Saturday, 7 July 2012
One way of thinking about Dickens’s early career is as a sustained attempt to think through questions of goodness, or more specifically, the virtues of innocence, in fictional form. Innocence, of course, is presently a rather unfashionable virtue—if it is a virtue. Philip Pullman has said several times that one of his impulses as a writer is to interrogate the notion that there is something intrinsically valuable or worthwhile about innocence. The conclusion he comes to is ‘there isn’t, really’; for he tends to take innocence as cognate with ignorance, a bad thing. Dickens didn’t see it that way, and neither did his audience; and the key question, I suppose, is whether that is now so outmoded a view as to interfere with our ability to encounter Dickens in the fullest sense. Half a century ago, in words still likely to resonate with 21st-century readers, Trevor Blount noted that ‘the qualities in his work to which his contemporaries responded with such affection are still there. To read him properly we must unlearn our twentieth-century prejudices against pathetic exploitation and sentimental cosiness’ [Blount, Dickens: the Early Novels (Longmans 1968), 6]. That’s right, I think.