Charles Dickens, in 1848, was facing a problem. He had become the most skillful writer of English alive, with a range of rhetorical devices rivaled only by Chaucer and Shakespeare. He was using his skill to write like this:
Night, like a giant, fills the church, from pavement to roof, and holds dominion through the silent hours. (from the end of the startling Chapter 31 of Dombey and Son (1848), a long wedding scene)
The power that forced itself upon its iron way -- its own -- defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death. (Chapter 20, a man on a rail journey)
When twilight everywhere released the shadows, prisoned up all day, that now closed in and gathered like mustering swarms of ghosts. When they stood lowering, in corners of rooms, and frowned out from behind half-opened doors. When they had full possession of unoccupied apartments… When they fantastically mocked the shapes of household objects, making the nurse an ogress, the rocking-horse a monster, the wondering child, half-scared and half-amused, a stranger to itself,- the very tongs upon the hearth, a straddling giant with his arms a-kimbo, evidently smelling the blood on Englishmen, and wanting to grind people’s bones to make his bread. (Chapter 1 of The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848))
How many of my readers made it through that last one? It’s from the beginning of a Christmas story, chipped off of a series of seven paragraphs consisting of nothing but sentences beginning “When.” And which follow a five paragraph stretch where every line begins “Who”!
Now, I think every line I quoted here is magnificent on its own, and similarly fine in context. Dickens stories were often read aloud – imagine the opportunities for the ham reader. (Whispering) “Night” (pause) “like a giant” (pause – volume increasing) “fills the church…” (then you have to get back to a whisper for) “the silent hours.”
Still, Dickens had reached a dead end, and he knew it. Many of his most rhetorically complex passages only barely serve the story of which they are nominally a part. The Haunted Man, is, at times, barely comprehensible. Dombey and Son is never that bad, but is still extraordinarily thick in places.
I had not read David Copperfield (1849-50) when I wondered if its switch to the first person was partly an attempt by Dickens to tame his own prose. It was!
As I passed the steps of the portico, I encountered, at the corner, a woman’s face. It looked in mine, passed across the narrow lane, and disappeared. I knew it. I had seen it somewhere. But I could not remember where. (David Copperfield, Chapter 40)
Those little sentences produce a rhetorical effect of their own, one of suddenness and action. No reader will bog down here. From a preceding paragraph:
It had been a bitter day, and a cutting north-east wind had blown for some time. The wind had gone down with the light, and so the snow had come on. It was a heavy, settled fall, I recollect, in great flakes; and it lay thick. The noise of wheels and tread of people were as hushed as if the streets had been strewn that depth with feathers.
Now the rhetorical path is from simple to complex, though not too complex. One syllable words, mostly (with a revealing three syllable exception), short sentences, and a single first-rate simile as a capstone.
I can find some brilliantly complex passages and scenes in David Copperfield (the storm scene!) but I’ll bet you seven dollars that David Copperfield is written at a significantly lower graded reading level than Dombey and Son. David Copperfield (who is also Charles Dickens) writes more simply than Charles Dickens. I hope it is not too much of a dig at Dombey and Son or even the wonderfully bizarre Haunted Man if I say: good. Problem solved.