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Charles Dickens Was Longwinded and Sometimes Unreadable—But Perfect

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Dickens' Sacred Dust

September 13, 1933

When Dryden rewrote Chaucer, explaining that old Geoffrey was a rough diamond and had to be polished ere he shone properly, his readers applauded; but professors of literature now put a black mark against Dryden’s taste, and Chaucer (when they and their students con him over) has relapsed to his own archaic version. Colley Cibber and David Garrick “improved” Shakespeare to suit their box office, but their versions are now more profoundly dead than the original. All these “improvements” of classics were popular in their day, and correspondingly ephemeral. But in England recently, when Robert Graves’ version of “David Copperfield”  (“The Real David Copperfield”; London: Arthur Barker, Ltd.) was presented to the public, it was greeted with almost unanimous anathema. This reception in itself might be taken as a strong indication that for once a classic has been really improved.

An even stronger indication would have been given by the book itself, if its critics had read it, but apparently few of them got beyond the Foreword; and of those who had read the original, fewer still, apparently, could remember it. Bernard Darwin, Dickens’ latest biographer, crowned the absurdity of his fellows when he wrote that the crowning absurdity of Graves’ version was in making Mr. Macawber succeed in Australia—an incident which appears in the Authorized Version itself. For those who believed that reverence for authority was dead it must have been a heartening sound to hear the infuriated cackling of the British guardian-geese. America does not take Dickens nearly so seriously; we no longer even pretend to read him, as he has never become, as he has in England, a national institution and consequently sacred. But we know what “classics” are, and we know that Dickens is a “classic.” We know that when books die they linger for a while in a purgatorial state of suspense, and then pass on either to limbo or to heaven. If they go to heaven they become classics. They are dead, buried, and no longer read, but they are venerated as the holy saints of the literary religion, and superhuman legends gather round them and clothe them in raiment white and glistening. In England there are still a great many bigots of this old-time religion: men who no longer believe in the literal inspiration of the Bible still believe passionately in the literal inspiration of Dickens. When the late Sir Harry Johnston, the African explorer and scientist, wrote a continuation of “Dombey and Son,” he was considered to be treading on dangerous ground, but not actually committing trespass. Mr. Graves has not only broken down the fence, but has attempted to establish a public right of way (the English version of the sin against the Holy Ghost) through a national shrine.

What possessed Mr. Graves to do such a thing? The question should be, rather—granted the patience and the ability, why has no one done it before? Why Dickens wrote "David Copperfield" in the first place may have remained a mystery even to the author; but why a writer should itch to revise it is easy to see. It is a very good book, with some very bad stuff in it. In “David Copperfield” Dickens “has a story to tell in which, for once, he felt personally committed to the truth. He began with the intention of letting it take its truthful course and … did keep it honest, though diluted, for quite a third of the way.” Dickens wrote the book in twenty monthly parts and, far from working to any preconceived plan, seldom looked more than a couple of instalments ahead. As Mr. Graves moderately says:

This hand-to-mouth trick … strongly prejudiced the essential unity of what he wrote. He was obliged to make his characters reannounce themselves month after month by repetitive tricks of speech, humors of character or physical peculiarities which were bound to read most wearisomely when the monthly parts were assembled into a book. Also he could not go back on what he had already written, however embarrassing a hastily composed chapter might prove … And then there was the temptation to economize in inventive effort by diluting. Dickens diluted continuously. At least a quarter-million of the half-million words in “David Copperfield add nothing to the story. 

In short, as everybody who has read him will admit, Dickens can stand a good deal of cutting. But Dickens has been abridged before, and nobody cried blasphemy; it is quite true that most people who have read “David Copperfield,” “Nicholas Nickleby” or “Oliver Twist” have read them only in a juvenile abridgment. What Mr. Graves has done, however, is more than merely cut away adipose tissue and supernumerary tear-glands: in order to shorten the length without sacrificing the continuity he has rewritten the whole book. His version is “not an abridgment for schools, but a rewriting for the ordinary reader”; and therein lies his crime. But none of the famous scenes or dialogues or characters is lacking. In fact, you cannot tell what is lacking until you read the chapter of the original which Mr. Graves has appended as contrast with his own version. Then you will see that what is missing will never be missed. If you were to read “The Real David Copperfield” without knowing what impious hands had been laid on it, your inevitable comment would be: “I had forgotten what a good book ‘David Copperfield’ is!”

For Dickens was guilty of other Victorian foibles besides his economically enforced diluteness: an extreme moral prudery, a servile acquiescence in the divine right of class, a “circumstantially pathetic vein”—all of which Mr. Graves has resolutely cut down to their rightful size and squeezed back into their proper organs. The uninfuriated but interested reader may well ask: With what pattern in mind? Mr. Graves’ answer is that “every novel, or at least every novel written by an individual author rather than by a general formula, has its own natural length … as distinct from the length that the author consents to give it … its own natural plot, as distinct from the plot that the author consents to give it . . . “ I think Mr. Graves is perfectly right; the only question is, Who shall be the judge? If we are to take posterity’s decision (and we are posterity at present, in Dickens’ case) then posterity has decided that Dickens is a “classic”—that is, unreadable but perfect. I agree with Mr. Graves (and possibly, with a posterity still to come) that that is a less lively fate than Dickens deserves. But about taste there should be no dispute, and among those who have it, there is none. Whether or not Mr. Graves’ modified Dickensian example will prove his theory must be left to those who know themselves qualified to judge. One serious error he was certainly guilty of, when he concluded: “No apologies are offered for tampering with a reputed classic, and few, I think, will seriously demand them.” Mr. Graves overestimated his countrymen’s intelligence as much as he underestimated their patriotism.