Re-reading Dickens: Oliver Twist

Re-reading Dickens: Oliver Twist
Frontispiece and title page, first edition, 1838 (illustration by George Cruikshank)

Oliver Twist dates from that remarkable period when Dickens’ career suddenly launched itself into the stratosphere.  The first instalment of Oliver Twist appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany in February 1837, the same month that Dickens turned 25.  At this point, Dickens had only one book to his credit – and that to a pseudonym – Sketches by Boz, the collected pieces of his journalism from as early as 1833.  Astonishingly, for the first ten months of its run, Oliver Twist overlapped with his runaway success, Pickwick Papers, while for the last 13 months Nicholas Nickleby was appearing in serialized form.  At times, the young novelist was composing episodes of all three works simultaneously.

In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Oliver Twist, that I have just finished reading, Philip Horne suggests that there was a productive cross-fertilization of ideas as Dickens fizzed with inspiration: three months after Oliver had escaped from the workhouse but ended up in Fagin’s clutches, Mr Pickwick had left behind the happy world of jolly jaunts and entered the squalid Fleet debtors’ prison.  While, in the opening episode of Nicholas Nickleby, Nicholas passes Newgate prison and is chilled at the thought of the many hangings that had taken place there – foreshadowing the scenes of the trial and execution of Fagin, that Dickens would write a few months later.

If The Pickwick Papers is too episodic to be considered a novel in the modern sense, the story of the ‘Parish Boy’s Progress’ is, therefore, Dickens’ first true novel – a trenchant social satire and a work of great emotional power that achieved phenomenal popularity from the off.

So what impression did the novel leave on second reading?  Of course, the childhood encounter with Oliver’s story was subsequently reinforced by seeing David Lean’s film adaptation (his follow up to the success of his 1946 version of Great Expectations) and the 1960s screen version of Lionel Bart’s stage musical Oliver!  It was perhaps not surprising that certain scenes were as fresh in the memory as if I had read the book yesterday – though disentangling where the images in my mind’s eye had originated – from page or screen – would be problematic.  What I can say with some certainty is that the scenes which have resonated through the years – those in the workhouse and with Fagin and his gang – have done so for a reason: they are the passages in which the young novelist’s writing is at its best.

What had slipped from my memory, by contrast, were the scenes involving the scheming Monks and those in which Oliver is embraced by the Maylie family.  Monks is central to the contrived plotting which many critics have regarded as a weakness of the book, perhaps a consequence of Dickens winging it as he hones his skills and rushes to meet deadlines.  The episodes in the cosy worlds of Oliver’s rescuers – first Mr Brownlow and then the Maylies – are, for me, rendered too sentimentally to be wholly convincing.  The world of the ‘good’ characters in the book seems less realistic than that of the villains.

Some have argued that this was part of Dickens’ intent: through jarring contrasts, to grab the reader’s attention. Further, Jane Smiley has commented that it was Dickens’ belief that the worlds of the rich and poor, of crime and bourgeois virtue, were inextricably linked:

Dickens’s outrage at the primitive conditions that the poor of London had to live in was genuine, both on their behalf and as what we might term an ‘ecological understanding’ that there could be no real separation between the rich and the poor, the healthy and the diseased, the dirty and the clean, the educated and the ignorant. Images of the flow of all things abound in his fiction from beginning to end, and in some sense he was always striving in his work to include more and more, to make each novel bigger and broader and also more particular, and to make the links between all things less linear and more netlike, to reproduce on the page the simultaneity and comprehensiveness of the way his mind and the world around him joined.
– Jane Smiley, Charles Dickens

Everything was connected: treating paupers like criminals and reducing them to starvation led to vice and criminality. The central message that Dickens wanted to communicate through the novel was that the world of the workhouse and the world of crime were inextricably linked: one was a cause of the other.

If Rose Maylie and Mr Brownlow are a little too good, kind and forgiving, Oliver is perhaps the least interesting figure in the book. After the famous ‘Please, sir, I want some more’ scene, there isn’t another one in which Oliver’s words or character imprint themselves on the reader’s memory.  Humphry House, in The Dickens World (1941) pointed out that if Dickens’ purpose was ‘to show that the starvation and cruel ill-treatment of children in baby farms and workhouses produced ghastly effects on their characters and in society, then Oliver should have turned out a monster’.  Instead, Oliver is a paragon of innocence, a suffering virtuous child, but a bland empty space at the heart of the novel. When he speaks, it is, for the most part, in the language of the most cloying Victorian sentimentality.

Yet Fred Kaplan, in his study of Victorian sentimentality, Sacred Tears: Sentimentalism in Victorian Literature, made the point that Victorian sentimentalism was a conscious rejection of the alienating and dehumanizing pressures of modern industrial society that were ‘more and  more separating human beings from their natural sentiments’, while Philip Davis, Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool, has stated:

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?

The first eight chapters of Oliver Twist are of rather different character to what follows: they are a stern satire on the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, a targeted by Dickens for its brutality and stupidity. In his journalism and his novels, he derided its National Commissioners, its Boards of Guardians, and its petty officials, such as Mr Bumble the parish Beadle.

The new law abolished a system of poor relief that had been in place for over 200 years, since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Under the old system, relief was administered at the local parish level and the funding came from local rates. Although there were workhouses, they were primarily for the aged and infirm, and most of the assistance took the form of ‘outdoor relief’, whereby the working poor whose wages fell below subsistence level received a supplement tied to the price of a loaf of bread and the size of their family.

The radical Malthusian and Benthamite reformers sought to impose efficiency and uniformity on the old system, which they saw as encouraging pauperism as a way of life and as doing nothing to check unwanted population growth. They believed that the conditions under which relief was offered should be as unattractive as possible in order to discourage idleness among the ‘undeserving poor’. Outdoor relief was abolished and entering the workhouse now became the only option, deliberately made grimmer than the worst conditions a pauper might experience outside. Husbands were separated from wives, parents from children; the diet was deliberately sparse; inmates were forced to carry out backbreaking, mindless work.  The goal of the new, Utilitarian system was deterrence, not relief.

The ‘experimental philosophers’ – Malthus and Bentham – are lampooned in chapter 2 in his account of the ‘elderly woman of wisdom and experience’ with whom workhouse children are ‘farmed out’:

Sevenpence-halfpenny’s worth per week is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for sevenpence-halfpenny, quite enough to overload its stomach, and make it uncomfortable. … She knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them. Thereby finding in the lowest depth a deeper still; and proving herself a very great experimental philosopher.

Marx once lambasted Bentham as a ‘genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity’; here, Dickens twists the knife with his story of another experimental philosopher who

had a great theory about a horse being able to live without eating, and who demonstrated it so well, that he got his own horse down to a straw a day, and would unquestionably have rendered him a very spirited and rampacious animal on nothing at all, if he had not died, four-and-twenty hours before he was to have had his first comfortable bait of air. Unfortunately for the experimental philosophy of the female to whose protecting care Oliver Twist was delivered over, a similar result usually attended the operation of her system; for at the very moment when a child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident; in any one of which cases, the miserable little being was usually summoned into another world, and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this.

The New Poor law was fresh in the public mind when Dickens began serializing Oliver Twist in February 1837. During its serialization, a severe winter, a trade depression, and a year of scarce food and high prices all served to inflame popular agitation against the law and increase the novel’s intense topicality. This was a period when the ruling class were fearful of imminent armed revolution, especially following the abortive Chartist uprising in Newport in 1839, during which several thousand armed miners marched on the city in a failed attempt to free political prisoners, in the hope that their action would be a signal for nationwide revolt.

There is a delicious intemperateness in Dickens’ writing in these chapters; they must have electrified his readers at the time:

Oliver Twist’s ninth birth-day found him a pale thin child, somewhat diminutive in stature, and decidedly small in circumference. But nature or inheritance had implanted a good sturdy spirit in Oliver’s breast. It had had plenty of room to expand, thanks to the spare diet of the establishment; and perhaps to this circumstance may be attributed his having any ninth birth-day at all. Be this as it may, however, it was his ninth birth-day; and he was keeping it in the coal-cellar with a select party of two other young gentlemen, who, after participating with him in a sound thrashing, had been locked up for atrociously presuming to be hungry.

Oliver asks for more (Cruikshank)

The new workhouse regime, and the philosophy underpinning it, is savaged in this passage:

The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered – the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was all play and no work. “Oho!” said the board, looking very knowing; “we are the fellows to set this to rights; we’ll stop it all, in no time.” So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the waterworks to lay on an unlimited supply of water, and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal, and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sundays. They made a great many other wise and humane regulations . . . kindly undertook to divorce poor married people . . . instead of compelling a man to support his family, as they had theretofore done, took his family away from him, and made him a bachelor! There is no saying how many applicants for relief, under these last two heads, might have started up in all classes of society, if it had not been coupled with the workhouse; but the board were long-headed men, and had provided for this difficulty. The relief was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel, and that frightened people.[…]

In great families, when an advantageous place cannot be obtained, either in possession, reversion, remainder, or expectancy, for the young man who is growing up, it is a very general custom to send him to sea. The board, in imitation of so wise and salutary an example, took counsel together on the expediency of shipping off Oliver Twist, in some small trading vessel bound to a good unhealthy port. This suggested itself as the very best thing that could possibly be done with him: the probability being, that the skipper would flog him to death, in a playful mood, some day after dinner, or would knock his brains out with an iron bar; both pastimes being, as is pretty generally known, very favourite and common recreations among gentlemen of that class.

What were Dickens’ politics?  He was certainly no socialist; GK Chesterton probably understood the man best when he wrote:

His revolt is not a revolt of the commercialist against the feudalist, of the Nonconformist against the Churchman, of the Free-trader against the Protectionist, of the Liberal against the Tory. … His revolt was simply and solely the eternal revolt; it was the revolt of the weak against the strong. He did not dislike this or that argument for oppression; he disliked oppression. He disliked a certain look on the face of a man when he looks down on another man. … This is what makes the opening chapters of Oliver Twist so curious and important. The very fact of Dickens’s distance from, and independence of, the elaborate financial arguments of his time, makes more definite and dazzling his sudden assertion that he sees the old human tyranny in front of him as plain as the sun at noon-day. … All the other people of his time are attacking things because they are bad economics or because they are bad politics, or because they are bad science; he alone is attacking things because they are bad.[…]

This is the real power and pathos of that celebrated passage in the book which has passed into a proverb; but which has not lost its terrible humour even in being hackneyed. I mean, of course, the everlasting quotation about Oliver Twist asking for more.  …  A modern realist describing the dreary workhouse would have made all the children utterly crushed, not daring to speak at all, not expecting anything, not hoping anything, past all possibility of affording even an ironical contrast or a protest of despair. A modern, in short, would have made all the boys in the workhouse pathetic by making them all pessimists. But Oliver Twist is not pathetic because he is a pessimist. Oliver Twist is pathetic because he is an optimist. The whole tragedy of that incident is in the fact that he does expect the universe to be kind to him, that he does believe that he is living in a just world. He comes before the Guardians as the ragged peasants of the French Revolution came before the Kings and Parliaments of Europe. That is to say, he comes, indeed, with gloomy experiences, but he comes with a happy philosophy. He knows that there are wrongs of man to be reviled; but he believes also that there are rights of man to be demanded.

– from Appreciations and Criticisms by G.K Chesterton, published 1911

In his biography, Ackroyd is illuminating about the distinctive character of these opening chapters.  On 7 May 1837, his 17 year old sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth died suddenly, an event which devastated him.  He did not write for a month; for th first time he missed his deadlines, and forthcoming episodes of Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers were postponed.  When he returned to writing in June, Dickens seems to have decided that Oliver Twist should not simply be a ‘Parish Boy’s Progress’, but a fully-formed novel.  Ackroyd suggests that, following the death of Mary Hogarth, Dickens began to lose interest in the topical and polemical matters of the first few chapters.

Instead, a narrative ‘at once more romantic and more mysterious’ begins to emerge.  Now he introduces the character of Rose Maylie,

So mild and gentle; so pure and beautiful; that earth seemed not her element, nor its rough creatures her fit companions. The very intelligence that shone in her deep blue eye, and was stamped upon her noble head, seemed scarcely of her age, or of the world; and yet the changing expression of sweetness and good humour, the thousand lights that played about the face, and left no shadow there; above all, the smile, the cheerful, happy smile, were made for Home, and fireside peace and happiness.

Could this be Mary Hogarth?  It’s almost certain, for Rose Maylie falls ill and comes close to death, before miraculously recovering. Dickens would seem to have drawn upon his own recent anguish when writing this:

How often did Oliver start from his bed that night, and stealing out, with noiseless footsteps, to the staircase, listen for the slightest sound from the sick chamber! How often did a tremble shake his frame, and cold drops of terror start upon his brow, when a sudden trampling of feet caused him to fear that something too dreadful to think of, had even then occurred! And what had been the fervency of all the prayers he had ever uttered, compared with those he poured forth, now, in the agony and passion of his supplication for the life and health of the gentle creature, who was tottering on the deep grave’s verge!

Oh! the suspense, the fearful, acute suspense, of standing idly by while the life of one we dearly love, is trembling in the balance! Oh! the racking thoughts that crowd upon the mind, and make the heart beat violently, and the breath come thick, by the force of the images they conjure up before it; the desperate anxiety to be doing something to relieve the pain, or lessen the danger, which we have no power to alleviate; the sinking of soul and spirit, which the sad remembrance of our helplessness produces; what tortures can equal these; what reflections or endeavours can, in the full tide and fever of the time, allay them!

