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The Critical Writings of Charles Dickens:
A resource for scholars and Dickens lovers


I. Charles Dickens is known-and loved-as the author of wildly funny novels, peopled by curious beings who live in a world where everyone seems related to everyone else, where coincidence rules, and young lovers and goodness triumph in the end. He is also known-and studied, if less loved-for his so-called dark side, the part of Dickens that visualized super-institutions that dehumanized people, poorhouses, schools, courts, prisons, businesses, and government agencies that are beyond the comprehension of the individual.

What has sometimes been forgotten both by admirers of sunny Dickens and appreciators of dark Dickens is the close relationship between the humorous oddities who are Dickens' characters and the terrifying institutions that work on them:  the characters embody Dickens' criticism of institutions and, by extension, of society.

His procedure in attacking an institution was to distort its power and possible effect by showing its influence on two kinds of characters, the good whom it might hurt but could not change and the mixed or bad whom it would dehumanize and therefore make comic or eccentric. Examples from any Dickens novel, early or late, abound; Oliver and Mr. Bumble hurt and changed, respectively, by the poorhouse system in Oliver Twist; Esther hurt and Mr. Guppy transformed by the Court of Chancery in Bleak House; Daniel Doyce hurt, any and all of the Barnacle clan made monstrous by the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit.

Dickens' method in making criticisms of society in his novels involves the connecting of the external and the internal, the institution and the individual. Only the rare character, most often the heroine, can escape the corruption. Dickens never objects to an institution solely because it is inefficient or outdated, or because it does not conform to some ideal system. Nor would he condone the actions of an institution that hurt a few for the good of the many. He sees an institution in terms of its effect on individuals.

Dickens' attitude toward the criticism of art and literature in essays is essentially the same as his attitude toward the criticism of society in the novels. In novels he created characters whose moral deformities would illustrate his social criticism, speaking in his own voice as narrator to reinforce the lesson of the characters. In the periodical essays where as critic he

might well have spoken entirely in his own voice, he often created characters whom he could educate or argue with, in order to demonstrate the effect on an individual of a particular work or artistic attitude.

Some examples of characters who reinforce criticism are Mr. Barlow in the essay of that title, Dr. Dulcamara in the essay named for him, and Mr. Whelks in "The Amusements of the People," parts 1 and 2 who years later reappeared in "Mr. Whelks Revived," obviously written under Dickens' guidance, by a contributor to the magazine Dickens was editing.

Just as in the novels Dickens slashed at giant institutions, and the entire system that supported them-despite his apparent focus on individuals he did not confine his attack to isolated abuses but insisted on the total rottenness of the Court of Chancery or the Circumlocution Office-so in his literary criticism Dickens might begin with one character in a play or a novel and make him representative of a much larger issue, the state of the drama in England or the prevalence of certain kinds of heroes in novels, on which his essay would center.         


A precondition of Dickens' technique in novels and criticals essays is his belief in stimulating the imagination of his readers as a step toward making them accept his view of an institution or a work of art. To achieve this stimulation, he creates the oddities that are the cast of his novels and the characters in the critical essays.

Dickens' commitment to stimulating the imagination is openly expressed in the novels, most often in terms of the education of children. The schools attended by Nicholas Nickleby, Paul Dombey, and David Copperfield are horrible in their denying children the right to an imagination. In Hard Times Dickens made his strongest attack on opponents of imagination (or fancy) symbolized by Mr. M'Choakumchild and his school where the prized student was Bitzer, betrayer of imagination and of those who tried to deal with him irrationally, i.e., as friends.

The need for stimulating the imagination is expressed many times in Dickens' criticism. In the Preface to Bleak House he says, "I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things." All of the periodicals he edited, from the first Bentley's Miscellany to the last All the Year Round, embodied the idea of bringing imagination into the lives of working people. He believed that most working people's lives were drab and needed cheering. Thus he reserved some of his sternest criticism for those who purveyed low quality moralistic entertainment to those who most needed inspired illusion and imagination. (See "Frauds on the Fairies.") 

He was even more opposed, however, to puritanical efforts to restrict the entertainment available to working people ("Amusements of the People [Vols 1 and 2].") Considering taverns entertainment, he never joined temperance movements, attacking his friend and illustrator George Cruikshank for supporting them in "Whole Hogs."

