This post has been contributed by Matthew Redmond.
As many of us know too well, The Modern Library prefaces every Dickens novel with a three-page headnote titled “Charles Dickens,” which strives to outline certain crucial moments of his life and career. Perhaps the biggest turning point in this narrative occurs shortly after the first printing of David Copperfield (1849-50), when Dickens’ worldwide celebrity is secure. “From this point on,” we are told, “his novels tended to be more elaborately constructed and harsher and less buoyant in tone than his earlier works” (vii). While separating buoyant “Boz” from the somber and contemplative Mr. Dickens feels right in many ways, it also threatens to disqualify from our perception many fascinating clues to his artistic development. Rereading “earlier works” through the lens of late ones, we sometimes discover moments where the young writer hits unmistakably upon the content of his mature masterworks. In other words (borrowed from one of Dickens’ most astute American readers, Herman Melville), the pre-Copperfield novels give us “[s]hadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.”
But perhaps those aren’t the right words either. Dickens himself seems to offer a different metaphor, in Martin Chuzzlewit, that highly controversial 1843 novel that he somewhat perversely labeled “immeasurably the best of [his] stories” (126). While much scholarship has rightly preoccupied itself with Dickens’ America and what Martin finds there, I would underline a moment from the London episodes built largely around Tom Pinch. In Chapter Twenty-Seven the reader is introduced to a man named Nadgett. “Born to be a secret,” this peculiar soul generally haunts coffee houses and the ‘Change, his only apparent function to observe and record the behavior of Tigg Montague’s many victims (read: business partners). Rumors swirl incessantly around this journeyman minor character, who does not render his immense service to the plot until Chapter Fifty-Two, when he “publishes his notes” and exposes Jonas Chuzzlewit’s crimes. But what about Nadgett’s own past dealings? Nothing is certain. “Some people said he had been a bankrupt, others that he had gone infant into an ancient Chancery suit which was still depending, but it was all secret” (517). Surely this brief, ownerless reference to an “ancient Chancery suit” represents nothing less than the germ of Bleak House—nearly a decade before its first printing! Indeed, in these lines one can almost hear the latter novel’s opening remarks about the transgenerational scourge of Jarndyce and Jarndyce: “Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it” (6). Read in the flattering light of literary foreknowledge, Nadgett’s obscure past becomes a tantalizing sign of Dickens’ future.
To say that Charles Dickens could not have written Bleak House in 1843 would be inane; that he did not write it then is enough. Lacking the distinct and personal pathos that Esther’s narrative would someday provide, this intriguing device of Chancery for now remains “too secret,” even to the author himself, and thus does not excel the realm of idle gossip among “some people” observing Nadgett. This is the metaphor that I mentioned, one of Dickens’ own making: the early novels do not so much foreshadow the late as fore-gossip of them. In this way gossip itself, however seemingly trivial, gains an unlikely new function: it registers an intermediary phase in his creative process, located somewhere between nonexistence and full detail.
For comparison’s sake, recall William Buss’ iconic painting, “Dickens’ Dream,” a memorial project left unfinished at the time of Buss’ own death in 1875. The piece shows a sleeping Dickens at Gad’s Hill, bent slightly forward in his favorite chair, while scores of tiny characters—some sketches, others rendered in vivid color—populate the atmosphere of his study. Had Buss finished the coloring, his piece would represent Dickensian creativity as dazzling, visionary, and devoid of process; instead he gives us characters in varying states of completeness, and thus evokes a constant process of transformation that turns obscure figures into living, vibrant characters. The above passage from Chuzzlewit accomplishes verbally what Buss’ work serendipitously does with paint: it testifies to the constant labor of Dickens’ teeming brain. Unfinished ideas appear on the page as wild rumor and gossip—voices without owners, speaking of events that may have happened, may be happening, may happen yet.
Of course, like so much minute textual evidence, these voices may tell the reader only what he wants to hear. Following Nadgett’s obscure introduction, we observe his boss, Montague, and several associates inveigling Jonas over an alcohol-soaked dinner. Like Nadgett himself, this gathering compels chatter and speculation, some of it highly suggestive to the fan of late Dickens. Even now I am startled and excessively intrigued by that passage where Tigg’s friend Pip, supposedly quoting a man named Nobley—who, like the dear Mrs. Harris of Gamp’s anecdotes, may not exist at all—exclaims: “Ask Pip. Pip’s our mutual friend” (520). Two late novels prefigured in just four words! Or so we might like to imagine, anyway. The inexperienced critic, seeking some novel breakthrough, could easily make far too much of those words. (Indeed, I may have become that critic three paragraphs ago.)
And yet the significance of such a line can be understated, too. Without prefiguring Great Expectations in all its dark majesty, this above short phrase reminds us (whether we need reminding or not) that Dickens’ fascination with mutual friends—the convoluted, unlikely social relationships that spread like vines over London’s grim trellis—was career-long and soul-deep. While Our Mutual Friend (1864) provides a more structured study of such networks, they are no less vital to Martin Chuzzlewit and Nicholas Nickleby. Several challenging questions arise from this line of thought: where does the idea for a novel truly begin, and how well can we trace that idea to its source? Most obviously, how late is late Dickens?
With these few examples in mind, I cannot help but suspect that traces of Dickens’ mature vision are everywhere apparent in the noisy margins of his youthful creative efforts. G. K. Chesterton, who boldly dismissed the novel itself as a unit of measure for Dickens scholars, saw only “lengths cut from the flowing and mixed substance called Dickens—a substance of which any given length will contain a given proportion of brilliant and of bad stuff” (81). There is plenty to be gained by adopting this sort of wide-angle perspective, such as a deeper sense of Dickens’ poetics as restless and irrepressibly forward-thinking, like the man himself. Embedded in moments of lesser dialogue are the trace elements of future projects and enduring problems—his dark materials to make other worlds.
Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. Charles Dickens: A Critical Study. New York: Dodd Mead & Company, 1906.
Dickens. Bleak House. New York: The Modern Library, 2002.
—. Martin Chuzzlewit. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.
—. Letter to John Forster, 2 November 1843. The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens. Edited by Jenny Hartley. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.