Saturday, 7 July 2012

Early Dickens

One way of thinking about Dickens’s early career is as a sustained attempt to think through questions of goodness, or more specifically, the virtues of innocence, in fictional form.  Innocence, of course, is presently a rather unfashionable virtue—if it is a virtue.  Philip Pullman has said several times that one of his impulses as a writer is to interrogate the notion that there is something intrinsically valuable or worthwhile about innocence.  The conclusion he comes to is ‘there isn’t, really’; for he tends to take innocence as cognate with ignorance, a bad thing.  Dickens didn’t see it that way, and neither did his audience; and the key question, I suppose, is whether that is now so outmoded a view as to interfere with our ability to encounter Dickens in the fullest sense.  Half a century ago, in words still likely to resonate with 21st-century readers, Trevor Blount noted that ‘the qualities in his work to which his contemporaries responded with such affection are still there. To read him properly we must unlearn our twentieth-century prejudices against pathetic exploitation and sentimental cosiness’ [Blount, Dickens: the Early Novels (Longmans 1968), 6].  That’s right, I think. 


Nicola Vincent-Abnett said...

I concur.

I often wonder how it is possible ever to teach, for example, "Jane Eyre", to a class of twelve year old girls, as my English teacher did back in the seventies.

nostalgebraist said...

Isn't the question of whether innocence is a "virtue" more specific than the question of whether there is "something intrinsically valuable or worthwhile about innocence"?

The way I feel about the former question is roughly the way I feel about, say, the question of whether being good-looking is a virtue. I feel a strong impulse to answer "no," and the very prospect seems sort of distasteful -- and yet I don't think that looking good is utterly worthless or unimportant, and all else being equal, I imagine I'd prefer to be surrounded by people who are good-looking than people who aren't.

Similarly, innocence can be a likable quality in others, and it can be a pleasant quality to have oneself ("ignorance is bliss," and maybe even innocence in general is bliss) -- but none of that makes me want to say that people have a moral obligation to try to become (or remain) innocent, the way I think people have an obligation to be open-minded, considerate, (generally) kind, etc.

(I don't know where all this places me with respect to the Victorians, Pullman, et. al.)