A Plea For Popular Philosophy

WHAT modern people want to be made to understand is simply that all argument begins with an assumption; that is, with something that you do not doubt. You can, of course, if you like, doubt the assumption at the beginning of your argument, but in that case you are beginning a different argument with another assumption at the beginning of it. Every argument begins with an infallible dogma, and that infallible dogma can only be disputed by falling back on some other infallible dogma; you can never prove your first statement or it would not be your first. All this is the alphabet of thinking... And it has this special and positive point about it, that it can be taught in a school, like the other alphabet. Not to start an argument without stating your postulates could be taught in philosophy as it is taught in Euclid, in a common schoolroom with a blackboard. And I think it might be taught in some simple and rational degree even to the young, before they go out into the streets and are delivered over entirely to the logic and philosophy of the Daily Mail.

Much of our chaos about religion and doubt arises from this—that our modern sceptics always begin by telling us what they do not believe. But even in a sceptic we want to know first what he does believe. Before arguing, we want to know what we need not argue about. And this confusion is infinitely increased by the fact that all the sceptics of our time are sceptics at different degrees of the dissolution of scepticism. ...

Now you and I have, I hope, this advantage over all those clever new philosophers, that we happen not to be mad. All of us believe in St Paul's Cathedral; most of us believe in St Paul. But let us clearly realize this fact, that we do believe in a number of things which are part of our existence, but which cannot be demonstrated. Leave religion for the moment wholly out of the question. All sane men, I say, believe firmly and unalterably in a certain number of things which are unproved and unprovable. Let us state them roughly.

(1) Every sane man believes that the world around him and the people in it are real, and not his own delusion or dream. No man starts burning London in the belief, that his servant will soon wake him for breakfast. But that I, at any given moment, am not in a dream, is unproved and unprovable. That anything exists except myself is unproved and unprovable.

(2) All sane men believe that this world not only exists, but matters. Every man believes there is a sort of obligation on us to interest ourselves in this vision or panorama of life. He would think a man wrong who said, "I did not ask for this farce and it bores me. I am aware that an old lady is being murdered down stairs, but I am going to sleep." That there is any such duty to improve the things we did not make is a thing unproved and unprovable.

(3) All sane men believe that there is such a thing as a self or ego, which is continuous. There is no inch of my brain matter the same as it was ten years ago. But if I have saved a man in battle ten years ago, I am proud; if I have run away, I am ashamed. That there is such a paramount "I" is unproved and unprovable. But it is more than unproved and unprovable; it is definitely disputed by many metaphysicians.

(4) Lastly, most sane men believe, and all sane men in practice assume, that they have a power of choice and responsibility for action....

Surely it might be possible to establish some plain, dull statement such as the above, to make people see where they stand. And if the youth of the future must not (at present) be taught any religion, it might at least be taught, clearly and firmly, the three or four sanities and certainties of human free thought.

~G.K. Chesterton: Daily News, June 22nd, 1907

Collected in The Man Who Was Orthodox: a Selection from the Uncollected Writings of G. K. ChestertonA. L. Maycock (Editor)

"The essence of eternal tyranny"

“AN honest man falls in love with an honest woman; he wishes therefore, to marry her, to be the father of her children, to secure her and himself. All systems of government should be tested by whether he can do this. If any system—feudal, servile, or barbaric—does, in fact, give him so large a cabbage-field that he can do it, there is the essence of liberty and justice. If any system—Republican, mercantile, or Eugenist—does, in fact give him so small a salary that he can’t do it, there is the essence of eternal tyranny and shame.”

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, March 25, 1911.


A Defence of Bores

THE UNIVERSAL, or approximately universal, opinion in these days is that the unpardonable sin is to be a bore. This is a profound error. If this awful phraseology is to be used at all, it may safely be said that the unpardonable sin is being bored. Ennui is, the great sin, the sin by which the whole universe tends continually to be undervalued and to vanish from the imagination. But it is a quality of the person who feels, not of the person who produces it. There is just the same difference between knowing that we are bored and knowing that another man is a bore that there is between knowing that we are murdered and knowing that another man is a murderer. If we are suddenly shot through the body in the middle of Fleet Street we have logical grounds for stating that, taking the common use of words as our basis of reasoning, we are, essential speaking, murdered. But whether the man who shot us can, as a whole, be described as a murderer is a very much more subtle question, and takes us at once into the entanglements of legal controversy which stretch back to the Magna Charta and the code of Justinian. He may not be, personally, a murderous person at all. He may have shot us in supposed self-defence, mistaking for a savage gesture of attack the graceful movement with which we summoned a hansom cab. He may have shot us in a fit of abstraction, misled by our physical resemblance to a round target at Aldershot. The condition of ourselves, when shot, is a clear matter, the condition of the man who shot us is a particularly doubtful matter, and may be anything between devilry and childishness. Death, in short, is a positive and defined condition, but it belongs entirely to the dead person.

