Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham

  The arrangement is surprising. One cannot but wonder why, placid as she was and stupid as she may have been, Kate allowed herself to be driven from her own house, and why she consented to leave her children behind. She knew of Charles’s infatuation with Ellen Ternan, and would have supposed that, with this trump-card in her hand, she could have made what terms she chose. In one of his letters Dickens refers to a ‘weakness’ of Kate’s, and in another letter, unfortunately published at the time, he alludes to a mental disorder ‘which caused his wife to think that she would be better away’. It is pretty well certain now that these were discreet references to the fact that Kate drank. It would not be strange if her jealousy, her sense of inadequacy, the mortification of feeling that she was not wanted, had driven her to the bottle. If she was to become a confirmed alcoholic, it would explain why Georgy should have managed the house and looked after the children, why they should have remained at home when their mother left it, why Georgy could write that ‘Poor Kate’s incapacity for looking after children was no secret to anyone.’ It may be that her eldest son went to live with her to see that she did not tipple overmuch.

  Dickens was far too celebrated for his private affairs not to give rise to gossip. Scandalous rumours were spread abroad. He heard that the Hogarths, Kate’s and Georgy’s mother and sister, were saying that Ellen Ternan was his mistress. He was furious and forced them, by threatening to turn Kate out of her house without a penny, to sign a declaration that they did not believe there was anything reprehensible in his relations with the little actress. The Hogarths took a fortnight before they could bring themselves to be thus blackmailed. They must have known that, if he carried out his threat, Kate could go to law with a cast-iron case; if they dared not let things go to such lengths, it can surely only have been because there were faults on Kate’s side which they were unwilling to have divulged. There was also a good deal of talk about Georgy. She is, indeed, the enigmatic figure in the whole affair. I wonder that no one has been tempted to make her the central figure of a play. Earlier in this chapter I remarked on the significance of what Dickens wrote in his diary after Mary’s death. This made it clear, it seemed to me, not only that he had been in love with her, but was already dissatisfied with Kate. And when Georgy came to live with them, he was charmed with her because of her astonishing resemblance to Mary. Did he then fall in love with her too? Did she love him? No one can tell. Georgy was jealous enough of Kate to cut out all sentences in praise of her when, after Charles’s death, she edited a selection of his letters; but the attitude of Church and State towards marriage with a deceased wife’s sister had given any connection of the sort an incestuous aspect, and it may never have entered her head that there could be more between herself and the man in whose house she had lived for fifteen years than the fond affection a sister might legitimately feel for a brother by blood. Perhaps it was enough for her to be in the confidence of so famous a man, and to have established a complete ascendancy over him. The strangest part of it all is that when Charles fell passionately in love with Ellen Ternan, Georgy made a friend of her and welcomed her at Gad’s Hill. Whatever she felt, she kept to herself.

  The connection between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan was dealt with, by those in a position to know, so discreetly that the details are uncertain. It seems that she resisted his advances for some time, but in the end yielded to his insistence. It is believed that under the name of Charles Tringham he took a house for her at Peckham, and there she lived till his death. According to his daughter Katie, he had a son by her; since nothing more was heard of him it is presumed that he died in infancy. But Ellen’s surrender, it is said, did not bring Dickens the radiant bliss he expected; he was more than twenty-five years older than she was, and he could not but have known that she was not in love with him. Few pains are harder to bear than those of an unrequited passion. He left her a thousand pounds in his will, and she married a parson. She told a clerical friend, a certain Canon Benham, that she ‘loathed the very thought of the intimacy’ Dickens had forced upon her. Like many another member of the gentle sex, she seems to have been ready enough to accept the prequisites of her position, but saw no reason why she should be asked to give anything in return.

  At about the time of the break with his wife, Dickens began to give readings of his work, and for this purpose travelled over the British Isles and again went to the United States. His histrionic gift served him well, and his success was spectacular. But the effort he exerted, and the constant journeys, wore him out, and people began to notice that, though still in his forties, he looked an old man. These readings were not his only activity: during the twelve years between the separation and his death he wrote three long novels and conducted an immensely popular magazine called All the Year Round. It is not surprising that his health failed. He began to suffer from tiresome ailments and it was evident that the lectures were wearing him out. He was advised to give them up, but he wouldn’t; he loved the publicity, the excitement that attended his appearances, the face-to-face applause, the thrill of power that he felt as he swayed an audience to his will. And is it not just possible that he felt it might make Ellen fonder of him when she saw the adulation of the crowds that thronged his lectures? He decided to make a final tour, but was taken so ill in the middle of it that he had to abandon it. He went back to Gad’s Hill and sat down to write The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But to make up to his managers for the readings he had had to cut short, he arranged to give twelve more in London. This was in January 1870. ‘The audiences at St. James’s Hall were immense and sometimes they rose and cheered in a body as he entered and when he left.’ Back at Gad’s Hill, he resumed work on his novel. One day in June, while he was dining alone with Georgy, he was taken ill. She sent for the doctor, and for his two daughters who were in London, and next day the younger one, Katie, was despatched by her resourceful and competent aunt to break the news to his wife that he was dying. Katie returned to Gad’s Hill with Ellen Ternan. He died the day after, June 9, 1870, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.