Bill Sikes by Fred Barnard (Household Edition, 1871)

It is perhaps no accident that the passages that linger longest in the memory are those set in the notorious rookery (or slum) of Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey on the south bank of the Thames where Fagin and his gang are holed up. Dickens had been taken to this unsavory location by the officers of the river police, with whom he would occasionally go on patrol when he was a journalist, once describing the area as ‘the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London’.  It is vividly depicted in the chapter in which Bill Sikes is pursued to his horrific death as a place:

where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.

To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of waterside people, and devoted to the traffic they may be supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman’s door, and stream from the house-parapet and windows. jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river, he makes his way with difficulty along, assailed by offensive sights and smells from the narrow alleys which branch off on the right and left, and deafened by the clash of ponderous waggons that bear great piles of merchandise from the stacks of warehouses that rise from every corner. Arriving, at length, in streets remoter and less-frequented than those through which he has passed, he walks beneath tottering house-fronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half crushed half hesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginable sign of desolation and neglect. […]

Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it – as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.

Dickens was personally familiar with the places and institutions about which he wrote. In his capacity as journalist, he had visited workhouses and prisons, including the infamous Newgate prison, which figures prominently in Oliver Twist. He recounted this experience in ‘A Visit to Newgate’, in Sketches by Boz. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, Philip Horne notes that the shadow of the gallows looms over the entire book, from the moment when a workhouse officer predicts of the infant Oliver, ‘that boy will be hung’.

It was, as Horne explains, entirely possible.  Between 1801 and 1835, 103 death sentences were passed on children under the age of 14 for theft.  Twice as many people were hanged in the first 30 years of the 19th century than in the last 50 of the 18th century.  This grim increase can be attributed, Horne suggests, to the social disorder provoked by industrialization and urban growth, and the fear of the lower orders among the propertied classes after the French Revolution.  Two-thirds of the 671 hangings in the 1820s were for property crime, and only one fifth for murder.

After The Pickwick Papers, the brutal reality of sections of Oliver Twist came as a shock to many readers. Dickens refused, like other writers of the period, to romanticise poverty and crime into the picaresque. His aim was to shine the harsh light of reality on the London underclass in order to educate respectable, middle-class, sheltered Victorians who would otherwise ignore or remain blissfully unaware of such things. In the Preface to the novel, Dickens writes:

But as the stern truth … was a part of the purpose of this book, I did not, for these readers, abate one hole in the Dodger’s coat, or one scrap of curl-paper in Nancy’s disheveled hair. I had no faith in the delicacy which could not bear to look upon them.

But there’s something else, too.  Angus Wilson noted that each of the characters in Fagin’s gang  is superb as an individual. What makes these characters so great, especially at conveying Dickens’ social message about poverty and the Poor Law is the sympathy with which they are treated. Dickens’s childhood experiences instilled in him an ability to identify and empathise with those on society’s margins.

Oliver’s Reception by Fagin and the Boys

Dickens’ empathetic skills are at their greatest when describing Fagin’s inner thoughts at his trial. Fagin anxiously scans the faces of the crowd, desperate for a kind look or shred of hope, but ‘in no one face – not even among the women, of whom there were many there – could he read the faintest sympathy for himself, or any feeling but one of all-absorbing interest that he should be condemned’.

He looked up into the gallery again. Some of the people were eating and some fanning themselves with handkerchiefs; for the crowded place was very hot. There was one young man sketching his face in a little note-book. He wondered whether it was like, and looked on when the artist broke his pencil-point, and made another with his knife, as any idle spectator might have done.

In the same way, when he turned his eyes towards the judge, his mind began to busy itself with the fashion of his dress, and what it cost, and how he put it on. There was an old fat gentleman on the bench, too, who had gone out, some half an hour before, and now come back. He wondered within himself whether this man had been to get his dinner, what he had had, and where he had had it; and pursued this train of careless thought until some new object caught his eye and roused another.

Not that, all this time, his mind was, for an instant, free from one oppressive overwhelming sense of the grave that opened at his feet; it was ever present to him, but in a vague and general way, and he could not fix his thoughts upon it. Thus, even while he trembled, and turned burning hot at the idea of speedy death, he fell to counting the iron spikes before him, and wondering how the head of one had been broken off, and whether they would mend it, or leave it as it was. Then, he thought of all the horrors of the gallows and the scaffold – and stopped to watch a man sprinkling the floor to cool it – and then went on to think again.

This scene is a considerable achievement, and alleviated some of the discomfort I had felt about Fagin’s portrayal earlier in the novel.  Dickens has long been accused of antisemitism in his portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist. In 2005, Paul Vallely wrote in the Independent  that Fagin ‘is widely seen as one of the most grotesque Jews in English literature’.  The criticisms go right back to the time of the novel’s publication. In 1854, the Jewish Chronicle asked why ‘Jews alone should be excluded from the ‘sympathizing heart’ of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed’.

There is evidence that Dickens regretted the portrayal.  In 1860, Eliza Davis, whose husband had purchased Dickens’s home in Tavistock Street, wrote to Dickens in protest at his portrayal of Fagin, arguing that he had ‘encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew’, and that he had done a great wrong to the Jewish people. At first, Dickens reacted defensively to Davis’s criticism, but then he halted the printing of Oliver Twist in book form, and changed the text for the parts of the book that had not been set, which is why Fagin is called ‘the Jew’ 257 times in the first 38 chapters, but barely at all in the next 179 references to him.  But we are still left with descriptions like this:

The mud lay thick upon the stones, and a black mist hung over the streets; the rain fell sluggishly down, and everything felt cold and clammy to the touch. It seemed just the night when it befitted such a being as the Jew to be abroad. As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved, crawling forth by night in search of some rich offal for a meal.

Fagin waits to be hanged (Cruickshank)

Dickens (who had extensive knowledge of London street life and child exploitation) explained that he had made Fagin Jewish because ‘it unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that the class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew’. He also claimed that by calling Fagin a Jew he had meant no imputation against the Jewish faith, saying in a letter, ‘I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfect good faith in such transactions as I have ever had with them…’.

Bill Sikes’ last chance

So, how to sum up this, perhaps the most familiar of Dickens’ novels?  Scott Boulding in ‘The Social Satire of Oliver Twist’ puts it like this:

Taken as a whole, Oliver Twist is one of the most emotionally potent and devastating social satires in the English language. Even modern readers who have never heard of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 hear Dickens’s message loudly and clearly. After almost 170 years, the story of the neglected parish orphan who plaintively asked for more has lost none of its power to move. Those critics who complain about the highly contrived plot, wherein all the loose ends are neatly tied up by a preposterous series of deus-ex-machina coincidences (all the principal, surviving characters turn out to be related either by birth or by marriage) are missing the point entirely. This is not a plot-driven novel. It is more like a parable in the sense that its driving force is its moral (the lesson Dickens wants society to learn).

For Ackroyd, Dickens gives us a London that few of his contemporaries or predecessors had seen:

He had seen the horror and the filth of London as somehow integral to its being, the shadow which it must necessarily cast, and he had populated that darkness with figures which seemed to emerge and return to it naturally.  His own childhood experiences had been a fall into the centre of the city, and that fall had broken him open – leaving him always vulnerable, always aware, of that ‘suffered experience’ which created London just as surely as its stones and bricks had done.

Finally, Jane Smiley, in Charles Dickens, reminds us of the significance of this novel – for Dickens, and for English Literature:

Between 1 December 1833, when his first piece ran in the Monthly Magazine, and 9 November 1838,when Oliver Twist was published in three volumes, Charles Dickens had become the most important literary figure of his day, the first Victorian novelist.

Re-reading Dickens: The Pickwick Papers

Pickwick addresses the Club

I’ve embarked on a project that should keep me occupied for a while.  It’s my own celebration of this year’s Dickens biennial.  I’ve started reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography, with the intention of breaking off at each point in the narrative where Dickens writes a novel – and reading (or re-reading) it.  I’ve just finished The Pickwick Papers which I first read as a teenager (though I think I can’t have finished it – the last third of the book seemed unfamiliar).  I probably gained a great deal more from reading Pickwick in my sixties – the contrasts between youth and age, and Pickwick’s determination to get out more now that he ‘s retired, are instantly recognisable.

The book was not conceived of as a homogeneous novel, its genesis being an idea for a series of engravings featuring Cockney sporting life, to be published in monthly instalments.  The accompanying text was envisaged as secondary to the images, the work of caricaturist Robert Seymour.  The proposal  was turned down by several writers before the publishers finally asked 24-year-old Charles Dickens to provide the text. Dickens accepted, but insisted that the text should be preeminent, with the engravings complementing the story.

Seymour,an established artist who had recently hit a lean patch, was not impressed with the direction in which Dickens was steering the project, nor with his boldness in suggesting changes to his illustrations. After completing the engravings for the first monthly part, Seymour, who had a history of mental health problems, committed suicide, leaving only three illustrations for the next issue.  Dickens announced his death in a perface to the second edition.

The original 1836 cover, designed by Robert Seymour

As Seymour’s replacement, the publishers hired 20-year-old Hablot Knight Browne – and a lasting relationship was fortuitously born. Browne took the nickname ‘Phiz’ to complement Dickens’ pseudonymn ‘Boz’, and went on to illustrate Dickens’ work for the next 23 years. Dickens now took an active role in reshaping the project:  the format was changed, increasing the ratio of text to illustrations , and, crucially, Dickens abandoned the original concept of the ‘sporting club’, which had been Seymour’s idea.

Reading Ackroyd’s biography, you get a powerful sense of Dickens’ soaring confidence, and how hard he drove himself at this time.  It was only three years since his  first story had been published in the London periodical, Monthly Magazine. A year later, in 1834, he had started work as a political journalist, reporting on parliamentary debates and travelling across Britain to cover election campaigns for the Morning Chronicle.  He was also writing sketches for several periodicals, some of which were collected in Sketches by Boz,  published in 1836.

Even while he was embarked on The Pickwick Papers, Dickens accepted the job as editor of Bentley’s Miscellany which involved reading around 80 manuscripts a month for possible publication in the magazine, as well as proof-reading, revising and cutting articles. To top it all, Dickens contributed an article himself every month, called The Mudfrog Papers. The second of these articles introduced the character of Oliver Twist, and soon the conception of narrating the progress of the deprived and abused child had fired his imagination, with Oliver being spun off into a separate monthly serial from February 1837.  He was writing the opening chapters, filled with suffering and abandonment, just as he was also writing some of the most comic passages in The Pickwick Papers concerning  the misadventures of Bob Sawyer and the skating party at Dingley Dell.

One of the things that immediately strikes the reader of The Pickwick Papers, is the manner in which a cohesive novel gradually emerges out of a series of sketches. There’s a real sense of Dickens’ growing confidence in his material after the first three of four instalments.  In fact, John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson, in Dickens at Work, stated that Pickwick was ‘unique among his novels’, in being a response to an external demand, instead of ‘gradually taking shape in his mind’.  The first section of the book seems less of a novel and more a series of comic episodes.

The initial four or five parts made little impact until suddenly Dickens began to shape the work into a coherent whole.  The subsequent parts grew increasingly more popular until, according to Dickens’ friend and biographer John Forster, ‘people at this time talked of nothing else … every class, the high equally with the low, were attracted to it’.  In particular, with the introduction of Sam Weller in chapter ten, the book became a publishing phenomenon, with bootleg copies, theatrical performances, Sam Weller joke books, and the print run shooting up from an initial 1000 copies to 40,000 copies. Pickwick had made Dickens a celebrity.

Evidence of this comes from one of Dickens’ first biographers, cited by Ackroyd, who, at the time of the novel’s appearance, had visited a locksmith in Liverpool:  ‘I found him reading Pickwick … to an audience of twenty persons, literally, men, women and children’.  They had hired the book from a local circulating library for twopence a day because they could not afford a shilling for the monthly number.  Ackroyd adds:

This was the audience which Charles Dickens had found – not only the judges and the doctors, but the labouring poor.  By some miracle of genius he had found a voice which penetrated the hearts of the high as well as of the low.  Truly he had created a national audience.

Dickens felt proud of his creation, too, writing to his publishers in November 1836, seven months after the appearance of the first number:

If I were to live a hundred years and write three novels in each, I should never be so proud of any of them as I am of Pickwick, feeling as I do, that it has made its own way, and hoping, as I must own I do hope, that long after my hand is withered as the pen it held, Pickwick will be found on many a dusty shelf with many a better work.

Dickens biographer, John Forster later wrote that Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller are ‘the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of Londoners’. Dickens had read and loved Cervantes’ canonical work, but if he envisaged parallels, they took a while developing: Weller doesn’t make his appearance until chapter ten.  Nevertheless, you can see the similarities. Pickwick is a quixotic hero, steadfast in the pursuit of justice, and capable of enduring hardships and practical jokes. He has a bumbling and bulky appearance, and though he might appear ridiculous, he attracts love and respect despite the laughter.  And there are similarities between the passages that evoke the mornings of each man’s setting forth on his adventures.