In the same way boredom, which is the next condition to death, being a decay of vitality, is a positive and defined condition, but it is only positive and defined as regards the person bored. The person who produces the effect may be generally a bore or he may be the very reverse. He may have been explaining something full of wild interest or of ravishing humour. Dickens would be a bore in satirically hitting off the Circumlocution Office if he were satirically hitting it off to a Soudanese Arab. Mr. Gus Elen (that great philosopher) would be a bore if he were imitating every tone and gesture of the South London navy to a hermit in Tibet. Precisely in the same manner there may be much real interest in the man who has just been unfolding the romance of sewing-machines or the matchless poetry of cattle food to our rude barbaric ears. We may have presented merely the stupid composure of the savage presence of the really passionate drama of the lawsuit which his aunt by marriage had with the trustees under his great-grandfather’s will. The blame, if there be blame, is with us for being bored. The subject is not a dull one; there is no such thing in the world as a dull subject. The mere fact that he, our interlocutor, a person to all mortal appearance very much stupider that we are, has found out the secret and captured the charm of the that subject is sufficient demonstration that it is not eternally or necessarily a dull subject, If he can be excited about the principle of the lever or the abominable conduct of the Robinsons, why cannot we? We are subdued; he is wild; there in a phrase is his final and immeasurable superiority. The man who is happy is naturally and necessarily superior to the man who is weary. The sadness and inertia of the bored person may be educated or intellectual, but they cannot possibly be such good things in themselves as the great purpose, the starry enthusiasm and the heavenly happiness of the bore.

The true attitude towards this matter would save a great deal of error and a great deal of pessimism about the world we live in. Pessimism, which is, of course, mainly the product of the rich and idle classes in almost all cases, means essentially this: that the idle cannot understand that the strenuous and exact details which do not interest them can possibly interest other people. Because the fluctuations of leather or the minutiae of amateur photography bore them, they imagine that they must bore those who talk about them. In their eyes a thing becomes dull in so far as it absorbs a man and shuts out other matters. This is true in a certain social sense, but in the ultimate psychological sense it is the reverse of the truth, for the absorption of the man and the exclusion of other matters show not how dull the subject is, but how fascinating it is. Because a man refuses to come out of Eden, they assume he is being detained in gaol.

The case is very strongly exhibited, for instance, in the common idea that mathematics is a dull subject, whereas the testimony of all those who have any dealing with it shows that it is one of the most thrilling and tantalising and enchanting subjects in the world. It is abstract, but so, to all appearance, is theology. Men have hurled themselves on the spears of their enemies rather than admit that the second person of the Trinity was not co-eternal with the first. Men have been burned by inches rather than allow that the charge to Peter was to be a charge to him as an individual rather than to him as a representative of the Apostles. Of such questions as these it is perfectly reasonable for anyone to say that, in his opinion, they are preposterous and fanatical questions. And what men have before now done for the abstractions of theology I have little doubt that they would, if necessary, do for the abstractions of mathematics. If human history and human variety teach us anything at all, it is supremely probable that there are men who would be stabbed in battle or burnt at the stake rather than admit that three angles of a triangle could be together greater than two right angles.

