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Is Charles Dickens 'inept and vulgarly sentimental'?

Posted on by Kieran McGovern

'One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears...of laughter.'  Oscar Wilde
In Evelyn Waugh's 'A Handful of Dust' poor Tony Last is condemned to his personal hell: reading the entire works of Dickens to a madman in the Brazilian jungle.

So why is this such a terrible punishment for Mr Last? What is there not to like about the most celebrated novelist in the English language?

Oscar Wilde's famous remark about the death of Little Nell was echoed by Aldous Huxley who called it “inept and vulgarly sentimental”. Here is the offending passage :
She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird — a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed — was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child-mistress was mute and motionless for ever.
It is certainly not a model of restraint and decorum. But is Dickens being cynically manipulative? Or does he share the ersatz grief experienced by his readers
Dickens was traumatized by the death of Little Nell.  As he was writing it he felt as though he were experiencing the death of one of his children.  It also brought back painful memories of the death of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth.  Source
Case for the defence
Dickens 'sentimentality' is characteristic of the era he lived in - though typically he expressed it more flamboyantly than most. The Victorians had far more experience of child-death than is typical today and what we might see as emotionally exploitative  connected at a deep level with his readership.

Case for the prosecution
Dickens theatrical approach creates a tendency towards melodrama which at times is 'vulgar and inept', even from a Victorian perspective. Compare the way he deals with the death of Little Nell with Thackeray's brilliant handling of the death of George Osborne at Waterloo in Vanity Fair.

Verdict: Not guilty. Dickens can be 'vulgarly sentimental' but he is never 'inept'. When rumours reached America that Little Nell was about to breathe her last, crowds waited at the docks for the magazines from England confirming the terrible news. Any writer creating that kind of reaction must be doing something right.


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