Page images
PDF
EPUB

public of many disgusting and vulgar habits. Ridicule alone can teach persons who are in this unhappy position; and if any thing can stir them to assert the supremacy of clean living, modest speaking, and unassuming manners, it will be the knowledge that until they exert themselves foreigners will laugh at them. In the same way, the arrogance of the purse-proud British parvenu, when he first began to travel on the Continent, was deservedly and bitterly satirised, not only by foreigners, but by English writers. Persons of better education, more accustomed to refined society, and more intimately acquainted with Continental customs, were at once ashamed of and amused at their insolent narrow-minded countrymen, who wandered from one foreign hotel to another full of indignation at the people of the place where they were for going on in their own way, and treating the superiority of every thing English as an axiom of the law of nature. Satire was plentifully applied to the wandering Britons, and the lash of ridicule was laid on them without sparing. The consequence has been, that the English on the Continent have greatly improved. Other causes may have contributed to the improvement; but the diffusion through popular English literature of the notion that all this arrogance was shocking bad taste, has been the most powerful of all causes. The general habit of mind which the English carry abroad with them has probably remained unchanged; but it is no longer exhibited in a coarse and outrageous way, or if it is, this is only the case among persons of a lower grade than those who were laughed into propriety by Mrs. Trollope and Mr. Lever.

This defence of comic representations ought, however, in all fairness, to be admitted in behalf of other works of Mr. Dickens which have been made the subject of much censure. In Bleak House Mr. Dickens makes a great part of the story to turn on the droll and yet cruel slowness of the Court of Chancery. In Little Dorrit he has his fling at the Circumlocution Office. It is said with great truth that the Court of Chancery has, in spite of its slowness, worked out a great system of equitable jurisprudence, and that, although infected by a little of the spirit of red tape and official pedantry, the administrative government of England is singularly pure, honest, and efficient. Still the Court of Chancery was, until its recent changes, most dismally slow, expensive, and disappointing; and in many public offices nothing was done, and done in a pompous and imposing manner, as if to do nothing was a laudable and gentlemanly thing in a public officer. The comic writer satirised that which was ridiculous and foolish, and left out of sight what was good and commendable in the institutions on which he fixed his attention and that of his readers. The criticism that, if we look at the whole

gooler. Heings that whether office

truth, we ought to say that the institutions were substantially good, but with a few striking flaws, does not touch the comic writer. He only affects to address himself to a partial truth; and if he brings that partial truth into a strong light, he has effected his aim. Whether the shortcomings of the Court of Chancery and of the public offices were a suitable subject for comic writing is a different thing. A subject may have some elements of the ridiculous, but these elements may be too limited and monotonous for the construction of an entertaining story. As it happened, this was, as we think, the case in the two subjects which Mr. Dickens chose in his later works; and it is precisely because there is so much more variety and richness in the comic side of American life than there can be in the comic side of Chancery suits and Government offices, that the American part of Martin Chuzzlewit is so entertaining, and the legal and official parts of the other two works to which we have referred are, to our taste, so exceedingly dull.

Mrs. Gamp is among the very best creations of Mr. Dickens. We should venture to pronounce it the best of all, only that these decrees of the critic are not generally very valuable or acceptable to other people. A good comic character depends for its success on the author possessing two great arts—the art of producing the character by observation and filling up details, and the art of imagining how the character thus produced can be worked out through a series of appropriate incidents, and made to say things at once special, and yet not mere parrot-like repetitions of one funny phrase. The care with which the figure, the habits, and the tastes of Mrs. Gamp are brought into strong relief by an accumulation of odd touches of description is wonderful. But this is always the strong point of Mr. Dickens. He is one of the greatest observers of all that is superficial and on the outside of men and things that has ever written. He has also contrived many scenes, such as the visit of Sarah to Mr. and Mrs. Mould, and the famous quarrel with Betsey Prig, which bring out her fine qualities in the happiest way. The more successful novels of Mr. Dickens are, however, almost invariably successful in this way. If, for example, we are to concede the existence of Sam Weller, he could not be accommodated with happier incidents than the shooting scene at Mr. Wardle's, the pursuit of Jingle and Job, or the footmen's swarry. But harder than the conception of comic characters, and harder than the continuance of comic incidents, is the elaboration of comic speeches, when the character keeps up its individuality at a considerable length, and yet appears tolerably natural. It is in this that Mrs. Gamp seems to us to be unrivalled.