The truth surely is that it is perfectly permissible and perfectly natural to become bored with a subject just as it is perfectly permissible and perfectly natural to be thrown from a horse or to miss a train or to look up the answer to a puzzle at the end of a book. But it is not a triumph if it is anything at all, it is a defeat. We have certainly no right to assume offhand that the fault lies with the horse or with the subject. A very good example of this may be found, for instance, in the revolt against the family which is going on almost everywhere at this moment; in the innumerable millions of absolutely exceptional geniuses and temperaments who are renouncing the claims of family because the family misunderstands them or the family bores them. In some isolated cases they are certainly right; in almost every case they may conceivably be right. But at the back of all, one has a dark and profound conviction that these secessions would suddenly dwindle almost to nothingness if for one single instant the seceders regarded the boredom as a failure on their own part rather than as a failure on the part of the family. But so in truth it is. A family quarrel, for instance, may be a very squalid and tiresome affair if we happen at that moment to be sickened or exhausted, or, in other words, if we happen at the moment to be squalid and tiresome ourselves. But assuredly a family quarrel is not uninteresting in itself. Anybody who has ever had to do with any sort of practical collision between the interests and emotions of any five or six human beings must assuredly and clearly be certain of this—that the pen of Balzac would be needed adequately to depict their characters, that the ethical charity of Herbert Spencer would be necessary to define their claims, that only Shakespeare could embody their emotions, and only God can judge their souls.

Let no one flatter himself that he leaves his family life in search of art, or knowledge; he leaves it because he is fleeing from the baffling knowledge of humanity and from the impossible art of life. He may be right; but it must not be said of him that he gave it up because Mrs. Brown was unsympathetic, or because Uncle Jonas was a bore, or because Aunt Maria did not understand him. It must be said that he, pardonably enough, failed to realise the exquisite fragrance of the character of Mrs. Brown; that he, pardonably enough, did not detect the dim but delicate colours of the soul if Uncle Jonas; that he, pardonably enough, did not understand Aunt Maria. Being bored is the sin, not being a bore. Because of the weakness of humanity we may allow to men revolutions and emancipations and the breaking of bonds. But the strong man, the ideal, would be interested in any circle into which, in the course of nature, he fell. The hero would be a most domesticated person; the Over-Man would sit at the feet of his grandmother.

~G.K. Chesterton (1902): in Lunacy & Letters.


"A man and a woman, as such, are incompatible"

"IN EVERYTHING on this earth that is worth doing, there is a stage when no one would do it, except for necessity or honor. It is then that the Institution upholds a man and helps him on to the firmer ground ahead. Whether this solid fact of human nature is sufficient to justify the sublime dedication of Christian marriage is quite an other matter, it is amply sufficient to justify the general human feeling of marriage as a fixed thing, dissolution of which is a fault or, at least, an ignominy. The essential element is not so much duration as security. Two people must be tied together in order to do themselves justice; for twenty minutes at a dance, or for twenty years in a marriage. In both cases the point is, that if a man is bored in the first five minutes he must go on and force himself to be happy. Coercion is a kind of encouragement; and anarchy (or what some call liberty) is essentially oppressive, because it is essentially discouraging. If we all floated in the air like bubbles, free to drift anywhere at any instant, the practical result would be that no one would have the courage to begin a conversation. It would be so embarrassing to start a sentence in a friendly whisper, and then have to shout the last half of it because the other party was floating away into the free and formless ether. The two must hold each other to do justice to each other. If Americans can be divorced for "incompatibility of temper" I cannot conceive why they are not all divorced. I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible."

~G.K. Chesterton: What's Wrong with the World, Part I, Ch. VII—The Free Family. (1910)
The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. 4: What's Wrong with the World / The Superstition of Divorce / Eugenics and Other Evils / Divorce versus Democracy / Social Reform versus Birth Control.


A Legend of Saint Francis

ST. FRANCIS, playing in the fields of heaven, had been informed by his spiritual great-grandson Friar Bacon (who takes an interest in new and curious things) that the modern world was just about to witness a great celebration in honour of the great founder. St. Francis, out of his great love for his fellows, felt an ardent desire to be present; but the Blessed Thomas More, who had seen the modern world begin and had his doubts, shook his head with the melancholy humour that made him so charming a companion. “I fear,” he said, “that you will find the present state of the world very distressing to your hopes of Holy Poverty and charity to all. Even when I left (rather abruptly) men were beginning to grab land greedily, to pile up gold and silver, to live for nothing but pleasure and luxury in the arts.” St. Francis said he was prepared for that; but although he came down to the world in that sense prepared, as he walked about the world he was puzzled.

