Dickens had a genuine and long-standing concern for the condition of the industrial working class, but when he came to write Hard Times, a novel that makes that subject its main concern, his imaginative powers failed him. His general view of society and the relations between social classes enfeebled the book’s plot and characterisation. That’s not to say that it doesn’t contain scenes of deliciously merciless satire, but it does strike me as being the weakest of the novels that I have encountered so far in this project to re-read, or read for the first time, all of Dickens’s works. Continue reading “Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown”
I’ve reached the half-way mark in my odyssey through the novels of Charles Dickens – his most ambitious work, and the one which is widely held to be his masterpiece: Bleak House.
Dickens began writing Bleak House in November 1851, towards the end of the year of the Great Exhibition, that symbol of the high-water mark of Victorian Britain. Looking back on the year, the Manchester Guardian asserted that were ‘good grounds for satisfaction, for hope, and for self-approval’. Dickens did not concur. Continue reading “Re-reading Dickens: Bleak House”
These days when we visit London we invariably stay at the Travelodge in Drury Lane. There, in Covent Garden, you’re at the heart of things, a walk gets you to innumerable places of interest, without having to descend into that ‘world of perpetual solitude, World not world’ that is the underground. So it was with a great deal of interest that I read Vic Gatrell’s The First Bohemians, a sequel to his rumbustious history, City of Laughter, that explored the bawdy, scurrilous and totally disrespectful culture of 18th century London. In The First Bohemians, Gatrell zooms in on the square quarter-mile or so around Covent Garden’s Piazza, 18th century London’s most creative territory. ‘It’s an extraordinary fact’, Gatrell writes, ‘that by far the majority of 18th century painters and engravers, as well as most noted writers, poets, actors and dramatists’,lived in that narrowly-defined territory. Continue reading “The First Bohemians: dissent, disorder and debauchery in 18th century Covent Garden”
Charles Dickens, photographed around the time he was writing David Copperfield
Reading the opening chapters of David Copperfield again for the first time in more than half a century brought vividly to mind the memory my first encounter with Dickens’s own favourite novel, teeming with some of Dickens’s most familiar characters. I was a child, like Copperfield; I was off school and ill in bed, dirty chunks of snow piled in mounds along the roadside outside, and the delicious feeling of drowsy bedroom warmth and nowhere to go but follow where Dickens leads as his narrator sees ‘the phantoms of those days go by me, accompanying the shadow of myself, in dim procession’.
That such a long-forgotten memory should come flooding back as I turned the pages seems entirely appropriate for a book in which the narrator records the memories and early experiences which shaped his life and led him towards a deeper understanding of the world and his own inner feelings:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
Now a grown man, David Copperfield looks back on his life, tracing his personal growth and achievements but also recognising, with sadness, mistakes he has made and friends he has lost. The novel falls into three broad sections, of which the first two – telling of his early childhood, youth and early manhood – are undoubtedly the most memorable, approaching a state of literary perfection.
Throughout the first part of the novel Dickens brilliantly combines two points of view: the reader sees David’s childhood experiences as if through the boy’s eyes – the writing plain and pared-down – whilst at the same time the tone and occasional commentary by the older David offer a mature reflection by the narrator:
As I walked to and fro daily between Southwark and Blackfriars, and lounged about at meal-times in obscure streets, the stones of which may, for anything I know, be worn at this moment by my childish feet, I wonder how many of these people were wanting in the crowd that used to come filing before me… When my thoughts go back, now, to that slow agony of my youth, I wonder how much of the histories I invented for such people hangs like a mist of fancy over well-remembered facts! When I tread the old ground, I do not wonder that I seem to see and pity, going on before me, an innocent romantic boy, making his imaginative world out of such strange experiences and sordid things!
There is a fine example of this approach in chapter 11 when, in another incident adapted by Dickens from his fragmentary autobiography, Copperfield recalls himself as a young innocent entering a pub not far from the Thames:
I remember one hot evening I went into the bar of a public-house, and said to the landlord: “What is your best—your very best—ale a glass?” For it was a special occasion. I don’t know what. It may have been my birthday.
“Twopence-halfpenny,” says the landlord, “is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.”
“Then,” says I, producing the money, “just draw me a glass of the Genuine Stunning, if you please, with a good head to it.”
The landlord looked at me in return over the bar, from head to foot, with a strange smile on his face; and instead of drawing the beer, looked round the screen and said something to his wife. She came out from behind it, with her work in her hard, and joined him in surveying me. Here we stand, all three, before me now. The landlord in his shirt-sleeves, leaning against the bar window-frame; his wife looking over the little half-door; and I, in some confusion, looking up at them from outside the partition. They asked me a good marry questions; as, what my name was, how old I was, where I lived, how I was employed, and how I came there. To all of which, that I might not commit nobody, I invented, I am afraid, appropriate answers. They served me with the ale, though I suspect it was not the Genuine Stunning: and the landlord’s wife, opening the little half-door of the bar, and bending down, gave me my money back, and gave me a kiss that was half admiring, and half compassionate, but all womanly and good, I am sure.
Hablot Browne (Phiz), ‘My magnificent order at the public house’
In David Copperfield, Dickens employs the first person narrative for the first time, and in the process he transmutes his own life experiences into a story rich in both comic and sentimental passages, and populated by some of his most memorable characters. In her study of Dickens, Jane Smiley notes that the incidents of Dickens’s early life were quite different to those in the novel, but that David Copperfield ‘seemed to evoke the feelings he had had as a child, and therefore to be true to his life as he had experienced it’. Smiley observes that David Copperfield evokes Dickens’s life without relating it:
The fiction frees him to contemplate not only his boyhood and young manhood, but boyhood and young manhood in general.
Dickens had begun writing an autobiography in the late 1840s which he shared with his friend and future biographer, John Forster. However, he found the process too painful, and abandoned the project. He opted instead to follow Forster’s advice and work his own story into a first-person fictional narrative. Much of the detail contained in Dickens’s lost autobiographical fragment forms the basis of chapter 11 in the novel, ‘I Begin Life on my Own Account, and Don’t Like It’.
It’s here – in Copperfield’s account of being taken from school and separated from his friends Steerforth and Traddles to work at Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse – that Dickens draws upon his own painful memories of the time when, after his father had been imprisoned for debt, he was set to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory:
A period of my life, which I can never lose the remembrance of, while I remember anything: and the recollection of which has often, without my invocation, come before me like a ghost, and haunted happier times.
Here, too, that we meet the Micawbers, whose financial troubles – and Micawber’s perennial hope that ‘something will turn up’ – mirror those of Dickens’s parents. When David is asked by Mrs Micawber to take some of their treasured possessions to the pawn shop to help meet their obligations, Dickens is recalling his own painful memories of having to pawn the books he read and treasured as a child.
Hablot Browne (Phiz), ‘Mrs. Gummidge casts a damp on our departure’: Barkis and Peggotty depart the upturned boat house on Yarmouth shore
In a superb passage in his monumental survey, Dickens, Peter Ackroyd suggests that David Copperfield ‘is both a novel of memories and a novel about memory’:
Memory brightens: ‘. . I have never seen such sunlight as on those bright April afternoons . . . ‘; memory creates in the mind fresh associations: ‘ . . the Martyrs and Peggotty’s house have been inseparable in my mind ever since, and are now’; memory revives the clearest and most detailed impressions: ‘… the scent of a geranium leaf, at this day, strikes me with a half comical, half serious wonder as to what change has come over me in a moment . . . ‘; memory retains the sharpest of all impressions: ‘ the face he turned up to the troubled sky, the quivering of his clasped hands, the agony of his figure, remain associated with that lonely waste, in my remembrance, to this hour. It is always night there, and he is the only object in the scene.’ And memory brings back the earliest and most permanent impressions of childhood, like the occasion when David sees his mother for the last time:
‘I was in the carrier’s cart when I heard her calling to me. I looked out, and she stood at the garden-gate alone, holding her baby up in her arms for me to see. It was cold, still weather and not a hair of her head, or a fold of her dress, was stirred, as she looked intently at me, holding up her child. So I lost her. So I saw her afterwards, in my sleep at school – a silent presence near my bed – looking at me with the same intent face – holding up her baby in her arms.’
But there is also the mystery of other memories, preconscious memories: ‘. . . a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing having been said and done before, in a remote time . . .’ Memory, then, as a form of resurrection and thus of human triumph; as David Copperfield looks out of the window he had known so many years before and sees the old sorrowful image of himself as child.
‘Long miles of road then opened out before my mind; and,toiling on, I saw a ragged way-worn boy forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the heart now beating against mine, his own.’
Thus does memory recreate the self out of adversity, linking past and present, bringing continuity and coherence, engendering peace and stillness in the very centre of the active world. It is the purest and best part of Dickens’s self, the source of his being, the fountain of his tears.
Yet memory here is also such a troubling force. It is associated with ‘the old unhappy loss or want of something . . .’ as if in the act of remembrance the narrator must confront and once again experience some central bereavement; it is linked, too, with the fear and sense of ‘change in everything’; and somehow memory is associated in Dickens’s imagination with the pain which men cause women.
Introducing the 1997 World Classics edition, Andrew Sanders described David Copperfield as ‘a key text of mid-Victorian civilization, a text in which the self-fashioned hero is redefined for a post-Romantic generation’, one that combines an exploration of the moral and imaginative growth of the individual with the contemporary concern with change and doubt. In David Copperfield there are obvious similarities with earlier novels – in the focus on an individual hero’s adventures and on childhood, as well as its cast of comic and grotesque characters. But now there is a concern with individual development, a strain of pessimism and more carefully-planned structural development which foreshadows the later novels.
Hablot Browne (Phiz),I fall into captivity (David meets Dora)
The last time I read Copperfield I was barely a teenager; this time I was struck by the centrality of Dickens’ views on marriage – or perhaps a better word would be uncertainties. The nub of the novel’s argument comes in chapter 45 where Annie Strong remarks to her husband, Doctor Strong, ‘There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.’ Annie’s words haunt the rest of the novel as David, in his marriage to Dora (the ‘child-wife’), slowly comes to realize that his and Dora’s characters are irreconcilably different:
I was thinking of all that had been said. My mind was still running on some of the expressions used. ‘There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.’ ‘The first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart.’ ‘My love was founded on a rock.’ But we were at home; and the trodden leaves were lying under-foot, and the autumn wind was blowing.
It will take David a painfully long time to truly understand that the feelings he has for Agnes are more than those ‘for a sister’. At certain points in the story, Dickens inserts intimations of the mature Copperfield’s understanding of his true feelings:
Oh, Agnes, sister of my boyhood, if I had known then, what I knew long afterwards – !
There was a beggar in the street, when I went down; and as I turned my head towards the window, thinking of her calm seraphic eyes, he made me start by muttering, as if he were an echo of the morning: ‘Blind! Blind! Blind!’
This is only one aspect of the clear moral thrust of the novel, which also emphasises values such as: hardships in life can be overcome by hard work and an honest behaviour; goodness has nothing to do with social position; greed and ambition corrupt people’s judgement and behaviour; and suffering is part and parcel of the process of gaining maturity.
Hablot Browne (Phiz), Steerforth and Mr Mell
Throughout David Copperfield, the powerful abuse the weak and helpless – orphans, women, and the mentally disabled. Exploitation – not pity or compassion – is shown to be the rule in society. Dickens could draw on his own experience as a child for the passages that describe the inhumanity of child labour and the indignities of the debtors’ prison. Murdstone can end David’s education and send him to work in the wine-bottling factory because David is too small and dependent to resist. Virtually all of the characters suffer at the hands of the hard-hearted or due to forces beyond their control, even though they are morally good people. Emily is ruined and spirited away by Steerforth while her uncle Peggotty tramps Europe to find her and bring her home. Ham loses Emily and dies trying to foreign save sailors in the great storm. In a perceptive passage, the older and wiser Copperfield recalls how Steerforth causes the likeable but ineffectual teacher Mr Mells to lose his job. Traddles (‘the most unfortunate boy in the world’) is the only one to see the injustice in Steerforth’s action, while David and the other boys continued to admire and respect Steerforth:
Poor Traddles, who had passed the stage of lying with his head upon the desk, and was relieving himself as usual with a burst of skeletons, said he didn’t care. Mr. Mell was ill-used.
‘Who has ill-used him, you girl?’ said Steerforth.
‘Why, you have,’ returned Traddles.
‘What have I done?’ said Steerforth.
‘What have you done?’ retorted Traddles. ‘Hurt his feelings, and lost him his situation.’
‘His feelings?’ repeated Steerforth disdainfully. ‘His feelings will soon get the better of it, I’ll be bound. His feelings are not like yours, Miss Traddles. As to his situation—which was a precious one, wasn’t it?—do you suppose I am not going to write home, and take care that he gets some money? Polly?’
We thought this intention very noble in Steerforth, whose mother was a widow, and rich, and would do almost anything, it was said, that he asked her. We were all extremely glad to see Traddles so put down, and exalted Steerforth to the skies: especially when he told us, as he condescended to do, that what he had done had been done expressly for us, and for our cause; and that he had conferred a great boon upon us by unselfishly doing it.
A Will Office, from ‘Picturesque Sketches of London’ by Thomas Miller, 1852
But this wouldn’t be Dickens if, amidst the serious moral lessons there were not high comedy. My favourite part of the story is the chapter entitled ‘My First Dissipation’ in which Copperfield, newly-established as an articled clerk in Doctors’ Commons (a ‘common house’ of ‘doctors of law’ practising civil law) and settled in his accommodation – ‘a singularly desirable, and compact set of chambers … with a view of the river’, decides to invite his friends round for ‘a little house-warming’:
I abandoned myself to enjoyment.
I began, by being singularly cheerful and light-hearted; all sorts of half-forgotten things to talk about, came rushing into my mind, and made me hold forth in a most unwonted manner. I laughed heartily at my own jokes, and everybody else’s; called Steerforth to order for not passing the wine; made several engagements to go to Oxford; announced that I meant to have a dinner-party exactly like that, once a week, until further notice; and madly took so much snuff out of Grainger’s box, that I was obliged to go into the pantry, and have a private fit of sneezing ten minutes long.
I went on, by passing the wine faster and faster yet, and continually starting up with a corkscrew to open more wine, long before any was needed. I proposed Steerforth’s health. I said he was my dearest friend, the protector of my boyhood, and the companion of my prime. I said I was delighted to propose his health. I said I owed him more obligations than I could ever repay, and held him in a higher admiration than I could ever express. I finished by saying, ‘I’ll give you Steerforth! God bless him! Hurrah!’ We gave him three times three, and another, and a good one to finish with. I broke my glass in going round the table to shake hands with him, and I said (in two words)
I went on, by finding suddenly that somebody was in the middle of a song. Markham was the singer, and he sang ‘When the heart of a man is depressed with care’. He said, when he had sung it, he would give us ‘Woman!’ I took objection to that, and I couldn’t allow it. I said it was not a respectful way of proposing the toast, and I would never permit that toast to be drunk in my house otherwise than as ‘The Ladies!’ I was very high with him, mainly I think because I saw Steerforth and Grainger laughing at me—or at him—or at both of us. He said a man was not to be dictated to. I said a man was. He said a man was not to be insulted, then. I said he was right there—never under my roof, where the Lares were sacred, and the laws of hospitality paramount. He said it was no derogation from a man’s dignity to confess that I was a devilish good fellow. I instantly proposed his health.
Somebody was smoking. We were all smoking. I was smoking, and trying to suppress a rising tendency to shudder. Steerforth had made a speech about me, in the course of which I had been affected almost to tears. I returned thanks, and hoped the present company would dine with me tomorrow, and the day after—each day at five o’clock, that we might enjoy the pleasures of conversation and society through a long evening. I felt called upon to propose an individual. I would give them my aunt. Miss Betsey Trotwood, the best of her sex!
Somebody was leaning out of my bedroom window, refreshing his forehead against the cool stone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face. It was myself. I was addressing myself as ‘Copperfield’, and saying, ‘Why did you try to smoke? You might have known you couldn’t do it.’ Now, somebody was unsteadily contemplating his features in the looking-glass. That was I too. I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair—only my hair, nothing else—looked drunk.
Somebody said to me, ‘Let us go to the theatre, Copperfield!’ There was no bedroom before me, but again the jingling table covered with glasses; the lamp; Grainger on my right hand, Markham on my left, and Steerforth opposite—all sitting in a mist, and a long way off. The theatre? To be sure. The very thing. Come along! But they must excuse me if I saw everybody out first, and turned the lamp off—in case of fire.
Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains, when Steerforth, laughing, took me by the arm and led me out. We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.
Hablot Browne (Phiz), The Emigrants
One interesting aspect of David Copperfield that reflects Dickens’s tendency to incorporate contemporary details in his novels is that he has several of the major characters emigrate to Australia: the Micawbers, Mr. Peggotty, Emily, Martha, and Mr. Mell, the wronged school-teacher. Each of these characters is successful in beginning a new life in the English colony.
Whilst writing David Copperfield, Dickens had developed a keen interest in Australian emigration, believing that it represented the possibility of starting a new life abroad for families with few prospects in Britain. In the first issue of Household Words, the two-penny weekly magazine of original short fiction and crusading social journalism launched by Dickens on 30 March 1850, there had appeared a ‘Bundle of Emigrants’ Letters‘ which consisted of a number of emigrants’ letters passed on to him by the founder of the Family Colonisation Loan Society, Mrs. Caroline Chisholm, whom Dickens later satirized for her ‘telescopic philanthropy’ as Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House.
In a preface to the letters, Dickens stated the case in favour of the Society’s scheme for transferring the poor, unemployed, and starving from the slums of London, Liverpool, Manchester, and other blighted urban areas to the ‘Bush’ and the new towns of Australia, where they could contribute their energies and skills to the greater good of the Empire and build prosperous futures for themselves.
Five months later, in the 17th number of David Copperfield, Dickens despatches a number of his characters to the antipodes, resolving the Micawbers’ financial difficulties, and enabling Mr Peggotty, Emily and Martha to make a new life. Micawber’s initial reaction to the idea is less than enthusiastic:
‘Why, what a thing it would be for yourselves and your family, Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, if you were to emigrate now.’
‘Capital, madam, capital,’ urged Mr. Micawber, gloomily.
‘That is the principal, I may say the only difficulty, my dear Mr. Copperfield,’ assented his wife.
In the illustration by Phiz we see the figures of Micawber, Peggotty, and David Copperfield as they shake hands before the departure of the emigrant ship at Gravesend. It’s a scene of working class men, women, and children crowded into restricted quarters below deck in which Phiz has drawn upon Dickens’s allusion to the 17th century Dutch genre painter Ostade, notable for painting the gloomy interiors of working class homes and taverns:
It was such a strange scene to me, and so confined and dark, that, at first, I could make out hardly anything; but, by degrees, it cleared, as my eyes became more accustomed to the gloom, and I seemed to stand in a picture by Ostade. Among the great beams, bulks, and ringbolts of the ship, and the emigrant-berths, and chests, and bundles, and barrels, and heaps of miscellaneous baggage – ‘lighted up, here and there, by dangling lanterns; and elsewhere by the yellow daylight straying down a windsail or a hatchway—were crowded groups of people, making new friendships, taking leave of one another, talking, laughing, crying, eating and drinking; some, already settled down into the possession of their few feet of space, with their little households arranged, and tiny children established on stools, or in dwarf elbow-chairs; others, despairing of a resting-place, and wandering disconsolately. From babies who had but a week or two of life behind them, to crooked old men and women who seemed to have but a week or two of life before them; and from ploughmen bodily carrying out soil of England on their boots, to smiths taking away samples of its soot and smoke upon their skins; every age and occupation appeared to be crammed into the narrow compass of the ‘tween decks.