The accumulation of minute graphic details, designed to

bring a comic character with distinctness before the mind of the reader, is illustrated as well perhaps by the description of the preparation for Betsey Prig's visit as by any other portion of Mrs. Gamp's history. First of all, the bedstead is described, which was what is poetically called a tent; “the sacking whereof was low and bulgy, insomuch that Mrs. Gamp's box would not go under it, but stopped halfway, in a manner which, while it did violence to the reason, likewise endangered the legs of a stranger.” This is exactly one of the touches that make us think that the object described must really exist somewhere. Then we read that this bed was decorated with a patchwork quilt of great antiquity, while “some rusty gowns and other articles of Mrs. Gamp's wardrobe depended from the posts; and these had so adapted themselves by long usage to her figure, that more than one impatient husband, coming in precipitately at about the time of twilight, had been for an instant stricken dumb by the supposed discovery that Mrs. Gamp had hanged herself.” It is in this way fancy lends its aid to observation in the hands of a skilful writer. The chairs were two, “and were chiefly valuable for the slippery nature of their seats, which had been originally horsehair, but were now covered with a shiny substance of a bluish tint, from which the visitor began to slide away with a dismayed countenance immediately after sitting down." The description of the drawers is still more funny. “The chest of drawers, having been made originally to stand upon another chest, had a dwarfish elfin look alone; but, in regard of its security, it had a great advantage over the bandboxes; for, as all the handles had been long ago pulled off, it was very difficult to get at its contents. This, indeed, was only to be done by one of two devices: either by tilting the whole structure forward until all the drawers fell out together, or by opening thein singly with knives, like oysters." Amid all this splendid furniture she spread her new loaf, her fresh butter, her two pounds of salmon intensely pickled, and then, apostrophising her absent friend, exclaimed, “ Now drat you, Betsey, don't be long."

Those who are familiar with the work will probably recollect that at this crisis appears, not the longed-for Betsey, but " that disapintin'Sweedlepipes," who comes to tell of Bailey Junior's misfortune, and is met by the philosophical remark on the part of Mrs. Gamp, that “he was born into a wale, and he lived in a wale, and he must take the consequences of such a sitiwation.” This lays the foundation of a slight and hidden irritability in the mind of Mrs. Gamp, which ultimately blossoms into the great quarrel with Betsey Prig. The scene goes on so evenly and easily that we are tempted to forget how difficult it is to represent a quarrel between two nurses. Betsey is

determined to take offence; and although Mrs. Gamp, apprehending something unpleasant, takes her at once up-stairs, hoping that the sight of the pickled salmon will appease her anger, it is in vain. Betsey glances at the table, and her first words are, “I know'd she wouldn't have a cucumber.” Sarah takes the blow humbly; and Betsey has the triumph of producing a twopenny salad, which she bids Sarah dress, but adds the irritating recommendation “not to go dropping none of her snuff into it.” “ In gruel, barley-water, and so forth, it don't signify, as it only stimulates a patient;" but it doesn't suit Betsey. Peace is made, and endures as long as the salmon lasts; but that comes to end, and as the teapot produces its effect the war is renewed. Betsey Prig begins to pour out her sarcasm on the sacred Mrs. Harris; and when Mrs. Gamp says, that her object in sending for Betsey has nothing to do with Mrs. Harris, Betsey has the audacity to remark that she is glad of it. Mrs. Gamp then makes one of her great speeches in honour of her absent idol, and is so far provoked that, when she deigns to speak of the nursing they are to do in common, she remarks that she has assured her employers that “Betsey is always to be trusted under me, and will be guided as I could desire.” This leads to the great catastrophe. The next time Mrs. Harris is mentioned, she exclaims, “Bother Mrs. Harris!" and then shoots the last fatal bolt. “Shutting her eye still closer, and folding her arms still tighter, she uttered these memorable and tremendous words, 'I don't believe there's no such a person.'” The whole of this Homeric strife, ending in this overwhelming climax, is as truly comic as any thing that comedy ever offered to the world.

