Peter Davison on Orwell & "Dickens – first and last"

Dickens – first and last

Orwell’s regard for Dickens is well recognised. What is perhaps not also appreciated is that Dickens was the first writer to whom Orwell gave extended attention in his professional writing and that Dickens was also the last author about whom he wrote. When Orwell went to Paris to try to become a novelist, he published several essays in minor Parisian journals.

Peter Davison

Curiously, though not outstanding in themselves, they serve as an epitome of his future critical interests: poverty, censorship, popular culture, politics. Even before his long essay on Galsworthy in this sequence, he concentrated on Dickens in his first essay, ‘Censorship’.

This appeared in Monde (not to be confused with the post-war Le Monde) on 6 October 1928.  Orwell’s last professional writing was also on Dickens: a review, published in the New York Review of Books, 15 May 1949, of Hesketh Pearson’s Dickens: His Character, Comedy and Career. Every volume of the Complete Works devoted to his essays and letters has index references to Dickens and he refers specifically to fifteen of his books.   At Orwell’s death he owned five volumes of an 1890 edition of Dickens’s work, and, as the list of his books states, ‘Another 10 vols., to make a complete set; various publishers’. In the last twelve months of his life he listed 144 books he read; 27 he had read previously amongst them Little Dorrit, read again in May 1949.

Even in his early years as a writer – say, from 1928 to 1936, the period covered by Volume X of The Complete Works – Orwell, admire Dickens profoundly as he does, is not slow to criticise him. In his essay on censorship, Orwell argues that ‘Dickens shocks the cultivated Englishman of today’ (‘today’ is, of course, the 1920s) and he argues that Dickens (and other authors of his period) had ‘a taste for the macabre and lugubrious’ and ‘a fondness for deathbed scenes, corpses and funerals. Dickens wrote an account of a case of spontaneous combustion which is nauseating to read today’. Whether in our age when horror seems to be a staple of popular delight Krook’s death is quite so nauseating may be a reflection more on today’s taste than Dickens’s. In that same essay, Orwell claims that in Dickens, Thackeray, Reade and Trollope, ‘there is no trace of coarseness, and almost none of sexuality’. Two years later, reviewing J.B. Priestley’s Angel Pavement, he complains that Priestley, a blatantly second-rate novelist, has been absurdly likened to Dickens, ‘the great master of prose, psychology and wit’. Poor Priestley’s book is no more than ‘an excellent holiday novel’. Then in June 1931, Dickens is again the master against whom contemporary writers should be judged. Thus, F.O. Mann’s Albert Grope ‘is Dickens – rather diluted’. On the other hand he is not uncritical of Dickens but it is in his remarks on David Copperfield in his review of G.K. Chesterton’s Criticism and Opinions of the Works of Charles Dickens, December 1933, that Orwell is at his most severe: ‘towards the end Dickens begins telling lies’. Dickens ‘wrenches the book out of its natural channel and gives it a conventional happy ending, which is not only unconvincing but also abominably priggish. . . . The result is a disaster . . . Dickens temporarily loses not only his comic genius but even his sense of decency’ and to cap it all, ‘the prison scene in the last chapter is really disgusting’.

However, Dickens has an unsuspected value. In his essay, ‘Bookshop Memories’ (November 1936), Orwell takes a rather jaundiced view of the bookshop life – well, its customers. In London ‘there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money’.  In this situation he assesses Dickens quite differently: ‘it is always fairly easy to sell Dickens, just as it is always easy to sell Shakespeare. Dickens is one of those authors who people are “always meaning to” read, and, like the Bible, he is widely known at second hand’.

By the time Orwell’s long essay on Dickens was published on 11 March 1940 he had been engaged in reading and commenting upon him for some time so it is not surprising that the result is one of Orwell’s best-regarded critiques. There is not space here for a detailed analysis – it will, in any case, be well-known to members of the Orwell Society – so I shall restrict myself to one or two aspects.  Orwell had a gift for attention-catching openings to essays and chapters. Among my favourites are ‘In peacetime, it is unusual for foreign visitors to this country [England] to notice the existence of the English people’ and, ‘As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me’.  ‘Charles Dickens’ is of a piece. Its first short paragraph reads ‘Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing. Even the burial of his body in Westminster Abbey was a species of theft, if you come to think of it’. And notice how ‘if you come to think of it’ invites in the reader to what Orwell goes on to say. To Orwell, Dickens was, in his writing (whatever his personal character) ‘certainly a subversive writer, a radical, one might truthfully say a rebel. . . . In Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that had never since been approached’.  What was remarkable to Orwell (and perhaps might be applied to him himself), Dickens ‘managed to do it without making himself hated . . . the very people he attacked have swallowed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself’ – using an accolade that is now a cliché. Whereas he finds Dickens’s ‘lack of vulgar nationalism’, part of a largeness of his mind, he is not in every sense, as in his attitude to servants, ahead of his age, indeed his sympathetic servants are positively ‘feudal types’. It is in this essay that we have one of Orwell’s most famous apothegms: ‘All art is propaganda . . [but] not all propaganda is art’.