In this departure scene, the figures of the two fallen and homeless women,Martha and Emily, are hidden in the shadows. They, too, reflect Dickens’s active concern with working class conditions and his active involvement in a project to rescue prostitutes from exploitation and destitution. While he was writing David Copperfield, Dickens was actively involved in the day-to-day operation of Urania Cottage, a home for homeless women, which he administered on behalf of his friend, the philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts. The home aimed to separate homeless, and ‘fallen’ women from their former lifestyle, to educate them in the execution of household duties and self-discipline, and then help them emigrate to Australia to begin new lives.
Dickens signature on a first edition of David Copperfield (full story here)
There are moments in David Copperfield when Dickens’s writing approaches the poetic. I was taken, especially, with this passage from the introduction to chapter 43 (you can imagine it being translated in a filmed adaptation) in which Dickens evokes time passing:
Weeks, months, seasons, pass along. They seem little more than a summer day and a winter evening. Now, the Common where I walk with Dora is all in bloom, a field of bright gold; and now the unseen heather lies in mounds and bunches underneath a covering of snow. In a breath, the river that flows through our Sunday walks is sparkling in the summer sun, is ruffled by the winter wind, or thickened with drifting heaps of ice. Faster than ever river ran towards the sea, it flashes, darkens, and rolls away.
David Copperfield was published in instalments from 1849 to 1850 and in book form in 1850. Dickens wrote in the preface to the first edition of being deeply affected by its completion:
An Author feels as if he were dismissing some portion of himself into the shadowy world, when a crowd of the creatures of his brain are going from him for ever.
‘Dickens’s Dream’: Robert Buss’s unfinished posthumous painting of the author in his chair, dreaming of his creations, who flutter in outline around his head.
The completion of the novel coincided with a tragic period in Dickens’s life. His third daughter was born in August 1850, just as Dickens had decided that Dora in the novel must die. Curiously, he named his new daughter Dora. His wife Catherine was unwell for months after the birth.
Dickens finished writing David Copperfield on 21 October 1850. He wrote to Forster:
If I were to say half of what Copperfield makes me feel tonight, how strangely, even to you, I should be turned inside out! I seem to be sending some part of myself into the Shadowy World.
In the coming year Dickens would suffer two devastating losses: first the death of his father, and then in April 1851, the death of his baby daughter, Dora. In these months of the year ‘in which all the bleakness of Bleak House descend[ed] upon him’ (Ackroyd), Dickens began work on possibly his greatest novel, and certainly my own favourite.
- The Pickwick Papers
- Oliver Twist
- Nicholas Nickleby, the most scrumdiddlyumptious story
- The Old Curiosity Shop
- Barnaby Rudge
- Martin Chuzzlewit
- The Christmas Books
- Dombey and Son
Solomon Gills, Walter Gay and Captain Cuttle by Phiz
I found Dombey and Son to be rather strange: at its heart is Paul Dombey, the man whose rigid certainty and pride form the world of all the other characters. Yet, among all the novel’s wonderful characters brought vividly to life by Dickens through their words and actions, Dombey remains, in the end, a person who we only really know through Dickens’ authorial descriptions of his state of mind. Maybe that was a deliberate intent on Dickens’ part: for Dombey is unknowable to the rest of the world; an impenetrable man who ‘has lived too long shut up in his towering supremacy’ determined to ‘hide the world within him from the world without’.
In my project to re-read (or in some cases, as here, read for the first time) Dickens’ novels, I’ve reached his seventh novel, generally considered to the first novel of his artistic maturity. It was begun while he was living with his family in Switzerland in 1846, worked on further in Paris and completed in Brighton in March 1848. It was serialized in 20 monthly parts, and there are surviving working notes by Dickens which show that he planned each number in detail, something he had only begun to do with Martin Chuzzlewit.
As this cover of the first part, published in October 1846, indicates, the full title of the novel is Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation. This suggests a novel that will poke its nose far more than it does into the House of Dombey, where money changes hands, deals are made and broken, property conveyed, and fortunes lost. For although a proud, arrogant capitalist is at the heart of the story, this is not a novel in which Dickens dissects the workings of the capitalist system, though there are plenty of his characteristic observations on the morality of public institutions and those who lead them.
Paul Dombey’s ambition is focussed on having a son to carry on his business. ‘The House will once again …. be not only in name but in fact Dombey and Son,’ is his satisfied comment on the birth of his second child, a son. The first child, a daughter is an irrelevant irritant; no – it has to be ‘Dombey and Son’:
Those three words conveyed the one idea of Mr Dombey’s life. The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre. Common abbreviations took new meanings in his eyes, and had sole reference to them. A. D. had no concern with Anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombei – and Son.
The Dombey Family by Phiz
As in any Dickens’ novel there are vivid sketches of a society undergoing enormous changes. England at mid-century was experiencing rapid urbanization and industrial development as global trade increased with the expanding empire and other distant parts. The novel reflects these upheavals through Dickens’ use of two main symbols – the sea and the railway.
The novel seethes with wonderful characters, many of them connected or living near the port of London, a place of arrivals and departures, of foreign shipping and foreign peoples that pulsed with the commerce of empire. Here we find Solomon Gills, proprietor of a ship’s chandler’s The Wooden Midshipman, an old man only too aware of the changes taking place around him:
The world has gone past me. I don’t blame it; but I no longer understand it. Tradesmen are not the same as they used to be, apprentices are not the same, business is not the same, business commodities are not the same. Seven-eighths of my stock is old-fashioned. I am an old-fashioned man in an old-fashioned shop, in a street that is not the same as I remember it. I have fallen behind the time, and am too old to catch it again.
Solomon is uncle to Walter Gay who is employed in the house of Dombey and Son. Walter befriends Dombey’s daughter Florence; the great man is displeased and despatches him to the firm’s branch in Barbados, and the ship in which he sails is lost. When that happens, Sol leaves the shop in the care of the book’s his old sea-faring friend, and the book’s most enjoyable character, Captain Cuttle, a bulbous-nosed mariner with a hook in place of his right hand, who has left the sea but not its lingo: ‘Stand by!’ he constantly urges those around him. He’s fond of book-learning, often declaiming misquoted passages and insisting to his listeners: ‘When found, make a note of’:
In the Proverbs of Solomon you will find the following words, ‘May we never want a friend in need, nor a bottle to give him!’ When found, make a note of.
Train up a fig tree in the way it should go, and when you are old sit under the shade on it. Overhaul the – Well, I ain’t quite certain where that’s to be found, but when found, make a note of.
‘Constructing the cutting at Park Street, Camden Town’, drawing by J. C. Bourne, 1837
While Solomon Gills senses that ‘the world has gone past him’, the greatest evidence of change – literally ripping apart the landscape of parts of London at this time – is the result of the coming of the railway. For these are the years of railway mania, the speculative frenzy that swept Britain in the 1840s. Dickens not only employs the railway as a monstrous symbol of speed and destruction that destroys the novel’s most evil character; he gives us one of the most vivid, documentary-like accounts of the devastation wrought in Camden by the construction of the cutting through to Euston:
The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond. Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations; carcases of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing. There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream. Hot springs and fiery eruptions, the usual attendants upon earthquakes, lent their contributions of confusion to the scene. Boiling water hissed and heaved within dilapidated walls; whence, also, the glare and roar of flames came issuing forth; and mounds of ashes blocked up rights of way, and wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood.
In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.
But as yet, the neighbourhood was shy to own the Railroad. One or two bold speculators had projected streets; and one had built a little, but had stopped among the mud and ashes to consider farther of it. A bran-new Tavern, redolent of fresh mortar and size, and fronting nothing at all, had taken for its sign The Railway Arms; but that might be rash enterprise—and then it hoped to sell drink to the workmen. So, the Excavators’ House of Call had sprung up from a beer-shop; and the old-established Ham and Beef Shop had become the Railway Eating House, with a roast leg of pork daily, through interested motives of a similar immediate and popular description. Lodging-house keepers were favourable in like manner; and for the like reasons were not to be trusted. The general belief was very slow. There were frowzy fields, and cow-houses, and dunghills, and dustheaps, and ditches, and gardens, and summer-houses, and carpet-beating grounds, at the very door of the Railway. Little tumuli of oyster shells in the oyster season, and of lobster shells in the lobster season, and of broken crockery and faded cabbage leaves in all seasons, encroached upon its high places. Posts, and rails, and old cautions to trespassers, and backs of mean houses, and patches of wretched vegetation, stared it out of countenance. Nothing was the better for it, or thought of being so. If the miserable waste ground lying near it could have laughed, it would have laughed it to scorn, like many of the miserable neighbours.
In later chapters Dickens observes a nation transformed by the railway and its requirements: ‘There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses; railway plans, maps, views … There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in.’ Dombey rides the railway, and Dickens gives us this brilliant image of the shrieking locomotive charging through the countryside:
Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, from the town, burrowing among the dwellings of men and making the streets hum, flashing out into the meadows for a moment, mining in through the damp earth, booming on in darkness and heavy air, bursting out again into the sunny day so bright and wide; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, through the fields, through the woods, through the corn, through the hay, through the chalk, through the mould, through the clay, through the rock, among objects close at hand and almost in the grasp, ever flying from the traveller, and a deceitful distance ever moving slowly within him: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!
‘Doctor Blimber’s young gentlemen as they appeared when enjoying themselves’: illustration by Phiz
Another example of the way in which the novel is attuned to contemporary issues is Dickens’ satirical portrayal of Dr and Mrs Blimber’s school in Brighton. Dombey sends his son Paul to this institution, since:
Dombey and Son had often dealt in hides, but never in hearts. They left that fancy ware to boys and girls, and boarding-schools and books.
Doctor Blimber’s is an excellent establishment – ‘strictly conducted, and there is nothing but learning going on from morning to night.’ And, adds Dombey approvingly, ‘It’s very expensive’. While in Brighton, Paul Jnr and Florence stay at a boarding house run by Mrs Pipchins, who observes:
‘There is a great deal of nonsense—and worse—talked about young people not being pressed too hard at first, and being tempted on, and all the rest of it, Sir,’ said Mrs Pipchin, impatiently rubbing her hooked nose. ‘It never was thought of in my time, and it has no business to be thought of now. My opinion is “keep ’em at it”.’
At Blimber’s school, Paul and the other boys undergo an intense and arduous education under the tutelage of Mr Feeder, BA and Cornelia Blimber. I’m writing this a couple of days after both the head of Ofsted and a government minister called for children as young as two to be engaged in ‘structured learning’, so this passage has a certain contemporary piquancy:
In fact, Doctor Blimber’s establishment was a great hot-house, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work. All the boys blew before their time. Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons, and from mere sprouts of bushes, under Doctor Blimber’s cultivation. Every description of Greek and Latin vegetable was got off the driest twigs of boys, under the frostiest circumstances. Nature was of no consequence at all. No matter what a young gentleman was intended to bear, Doctor Blimber made him bear to pattern, somehow or other.
This was all very pleasant and ingenious, but the system of forcing was attended with its usual disadvantages. There was not the right taste about the premature productions, and they didn’t keep well. Moreover, one young gentleman, with a swollen nose and an excessively large head (the oldest of the ten who had ‘gone through’ everything), suddenly left off blowing one day, and remained in the establishment a mere stalk. And people did say that the Doctor had rather overdone it with young Toots, and that when he began to have whiskers he left off having brains.
‘How old are you, Dombey?’ said Miss Blimber.
‘Six,’ answered Paul, wondering, as he stole a glance at the young lady, why her hair didn’t grow long like Florence’s, and why she was like a boy.
‘How much do you know of your Latin Grammar, Dombey?’ said Miss Blimber.
‘None of it,’ answered Paul. Feeling that the answer was a shock to Miss Blimber’s sensibility, he looked up at the three faces that were looking down at him, and said:
‘I have’n’t been well. I have been a weak child.’
When Doctor Blimber informs Dombey that his son has made great progress and is naturally clever, Dombey is ‘more bent than ever on his being forced and crammed’
In short, however high and false the temperature at which the Doctor kept his hothouse, the owners of the plants were always ready to lend a helping hand at the bellows, and to stir the fire.
Such spirits as he had in the outset, Paul soon lost of course. But he retained all that was strange, and old, and thoughtful in his character: and under circumstances so favourable to the development of those tendencies, became even more strange, and old, and thoughtful, than before.
The scenes at Dr Blimber’s are enjoyable, too, because it is here that Paul is befriended by a fellow pupil, another of the novel’s great characters – the scatterbrained Mr Toots who falls helplessly in love with Florence Dombey and who constantly apologises for himself: ‘it’s of no consequence’. Like Captain Cuttle, he is a character of great humanity, as well as humour.
Paul Dombey: a 19th century postcard illustration
Turning now to the character around whom all the others revolve: Paul Dombey. Dickens portrays a man who believes that human relationships can be controlled by money. For Dombey, money can do anything’; it may not be able to keep us alive – ‘we must all die, unfortunately, even in the City, though we were never so rich’, he tells his young son – but money can cause us ‘to be honoured, feared, respected, courted, and admired, and made us powerfuland glorious in the eyes of all men’.
Dombey is always a witness to the emotions of others, with no feelings of his own. This is how he recalls observing his daughter at her dying mother’s bedside:
The last time he had seen his slighted child, there had been in that sad embrace between her and her dying mother, what was at once a revelation and a reproach to him. Let him be as absorbed in the Son on whom he built such high hopes, he could not forget that closing scene. He could not forget that he had no part in it. That, at the bottom of its clear depths of tenderness and truth, lay those two figures clasped in each other’s arms, while he stood on the bank above them, looking down—a mere spectator—not a sharer with them—quite shut out.
Dombey cauterizes his feelings by hating those of others. Anyone else displaying grief becomes ‘a bidder against him’. Interestingly though, Dickens displays some sympathy for his cold and distant central character:
Was Mr. Dombey’s master-vice, that ruled him so inexorably, an unnatural characteristic? It might be worth while, sometimes, to inquire what Nature is, and how men work to change her, and whether, in the enforced distortions so produced, it is not natural to be unnatural. Coop any son or daughter of our mighty mother within narrow range, and bind the prisoner to one idea, and foster it by servile worship of it on the part of the few timid or designing people standing round, and what is Nature to the willing captive who has never risen up upon the wings of a free mind – drooping and useless soon – to see her in her comprehensive truth!
Despite Dombey’s attempts to hide his grief it reveals itself:
He cannot hide those rebel traces of it, which escape in hollow eyes and cheeks, a haggard forehead, and a moody, brooding air. Impenetrable as before…he is humbled, or those marks would not be there.
Central to the development of the narrative is Dickens’ portrayal of a marriage arranged for financial gain – a practice common at the time. After the death of his first wife, Dombey encounters the grotesque Mrs Skewton, who is 70 years old but tries to appear much younger through the use of cosmetics and various devices. Dickens describes her being dismantled for bed by her maid, taking off of paint, clothes and wig, as being ‘tumbled into ruins like a house of painted cards’. Mrs Skewton has a daughter, Edith Granger, who she has already lured one rich gentleman to marry. But Edith was left a widower and now her mother sees Dombey as the ultimate catch. I found Edith to be one of Dickens’ strongest and most interesting female creations – though he seems to lose interest in her later on in the novel.
Edith sees herself as chattel, little better than a prostitute, ‘corrupted, and perverted, to amuse the leisure of a world of mothers’. Hardened and accepting her fate, she nevertheless gives her mother and her new husband no quarter, seeing them as complicit in her degradation. To her mother she rages:
‘There is no slave in a market: there is no horse in a fair: so shown and offered and examined and paraded, Mother, as I have been, for ten shameful years,’ cried Edith, with a burning brow, and the same bitter emphasis on the one word. ‘Is it not so? Have I been made the bye-word of all kinds of men? Have fools, have profligates, have boys, have dotards, dangled after me, and one by one rejected me, and fallen off, because you were too plain with all your cunning: yes, and too true, with all those false pretences: until we have almost come to be notorious? The licence of look and touch,’ she said, with flashing eyes, ‘have I submitted to it, in half the places of resort upon the map of England? Have I been hawked and vended here and there, until the last grain of self-respect is dead within me, and I loathe myself? Has been my late childhood? I had none before. Do not tell me that I had, tonight of all nights in my life!’
This is how Dickens expresses his critique of business and profit: by analysing the ways in it works in the domestic context, and further, by dividing his characters into good or bad according to their desire for privacy or publicity. On the one hand there are those characters who act solely with a mind to seek power or recognition, who attempt to impose their vision on the world. On the other are good characters who keep themselves hidden, letting their deeds go unrewarded. Little Paul keeps ‘his character to himself’ and Florence quietly bides her time, remaining constant. Meanwhile, the manipulative Carker the manager is a sly, insinuating Iago muttering falsehoods into Dombey’s ear while his younger brother seeks to remain ‘unquestioned and unnoticed’. Above all, Dombey thinks only of his standing in the world:
The world. What the world thinks of him, how it looks at him, what it sees in him, and what it says—this is the haunting demon of his mind. It is everywhere where he is; and, worse than that, it is everywhere where he is not. It comes out with him among his servants, and yet he leaves it whispering behind; he sees it pointing after him in the street; it is waiting for him in his counting house; it leers over the shoulders of rich men among the merchants; it goes beckoning and babbling among the crowd; it always anticipates him, in every place; and is always busiest, he knows, when he has gone away. When he is shut up in his room at night, it is in his house, outside it, audible in footsteps on the pavement, visible in print upon the table, steaming to and fro on railroads and in ships; restless and busy everywhere, with nothing else but him.
There’s a brilliant passage in ‘The Thunderbolt’, the thematically pivotal forty-seventh chapter, in which Dickens draws upon the medical and scientific understanding of his time about the airborne spread of disease to draw a picture of moral and social disorder spreading through the city like a pestilence:
Those who study the physical sciences, and bring them to bear upon the health of Man, tell us that if the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palpable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portions of a town. But if the moral pestilence that rises with them and in the eternal laws of outraged Nature, is inseparable from them, could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation! Then should we see depravity, impiety, drunkenness, theft, murder, and a long train of nameless sins against the natural affections and repulsions of mankind, overhanging the devoted spots, and creeping on, to blight the innocent and spread contagion among the pure. Then should we see how the same poisoned fountains that flow into our hospitals and lazarhouses, inundate the jails, and make the convict-ships swim deep, and roll across the seas, and over-run vast continents with crime. Then should we stand appalled to know, that where we generate disease to strike our children down and entail itself on unborn generations, there also we breed, by the same certain process, infancy that knows no innocence, youth without modesty or shame, maturity that is mature in nothing but in suffering and guilt, blasted old age that is a scandal on the form we bear. Unnatural humanity! When we shall gather grapes from thorns, and figs from thistles; when fields of grain shall spring up from the offal in the bye-ways of our wicked cities, and roses bloom in the fat churchyards that they cherish; then we may look for natural humanity and find it growing from such seed.
Oh for a good spirit who would take the house-tops off, with a more potent and benignant hand than the lame demon in the tale, and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes, to swell the retinue of the Destroying Angel as he moves forth among them! For only one night’s view of the pale phantoms rising from the scenes of our too long neglect; and from the thick and sullen air where Vice and Fever propagate together, raining the tremendous social retributions which are ever pouring down, and ever coming thicker! Bright and blest the morning that should rise on such a night: for men, delayed to no more by stumbling-blocks of their own making, which are but specks of dust upon the path between them and eternity, would then apply themselves, like creatures of one common origin, owing one duty to the Father of one family, and tending to one common end, to make the world a better place!
