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Dickens: more than Victorian values

Dickens: more than Victorian values
Charles Dickens photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Written around the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, Lindsey German reflects on the life and politics of the popular Victorian novelist

Dickens was one of the most popular writers in the English language ever. He wrote most of his novels in serial instalments, published to great acclaim from his huge readership. No episode of Eastenders or Coronation Street has been greeted with more excitement. According to his biographer Peter Ackroyd, when passengers from England arrived in New York, following the climactic episode of The Old Curiosity Shop, crowds on the harbour cried ‘Is Little Nell dead?’

Dickens wrote of the life he knew and especially the life of London, a city where he suffered much as a child and where he was always acutely conscious of the sufferings of others, even though he became a writer of great wealth and fame. He came to London from Kent as a child and was sent to work in a boot blacking factory by the Thames at the age of 12. This employment didn’t prevent his father being sent to the debtors’ prison at Marshalsea. These events changed Dickens’ life and repeatedly in his novels he makes allusions to them or bases characters on these experiences. David Copperfield is sent to work in a factory at the same age as Dickens had been. The contrast between Kent and London could not be starker in the books. The city is where bad and cruel things happen, while Kent is a refuge, the idyll of his early childhood.

He aimed his stories at the middle and working classes, and his books were best sellers. He wrote a series of Christmas novels in the same way that musicians today might record Christmas songs. The most famous was A Christmas Carol, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. The subject of many sugary interpretations about the joy of Christmas, Dickens’ original book is an attack on the materialist society which is Victorian capitalism. Dickens toured the country reciting the books, attracting huge audiences. One reading in Birmingham, where tickets were priced low at Dickens’ instigation, 2,000 ‘working people’ packed into the town hall to hear him.

The stories of Dickens have been turned into films, plays and television series. Probably most people today are more familiar with his writings through these media than from directly reading the novels themselves. The David Lean films and the Lionel Bart musical imprint Dickens’ characters in our minds. This highly successful writer campaigned around a range of issues including education, poverty, neglect and the situation of ‘fallen women’ who were regarded as social outcasts. Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times with his obsession with ‘facts’ has his counterparts in the Tory right today with their condemnation of ‘progressive education’. The grotesque figures of Mr Bumble the beadle from Oliver Twist (and his hideous wife) or Whackford Squeers from Nicholas Nickleby represent all that is worst about Victorian England.

In creating such characters, Dickens set out to pillory practices which he campaigned over long and hard. His description of the workhouse presided over by Bumble which appears at the beginning of Oliver Twist is a marvellous polemic against those who preach austerity and the fecklessness of the poor, and who decided to perfect a system where ‘all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it.’

Dickens based his workhouse on the one in Cleveland Street, near where he lived in central London and where he observed the drudgery of the poor ragged children day after day. The old building still stands, formerly part of the Middlesex Hospital and recently saved from demolition by the property developers.

The Dickens as an acute and very critical observer of social problems is unlikely to be much highlighted in the coming months. That might suggest too many parallels with the present day. Instead the ‘heritage’ Dickens will be wheeled out, all ‘characters’ and crinolines. There is a side to Dickens’ writing which makes it easier for this to take place. One of the main criticisms of his writing is of its sentimentality. This is true of the many deathbed scenes (although some are extremely powerful: I remember bursting into tears many years ago as I read the account of the death of Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son.) But it is also true of many of the characters, who too often appear as caricatures.

There are also Dickens’ politics. He sympathised with the poor, but rather less so when they tried to change their condition. Hard Times, the story of weavers on strike in Preston, is deeply ambivalent. Dickens regarded the actual strike – one of whose meetings he attended – as a mistake on the part of the workers. In Barnaby Rudge he depicts the Gordon Riots as the work of a lawless mob. A Tale of Two Cities is proudly counter-revolutionary in defence of the French monarchy.

So he was a contradictory figure politically. But his writing is often quite astonishing. Like Shakespeare and Milton, many of his quotes and characters have entered the English language: Mr Pickwick’s recipe for happiness, or Bumble’s declaration that ‘the law is a(n) ass’. He remains one of the most popular novelists. And the stories he portrays show a disdain for the rich and powerful. In one of his best known novels, Great Expectations, Pip’s benefactor who allows him to become a ‘gentleman’ is the convict Magwitch. He does so because of Pip’s act of childhood kindness towards him.

Many contemporary writers disliked and disdained Dickens. Anthony Trollope called him ‘Mr Popular Sentiment’ (something of which Trollope would never be accused). Maybe that was why Karl Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels that he had ‘issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together’.

Lindsey German Tireless activist, brilliant polemical author and essayist, as national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history. Her books include Material Girls: Women, Men and Work, Sex, Class and Socialism, A People’s History of London (with John Rees) and How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women.


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