contemporaries; though there were none who denied that he had great gifts of imagination, many felt decidedly ambivalent about his talents, and, contrary to his current position at the pinnacle of novelists in the English language, his work was not considered to belong to the highest rank, but to be something of a guilty pleasure, that failed to provide nourishment for the higher faculties of the human mind.