At first he had a kind of hope, not unmixed with holy fear, that all the people had become Franciscans. Nearly all of them were without land. Large numbers of them were without homes. If they had really all of them been grabbing property, it seems strange that hardly any of them had got any. Then he met a Philanthropist, who professed to have ideals very similar to his own, though less clearly expressed; and St. Francis had occasion to apologise, with all his characteristic good manners, for the fact that his vow forbade him to carry any gold or silver in his purse. “I never carry money about myself,” said the Philanthropist nodding; “Our system of credit has become so complete that coins seem quite antiquated.” Then he took out a little piece of paper and wrote on it; and the saint could not but admire the beautiful faith and simplicity with which this scribble was received as a substitute for cash. But when he went a little deeper into conversation with the Philanthropist, he grew more and more doubtful and troubled in his mind. For instance, it was doubtless in consequence of some highly respectable Vow that the Philanthropist and most other commercial persons were dressed in black and grey and other sober colours. Indeed they seemed, in a rapture of Christian humility, to have made themselves as hideous as possible; the shape of their hats and trousers being quite horrible to the artistic sensibilities of the Italian. But when he began to talk with gentle awe about their sacrifice, and how hard he had himself felt it even to surrender the crimson cloaks and capes, the gilded belts and swordhilts of his own gay and gallant youth, he was mystified to find that the merchants of his own guild in this epoch had never felt even the obvious temptation to wear swords. More and more did he feel convinced that they were of a finer spiritual order than himself; but, as this no new feeling for him, he continued to confide in these ascetics about the defects of his own asceticism. He told them how he had cried: “I may yet have children,” and how much family life attracted him; at which they all laughed, and began to explain that few of them had any children or wanted any. And as they went on talking, that understanding which is terribly alert even in the most innocent of saints, began to creep upon him like a dreadful paralysis. It is uncertain whether he fully understood why and how they denied themselves this natural pleasure; but it is certain that he went rather hurriedly back to heaven. Nobody knows what saints really think; but he was said by some to have concluded that the bad men of his time were better than the good men of ours.

~G.K. Chesterton

Originally published in G.K.’s Weekly, Oct. 9, 1926.
Collected by Marie Smith in Daylight and Nightmare: Uncollected Stories and Fables. (1986)



Introduction to 'Nicholas Nickleby’

ROMANCE is perhaps the highest point of human expression, except indeed religion, to which it is closely allied. Romance resembles religion especially in this, that it is not only a simplification but a shortening of existence. Both romance and religion see everything as it were foreshortened; they see everything in an abrupt and fantastic perspective, coming to an apex. It is the whole essence of perspective that it comes to a point. Similarly, religion comes to a point — to the point. Thus religion is always insisting on the shortness of human life. But it does not insist on the shortness of human life as the pessimists insist on it. Pessimism insists on the shortness of human life in order to show that life is valueless. Religion insists on the shortness of human life in order to show that life is frightfully valuable — is almost horribly valuable. Pessimism says that life is so short that it gives nobody a chance; religion says that life is so short that it gives everybody his final chance. In the first case the word brevity means futility; in the second case, opportunity. But the case is even stronger than this. Religion shortens everything. Religion shortens even eternity. Where science, submitting to the false standard of time, sees evolution, which is slow, religion sees creation, which is sudden. Philosophically speaking, the process is neither slow nor quick since we have nothing to compare it with. Religion prefers to think of it as quick. For religion the flowers shoot up suddenly like rockets. For religion the mountains are lifted up suddenly like waves. Those who quote that fine passage which says that in God's sight a thousand years are as yesterday that is passed as a watch in the night, do not realise the full force of the meaning. To God a thousand years are not only a watch but an exciting watch. For God time goes at a gallop, as it does to a man reading a good tale.