That punctual servant of all work, the sun, had just risen, and begun to strike a light on the morning of the thirteenth of May, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-seven, when Mr. Samuel Pickwick burst like another sun from his slumbers, threw open his chamber window, and looked out upon the world beneath.  Goswell Street was at his feet, Goswell Street was on his right hand – as far as the eye could reach, Goswell Street extended on his left; and the opposite side of Goswell Street was over the way.  ‘Such’, thought Mr. Pickwick, ‘are the narrow views of those philosophers who, content with examining the things that lie before them, look not to the truths which are hidden beyond.  As well might I be content to gaze on Goswell Street for ever, without one effort to penetrate to the hidden countries which on every side surround it.’  And having given vent to this beautiful reflection, Mr. Pickwick proceeded to put himself into his clothes, and his clothes into his portmanteau.

Don Quixote:

So, without giving notice of his intention to anyone, and without anybody seeing him, one morning before the dawning of the day (which was one of the hottest of the month of July) he donned his suit of armour, mounted Rocinante with his patched-up helmet on, braced his buckler, took his lance, and by the back door of the yard sallied forth upon the plain in the highest contentment and satisfaction at seeing with what ease he had made a beginning with his grand purpose.

As Pickwick unfolds, we begin to distinguish themes and tropes that characterise Dickens’ work.  Indeed, he tries out several ideas that reappear in later novels – the satirical savaging of lawyers and evangelical religion, the condemnation confining debtors in prison, and the celebration of Christmas, to give just a few examples.

And then there’s Dickens’ unparalleled ability to capture the voices of characters from all social strata.  One of my favourite examples is this passage, in which Dickens has just introduced the as-yet unnamed Jingle:

‘Heads, heads – take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard.  ‘Terrible place – dangerous work – other day – five children – mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches – forgot the arch – crash -knock -children look round – mother’s head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in – head of a family off – shocking, shocking! Looking at Whitehall, sir? – fine place – little window – somebody else’s head off there, eh, sir? – he didn’t keep a sharp look-out enough either – eh, Sir, eh?’

‘I am ruminating,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘on the strange mutability of human affairs.’

‘Ah! I see – in at the palace door one day, out at the window the next.  Philosopher, Sir?’

‘An observer of human nature, Sir,’ said Mr. Pickwick.

Sam Weller, too, has a distinctive Cockney voice that perfectly encapsulates his tough but sympathetic common-sense, his wit and scepticism born of hard experience. Baffling puns and similes frequent his speech.  This is the scene in which he appears for the first time – in the courtyard of the White Hart inn in Southwark:

 In the Borough especially, there still remain some half dozen old inns, which have preserved their external features unchanged, and which have escaped alike the rage for public improvement, and the encroachments of private speculation. Great, rambling, queer, old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories, supposing we should ever be reduced to the lamentable necessity of inventing any, and that the world should exist long enough to exhaust the innumerable veracious legends connected with old London Bridge, and its adjacent neighbourhood on the Surrey side.

It was in the yard of one of these inns – of no less celebrated a one than the White Hart – that a man was busily employed in brushing the dirt off a pair of boots, early on the morning succeeding the events narrated in the last chapter. He was habited in a coarse-striped waistcoat, with black calico sleeves, and blue glass buttons; drab breeches and leggings. A bright red handkerchief was wound in a very loose and unstudied style round his neck, and an old white hat was carelessly thrown on one side of his head. There were two rows of boots before him, one cleaned and the other dirty, and at every addition he made to the clean row, he paused from his work, and contemplated its results with evident satisfaction.

The yard presented none of that bustle and activity which are the usual characteristics of a large coach inn. Three or four lumbering wagons, each with a pile of goods beneath its ample canopy, about the height of the second-floor window of an ordinary house, were stowed away beneath a lofty roof which extended over one end of the yard; and another, which was probably to commence its journey that morning, was drawn out into the open space. A double tier of bed-room galleries, with old clumsy balustrades, ran round two sides of the straggling area, and a double row of bells to correspond, sheltered from the weather by a little sloping roof, hung over the door leading to the bar and coffee-room. Two or three gigs and chaise-carts were wheeled up under different little sheds and pent-houses; and the occasional heavy tread of a cart-horse, or rattling of a chain at the further end of the yard, announced to anybody who cared about the matter, that the stable lay in that direction. When we add that a few boys in smock frocks were lying asleep on heavy packages, woolpacks, and other articles that were scattered about on heaps of straw, we have described as fully as need be the general appearance of the yard of the White Hart Inn, High Street, Borough, on the particular morning in question.

A passage that illustrates Sam Weller’s straightforwardness and refusal to be bowed by authority is this, from Pickwick’s trial for breach of promise:

Serjeant Buzfuz now rose with more importance than he had yet exhibited, if that were possible, and vociferated; ‘Call Samuel Weller.’

It was quite unnecessary to call Samuel Weller; for Samuel Weller stepped briskly into the box the instant his name was pronounced; and placing his hat on the floor, and his arms on the rail, took a bird’s-eye view of the Bar, and a comprehensive survey of the Bench, with a remarkably cheerful and lively aspect. ‘What’s your name, sir?’ inquired the judge.

‘Sam Weller, my Lord,’ replied that gentleman.

‘Do you spell it with a “V” or a “W”?’ inquired the judge.

‘That depends upon the taste and fancy of the speller, my Lord,’ replied Sam; ‘I never had occasion to spell it more than once or twice in my life, but I spells it with a “V.” ‘

Here a voice in the gallery exclaimed aloud, ‘Quite right too, Samivel, quite right.  Put it down a “we,” my Lord, put it down a “we.”‘ ‘Who is that, who dares address the court?’ said the little judge, looking up.  ‘Usher.’

‘Yes, my Lord.’

‘Bring that person here instantly.’

‘Yes, my Lord.’

But as the usher didn’t find the person, he didn’t bring him; and, after a great commotion, all the people who had got up to look for the culprit, sat down again.  The little judge turned to the witness as soon as his indignation would allow him to speak, and said –

‘Do you know who that was, sir?’

‘I rayther suspect it was my father, my lord,’ replied Sam.

‘Do you see him here now?’ said the judge.

‘No, I don’t, my Lord,’ replied Sam, staring right up into the lantern at the roof of the court.

‘If you could have pointed him out, I would have committed him instantly,’ said the judge. Sam bowed his acknowledgments and turned, with unimpaired cheerfulness of countenance, towards Serjeant Buzfuz.

‘Now, Mr. Weller,’ said Serjeant Buzfuz.

‘Now, sir,’ replied Sam.

‘I believe you are in the service of Mr. Pickwick, the defendant in this case?  Speak up, if you please, Mr. Weller.’

‘I mean to speak up, Sir,’ replied Sam; ‘I am in the service o’ that ‘ere gen’l’man, and a wery good service it is.’

‘Little to do, and plenty to get, I suppose?’ said Serjeant Buzfuz, with jocularity. ‘Oh, quite enough to get, Sir, as the soldier said ven they ordered him three hundred and fifty lashes,’ replied Sam.

‘You must not tell us what the soldier, or any other man, said, Sir,’ interposed the judge; ‘it’s not evidence.’

‘Wery good, my Lord,’ replied Sam.

‘Do you recollect anything particular happening on the morning when you were first engaged by the defendant; eh, Mr. Weller?’ said Serjeant Buzfuz.

‘Yes, I do, sir,’ replied Sam.

‘Have the goodness to tell the jury what it was.’

‘I had a reg’lar new fit out o’ clothes that mornin’, gen’l’men of the jury,’ said Sam, ‘and that was a wery partickler and uncommon circumstance vith me in those days.’

Hereupon there was a general laugh; and the little judge, looking with an angry countenance over his desk, said, ‘You had better be careful, Sir.’

‘So Mr. Pickwick said at the time, my Lord,’ replied Sam; ‘and I was wery careful o’ that ‘ere suit o’ clothes; wery careful indeed, my Lord.’

The judge looked sternly at Sam for full two minutes, but Sam’s features were so perfectly calm and serene that the judge said nothing, and motioned Serjeant Buzfuz to proceed.

The trial forms the centrepiece of Dickens’ savage portrayal lawyers in Pickwick. Dickens had worked as a clerk in the Inns of Court and had come away from the experience with little respect for the legal profession. In Pickwick, as in subsequent novels, he portrayed lawyers such as Buzfuz, and his employers Dodson and Fogg, as venal and frequently fraudulent supporters of the established order, masters of prevarication and double-dealing. Some of the most memorable scenes in Pickwick Papers take place in courtrooms and make fun of legal procedures.

The trial

In Little Dorrit some twenty years later, Dickens would focus his anger on the institutions of debtors’ prisons – in which those who owed money were imprisoned, unable to work, until they had repaid their debts. In that novel, the prison in was the Marshalsea where Dickens’ own father had been imprisoned.  In Pickwick, Mr. Pickwick is consigned to the Fleet debtor’s prison after his landlady, Mrs. Bardell, brings a breach of promise suit against him and wins.  The innocent Pickwick refuses to pay the damages, opting instead to imprisoned. Pickwick is appalled at conditions in the prison, where he remains for three months.

It’s at this point in the narrative that we begin to discern Pickwick’s growth as a human being.  In the introduction to the first edition in book form Dickens explained:

It has been observed of Mr. Pickwick, that there is a decided change in his character, as these pages proceed, and that he becomes more good and more sensible…in real life the peculiarities and oddities of a man who has anything whimsical about him, generally impress us first, and that it is not until we are better acquainted with him that we usually begin to look below these superficial traits, and to know the better part of him.

Pickwick, in his own words,  becomes more ‘sensible’ after he goes to debtor’s prison.  He gains a knowledge of the world that precludes the possibility of him continuing to be ‘whimsical’. During his time in prison, Pickwick’s surroundings lead him to such desperation that he proclaims, ‘My head aches with these scenes, and my heart too. Henceforth I will be a prisoner in my own room’.

These changes also reflect the growth of Dickens’ ability to reflect Pickwick’s interior thoughts.  In a scene near the end of the book, Pickwick travels to Birmingham to break the news of his friend Winkle’s marriage to Winkle’s father, whose approval the son has failed to seek.  Pickwick knows it’s going to be a difficult encounter, and he is stressed even more by the fact that the dissolute Bob Sawyer has tagged along.  Pickwick looks out the window of the carriage as they approach the town and observes:

The straggling cottages by the road-side, the dingy hue of every object visible, the murky atmosphere, the paths of cinders and brick-dust, the deep-red glow of furnace fires in the distance, the volumes of dense smoke issuing heavily forth from high toppling chimneys, blackening and obscuring everything around; the glare of distant lights, and ponderous waggons which toiled along the road, laden with clashing rods of iron, or piled with heavy good.

It’s an example of the vivid descriptive passages that make reading Dickens a great pleasure – and it also reflects the turmoil in Pickwick’s mind.

Dickens has a dig at evangelical religion in the novel, most notably in the character of the reverend Mr. Stiggins, a lazy  man who seems to have no interest in his duties. His red nose, the result of his excessive drinking, is deeply ironic, given that his church firmly advocates temperance.  Dickens, who was a religious man,  portrays Stiggins as lacking true spirituality. In this passage, Sam Weller’s father offers his commentary on the humbug (or, as he puts it, ‘gammon’) of  evangelicals such as Stiggins:

“The worst o’ these here shepherds is, my boy, that they reg’larly turns the heads of all the young ladies, about here. Lord bless their little hearts, they thinks its all right, and don’t know no better; but they’re the wictims o’ gammon, Samivel, they’re the wictims o’ gammon.’

“I s’pose they are,’ said Sam.

“Nothin’ else,’ said Mr. Weller, shaking his head gravely; “and wot aggrawates me, Samivel, is to see ’em a wastin’ all their time and labour in making clothes for copper-coloured people as don’t want ’em, and taking no notice of the flesh-coloured Christians as do. If I’d my vay, Samivel, I’d just stick some o’ these here lazy shepherds behind a heavy wheelbarrow, and run ’em up and down a fourteen-inch-wide plank all day. That ‘ud shake the nonsense out of ’em, if anythin’ vould.”

Mr Pickwick slides

In his biography, Ackroyd observes, ‘In view of the fact that Dickens can be said to have almost singlehandedly created the modern idea of Christmas, it is interesting to note that in fact during the first eight years of his life there was a white Christmas every year; so sometimes does reality actually exist before the idealised image’.  A Christmas Carol was, of course, the book that immortalised that idealised image, but the first of his many Christmastime scenes appears in Pickwick Papers, down in Dingley Dell:

Numerous indeed are the hearts to which Christmas brings a brief season of happiness and enjoyment.  How many families, whose members have been dispersed and scattered far and wide, in the restless struggles of life, are then reunited, and meet once again in that happy state of companionship and mutual goodwill, which is a source of such pure and unalloyed delight; and one so incompatible with the cares and sorrows of the world, that the religious belief of the most civilised nations, and the rude traditions of the roughest savages, alike number it among the first joys of a future condition of existence, provided for the blessed and happy!  How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken!

We write these words now, many miles distant from the spot at which, year after year, we met on that day, a merry and joyous circle. Many of the hearts that throbbed so gaily then, have ceased to beat; many of the looks that shone so brightly then, have ceased to glow; the hands we grasped, have grown cold; the eyes we sought, have hid their lustre in the grave; and yet the old house, the room, the merry voices and smiling faces, the jest, the laugh, the most minute and trivial circumstance connected with those happy meetings, crowd upon our mind at each recurrence of the season, as if the last assemblage had been but yesterday. Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days, that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the sailor and the traveller thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!

