“To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.” Such was the auspicious beginning of David Copperfield and his author Charles Dickens whose bicentary we celebrate today.
Dickens’ anniversary will, I’m sure, be marked in a thousand ways, and his continued timeliness has probably been noted a thousand times already, but Theodore Dalrymple did a particularly good job of it in his essay for the American Conservative on the lessons of Hard Times:
Dickens is often reproached for his absence of firm and unequivocal moral, political, and philosophical outlook. He veers crazily between the ferociously reactionary and the mushily liberal. He lampoons the disinterested philanthropy of Mrs. Jellyby (in Bleak House) with the same gusto or ferocity as he excoriates the egotism of Mr. Veneering (in Our Mutual Friend). He suggests that businessmen are heartless swine (Bounderby in Hard Times) or disinterestedly charitable (the Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby). He satirizes temperance (in The Pickwick Papers) as much as he derides drunkenness (in Martin Chuzzlewit). The evil Jew (in Oliver Twist) is matched by the saintly Jew (in Our Mutual Friend). As Stephen Blackpool, the working-class hero of Hard Times says, “it’s aw a muddle.”
George Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, saw in this philosophical and moral muddle not a weakness but a strength, a generosity of spirit, an openness to the irreducible complexity of mankind’s moral situation, an immunity to what he called “the smelly little orthodoxies that are now contending for our souls.” And indeed, the principal target of Hard Times is such an orthodoxy, namely a hard-nosed utilitarianism combined with an unbending liberalism. (Liberal in the economic, not cultural, sense.)
Dickens’ “openness to the irreducible complexity of mankind’s moral situation,” not to mention the irreducible complexity of his plots, may as Dalrymple hopes, discourage our “inherent tendency to seek the key to all questions,” but it discourages in such an encouraging way. The realization that the world is too complicated to be ruled by formulas is not cause for despair but delight and, more often than not, a good laugh.
This is why, I think, Dickens often makes me think of Augustine. With every unnecessary detail, which Orwell observed is the “outstanding, unmistakable mark of Dickens’s writing,” he shows us what Augustine observed in book 7 of the Confessions: Whatsoever thing exist are good. While it is good that we know David Copperfield (and Dickens) were born on a Friday at midnight, it’s better to know that the clock and baby began striking and crying simultaneously. It would be enough to know that Mrs. Jarley is the proprietress of a wax works show in The Old Curiosity Shoppe and takes Nell into her employment, but it is better to know that among the wax figures is Jasper Packlemerton “who courted and married fourteen wives, and destroyed them all by tickling the soles of their feet when they were sleeping” and an old lady ”who died of dancing at a hundred and thirty-two.”
It is Dickens’ villains, to my mind though, who really prove Augustine’s point. Even beings that have suffered corruption, Augustine insists, are nevertheless good. In other words, the bad things, insofar as they are still things, are good things. What better description could there be of Mr. and Mrs. Wackford Squeers of Dotheboys Hall? They are monstrous people who treat the children placed in their care atrociously, but no one in their right mind would want the pages of Nicholas Nickleby purged of their existence. No one would want to lose exchanges like this one:
‘How is my Squeery?’ said this lady in a playful manner, and a very hoarse voice.
‘Quite well, my love,’ replied Squeers. ‘How’s the cows?’
‘All right, every one of’em,’ answered the lady.
‘And the pigs?’ said Squeers.
‘As well as they were when you went away.’
‘Come; that’s a blessing,’ said Squeers, pulling off his great-coat. ‘The boys are all as they were, I suppose?’
‘Oh, yes, they’re well enough,’ replied Mrs Squeers, snappishly. ‘That young Pitcher’s had a fever.’
‘No!’ exclaimed Squeers. ‘Damn that boy, he’s always at something of that sort.’
‘Never was such a boy, I do believe,’ said Mrs Squeers; ‘whatever he has is always catching too. I say it’s obstinacy, and nothing shall ever convince me that it isn’t. I’d beat it out of him; and I told you that, six months ago.’
‘So you did, my love,’ rejoined Squeers. ‘We’ll try what can be done.’
The Squeers, Micawber, Mrs. Jellyby, Bounderby, and all the others “are monsters,” Orwell admits, “but at any rate they exist.” And we can’t help but be glad of it.