All this is, in a humble manner, true for romance. Romance is a shortening and sharpening of the human difficulty. Where you and I have to vote against. a man, or write (rather feebly) against a man, or sign illegible petitions against a man, romance does for him what we should really like to see done. It knocks him down; it shortens the slow process of historical justice. All romances consist of three characters. Other characters may be introduced; but those other characters are certainly mere scenery as far as the romance is concerned. They are bushes that wave rather excitedly; they are posts that stand up with a certain pride; they are correctly painted rocks that frown very correctly; but they are all landscape — they are all a background. In every pure romance there are three living and moving characters. For the sake of argument they may be called St. George and the Dragon and the Princess. In every romance there must be the twin elements of loving and fighting. In every romance there must be the three characters: there must be the Princess, who is a thing to be loved; there must be the Dragon, who is a thing to be fought; and there must be St. George, who is a thing that both loves and fights. There have been many symptoms of cynicism and decay in our modern civilisation. But of all the signs of modern feebleness, of lack of grasp on morals as they actually must be, there has been none quite so silly of so dangerous as this: that the philosophers of to-day have started to divide loving from fighting and to put them into opposite camps. There could be no worse sign than that a man, even Nietzsche, can be found to say that we should go in for fighting instead of loving. There can be no worse sign than that a man, even Tolstoi, can be found to tell us that we should go in for loving instead of fighting. The two things imply each other; they implied each other in the old romance and in the old religion, which were the two permanent things of humanity. You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it. You cannot fight without something to fight for. To love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all; it is lust. It may be an airy, philosophical, and disinterested lust; it may be, so to speak, a virgin lust; but it is lust, because it is wholly self-indulgent and invites no attack. On the other hand, fighting for a thing without loving it is not even fighting; it can only be called a kind of horse-play that is occasionally fatal. Wherever human nature is human and unspoilt by any special sophistry, there exists this natural kinship between war and wooing, and that natural kinship is called romance. It comes upon a man especially in the great hour of youth; and every man who has ever been young at all has felt, if only for a moment, this ultimate and poetic paradox. He knows that loving the world is the same thing as fighting the world. It was at the very moment when he offered to like everybody he also offered to hit everybody. To almost every man that can be called a man this especial moment of the romantic culmination has come. In the first resort the man wished to live a romance. In the second resort, in the last and worst resort, he was content to write one.

Now there is a certain moment when this element enters independently into the life of Dickens. There is a particular time when we can see him suddenly realise that he wants to write a romance and nothing else. In reading his letters, in appreciating his character, this point emerges clearly enough. He was full of the afterglow of his marriage; he was still young and psychologically ignorant; above all, he was now, really for the first time, sure that he was going to be at least some kind of success. There is, I repeat, a certain point at which one feels that Dickens will either begin to write romances or go off on something different altogether. This crucial point in his life is marked by Nicholas Nickleby.

It must be remembered that before this issue of Nicholas Nickleby his work, successful as it was, had not been such as to dedicate him seriously or irrevocably to the writing of novels. He had already written three books; and at least two of them are classed among the novels under his name. But if we look at the actual origin and formation of these books we see that they came from another source and were really designed upon another plan. The three books were, of course, the Sketches by Boz, the Pickwick Papers, and Oliver Twist. It is, I suppose, sufficiently well understood that the Sketches by Boz are, as their name implies, only sketches. But surely it is quite equally clear that the Pickwick Papers are, as their name implies, merely papers. Nor is the case at all different in spirit and essence when we come to Oliver Twist. There is indeed a sort of romance in Oliver Twist, but it is such an uncommonly bad one that it can hardly be regarded as greatly interrupting the previous process; and if the reader chooses to pay very little attention to it, he cannot pay less attention to it than the author did. But in fact the case lies far deeper. Oliver Twist is so much apart from the ordinary track of Dickens, it is so gloomy, it is so much all in one atmosphere, that it can best be considered as an exception or a solitary excursus in his work. Perhaps it can best be considered as the extension of one of his old sketches, of some sketch that happened to be about a visit to a workhouse or a gaol. In the Sketches by Boz he might well have visited a workhouse where he saw Bumble; in the Sketches by Boz he might well have visited a prison where he saw Fagin. We are still in the realm of sketches and sketchiness. The Pickwick Papers may be called an extension of one of his bright sketches. Oliver Twist may be called an extension of one of his gloomy ones.

Had he continued along this line all his books might very well have been note-books. It would be very easy to split up all his subsequent books into scraps and episodes, such as those which make up the Sketches by Boz. It would be easy enough for Dickens, instead of publishing Nicholas Nickleby, to have published a book of sketches, one of which was called "A Yorkshire School," another called "A Provincial Theatre," and another called "Sir Mulberry Hawk or High Life Revealed," another called "Mrs. Nickleby or a Lady's Monologue." It would have been very easy to have thrown over the rather chaotic plan of the Old Curiosity Shop. He might have merely written short stories called "The Glorious Apollos," "Mrs. Quilp's Tea-Party," "Mrs. Jarley's Waxwork," "The Little Servant," and "The Death of a Dwarf." Martin Chuzzlewit might have been twenty stories instead of one story. Dombey and Son might have been twenty stories instead of one story. We might have lost all Dickens's novels; we might have lost altogether Dickens the novelist. We might have lost that steady love of a seminal and growing romance which grew on him steadily as the years advanced, and which gave us towards the end some of his greatest triumphs. All his books might have been Sketches by Boz. But he did turn away from this, and the turning-point is Nicholas Nickleby.

