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4.0 out of 5 stars Chesterton's Dickens, 7 May 2004
This review is from: Charles Dickens (Chesterton's biographies) (Paperback)
This brilliant book was originally published in 1906 (London:Methuen). It is generally regarded as G.K. Chesterton's best critical work and is still highly regarded by Dickens scholars.
It is not strictly speaking a biography in the normal sense of the word. You will find very few facts in the whole book, and these, or commonly related anecdotes, are used as launching pads for Chesterton's unique form of imaginative criticism and poetic reasoning. The best example of this comes in the first chapter. Chesterton starts with a general reflection (and this work can be called emphatically reflective) on certain words which are indefinable, which have no substitutes. One of these words he suggests is 'great'. Dickens was 'great' and there were other 'great' men in his day, but Chesterton complains that this evocative word cannot be rightly used on any of his contemporaries. He then goes on to explain this by saying that in the optimistic age of Dickens men could be great because it was believed all men were great. We have leaped from the atmospheres of certain words, like 'great', to the atmosphere of an age. This is typical of Chesterton's critical method; it ripples with imaginative semi-syllogisms like this.
Indeed, Chesterton, throughout, teases out series of matrices of implicit ideas, speculative reconstructions of ideas implicit in various aspects of Dickens's fiction. He conjures up atmospheres and moods, attacking aspects of Dickens wildly from the side by bringing to that which is there for us all to read, things unexpected and startling from the depths of his sharply opinionated mind- his own philosophy. This 'biography' emphatically tells the reader just as much about Chesterton as it does about Dickens, and its value is in now way lessened by this. We get two books for the price of one!
One aspect of the book that will strike the reader immediately is characteristic of all Chesterton's writing. He continuously makes comparisons between the 'optimistic' age of Dickens, still alive with revolutionary ideals, and the more pessimistic and sceptical age in which he himself is writing. This is the first way in which Chesterton implicitly reveals the supernatural sediment in all Dickens's fiction: the truly enlightening and imaginative way in which he reads his own values into Dickens. Optimism, when not vulgar and irrational, meant for Chesterton the religious sense of wonder at the naked fact of existence itself, the shriek of delight that we all sense within us, if for only a split second in our lives, at the miracle that there is anything at all and not nothing. Allied to this is Chesterton's claim that Dickens was a 'democratic' author. Democracy for Chesterton is about the irreducible individuality and personality of all of us. Dickens fulfills this by the sheer variety and exuberance of his fiction, his phalanx of legendary characters becoming increasingly themselves the more excited, grotesque and comic they become.
Chesterton also brings out his own views out of commentary on Dickens through notoriously insightful comments such as that Dickens was a 'mythologist', creating gods who have gained godly permanence in the popular imagination instead of ordinary human characters. This may be a sign of a lack of realism, but, Chesterton stresses, if we take into account the solidity and realism of the needs of the human imagination we will realise that Dickens is 'realistic' in a much more immediate and vital way. Dickens was a Creator; he did not imitate life, he added to it.
This book is remarkable for its depth and originality, if not for its rigour. It provides a wonderful introduction to Dickens and a wonderful introduction to Chesterton at the same time. If you appreciate a pellucid yet personal form of literary criticism you will find reading this work a unique intellectual experience.
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