Recently I read G. K. Chesterton’s bizarre, surreal, and quite often baffling novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. Wordsworth classics now print an edition of Chesterton’s monograph on Dickens (many thanks to Mr Chris Hubbard for kindly letting me read his pristine new copy).
Many consider Chesterton’s Charles Dickens to be one of the best books on Dickens, and has long been admired by one of my favourite literary critics, Mr Harold Bloom.
It would perhaps be tempting in our day and age to call Chesterton a conservative, but of course that will not really do. Chesterton’s moral intellect (if I can put it like that) and startlingly original insights are far too abundant to squeeze into such a tiny descriptive box.
One of the chief charms of Chesterton’s literary criticism, or appreciation, is that he has a poet’s vision of the world. This also means that he has a rich and strange way of looking at things. For the reader this means that we too must try to see the world through the author's eyes if we are to at least understand, if not grasp, Chesterton’s ideas.
I think Chesterton’s book a success because so much of what he says about Dickens rings true. In writing a book about Dickens he has taken out his paint brush and colours and really created very much a portrait of Dickens that we instinctively feel gets to the heart of the novelist’s writings.
For example, there was one section in the book where Chesterton says that Dickens was not really a novelist, that his books were really long rolls of the fabric of humanity, and Dickens mere cut out large strips for us. In this I think Chesterton meant there is a great continuity in Dickens’s characters. Their humanity overflows the pages and seeps into real life via their becoming embedded in our unconsciousness.
Harold Bloom, when writing about Shakespeare, said that he knew more about us than we knew about ourselves. You could perhaps say of Dickens that he knew more about our humanity than we know about it ourselves.
A lot of people when they take to writing criticism end up spouting a lot of rubbish, and frequently tie themselves up in knots trying to say something clever or original.
Chesterton’s book on Dickens comes across as being eminently sane. This book's best quality is its uncanniness at getting to the heart of Dickens.