  In a famous essay Matthew Arnold insists that poetry to be truly excellent must have a high seriousness, and because he finds it lacking in Chaucer, refuses him, though praising him handsomely, a place among the greatest poets. Arnold was too austere not to look upon humour without a faint misgiving, and I don’t suppose he could ever have been brought to admit that there might be as high a seriousness in Rabelais’ laughter as in Milton’s desire to justify the works of God to man. But I see his point, and it does not apply only to poetry. It may be that it is because this high seriousness is lacking in Dickens’s novels that, for all their great merits, they leave us faintly dissatisfied. When we read them now with the great French and Russian novels in mind, and not only theirs, but George Eliot’s, we are taken aback by their naïveté. In comparison with them, Dickens’s are scarcely adult. But, of course, we must remember that we do not read the novels he wrote. We have changed, and they have changed with us. It is impossible for us to recapture the emotions with which his contemporaries read them, as they came hot from the press. In this connection, I will quote a passage from Una Pope-Hennessy’s book: ‘Mrs Henry Siddons, a neighbour and friend of Lord Jeffrey, peeped into his library and saw Jeffrey with his head on the table. He raised it with his eyes suffused with tears. She begged to be excused, saying, “I had no idea that you had any bad news or cause of grief or I would not have come. Is anyone dead?” “Yes, indeed,” replied Lord Jeffrey. “I’m a great goose to have given away so, but I could not help it. You’ll be sorry to hear that little Nelly, Boz’s little Nelly, is dead.”’ Jeffrey was a Scottish judge, a founder of The Edinburgh Review and a severe, caustic critic.

  For my part, I find myself still immensely amused by Dickens’s humour, but his pathos leaves me cold. I am inclined to say that he had strong emotions, but no heart. I hasten to qualify that. He had a generous heart, a passionate sympathy with the poor and oppressed, and, as we know, he took a pe
rsistent and effective interest in social reform. But it was an actor’s heart, by which I mean that he could feel intensely an emotion that he wished to depict in the same way as an actor playing a tragic part can feel the emotion he represents. ‘What’s he to Hecuba or Hecuba to him?’ With respect to this, I am reminded of something an actress, at one time in Sarah Bernhardt’s Company, told me many years ago. The great artist was playing Phèdre and, in the midst of one of her most moving speeches, when to all appearance she was distraught with anguish, she became aware that some persons standing in one of the wings were loudly talking; she moved towards them and, turning away from the audience as though in her misery to hide her face, hissed out what was the French equivalent to ‘Stop that bloody row, you lousy bastards’; and then, turning back with a magnificent gesture of woe, went on with her tirade to its impressive end. The audience had noticed nothing. It is hard to believe that she could have given expression so noble and tragic to the words she had to utter unless she had truly felt them; but her emotion was a professional emotion, skin-deep, an affair of nerves rather than of heart which had no effect on her self-possession. I have no doubt that Dickens was sincere, but it was an actor’s sincerity; and that, perhaps, is why now, no matter how he piled up the agony, we feel that his pathos was not quite genuine and so are no longer moved by it.

  But we have no right to ask of an author more than he can give, and if Dickens lacked that high seriousness which Matthew Arnold demanded of the greatest poets, he had much else. He was a very great novelist. He had enormous gifts. He thought David Copperfield the best of all his books. An author is not always a good judge of his own work, but in this case Dickens’s judgment seems to me correct. David Copperfield, as I suppose everyone knows, is in great part autobiographical; but Dickens was writing a novel, not an autobiography, and though he drew much of his material from his own life, he made only such use of it as suited his purpose. For the rest, he fell back on his vivid imagination. He was never much of a reader, literary conversation bored him, and such acquaintance with literature as he made later in life seems to have had little effect in lessening the very strong impressions he had received from the works he first read as a boy at Chatham. Of these it was, I think, the novels of Smollett that in the long run chiefly influenced him. The figures Smollett presents to the reader are not so much larger than life as more highly coloured. They are ‘humours’ rather than characters.

