Sunday 2 August 2009
Orwell on Dickens
I recently read George Orwell’s essay Charles Dickens, which can be found in volume one of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, though it was first published in 1940 in a collection entitled Inside the Whale. Orwell is best known for his novels, particularly Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it’s increasingly evident to me that his true genius lay in his non-fiction, in his essays, covering such a diverse range of subjects.
I love Dickens, one of my all-time favourite authors. I thought I understood Dickens, understood his life and his work, having previously read Peter Ackroyd’s tome-like biography of the man. But Orwell, in a few thousand words, has achieved such a depth of understanding and of empathy, one that eluded Ackroyd for all of his industry and craft.
It’s difficult to say how impressed or, better said, daunted by the ease and versatility with which Orwell masters the subject. It was written when he was in his mid-thirties just one among a number of other pieces, though one feels that he has spent his whole life in study of the Victorian master, almost as if he looked into his world and the particularity of that world. He examines the subject from so many different facets, bringing s much detailed care to the man, the art and the times.
It’s a patient and loving sketch but not uncritically so. Orwell sees through the absurdity and artificiality of so many of Dickens’ plots, dropping, as they often do, into unbelievable forms of melodrama, with the intrusion of all sorts of artificial twists and turns. He also understands that the characters in the novels, those unforgettable manikins, are ideally unreal, if that makes sense, not the sort of people one would ever encounter on the street; not the sort of people with any kind of interior life! Yet, they are not just memorable as characters but for the purpose they attain.
For, you see, according to Orwell, Dickens-always on the side of the underdog-was essentially writing with a moral purpose in mind, aiming not at revolution but at a reformation of manners: things would be decent if only people behaved decently. His anger is directed at the absurdity and the cruelty of contemporary life but he would leave the institutions of society essentially intact. For Dickens the true revolution, the only revolution that matters, comes from within, from a kind of spiritual reawakening and a new type of moral consciousness. Outward revolutions, political revolutions, are invariably ugly and violent.
It was the conclusion that moved me the most:
When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.