Not the less bright and blest would that day be for rousing some who never have looked out upon the world of human life around them, to a knowledge of their own relation to it, and for making them acquainted with a perversion of nature in their own contracted sympathies and estimates; as great, and yet as natural in its development when once begun, as the lowest degradation known.
Florence Dombey pictured in ‘Captain Cuttle’s Parlour’ by William Maw Egley, 1888
‘What was a girl to Dombey and Son!’ Against all this we have Florence Dombey, another Dickensian angel, who has no fault but her blindness to her father’s cruelty. It’s odd that Dickens could create convincing three dimensional female characters who were either middle-aged or morally questionable, yet his younger women so often seem vapid and sentimentalised. It’s a weakness here, because Florence represents naturalness and the absence of dissimulation. Crucially, the ending – a transformation from the dysfunctional to harmony – is the result of her constancy.
Admittedly, Florence is not wholly passive. She is not afraid of risk (after her father strikes her, she runs away from home), and she repeatedly takes the initiative toward reconciliation with her father, despite his neglect, rebuff, even physical anger. She operates through love, and ultimately her ‘perfect goodness’ saves her father.
In the end, there is reunion and salvation, and a flurry of forgiveness: Dombey forgives Florence and Walter for eloping; Edith forgives her mother; Edith forgives Dombey; Florence forgives Edith for leaving her father, and abandoning her; Florence forgives her father. It’s heart-warming, but hardly real life. As often in Dickens, the loose ends are tied up too neatly.
Yet, despite the rather rushed and sickly ending, this is a book that is well worth reading. This is due to the way in which Dickens blends solemn themes with great characters, social commentary, comedy and passages of brilliant, poetical writing:
Another time, in the same place, he fell asleep, and slept quietly for a long time. Awaking suddenly, he listened, started up, and sat listening.
Florence asked him what he thought he heard.
‘I want to know what it says,’ he answered, looking steadily in her face. ‘The sea’ Floy, what is it that it keeps on saying?’
She told him that it was only the noise of the rolling waves.
‘Yes, yes,’ he said. ‘But I know that they are always saying something. Always the same thing. What place is over there?’ He rose up, looking eagerly at the horizon.
She told him that there was another country opposite, but he said he didn’t mean that: he meant further away—farther away!
Very often afterwards, in the midst of their talk, he would break off, to try to understand what it was that the waves were always saying; and would rise up in his couch to look towards that invisible region, far away.
At the close of the novel, Dickens’ words hark back to that earlier scene with Florence at her ailing younger brother’s bedside:
And the voices in the waves are always whispering to Florence, in their ceaseless murmuring, of love – of love, eternal and illimitable, not bounded by the confines of this world, or by the end of time, but ranging still, beyond the sea, beyond the sky, to the invisible country far away!
- Re-reading Dickens: The Christmas Books
- Re-reading Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit
- Re-reading Dickens: Barnaby Rudge
- Re-reading Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop
- Re-reading Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby, the most scrumdiddlyumptious story
- Re-reading Dickens: Oliver Twist
- Re-reading Dickens: The Pickwick Papers
- Charles Dickens: a bicentennial fanfare
- In Dickens’ footsteps (1): Doughty Street
- In Dickens’ footsteps (2): Dickens and London exhibition
- In Dickens footsteps (3): a walk through the City
‘A Christmas Carol’: illustration by John Leech
The conversation overheard in the changing rooms at Everton Park swimming pool this week spoke volumes about the continuing presence in the popular consciousness of Dickens’s best-known and most popular story. Spoke, too, of the renewed relevance of the message and social critique at the heart of A Christmas Carol, and of the anxieties that twist through lives hereabouts.
‘We’ve decided, our lot, this year, we’re not buying each other Christmas presents.’
‘Don’t get me wrong, we’ll celebrate – get the food and drink in. But we decided that there’s no point in spending a lot when there’s nothing we really want; and none of us has much money to spare.’
‘I know what you mean. I said to the wife – ‘How’s about if I go down to Matalan and get you one of those cardigans you’ve been wanting. They’re one-third off this week, and wearing one of those, we can turn down the central heating and save on the gas’. She says, ‘Bah – humbug”
My re-reading Dickens project has reached an appropriately seasonal point with the Christmas Books. During the 1840s, and beginning with A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote five books for the Christmas market, plus several more Christmas stories in the succeeding two decades. They have forever linked Dickens’s name with Christmas and contributed to the view of many readers that they contain the essence of Dickens: cheerful, benevolent and morally idealistic.
Re-reading A Christmas Carol was a joy, but I must admit that I found the others heavy going. Though I found things to enjoy in the characters and political satire of the opening chapters of The Chimes, the others I read – Cricket on the Hearth and The Haunted Man – seemed dated, especially in their overwrought supernatural effects.
This was the first time I had read A Christmas Carol since childhood, but the story has remained fresh in my memory through various film and stage adaptations that I’ve seen – especially when our daughter was a child. Re-reading it now, I was struck by how much of its imagery and phrases have burrowed into popular consciousness. Perhaps only Shakespeare and Dickens have done this.
Here’s a novel of which most people know the opening and closing words – from ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’ to ‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!’ To be ‘a scrooge’ has entered the language, while the exclamation ‘Bah! Humbug!’ and the characters of Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, Marley (‘dead as a doornail’) and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present Future remain vividly ever-present.
‘I am the Ghost of Christmas Present’. Illustration by John Leech from the first edition, 1843
In his Dickens biography, Peter Ackroyd writes of A Christmas Carol that ‘this powerful Christmas tale, which has achieved a kind of immortality, was born out of the very conditions of the time’. Here is a story of redemption in which the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the two allegorical children, Ignorance and Want, exclaiming as he points to Ignorance, ‘Most of all, beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased’.
Dickens’s interest in education as the key means of alleviating poverty illuminates his novels, journalism and public speeches. In 1843, not long before he started to write A Christmas Carol, Dickens had made his first visit to one of the Ragged Schools then being established – charitable schools dedicated to providing religious instruction and a rudimentary education for destitute children. He visited the squalid ragged school in Saffron Hill, an area considered to be the worst in London – a place of filth and disease and every kind of vice. Here were children steeped, in Dickens’s words, ‘in profound ignorance and perfect barbarism’. Dickens broadly supported the work of the ragged schools, though he disapproved of introducing religious doctrine at the expense of a practical education which would help the pupil become a self-sufficient member of society. He believed that the legions of ‘doomed childhood’ would, if they were not properly instructed and their wants alleviated, rise up one day and tear down the very edifice of 19th century civilisation. As he wrote some time later, ‘side by side with Crime, Disease and Misery in England, Ignorance is always brooding, and it is always certain to be found.’
Within a few weeks of this visit, Dickens had started work on A Christmas Carol, in which, as Peter Ackroyd puts it, ‘the themes of selfishness, money, greed and the commercialised society which results from them are conveyed in condensed and fantastic form’. In abbreviated form, he writes, the book blended Dickens’s central social concerns – the effects of industrialism, the ragged schools and the children of the poor, and his own past:
All these things came together, and flowed towards the little book which now emerged … into the light of Dickens’s imagination. […] For in A Christmas Carol he returns to his childhood and relives it. Not just in the sense that this Christmas story is strangely reminiscent of the tales and chapbooks which he had read as a child … but also in the more important sense that, for the first time in his published writings, the whole nature of Dickens’s childhood informs the little narrative.
Liverpool Mechanics Institution in 1841
I’m going to deviate here to observe a local connection to Dickens’s concern for educational reform: in 1844, weeks after A Christmas Carol had been published to great acclaim,becoming the most successful book of the season, on 26 February 1844, Dickens gave a lecture at a soiree at the Liverpool Mechanics Institution – another example of his commitment to the cause of human improvement and rational education.
An artist’s impression of the Soiree addressed by Dickens on 26 February 1844
In his speech, Dickens spoke of how, in 1825, ‘certain misguided and turbulent persons proposed to erect in Liverpool an unpopular, dangerous, irreligious, and revolutionary establishment, called a Mechanics’ Institution’. Its primary purpose was to provide educational opportunities, mainly through evening classes for working men. Lectures were also provided covering topics ranging from Arctic exploration to Shakespeare and philosophy. Now, he continued:
Here it stands triumphant, its enemies lived down, its former students attesting, in their various useful callings and pursuits, the sound, practical information it afforded them; its members numbering considerably more than 3,000, and setting in rapidly for 6000 at least; its library comprehending 1 1,000 volumes, and daily sending forth its hundreds of books into private homes…
One of the features that had particularly impressed him, he said was
That regulation which empowers fathers, being annual subscribers of one guinea, to introduce their sons who are minors; and masters, on payment of the astoundingly small sum of five shillings annually, in like manner their apprentices, is not the least valuable of its privileges and, certainly not the one least valuable to society.
The blue plaque that records Dickens’s readings at Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution
Dickens added that he derived great pleasure from a proposal to establish of a girls’ school in connexion with the institution.
This is a new and striking chapter in the history of these institutions; it does equal credit to the gallantry and policy of this, and disposes one to say of it with a slight parody on the words of Burns, that
It’s ‘prentice han’ it tried on man,
And then it taught the lasses, O.
That those who are our best teachers, and whose lessons are oftenest heeded in after life, should be well taught themselves, is a proposition few reasonable men will gainsay.
That girl’s school was opened in 1844 under the name Liverpool Institute High School for Girls. It was housed in Blackburne House, a merchant’s mansion across the street from the Institution which now offered evening classes, lectures, a library and a boys’ school – the future Liverpool Institute for Boys grammar school whose pupils would include Paul McCartney and George Harrison (later, too, an Art College would be established on the site, and its most famous student would be one John Lennon; today the building houses LIPA – Liverpool Institute for performing Arts). As for the girls’ school: it was one of the first in Britain which was open to the public and established exclusively for the education of girls. For the past 25 years Blackburne House has pioneered training courses for women, in non traditional areas of work such as Information Technology and senior management.
The building that has served as the Mechanics’ Institution, Liverpool Institute, the School of Art and now LIPA
Before the publication of A Christmas Carol, Dickens had taken control of every aspect of the book’s appearance. The result was a handsome volume, bound in red cloth, with a gilt design on the cover. Inside were four full-colour etchings, with another four black and white woodcuts. The book was an immense success. Dickens was just 31 years old: this youthful portrait was made when he was in Liverpool for the Mechanics’ Institution address.
Dickens’s portrait, made for Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution in 1844
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol during October and November 1843, at the same time as he was writing Martin Chuzzlewit. In the novella Dickens compresses and crystallizes the theme he was exploring in the longer novel – the social ramifications of selfishness. As Jane Smiley observes in her study of Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge completes the moral journey in one night which takes the old and young Martin Chuzzlewit many years and several thousand miles of journeying.
These were troubled times for Dickens – his wife was pregnant with a fifth child, Chuzzlewit was not proving a success, and he was beset with family obligations and money worries. Little srprise, then, that A Christmas Carol is preoccupied, as Ackroyd succinctly expresses it, with money:
Miserliness as a vice. Generosity as virtue. How people obtain money. How people exert power over others because of money. How money can be an aspect of cruelty. How money can destroy a family. How the want of money is oppressive. How the greed for it is a form of unworthiness, a form of human alienation.
The Christmas Books have certain features in common: seasonal settings, supernatural agents and spiritual conversions, along with an intimacy of tone and colloquial style, as if the storyteller is sitting beside you. But reading the Christmas books together, it is clear just how precise, understated and non-melodramatic is Dickens’s writing in A Christmas Carol compared to the others. Because the tone of the writing and the gestures of the characters are understated, the supernatural elements of the story – the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future – flow convincingly from the narrative and succeed in conveying the tale’s essential ideas, whereas in The Chimes the chiming church bells and their goblins seem awkwardly unbelievable: there simply to drive home Dickens’s satirical attack on the utilitarian view that poor people – with their joyless, wasted lives and propensity to do evil – are simply a burden on the rich and would be better off dead.
A Christmas Carol had just as strong a political message: with its attack on those who spurned the poor and the unemployed it takes its place alongside other pieces of radical literature of the period – notably Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt‘ and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Cry of the Children‘.
With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread –
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”
“Oh, Men, with Sisters dear!
Oh, men, with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
Stitch – stitch – stitch,
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.
(Reading that again in 2013 pulls one up sharp. They don’t sing the song of the shirt in this country any more; now the song is sung far away, only occasionally drifting into earshot.)
Go out, children, from the mine and from the city –
Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do –
Pluck you handfuls of the meadow-cowslips pretty
Laugh aloud, to feel your fingers let them through!
But they answer, ” Are your cowslips of the meadows
Like our weeds anear the mine?
Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows,
From your pleasures fair and fine!
“For oh,” say the children, “we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap –
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep.
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping –
We fall upon our faces, trying to go;
And, underneath our heavy eyelids drooping,
The reddest flower would look as pale as snow.
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring,
Through the coal-dark, underground –
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem was written in the same year that Dickens came to Liverpool to address the Mechanics’ Institution, at a time when government investigations had exposed the exploitation of children employed in coal mines and factories. Like Dickens in A Christmas Carol, she directed her attack towards those who denied the facts, or were unmoved. Two years earlier, in June 1842, Dickens had fired off a fiery letter to the Morning Chronicle supporting Lord Ashley’s Bill to bar women and girls from working in the mines.
While there may not be child labour in Britain today, similar attitudes towards the unemployed and working poor were on show the other day in the Commons debate on food banks:
Times are tough and we all have to pay back the £1.5 trillion of personal debt, which spiralled under Labour. We are all trying to live within our means, change the gear, and ensure we are paying back all the debt that we saw under Labour.
– Esther McVey, Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions
There was laughter from the government benches, and Ian Duncan Smith and his colleagues walked out of the debate. Some attitudes remain unchanged from those castigated by Dickens a century and a half ago.
Jacob Marley’s ghost appears to Scrooge in John Leech’s illustration for the first edition of A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol displays in concise form what has been called ‘the enigmatic mixture of radicalism and conservatism’ in Dickens. Scrooge may be a rich man, but Dickens is concerned with his moral failings, rather than his class position. When Scrooge is visited by Jacob Marley’s ghost, Scrooge reminds him that he was a good businessman. Marley responds that his business ought to have been mankind, and that the choices that he made did not make him happy. Dickens suggests that the origins of our attitudes to others lie in childhood experiences, and that the possibility of change must come from within the individual:
I wear the chain I forged in life….I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.
So, for Dickens – in both his personal life and his novels – the solution to social division and injustice lies in philanthropy, rather than political movements or government. At the novella’s conclusion Scrooge is redeemed through charity and benevolence; the solution lies within the individual, rather than in collective action:
“A merry Christmas, Bob,” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year. I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob. Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”
Trotty Veck: illustration by John Leech for the 1844 edition of ‘The Chimes’
I was enjoying The Chimes, up to the point where the bells and goblins enter the story. Like A Christmas Carol, the story concerns the conversion of the protagonist by a supernatural agency. Trotty Veck is a good-hearted ticket porter (wearing badges, or tickets, they were licensed by the city of London to carry goods, documents and messages) who waits for custom, day in day out, beneath the bells that ring out every quarter-hour from the steeple of a church.
The opening chapters (or ‘chimes’) provide a vivid character portrait of Trotty Veck, as well as presenting a sharply topical political satire directed against heartless magistrates, smug politicians and bone-headed political economists of the Utilitarian variety. It’s entertaining stuff, but lost me at the point where Trotty ascends the bell-tower to be confronted with his moral failings. It was not just the mechanical nature of the bells as a device, but also a sense of puzzlement as to why it was Trotty being confronted with his failings – rather than the blinkered and uncaring figures of authority Dickens satirises in the opening pages.
The explanation for this lies in the extreme topicality of the story. Trotty is convinced that poor people are naturally wicked, influenced by a newspaper article about a young woman who tried to drown herself and her child. Dickens’s readers would have immediately understood this to be a reference to Mary Furley, a destitute young woman sentenced to death in 1844 for infanticide after her desperation not to return to the workhouse led to a failed suicide attempt in which her illegitimate child drowned. The case provoked great public debate in the months before Dickens wrote The Chimes, and he was one of several prominent figures who condemned the sentence, which was eventually commuted to transportation.
Who turns his back upon the fallen and disfigured of his kind; abandons them as vile; and does not trace and track with pitying eyes the unfenced precipice by which they fell from good—grasping in their fall some tufts and shreds of that lost soil, and clinging to them still when bruised and dying in the gulf below; does wrong to Heaven and man, to time and to eternity. And you have done that wrong!
For Dickens the Malthusians and the Utilitarians were ‘the maggots of the time’, eating the heart out of the present. In The Chimes he pillories those who believe – in the words of the political economist and friend of Alderman Cute – that ‘the poor have no earthly reason to be born’. Here’s Filer:
‘A man may live to be as old as Methuselah,’ said Mr. Filer, ‘and may labour all his life for the benefit of such people as those; and may heap up facts on figures, facts on figures, facts on figures, mountains high and dry; and he can no more hope to persuade ’em that they have no right or business to be married, than he can hope to persuade ’em that they have no earthly right or business to be born. And that we know they haven’t. We reduced it to a mathematical certainty long ago!’
Alderman Cute and his friends: illustration by John Leech, 1844 edition
And his friend, Alderman Cute:
‘You see, my friend,’ pursued the Alderman, ‘there’s a great deal of nonsense talked about Want—“hard up,” you know; that’s the phrase, isn’t it? ha! ha! ha!—and I intend to Put it Down. There’s a certain amount of cant in vogue about Starvation, and I mean to Put it Down. That’s all! Lord bless you,’ said the Alderman, turning to his friends again, ‘you may Put Down anything among this sort of people, if you only know the way to set about it.’ […]
Then there’s Sir Joseph Bowley, wealthy Member of Parliament and self-proclaimed ‘friend of the poor’:
‘Your only business, my good fellow,’ pursued Sir Joseph, looking abstractedly at Toby; ‘your only business in life is with me. You needn’t trouble yourself to think about anything. I will think for you; I know what is good for you; I am your perpetual parent. Such is the dispensation of an all-wise Providence! Now, the design of your creation is—not that you should swill, and guzzle, and associate your enjoyments, brutally, with food; Toby thought remorsefully of the tripe; ‘but that you should feel the Dignity of Labour. Go forth erect into the cheerful morning air, and—and stop there. Live hard and temperately, be respectful, exercise your self-denial, bring up your family on next to nothing, pay your rent as regularly as the clock strikes, be punctual in your dealings (I set you a good example; you will find Mr. Fish, my confidential secretary, with a cash-box before him at all times); and you may trust to me to be your Friend and Father.’
In the story, Trotty encounters Will Fern, a poor countryman; Dickens gives Fern this little speech:
‘Now, gentlemen,’ said Will Fern, holding out his hands, and flushing for an instant in his haggard face, ‘see how your laws are made to trap and hunt us when we’re brought to this. I tries to live elsewhere. And I’m a vagabond. To jail with him! I comes back here. I goes a-nutting in your woods, and breaks—who don’t?—a limber branch or two. To jail with him! One of your keepers sees me in the broad day, near my own patch of garden, with a gun. To jail with him! I has a nat’ral angry word with that man, when I’m free again. To jail with him! I cuts a stick. To jail with him! I eats a rotten apple or a turnip. To jail with him! It’s twenty mile away; and coming back I begs a trifle on the road. To jail with him! At last, the constable, the keeper—anybody—finds me anywhere, a-doing anything. To jail with him, for he’s a vagrant, and a jail-bird known; and jail’s the only home he’s got.’
