Charles Dickens and G. K. Chesterton

Excerpt from Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton

By Joseph Pearce

ON the whole, though, Heretics turned a stern and critical eye on many giants of the literary world. One writer, however, was conspicuous by the absence of criticism levelled against him. For Dickens there was nothing but praise:

". . . the living and invigorating ideal of England must be looked for in the masses; it must be looked for where Dickens found it – Dickens, among whose glories it was to be a humorist, to be a sentimentalist, to be an optimist, to be a poor man, to be an Englishman, but the greatest of whose glories was that he saw all mankind in its amazing and tropical luxuriance, and did not even notice the aristocracy; Dickens, the greatest of whose glories was that he could not describe a gentleman."

This evident admiration for the genius of Dickens found fruition the following year in a full-length biography. Charles Dickens was received with enthusiasm by critics and public alike. The French novelist and biographer AndrĂ© Maurois considered it one of the best biographies ever written; while T. S. Eliot thought that there was no better critic of Dickens than Chesterton. Bernard Shaw wrote to Chesterton on 6 September, a week after the book was published: ‘As I am a supersaturated Dickensite, I pounced on your book and read it, as Wegg read Gibbon and other authors, right through.’[25]

Chesterton began his study of Dickens with an appeal to his readers:

"I put this appeal before any other observations on Dickens. First let us sympathise, if only for an instant, with the hopes of the Dickens period, with the cheerful trouble of change . . . For you, perhaps, a drearier philosophy has covered and eclipsed the earth . . . If, then, you are a pessimist, in reading this story, forgo for a little the pleasures of pessimism. Dream for one mad moment that the grass is green."[26]

On 8 September James Douglas, writing in the “Throne, stressed that Chesterton’s sympathy for Dickens was grounded in his similarity to Dickens: ‘He is, like Dickens, an imaginative caricaturist, an artist in grotesque humour, an apostle of exaggeration. “Exaggeration,” says Mr Chesterton roundly, “is the definition of art.” It is certainly the definition of Dickensian art and Chestertonian art.”[27] Whether on approved or otherwise, it was certainly true that the subject of Dickens afforded Chesterton the opportunity to flaunt his own imagination:

"Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist . . . He did not always manage to make his characters men, but he always managed, at the least, to make them gods . . . It was not the aim of Dickens to show the effect of time and circumstance upon a character; it was not even his aim to show the effect of a character on time and circumstance . . . It was his aim to show character hung in a kind of happy void, in a world apart from time . . ."[28]

Similarly, with the art of exaggeration of which he stood accused, Chesterton described Dickens as more than merely ‘the last of the mythologists, and perhaps the greatest’. He was also the last of the democrats and perhaps the greatest: ‘Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community . . . Dickens and his school had a hilarious faith on democracy and thought of the service of it as a sacred priesthood.’[29]

Developing the theme of Dickens popularity, Chesterton emphasised that Dickens ‘wanted what the people wanted’ because he was at one with the common mind:

"But with this mere phrase, the common mind, we collide with a current error. Commonness and the common mind means are now generally spoken of as meaning in some manner inferiority and the inferior mind; the mind of the mere mob. But the common mind means the mind of all the artists and heroes; or else it would not be common. Plato had the common mind; Dante had the common mind; or that mind was not common. Commonness means the quality common to the saint and the sinner, to the philosopher and the fool; and it was this that Dickens grasped and developed. In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight: that thing enjoys Dickens . . . And when I say that everybody understands Dickens I do not mean that he is suited to the untaught intelligence. I mean that he is so plain that even scholars can understand him."[30]

(From Chap. 7, "Heretics and Orthodoxy.")

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