Conviviality at Bob Sawyer’s

Which brings me to the subject of drink.  One of the things that struck me most forcibly on re-reading Pickwick was the copious consumption of alcohol that takes place in almost every chapter.  This is fairly typical:

This constant succession of glasses produced considerable effect upon Mr. Pickwick; his countenance beamed with the most sunny smiles, laughter played around his lips, and good-humoured merriment twinkled in his eye. Yielding by degrees to the influence of the exciting liquid, rendered more so by the heat, Mr. Pickwick expressed a strong desire to recollect a song which lie had heard in his infancy, and the attempt proving abortive, sought to stimulate his memory with more glasses of punch, which appeared to have quite a contrary effect; for, from forgetting the words of the song, he began to forget how to articulate any words at all; and finally, after rising to his legs to address the company in an eloquent speech, he fell into the barrow, and fast asleep, simultaneously.

Another character, Dickens tells us, was fond of hot punch (one of the favourite tipples in the book, along with shots of rum and brandy, each with additions of hot water, usually taken as a nightcap):

I venture to say he was  very fond of hot punch… He ordered another tumbler, and then another ― I am not quite
certain whether he didn’t order another after that […] he emptied the fourth tumbler of punch and ordered a fifth.

Throughout the Pickwickians’ stay in Dingley Dell during the Christmas holidays, Dickens consistently emphasises the convivial effects of
moderate alcohol consumption and shows it producing happiness and enjoyment to the drinkers:

‘let us drink their healths, and wish them prolonged life, and every blessing’ […] Pickwick proposed the old lady. Mr Snodgrass proposed Mr Wardle; Mr Wardle proposed Mr Snodgrass […] all was happiness and festivity’

Almost all friendships are sealed with alcoholic liquors, and Pickwick thinks that a ‘bottle of wine would at once have purchased the
utmost good-fellowship of a few choice spirits, without any more formal ceremony of introduction’.  On another ocassion, ‘the hot elder wine, well qualified with brandy and spice, go round, and round, and round again; and sound was the sleep and pleasant were the dreams that followed’.

Dickens is adept at incorporating sharp social commentary with his stories, and we can see it no less in Pickwick.  I’ve already noted his satirical portrayal of the legal profession, evangelist preachers, and debtors’ prisons, and in the celebrated chapters concerning the Eatanswill elections he takes on the unreformed political system:

We will frankly acknowledge that, up to the period of our being first immersed in the voluminous papers of the Pickwick Club, we had never heard of Eatanswill; we will with equal candour admit that we have in vain searched for proof of the actual existence of such a place at the present day. […]

It appears, then, that the Eatanswill people, like the people of many other small towns, considered themselves of the utmost and most mighty importance, and that every man in Eatanswill, conscious of the weight that attached to his example, felt himself bound to unite, heart and soul, with one of the two great parties that divided the town–the Blues and the Buffs. Now the Blues lost no opportunity of opposing the Buffs, and the Buffs lost no opportunity of opposing the Blues; and the consequence was, that whenever the Buffs and Blues met together at public meeting, town-hall, fair, or market, disputes and high words arose between them. With these dissensions it is almost superfluous to say that everything in Eatanswill was made a party question. If the Buffs proposed to new skylight the market-place, the Blues got up public meetings, and denounced the proceeding; if the Blues proposed the erection of an additional pump in the High Street, the Buffs rose as one man and stood aghast at the enormity. There were Blue shops and Buff shops, Blue inns and Buff inns–there was a Blue aisle and a Buff aisle in the very church itself.

Of course it was essentially and indispensably necessary that each of these powerful parties should have its chosen organ and representative: and, accordingly, there were two newspapers in the town–the Eatanswill Gazette and the Eatanswill Independent; the former advocating Blue principles, and the latter conducted on grounds decidedly Buff. Fine newspapers they were. Such leading articles, and such spirited attacks! – ‘Our worthless contemporary, the Gazette ‘ – ‘That disgraceful and dastardly journal, the Independent’ – ‘That false and scurrilous print, the Independent’ – ‘That vile and slanderous calumniator, the Gazette;’ these, and other spirit-stirring denunciations, were strewn plentifully over the columns of each, in every number, and excited feelings of the most intense delight and indignation in the bosoms of the townspeople. […]

Then Horatio Fizkin, Esquire, of Fizkin Lodge, near Eatanswill, presented himself for the purpose of addressing the electors; which he no sooner did, than the band employed by the Honourable Samuel Slumkey, commenced performing with a power to which their strength in the morning was a trifle; in return for which, the Buff crowd belaboured the heads and shoulders of the Blue crowd; on which the Blue crowd endeavoured to dispossess themselves of their very unpleasant neighbours the Buff crowd; and a scene of struggling, and pushing, and fighting, succeeded, to which we can no more do justice than the mayor could, although he issued imperative orders to twelve constables to seize the ringleaders, who might amount in number to two hundred and fifty, or thereabouts. […]

The speeches of the two candidates, though differing in every other respect, afforded a beautiful tribute to the merit and high worth of the electors of Eatanswill. Both expressed their opinion that a more independent, a more enlightened, a more public- spirited, a more noble-minded, a more disinterested set of men than those who had promised to vote for him, never existed on earth; each darkly hinted his suspicions that the electors in the opposite interest had certain swinish and besotted infirmities which rendered them unfit for the exercise of the important duties they were called upon to discharge. Fizkin expressed his readiness to do anything he was wanted: Slumkey, his determination to do nothing that was asked of him. Both said that the trade, the manufactures, the commerce, the prosperity of Eatanswill, would ever be dearer to their hearts than any earthly object; and each had it in his power to state, with the utmost confidence, that he was the man who would eventually be returned. […]

During the whole time of the polling, the town was in a perpetual fever of excitement. Everything was conducted on the most liberal and delightful scale. Excisable articles were remarkably cheap at all the public-houses; and spring vans paraded the streets for the accommodation of voters who were seized with any temporary dizziness in the head – an epidemic which prevailed among the electors, during the contest, to a most alarming extent, and under the influence of which they might frequently be seen lying on the pavements in a state of utter insensibility. A small body of electors remained unpolled on the very last day. They were calculating and reflecting persons, who had not yet been convinced by the arguments of either party, although they had frequent conferences with each. One hour before the close of the poll, Mr. Perker solicited the honour of a private interview with these intelligent, these noble, these patriotic men. it was granted. His arguments were brief but satisfactory. They went in a body to the poll; and when they returned, the Honourable Samuel Slumkey, of Slumkey Hall, was returned also.

Later on in the narrative there’s another fine piece of social commentary in the chapter describing the Muggleton cricket match:

Everybody whose genius has a topographical bent knows perfectly well that Muggleton is a corporate town, with a mayor, burgesses, and freemen; and anybody who has consulted the addresses of the mayor to the freemen, or the freemen to the mayor, or both to the corporation, or all three to Parliament, will learn from thence what they ought to have known before, that Muggleton is an ancient and loyal borough, mingling a zealous advocacy of Christian principles with a devoted attachment to commercial rights; in demonstration whereof, the mayor, corporation, and other inhabitants, have presented at divers times, no fewer than one thousand four hundred and twenty petitions against the continuance of negro slavery abroad, and an equal number against any interference with the factory system at home; sixty-eight in favour of the sale of livings in the Church, and eighty-six for abolishing Sunday trading in the street.

Dickens was acutely observant of social class distinctions, in Pickwick no less than his other novels. Just one example of this comes in the chapter when Pickwick and Sam Weller visist Bath.  Sam gets invited to a ‘soiree’ for servants of a certain stature in life. When the greengrocer arrives to serve the food at this gathering, the following interaction takes place. Mr. Tackle, one of servants in charge of the ‘swore’, as Sam calls it,

took the chair… The greengrocer put on a pair of wash-leather gloves to hand the plates with, and stationed himself behind Mr Tuckle’s chair.

“Harris,” said Mr. Tuckle, in a commanding tone.

“Sir,” said the greengrocer.

“Have you got your gloves on?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then take the kiver off.”

“Yes, sir.”

The greengrocer did as he was told, with a show of great humility, and obsequiously handed Mr. Tuckle the carving knife.

There’s very little that escapes Dickens notice.  Here he is in a laugh-out-loud passage that eviscerates the feeble attempts of amateur poets:

‘She dotes on poetry, sir. She adores it; I may say that her whole soul and mind are wound up, and entwined with it. She has produced some delightful pieces, herself, sir. You may have met with her ‘Ode to an Expiring Frog,’ sir.”

‘I don’t think I have,’ said Mr. Pickwick.

‘You astonish me, Sir,’ said Mr. Leo Hunter.  ‘It created an
immense sensation.  It was signed with an “L” and eight stars, and
appeared originally in a lady’s magazine.  It commenced–

Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;
 Can I unmoved see thee dying
 On a log
 Expiring frog!

‘Beautiful!’ said Mr. Pickwick.

‘Fine,’ said Mr. Leo Hunter; ‘so simple.’

‘Very,’ said Mr. Pickwick.

A sense of goodwill, of jollity, and of joy pervades The Pickwick Papers.  There is no cynicism in Dickens’ portrayal of Pickwick as a benevolent man of simple manners and tastes, the best of men. I smiled often as I read, and sometimes laughed out loud.  Pickwick Papers is a happy book, and none the worse for that.

See also

In Dickens footsteps (3): a walk through the City

In Dickens footsteps (3): a walk through the City

The day begins to break, and soon there is the hum and noise of life. Those who have spent the night on doorsteps and cold stones crawl off to beg; they who have slept in beds come forth to their occupation, too, and business is astir.
Master Humphrey’s Clock, p56

On my last day in London, and still pursuing the ghost of Charles Dickens through the streets of the capital, I decided to follow the Dickens walk ‘Heart of the City’ which is available as a podcast on The Guardian website.

First, though, I took myself to Wellington Street, off the Strand, where a blue plaque records that the weekly magazine  Household Words, begun by Dickens in 1850 until 1859 and then continuing as All the Year Round had its office here. The ground floor is now occupied by the Charles Dickens Coffee House.  Something told me it wasn’t worth going in.

North from here, at the southern fringe of Bloomsbury, once stood Dickens’ grandest London home, Tavistock House, its opulence testifying to Dickens’ status, popularity and success by the mid 19th century.  But it is also only a short distance to Gower Street North, where as a child he had experienced poverty and shame as his father slipped into bankruptcy, forcing Charles to work in Warren’s Blacking Factory.  That was situated just south of here, on Hungerford Stairs by the river, near the present Charing Cross railway station.

St Mary's Hill

I took the tube to Monument.  It was the first time I’d seen the 200 foot high column, designed by Christopher Wren, that marks the site on Pudding Lane where the Great Fire of London began in 1666 – that’s the disadvantage of always travelling around London on the underground.  It towers above the alleyways just outside the tube station. Walking past Pudding Lane, I came to St Mary’s Hill, a narrow alley winding uphill away from the river.

St Mary at Hill churchyard

The theme of the Guardian walk is the way in which Dickens saw the City of London change from being a place where people lived to one where people only worked, as it was gradually taken over by the banks, law firms and financial institutions.  The walk began in Billingsgate at the church of St Mary at Hill which is squeezed into a small site surrounded by Victorian office buildings.    There is a tiny churchyard with some gravestones – but no dead are buried here.  Parliament outlawed new burials in the City of London in Dickens’ day, forcing the closure of its churchyards to new burials.  It’s a symbol of of the way in which the City was turning into ‘a city of the dead, with the living just coming in to work’.  As a child, Dickens experienced the City as a kind of village community; by the time he died, 80% of the population were gone, replaced by office blocks and warehouses.

St Mary at Hill: notice of closure of burial ground
St Mary at Hill: 18thc gravestone

When I think I deserve particularly well of myself, and have earned the right to enjoy a little treat, I stroll from Covent-garden into the City of London, after business-hours there, on a Saturday, or – better yet – on a Sunday, and roam about its deserted nooks and corners. It is necessary to the full enjoyment of these journeys that they should be made in summer-time, for then the retired spots that I love to haunt, are at their idlest and dullest. A gentle fall of rain is not objectionable, and a warm mist sets off my favourite retreats to decided advantage.