The Alderman nodded sagaciously, as who should say, ‘A very good home too!’
Alderman Cute’s response is a reminder of the brilliant passage from A Christmas Carol in which two collectors of charitable contributions for the relief of the poor call at Scrooge’s door:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.
These days, with Christmas seemingly hollowed-out of all meaning bar rampant consumerism, it’s easy to be tempted, like Scrooge, into asserting that ‘Christmas is a poor excuse every 25th of December to pick a man’s pockets’. However, as Scrooge’s good-hearted nephew observes:
There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say … Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round-apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that-as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!
Amen to that!
- Re-reading Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit
- Re-reading Dickens: Barnaby Rudge
- Re-reading Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop
- Re-reading Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby, the most scrumdiddlyumptious story
- Re-reading Dickens: Oliver Twist
- Re-reading Dickens: The Pickwick Papers
- Charles Dickens: a bicentennial fanfare
- In Dickens’ footsteps (1): Doughty Street
- In Dickens’ footsteps (2): Dickens and London exhibition
- In Dickens footsteps (3): a walk through the City
As no lady or gentleman, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathize with the Chuzzlewit Family without being first assured of the extreme antiquity of the race, it is a great satisfaction to know that it undoubtedly descended in a direct line from Adam and Eve; and was, in the very earliest times, closely connected with the agricultural interest.
Continuing my journey through Dickens, I’ve reached his sixth novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, another first reading for me. Although Dickens regarded the novel as one of his best, it failed to capture the public imagination when it was first published – through 1843 and into 1844 – with sales of the early monthly parts being particularly disappointing compared to previous works. I can see why: the novel definitely has weaknesses. It is slow to get started, and seems to struggle and lose momentum in the final episodes. Yet, overall, I still enjoyed the book, and was entertained especially by the American passages and by some classic Dickensian characters, especially, of course, Mrs Gamp.
Dickens couldn’t understand Chuzzlewit‘s comparative failure (at its height it sold 20,000 copies a month whereas The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby sold between 40 and 50,000). He was so pleased with the opening chapters that he declared to John Forster that it was the best thing he had ever done. But, after the first few episodes had sold disappointingly, he realised he had to do something to retrieve the situation.
In 1842 he had travelled across America with his wife Kate On returning to England, Dickens had published American Notes in which he attacked slavery, and American politicians motivated by money, not ideals. He criticised the hypocrisy he had found in the republic for which he had held out such high hopes beforehand: ‘I am disappointed,’ he wrote in a letter to a friend. ‘This is not the republic of my imagination’. In American Notes, Dickens wrote of ‘despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; and cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers’. Now he saw an opportunity to vent his feelings about American society in scenes of fierce, satirical comedy by sending young Martin Chuzzlewit to America – a move he hoped would also revive his readers’ flagging interest in the novel. It did, but only marginally.
Dickens had already established the novel’s overarching theme of hypocrisy in the opening episodes in which he had introduced the complex genealogy of the Chuzzlewit dynasty and the greed of Old Martin’s relatives, in particular the unctuously hypocritical Pecksniff, each of whom hope to inherit the old man’s wealth. Now, in the sixth instalment, Dickens had the young Martin Chuzzlewit, the old man’s grandson, sail to America with Mark Tapley, who will come to represent the opposite virtues of selflessness and concern for others.
In her concise survey of Dickens’s life and work, Jane Smiley makes some interesting observations about the way in which Dickens’s thoughts about society and reform were developing at the time of writing Martin Chuzzlewit – thinking that found its way into the novel. Dickens, she says, differed from many fellow reformers of the period – people like Lord Shaftesbury, who were Evangelicals and ‘promoted, first and foremost, the prohibition of sinful acts such as prostitution and alcohol consumption, and who combined teaching the poor to read and write with rigorous religious instruction’. Dickens, Smiley says, ‘always ridiculed the Evangelical impulse to look for sinfulness and evil nature, instead interpreting kindness, fellow-feeling, charitableness and social conscience as virtues of generosity and love. Society would be reformed through an expansion of love and responsibility, through the cultivation of comfort and beauty, not through clamping down’.
When I read Jane Smiley’s words it seemed to fit right in with James Kincaid’s observations on Sairey Gamp in his Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter, which can be found on the Victorian Web. At first, it might seem that Dickens has no sympathy for the outrageous Gamp, the gin-sodden midwife and nurse to the poor who treats those in her care with cavalier roughness. But Kincaid regards her as ‘the central moral figure in the novel’, the morality she lives by being ‘much more humane and more adequate to the demands of the bleak world’ she inhabits.
Though purely selfish, she is never mean and, more important, directs our attention and our values far away from such narrow moral verdicts. Mrs. Gamp is selfish only from the perspective of a fool like old Martin; Dickens and his readers saw her as a triumphant expression of selfhood.
Mrs Gamp, Kincaid points out, ‘continually satirizes the barbaric consolation offered to the poor by religion and its basic appeals to envy and vindictiveness’:
Rich folks may ride on camels, but it ain’t so easy for ’em. to see out of a needle’s eye. That is my comfort, and I hope I knows it.
For Kincaid, Gamp is the archetypal anti-Puritan, ‘who would drink and laugh even in the Slough of Despond’. She hates the prudential life which does nothing more than prepare for death, and she is dedicated to the happiness to be found in society. ‘She functions’, Kincaid writes, ‘to provide a way out of despair, through imagination, versatile artistry, and resiliency’.
The American episodes are a rollicking good read. Like Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit sets off for America full of hope that he will quickly make his fortune in this new land full of promise. But, like Dickens, he is disillusioned. Observing America through the eyes of Martin and Mark, Dickens develops a sweeping critique of America, embracing aspects such as spitting in public, lack of respect for individual privacy revealed in impertinent questioning of strangers, voracious eating habits, pompous oratory, and misuse of the English language (Dickens’ ear for how people speak is as sharp as always).
But, most of all, Dickens turns his spotlight on the failure of the country to live up to the constant proclamations of the founding ideal of democracy he heard from the mouths of Americans while he was in the country. Dickens presents America as being as hypocritical as Pecksniff – but this greed and hypocrisy is systemic, rather than individual. In one passage, Martin observes that all conversation is about money:
Dollars! All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures were gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Nature and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them!
Dickens focusses on slavery over to reveal, as Martin puts it, that in getting rid of ‘masters’ the country has simply substituted ‘owners’. One scene in particular reveals Dickens’s loathing of slavery; Mark Tapley introduces Martin to a man he has just met on the street:
And may I ask,’ said Martin, glancing, but not with any displeasure, from Mark to the negro, ‘who this gentleman is? Another friend of yours?’
‘Why sir,’ returned Mark, taking him aside, and speaking confidentially in his ear, ‘he’s a man of colour, sir!’
‘Do you take me for a blind man,’ asked Martin, somewhat impatiently, ‘that you think it necessary to tell me that, when his face is the blackest that ever was seen?’
‘No, no; when I say a man of colour,’ returned Mark, ‘I mean that he’s been one of them as there’s picters of in the shops. A man and a brother, you know, sir,’ said Mr Tapley, favouring his master with a significant indication of the figure so often represented in tracts and cheap prints.
‘A slave!’ cried Martin, in a whisper.
‘Ah!’ said Mark in the same tone. ‘Nothing else. A slave. Why, when that there man was young—don’t look at him while I’m a-telling it—he was shot in the leg; gashed in the arm; scored in his live limbs, like crimped fish; beaten out of shape; had his neck galled with an iron collar, and wore iron rings upon his wrists and ankles. The marks are on him to this day. When I was having my dinner just now, he stripped off his coat, and took away my appetite.’
‘Is THIS true?’ asked Martin of his friend, who stood beside them.
‘I have no reason to doubt it,’ he answered, shaking his head ‘It very often is.’
‘Bless you,’ said Mark, ‘I know it is, from hearing his whole story. That master died; so did his second master from having his head cut open with a hatchet by another slave, who, when he’d done it, went and drowned himself; then he got a better one; in years and years he saved up a little money, and bought his freedom, which he got pretty cheap at last, on account of his strength being nearly gone, and he being ill. Then he come here. And now he’s a-saving up to treat himself, afore he dies, to one small purchase—it’s nothing to speak of. Only his own daughter; that’s all!’ cried Mr Tapley, becoming excited. ‘Liberty for ever! Hurrah! Hail, Columbia!’ […]
‘Lord love you, sir,’ he added, ‘they’re so fond of Liberty in this part of the globe, that they buy her and sell her and carry her to market with ’em. They’ve such a passion for Liberty, that they can’t help taking liberties with her. That’s what it’s owing to.’
Martin soon hands over all his savings to an agent in order to purchase a ‘location’ in ‘the thriving city of Eden. In a passage with echoes of Pilgrim’s Progress, Martin and Mark arrive in Eden:
As they proceeded further on their track, and came more and more towards their journey’s end, the monotonous desolation of the scene increased to that degree, that for any redeeming feature it presented to their eyes, they might have entered, in the body, on the grim domains of Giant Despair. A flat morass, bestrewn with fallen timber; a marsh on which the good growth of the earth seemed to have been wrecked and cast away, that from its decomposing ashes vile and ugly things might rise; where the very trees took the aspect of huge weeds, begotten of the slime from which they sprung, by the hot sun that burnt them up; where fatal maladies, seeking whom they might infect, came forth at night in misty shapes, and creeping out upon the water, hunted them like spectres until day; where even the blessed sun, shining down on festering elements of corruption and disease, became a horror; this was the realm of Hope through which they moved.
At last they stopped. At Eden too. The waters of the Deluge might have left it but a week before; so choked with slime and matted growth was the hideous swamp which bore that name.
Martin succumbs to despair and depression. But, after nearly dying from malaria himself, Mark Tapley sees Martin through depression and desperate illness. Mark is a figure of genuine, even heroic, goodness His self-proclaimed mission in life is to remain ‘jolly’ at all times, no matter how challenging the circumstances. It is his concern for others that helps keep him happy. Both men manage at last to return to England: penniless, they are loaned the fare home by a Boston doctor they had encountered soon after landing in New York.
The American passages are, primarily, hilarious satire. Back in England, the comedy is uppermost, too – at least until the final episodes. The comic characters and scenes are as funny as any I’ve read in Dickens (indeed, James Kincaid has asserted that Martin Chuzzlewit is Dickens’s funniest novel). He may be right; chapters eight and nine when the Pecksniff family go to London, for example, comprise a brilliant passage of comic writing. And then there’s Mrs Gamp:
She was a fat old woman, this Mrs Gamp, with a husky voice and a moist eye … Having very little neck, it cost her some trouble to look over herself, if one may say so, at those to whom she talked. … The face of Mrs Gamp – the nose in particular – was somewhat red and swollen, and it was difficult to enjoy her society without becoming conscious of a smell of spirits.
The sense-crunching, gin-tippling, patient-abusing Gamp is regarded by many as Dickens’s finest comic creation. Yet, although she appears to us now as grotesque, he saw her as realistic; in his Preface to the 1850 Cheap Edition, Dickens wrote: ‘Mrs Sarah Gamp is a fair representation of the hired attendant on the poor in sickness.’ So Dickens clearly intended Mrs Gamp and her partner Betsey Prig to represent a critique of ‘nursing’ in poor neighbourhoods at the time. Gamp appropriates her patient’s pillow in order to make herself more comfortable, and administers medicine to another patient by squeezing his windpipe to make him gasp and then pouring the medicine down his throat. She shakes old Chuffey so hard that his bones rattle.
Dickens’s rendition of Mrs Gamp’s behaviour and language is priceless. There is her fondness for the bottle:
‘Tell Mrs Gamp to come upstairs,’ said Mould. ‘Now Mrs Gamp, what’s your news?’ The lady in question was by this time in the doorway, curtseying to Mrs Mould. At the same moment a peculiar fragrance was borne upon the breeze, as if a passing fairy had hiccoughed, and had previously been to a wine vault.
Her eccentric speech, with its confused sentence structure, chaotic syntax and strange allusions, is best summed up in her words – those with which she concludes each one of her speeches: ‘Gamp is my name, and Gamp is my nater’. She’s always coming out with statements that stop you in your tracks and cause you to laugh out loud.
A remarkable aspect of Mrs Gamp’s speech, used by Dickens to reveal not only her thoughts but also her conviction that she is not alone in her thinking, is her constant evocation of the imaginary Mrs Harris. Mrs Harris exists not only to let the world know what Gamp is thinking, but also makes Gamp look good:
I knows a lady, which her name … is Harris, her husband’s brother bein’ six foot three, and marked with a mad bull in Wellington boots upon his left arm, on account of his precious mother havin’ been worrited by one into a shoemaker’s shop, when in a sitiwation which blessed is the man as has his quiver full of sech, as many times I’ve said to Gamp when words has roge betwixt us on account of the expense–and often have I said to Mrs Harris, ‘Oh, Mrs Harris, ma’am! your countenance is quite an angel’s!’ Which, but for Pimples, it would be. ‘No, Sairey Gamp,’ says she, ‘you best of hard-working and industrious creeturs, as ever was underpaid at any price, which underpaid you are, quite diff’rent … But he never said it was an angel’s countenance, Sairey, wotever he might have thought.’
Mrs Harris asserts that Sairey Gamp is sober, trustworthy, hard-working – and exploited:
Mrs Harris,” I says, “leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and don’t ask me to take none, but let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged, and then I will do what I am engaged to do, according to the best of my ability.” “Mrs Gamp,” she says, in answer–“if ever there was a sober creetur to be got at eighteen pence a day for working people and three and six for gentlefolk–nightwatching … being an extra charge–you are that inwalable person.
Perhaps the best testimony to Sairey Gamp’s qualities is provided in the ironic observation of Mr Mould the undertaker:
I’ll tell you what, my dear,’ he observed, when Mrs Gamp had at last withdrawn and shut the door, “that’s a ve-ry shrewd woman. That’s a woman whose intellect is immensely superior to her station in life. That’s a woman who observes and reflects in an uncommon manner. She’s the sort of woman now,’ said Mould, drawing his silk handkerchief over his head again, and composing himself for a nap “one would almost feel disposed to bury for nothing; and do it neatly, too!’
In the last part of the novel Dickens returns to the murder mystery form he introduced in Barnaby Rudge (this time, complete with his first detective, the shadowy Nadgett). The murder subplot involving Jonas Chuzzlewit has only a loose relationship with the main plot, but it does have the virtue of introducing Montague Tigg and his fraudulent, wonderfully-named Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company. Tigg blackmails Jonas into investing heavily in the Anglo-Bengalee and when it collapses, Jonas seeks revenge. The passage in which we first learn of this venture is eerily reminiscent of events in recent times:
The Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company is rather a capital concern, I hope, David,’ said Montague.
‘Capital indeed!’ cried the secretary, with another laugh — ‘ in one sense.’
‘In the only important one,’ observed the chairman; ‘which is number one, David.’
‘What,’ asked the secretary, bursting into another laugh, ‘what will be the paid up capital, according to the next prospectus?’
‘A figure of two, and as many oughts after it as the printer can get into the same line,’ replied his friend. ‘Ha, ha!’
The Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company started into existence one morning, not an Infant Institution, but a Grown-up Company running alone at a great pace, and doing business right and left: with a ‘branch’ in a first floor over a tailor’s at the west-end of the town, and main offices in a new street in the City, comprising the upper part of a spacious house resplendent in stucco and plate-glass, with wire-blinds in all the windows, and ‘Anglo-Bengalee’ worked into the pattern of every one of them. On the doorpost was painted again in large letters, ‘offices of the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company,’ and on the door was a large brass plate with the same inscription; always kept very bright, as courting inquiry; staring the City out of countenance after office hours on working days, and all day long on Sundays; and looking bolder than the Bank. Within, the offices were newly plastered, newly painted, newly papered, newly countered, newly floor-clothed, newly tabled, newly chaired, newly fitted up in every way, with goods that were substantial and expensive, and designed (like the company) to last. Business! Look at the green ledgers with red backs, like strong cricket-balls beaten flat; the court-guides directories, day-books, almanacks, letter-boxes, weighing-machines for letters, rows of fire-buckets for dashing out a conflagration in its first spark, and saving the immense wealth in notes and bonds belonging to the company; look at the iron safes, the clock, the office seal — in its capacious self, security for anything. Solidity! Look at the massive blocks of marble in the chimney-pieces, and the gorgeous parapet on the top of the house! Publicity! Why, Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance company is painted on the very coal-scuttles. It is repeated at every turn until the eyes are dazzled with it, and the head is giddy. It is engraved upon the top of all the letter paper, and it makes a scroll-work round the seal, and it shines out of the porter’s buttons, and it is repeated twenty times in every circular and public notice wherein one David Crimple, Esquire, Secretary and resident Director, takes the liberty of inviting your attention to the accompanying statement of the advantages offered by the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company; and fully proves to you that any connection on your part with that establishment must result in a perpetual Christmas Box and constantly increasing Bonus to yourself, and that nobody can run any risk by the transaction except the office, which, in its great liberality is pretty sure to lose. And this, David Crimple, Esquire, submits to you (and the odds are heavy you believe him), is the best guarantee that can reasonably be suggested by the Board of Management for its permanence and stability.
It’s in the final third of Chuzzlewit where, for me at least, the weaknesses of the novel are most apparent. In the convoluted amalgamation of the Jonas murder sub-plot with the muddled resolution of the main plot concerning the young and old Martin Chuzzlewits, Dickens seems to struggle to tie up loose ends and complete his overarching critique of hypocrisy and selfishness. As often in Dickens, this is largely a result of the fact that he tended to be more fascinated by, and draw more convincingly, characters that displayed the darker side of humanity. This is a problem if you want to convince readers that individuals who are selfless, loyal and in all ways virtuous are better people.
Many of the ‘good’ characters here are hardly developed at all by Dickens: Ruth Pinch is the classic ‘little woman’, while Mary Graham is all but invisible. Tom Pinch and Mark Tapley are both selfless and never sure they’re doing enough for others. Of the two, Tapley is perhaps the strongest and more fully developed character. He’s always looking for opportunities for to gain credit for being ‘jolly’, but reckons that it’s no credit to one’s character to be jolly when things are going well, so comforts himself in bad situations that remaining optimistic and helping others will eventually allow him to stand out in the world. His care for the selfish, oblivious Martin Chuzzlewit when they are in desperate straits in Eden is the nexus on which the book turns.
Despite the weaknesses of its construction Martin Chuzzlewit is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, peopled with some memorable characters, teeming with wickedly satirical and hugely comic passages, and ringing with the voices of individuals of all classes and conditions from both sides of the Atlantic. The novel sees Dickens presenting a unified social vision, even if that vision is belaboured at times. As Martin Chuzzlewit was about halfway through its run, he distilled that vision into his everlastingly popular work, A Christmas Carol.
- Re-reading Dickens: Barnaby Rudge
- Re-reading Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop
- Re-reading Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby, the most scrumdiddlyumptious story
- Re-reading Dickens: Oliver Twist
- Re-reading Dickens: The Pickwick Papers
- Charles Dickens: a bicentennial fanfare
- In Dickens’ footsteps (1): Doughty Street
- In Dickens’ footsteps (2): Dickens and London exhibition
- In Dickens footsteps (3): a walk through the City
In 1841, aged just 29, Dickens was on a roll with four novels to his name. Each one had been published to ever-greater critical and popular acclaim: Pickwick, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickelby had been topped with the triumphant success of The Old Curiosity Shop. This fabulous run came to an abrupt end with Barnaby Rudge. Not that the novel was a complete flop: it was still selling 30,000 copies at the end. But each issue of The Old Curiosity Shop had sold more than 100, 000 copies.