But the sustained speeches of Mrs. Gamp are, as we have said, the greatest triumph. To make a monthly nurse talk on for half a page without a break, to make her say something that is peculiarly her own, to make each separate portion of her speech amusing, and yet to make the whole connected and harmonious, is a great feat of art. The imaginary Mrs. Harris is the key to Mrs. Gamp's success. By means of that invaluable ally Mrs. Gamp is able to mix up a fictitious dialogue with her own monologue; and thus we have something dramatic to give life and point to her oration. But the way in which this is done always surprises us agreeably, and even when we have learnt that Mrs. Harris is going to appear, we can never guess what use is to be made of her. For the benefit of those who have not the book at hand, we will extract one of the best of these speeches. Mrs. Gamp is making tea for Mercy and Ruth, and the other company, at Jonas Chuzzlewit's; and wishing to establish her footing, and make friends, by paying a compliment to the good looks of those ladies, she goes off into an oration. It will be observed that the only thread of connection is the statement that Mercy and Ruth are good-looking, and Mrs. Harris is good-looking too. Around this simple basis is clustered the following profusion of discursive ornamentation.

“Now ain't we rich in beauty this here joyful afternoon, I'm sure ! I knows a lady,—which her name I'll not deceive you, Mrs. Chuzzlewit, is Harris, her husband's brother bein' six foot three, and marked with a mad bull in Wellington boots upon his left arm, on account of hes precious mother havin' been worrited by one into a shoemaker's shop, when in a sitiwation which blessed is the man as has hes quiver full of sech, as many times I've said to Gamp when words has roze betwixt us on account of the expense,—and often I said to Mrs. Harris, “Oh, Mrs. Harris, ma'am, your countenance is quite a angel's,” —which but for pimples it would be. “No, Sairey Gamp," says she, “you best of hard-working and industrious creeturs as ever was underpaid at any price, which underpaid you are,- quite different. Harris bad it done afore marriage, at ten and six," she says, “and wore it faithful next his heart till the colour run, when the money was declined to be give back, and no arrangement could be come to. But he never said it was an angel's, Sairey, whatever he might have thought.” If Mrs. Harris's husband was here now,' said Mrs. Gamp, looking round and chuckling as she dropped a curtsey, 'he'd speak out plain, he would, and hes dear wife would be the last to blame him. For if ever a woman lived as know'd not wot it was to form a wish to pizon them as had good looks, and had no reazion give her by the best of husbands, Mrs. Harris is that 'evenly dispogician.'”

Pecksniff is in one way a more ambitious character. There are many persons who could command some small success in portraying a hypocrite, and who yet could make nothing of a monthly nurse with an imaginary friend. But when a competent artist has to do with the hypocrite of the Pecksniff type, the character presents this additional difficulty, that he must be supposed to talk and think in a way approaching to that in which persons of ordinary education talk and think. We are apt to deliver ourselves over to an author who undertakes to reproduce the conversations of low life, and have no distinct idea whether nurses do or do not talk as Sarah and her friends are made to talk. But Mr. Pecksniff, although not in the station of a gentleman, is supposed to be a person of local respectability and eminence. We are therefore prepared to criticise himn if he says things which sound too remote from real life. Now it appears to us that some of the things which Pecksniff says are of a kind to which real life is wholly a stranger. We cannot fancy a man adopting such language unless in joke. In spite of the entertainment he gives us, and in spite of his popularity, Pecksniff strikes us as too artificial a character to be in the highest style of comic writ

« PreviousContinue »