The Critical Writings of Charles Dickens:
A resource for scholars and Dickens lovers
When we began editing The Critical Writings of Charles Dickens in 1970, to coincide with the one hundredth anniversary of his death, it was our idea to bring together in one convenient work his literary and art criticism including periodical articles, prefaces to the novels, letters, and speeches. Then access to most of this material was limited: few libraries had sets of the periodicals or collected editions of letters and novels. Today - forty years later - everything has changed. Most of the writings we collected are now available online. Therefore, to commemorate the bicentenial of his birth in 2012 we revisited our work and decided to publish it online and provide links to Dickens' pieces.
The existence of a sizable body of literary and art criticism by Charles Dickens, here collected for the first time, may come as a surprise to many readers. Most of Dickens' criticism of art and literature appeared unsigned in various periodicals, along with a great deal of writing on social problems. Since Dickens himself did not place real value on his nonfiction writings, he was careless about retrieving them for publication in collections of his work.
As a result, many articles were left unpublished although a number of them have been identified by scholars. Few, however, have been included in the most recent complete edition of Dickens' works, the Delphi Classics (9th Edition, 2011), in which some occasional writings are distributed among several volumes (Sketches by Boz, The Uncommercial Traveller and Reprinted Pieces).
These volumes and equivalent ones in other series of collected works make no topical divisions of Dickens' writings. Even in a more specialized collection such as Harry Stone's Charles Dickens' Uncollected Writings from Household Words (1969), the articles are grouped not topically but chronologically. To arrive at an idea of Dickens' powers as a critic of art and literature in periodical articles, a reader would have to pore through the volumes of non-fictional writings, ignoring much about Parliament, courts, workers, fallen women, and other issues of interest to Dickens. But all this would not show how his critical comments in letters and speeches were related to those in the articles.
On the other hand, a volume like The Dickens Theatrical Reader (1964) edited by Edgar Johnson
and Eleanor Johnson combines Dickens' criticism of the theater and theatrical episodes in his novels, thereby revealing much about Dickens' feeling for the theater but not accenting his criticism. The Reader varies from the Uncollected Writings and the collected works in that it includes Dickens' relevant letters and speeches. But again, in the context of the whole, this material is submerged.
Our work thus rescues a great deal of Dickens' writing that has been lost to all but the experts in the field. Even more important, it presents a coherent picture of Dickens as an aesthetic critic, a side of him generally ignored. Where Dickens' nonfictional prose is known, it is always for its social criticism. This work brings back a Dickens concerned with the form of art, as well as with its purpose and message, in his own novels and in literature and art in general.
Finally, this work shows by inference the influence Dickens had on aesthetic taste in his time. Not only are his views exposed in his writings, but they are reflected in the writings of his collaborators on the periodicals HW and AYR. Some articles by these writers, echoing Dickens' own ideas and often corrected by him, are found here. We have selected only a few outstanding articles of this type although the case can and has been made for considering everything in Dickens' periodicals as representing his opinions.
Charles Dickens' critical writings fall into two broad categories: the first is technical criticism of the novels, plays, poems, and periodicals, at least half of which refers directly to Dickens' own novels. Included are Dickens' prefaces and letters about the novels as well as his plans for the five periodicals he edited, addresses to the public, and letters to contributors suggesting revisions. He wrote numerous articles and comments-in letters and speeches-on contemporary novels, plays, and poems. A series of letters helping Wilkie Collins in his novel and play writing is of special interest.
The second category is the relationship between art and society. Dickens' lifelong interest in the status of the author is reflected in letters and articles on international copyright. Another group of articles and letters expresses what is both stated and implicit in the novels: imagination must be a part of every person's life.
Dickens used satire to take on a variety of offenders which is where the relationship of art and society is most evident. Theater, another way of communicating with his audience, was a form of self and social expression for Dickens in which he participated as author, actor, and critic. The amount of space that he devoted to moral rather than aesthetic criticism of contemporary painting is interesting in itself and indicative of the sensibility of his time.
We began this work 40 years ago, but we don't want to suggest that we have been keeping up with developments in the field ever since. Both of us drifted away from academic life and focused on other careers. Realizing that Charles Dickens' 200th birthday would be on February 6, 2012 motivated us to return to the project in a different and contemporary way. Using links to most of the texts included in The Critical Writings gives us the opportunity to take advantage of the tools that are available now and weren't dreamed of when we began in 1970.
Recognizing that more and more of Dickens' letters have been uncovered and published in the intervening years as well as additional articles, we call on scholars and enthusiasts to submit links to critical writings not included here. We plan to publish updates to this online collection throughout 2012, and give credit to those sending examples of Dickens' critical writings that we haven't included.