Thus far we have made a distinction between Dickens' social and literary or art criticism. But it is clear that his criticism of any art form, however aesthetic at the beginning, generally tends to become social. A critic who is concerned with the effect a work has on its readers is moving toward becoming a critic of society. In this Dickens was in the mainstream of Victorian criticism. For Carlyle, Arnold, and Ruskin were each concerned as much with the relation of a work to its readers as with the work itself.

Dickens' very Victorian synthesis of the aesthetic and the social viewpoint in his criticism is seen in his attitude to serial writing. Because his own novels from Pickwick Papers on were published in monthly or weekly installments, Dickens became increasingly aware of the restrictions serial writing placed on the novelist. As a magazine editor, he advised contributors or would-be contributors of serial novels based on his own experience.

He might criticize the piling up of dramatic confrontations in one part of the story or the lack of incident, always mentioning that his comments would not apply were the novel in question being published in book form. (See letters to Mrs. Brookfield and Mrs. Gaskell.) However, he seldom regretted the restrictions imposed by serial publication unless he was tired. Unlike George Eliot, for instance, who preferred to publish in book form after her initial stories, Scenes from Clerical Life, were serialized, Dickens enjoyed being just a few chapters ahead of the printer and the readers. He recognized both the technical problems of serial publication and the social implications, triumphing over the one and utilizing the other.

One advantage for Dickens of writing serially was that he was able to incorporate references to contemporary events. John Butt showed in a chapter of Dickens at Work(1958) how full Bleak House is of references to events of 1851, the year the novel began appearing in serial form. In this case and every other, as Dickens at Work reveals, Dickens revised a novel for publication by softening or omitting the more topical references, adjusting to the different circumstances of book publishing as he had to those of serial publication.

Serial publication enhanced the relationship of Dickens and his readers. He enjoyed the power of making readers laugh and weep and would relish in advance the pleasure a certain character would give them. He reacted immediately to complaints about a novel in progress and would try to make changes where possible. Sometimes, however, Dickens stood firm, refusing for instance to save little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop-her death was Forster's idea originally-or Paul in Dombey and Son, despite numerous requests for mercy from readers. (See letter to Forster.)

But the main advantage of serial publication to Dickens, an author who wanted friends and money, was that he could change direction in mid-novel if sales were dropping. Earlier in his career he often did this, most successfully in Pickwick Papers and Martin Chuzzlewit. Later in his career when sales were assured, major changes were made at the request of literary friends. Best known are the restoration of Edith's character in Dombey and Son, at the demand of Francis Jeffrey (see letter to Forster) and the happy ending of Great Expectations at the suggestion of Bulwer Lytton (see letter to Forster).

Dickens' willingness to tamper with his own conceptions was characteristic of his responsiveness to outside comment and his eagerness to please. Though he could be didactic about the institutions he disliked, though he never yielded on essential points, he could be swayed by readers. Not characteristic of Dickens was the confident rigidity of novelists like George Eliot or Henry James who considered original ideas inviolable. Dickens' flexibility was part of his imagination which was so active that he could conceive of more than one possible development or outcome to any set of circumstances.

II. Charles Dickens the writer devoted almost more time to periodicals than to novels, though his reputation has rested entirely on the novels. There is hardly an interval in his adult life when he was not either editing or preparing to edit a periodical. The first of the five magazines was Bentley's Miscellany which Dickens edited for the publisher Richard Bentley from November 1836 to Febrary 1839. It is interesting chiefly for the various addresses to the public by Dickens which are similar to those that appeared in the later magazines, and because Oliver Twist was serialized in it. The critical articles "Some Particulars Concerning a Lion" and "The Pantomime of Life" are also taken from this first periodical.

After giving up the Miscellany because of editorial conflict with Bentley, Dickens planned his next periodical, Master Humphrey's Clock (April 4, 1840 to November 27, 1841). The proposal which Dickens put forward reflected his interest in the romance of the ordinary. When the new magazine fell flat, Dickens increased sales by serializing The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge in its pages, a stimulant he would apply in the future. The usual addresses to the public were written. But after a year and a half, the magazine came to an end, long after Dickens had realized that the public did not care for the clock as a unifying principle and found his novels the sole interest in the periodical.

Four years later Dickens was again involved in founding a periodical, the Daily News, and became its editor in January 1845. His main contributions during the two months of his editorship were the addresses to the readers with which he began and took leave of his duties and Pictures from Italy, a series of letters which he continued to contribute after he had left the paper. Once again editorial conflicts with the publishers were the cause of Dickens' resignation.