Among these, City Churchyards hold a high place. Such strange churchyards hide in the City of London; churchyards sometimes so entirely detached from churches, always so pressed upon by houses; so small, so rank, so silent, so forgotten, except by the few people who ever look down into them from their smoky windows. As I stand peeping in through the iron gates and rails, I can peel the rusty metal off, like bark from an old tree. The illegible tombstones are all lop-sided, the grave-mounds lost their shape in the rains of a hundred years ago, the Lombardy Poplar or Plane-Tree that was once a drysalter’s daughter and several common-councilmen, has withered like those worthies, and its departed leaves are dust beneath it. Contagion of slow ruin overhangs the place. The discoloured tiled roofs of the environing buildings stand so awry, that they can hardly be proof against any stress of weather. Old crazy stacks of chimneys seem to look down as they overhang, dubiously calculating how far they will have to fall. In an angle of the walls, what was once the tool-house of the grave-digger rots away, encrusted with toadstools. Pipes and spouts for carrying off the rain from the encompassing gables, broken or feloniously cut for old lead long ago, now let the rain drip and splash as it list, upon the weedy earth. Sometimes there is a rusty pump somewhere near, and, as I look in at the rails and meditate, I hear it working under an unknown hand with a creaking protest: as though the departed in the churchyard urged, ‘Let us lie here in peace; don’t suck us up and drink us!’
The Uncommercial Traveller, chapter 23, ‘The City of the Absent’

Watermen's Hall, St-Mary-at-Hill

Dickens was obsessed with the Thames.  It runs through his novels, not only as a location but as a mood.  As with the City, he saw the feelings and the use of the Thames change in his own lifetime.  In his childhood, the nation’s war and commerce were conducted on sailing ships which couldn’t be directly unloaded onto the wharves because they were too big and bulky.  So light cargo boats, called lighters and operated by lightermen, transferred goods to shore where they would would be loaded onto carts, or men’s backs.

The Company of Watermen was created by an Act of 1555 to regulate the services and charges of  all watermen and wherrymen working between Gravesend and Windsor. The Act of 1555 also introduced apprenticeships for a term of one year for all boys wishing to learn the watermen’s trade.  The present Watermen’s Hall dates from 1780 and remains the only original Georgian Hall in the City of London, and is a perfect example of eighteenth century domestic architecture.

James McNeill Whistler, 'The Pool' 1859

He crossed by St Paul’s and went down, at a long angle, almost to the water’s edge, through some of the crooked and descending streets which lie (and lay more crookedly and closely then) between the river and Cheapside. Passing, now the mouldy hall of some obsolete Worshipful Company, now the illuminated windows of a Congregationless Church that seemed to be waiting for some adventurous Belzoni to dig it out and discover its history; passing silent warehouses and wharves, and here and there a narrow alley leading to the river, where a wretched little bill, FOUND DROWNED, was weeping on the wet wall; he came at last to the house he sought. An old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square court-yard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank (which is saying much) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty; behind it, a jumble of roots. It was a double house, with long, narrow, heavily-framed windows. Many years ago, it had had it in its mind to slide down sideways; it had been propped up, however, and was leaning on some half-dozen gigantic crutches: which gymnasium for the neighbouring cats, weather-stained, smoke-blackened, and overgrown with weeds, appeared in these latter days to be no very sure reliance.
Little Dorrit, chapter 3

Turning onto Eastcheap, the walker is directed to look over the entrance to the HSBC bank at the corner of Lovat Lane. There, on a building erected in the late 19th century, a freize of camels laden with goods records the fact that Eastcheap had once been where the headquarters of the East India Company were located.

They stood in the city streets upon a snowy Christmas morning … The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.

The Grocers’! Oh the Grocers’! Nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses. It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, clashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Christmas daws to peck at if they chose.
A Christmas Carol, Stave 3

The next stop was Leadenhall Market which dates back to the 14th century and which once specialised in meat, game and poultry (it also stands at what was the centre of Roman London).  It ‘s still dedicated to eating, but now it’s a rather upmarket covered arcade hosting a variety of eating places for City office workers and tourists.  Only one butcher remains (above), and above the windows of an eatery there are still the metal bars and hooks from which, I presume, hung game or haunches of meat (below).

Dickens, who had frequently gone hungry as a child, loved food and incorporated lavish details of meals in his novels.  He loved Leadenhall Market as much as Covent Garden (which only dealt in fruit and flowers): to him it represented absolute abundance.  It supplied all the eating houses of the City, the wealthy livery companies, the Mansion House with the very best of produce, including live game like ducks and geese.  As Orwell wrote in his study of Dickens:

It is not merely a coincidence that Dickens never writes about agriculture and writes endlessly about food. He was a Cockney, and London is the centre of the earth in rather the same sense that the belly is the centre of the body. It is a city of consumers.

Up through a network of alleys I arrived in a small square, where, squashed into the top right corner is the thinnest pub I’ve ever seen – the George and Vulture Tavern, beloved of Mr Pickwick:

Mr. Pickwick resolved on immediately returning to London, with the view of becoming acquainted with the proceedings which had been taken against him, in the meantime, by Messrs. Dodson and Fogg. Acting upon this resolution with all the energy and decision of his character, he mounted to the back seat of the first coach which left Ipswich on the morning after the memorable occurrences detailed at length in the two preceding chapters; and accompanied by his three friends, and Mr. Samuel Weller, arrived in the metropolis, in perfect health and safety, the same evening.

Here the friends, for a short time, separated. Messrs. Tupman, Winkle, and Snodgrass repaired to their several homes to make such preparations as might be requisite for their forthcoming visit to Dingley Dell; and Mr. Pickwick and Sam took up their present abode in very good, old–fashioned, and comfortable quarters, to wit, the George and Vulture Tavern and Hotel, George Yard, Lombard Street.

Mr. Pickwick had dined, finished his second pint of particular port, pulled his silk handkerchief over his head, put his feet on the fender, and thrown himself back in an easy–chair, when the entrance of Mr. Weller with his carpet–bag, aroused him from his tranquil meditation.

‘Sam,’ said Mr. Pickwick. ‘Sir,’ said Mr. Weller.

‘I have just been thinking, Sam,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘that having left a good many things at Mrs. Bardell’s, in Goswell Street, I ought to arrange for taking them away, before I leave town again.’

‘Wery good, sir,’ replied Mr. Weller.

‘I could send them to Mr. Tupman’s, for the present, Sam,’ continued Mr. Pickwick, ‘but before we take them away, it is necessary that they should be looked up, and put together. I wish you would step up to Goswell Street, Sam, and arrange about it.’

‘At once, Sir?’ inquired Mr. Weller.

‘At once,’ replied Mr. Pickwick. […]

Mr. Pickwick drew the silk handkerchief once more over his head, And composed himself for a nap. Mr. Weller promptly walked forth, to execute his commission.
The Pickwick Papers, chapter 26

It’s actually bigger than it looks – the entrance being on the left through the archway (above).

There has been a pub on this site since the 13th century, and the story of the building in the 19th century epitomises the changes that Dickens would have seen taking place.  In the early 19th century it was the centre of a small village community at the heart of the City, but after that became something quite different.  As the City emptied out, it was no longer a place where you were born and died, it was a city of men: in the new business institutions that took over the premises, there were no female employees; even the secretaries were male (though in Pickwick, the George and Vulture does have a pretty barmaid).

It still seemed to be the case today: as I meandered through the maze of narrow alleyways behind the pub, the clientale of nearby eateries and shops seemed to be mainly men.

Mr Dombey’s offices were in a court where there was an old-established stall of choice fruit at the corner: where perambulating merchants, of both sexes, offered for sale at any time between the hours of ten and five, slippers, pocket-books, sponges, dogs’ collars, and Windsor soap, and sometimes a pointer or an oil-painting.
The pointer always came that way, with a view to the Stock Exchange, where a sporting taste (originating generally in bets of new hats) is much in vogue. The other commodities were addressed to the general public; but they were never offered by the vendors to Mr. Dombey. When he appeared, the dealers in those wares fell off respectfully. The principal slipper and dogs’ collar man- who considered himself a public character, and whose portrait was screwed on to an artist’s door in Cheapside–threw up his forefinger to the brim of his hat as Mr. Dombey went by. The ticket-porter, if he were not absent on a job, always ran officiously before to open Mr. Dombey’s office door as wide as possible, and hold it open, with his hat off, while he entered.

The clerks within were not a whit behind-hand in their demonstrations of respect. A solemn hush prevailed, as Mr. Dombey passed through the outer office. The wit of the Counting-House became in a moment as mute, as the row of leathern fire-buckets hanging up behind him. Such vapid and flat daylight as filtered through the ground-glass windows and skylight, leaving a black sediment upon the panes, showed the books and papers, and the figures bending over them, enveloped in a studious gloom, and as much abstracted in appearance, from the world without, as if they were assembled at the bottom of the sea; while a mouldy little strong room in the obscure perspective, where a shady lamp was always burning, might have represented the cavern of some ocean-monster, looking on with a red eye at these mysteries of the deep.
Dombey and Son, chapter 13

Along past Cad the Dandy’s – Tailors and Shirtmakers I arrived in a small, dark courtyard overlooked by Simpson’s restaurant.  It’s a place that would look recognisable, even now, to Dickens.  His first job as a legal clerk was just outside the City, and both that and his second job as a reporter meant that he would have nipped through these lanes on errands almost on a daily basis.  He would have noticed rapid changes taking place: these 18th century buildings at first would have been dwelling houses or taverns, but Dickens would have seen them turned into offices.  People were moving out and clerks were moving in.

Pausing of a quiet Sunday …  it is congenial to pass into the hushed resorts of business. Down the lanes I like to see the carts and waggons huddled together in repose, the cranes idle, and the warehouses shut. Pausing in the alleys behind the closed Banks of mighty Lombard-street, it gives one as good as a rich feeling to think of the broad counters with a rim along the edge, made for telling money out on, the scales for weighing precious metals, the ponderous ledgers, and, above all, the bright copper shovels for shovelling gold. When I draw money, it never seems so much money as when it is shovelled at me out of a bright copper shovel. I like to say, ‘In gold,’ and to see seven pounds musically pouring out of the shovel, like seventy; the Bank appearing to remark to me – I italicise appearing – ‘if you want more of this yellow earth, we keep it in barrows at your service.’To think of the banker’s clerk with his deft finger turning the crisp edges of the Hundred- Pound Notes he has taken in a fat roll out of a drawer, is again to hear the rustling of that delicious south-cash wind. ‘How will you have it?’ I once heard this usual question asked at a Bank Counter of an elderly female, habited in mourning and steeped in simplicity, who answered, open-eyed, crook-fingered, laughing with expectation, ‘Anyhow!’

Calling these things to mind as I stroll among the Banks, I wonder whether the other solitary Sunday man I pass, has designs upon the Banks. For the interest and mystery of the matter, I almost hope he may have, and that his confederate may be at this moment taking impressions of the keys of the iron closets in wax, and that a delightful robbery may be in course of transaction. About College-hill, Mark-lane, and so on towards the Tower, and Dockward, the deserted wine-merchants’ cellars are fine subjects for consideration; but the deserted money-cellars of the Bankers, and their plate-cellars, and their jewel-cellars, what subterranean regions of the Wonderful Lamp are these! And again: possibly some shoeless boy in rags, passed through this street yesterday, for whom it is reserved to be a Banker in the fulness of time, and to be surpassing rich.  Such reverses have been, since the days of Whittington; and were, long before.  I want to know whether the boy has any foreglittering of that glittering fortune now, when he treads these stones, hungry.
The Uncommercial Traveller, chapter 23

The next stop was the Royal Exchange, a centre of trade and commerce for more than 400 years.   It’s just across the road from the Bank of England and round the corner from where once stood South Sea House, home of the South Sea Company that until the 1850s managed the National Debt.  This highlights something about Dickens’ attitude to money.  His quarrel was not with wealth: his great quarrel was with debt, which had ruined his father’s life, and nearly ruined his own. What Dickens hated were usurers, those who charged interest on debt.  He’d have had something to say about present circumstances.

The interior courtyard of the Royal Exchange is now an opulent grazing area for the monied drones of the banks and financial institutions of the streets around.

Strolling about the City as a lost child, I thought of the British Merchant and the Lord Mayor, and was full of reverence. Strolling about it now, I laugh at the sacred liveries of state, and get indignant with the corporation as one of the strongest practical jokes of the present day. What did I know then, about the multitude who are always being disappointed in the City ; who are always expecting to meet a party there, and to receive money there, and whose expectations are never fulfilled?  What did I know then, about that wonderful person, the friend in the City, who is to do so many things for so many people; who is to get this one into a post at home, and that one into a post abroad; who is to settle with this man’s creditors, provide for that man’s son, and see that other man paid ; who is to ‘throw himself into this grand Joint-Stock certainty…

Had I ever learned to dread him as a shark, disregard him as a humbug, and know him for a myth ? Not I. Had I ever heard of him as associated with tightness in the money market, gloom in consols, the exportation of gold, or that rock ahead in everybody’s course, the bushel of wheat? Never. Had I the least idea what was meant by such terms as jobbery, rigging the market, cooking accounts, getting up a dividend, making things pleasant, and the like? Not the slightest.
The Uncommercial Traveller

This was where I ended my walk, outside the Mansion House, built in 1752 as the first formal residence for the Lord Mayor of the City of London.  Provoked by the sight of these imposing buildings, thinking of the financial power and political influence of the institutions within, and mindful of Dickens’ thoughts on debt, I decided to take a look at the Occupy London camp outside St Paul’s a block away.

‘How Do You Like London?’ Mr Podsnap now inquired from his station of host, as if he were administering something in the nature of a powder or potion to the deaf child; ‘London, Londres, London?’

The foreign gentleman admired it.

‘You find it Very Large?’ said Mr Podsnap, spaciously.

The foreign gentleman found it very large.

‘And Very Rich?’

The foreign gentleman found it, without doubt, enormement riche.

‘Enormously Rich, We say,’ returned Mr Podsnap, in a condescending manner. ‘Our English adverbs do Not terminate in Mong, and We Pronounce the “ch” as if there were a “t” before it. We say Ritch.’