Barnaby Rudge has been damned as ‘the least loved and the least read’ of Dickens’ novels. Certainly, I hadn’t read it before I reached it in my Dickens project – reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography and breaking off to read each successive novel. Reviews at the time of publication ranged from the negative to the severe (one renaming it Barnaby Rubbish – which is much too harsh) and the critical disfavour still largely persists. For myself, although it is a strange work and flawed in some respects, I found Rudge to be an enjoyable read, with the scenes in the second half set amongst the Gordon Riots being especially gripping. There are also some classic Dickensian characters to savour.
Dickens’ fifth novel could have been his first: he had signed a contract in 1836 to write the book (then titled Gabriel Varden-The Locksmith of London) for Richard Bentley’s Miscellany, where Oliver Twist was published. But he had still not begun to write by 1838 when Nickelby was under way. He made a start in January 1839, but soon broke off, and it was not until January 1841 that he returned to the novel – now entitled Barnaby Rudge – and was soon working at it ‘morning, noon and night’. He clearly enjoyed the work, writing to John Forster on 11 September 1841, ‘I have just burnt into Newgate, and am going in the next number to tear the prisoners out by the hair of their heads’ and one week later, ‘I have let all the prisoners out of Newgate, burnt down Lord Mansfield’s, and played the very devil. Another number will finish the fires, and help us on towards the end. I feel quite smoky when I am at work. I want elbow-room terribly.’
The novel was serialized through 1841 in weekly parts in Master Humphrey’s Clock, the same magazine in which The Old Curiosity Shop had appeared. It is the first of Dickens’ two historical novels (A Tale of Two Cities is the other) and was written in conscious emulation of Sir Walter Scott’s historical romances, which Dickens greatly admired. Dickens follows Scott in mixing styles, genres and plots, and combining realism with the conventions of melodrama and romance.
The novel deals with the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, now long forgotten but in Dickens’ day fresh in the public mind (reflected in the book’s subtitle, A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty). Certainly I knew very little about the riots, other than their name. But you learn a lot from Dickens’ novel, which was based on his own extensive reading of the written records of the events of 1780 – the Annual Register, Holcroft’s Narrative of the Late Riots (1780) and Watson’s Life of Lord George Gordon (1795) were all in his library. Dickens’ choice of the Gordon riots as a backdrop to the novel was not as eccentric as it might seem: not only were the riots, in historian Linda Colley’s words,’the largest, deadliest and most protracted urban riots in British history’, they would also have been fresh in the mind of his reader, having occurred only two generations before.
Moreover, recent events gave the book an urgent topicality (indeed, Dickens’ vivid account of the riots has a very contemporary feel when read in 2013, eighteen months after similarly destructive riots in London). Fresh in Dickens’ mind would have been the riots and disturbances that followed the introduction of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, and the Chartist riots of 1839, when the jail in Newport was stormed in an attempt to free Chartist prisoners.
The Gordon riots arose as a consequence of Lord George Gordon’s call for the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 and a return to the repression of Catholics. The 1778 Act had repealed harsh anti-Catholic legislation from the 17th century and excused Roman Catholics from swearing the oath of allegiance (with its implicit recognition of the Church of England) on joining the army. On 2 June Gordon led a crowd of 60,000 to the House of Commons to present a petition stating that the legislation encouraged ‘popery’ and was a threat to the Church of England. Anti-Catholic riots ensued in London, lasting for many days. Protests were violent and aimed at Catholic targets, such as homes and chapels, and a distillery owned by a Catholic in High Holborn. They also seem to have expressed a more general frustration: prisons and the Bank of England were attacked (all riots, whatever their origin, seem to follow this course, as we know from our own time).
Dickens’ sympathies may have been with the working class poor, but he had an inveterate horror of political violence. He clearly had no sympathy with the Protestant anti-Catholic rioters of 1780, portrayed as a mindless mob swept along by opportunist leaders from the upper class in a movement that was part attempted coup d’etat, part popular uprising, which became a religious pogrom. His visceral riot scenes reflect his great fear of the ‘mob’, a fear he shared in common with his readers.
As in Walter Scott’s historical fictions, Dickens has his own created characters rub shoulders with real historical personalities – most notably Lord Gordon himself, along with his secretary, the public hangman, Dennis, who joined the rioters (though Dickens’ characterization is, apparently, quite different to the real man), and the bumbling, ineffectual Lord Mayor.
Barnaby Rudge has a strange structure, with a sharp break in the narrative that occurs when the story moves abruptly forward five years in chapter 34 and the lives of characters begin to intertwine with the events of the Gordon riots. The tale had begun, as many Dickens tales did, as old cronies sit around the fireside in the Maypole Inn in Chigwell recounting to a stranger the story of an unsolved double murder committed several years previously at The Warren, the local mansion belonging to the Catholic Haredale family. ‘Mystery, monstrous and ridiculous events and characters, prodigies, secret powers and things veiled in mystery’ drive forward the plot and the action according to John Bowen in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition.
Another unusual, perhaps risky feature of the book is Dickens’ decision to make Barnaby Rudge his central character. Rudge is a young man who has been mentally handicapped since birth, portrayed as something of a caricatured fool and idiot who wanders around with his pet raven, Grip. One of the story’s mysteries concerns Barnaby’s father: his mother, widow of one of the men murdered at the Warren, begins to receive visits from a shadowy, ghostly man which cause her to take fright and flee from London taking Barnaby with her. In the first part of the novel, Barnaby represents a character outside the bounds of social convention, limited and language and understanding, but an imaginative free spirit, walking and dancing merrily where he will through the countryside. But, returning to London, he joins in the riots for the thrill of wearing the rebels’ colours in his cap, the privilege of carrying a flag, and drawn by the lure of acquiring gold. In this respect, Rudge may stand for Dickens’ view of the rioters, led on by unscrupulous bigots by little more than the lure of excitement, easy gains, and communal identification. Sound familiar?
The novel has Gothic and melodramatic elements, but it also has plenty of typical Dickensian comic interludes. Some of the funniest scenes are centred on Miggs, the maid in the household of Gabriel Varden, the honest locksmith to whom Simon Tappertit, a leading agitator in the riots, is apprenticed. These scenes invariably involve Miggs in comical alliance with Martha Varden against her husband, for both servant and wife are ardent supporters of the Protestant cause.
Miggs is an example of how Dickens’ most memorable characters define themselves through their speech and a distinctive private language. Apart from being highly entertaining, this method serves as an effective way for Dickens to distinguish one person from another in panoramic novels crowded with characters. In his first novel, Pickwick Papers, the vivid characterization of Sam Weller and Jingles is achieved through these means, Weller having a mastery of the short, pithy comparison (‘Dumb as a drum with a hole in it, sir’, he says when Pickwick asks him to be quiet at the magistrates court) and Jingles being defined by his jerky, staccato speech that is a forerunner of 21st century tweets. One of Dickens’ favourite devices is the speech tag, a particular exclamation, word or expression uttered by a particular character. The hangman Dennis’s chilling desire to ‘work people off’ is an example here, along with Wemmick’s ‘portable property’ and Joe Gargery’s ‘Which I meantersay, Pip, old chap’ in Great Expectations. Miggs, with her ‘Ally Looyer!’, personal rendition of certain words, and unique grammar is a harbinger of Mrs Gamp who would appear in his next novel – probably the most individual and most praised example of the technique.
John Forster, in his Life of Dickens, described Miggs as a ‘vicious and slippery, acid, amatory, and … uncomfortable figure, sower of family discontents and discords, who swears all the while she wouldn’t make or meddle with ’em “not for a annual gold mine and found in tea and sugar”‘. Here’s an example of how Miggs is almost completely characterized through her speech. During the riots she is seized by rioters and locked up in a remote house, along with Dolly Varden, the lovely and coquettish daughter of the locksmith, and Emma Haredale, daughter of the owner of The Warren. All the women can hear are groans from the next room, perhaps emanating from someone wonded or tortured by the rioters. (These scenes, involving the incarceration of three defenceless virgins by rough and fully armed men worse the wear for drink, have an erotic frisson that I feel sure must have been intentional on Dickens’ part.)
At first, Miss Miggs wondered greatly in her own mind who this sick person might be … she opined … that it must be some misguided Papist who had been wounded: and this happy supposition encouraged her to say, under her breath, ‘Ally Looyer!’ several times.
‘Is it possible,’ said Emma, with some indignation, ‘that you who have seen these men committing the outrages you have told us of, and who have fallen into their hands, like us, can exult in their cruelties!’
‘Personal considerations, miss,’ rejoined Miggs, ‘sinks into nothing, afore a noble cause. Ally Looyer! Ally Looyer! Ally Looyer, good gentlemen!’
It seemed from the shrill pertinacity with which Miss Miggs repeated this form of acclamation, that she was calling the same through the keyhole of the door; but in the profound darkness she could not be seen.
‘If the time has come—Heaven knows it may come at any moment—when they are bent on prosecuting the designs, whatever they may be, with which they have brought us here, can you still encourage, and take part with them?’ demanded Emma.
‘I thank my goodness-gracious-blessed-stars I can, miss,’ returned Miggs, with increased energy.—’Ally Looyer, good gentlemen!’
Even Dolly, cast down and disappointed as she was, revived at this, and bade Miggs hold her tongue directly.
‘WHICH, was you pleased to observe, Miss Varden?’ said Miggs, with a strong emphasis on the irrelative pronoun.
Dolly repeated her request.
‘Ho, gracious me!’ cried Miggs, with hysterical derision. ‘Ho, gracious me! Yes, to be sure I will. Ho yes! I am a abject slave, and a toiling, moiling, constant-working, always-being-found-fault-with, never-giving-satisfactions, nor-having-no-time-to-clean-oneself, potter’s wessel—an’t I, miss! Ho yes! My situations is lowly, and my capacities is limited, and my duties is to humble myself afore the base degenerating daughters of their blessed mothers as is—fit to keep companies with holy saints but is born to persecutions from wicked relations—and to demean myself before them as is no better than Infidels—an’t it, miss! Ho yes! My only becoming occupations is to help young flaunting pagins to brush and comb and titiwate theirselves into whitening and suppulchres, and leave the young men to think that there an’t a bit of padding in it nor no pinching ins nor fillings out nor pomatums nor deceits nor earthly wanities—an’t it, miss! Yes, to be sure it is—ho yes!’
Having delivered these ironical passages with a most wonderful volubility, and with a shrillness perfectly deafening (especially when she jerked out the interjections), Miss Miggs, from mere habit, and not because weeping was at all appropriate to the occasion, which was one of triumph, concluded by bursting into a flood of tears, and calling in an impassioned manner on the name of Simmuns.
In a final comic thrust, after the riots Dickens has Miggs appointed as a jailor in a woman’s prison.
Although Dickens does not sympathise with the cause of the rioters, his is a sympathetic portrayal of the way in which poor and frustrated, ill-educated or illiterate individuals are drawn into participating in the disturbances. The novel is also marked by several passages highly critical of the English ruling class. One that I enjoyed tremendously occurs as Barnaby and his mother are making their way back to London, on foot and penniless, earning a few coppers by having Grip, the talking raven, perform. In one village they encounter an English country gentlemen. Barnaby’s mother tells him, with tears in her eyes, that her son is ‘of weak mind’:
‘An idiot, eh?’ said the gentleman, looking at Barnaby as he spoke. ‘And how long hast thou been an idiot?’
‘She knows,’ was Barnaby’s timid answer, pointing to his mother—’I—always, I believe.’
‘From his birth,’ said the widow.
‘I don’t believe it,’ cried the gentleman, ‘not a bit of it. It’s an excuse not to work. There’s nothing like flogging to cure that disorder. I’d make a difference in him in ten minutes, I’ll be bound.’
‘Heaven has made none in more than twice ten years, sir,’ said the widow mildly.
‘Then why don’t you shut him up? we pay enough for county institutions, damn ’em. But thou’d rather drag him about to excite charity—of course. Ay, I know thee.’
Now, this gentleman had various endearing appellations among his intimate friends. By some he was called ‘a country gentleman of the true school,’ by some ‘a fine old country gentleman,’ by some ‘a sporting gentleman,’ by some ‘a thorough-bred Englishman,’ by some ‘a genuine John Bull;’ but they all agreed in one respect, and that was, that it was a pity there were not more like him, and that because there were not, the country was going to rack and ruin every day. He was in the commission of the peace, and could write his name almost legibly; but his greatest qualifications were, that he was more severe with poachers, was a better shot, a harder rider, had better horses, kept better dogs, could eat more solid food, drink more strong wine, go to bed every night more drunk and get up every morning more sober, than any man in the county. In knowledge of horseflesh he was almost equal to a farrier, in stable learning he surpassed his own head groom, and in gluttony not a pig on his estate was a match for him. He had no seat in Parliament himself, but he was extremely patriotic, and usually drove his voters up to the poll with his own hands. He was warmly attached to church and state, and never appointed to the living in his gift any but a three-bottle man and a first-rate fox-hunter. He mistrusted the honesty of all poor people who could read and write, and had a secret jealousy of his own wife (a young lady whom he had married for what his friends called ‘the good old English reason,’ that her father’s property adjoined his own) for possessing those accomplishments in a greater degree than himself. In short, Barnaby being an idiot, and Grip a creature of mere brute instinct, it would be very hard to say what this gentleman was.
I happened to read this passage on the same day that I read that this year’s initiation ceremony of Oxford University’s notorious Bullingdon Club (whose past members include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson) involved burning a £50 note in front of a beggar. Nothing changes – or, perhaps more accurately, we are steadily reverting to the inequalities and injustices of the past.
One of the things I love most in Dickens are his descriptive passages, usually painting a vivid portrait of London. Here’s one such from Barnaby Rudge, in which Dickens evokes nightfall in 18th century London:
A series of pictures representing the streets of London in the night, even at the comparatively recent date of this tale, would present to the eye something so very different in character from the reality which is witnessed in these times, that it would be difficult for the beholder to recognise his most familiar walks in the altered aspect of little more than half a century ago.
They were, one and all, from the broadest and best to the narrowest and least frequented, very dark. The oil and cotton lamps, though regularly trimmed twice or thrice in the long winter nights, burnt feebly at the best; and at a late hour, when they were unassisted by the lamps and candles in the shops, cast but a narrow track of doubtful light upon the footway, leaving the projecting doors and house-fronts in the deepest gloom. Many of the courts and lanes were left in total darkness; those of the meaner sort, where one glimmering light twinkled for a score of houses, being favoured in no slight degree. Even in these places, the inhabitants had often good reason for extinguishing their lamp as soon as it was lighted; and the watch being utterly inefficient and powerless to prevent them, they did so at their pleasure. Thus, in the lightest thoroughfares, there was at every turn some obscure and dangerous spot whither a thief might fly or shelter, and few would care to follow; and the city being belted round by fields, green lanes, waste grounds, and lonely roads, dividing it at that time from the suburbs that have joined it since, escape, even where the pursuit was hot, was rendered easy.
It is no wonder that with these favouring circumstances in full and constant operation, street robberies, often accompanied by cruel wounds, and not unfrequently by loss of life, should have been of nightly occurrence in the very heart of London, or that quiet folks should have had great dread of traversing its streets after the shops were closed. It was not unusual for those who wended home alone at midnight, to keep the middle of the road, the better to guard against surprise from lurking footpads; few would venture to repair at a late hour to Kentish Town or Hampstead, or even to Kensington or Chelsea, unarmed and unattended; while he who had been loudest and most valiant at the supper-table or the tavern, and had but a mile or so to go, was glad to fee a link-boy to escort him home.
There were many other characteristics—not quite so disagreeable—about the thoroughfares of London then, with which they had been long familiar. Some of the shops, especially those to the eastward of Temple Bar, still adhered to the old practice of hanging out a sign; and the creaking and swinging of these boards in their iron frames on windy nights, formed a strange and mournful concert for the ears of those who lay awake in bed or hurried through the streets. Long stands of hackney-chairs and groups of chairmen, compared with whom the coachmen of our day are gentle and polite, obstructed the way and filled the air with clamour; night-cellars, indicated by a little stream of light crossing the pavement, and stretching out half-way into the road, and by the stifled roar of voices from below, yawned for the reception and entertainment of the most abandoned of both sexes; under every shed and bulk small groups of link-boys gamed away the earnings of the day; or one more weary than the rest, gave way to sleep, and let the fragment of his torch fall hissing on the puddled ground.
Then there was the watch with staff and lantern crying the hour, and the kind of weather; and those who woke up at his voice and turned them round in bed, were glad to hear it rained, or snowed, or blew, or froze, for very comfort’s sake. The solitary passenger was startled by the chairmen’s cry of ‘By your leave there!’ as two came trotting past him with their empty vehicle—carried backwards to show its being disengaged—and hurried to the nearest stand. Many a private chair, too, inclosing some fine lady, monstrously hooped and furbelowed, and preceded by running-footmen bearing flambeaux—for which extinguishers are yet suspended before the doors of a few houses of the better sort—made the way gay and light as it danced along, and darker and more dismal when it had passed. It was not unusual for these running gentry, who carried it with a very high hand, to quarrel in the servants’ hall while waiting for their masters and mistresses; and, falling to blows either there or in the street without, to strew the place of skirmish with hair-powder, fragments of bag-wigs, and scattered nosegays. Gaming, the vice which ran so high among all classes (the fashion being of course set by the upper), was generally the cause of these disputes; for cards and dice were as openly used, and worked as much mischief, and yielded as much excitement below stairs, as above. While incidents like these, arising out of drums and masquerades and parties at quadrille, were passing at the west end of the town, heavy stagecoaches and scarce heavier waggons were lumbering slowly towards the city, the coachmen, guard, and passengers, armed to the teeth, and the coach—a day or so perhaps behind its time, but that was nothing—despoiled by highwaymen; who made no scruple to attack, alone and single-handed, a whole caravan of goods and men, and sometimes shot a passenger or two, and were sometimes shot themselves, as the case might be. On the morrow, rumours of this new act of daring on the road yielded matter for a few hours’ conversation through the town, and a Public Progress of some fine gentleman (half-drunk) to Tyburn, dressed in the newest fashion, and damning the ordinary with unspeakable gallantry and grace, furnished to the populace, at once a pleasant excitement and a wholesome and profound example.
There’s no doubt, though, that the most powerful scenes are those depicting the riots. In one, Dickens describes the rioters attacking and burning to the ground Lord Mansfield’s house in fashionable Bloomsbury Square. Mansfield was probably a target for the rioters, not just for his elite standing, but also for his progressive views and legal judgements. Mansfield is best known for his judgement in the Somersett Case, where he held that slavery was unlawful in England. James Somersett was an American slave, purchased by Charles Stewart, an English customs officer employed in the British Crown colony of Massachusetts.Stewart brought Somersett with him when he returned to England in 1769, but in 1771 Somersett escaped, only to be recaptured. The case concerned an application for habeas corpus on Somersett’s behalf. Mansfield concluded that:
The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of now being introduced by Courts of Justice upon mere reasoning or inferences from any principles, natural or political; it must take its rise from positive law; the origin of it can in no country or age be traced back to any other source: immemorial usage preserves the memory of positive law long after all traces of the occasion; reason, authority, and time of its introduction are lost; and in a case so odious as the condition of slaves must be taken strictly, the power claimed by this return was never in use here; no master ever was allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he had deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever; we cannot say the cause set forth by this return is allowed or approved of by the laws of this kingdom, therefore the man must be discharged.