The years 1845 to 1850 found Dickens writing Dombey and Son and David Copperfield, and planning, always planning, his next periodical. He toyed with another unifying, fairy-talelike concept, a Shadow that could be everywhere and see everything. But finally on March 30, 1850, number one of the new magazine Household Wordsappeared, the first periodical that Dickens partly owned and the first to bear the subtitle "Conducted by Charles Dickens." (See "A Preliminary Word.") 

At last he had a free hand and could make a periodical totally represent his viewpoints. None of the articles were signed, and as many were written in the first person, it was inevitable that readers would think of Dickens as responsible for every piece. This was not really a false impression because Dickens did suggest the subjects of articles and substantially edited many of them, so everything in HW seemed vaguely Dickensian. Here were published some of Dickens' best critical pieces such as "The Amusements of the People," "Railway Dreaming," and "The Ghost of Art."

In 1859 after some disagreements with his partners, the publishers Bradbury and Evans, Dickens nominally gave up HW but actually incorporated its format and policy in All the Year Round, in which he had the controlling interest. Also "Conducted by Charles Dickens," this new periodical made its appearance on April 30, 1859. Though Bradbury and Evans continued to publish HW for some years after Dickens left, loss of sales and reader interest and the fantastic growth of AYR showed how much Dickens' name as conductor was worth.

The main difference between HW and AYR was the inauguration in the latter of a policy of serializing new novels. AYR opened with A Tale of Two Cities; Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White followed. Among other novels were Charles Reade's Hard Cash, Charles Lever's A Day's Ride, and, of course, Dickens' Great Expectations and the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Dickens continued to edit AYR for eleven years until his death on June 8, 1870. He contributed a series of essays incorporating social and literary criticism through a first-person narrator, the Uncommercial Traveller who works for the firm of Human Interest Brothers. Among these essays, collected as The Uncommercial Traveller, were "Mr. Booley," "Two Views of a Cheap Theatre," and "A Fly-Leaf in a Life." Also in AYR were first printed "Robert Keeley," "The Young Man from the Country," and "The Tattlesnivel Bleater."

III. Beginning in 1850 with Household Words, Dickens set about assembling a group of writers on whom he could rely to write the articles he suggested in the way he wanted. The writers were young, willing to follow the directions of the master, and unresentful when he rewrote their copy. They were paid well to submerge their identities in the magazine, and they had no doubts that Dickens always knew best.

The man who did much to keep this system working was Williams Henry Wills, the sub-editor, Dickens' secretary in the Daily News period, who passed the editor's orders on to the contributors corresponding extensively with them and with Dickens. He was the ideal subordinate, obeying, seldom questioning for all twenty years of HW and AYR. Dickens' letters to Wills are the best record of how he ran his periodicals and how essential the sub-editor's role was. (See, for instance October 2, 1858 and April 13, 1855.)

Among the writers whom Wills managed for Dickens were Percy Fitzgerald, R.H. Horne, Henry Morley, G.A. Sala, and Andrew Halliday. When a critical article by one of these men was rewritten by Dickens, it is included. Also included are a few of their articles which Dickens may not have rewritten but which clearly represent his views.

In the mid-1850s a new young writer began working for HW. This was Wilkie Collins, the closest friend and the most indispensable to Dickens of all the periodical writers. The association of Dickens and Collins led to the joint writing of essays, Christmas stories, and plays. One of their critical essays was "Dr. Dulcamara M.P."

As a result of personal contact, there could be no question of Collins' not knowing what Dickens' opinion on any subject was; and considering Dickens' ascendency over his staff, Collins' youth and dependence on Dickens' favor, and Dickens' insistence that his periodical reflect his ideas, Collins' articles, first in HW and then in AYR, echo Dickens' beliefs. Collins' "A Petition to the Novel-Writers" is one example for which there is evidence. Because Collins so often took care of the articles Dickens did not have time for, most of his critical writing for the two periodicals is in this collection.

Although many of Dickens' writers came to him for advice about literary productions not intended for periodicals (see letter to Wills), Collins as the only important writer among them benefitted most from Dickens' critical judgments. Dickens' relationship with Wilkie Collins led to the introduction of Charles Collins, his younger brother, into the periodical writers' circle. A painter allied to the pre-Raphaelites, Charles Collins was trained by Dickens as an art correspondent. A persona, the Eye-Witness, was found for him, and as such he reported on the National Gallery. Since Dickens carefully reworked the resulting articles, they are included.

IV. As we collected critical writings by Dickens and his group, we found that they fell into two main categories: first, Dickens' aesthetic judgments of his own writings and those of others where his major concerns are how to write a novel, short story, play, or poem, and how to put together a periodical. It must be remembered, however, that as a Victorian, Dickens' concern with the process of writing always tends to become a concern with the effect a work produces, its social implications.