‘Reetch,’ remarked the foreign gentleman.

‘And Do You Find, Sir,’ pursued Mr Podsnap, with dignity, ‘Many Evidences that Strike You, of our British Constitution in the Streets Of The World’s Metropolis, London, Londres, London?’

The foreign gentleman begged to be pardoned, but did not altogether understand.

‘The Constitution Britannique,’ Mr Podsnap explained, as if he were teaching in an infant school.’ We Say British, But You Say Britannique, You Know’ (forgivingly, as if that were not his fault). ‘The Constitution, Sir.’

The foreign gentleman said, ‘Mais, yees; I know eem.’

A youngish sallowish gentleman in spectacles, with a lumpy forehead, seated in a supplementary chair at a corner of the table, here caused a profound sensation by saying, in a raised voice, ‘ESKER,’ and then stopping dead.

‘Mais oui,’ said the foreign gentleman, turning towards him. ‘Est-ce que? Quoi donc?’

But the gentleman with the lumpy forehead having for the time delivered himself of all that he found behind his lumps, spake for the time no more.

‘I Was Inquiring,’ said Mr Podsnap, resuming the thread of his discourse, ‘Whether You Have Observed in our Streets as We should say, Upon our Pavvy as You would say, any Tokens -‘

The foreign gentleman, with patient courtesy entreated pardon; ‘But what was tokenz?’

‘Marks,’ said Mr Podsnap; ‘Signs, you know, Appearances- Traces.’

‘Ah! Of a Orse?’ inquired the foreign gentleman.

‘We call it Horse,’ said Mr Podsnap, with forbearance. ‘In England, Angleterre, England, We Aspirate the “H,” and We Say “Horse.” Only our Lower Classes Say “Orse!”‘

‘Pardon,’ said the foreign gentleman; ‘I am alwiz wrong!’

‘Our Language,’ said Mr Podsnap, with a gracious consciousness of being always right, ‘is Difficult. Ours is a Copious Language, and Trying to Strangers. I will not Pursue my Question.’
Our Mutual Friend, chapter 11

See also

In Dickens’ footsteps (2): Dickens and London exhibition

In Dickens’ footsteps (2): Dickens and London exhibition

…the great heart of London throbs in its Giant breast. Wealth and beggary, vice and virtue, guilt and innocence, repletion and the direst hunger, all treading on each other and crowding together, are gathered round it. Draw but a little circle above the clustering house-tops, and you shall have within its space, everything with its opposite extreme and contradiction, close beside.
– Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock, 1841

Charles Dickens’ life and work is being celebrated in a major exhibition at the Museum of London on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the author’s birth.  I went along expecting something rather dry – a few dusty objects and manuscripts that bore little relation to the excitement of reading a Dickens novel.

But I was wrong. This fascinating exhibition presents Dickens as the first great novelist of the modern city, showing how London was central to his works.  It features rarely seen manuscripts of his novels including Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Bleak House but, using paintings, drawings and photographs of Victorian London, it also gives a vivid sense of what Dickens’s London looked like.  And it culminates with a brilliant short film which links past to present, drawing on the fact that Dickens was an insomniac and used to pace the streets of London at night.

More than any other writer, Charles Dickens took us into the heart of the metropolis. He was fascinated by its complexity, movement and energy, and by lively chatter and accents of its people. He was an acute observer of the process by which London was becoming the world’s first modern city. His eyes took in everything: riches and squalor, the city’s extremes ofwealth and poverty.  All of Dickens’ insight and energy is documented in this wonderful exhibition.

The exhibition is divided into ‘chapters’, looking at London as Dickens’ literary muse, Dickens’ home life and childhood,  Victorian domestic life, Dickens’ involvement in the theatre, his fascination with the rapidity of economic progress and its consequences, and his continuing interest in criminal justice and social welfare.

Probably the most famous image of Dickens of all is Robert Buss’ unfinished posthumous painting Dickens’ Dream (pictured top), of the author in his chair, dreaming of his creations, who flutter in outline around his head. Buss has placed Dickens asleep in his study at Gad’s Hill Place, Higham, Kent. Despite being rejected by Dickens in 1836 as an illustrator of  The Pickwick Papers, Buss began the work in homage to the author after his death in 1870. Buss in turn died in 1875, leaving the work unfinished, just as Dickens had failed to complete The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Scenes and characters from this novel feature prominently near Dickens and have been coloured in.

Next to the painting is the desk and chair at which he wrote and which Buss drew.  At the Dickens Museum in Doughty Street I had seen the desk at which Dickens worked as a legal clerk.  Here was another desk, the one he worked at in the years of success and high celebrity after he moved to Gad’s Hill Place in Kent in 1860. At this desk and seated in this chair, he wrote some of his most famous novels including Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend.  He kept to a regular daily routine. After breakfast at eight and checking that his house and grounds were in order, he would work in his study. He started by answering any pressing correspondence and then picked up where he had left off on his current novel or story. He would continue until lunchtime.  In 2008, the chair and desk were given to Great Ormond Street Hospital to be auctioned to raise money. They were acquired by a private collector.

Another painting on display here is the iconic portrait, Charles Dickens in his Study (below), painted in 1859 by
William Powell Frith. It had been commissioned by John Forster, Dickens’ close friend and biographer. Frith felt that he had depicted a man ‘who had reached the topmost rung of a very high ladder, and was perfectly aware of his position’.   Dickenswasn’t so sure, noting that ‘it is a little too much …as if my next door neighbour were my deadly foe, uninsured, and I had just received tidings of his house being afire’. The opening pages of the author’s latest work A Tale of Two Cities lie on his writing desk at Tavistock House, the grand home in London that Dickens owned at this time.

The variety and complexity of London fed Dickens’ imagination and creativity.  He walked the streets, observing character and listening closely to sounds, especially overheard conversations. He was a master at distinguishing dialect, intonation and word pattern, a skill that made the voices of his characters ring true.  The first section of the exhibition illustrates this through audio clips of accents and dialects that were familiar to the novelist, and with a display of evocative quotes that demonstrate Dickens’ powers of observation and characterisation:

Mr Chadband is a large yellow man, with a fat smile, and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system. Mrs Chadband is a stern, severe-looking, silent woman. Mr Chadband moves softly and cumbrously, not unlike a bear who has been taught to walk upright. He is very much embarrassed about the arms, as if they were inconvenient to him, and he wanted to grovel; is very much in a perspiration about the head; and never speaks without first putting up his great hand, as delivering a token to his hearers that he is going to edify them.
Bleak House, chapter 19

Quilp [was] an elderly man of remarkably hard features and forbidding aspect, and so low in stature as to be quite a dwarf, though his head and face were large enough for the body of a giant. His black eyes were restless, sly, and cunning; his mouth and chin, bristly with the stubble of a coarse hard beard; and his complexion was one of that kind which never looks clean or wholesome. But what added most to the grotesque expression of his face was a ghastly smile, which, appearing to be the mere result of habit and to have no connection with any mirthful or complacent feeling, constantly revealed the few discoloured fangs that were yet scattered in his mouth, and gave him the aspect of a panting dog. His dress consisted of a large high-crowned hat, a worn dark suit, a pair of capacious shoes, and a dirty white neckerchief sufficiently limp and crumpled to disclose the greater portion of his wiry throat. Such hair as he had was of a grizzled black, cut short and straight upon his temples, and hanging in a frowzy fringe about his ears. His hands, which were of a rough, coarse grain, were very dirty; his fingernails were crooked, long, and yellow.
The Old Curiosity Shop, chapter 3

As I came back, I saw Uriah Heep shutting up the office; and feeling friendly towards everybody, went in and spoke to him, and at parting, gave him my hand. But oh, what a clammy hand his was! as ghostly to the touch as to the sight! I rubbed mine afterwards, to warm it, and to rub his off. It was such an uncomfortable hand, that, when I went to my room, it was still cold and wet upon my memory.
David Copperfield, chapter 15

She was a fat old woman, this Mrs Gamp, with a husky voice and a moist eye, which she had a remarkable power of turning up, and only showing the white of it. Having very little neck, it cost her some trouble to look over herself, if one may say so, at those to whom she talked. She wore a very rusty black gown, rather the worse for snuff, and a shawl and bonnet to correspond. …. 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.
Martin Chuzzlewit, chapter 19

This small etching is an example of a nugget easily overlooked here.  It depicts a large heap of dust through which women are sifting in the hope of finding bits of metal or bone or anything else they can sell, and is an illustration from the first edition of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851.  It illustrates a theme that Dickens took up first in an essay:

These Dust-heaps are a wonderful compound of things. A banker’s cheque for a considerable sum was found in one of them. It was on Merries & Farquhar, in 1847. But bankers’ cheques, or gold and silver articles, are the least valuable of their ingredients. Among other things, a variety of useful chemicals are extracted. Their chief value, however, is for the making of bricks. The fine cinder-dust and ashes are used in the clay of the bricks, both for the red and gray stacks. Ashes are also used as fuel between the layers of the clump of bricks, which could not be burned in that position without them. The ashes burn away, and keep the bricks open. Enormous quantities are used. In the brickfields at Uxbridge, near the Drayton Station, one of the brickmakers alone will frequently contract for fifteen or sixteen thousand chaldrons of this cinder-dust, in one order. Fine coke, or coke-dust, affects the market at times as a rival; but fine coal, or coal-dust, never, because it would spoil the bricks.
– Charles Dickens, ‘Dust; or Ugliness Redeemed‘, Household Words, 13 July 1850

Later, in Our Mutual Friend, dust is a central metaphor and the prosperous dustman is an important character in the novel:

‘The man,’ Mortimer goes on, addressing Eugene, ‘whose name is Harmon, was only son of a tremendous old rascal who made his money by Dust.’

‘Red velveteens and a bell?’ the gloomy Eugene inquires.

‘And a ladder and basket if you like. By which means, or by others, he grew rich as a Dust Contractor, and lived in a hollow in a hilly country entirely composed of Dust. On his own small estate the growling old vagabond threw up his own mountain range, like an old volcano, and its geological formation was Dust. Coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust,–all manner of Dust.’

Then there are images that show us places that Dickens frequented.  This moonlight view of the Strand waterfront, ‘York Water Gate and the Adelphi from the River by Moonlight’, was painted around 1850 by Henry Pether. In the distance Somerset House, Waterloo Bridge, St. Brides spire and St. Pauls Cathedral can all be seen.  In 1834, Dickens lodged for a brief period at 15 Buckingham Street, near the Adelphi. The pub also features in David Copperfield:

I was fond of wandering about the Adelphi, because it was a mysterious place, with those dark arches. I see myself emerging one evening from some of these arches, on a little public-house close to the river, with an open space before it, where some coal-heavers were dancing; to look at whom I sat down upon a bench.
David Copperfield

The coaching inn is a location that crops up in many Dickens novels, and there is a suberb exhibit of photographs of  typical coaching inns of Dickens’ London looking, with their galleries surrounding an enclosed courtyard, like caravanserais.   This is the Oxford Arms, a 17th Century galleried inn that was demolished in 1876.

Coaching inns feature particularly in The Pickwick Papers, which has Samuel Pickwick and his fellow travellers tour southern England by coach:

There are in London several old inns, once the headquarters of celebrated coaches in the days when coaches performed their journeys in a graver and more solemn manner than they do in these times; but which have now degenerated into little more than the abiding and booking-places of country wagons.  The reader would look in vain for any of these ancient hostelries, among the Golden Crosses and Bull and Mouths, which rear their stately fronts in the improved streets of London. If he would light upon any of these old places, he must direct his steps to the obscurer quarters of the town, and there in some secluded nooks he will find several, still standing with a kind of gloomy sturdiness, amidst the modern innovations which surround them.
The Pickwick Papers, chapter 10

This is a contemporary view of Warren’s shoeblacking factory and warehouse at Hungerford Stairs where Dickens worked and which became the inspiration for Murdstone and Grinby’s in David Copperfield.  The factory is described in the novel as ‘a crazy old house with a wharf of its own, abutting on the water when the tide was in, and on the mud when the tide was out, and literally overrun with rats’.  This is how Dickens described it to his biographer, John Forster:

The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river.  There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary’s shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty down-stairs on similar wages. One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin; and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.
– John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens

A view of Covent Garden Market in 1864, painted by Phoebus Levin, illustrates another location familiar to Dickens.  He describes Covent Garden Market in ‘The Streets – Morning’, one of the short stories in the collection Sketches By Boz:

Covent-garden market, and the avenues leading to it, are thronged with carts of all sorts, sizes, and descriptions, from the heavy lumbering waggon, with its four stout horses, to the jingling costermonger’s cart,  with its consumptive donkey.  The pavement is already strewed with decayed cabbage-leaves, broken hay-bands, and all the indescribable litter of a vegetable market; men are shouting, carts backing, horses neighing, boys fighting, basket-women talking, piemen expatiating on the excellence of their pastry, and donkeys braying.

