A hat tip to reader Alphonsus for letting us know that Dalrymple’s essay on Dickens, Hard Times Again, has been made freely available. An excerpt:
The adjective “Dickensian” is more laden with connotation than the adjective that pertains to any other writer: Jamesian, for example, or Joycean, even Shakespearian. We think of workhouses, of shabby tenements with bedding of rags, of schools where sadistic and exploitative schoolmasters beat absurdities into the heads of hungry children, of heartless proponents of the cold charity, of crooked lawyers spinning out their cases in dusty, clerk-ridden chambers. We think of Oliver Twist asking for more, of Wackford Squeers exclaiming, “Here’s richness for you!”, as he tastes the thin slops his school doles out to his unfortunate pupils, of Mrs. Gamp looking at her patient and saying, “He’d make a lovely corpse!”If he had been only a social commentator, though, Dickens would have been forgotten by all except specialist historians of his age. But he is not forgotten; he survives the notorious defects of his books—their sometimes grotesque sentimentality, their sprawling lack of construction, their frequent implausibility—to achieve whatever immortality literature can confer. Over and over again, in passage after passage, the sheer genius of his writing shines from the page and is the despair of all prose writers after him.When Dickens called himself “the Inimitable,” he was speaking no more than the truth; he was the greatest comic writer in his, or perhaps in any other, language. And the comedy runs deep: it is not trivial, for while it depicts absurdity, pomposity, and even cruelty, it has the curious effect of reconciling us to life even as it lays human weaknesses out for our inspection.