This category is a compendium of Dickens' statements of his philosophy of writing, his prefaces to novels, and the letters and speeches which illuminate the choices he made as he wrote each novel and as he viewed them in retrospect. The material is arranged in order of the novels' publication.

Dickens' prefaces receive full attention. Most novels have three prefaces, the original, the First Cheap Edition Preface (between 1847 and 1852), and that of the Charles Dickens Edition (1867-68). Some novels, like Pickwick Papers, have additional prefaces. Early novels like Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby have long prefaces while prefaces of two or three paragraphs are characteristic of later novels like A Tale of Two Cities. A few novels, such as Great Expectations, have none.

We have linked to the prefaces available in the Centennary Edition of Dickens' novels which includes all the prefaces associated with each novel.

In the course of a voluminous correspondence with many people, Dickens mentioned his novels often, but we selected only the letters that seemed most significant. For example, from Dickens' many letters to his illustrators, only those that enlighten the reader as to his intentions in a given novel are used. Our sources for most letters are The Pilgrim Edition of The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volumes I and II (1969-2002) and The Nonesuch Letters, Volumes I, II, and III (2005).

The speeches are taken from The Complete Works of Charles Dickens Speeches: Literary and Social.

We subdivided General Criticism of Writing into four sections, each with letters, speeches, and periodical articles and tried to provide links to periodical articles from the original sources. When a reprinted version was used, we have indicated it. Articles are unabridged to allow Dickens' critical methods and writing style to develop naturally, as they did to his readers. We eliminated footnotes and substituted brief introductory notes.

The section Prose is Dickens' general criticism of fictional and nonfictional writing, when he attacks or defends a particular kind of prose in an essay, and in specific terms when he focuses on one work, usually at a correspondent's request. Letters to Wilkie Collins give him pointers on how to advance the action or turn the plot in a novel.

The section Drama is devoted to critical opinions of specific plays, most often in terms of their production. Because Dickens' connection to the theater is well known, outlined in The Dickens Theatrical Reader (see Preface) and elsewhere, we have printed only the letters that we believe are the most interesting on this subject. Many details about the amateur performances in which Dickens participated are omitted.

The Poetry section consists of Dickens' comments on poems sent to him by various would-be poets, the introductions he wrote for collections of poems by two acquaintances, and several articles.

Under Periodicals, Dickens Plans His Periodicals groups the various proposals, addresses, and letters connected with establishing and running the five magazines edited by Dickens. In Dickens Conducts His Periodicals we reprint many letters to writers whose works in one way or another do not conform to the requirements of periodical publication, and some essays on this subject.

The second major category of this collection illustrates Dickens' understanding of the relationship between art and society. Because he edited a periodical during most of his adult life, and because of his definition of what a periodical must be, it is not surprising to find that periodicals were the vehicle for most of Dickens' articles on the connection between art and society. They reflect the public Dickens, the Victorian sage talking to Englishmen, more than the first section which identifies the individual writer setting standards for members of his guild.

The Role of the Artist highlights two of Dickens' lifelong concerns, the dignity and security of the artist and international copyright. To ensure the former, he and Bulwer Lytton founded the Guild of Literature and Art, designed to give money to needy artists or their widows. To obtain the latter, Dickens lobbied ceaselessly, especially in the United States where publishers enjoyed the absence of reciprocal copyright laws. This category includes letters, speeches, and articles.

Literary Satire as Social Criticism covers satire as a technique and literature as a reference point. The articles contain serious criticism of society, but not criticism that is exclusively social, such as an attack on prisons or the poor law, which would not belong in this collection.

The World of Imagination –contains applications and extensions of ideas implicit in the Prose section. In essays and letters Dickens outlines the importance of the imagination, the un- or super-realistic elements in literature that affect the quality of a reader's life.

The Role of the Theater differs from the Drama section by focusing on individual performances and entire productions. The unifying principle of this category is concern with the condition of the English theater. The implication-which Dickens sometimes makes explicit-is that the poor condition of the theater reflects that of society. Letters, speeches, and articles are represented.

Public Painting testifies to Dickens' knowledge of visual art. Like Ruskin, Dickens in letters and essays found moral instruction as well as aesthetic pleasure in paintings and resented the absence of uplift despite the presence of delight. Art criticism by Charles Collins, written under Dickens' guidance, may be found here.

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