Dickens’ description of the attack on Mansfield’s mansion is vivid, and symbolic in the narrative: after order had been re-established by the authorities, hundreds were arrested and 21 rioters were hanged. Barnaby is one of these arrested and sentenced to hang – not with others at Newgate Prison, but on a scaffold erected in Bloomsbury Square. He is reprieved at the last minute after Gabriel Varden, the locksmith, helps clear Barnaby’s name.
The mob gathering round Lord Mansfield’s house, had called on those within to open the door, and receiving no reply (for Lord and Lady Mansfield were at that moment escaping by the backway), forced an entrance according to their usual custom. That they then began to demolish the house with great fury, and setting fire to it in several parts, involved in a common ruin the whole of the costly furniture, the plate and jewels, a beautiful gallery of pictures, the rarest collection of manuscripts ever possessed by any one private person in the world, and worse than all, because nothing could replace this loss, the great Law Library, on almost every page of which were notes in the Judge’s own hand, of inestimable value,—being the results of the study and experience of his whole life. That while they were howling and exulting round the fire, a troop of soldiers, with a magistrate among them, came up, and being too late (for the mischief was by that time done), began to disperse the crowd. That the Riot Act being read, and the crowd still resisting, the soldiers received orders to fire, and levelling their muskets shot dead at the first discharge six men and a woman, and wounded many persons; and loading again directly, fired another volley, but over the people’s heads it was supposed, as none were seen to fall. That thereupon, and daunted by the shrieks and tumult, the crowd began to disperse, and the soldiers went away, leaving the killed and wounded on the ground: which they had no sooner done than the rioters came back again, and taking up the dead bodies, and the wounded people, formed into a rude procession, having the bodies in the front. That in this order they paraded off with a horrible merriment; fixing weapons in the dead men’s hands to make them look as if alive; and preceded by a fellow ringing Lord Mansfield’s dinner-bell with all his might.
Perhaps the most powerful scene describes the rioters’ attack on and burning of Newgate Prison. The prison was meant to be escape proof, and the door impregnable. In the story, Dickens has the locksmith Gabriel Varden seized by the rioters and hauled to the door whose lock he devised. He refuses to pick the lock, and so the rioters attempt to break the door down with sledgehammers and crowbars:
And now the strokes began to fall like hail upon the gate, and on the strong building; for those who could not reach the door, spent their fierce rage on anything—even on the great blocks of stone, which shivered their weapons into fragments, and made their hands and arms to tingle as if the walls were active in their stout resistance, and dealt them back their blows. The clash of iron ringing upon iron, mingled with the deafening tumult and sounded high above it, as the great sledge-hammers rattled on the nailed and plated door: the sparks flew off in showers; men worked in gangs, and at short intervals relieved each other, that all their strength might be devoted to the work; but there stood the portal still, as grim and dark and strong as ever, and, saving for the dints upon its battered surface, quite unchanged.
While some brought all their energies to bear upon this toilsome task; and some, rearing ladders against the prison, tried to clamber to the summit of the walls they were too short to scale; and some again engaged a body of police a hundred strong, and beat them back and trod them under foot by force of numbers; others besieged the house on which the jailer had appeared, and driving in the door, brought out his furniture, and piled it up against the prison-gate, to make a bonfire which should burn it down. As soon as this device was understood, all those who had laboured hitherto, cast down their tools and helped to swell the heap; which reached half-way across the street, and was so high, that those who threw more fuel on the top, got up by ladders. When all the keeper’s goods were flung upon this costly pile, to the last fragment, they smeared it with the pitch, and tar, and rosin they had brought, and sprinkled it with turpentine. To all the woodwork round the prison-doors they did the like, leaving not a joist or beam untouched. This infernal christening performed, they fired the pile with lighted matches and with blazing tow, and then stood by, awaiting the result. […]
Great pieces of blazing wood were passed, besides, above the people’s heads to such as stood about the ladders, and some of these, climbing up to the topmost stave, and holding on with one hand by the prison wall, exerted all their skill and force to cast these fire-brands on the roof, or down into the yards within. In many instances their efforts were successful; which occasioned a new and appalling addition to the horrors of the scene: for the prisoners within, seeing from between their bars that the fire caught in many places and thrived fiercely, and being all locked up in strong cells for the night, began to know that they were in danger of being burnt alive. This terrible fear, spreading from cell to cell and from yard to yard, vented itself in such dismal cries and wailings, and in such dreadful shrieks for help, that the whole jail resounded with the noise; which was loudly heard even above the shouting of the mob and roaring of the flames, and was so full of agony and despair, that it made the boldest tremble. […]
Not one living creature in the throng was for an instant still. The whole great mass were mad. A shout! Another! Another yet, though few knew why, or what it meant. But those around the gate had seen it slowly yield, and drop from its topmost hinge. It hung on that side by but one, but it was upright still, because of the bar, and its having sunk, of its own weight, into the heap of ashes at its foot. There was now a gap at the top of the doorway, through which could be descried a gloomy passage, cavernous and dark. Pile up the fire!
It burnt fiercely. The door was red-hot, and the gap wider. They vainly tried to shield their faces with their hands, and standing as if in readiness for a spring, watched the place. Dark figures, some crawling on their hands and knees, some carried in the arms of others, were seen to pass along the roof. It was plain the jail could hold out no longer. The keeper, and his officers, and their wives and children, were escaping. Pile up the fire!
The door sank down again: it settled deeper in the cinders—tottered—yielded—was down!
Amongst those in the crowd that stormed Newgate was the future poet and artist William Blake. Blake’s first biographer Alexander Gilchrist records that on 3 June 1780, Blake was walking towards Basire’s shop in Great Queen Street when he was swept up by a rampaging mob that stormed Newgate Prison in London. They attacked the prison gates with shovels and pickaxes, set the building ablaze, and released the prisoners inside. He reports that Blake was in the front rank of the mob during this attack. Interestingly, among several prisons which were attacked and had prisoners freed was the Clink, a notorious prison in Southwark.
For six days London was ungovernable. Eventually the army was brought in to restore order. Around 700 rioters were killed, and 21 were publicly hanged. It had been a period, in Dickens’ words, when
the worst passions of the worst men were thus working in the dark, and the mantle of religion, assumed to cover the ugliest deformities, threatened to become the shroud of all that was good and peaceful in society.
Barnaby Rudge is an imperfect novel; as John Forster put it in his biography of Dickens:
As the story went on …what had been accomplished in its predecessor could hardly be attained here, in singleness of purpose, unity of idea, or harmony of treatment; and other defects supervened in the management of the plot. The interest with which the tale begins, has ceased to be its interest before the close; and what has chiefly taken the reader’s fancy at the outset, almost wholly disappears in the power and passion with which, in the later chapters, the great riots are described. So admirable is this description, however, that it would be hard to have to surrender it even for a more perfect structure of fable.
It is, indeed, those chapters in which Dickens vividly describes the events of the five days of the Gordon riots that make Barnaby Rudge a gripping read.
- Re-reading Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop
- Re-reading Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby, the most scrumdiddlyumptious story
- Re-reading Dickens: Oliver Twist
- Re-reading Dickens: The Pickwick Papers
- Charles Dickens: a bicentennial fanfare
- In Dickens’ footsteps (1): Doughty Street
- In Dickens’ footsteps (2): Dickens and London exhibition
- In Dickens footsteps (3): a walk through the City
I’ve returned to my Dickens project – reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography and breaking off to read each successive novel. As far as The Old Curiosity Shop is concerned, like everyone I suppose, I have long been familiar with the novel’s central character Little Nell, and the story that when the last instalment of was about to appear in 1841, his American fans were so desperate to find out the ending that they stormed the New York piers shouting to incoming ships, ‘Is Little Nell dead?’ But – probably put off by the novel’s reputation for sentimentality – I never read it when I was younger.
The issue of sentimentality is something I’ll return to later. For now, let me say that, though first impressions were not too promising, I grew to enjoy the novel – gripped by Dickens’ distinctly unsentimental account of Nell’s journey through the Black Country with her grandfather, and captivated by its rich assortment of comic and grotesque characters, most notably Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness, and the shrewd and cunning ‘little hunchy villain and a monster’ Daniel Quilp.
There’s a stylistically awkward moment at the end of the third chapter, when the character who has been narrating the story up to that point is dropped by Dickens abruptly:
And now that I have carried this history so far in my own character and introduced these personages to the reader, I shall for the convenience of the narrative detach myself from its further course, and leave those who have prominent and necessary parts in it to speak and act for themselves.
These words are spoken by the elderly Master Humphrey, who walks the streets of London alone at night and whose words begin the story:
Night is generally my time for walking. In the summer I often leave home early in the morning, and roam about fields and lanes all day, or even escape for days or weeks together; but, saving in the country, I seldom go out until after dark, though, Heaven be thanked, I love its light and feel the cheerfulness it sheds upon the earth, as much as any creature living. I have fallen insensibly into this habit, both because it favours my infirmity and because it affords me greater opportunity of speculating on the characters and occupations of those who fill the streets.
Dickens was in his late twenties in 1840 when, with the great successes of The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby already behind him, he launched a weekly periodical called Master Humphrey’s Clock. The idea was that a small group of men, old friends of Master Humphrey, would gather to hear tales from old manuscripts kept in an antique grandfather clock. The first issue of the magazine appeared in April 1840 with sketches and short stories, along with what were to become the first three chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop. The model Dickens had in mind was something like the 18th century journals, such as The Spectator, that he had enjoyed reading as a child – but ‘more demotic, democratic, and popular’.
The first issue sold well but, when readers discovered the magazine did not contain a new novel, sales quickly fell away. Dickens’ quick response was to expand the sketches concerning Nell and her grandfather’s shop, and abandon the characters of Master Humphrey and his friends altogether. The result was exactly as Dickens had hoped – the serialization of Nell’s story in weekly instalments was an enormous commercial success, selling over 100,000 copies a week, better than any previous Dickens novel. This is a phenomenal figure, given that it’s been estimated that every issue sold found 15 readers, as well as being read aloud to more who could not read.
While those were the commercial and opportunistic origins of the novel, but, as many commentators have observed, the emotional impetus for the character of Nell came three years earlier when his 17 year old sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, fell suddenly ill and died in his arms (probably of heart failure or stroke). Dickens had loved her deeply, and later told a friend, ‘I solemnly believe that so perfect a creature never breathed’. Dickens appears to have modelled Nell on Mary, making her, in Peter Ackroyd’s assessment, the embodiment the virtues of purity and innocence, the two most important qualities that Dickens prized in a woman. Jane Smiley adds that ‘clearly, he saw innocence itself as something possessed in its purest form by certain presexual women’.
As in Oliver Twist, Dickens’ central character is an innocent child beset by greedy, scheming predators. Nell’s innocence embraces endurance, forgiveness and martyrdom – qualities that are evinced in the journey out of London (‘often casting a backward look towards it, murmuring that ruin and self-murder were crouching in every street, and would follow if they scented them; and that they could not fly too fast’) on which she leads her grandfather, its trials and encounters with squalor, temptation and corruption, echoing Christian’s flight from the ‘City of Destruction’ in The Pilgrim’s Progress:
‘Yes, let us go,’ said the child earnestly. ‘Let us begone from this place, and never turn back or think of it again. Let us wander barefoot through the world, rather than linger here.’
‘We will,’ answered the old man, ‘we will travel afoot through the fields and woods, and by the side of rivers, and trust ourselves to God in the places where He dwells. It is far better to lie down at night beneath an open sky like that yonder–see how bright it is– than to rest in close rooms which are always full of care and weary dreams. Thou and I together, Nell, may be cheerful and happy yet, and learn to forget this time, as if it had never been.’
‘We will be happy,’ cried the child. ‘We never can be here.’
To a modern reader, the scenes with Nell are the least satisfactory, the language ‘often uncharacteristically inert and banal’ (Norman Page, introduction to the Penguin Classics edition) and Nell’s character hardly changing, remaining passive ‘like some gentle, frightened animal’.
Yet, as the story progresses the scenes with Nell and her grandfather are less frequent and are overshadowed by the crackling energy and vitality of the episodes involving the malevolent dwarf Quilp, Dick Swiveller and the exploited servant girl with whom he falls in love and names The Marchioness, and the corrupt sibling lawyers Samuel and Sally Brass. Dickens may have prized purity and innocence, but he always gives the best lines to his grotesque and morally tainted characters. As Norman Page observes, ‘the descriptions and dialogue of Quilp and Swiveller … are truly Shakespearean in their unpredictable felicity of language’. This part of the story, Page reckons, ‘defies squalor poverty, conventional morality and religion itself in its exuberant assertion and celebration of life’. He continues:
While the young Dickens had a heavy emotional investment in Nell and all she stood for, his instincts and impulses were on the side of life, and it is in the comic and grotesque elements of the book that his creative powers are most fully engaged.
This is not to suggest that everything about the scenes involving Nell and her grandfather is less satisfactory. Their quest may be a spiritual one – seeking peace and salvation, and fleeing from human temptations (including the old man’s addiction to gambling) – but there are moments when Dickens leavens the spiritual allegory with some harsh contemporary realism. I was particularly impressed with his account of their tramp from central London to the outskirts of the city:
Again this quarter passed, they came upon a straggling neighbourhood, where the mean houses parcelled off in rooms, and windows patched with rags and paper, told of the populous poverty that sheltered there. The shops sold goods that only poverty could buy, and sellers and buyers were pinched and griped alike. Here were poor streets where faded gentility essayed with scanty space and shipwrecked means to make its last feeble stand, but tax-gatherer and creditor came there as elsewhere, and the poverty that yet faintly struggled was hardly less squalid and manifest than that which had long ago submitted and given up the game.
This was a wide, wide track – for the humble followers of the camp of wealth pitch their tents round about it for many a mile – but its character was still the same. Damp rotten houses, many to let, many yet building, many half-built and mouldering away – lodgings, where it would be hard to tell which needed pity most, those who let or those who came to take – children, scantily fed and clothed, spread over every street, and sprawling in the dust – scolding mothers, stamping their slipshod feet with noisy threats upon the pavement – shabby fathers, hurrying with dispirited looks to the occupation which brought them ‘daily bread’ and little more – mangling-women, washer-women, cobblers, tailors, chandlers, driving their trades in parlours and kitchens and back room and garrets, and sometimes all of them under the same roof – brick-fields skirting gardens paled with staves of old casks, or timber pillaged from houses burnt down, and blackened and blistered by the flames – mounds of dock-weed, nettles, coarse grass and oyster-shells, heaped in rank confusion – small dissenting chapels to teach, with no lack of illustration, the miseries of Earth, and plenty of new churches, erected with a little superfluous wealth, to show the way to Heaven.
At length these streets becoming more straggling yet, dwindled and dwindled away, until there were only small garden patches bordering the road, with many a summer house innocent of paint and built of old timber or some fragments of a boat, green as the tough cabbage-stalks that grew about it, and grottoed at the seams with toad-stools and tight-sticking snails. To these succeeded pert cottages, two and two with plots of ground in front, laid out in angular beds with stiff box borders and narrow paths between, where footstep never strayed to make the gravel rough. Then came the public-house, freshly painted in green and white, with tea-gardens and a bowling green, spurning its old neighbour with the horse-trough where the waggons stopped; then, fields; and then, some houses, one by one, of goodly size with lawns, some even with a lodge where dwelt a porter and his wife. Then came a turnpike; then fields again with trees and hay-stacks; then, a hill, and on the top of that, the traveller might stop, and – looking back at old Saint Paul’s looming through the smoke, its cross peeping above the cloud (if the day were clear), and glittering in the sun; and casting his eyes upon the Babel out of which it grew until he traced it down to the furthest outposts of the invading army of bricks and mortar whose station lay for the present nearly at his feet – might feel at last that he was clear of London.
And his description of their trek through the dark night of the Black Country, its flares and furnaces, poverty and unemployment, is superb:
A long suburb of red brick houses – some with patches of garden-ground, where coal-dust and factory smoke darkened the shrinking leaves, and coarse rank flowers, and where the struggling vegetation sickened and sank under the hot breath of kiln and furnace, making them by its presence seem yet more blighting and unwholesome than in the town itself – a long, flat, straggling suburb passed, they came, by slow degrees, upon a cheerless region, where not a blade of grass was seen to grow, where not a bud put forth its promise in the spring, where nothing green could live but on the surface of the stagnant pools, which here and there lay idly sweltering by the black road-side.
Advancing more and more into the shadow of this mournful place, its dark depressing influence stole upon their spirits, and filled them with a dismal gloom. On every side, and far as the eye could see into the heavy distance, tall chimneys, crowding on each other, and presenting that endless repetition of the same dull, ugly form, which is the horror of oppressive dreams, poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air. On mounds of ashes by the wayside, sheltered only by a few rough boards, or rotten pent-house roofs, strange engines spun and writhed like tortured creatures; clanking their iron chains, shrieking in their rapid whirl from time to time as though in torment unendurable, and making the ground tremble with their agonies. Dismantled houses here and there appeared, tottering to the earth, propped up by fragments of others that had fallen down, unroofed, windowless, blackened, desolate, but yet inhabited. Men, women, children, wan in their looks and ragged in attire, tended the engines, fed their tributary fire, begged upon the road, or scowled half-naked from the doorless houses. Then came more of the wrathful monsters, whose like they almost seemed to be in their wildness and their untamed air, screeching and turning round and round again; and still, before, behind, and to the right and left, was the same interminable perspective of brick towers, never ceasing in their black vomit, blasting all things living or inanimate, shutting out the face of day, and closing in on all these horrors with a dense dark cloud.
But night-time in this dreadful spot!–night, when the smoke was changed to fire; when every chimney spirited up its flame; and places, that had been dark vaults all day, now shone red-hot, with figures moving to and fro within their blazing jaws, and calling to one another with hoarse cries–night, when the noise of every strange machine was aggravated by the darkness; when the people near them looked wilder and more savage; when bands of unemployed labourers paraded the roads, or clustered by torch-light round their leaders, who told them, in stern language, of their wrongs, and urged them on to frightful cries and threats; when maddened men, armed with sword and firebrand, spurning the tears and prayers of women who would restrain them, rushed forth on errands of terror and destruction, to work no ruin half so surely as their own– night, when carts came rumbling by, filled with rude coffins (for contagious disease and death had been busy with the living crops); when orphans cried, and distracted women shrieked and followed in their wake–night, when some called for bread, and some for drink to drown their cares, and some with tears, and some with staggering feet, and some with bloodshot eyes, went brooding home–night, which, unlike the night that Heaven sends on earth, brought with it no peace, nor quiet, nor signs of blessed sleep–who shall tell the terrors of the night to the young wandering child! […]
Later, her grandfather complaining of intense hunger, Nell approaches a wretched hovel by the roadside, and knocks on the door:
‘What would you have here?’ said a gaunt man, opening it.
‘Charity. A morsel of bread.’
‘Do you see that?’ returned the man hoarsely, pointing to a kind of bundle on the ground. ‘That’s a dead child. I and five hundred other men were thrown out of work, three months ago. That is my third dead child, and last. Do you think I have charity to bestow, or a morsel of bread to spare?’
The child recoiled from the door, and it closed upon her. Impelled by strong necessity, she knocked at another: a neighbouring one, which, yielding to the slight pressure of her hand, flew open.
It seemed that a couple of poor families lived in this hovel, for two women, each among children of her own, occupied different portions of the room. In the centre, stood a grave gentleman in black who appeared to have just entered, and who held by the arm a boy.