Dickens’s radicalism is of the vaguest kind, yet one always knows it is there.  He loathes that Catholic Church – but as soon as Catholics are persecuted, as in Barnaby Rudge,  he is on their side.  And as he famously concludes, his face is that of a man ‘generously angry . . . a type hated . . . by all the smelly little orthodoxies . . . contending for our souls’.

On 13 February 1944 he reviewed Martin Chuzzlewit for The Observer. Referring to its ‘American interlude’ he compares it with the way travellers of his time reported – all favourably or all adversely – after visiting the USSR. Dickens’s novel was, he thought, the 1844 equivalent of André Gide’s Retour de l’URSS, but ‘Dickens’s attack, so much more violent and unfair than Gide’s, could be so easily forgiven’. And he concludes that this novel was ‘his last completely disorderly book’.

In addition to reading Dickens’s novels, Orwell was aware of what others were writing about him.  In his 1940 essay he mentions Bechhofer Roberts’s attack on Dickens in This Side Idolatry (1928), especially Dickens’s treatment of his wife. In his review of Una Pope-Hennessy’s biography (2 September 1945) he finds her ‘less successful as a critic than as a biographer’  and that she underrates ‘the morbid streak which had been in Dickens from the beginning’. He concludes his rather longer review of Hesketh Pearson’s biography by claiming that ‘There has never been a completely satisfactory life of Dickens’. ‘Forster’s “official” biography is unreadable’, Dame Una is ‘very full and fair-minded’ but spoilt by unsuccessful attempts at plot summaries; Hugh Kingsmill’s The Sentimental Journey: A Life of Charles Dickens (1934) is ‘the most brilliant ever written on Dickens’ but ‘is so unremittingly “against” that it might give a misleading impression’; Pearson’s book, though ‘fairly successful in relating the changes in Dickens’s work to the changing circumstances of his life’  is less reliable as criticism than as biography. Later studies made – by Edgar Johnson, Fred Kaplan, Peter Ackroyd, Lucinda Hawkesley, and Claire Tomalin, among others – all seek in their individual ways to make good those perceived faults but build on those of Orwell’s time.

One interesting sidelight on Orwell and Dickens is that when Orwell’s Critical Essays was published in the United States by Reynal & Hitchcock on 29 April 1946 it was titled Dickens, Dali & Others: Studies in Popular Culture. Although this was not the first use of the term ‘popular culture’ (an important, but again, not the first usage, was by Viscount John Morley for his lecture on working-class education, ‘On Popular Culture’, given in Birmingham in 1876), it accurately drew attention to the primacy of Orwell’s critical interest in the mid-twentieth century of such topics as seaside postcards and boys’ weeklies. The subtitle was dropped from the paperback edition.
Peter Davison

This article is one of a number devoted to Orwell that appears in the Orwell Society newsletter, sent out to members. Join today.



2 thoughts on “Peter Davison on Orwell & "Dickens – first and last"

  1. A brilliant overview of Orwell’s views, Peter.

    But one sentence by G.O. himself leaps out of the whole article. As Peter says, Orwell was the master of the opening sentence and the line ‘London………bookshops’ is just pure throwaway genius and one reason I love his works.

    Denis Frize


  2. For the past 18 months I’ve been mentoring (for a very welcome off-brown envelope) a Finnish journalism student over here who, luckily for me, is the son of “Heka”, a former team-mate of mine in the Finnish Premier Division. Now then…to justify the offshore, off-brown envelope, I’ve had to pass on pearls of journalistic wisdom, starting, of course, with the importance of “contacts” (it being more important whom you know than what you know). The second-most important thing in journalism, apart from expenses, is the “intro”, called here in Peter’s excellent piece “the opening sentence” but over-rated to anyone spotting it in their first week at the London College of Print, Elephant & Castle.
    What’s much more interesting about Orwell/Dickens, as Peter has probably covered before, is the former’s point that the latter invariably finds a “goodie” to resolve difficult/impossible situations rather than any snails’ progress in the status quo. In other words, Dickens was – and is – more ‘Downton Abbey’ than ‘The Thick Of It’. It’s the wonder of soap. My own incomparable common law wife, for example, sits easily in front of ‘Downton’ (and anything by Dickens as well) but cannot even begin to face Armando Iannucci’s televisual masterpiece.
    My own love of Orwell, having just trilled again to thoughts on the common toad, is very much about his semi-self-deprecating humour (which you can’t see much of in Dickens or Downton) as with his sob-enducing humanity.
    And another thing…Orwell was fully aware of the importance of “contacts”. He’s buried next to his best one. Don’t know where he stood on exes though.


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