Everything has a supreme moment and is crucial; that is where our friends the evolutionists go wrong. I suppose that there is an instant of midsummer as there is an instant of midnight. If in the same way there is a supreme point of spring, Nicholas Nickleby is the supreme point of Dickens's spring. I do not mean that it is the best book that he wrote in his youth. Pickwick is a better book. I do not mean that it contains more striking characters than any of the other books in his youth. The Old Curiosity Shop contains at least two more striking characters. But I mean that this book coincided with his resolution to be a great novelist and his final belief that he could be one. Henceforward his books are novels, very commonly bad novels. Previously they have not really been novels at all. There are many indications of the change I mean. Here is one, for instance, which is more or less final. Nicholas Nickleby is Dickens's first romantic novel because it is his first novel with a proper and dignified romantic hero; which means, of course, a somewhat chivalrous young donkey. The hero of Pickwick is an old man. The hero of Oliver Twist is a child. Even after Nicholas Nickleby this non-romantic custom continued. The Old Curiosity Shop has no hero in particular. The hero of Barnaby Rudge is a lunatic. But Nicholas Nickleby is a proper, formal, and ceremonial hero. He has no psychology; he has not even any particular character; but he is made deliberately a hero — young, poor, brave, unimpeachable, and ultimately triumphant. He is, in short, the hero. Mr. Vincent Crummles had a colossal intellect; and I always have a fancy that under all his pomposity he saw things more keenly than he allowed others to see. The moment he saw Nicholas Nickleby, almost in rags and limping along the high road, he engaged him (you will remember) as first walking gentleman. He was right. Nobody could possibly be more of a first walking gentleman than Nicholas Nickleby was. He was the first walking gentleman before he went on to the boards of Mr. Vincent Crummles's theatre, and he remained the first walking gentleman after he had come off.

Now this romantic method involves a certain element of climax which to us appears crudity. Nicholas Nickleby, for instance, wanders through the world; he takes a situation as assistant to a Yorkshire schoolmaster; he sees an act of tyranny of which he strongly disapproves; he cries out "Stop!" in a voice that makes the rafters ring; he thrashes the schoolmaster within an inch of his life; he throws the schoolmaster away like an old cigar, and he goes away. The modern intellect is positively prostrated and flattened by this rapid and romantic way of righting wrongs. If a modern philanthropist came to Dotheboys Hall I fear he would not employ the simple, sacred, and truly Christian solution of beating Mr. Squeers with a stick. I fancy he would petition the Government to appoint a Royal Commission to inquire into Mr. Squeers. I think he would every now and then write letters to newspapers reminding people that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, there was a Royal Commission to inquire into Mr. Squeers. I agree that he might even go the length of calling a crowded meeting in St. James's Hall on the subject of the best policy with regard to Mr. Squeers. At this meeting some very heated and daring speakers might even go the length of alluding sternly to Mr. Squeers. Occasionally even hoarse voices from the back of the hall might ask (in vain) what was going to be done with Mr. Squeers. The Royal Commission would report about three years afterwards and would say that many things had happened which were certainly most regrettable; that Mr. Squeers was the victim of a bad system; that Mrs. Squeers was also the victim of a bad system; but that the man who sold Squeers his cane had really acted with great indiscretion and ought to be spoken to kindly. Something like this would be what, after four years, the Royal Commission would have said; but it would not matter in the least what the Royal Commission had said, for by that time the philanthropists would be off on a new tack and the world would have forgotten all about Dotheboys Hall and everything connected with it. By that time the philanthropists would be petitioning Parliament for another Royal Commission; perhaps a Royal Commission to inquire into whether Mr. Mantalini was extravagant with his wife's money; perhaps a commission to inquire into whether Mr. Vincent Crummles kept the Infant Phenomenon short by means of gin.

