Orwell on Dickens

I’ve just discovered Orwell’s superb 1939 essay on Dickens, and can’t believe I’ve never read it before. The last section is reproduced below & gives a flavour of what to expect. The full text is here. In the main body of the essay, Orwell offers a clear-eyed analysis of Dickens’ shortcomings which serves to separate the chaff & identify what it was about the man that was great.

“Dickens voiced a code which was and on the whole still is believed in, even by people who violate it. It is difficult otherwise to explain why he could be both read by working people (a thing that has happened to no other novelist of his stature) and buried in Westminster Abbey.

When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

– “Charles Dickens” by George Orwell, 1939.

One thought on “Orwell on Dickens”

  1. Hi Chris,

    Went brousing on your site to see if you have a new book out because, as you may recall, I loved Little Bee. Sorry to see you are no longer writing for the Guardian. Your columns were truly funny and insightful. As for Orwell on Dickens, not having read it I wonder how much he idolizes him without looking at the man, who failed miserably as a human being when it came to his family, but especially his wife. Tolstoy was also the subject of one of Orwell’s essays, in which among other things he covered his dislike of Shakespeare. There at least Orwell pointed out Tolstoy’s dishonesty of ideas, and even malice toward the Bard. Tolstoy, of course, had the double standard of mistreating wives in common with Dickens. ‘Nough said. Hope a new novel will come soon, and congrats to the arrival of baby #3, who wasn’t born when we last communicated.

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