Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 47 (2016)
1970, the centenary year of Dickens's death, saw a flood of books published on the novelist including several by distinguished writers and critics ranging from F .R. Leavis to J. B. Priestley. One of the best, and most ground-breaking, of these latter was Barbara Hardy's The Moral Art of Dickens, published by the Athlone Press of the University of London. A collection of essays no more than 155 pages long, this book, elegantly and lucidly written like all of Barbara's work, was followed over the years by other critical studies from her pen that were to have a profound and lasting influence on the development of Dickens criticism and scholarship. After decades of celebrating the great entertainer, the master of melodrama and the grotesque, Dickens's readers now found their attention directed to an aspect of novel-writing that it had hitherto seemed far more fruitful to explore in the work of George Eliot or Henry James, i.e. the portrayal of the moral life. Her chapters on Dickens's depiction of 'the change of heart', from Scrooge in the Carol to Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend, were especially illuminating and, as is the case with all Barbara's critical work throughout her career, they were the fruit of her remarkable powers of close reading. No-one before her, to take a couple of examples, had ever noted the significance of Dickens's alteration of the words of the actual carol featured in A Christmas Carol (the one the boy tries to sing through the letter-box of Scrooge's office-door) or had demonstrated the moral significance of the many scenes depicting meals and the sharing of food in Great Expectations.