If we wish to understand the spirit and the period of Nicholas Nickleby we must endeavour to comprehend and to appreciate the old more decisive remedies, or, if we prefer to put it so, the old more desperate remedies. Our fathers had a plain sort of pity; if you will, a gross and coarse pity. They had their own sort of sentimentalism. They were quite willing to weep over Smike. But it certainly never occurred to them to weep over Squeers. Even those who opposed the French war opposed it exactly in the same way as their enemies opposed the French soldiers. They fought with fighting. Charles Fox was full of horror at the bitterness and the useless bloodshed; but if any one had insulted him over the matter, he would have gone out and shot him in a duel as coolly as any of his contemporaries. All their interference was heroic interference. All their legislation was heroic legislation. All their remedies were heroic remedies. No doubt they were often narrow and often visionary. No doubt they often looked at a political formula when they should have looked at an elemental fact. No doubt they were pedantic in some of their principles and clumsy in some of their solutions. No doubt, in short, they were all very wrong; and no doubt we are the people, and wisdom shall die with us. But when they saw something which in their eyes, such as they were, really violated their morality, such as it was, then they did not cry "Investigate!" They did not cry "Educate!" They did not cry "Improve!" They did not cry "Evolve!" Like Nicholas Nickleby they cried "Stop!" And it did stop.

This is the first mark of the purely romantic method: the swiftness and simplicity with which St. George kills the dragon. The second mark of it is exhibited here as one of the weaknesses of Nicholas Nickleby. I mean the tendency in the purely romantic story to regard the heroine merely as something to be won; to regard the princess solely as something to be saved from the dragon. The father of Madeline Bray is really a very respectable dragon. His selfishness is suggested with much more psychological tact and truth than that of any other of the villains that Dickens described about this time. But his daughter is merely the young woman with whom Nicholas is in love. We do not care a rap about Madeline Bray. Personally I should have preferred Cecilia Bobster. Here is one real point where the Victorian romance falls below the Elizabethan romantic drama. Shakespeare always made his heroines heroic as well as his heroes.

In Dickens's actual literary career it is this romantic quality in Nicholas Nickleby that is most important. It is his first definite attempt to write a young and chivalrous novel. In this sense the comic characters and the comic scenes are secondary; and indeed the comic characters and the comic scenes, admirable as they are, could never be considered as in themselves superior to such characters and such scenes in many of the other books. But in themselves how unforgettable they are. Mr. Crummles and the whole of his theatrical business is an admirable case of that first and most splendid quality in Dickens — I mean the art of making something which in life we call pompous and dull, becoming in literature pompous and delightful. I have remarked before that nearly every one of the amusing characters of Dickens is in reality a great fool. But I might go further. Almost every one of his amusing characters is in reality a great bore. The very people that we fly to in Dickens are the very people that we fly from in life. And there is more in Crummles than the mere entertainment of his solemnity and his tedium. The enormous seriousness with which he takes his art is always an exact touch in regard to the unsuccessful artist. If an artist is successful, everything then depends upon a dilemma of his moral character. If he is a mean artist success will make him a society man. If he is a magnanimous artist, success will make him an ordinary man. But only as long as he is unsuccessful will he be an unfathomable and serious artist, like Mr. Crummles. Dickens was always particularly good at expressing thus the treasures that belong to those who do not succeed in this world. There are vast prospects and splendid songs in the point of view of the typically unsuccessful man; if all the used-up actors and spoilt journalists and broken clerks could give a chorus, it would be a wonderful chorus in praise of the world. But these unsuccessful men commonly cannot even speak. Dickens is the voice of them, and a very ringing voice; because he was perhaps the only one of these unsuccessful men that was ever successful.

~G.K. Chesterton: Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens, Part One, Ch. IV.

● Part One e-text online.
● Part Two e-text online.

● Print editions: G.K. Chesterton Collected Works, Volume XV: Chesterton on Dickens, by Ignatius Press, is currently out of print. Editions, new and used, by various publishers are available through online book sellers such as Barnes&Noble, Amazon, and especially Abebooks

Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby. Cover for Monthly Parts,
by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne); 
Wood engraving, 1838. Source: The Victorian Web


The Englishman

St. George he was for England.
And before he killed the dragon
He drank a pint of English ale
Out of an English flagon.
For though he fast right readily
In hair-shirt or in mail.
It isn't safe to give him cakes
Unless you give him ale.

St. George he was for England,
And right gallantly set free
The lady left for dragon's meat
And tied up to a tree;
But since he stood for England
And knew what England means,
Unless you give him bacon
You mustn't give him beans.

St. George he is for England,
And shall wear the shield he wore
When we go out in armour
With the battle-cross before.
But though he is jolly company
And very pleased to dine,
It isn't safe to give him nuts
Unless you give him wine.

~G.K. Chesterton

Drawing by GKC