Lecture 9: Charles Dickens

Chesterton was once asked the typical question, “What book would you want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island?” As many people know, his quick answer was, “Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.” But what many people don’t know is that he went on to name the book he really would settle for if he were stuck on an island. It was Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.

In his 1906 book, Charles Dickens, devotes a whole chapter to Pickwick. He explains why that piece of literature is eternal, and why “eternal” is a good thing, not a bad thing. Pickwick himself is “the Ulysses of comedy” and his story is an epic about living happily ever after, pausing to appreciate some of the uproarious incidents that happen along the way. Popular religion, says Chesterton, has endless joys and endless jokes. But we have lost both. “We are too weak to desire that undying vigour. We believe that you can have too much of a good thing – a blasphemous belief, which at one blow wrecks all the heavens that men have hoped for.”

This is what literary criticism was meant to be. It is not a behind-the-scenes tour, showing us how the tricks are done. It is not an inspection of surface cracks or of structural flaws. No, this is a privileged journey deep inside, where we get to see astonishing sights we would have missed had we ventured in all alone. Chesterton plays the role of Virgil to our Dante, and he guides us with a sure hand into the extraordinary world of Dickens. He justly warns us at the beginning what we’re in for, pointing to the sign above the gate which reads, “Abandon all hopelessness, ye who enter here.”

And so we step in. We meet the amazing Dickens characters, and we join them on their exploits. Along the way we meet Dickens himself. And we meet him again dressed up as some of his characters. We walk the streets of 19th century London in the light and in the shadows, where hope does battle with despair, and where another adventure waits around the corner. Chesterton explains that while this might not be a world that we would have made, it is also not a world that we could have made. “Its merit is precisely that none of us could have conceived such a thing… it is the best of all impossible worlds.”

T.S. Eliot said that Chesterton’s book on Dickens is the “best on that author that has ever been written.”

One of the most surprising things about the book is that at the time it was written, the novels of Dickens were experiencing something of an eclipse in England. But Chesterton’s book helped spark a wide revival of Dickens, prompting J.M. Dent to publish new editions of all his books for the Everyman’s Library – and to invite G.K. Chesterton to write an introduction for each of the twenty-four volumes.

In 1942, The Readers Club (with an editorial committee comprised of Clifton Fadiman, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Von Doren, and Alexander Woolcott) brought out a new edition of Chesterton’s book on Dickens with the subtitle, The Last of the Great Men. In his introduction to this edition, Alexander Woolcott, says he feels qualified to describe the book as “readable” – since he himself has read it at least a dozen times. And as anyone else who has enjoyed this book, Woolcott especially relishes its conclusion, which is one of the most uplifting passages in all of Chesterton:

Comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but… rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters; and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.

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