  So to see people well suited the idiosyncrasy of Dickens’s temper. Mr. Micawber was drawn from his father. John Dickens was grandiloquent in speech and shifty in money matters, but he was no fool and far from incompetent; he was industrious, kindly and affectionate. We know what Dickens made of him. If Falstaff is the greatest comic character in literature, Mr. Micawber is the greatest but one. Dickens has been blamed, to my mind unjustly, for making him end up as a respectable magistrate in Australia, and some critics have thought that he should have remained reckless and improvident to the end. Australia was a sparsely settled country. Mr. Micawber was a man of fine presence, of some education and of flamboyant address; I do not see why, in that environment and with those advantages, he should not have attained official position. But it was not only in his creation of comic characters that Dickens was masterly. Steerforth’s smooth servant is admirably drawn; he has a mysterious, sinister quality which sends cold shivers down one’s back. Uriah Heep smacks of what used to be called transpontine melodrama; but for all that he is a powerful, horrifying figure, and he is most skilfully presented. Indeed, David Copperfield is filled with characters of the most astonishing variety, vividness and originality. There never were such people as the Micawbers, Peggotty and Barkis, Traddles, Betsy Trotwood and Mr. Dick, Uriah Heep and his mother: they are the fantastic inventions of Dickens’s exultant imagination; but they have so much vigour, they are so consistent, they are presented with so much verisimilitude and with so much conviction, that while you read you cannot but believe in them. They may not be real; they are very much alive.

  Dickens’s general method of creating character was to exaggerate the traits, peculiarities, foibles, of his models and to put into the mouth of each one some phrase, or string of phrases, which stamped his quintessence on the reader’s mind. He never showed the development of characters and, on the whole, what his creatures were at the beginning they remain at the end. (There are in Dickens’s work one or two exceptions, but the change of nature he has indicated is highly unconvincing; it is occasioned to bring about a happy ending.) The danger of drawing character in this way is that the limits of plausibility may be exceeded, and the result is caricature. Caricature is all very well when the author presents you with a character at whom you can laugh, as you can at Mr. Micawber, but it will not serve when he expects you to sympathise. Dickens was never particularly successful with his female characters unless, like Mrs. Micawber, with her ‘I will never desert Mr. Micawber’, and Betsy Trotwood, they were caricatured. Dora, drawn after Dickens’s first love, Maria Beadnell, is too silly and too childish; Agnes, drawn after Mary and Georgy Hogarth, is too good and too sensible: they are both fearfully tiresome. Little Em’ly seems to me a failure. Dickens evidently meant us to feel pity for her: she only got what she asked for. Her ambition was to be a ‘lady’, and in the hope, presumably, that she would be able to get Steerforth to marry her, she ran away with him. She seems to have made him a most unsatisfactory mistress, sullen, tearful and sorry for herself; and it is no wonder that he grew tired of her. The most baffling female character in David Copperfield is Rosa Dartle. I suspect that Dickens meant to make greater use of her in his story than he did, and if he did not do so, it was because he feared to offend his public. I can only suppose that Steerforth had been her lover and she hated him because he had abandoned her, but, notwithstanding, loved him still with a jealous, hungry, vindictive love. Dickens here invented a character that Balzac would have made much of. Of the leading actors in David Copperfield, Steerforth is the only one that is drawn ‘straight’, using the word as actors do when they speak of a ‘straight part’. Dickens has given the reader an admirable impression of Steerforth’s charm, grace and elegance, his friendliness, his kindliness, his amiable gift of being able to get on with all kinds of people, his gaiety, his courage, his selfishness, his unscrupulousness, his recklessness, his callousness. He has drawn here a portrait of the sort of man that most of us have known, who gives delight wherever he goes and leaves disaster behind him. Dickens brought him to a bad end. Fielding, I think, would have been more lenient; for, as Mrs. Honour, speaking of Tom Jones, put it: ‘And when wenches are so coming, young men are not so much to be blamed neither; for to be sure they do no more than what is natural.’ To-day, the novelist is under the necessity of making the events he relates not only likely, but so far as possible inevitable. Dickens was under no such constraint. That Steerforth, coming from Portugal by sea after an absence from England of some years, should be wrecked and drowned in sight of Yarmouth just when David Copperfield had gone there on a brief visit to his old friends, is a coincidence that really puts too great a strain on the reader’s credulity. If Steerforth had to die in order to satisfy the Victorian demand that vice should be punished, Dickens might surely have thought of a more plausible way of bringing this about.