‘Here, woman,’ he said, ‘here’s your deaf and dumb son. You may thank me for restoring him to you. He was brought before me, this morning, charged with theft; and with any other boy it would have gone hard, I assure you. But, as I had compassion on his infirmities, and thought he might have learnt no better, I have managed to bring him back to you. Take more care of him for the future.’
‘And won’t you give me back MY son!’ said the other woman, hastily rising and confronting him. ‘Won’t you give me back MY son, Sir, who was transported for the same offence!’
‘Was he deaf and dumb, woman?’ asked the gentleman sternly.
‘Was he not, Sir?’
‘You know he was not.’
‘He was,’ cried the woman. ‘He was deaf, dumb, and blind, to all that was good and right, from his cradle. Her boy may have learnt no better! where did mine learn better? where could he? who was there to teach him better, or where was it to be learnt?’
‘Peace, woman,’ said the gentleman, ‘your boy was in possession of all his senses.’
‘He was,’ cried the mother; ‘and he was the more easy to be led astray because he had them. If you save this boy because he may not know right from wrong, why did you not save mine who was never taught the difference? You gentlemen have as good a right to punish her boy, that God has kept in ignorance of sound and speech, as you have to punish mine, that you kept in ignorance yourselves. How many of the girls and boys–ah, men and women too–that are brought before you and you don’t pity, are deaf and dumb in their minds, and go wrong in that state, and are punished in that state, body and soul, while you gentlemen are quarrelling among yourselves whether they ought to learn this or that? –Be a just man, Sir, and give me back my son.’
‘You are desperate,’ said the gentleman, taking out his snuff-box, ‘and I am sorry for you.’
‘I AM desperate,’ returned the woman, ‘and you have made me so. Give me back my son, to work for these helpless children. Be a just man, Sir, and, as you have had mercy upon this boy, give me back my son!’
The child had seen and heard enough to know that this was not a place at which to ask for alms. She led the old man softly from the door, and they pursued their journey.
So there is much to enjoy and appreciate in this novel, flawed though it may be. But it is the question of its sentimentality which has exercised critics and academics since the late 19th century. Oscar Wilde famously remarked, ‘one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing’, while Aldous Huxley in Vulgarity in Literature (1930) took Dickens and other Victorian writers to task for excessive sentimentality.
At the time of its publication, however, the open expression of emotion was not only socially acceptable, but also reflected a radical critique of the materialism associated with the rapid industrialisation of the times. Men as well as women openly shed tears (as indeed they did in our own time, at the death of Princess Diana). Fred Kaplan, in his study of Victorian sentimentality, Sacred Tears: Sentimentalism in Victorian Literature, observed that the Victorian ‘sentimentalists’ believed that ‘the alienating and dehumanizing pressure and structures of modern culture … dry-eyed exponents of misery and suppression’, were separating human beings from their natural sentiments. Kaplan added that sentimentality operated as ‘an attempt…to generate, or at least to strengthen the possibility of the triumph of the feelings and the heart over self-serving calculation’
Philip Davis, in his essay ‘‘Victorian Realist Prose and Sentimentality’, supports this:
When people moved from the countryside to the towns and hardly knew where they were any more in that harsher and faster world, at least they still knew the communal heart was in its right place. Is that not what Victorian sentimentality is: a defensive part of urban social history, democratizing inarticulate good feeling, offering family feeling a place in the new world?
For the Romantics, reason had failed to improve either human nature or social conditions. Romantic writers sought to move readers emotionally and spiritually by appealing to sentiment – ‘the capacity for moral reflection’, in the words of Paul Schlicke in The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens. In Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination, Sally Ledger goes further, arguing that The Old Curiosity Shop can be understood as radical, in a way that is difficult for readers today to imagine, noting especially the final nightmare journey of Nell and her grandfather. On their way they pass carts loaded with coffins, orphans crying, and bands of unemployed labourers gathering by torchlight to be urged on to ‘frightful cries and threats’ by their leaders. Starving and exhausted, Nell is forced to beg for food, knocking upon the door of a hovel. She is repulsed by a man who points to his own dead child, saying that he and five hundred men were thrown out of work three months earlier, and telling her ‘that is my third dead child, and last. Do you think I have charity to bestow, or a morsel of bread to spare?’
Ledger notes that these scenes depict the desperate need caused by recession and poor harvests, conditions which provoked popular unrest expressed in the Chartist riots that occurred in Birmingham and other places a few months before Dickens began writing the novel. Nell and her grandfather’s poverty, sickness, unemployment, homelessness, and itinerant lifestyle are mirrored in those they meet. Following Nell’s death, the old, ‘the deaf, the blind, the lame, the palsied, the living dead in many shapes and forms’ gather around her grave, and Nell’s sufferings become the sufferings of the poor, the ill, the unemployed, and the desperate.
The account of Nell’s last few hours recalls her dreaming of those who had helped her and saying ‘God bless you!’ For Ledger, her death can be interpreted not only as an invocation of moral sentiments but also as a radical call for justice for those in need. The Dickens who used his work to challenge the New Poor Law or Yorkshire schools is present at Nell’s death, too.
- Re-reading Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby, the most scrumdiddlyumptious story
- Re-reading Dickens: Oliver Twist
- Re-reading Dickens: The Pickwick Papers
- Charles Dickens: a bicentennial fanfare
- In Dickens’ footsteps (1): Doughty Street
- In Dickens’ footsteps (2): Dickens and London exhibition
- In Dickens footsteps (3): a walk through the City
The other night I attended Dickens: a writers’ contemporary, a symposium in which a panel of writers discussed the relevance of Dickens to their own work. Each writer chose a favourite passage from Dickens and then spoke about its significance for them. Screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell-Boyce chose the opening of Bleak House, with its invocation of fog at the heart of the establishment. Cottrell-Boyce, who worked with Danny Boyle on the Olympics opening ceremony this summer, explained how the passage had inspired an initial idea for the ceremony, subsequently discarded, in which darkness and fog would be dispersed by shafts of light.
He chose the passage not only for the brilliance of the writing – its repetitions like an incantation or spell, and its cinematic quality before cinema was invented – but because it exemplifies the way in which great literature, in Auden’s words, can enable the reader to ‘break out of the prison of the present’. Listening to the opening of Bleak House, it might be our times, the fog veiling the machinations of the establishment pierced by the revelations of the Hillsborough tribunal, the Leveson inquiry or the tax-dodging manouevres of big corporations.
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.
On such an afternoon, if ever, the Lord High Chancellor ought to be sitting here—as here he is—with a foggy glory round his head, softly fenced in with crimson cloth and curtains, addressed by a large advocate with great whiskers, a little voice, and an interminable brief, and outwardly directing his contemplation to the lantern in the roof, where he can see nothing but fog. On such an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be—as here they are—mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might. On such an afternoon the various solicitors in the cause, some two or three of whom have inherited it from their fathers, who made a fortune by it, ought to be—as are they not?—ranged in a line, in a long matted well (but you might look in vain for truth at the bottom of it) between the registrar’s red table and the silk gowns, with bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters’ reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them. Well may the court be dim, with wasting candles here and there; well may the fog hang heavy in it, as if it would never get out; well may the stained-glass windows lose their colour and admit no light of day into the place; well may the uninitiated from the streets, who peep in through the glass panes in the door, be deterred from entrance by its owlish aspect and by the drawl, languidly echoing to the roof from the padded dais where the Lord High Chancellor looks into the lantern that has no light in it and where the attendant wigs are all stuck in a fog-bank! This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”
Listening to these voices in the last 24 hours, could there be more Victorian contrast?
We must be fair to the person who leaves home every morning to go out to work and sees their neighbour still asleep, living a life on benefits.
– George Osborne, Autumn Statement, 5 December
They don’t care about people like me. I feel that they’re persecuting people like me to be perfectly honest. The actual reality of the situation is that people on benefits are living hand to mouth.
– Nicola Marshall, working single parent on Working Tax Credit interviewed on The World at One, 6 December
The sense of a wealthy establishment existing in a bubble remote from the lives of most people was reinforced by yesterday’s brilliant Guardian front page with the photo (top) of Cameron, Osborne and Alexander guffawing after the Chancellor had ensured that the poor bear the brunt of his budget measures – beneath the headline, ‘At least someone’s laughing…’
Dickens: a writers’ contemporary was held in the Small Concert Room of St George’s Hall in Liverpool – where Dickens gave public readings on five separate occasions in the 1860s. The event – a celebration of Dickens in the last month of his bicentenary year – was presented by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain in association with The Reader Organisation of Liverpool. With Frank Cottrell-Boyce on the panel were playwright David Edgar, who in the 1980s wrote The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, the 8 hour adaptation of Dickens’ novel, scriptwriter Gwyneth Hughes who adapted – and completed – The Mystery of Edwin Drood for TV and and local novelist Deborah Morgan.
- Liverpool and Charles Dickens: detailed account by Kevin Roach, local historian
Walk around Somers Town today – as I did on a short visit to London last week – and it is hard to summon up a vision of the area as it was in the second half of the 19th century, one where more than a third of the inhabitants lived in abject poverty, lacking the bare minimum required for food and a roof over their head, in area of mean and squalid streets and crumbling tenements.
This is the world conjured up by Anthony Quinn in his third historical novel, The Streets. I had read and admired his first book – The Rescue Man, set in Liverpool during the blitz – so I looked forward to his latest opus, and began reading it on the train journey down to London.
In The Rescue Man, Quinn took the bare bones of the story of a real-life architect responsible for some of the most innovative 19th century buildings in Liverpool and turned it into a cracking read, full of excitement and replete with a real sense of the city and its people. He has done something similar here: at the end of The Streets he acknowledges his debt to the journalism of Henry Mayhew whose London Labour and the London Poor, a series of articles documenting the lives of the poor who worked and traded wares on the streets of London, was published in the 1840s in the Morning Chronicle.
He also salutes the work of the social researcher (the founding father of British sociology, as we were taught at university), Charles Booth, who conducted a seminal twelve-year study of poverty in London whose results were published in 1889 as Labour and Life of the People.
Coincidentally, Booth hailed from Liverpool, the son of a wealthy shipowner and corn merchant. He attended the Royal Institution School in Liverpool before being apprenticed in the family business at the age of sixteen. When his father died in 1862, he was left in control of the family business. The family were Unitarians, and siblings and cousins debated issues of the day, such as the extension of the franchise, the works of Charles Darwin and Comte’s doctrine of positivism. In the election of 1865, Booth canvassed house to house in the slums of Toxteth in support of the Liberal candidate. This proved to be a shocking exposure to squalor and poverty, which contributed to a gradual abandonment of religious faith.
But Booth developed a profound sense of obligation and responsibility towards the poor and to the improvement of social conditions. Disillusioned with party politics following the failure to dislodge the Liverpool Tory ‘beerocracy’ he became involved with Joseph Chamberlain’s Birmingham Education League, on whose behalf he conducted a survey which suggested that 25,000 Liverpool children were neither at school nor at work.
This might be said to be Anthony Quinn’s trademark as a novelist: the fictionalisation of an aspect of the life a key historical figure, and a complete immersion in the chosen period. This time it is the 1880s, and the slums of Somers Town, that wedge of north London streets roughly bounded today by Euston and St Pancras railway stations and the British Library.
We realise that we are firmly in Quinn territory a couple of pages in, when he has the novel’s protagonist, apprentice journalist David Wildeblood, meet his new boss Henry Marchmont, Quinn’s conflation of Mayhew and Booth. Along one entire wall of Marchmont’s study stretches a huge map of London with each neighbourhood of the city blocked out in a particular colour. In different-coloured inks, Marchmont fills in the map to indicate the social class of the people living in each street. Gesturing towards the map, he explains what his project is about, and the part Wildeblood will play in it:
Why, it is journalism. We go through these neighbourhoods, street by street, house by house, and in so doing we glean a systematic and impartial understanding of the causes and conditions of poverty.
Between 1886 and 1903 Charles Booth produced a remarkable series of maps of London carefully coded for social class with data gathered by visiting, literally, every street in London. Equally remarkable, Booth devised, funded a research team, and conducted the study in his spare time while continuing to manage a successful international leather trade and steamship company.
Interestingly, Quinn inverts Booth’s original motivation for embarking on his research in his character Marchmont’s explanation of his quest:
[He] pointed to the most heavily inked portion of the map. ‘Behold the East End, where we began our project. Do you know the most signal fact our enquiries have uncovered? It is that nearly a third of its inhabitants live in a state of abject poverty. By this I mean they cannot raise the basic minimum … to cover the cost of rent and food for themselves and their dependants. … But we are beginning to discover something even more extraordinary. Since broadening our field of interest to Blackfriars, to Holborn and Drury Lane, to Borough, to Southwark – and to Somers Town – we are learning that the East end is by no means exceptional in its state of destitution. Some years ago, when I put an estimate of the city’s poor at three hundred thousand, I was abused and derided – people were angry , dismissed it as ‘provocation’. But all the evidence thus far suggests I was too cautious …
Quinn has tapped into the greatest political debate of the 1880s, a question that gripped and divided citizens, politicians and philanthropists: the extent and causes of increasing poverty in an increasingly wealthy industrial Britain. There were fears of social unrest following a series of riots. In 1885, Charles Booth contested the results of a report on poverty by Henry Hyndman of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, which indicated that 25% of Londoners lived in abject poverty. Booth thought the rate was lower, and decided to discover for himself the true extent of poverty in London. For twelve years he and the research team he assembled systematically gathered and mapped living conditions of first, London’s East End, and later the entire city. As a social scientist, he was forced to accept his initial hypothesis had been wrong: he concluded that the rate of extreme poverty was in fact nearer 35% – far higher than the original figure.
The challenge that faced Quinn must have been how to dramatise a sociological inquiry. He achieves this by extrapolating the journalistic inquiry from Henry Mayhew, who, in the early 1850s, wrote two or three ‘reports’ a week on the London poor for the Morning Chronicle, a liberal newspaper that had previously published Dickens’s Sketches by Boz. These were the reports subsequently selected and published as the single work, London Labour and the London Poor, with the addition of highly evocative ‘illustrations from photographs’ of street traders such as these.
So Quinn’s main character Wildeblood is an investigative journalist who we follow along the mean streets of Somers Town, his appointed patch: ‘a terra incognito, as remote to most people as those tribes that dwell at the ends of the earth’. His job is to write up daily reports of his encounters with the denizens of the streets and slums of Somers Town. Quinn gambles on holding the reader’s attention in the early pages with lengthy examples of entries from Wildeblood’s notebook (in turn modelled on Mayhew’s reports).
But the pace soon quickens as Wildeblood begins to suspect that the area is not completely unknown territory for certain wealthy men with profit in mind and political interests to advance. The story soon evolves into a fast-paced thriller, with Wildeblood increasingly exposed to danger as he attempts to expose the powerful interests at work in the slums.
His suspicions are first aroused when he realises that ‘somebody must be making a great deal of money on property that was barely fit for human habitation’. No-one he asks knows who their landlord is – only that they pay ‘the man’ who comes round each week to collect the rent.
His investigations soon reveal the identity of the slum landlord, though his employer, the wealthy Henry Mayhew, does not appear impressed by his endeavours. Someone who is interested, however, is Alfred Kenton, a socialist agitator whose Union for Rental and Sanitary Reform organises a rent strike. But powerful interests are threatened, and both Kenton and Wildeblood soon find themselves pursued with deadly intent.
It’s a gripping read, with Wildeblood’s friends in Somers Town and those he rubs shoulders with in the drawing rooms of the rich presented as well-rounded characters. At its heart, this a 19th century political thriller, and Quinn successfully weaves into the narrative the reactionary obsessions of the day: the laissez-faire rejection of social reforms that might ameliorate the condition of the poor, and the notion of the deserving and undeserving poor. Wildeblood finds himself debating these questions with wealthy businessmen at an elegant dinner in his godfather’s mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens. It is at this dinner table that he hears the first expression of the ideology that lies behind the conspiracy he is beginning to identify, eugenics:
We must accept that there is a whole underclass prey to vice and drunkenness and what have you. This degraded element has to be prevented from infecting the rest of society, and the safest means of doing so is to create a place where they would be, as it were, quarantined.
It’s a philosophy that Wildeblood later hears elaborated by Father Kay, a Catholic priest who is a prominent member of the Social Protection League, a body with shadowy intentions:
You see it very strongly in children – that taint in the blood. There is a school of thought, I’m sure you know, that says allowing our weakest elements to breed will lead to the degeneration of humankind. … The children of the very poor are not born but damned into this world. Their only inheritance is a weak mind and a deformed physique. … This is the hereditary taint, and unless something is done to check it, evolution itself will be reversed.
The conspiracy which Wildeblood seeks to unmask is a successful dramatisation by Quinn of the theory developed by Sir Francis Galton, based on distorting the theory of evolution propounded by his half-cousin Charles Darwin in this period. After reading Origin of Species, Galton argued that the mechanisms of natural selection were potentially thwarted by human civilization. If human societies sought to protect the underprivileged and weak, they were at odds with the natural selection responsible for extinction of the weakest. Only by abandoning these social policies could society be saved from a ‘reversion towards mediocrity’.
The eugenicist conspiracy at the heart of Quinn’s novel did have genuine parallels in the period. Although eugenics never received significant state backing in the UK (as it did, for example in the United States, Australia and Sweden), it was supported by many prominent figures of different political persuasions before World War I, including Liberal economists William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes; Fabian socialists such as George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Sidney Webb; and Conservatives such as Winston Churchill.
Galton’s application of eugenics to the question of class was revealed in this diagram in which he placed British society into groups, indicating the proportion of society falling into each group and their perceived genetic worth (red bad, green good). He suggested that those in the lowest social group (the ‘Undesirables’) should be prevented from bearing offspring, while those in the higher classes should be encouraged to breed more.
It’s interesting to compare Galton’s chart with the classification which Charles Booth used in his research; this is his definition of the two lowest of his five social groupings :
A: Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal. The lowest class which consists of some occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals. Their life is the life of savages, with vicissitudes of extreme hardship and their only luxury is drink
B: Very poor, casual. Chronic want. Casual earnings, very poor. The labourers do not get as much as three days work a week, but it is doubtful if many could or would work full time for long together if they had the opportunity. Class B is not one in which men are born and live and die so much as a deposit of those who from mental, moral and physical reasons are incapable of better work
Wildeblood is an engaging protagonist – a rather inept amateur detective, driven to reveal the truth by his growing admiration and compassion for the people he has befriended on the street, and his strengthening conviction that the poor and the criminal are not born, but made:
I will tell you. They deserve to be free to enjoy their life, instead of worrying and struggling over the means to sustain it. That is the difference between the poor and the rest of us. We are at liberty to ask, ‘How do I wish to live?’ The poor man only asks, ‘How can I keep myself alive?’ If you had ever witnessed the sort of privations and desperate economies that go on in this city, at this very instant, you would not be tempted to wonder at what they ‘deserve’.
In this brisk narrative, populated by believable and engaging characters and permeated with a sense of social unease, Quinn succeeds in making the political debates and moral questions of the 1880s relevant to the Britain in the second decade of the 21st century, when week after week the media bring news of corruption and conspiracy in high places while social divisions increase. Another enjoyable and intellectually stimulating read from Anthony Quinn.