There’s a wonderful display of watercolour by George Scharf, an artist whose work was previously unknown to me.  Scharf walked the London streets observing the amazing variety of street life in thousands of small drawings, just as Dickens described it in words:

Then, came straggling groups of labourers going to their work; then, men and women with fish-baskets on their heads; donkey-carts laden with vegetables; chaise-carts filled with live-stock or whole carcasses of meat; milk-women with pails; an unbroken concourse of people, trudging out with various supplies to the eastern suburbs of the town.’
Oliver Twist

Another watercolour by George Scharf shows the view looking towards St Martin’s-in-the-Fields, in 1828.  To the south of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields there was a warren of small alleys and lanes. The area was shortly to be cleared away as part of John Nash’s Strand improvements. The artist lived nearby in St Martin’s Lane, not far from Church Lane shown here. As a boy, Dickens frequented ‘pudding shops’ in the vicinity when he was working at the nearby blacking factory. He described one coffee-room in St Martin’s Lane where, ‘in a dismal reverie’, he would read the inscription on a glass panel backwards as ‘MOOR-EEFFOC’.

Another exhibit stands for the transformation in Dickens’ fortunes: a handwritten shopping list from around 1860 which Dickens wrote for his manservant, John Thompson. It includes a request for a cooked ham and Yorkshire pie from Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly. The items were probably for Dickens’s private apartment on the third floor of 26 Wellington Street, above the offices of his periodical All the Year Round. Dickens’s favourite end to a meal was said to be
toasted cheese.

Dickens, you feel, would have loved the Internet.  He felt that he was living in a special age of progress and improvement and called it ‘this summer-dawn of time’.  He embraced new technology, crossing the Atlantic for his first reading tour of the United States on one of the first steamships, and travelling frequently by train, in contrast to his younger days when, as a young reporter, he journeyed slowly and in some discomfort around Britain by stagecoach.  He was also an early adopter of the Penny Post, introduced in 1840, taking to writing and posting letters to friends, family and business contacts as a modern counterpart  might text or email.

One of the ways in which this is illustrated in the exhibition is by means of a large and fascinating map showing the Telegraphic Lines of Europe in 1856.  The map shows that the electric telegraph had reached the Crimea – as had Dickens’s work. In 1855, a battered copy of  The Pickwick Papers in Russian was found at Sebastopol.  In 1854 Dickens wrote to the Hon. Mrs Watson:

Few things that I saw, when I was away, took my fancy so much as the Electric Telegraph, piercing, like a sunbeam, right through the cruel old heart of the Coliseum at Rome. And on the summit of the Alps, among the eternal ice and snow, there it was still, with its posts sustained against the sweeping mountain Winds by clusters °£ great beams – to say nothing of it being at the bottom of the sea as we crossed the Channel.

Familiar as I was with Whistler’s Nocturnes, his moody evocations of the Thames at night, I had never before encountered his Thames Set until seeing them here in this exhibition. Between 1859 and 1860 Whistler produced a series of 16 etchings of the River Thames above and below London Bridge. Known as The Thames Set, the etchings capture the life of the working river and have an affinity with Dickens’ descriptions in novels such as Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend:

Rogue Riderhood dwelt deep and dark in Limehouse Hole, among the riggers, and the mast, oar and block makers, and the boat-builders, and the sail-lofts, as in a kind of ship’s hold stored full of waterside characters, some no better than himself, some very much better, and none much worse.

Thames Police, 1859, is a view on the riverfront outside the Thames Police building at Wapping Wharf. Dickens had a number of Wapping and Limehouse connections – he used to visit his godfather Christopher Huffam at 5 Church Row.

This Whistler etching is entitled ‘Longshoremen’ and shows the interior of a tavern in Ratcliff.  Dickens kept a small notebook where he jotted down ideas for novels and stories.  One of his jottings was ‘A “long shore” man – woman – child – or family’.   He linked this to another idea: ‘Found drowned.  The descriptive bill upon the wall, by the waterside.‘  He further adds that this theme has already appeared in his work: ‘Done in Our Mutual [Friend]’.  Both Dickens and Whistler were portraying the river’s working life at around the same time.

Also on display is this James Lawson Stewart watercolour, ‘Six Jolly Fellowship Porters public house’, dating to around 1885.  This pub in Limehouse probably inspired the one in Our Mutual Friend, chapter 6

…a tavern of a dropsical appearance, had long settled down into a state of hale infirmity…but it had out-lasted, and clearly would yet outlast, many a better-trimmed building, many a sprucer public-house. Externally it was a narrow lopsided wooden jumble of corpulent windows heaped one upon another as you might heap as many toppling oranges, with a crazy wooden verandah impending over the water; but seemed to have got into the condition of a faint-hearted diver who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all…The back of the establishment, though the cheif entrance was there, so contracted, that it merely represented in its connection with the front, the handle of a flat-iron set upright on its broadest end. This handle stood at the bottom of a wilderness of court and alley; which wilderness pressed so hard and close upon the Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters as to leave the hostelry not an inch of ground beyond its door.’

The offices of Dickens’s weekly magazines, Household Words and All the Year Round, were located off the Strand in Wellington Street. From the 1850s Dickens often stayed overnight in rooms above the offices and the area features in several of his novels.   This painting, The Strand, Looking Eastwards from Exeter Change, is dated 1824 and is by Caleb Robert Stanley.  The Strand is where Martin Chuzzlewit and the Nicklebys find lodgings. The painting looks east towards St Mary le Strand with St Clement Danes beyond.

Dickens never shied away from expressing his political opinions or bringing his own earlier experience of poverty into his work. His traumatic experience of working in a blacking factory after his father was confined to a debtors’ prison comes through strongly in the characters of Oliver Twist, Pip in Great Expectations, and, of course, his portrayal of the Dorrits in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison.

1869 saw the first appearance of The Graphic, an illustrated weekly edited by William Luson Thomas, a successful artist and social reformer. The Graphic had a very similar approach to Picture Post in the 20th century in that Thomas hoped that the images in the Graphic would result in social reform.  One of the first artists taken on by Thomas was Samuel Luke Fildes who shared Thomas’ belief in the power of visual images to change public opinion on subjects such as poverty and injustice. 

In the first edition of the Graphic newspaper that appeared in December 1869, Luke Fildes was asked to provide an illustration to accompany an article on the Houseless Poor Act, a new measure that allowed a certain quota of homeless people to be given shelter for the night in the casual ward of a workhouse. The picture produced by Fildes showed a line of homeless people applying for tickets to stay overnight in the workhouse. The engraving, entitled Houseless and Hungry, was seen by John Everett Millais who brought it to the attention of Dickens, who described the figures as ‘sphinxes against that dead wall’.  He was so impressed that he immediately commissioned Fildes to illustrate The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The queue for the casual ward continued to occupy Fildes mind, and he developed the composition for an oil painting which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874, and on display in this exhibition. The workhouse and the struggle for work and shelter, had been a preoccupation of Dickens throughout his writing career.  In Dombey and Son, chapter 33, Harriet Carker’s thoughts are expressed in these words:

She often looked with compassion, at such a time, upon the stragglers who came wandering into London, by the great highway hard by, and who, footsore and weary, and gazing fearfully at the huge town before them, as if foreboding that their misery there would be but as a drop of water in the sea, or as a grain of sea-sand on the shore, went shrinking on, cowering before the angry weather, and looking as if the very elements rejected them. Day after day, such travellers crept past, but always, as she thought, In one direction—always towards the town. Swallowed up in one phase or other of its immensity, towards which they seemed impelled by a desperate fascination, they never returned. Food for the hospitals, the churchyards, the prisons, the river, fever, madness, vice, and death,—they passed on to the monster, roaring in the distance, and were lost.

In The Uncommercial Traveller in 1861, Dickens described a visit to Wapping Workhouse:

This was the only preparation for our entering ‘the Foul wards’.  They were in an old building squeezed away in a corner of a paved yard, quite detached from the more modern and spacious main body of the workhouse. They were in a building most monstrously behind the time – a mere series of garrets or lofts, with every inconvenient and objectionable circumstance in their construction, and only accessible by steep and narrow staircases, infamously ill-adapted for the passage up-stairs of the sick or down-stairs of the dead.

A-bed in these miserable rooms, here on bedsteads, there (for a change, as I understood it) on the floor, were women in every stage of distress and disease. None but those who have attentively observed such scenes, can conceive the extraordinary variety of expression still latent under the general monotony and uniformity of colour, attitude, and condition. The form a little coiled up and turned away, as though it had turned its back on this world for ever; the uninterested face at once lead-coloured and yellow, looking passively upward from the pillow; the haggard mouth a little dropped, the hand outside the coverlet, so dull and indifferent, so light, and yet so heavy; these were on every pallet; but when I stopped beside a bed, and said ever so slight a word to the figure lying there, the ghost of the old character came into the face, and made the Foul ward as various as the fair world. No one appeared to care to live, but no one complained; all who could speak, said that as much was done for them as could be done there, that the attendance was kind and patient, that their suffering was very heavy, but they had nothing to ask for. The wretched rooms were as clean and sweet as it is possible for such rooms to be; they would become a pest-house in a single week, if they were ill-kept.

Now, I reasoned with myself, as I made my journey home again, concerning those Foul wards. They ought not to exist; no person of common decency and humanity can see them and doubt it. But what is this Union to do? The necessary alteration would cost several thousands of pounds; it has already to support three workhouses; its inhabitants work hard for their bare lives, and are already rated for the relief of the Poor to the utmost extent of reasonable endurance. One poor parish in this very Union is rated to the amount of five and sixpence in the pound, at the very same time when the rich parish of Saint George’s, Hanover Square, is rated at about sevennpence in the pound, Paddington at about fourpence, Saint James’s, Westminster, at about tenpence! It is only through the equalisation of Poor Rates that what is left undone in this wise, can be done. Much more is left undone, or is ill-done, than I have space to suggest in these notes of a single uncommercial journey; but, the wise men of the East, before they can reasonably hold forth about it, must look to the North and South and West; let them also, any morning before taking the seat of Solomon, look into the shops and dwellings all around the Temple, and first ask themselves ‘how much more can these poor people – many of whom keep themselves with difficulty enough out of the workhouse – bear?’

Someone else who was deeply moved by the images appearing in The Graphic was VincentVan Gogh.  In January 1882, he wrote to his brother Theo:

I got a great bargain on some splendid woodcuts from The Graphic, some of them prints … Just what I’ve been wanting for years. .. I bought them from Blok, the Jewish bookseller, and chose the best from an enormous pile of Graphics and London News for five guilders. Some of them are superb, including the Houseless and homeless by Fildes (poor people waiting outside a night shelter) …and two large Herkomers and many small ones…

In short, it’s exactly the stuff I need…because, old chap, even though I’m still a long way from making them so beautifully myself, still, I have a couple of studies of old peasants and so on hanging on the wall that prove that my enthusiasm for those draughtsmen is not mere vanity, but that I’m struggling and striving to make something myself that is realistic and yet done with sentiment. I have around 12 figures of diggers and people working in the potato field,and I’m wondering if I couldn’t make something of them…

The Herkomer that Van Gogh refers to in the letter was Hubert von Herkomer who started his career as an illustrator for The Graphic, producing wood engravings of scenes of everyday life.  He is regarded as a British artist, although he was born in Germany. There’s a painting of his in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Eventide: A Scene in the Westminster Union depicts inmates of the St.James’s Workhouse in Soho, London. Herkomer was drawn to the subject because of his sympathy for what he called ‘the sorrowful side of humanity’.

The final act of this exhibition reaches across 150 years to reveal the similarities of today’s London by night and the London by night described by Dickens, and the same ‘sorrowful side of humanity’ depicted in his novels and in the images of Fildes and Herkomer.

It’s a film commissioned specially for the exhibition called The Houseless Shadow. Film maker William Raban spent five months following Dickens’ footsteps through night-time London, filming places and people.  The film, which lasts 20 minutes, uses Dickens essay Night Walks (read on the soundtrack) to explore parallels between London’s nocturnal life as it is today, compared with how it was when observed by Dickens 150 years ago.

Drip, drip, drip, from ledge and coping, splash from pipes and water-spouts, and by-and-by the houseless shadow would fall upon the stones that pave the way to Waterloo Bridge.

 To the accompaniment of Dickens’ haunting essay Night Walks, we see shots of modern London at night with drunks and homeless people sheltering from the rain, filmed by Raban in a meditativeun obtrusive manner which matches the tone of Dickens’ text, where sympathy is pushed to the point of empathy with London’s poor and homeless.

Some years ago, a temporary inability to sleep, referable to a distressing impression, caused me to walk about the streets all night, for a series of several nights. The disorder might have taken a long time to conquer, if it had been faintly experimented on in bed; but, it was soon defeated by the brisk treatment of getting up directly after lying down, and going out, and coming home tired at sunrise.

In the course of those nights, I finished my education in a fair amateur experience of houselessness. My principal object being to get through the night, the pursuit of it brought me into sympathetic relations with people who have no other object every night in the year.

The month was March, and the weather damp, cloudy, and cold. The sun not rising before half-past five, the night perspective looked sufficiently long at half-past twelve: which was about my time for confronting it.