  It was a misfortune for English literature that Keats died too soon and Wordsworth too late; it was a misfortune almost as serious that, just at the time when the greatest novelists our country has produced were in full possession of their gifts, the methods of publication then prevalent encouraged, to the detriment of their production, the tendency to diffuseness and prolixity and digression to which by their nature English novelists have for the most part been inclined. The Victorian novelists were working men who lived by their pen. They had to accept contracts to provide a definite amount of copy for eighteen, twenty or twenty-four numbers, and they had so to arrange their narrative as to end each number in such a way as to induce the reader to buy the follo
wing one. They doubtless had in mind the main lines of the story they set out to tell, but we know that they were satisfied if they had two or three numbers written before publication started. They wrote the rest as they were needed, trusting that their invention would provide them with enough material to fill the requisite number of pages; and we know, from their own admissions, that on occasion their invention failed them and they had to make the best job they could when they had nothing to write about. Sometimes it happened that their story was finished when there were perhaps two or three numbers still to be written, and then they had to use any device they could think of to delay the conclusion. Naturally their novels were shapeless and long-winded; they were forced to digression and prolixity.

  Dickens wrote David Copperfield in the first person. This straightforward method served him well, since his plots were often complicated, and the reader’s interest was sometimes diverted to characters and incidents that have no bearing on the story’s course. In David Copperfield there is only one major digression of this kind, and that is the account of Dr. Strong’s relations with his wife, his mother and his wife’s cousin; it does not concern David and is in itself tedious. I surmise that he used this episode to cover on two occasions a lapse of time which otherwise he didn’t know what to do with: the first was the years that David spent at school at Canterbury, and the second was the period between David’s disappointment with Dora and her death.

  Dickens did not escape the danger that confronts the author of a semi-biographical novel in which himself is the principal character. David Copperfield at the age of ten was put to work by his stern stepfather, as Charles Dickens was by his father, and suffered from the ‘degradation’ of having to mix with boys of his own age whom he did not consider his social equals, in the same way as Dickens, in the fragment of autobiography which he gave to Forster, persuaded himself that he had suffered. Dickens did all he could to excite the reader’s sympathy for his hero, and indeed on the celebrated journey to Dover, when David ran away in order to seek the protection of his aunt Betsy Trotwood, a delightful, amusing character, he loads his dice without scruple. Innumerable readers have found the narration of this escapade wonderfully pathetic. I am made of sterner stuff. I am surprised that the little boy should have been such a ninny as to let everyone he came across rob and cheat him. After all, he had been in the factory for some months and had wandered about London early and late; one would have thought that the other boys at the factory, even though they were not up to his social standard, would have taught him a thing or two; he had lived with the Micawbers and pawned their bits and pieces for them, and had visited them at the Marshalsea; if he had really been the bright boy he is described to be, even at that tender age he would surely have acquired some knowledge of the world and enough sharpness to fend for himself. But it is not only in his childhood that David Copperfield shows himself sadly incompetent. He is incapable of coping with a difficulty. His weakness with Dora, his lack of common sense in dealing with the ordinary problems of domestic life, are almost more than one can bear; and he is so obtuse that he does not guess that Agnes is in love with him. I cannot persuade myself that in the end he became the successful novelist we are told he did. If he wrote novels, I suspect that they were more like those of Mrs. Henry Wood than those of Charles Dickens. It is strange that his creator should have given him none of his own drive, vitality and exuberance. David was slim and good-looking; and he had charm, or he would not have attracted the affection of almost everyone he encountered; he was honest, kindly and conscientious; but he was surely a bit of a fool. He remains the least interesting person in the book. Nowhere does he show himself in so poor a light, so feckless, so incapable of dealing with an awkward situation, as in the monstrous scene between Little Em’ly and Rosa Dartle in the attic in Soho which David witnesses but, for the very flimsiest reason, makes no attempt to stop. This scene affords a good example of how the method of writing a novel in the first person may result in the narrator being forced into a position so shockingly false, so unworthy of a hero of fiction, that the reader is justly indignant with him. If described in the third person, from the standpoint of omniscience, the scene would still have been melodramatic and repellent, but, even though with difficulty, credible. But of course the pleasure one gets from reading David Copperfield does not arise from any persuasion one may have that life is, or ever was, anything like what Dickens describes. That is not to depreciate him. Fiction, like the kingdom of heaven, has many mansions, and the author may invite you to visit whichever he chooses. One has just as much right to exist as another, but you must suit yourselves to the surroundings into which you are led. You must put on different spectacles to read The Golden Bowl and to read Bubu de Montparnasse. David Copperfield is a fantastication, sometimes gay, sometimes pathetic, on life, composed out of recollections and wish-fulfilments by a man of lively imagination and warm feelings. You must read it in the same spirit as you read As You Like It. It provides an entertainment almost as delightful.

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