The end papers of The Streets feature a map of Somers Town in 1880, and Quinn is quite precise about naming the streets where his characters live or ply their trade. Wildeblood is able to get closer to the people of Somers Town after befriending Jo, a coster, and his attractive and mysterious sister Rosa. They live in the Polygon (above), the first housing built in Somers Town in 1784, when it stood amid fields, brick works and market gardens on the northern fringes of London (there’s an excellent Time Travel account of the Polygon here). In essence it was a housing estate, a distinctive, almost circular Georgian building with 15 sides and three storeys that contained 32 houses (seen on the 1880 map below, almost at the centre). Charles Dickens lodged there as a boy, and put the Polygon into Bleak House in 1852, as the home of the down-at-heel eccentric, Mr Skimpole:
He lived in a place called the Polygon, in Somers Town, where there were at that time a number of poor Spanish refugees walking about in cloaks, smoking little paper cigars. Whether he was a better tenant than one might have supposed, in consequence of his friend Somebody always paying his rent at last, or whether his inaptitude for business rendered it particularly difficult to turn him out, I don’t know; but he had occupied the same house some years. It was in a state of dilapidation quite equal to our expectation. Two or three of the area railings were gone, the water-butt was broken, the knocker was loose, the bell-handle had been pulled off a long time to judge from the rusty state of the wire, and dirty footprints on the steps were the only signs of its being inhabited.
A slatternly full-blown girl who seemed to be bursting out at the rents in her gown and the cracks in her shoes like an over-ripe berry answered our knock by opening the door a very little way and stopping up the gap with her figure. As she knew Mr. Jarndyce (indeed Ada and I both thought that she evidently associated him with the receipt of her wages), she immediately relented and allowed us to pass in. The lock of the door being in a disabled condition, she then applied herself to securing it with the chain, which was not in good action either, and said would we go upstairs?
We went upstairs to the first floor, still seeing no other furniture than the dirty footprints. Mr. Jarndyce without further ceremony entered a room there, and we followed. It was dingy enough and not at all clean, but furnished with an odd kind of shabby luxury, with a large footstool, a sofa, and plenty of cushions, an easy-chair, and plenty of pillows, a piano, books, drawing materials, music, newspapers, and a few sketches and pictures. A broken pane of glass in one of the dirty windows was papered and wafered over, but there was a little plate of hothouse nectarines on the table, and there was another of grapes, and another of sponge-cakes, and there was a bottle of light wine. Mr. Skimpole himself reclined upon the sofa in a dressing-gown, drinking some fragrant coffee from an old china cup–it was then about mid-day–and looking at a collection of wallflowers in the balcony.
I decided to walk around the area – a terra incognito to me – to see if anything of the atmosphere of Quinn’s novel still lingered there. Nothing remains that offers any semblance of the streets featured in Quinn’s tale. The Polygon has gone – demolished in the 1890s – and the land where it stood is now occupied by the blocks of Somers Town estate. But there is still a Polygon Road (below), and if you turn off Polygon Road and go down Werrington Street you will find a plaque to the Polygon’s most renowned resident.
It’s plaque recording the fact that ‘in a house on this site lived Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman‘. It was put up by Camden Borough Council, prodded by Claire Tomalin, author of The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (2004). You have to really look for it – turn down Werrington Street, and where a set of stairs rises above a garage entrance, it’s on the wall halfway up the steps, well above head height. In the London Review of Books in 1989, Tomalin wrote:
‘Mary Who?’ is still the common form of her name, outside a small circle of specialists and enthusiasts. People stumble over the three simple syllables; its awkwardness has stood in the way of her fame. Pankhurst has an easy ring to it, and Mrs Pankhurst got a statue. When I set about organising a modest plaque on the site of the house in which Mary Wollstonecraft died in Somers Town, there was talk of naming flats or even a street after her: but again, those three syllables defeated too many people.
Further along Polygon Road is a striking wall mural (top of post) that vividly portrays the history of Somers Town. It’s hard to appreciate the detail of the painting, as it is obscured by a high chain fence as you can see from my photo. Its present location is its third: the mural was originally created by Karen Gregory in 1984 and located in the St Mary and St Pancras School. It had been funded by the Greater London Council with additional funds from Camden Council and the Arts Council. It was intended not just to be a decorative piece but also educational with posters and leaflets made up to explain the local history stories.
The mural depicts a view looking out from old Somers Town, showing the industrial landscape of Victorian London in the left hand side, the Fleet river divides the picture and Old St Pancras church is seen on the riverbank. On the right hand side is a modern house with contemporary people. Famous faces from Somers Town over the years are featured, including Mary Wollstonecraft and her partner William Godwin, Charles Dickens, who lived and worked in the area in the 1820s, and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who founded a women’s hospital nearby. Local scenes are depicted too, such as Mr Darke’s dust heaps (where King’s Cross station now stands), the brick kilns which once provided the main employment, and The Brill, a network of alleys and courts that formed a market place that features in Anthony Quinn’s novel. Some of the detail can be seen more clearly in this photo of the mural in its original location.
In 1992, the mural came under threat from redevelopment. Claire Tomalin successfully lobbied for its retention, calling it ‘probably the finest in London’:
…in 1980 the GLC [Greater London Council, abolished by Thatcher] commissioned the London artist Karen Gregory to paint a mural on the wall of a school to celebrate the history of the district and its famous residents…It offers a journey through time, drawing on the styles of many artists; Stubbs, Constable, Gainsborough, Ford Madox Brown, Sickert and Gilman. Old St Pancras church is in the background, surrounded by hay fields. The Fleet river runs by under an elm tree. Beneath it are seated the figures of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who belong to the earliest period of Somers Town’s history. Their daughter Mary is shown as a young woman, with her husband Shelley, sailing paper boats from the bridge over the Fleet, while behind them appears the head of Frankenstein’s monster.
The mural was moved again in 2007 and repainted after a vote from the local community to keep it. The painting now includes Claire Tomalin, the current headteacher of the school where it was first situated, and Sue Child, a teaching assistant who has seen all three versions of the mural. as flats were built, but in that time has won the hearts of the community.
Artist Karen Gregory, who painted all the murals and spent three months on the most recent, said the inspiration behind the original creations was feminism: ‘We decided to base it on famous women who lived and worked here – it was the flavour of the times, we were very feminist’.
The most dramatic change to this area came with the arrival of the railway and the construction of Euston and St Pancras stations. The streets where The Brill, the market place that features in Anthony Quinn’s novel, have long gone – partly buried beneath St Pancras. Now, roughly on the site where some of the the streets that formed The Brill were, is arising another behemoth, to join the new British Library building which has transformed the area in the last decade.
The streets have seen it all – change and decay, destruction and rebuilding – and through it all, the people drift like ghosts, coming into the light and fading from sight.
- Charles Booth and the survey into life and labour in London (1886-1903): LSE Charles Booth Online Archive
- Charles Booth: Wikipedia
- Henry Mayhew: Wikipedia
- London Labour and the London Poor: Wikipedia
- Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor: Victorian Web
- The Rescue Man: a city built and destroyed
Dreams are the bright creatures of poem and legend, who sport on earth in the night season, and melt away in the first beam of the sun, which lights grim care and stern reality on their daily pilgrimage through the world.
Reading Nicholas Nickleby straight after Pickwick and Oliver Twist, the abilities and ambitions of the young author begin to to take shape, while the autobiographical element continues to thread its way through the narrative.
The writing and serialization of Nicholas Nickelby, through 1837 -1839, overlapped with that of Oliver Twist, and encouraged by the popular success of that novel with its indictment of the workhouses of the New Poor Law, Dickens began with the idea of taking on another social injustice which he had learned of from press reports: the scandal of the ‘Yorkshire Schools’ and in particular the notorious case of William Shaw, headmaster of Bowes Academy in Greta Bridge.
Dickens decided that he would expose these schools in his new novel – schools where unwanted children were incarcerated in squalid conditions, malnourished and tyrannised by brutal adults. The schools were often advertised in the London newspapers, and Dickens had seen William Shaw’s own advertisement which claimed that ‘YOUTH are carefully instructed in English, Latin and Greek languages …Common and Decimal Arithmetic; Book-keeping, Mensuration, Surveying, Geometry, Geography and Navigation … No extra charges whatever, Doctor’s bills excepted. No vacations.’
That ‘navigation’ tickled Dickens, who adapted it for the advertisement for Dotheboys Hall which Ralph Nickleby reads out to his nephew Nicholas in chapter 3:
‘This caught my eye this morning, and you may thank your stars for it.’ With this exordium, Mr Ralph Nickleby took a newspaper from his pocket, and after unfolding it, and looking for a short time among the advertisements, read as follows:
“EDUCATION.–At Mr Wackford Squeers’s Academy, Dotheboys Hall, at the delightful village of Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, Youth are boarded, clothed, booked, furnished with pocket-money, provided with all necessaries, instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry, the use of the globes, algebra, single stick (if required), writing, arithmetic, fortification, and every other branch of classical literature.
Dickens actually met Shaw, when travelling incognito with his illustrator Hablot Brown (Phiz) to Yorkshire in January 1838 to research the Yorkshire Schools for his novel. Shaw had been prosecuted in 1823 by the parents of two children who went blind while in his care at Bowes Academy, and in the local graveyard Dickens noted that between 1810 and 1834 twenty-five boys from the school, aged between 7 and 18 had been buried there.
The scenes at Dotheboys Hall which form the early chapters of the novel echo those of the workhouse in Oliver Twist, and reflect his concern with child cruelty and neglect, the failings of educational provision and the way in which ignorance lay at the root of social ills – a deep concern that threads its way through all his work:
Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining; there were vicious-faced boys, brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail; and there were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness. With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!
But there is much comedy, even here in the harsh Yorkshire episodes. Indeed, although the novel pits light against dark, evil against goodness, the overall tone is comic and lively, with episodes that hark back to Pickwick Papers: the storytelling in the inn on the way to Yorkshire, the hilarious breakfast set-to between Madam Mantalini and her husband, the performances of the Crummles’ theatrical troupe, and the old gentleman on the other side of the wall who becomes infatuated with Mrs Nickleby are all richly comic and light-hearted.
Dickens continues to re-work episodes from his own history. Poor Smike’s abandonment by his father echoes that of Oliver – and Dickens’ own experience of the blacking factory, which he never forget. His love of the stage and his own involvement in theatrical productions find their way into the high-spirited scenes that feature Mr Vincent Crummles, Mrs Vincent Crummles, Master Crummles, Master P. Crummles, and Miss Crummles, ‘the infant phenomenon’. Several commentators suggest that the personality of Nicholas himself – impetuous, quick to anger, firm in his opposition to injustice – is not unlike that of the writer himself, while Mrs Nickleby is cited as a portrait of Dickens’ own mother. There is much more on the parallels between real people and fictional characters in Nicholas Nickleby in Peter Ackrod’s biography, though Ackroyd warns that
Dickens is rarely, if ever, a ‘realistic’ writer in any accepted sense; all of his polemic and observation are at the service of the larger themes or moods with which he animated his narrative. What he saw, and remembered, was determined by what he felt; his temperament, grave or gay, filled the world its own shapes.
Dickens is ‘a mythologist, a poet of the novel’, writes Robert Giddings, in what is ostensibly a review of a 2002 film version of Nicholas Nickleby, but is in fact one of the most extensive online essays on the novel.
The novel is highly melodramatic, with goodness relentlessly pitched against pure evil, and a great deal of sentimentality in the portrayal of Smike and Kate Nickleby. The coincidences and lengthy and creaking plot expositions, can make the book frustrating in parts for a modern reader. In the last few chapters especially, Dickens seems in a hurry to tie up the very loose ends of the mystery of Smike’s parentage. The final chapter in which, in the 18th century style, the author feels it necessary to tell us what happened to everyone afterwards is bathetic and unnecessary.
Set against these indictments, though, consider this, from Joyce Carol Oates in the current issue of the New York Review of Books:
If Dickens’s prose fiction has “defects”—excesses of melodrama, sentimentality, contrived plots, and manufactured happy endings—these are the defects of his era, which for all his greatness Dickens had not the rebellious spirit to resist; he was at heart a crowd-pleaser, a theatrical entertainer, with no interest in subverting the conventions of the novel
The melodramatic representation of moral values, the struggle between good and evil is central to the novel. Dickens’ heroes and villains are embodiments of moral absolutes, portrayed most vividly in the contrast between Ralph Nickleby and the Cheeryble brothers, all three of them in business, but pursuing their calling in diametrically different ways.
Ralph is introduced as a man of business, though what kind of business is unclear:
Mr Ralph Nickleby was not, strictly speaking, what you would call a merchant, neither was he a banker, nor an attorney, nor a special pleader, nor a notary. He was certainly not a tradesman, and still less could he lay any claim to the title of a professional gentleman; for it would have been impossible to mention any recognised profession to which he belonged. Nevertheless, as he lived in a spacious house in Golden Square, which, in addition to a brass plate upon the street-door, had another brass plate two sizes and a half smaller upon the left hand door-post, surrounding a brass model of an infant’s fist grasping a fragment of a skewer, and displaying the word ‘Office,’ it was clear that Mr Ralph Nickleby did, or pretended to do, business of some kind …
As Robert Giddings notes in his essay, this makes Ralph is a particularly relevant figure for our times:
He does not own land. He does not farm. He does not, apparently, actually work. He makes nothing. Except money. He is a dealer, a chancer, a speculator and a swindler.
When we meet him, Ralph is on his way to a public meeting, part of a campaign to lobby support in Parliament for a bill to recognise a new joint-stock company – the delightfully-named and, again, very modern-sounding United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company which intends to deal with the appalling state of the Muffin Trade (the houses of the poor in the various districts of London being destitute of the slightest vestige of a muffin) by ‘prohibiting, under heavy penalties, all private muffin trading of every description’ and ‘themselves supplying the public generally, and the poor at their own homes, with muffins of first quality at reduced prices’.
Meanwhile, we have learned that Ralph Nickelby’s brother, deceased father of Nicholas and Kate, has left the family destitute after speculating all his money on a similar enterprise, and losing everything:
Speculation is a round game; the players see little or nothing of their cards at first starting; gains MAY be great – and so may losses. The run of luck went against Mr Nickleby. A mania prevailed, a bubble burst, four stock-brokers took villa residences at Florence, four hundred nobodies were ruined, and among them Mr Nickleby.
Ralph Nickelby, though, is forged of a different metal. A rich and miserly moneylender, he might seem to be a prototype for Scrooge; the difference is that Dickens allows Ralph Nickelby no redemption. His evil plans and schemes ultimately are his undoing and he eventually hangs himself. Nickelby’s impending doom is foreshadowed in several melodramatic passages such as this:
The night was dark, and a cold wind blew, driving the clouds, furiously and fast, before it. There was one black, gloomy mass that seemed to follow him: not hurrying in the wild chase with the others, but lingering sullenly behind, and gliding darkly and stealthily on. He often looked back at this, and, more than once, stopped to let it pass over; but, somehow, when he went forward again, it was still behind him, coming mournfully and slowly up, like a shadowy funeral train.
…….He had to pass a poor, mean burial-ground – a dismal place, raised a few feet above the level of the street, and parted from it by a low parapet-wall and an iron railing; a rank, unwholesome, rotten spot, where the very grass and weeds seemed, in their frouzy growth, to tell that they had sprung from paupers’ bodies, and had struck their roots in the graves of men, sodden, while alive, in steaming courts and drunken hungry dens. And here, in truth, they lay, parted from the living by a little earth and a board or two – lay thick and close – corrupting in body as they had in mind- a dense and squalid crowd. Here they lay, cheek by jowl with life: no deeper down than the feet of the throng that passed there every day, and piled high as their throats.
The Cheeryble brothers, by contrast, build a thriving business by treating others with respect and compassion. They are largely responsible for helping Nicholas and his family rise from their sorry circumstances. The chapter in which they are introduced and Nicholas starts his employment with them and chief clerk Tim Linkinwater’s birthday is celebrated is a crucial one, in which Dickens sketches his dream of an alternative world, however unlikely, ruled by goodness and kindness.
Everything gave back, besides, some reflection of the kindly spirit of the brothers. The warehousemen and porters were such sturdy, jolly fellows, that it was a treat to see them. Among the shipping announcements and steam-packet list’s which decorated the counting-house wall, were designs for almshouses, statements of charities, and plans for new hospitals. A blunderbuss and two swords hung above the chimney-piece, for the terror of evil-doers, but the blunderbuss was rusty and shattered, and the swords were broken and edgeless. Elsewhere, their open display in such a condition would have realised a smile; but, there, it seemed as though even violent and offensive weapons partook of the reigning influence, and became emblems of mercy and forbearance.
Dickens will come to be regarded as the great poet of London. Already, in Nicholas Nickelby, there are splendid passageslike this one that richly evoke the city in his time:
They rattled on through the noisy, bustling, crowded street of London, now displaying long double rows of brightly-burning lamps, dotted here and there with the chemists’ glaring lights, and illuminated besides with the brilliant flood that streamed from the windows of the shops, where sparkling jewellery, silks and velvets of the richest colours, the most inviting delicacies, and most sumptuous articles of luxurious ornament, succeeded each other in rich and glittering profusion. Streams of people apparently without end poured on and on, jostling each other in the crowd and hurrying forward, scarcely seeming to notice the riches that surrounded them on every side; while vehicles of all shapes and makes, mingled up together in one moving mass, like running water, lent their ceaseless roar to swell the noise and tumult.
As they dashed by the quickly-changing and ever-varying objects, it was curious to observe in what a strange procession they passed before the eye. Emporiums of splendid dresses, the materials brought from every quarter of the world; tempting stores of everything to stimulate and pamper the sated appetite and give new relish to the oft-repeated feast; vessels of burnished gold and silver, wrought into every exquisite form of vase, and dish, and goblet; guns, swords, pistols, and patent engines of destruction; screws and irons for the crooked, clothes for the newly-born, drugs for the sick, coffins for the dead, and churchyards for the buried– all these jumbled each with the other and flocking side by side, seemed to flit by in motley dance like the fantastic groups of the old Dutch painter, and with the same stern moral for the unheeding restless crowd.
Nor were there wanting objects in the crowd itself to give new point and purpose to the shifting scene. The rags of the squalid ballad-singer fluttered in the rich light that showed the goldsmith’s treasures, pale and pinched-up faces hovered about the windows where was tempting food, hungry eyes wandered over the profusion guarded by one thin sheet of brittle glass–an iron wall to them; half-naked shivering figures stopped to gaze at Chinese shawls and golden stuffs of India. There was a christening party at the largest coffin-maker’s and a funeral hatchment had stopped some great improvements in the bravest mansion. Life and death went hand in hand; wealth and poverty stood side by side; repletion and starvation laid them down together.
But it was London.
Leaving the novel aside, I’d like to recall the wonderful Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Trevor Nunn and adapted by David Edgar, that was filmed in a 9-hour version for television, the first major drama commissioned by Channel 4, transmitted in four parts on consecutive Sundays in November 1982. In his adaptation, Edgar drew out the novel’s evocation of a world of individual greed and ruthless commercialism in a subtle comment on the ethos of monetarism and Victorian values espoused by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. Later Dickens adaptations such as the BBC’s Bleak House (1985) and Christine Edzard’s two-part film of Little Dorrit (1987) brilliantly followed its lead.
Finally, a memory of the time when I would read to my daughter:
‘I is reading it hundreds of times,’ the BFG said. ‘And I is still reading it and teaching new words to myself and how to write them. It is the most scrumdiddlyumptious story.’
Sophie took the book out of his hand. ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’ she read aloud.
‘By Dahl’s Chickens,’ the BFG said.
― Roald Dahl, The BFG
- My favourite Dickens: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby by Simon Callow
- Nicholas Nickleby:review by Robert Giddings