Coffee With Dickens, By Paul Schlicke, Duncan Baird, 2008
If I make it to heaven, I hope I'll get to stand in the groups gathered
round my heroes and listen to what they have to say. Especially Charles
Dickens, whose conversation, according to his contemporaries, was as
sparkling, funny and inventive as his prose is vivid and profound on
the page. Those responsible for "Coffee With Dickens," a handsomely
produced little volume in a new series of fictional chats with the great,
from Shakespeare to Mozartand the famous, from Marilyn Monroe to
Groucho Marxhave improved upon this fancy. Why not have the conversation
now, without the trouble of passing behind the veil?
The imaginary Dickens talk, though, as Paul Schlicke of the University
of Aberdeen's English department presents it, is a pale and bloodless
reflection of our greatest novelist. Not without reason did Dickens
call himself the Inimitable. Poor Mr. Schlicke suffers, too, by comparison
with the volume's foreword by Peter Ackroyd, who in four lively pages
conjures up more colorfully the novelist's living presencewith his
"overwhelming energy," his "slightly theatrical manner"
and his notoriously flamboyant waistcoatsthan Mr. Schlicke manages
to do in the 130 pages that follow.
With his riotous humor, bustle and sharply observed Hogarthian plenitude,
Dickens was an entertainer of genius, a one-man three-ring circus. From
his first novel, the wildly best-selling "Pickwick Papers,"
written by a prodigy of 25, he had the fecundity of Mr. Jingle, who
claimed in that book to have written an "epic poem, ten thousand
linesrevolution of July; composed it on the spot; Mars by day, Apollo
by nightbang the field-piece, twang the lyre." Dickens could
make even his minor characters unforgettable, like the man in "Martin
Chuzzlewit" who was "so bald and had such big whiskers that
he seemed to have stopped his hair, by the sudden application of some
powerful remedy, in the very act of falling off his head."
And his jokes illuminated even while they entertained, as in the ostentatiously
heavy silverware of the parvenu Mr. Podsnap in "Our Mutual Friend,"
designed to shout its owner's wealth and importance: "All the big
silver spoons and forks widened the mouths of the company expressly
for the purpose of thrusting the sentiment down their throats with every
morsel they ate." So too with the wooden leg of a character mentioned
in "Nicholas Nickleby," which "in its constancy of walkin'
into wine vaults and never comin' out again 'till fetched by force,
was quite as weak as flesh if not weaker."
But beyond Dickens's irrepressible gaiety lay the deepest wisdom and
understanding of the human condition. Much more than entertainment,
great literature is a form of knowledge that draws on all our ways of
knowingnot just on reason but on sympathy, on intuition, on self-analysis.
It provides our most profound understanding of human motivation in all
its contradictory complexity, as hope or ambition or lust intersect
with social insecurity or altruism, say, to produce a chain of actions,
and it provides as well a study of consequences. In "Hard Times,"
Dickens dismisses the claim of the utilitarian social scientists to
understand man's fate through statistics, as if the quantifiable were
the only real "fact" about our lives. There are more and deeper
truths about us, to paraphrase the only greater English literary genius
than Dickens, than are dreamed of in that arid philosophy, and they
cluster most thickly in literature.
So what would we like to hear Dickens talk about if we really could
have a drink with him, or even just listen in? How about his deep understanding
of the nature of the social order and how it changes the nature of manopics
(central also to political philosophy) that absorbed Dickens for the
first part of his novelistic career? Most readers would want to hear
what he had to say about England's transformationbetween 1812,
when Dickens was born, and 1870, when he died at age 58from a
largely agricultural country run by squires and grandees to an urban,
democratic one. And everyone would want to hear him talk about London
as it became the metropolis of the 19th century. No one saw more clearly
than Dickens how its manifold sub-worlds -- living cheek-by-jowl
fit together to form an organic whole, and no one understood better
how this great man-made creation pours out a cornucopia of possibility
for those who inhabit it.
We'd like to hear him on evil, obsession, lust, crime and violence,
along with what he called the "social sacraments" that make
life meaningful. We'd want to know how his social reformism relates
to his bedrock, almost Burkean, conservatism. What about welfare and
the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor? And no genial
glass of punch with the Inimitable could end without talk of childhood,
whose vulnerabilities and sensitivities he described better than anyone
and whose hurts and neglects he could with preternatural acuity see
eating away within the mature man.
All this is the stuff of Dickens's 14 novels, his Christmas books,
his journalism and his racy, endlessly fascinating letters, written
at a pace of a dozen or so a day. But Mr. Schlicke, to conjure up his
"conversation" and to compose the tiny introductions to its
various phases, avails himself of only a few morsels of these riches:
biographies, a few letters and some half-century-old scholarly works.
The effect is a conventional brief life of the novelist alongside some
potted generalizations about Dickens's views on crime and education.
Even in so short a book, Mr. Schlicke could have given us more than
an outline of Dickens's shabby-genteel childhood, his father's imprisonment
for debt, his humiliation at being taken out of school and put to work
at a shoe-polish factory, his ambition to be an actor, his career as
a reporter and magazine editor, his immediate and spectacular success
and celebrity, his failed marriage, his affair with an actress, his
reserve and distance as the father of 10 children, and his punishing
(but lucrative) schedule of public readings. So much to talk about.
Those who want a meaty conversation with Dickens fortunately don't
have to wait for the afterlife; they can just take his works down from
the shelves and start reading.