The restlessness of a great city, and the way in which it tumbles and tosses before it can get to sleep, formed one of the first entertainments offered to the contemplation of us houseless people. It lasted about two hours. We lost a great deal of companionship when the late public-houses turned their lamps out, and when the potmen thrust the last brawling drunkards into the street; but stray vehicles and stray people were left us, after that. If we were very lucky, a policeman’s rattle sprang and a fray turned up; but, in general, surprisingly little of this diversion was provided. Except in the Haymarket, which is the worst kept part of London, and about Kent-street in the Borough, and along a portion of the line of the Old Kent-road, the peace was seldom violently broken. But, it was always the case that London, as if in imitation of individual citizens belonging to it, had expiring fits and starts of restlessness. After all seemed quiet, if one cab rattled by, half-a-dozen would surely follow; and Houselessness even observed that intoxicated people appeared to be magnetically attracted towards each other; so that we knew when we saw one drunken object staggering against the shutters of a shop, that another drunken object would stagger up before five minutes were out, to fraternise or fight with it. When we made a divergence from the regular species of drunkard, the thin-armed, puff-faced, leaden-lipped gin-drinker, and encountered a rarer specimen of a more decent appearance, fifty to one but that specimen was dressed in soiled mourning. As the street experience in the night, so the street experience in the day; the common folk who come unexpectedly into a little property, come unexpectedly into a deal of liquor.

At length these flickering sparks would die away, worn out–the last veritable sparks of waking life trailed from some late pieman or hot-potato man–and London would sink to rest. And then the yearning of the houseless mind would be for any sign of company, any lighted place, any movement, anything suggestive of any one being up–nay, even so much as awake, for the houseless eye looked out for lights in windows.

Iconic landmarks evoke speculative thoughts in Dickens about the penal system, the borderline distinctions between sanity and madness, and the vastness of the numbers of London’s dead, lying in their burial grounds.  Until I saw the section of this film that evokes Dickens’ circumnavigation of the Bethlehem Hospital, I hadn’t realised that ‘Bedlam’ still stands – now occupied by the Imperial War Museum:

From the dead wall associated on those houseless nights with this too common story, I chose next to wander by Bethlehem Hospital; partly, because it lay on my road round to Westminster; partly, because I had a night fancy in my head which could be best pursued within sight of its walls and dome. And the fancy was this: Are not the sane and the insane equal at night as the sane lie a dreaming? Are not all of us outside this hospital, who dream, more or less in the condition of those inside it, every night of our lives? Are we not nightly persuaded, as they daily are, that we associate preposterously with kings and queens, emperors and empresses, and notabilities of all sorts? Do we not nightly jumble events and personages and times and places, as these do daily? Are we not sometimes troubled by our own sleeping inconsistencies, and do we not vexedly try to account for them or excuse them, just as these do sometimes in respect of their waking delusions? Said an afflicted man to me, when I was last in a hospital like this, ‘Sir, I can frequently fly.’ I was half ashamed to reflect that so could I–by night. Said a woman to me on the same occasion, ‘Queen Victoria frequently comes to dine with me, and her Majesty and I dine off peaches and maccaroni in our night-gowns, and his Royal Highness the Prince Consort does us the honour to make a third on horseback in a Field-Marshal’s uniform.’ Could I refrain from reddening with consciousness when I remembered the amazing royal parties I myself had given (at night), the unaccountable viands I had put on table, and my extraordinary manner of conducting myself on those distinguished occasions? I wonder that the great master who knew everything, when he called Sleep the death of each day’s life, did not call Dreams the insanity of each day’s sanity.

Although there are striking differences from Dickens’s account of mid-Victorian London, some things remain the same, as when ‘the potmen thrust the last brawling drunkards onto the street’.  What would Dickens, with his concern for social distress, make of the growing numbers of homeless on the streets of this prosperous city today?  The resounding achievement of this exhibition is to relate Dickens’s London to the London of today. Two hundred years after his birth, London is once again a city of extremes and the social ills he writes about are as troubling as they were in his day.

Dickens was an insomniac and needed little sleep. He thought nothing of walking the streets of London all night. Through such regular excursions, he developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of London’s geography. Dickens had an extraordinary visual memory. He described his mind as a ‘sort ofcapitally prepared and highly sensitive [photographic] plate’. The variety and complexity of the city fed his creativity.  As he walked, he mapped out the intricate storylines of his novels. Just as his fictional characters made their way from one place to another, so he followed in their footsteps across the real city.  Dickens called the city his ‘magic lantern’ – a plethora of images and experiences that projected into his extraordinary imagination and helped him become, in the words of journalist Walter Bagehot, London’s ‘special correspondent for posterity’.

See also

Click the map to go to David Perdue’s interactive guide to Dickens’ London

Charles Dickens: a bicentennial fanfare

Charles Dickens was born on 7 February 1812.  To mark the bicentennial, here’s Simon Callow’s superb appreciation of the novelist, from last Saturday’s ‘My Hero’ feature in The Guardian:

You start with the work, of course. In my case The Pickwick Papers, thrust into my hands at the age of 13. It danced before my eyes, a great hokey-cokey of eccentrics, conmen, phony politicians, amorous widows and wily, witty servants, somehow catching an essence of what it is to be English, celebrating companionship, generosity, good nature, in the figure of Samuel Pickwick, Esqone of the great embodiments in literature of benevolence. This quality mattered a great deal to me then, and it does now.

A tear sprang to my eyes when I read the book’s great closing words: “Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light. We, who have no such optical powers, are better pleased to take our last parting look at the visionary companions of many solitary hours, when the brief sunshine of the world is blazing full upon them.” When I first read it, I had no idea how hard-won that sunny vision had been for its 25-year-old author. Only 12 years before, he had been a drudge in a shoe-polish factory, living on his own, his family in debtors’ jail; he felt abandoned, humiliated, hungry, heart-broken, close to annihilation. By a supreme effort of will, the moment he was liberated from the factory, he turned away from the dark feelings that threatened to engulf him and threw himself into life with a blazing enthusiasm, becoming a beacon of energy and fun. The rest of his life was a negotiation between those high spirits and the dejection with which he had been acquainted so early.

This alone would not be enough to make him my hero, though it is a heroic effort, this attempt to keep faith with life. The reason I love him so deeply is that, having experienced the lower depths, he never ceased, till the day he died, to commit himself, both in his work and in his life, to trying to right the wrongs inflicted by society, above all, perhaps by giving the dispossessed a voice. From the moment he started to write, he spoke for the people, and the people loved him for it, as do I.

Recently, in the Telegraph, David Lodge chose the opening to Bleak House as his favourite passage from Dickens.  It’s mine, too.  Lodge said, ‘This is one of the finest openings to a novel ever written. On one level it is a vividly realistic picture of London and the river Thames in filthy weather, but Dickens’s metaphorical imagination and prophetic style makes the mud (accumulating at compound interest) and all-pervasive fog symbols of the greed and injustice endemic in the social system over which the Lord High Chancellor presides’.

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, 40 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.

(The image above is by Nick Gommon, a black and white shot titled ‘A Dickens View’ which could be straight from the 19th century but was actually taken one foggy, cold morning from London Bridge in February 2011. It won first prize in a ‘My View of London’ competition.)

Lower Fore Street, a cobblestoned street in Lambeth, pictured in 1865

The opening of chapter 3 of Little Dorrit (when the story moves from Marseilles to London) evokes a similar atmospheric sense of London’s streets:

It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale. Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick-and-mortar echoes hideous. Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows, in dire despondency. In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round. Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people. No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world—all taboo with that enlightened strictness, that the ugly South Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again. Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up. Nothing for the spent toiler to do, but to compare the monotony of his seventh day with the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it—or the worst, according to the probabilities.

From Gustav Dore’s ‘London’

I’ve always enjoyed the passages in Dombey and Son that describe the rapid expansion of the railways in the 1830s, especially this one, from chapter 6 which depicts the building of the  London and Birmingham Railway line through Camden Town between 1833 and 1837:

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.

Another arresting opening passage is this one, from Hard Times:

‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders, – nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, – all helped the emphasis.

‘In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!’

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

Our Mutual Friend is rich in social satire that rests on detailed observation.  This is how the aptly-named Veneerings are introduced in chapter 2:

Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby, and if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon, without a scratch upon him, French polished to the crown of his head.

For, in the Veneering establishment, from the hall-chairs with the new coat of arms, to the grand pianoforte with the new action, and upstairs again to the new fire-escape, all things were in a state of high varnish and polish. And what was observable in the furniture, was observable in the Veneerings – the surface smelt a little too much of the workshop and was a trifle sticky.

There was an innocent piece of dinner-furniture that went upon easy castors and was kept over a livery stable-yard in Duke Street, Saint James’s, when not in use, to whom the Veneerings were a source of blind confusion. The name of this article was Twemlow. Being first cousin to Lord Snigsworth, he was in frequent requisition, and at many houses might be said to represent the dining-table in its normal state. Mr and Mrs Veneering, for example, arranging a dinner, habitually started with Twemlow, and then put leaves in him, or added guests to him. Sometimes, the table consisted of Twemlow and half a dozen leaves; sometimes, of Twemlow and a dozen leaves; sometimes, Twemlow was pulled out to his utmost extent of twenty leaves. Mr and Mrs Veneering on occasions of ceremony faced each other in the centre of the board, and thus the parallel still held; for, it always happened that the more Twemlow was pulled out, the further he found himself from the centre, and nearer to the sideboard at one end of the room, or the window-curtains at the other.

Great Expectations is replete with favourite passages, but let’s finish with that novel’s beautifully-written conclusion:

I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

See also

Dickens: Smiley’s person

I haven’t yet got my hands on the new Dickens biography by Claire Tomalin and I felt weak at the prospect of one thousand pages of Peter Ackroyd’s seminal account.  Instead I took up Jane Smiley’s Charles Dickens which was in the house and clocks in at only 200 pages.

Smiley’s is not an original work – she relies on Ackroyd and other recent surveys of Dickens’ life and work – but she does provide a concise and informative account that I’d recommend for anyone in this bicentennial year who wants a fast but insightful introduction to the phenomenon of Dickens.

I say phenomenon because Smiley observes the several ways in which Dickens is extraordinary – his ascent from a poverty-stricken childhood to his career as the most acclaimed novelist of his time (‘the first true celebrity’), his boundless energy and action-packed public life, and the dramas of his personal life and relationships.

Dickens’ energy seems to have been boundless throughout his life, something often commented upon by his acquaintances.  He had the habit of taking long, vigorous daily walks (he regularly covered twenty and sometimes thirty miles) on top of all his other activities – writing to the frightening deadlines of serialised publication, amateur dramatics, active involvement with charitable organisations, travel, social engagements , and the demands of his large and continually growing family. Even in 1865, just five years before his death and not a well man, he showed great courage and physical strength when involved in a serious train crash in Kent.

The original aspect that Jane Smiley brings to her account is to interpret the intersection between Dickens’ life and his writing from the perspective of a novelist. She discusses the way in which his novels not only reflected aspects of his personal experience, but how Dickens also used his writing almost as a form of psychotherapy to overcome feelings of guilt and shame about his childhood, his father’s bankruptcy, and the difficulties of his own marriage. In putting forward this Freudian analysis, Smiley notes that Dickens was Sigmund Freud’s favourite author.

Clearly, all novelists brings some knowledge of dramatic states of mind to their writing. As Smiley remarks, if  they had no such knowledge, then they would have no business with, and no interest in, novels or drama.

Audiences and readers want something to happen, and writers are ready to portray some of the things that can happen. Often this knowledge does have its root in the experience of the artist, though as frequently it has its origins in sensitive and eager observation (both of these were certainly true of Dickens). But the experience of writing about and depicting these dramatic incidents is at least as important as their origins, because the novelist bodies them forth, comments upon them, reacts to them; he learns from them and gives them both form and meaning, rather like, in a simpler way, expressing anger in words sometimes relieves feelings and sometimes exacerbates them.

Smiley examines each of Dickens’ works from this perspective – how he drew upon his life experience, and, simultaneously, how the process helped him to come to terms with hidden or suppressed feelings:

What might have remained inchoate becomes specific through making a narrative of it in a way that is analogous to psychotherapy. The novelist, unlike the patient, defines his story as fiction and therefore retains at least some distance from it, but he nevertheless learns to interpret it. Often it loses its power over him, as Dickens came to terms with his months in the blacking factory after giving them to David Copperfield. But he may also learn things about his true state of mind that might have remained shadowy had he not embodied them.

What makes this short book particularly interesting is the way in which Smiley relates each novel to Dickens’ biography, showing how each work of fiction not only drew upon his past, but also reflected his current circumstances and state of mind:

Authors live in a dialogue with their work, and their work is their inner life made concrete. Were they not susceptible to the reality of art, they wouldn’t have become authors in the first place. They would naturally be at least as susceptible to the power of their own art as to the power of the art of others, and from the beginning of his career, Dickens’s letters attest to his enthusiasm for and belief in every novel he wrote.

Smiley also explores the way in which Dickens’ popularity and notoriety grew rapidly with each successive novel, making him ‘the first true celebrity of the popular arts’, later earning the equivalent of around £30,000 a night in a dynamic one-man act in which he performed his ‘greatest hits’ – scenes from A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and so on – to the delight of rapt audiences.  She writes:

If we see Dickens as the first true celebrity of the popular arts – that is, a man whose work made him rich and widely famous, as close to a household name as any movie star is today – then we also can see him as the first person to become a ‘brand name’. For many years, his name on the first instalment of a serialization sold copies in and of itself. [… ]  Dickens … counted on his name to bring in a certain number of readers, and he felt a strong obligation toward them. He always felt his job was to please and entertain readers, not to shock and confront them, and certainly not to offend them.

Dickens was different, too, in another respect: unlike other Victorian novelists, he did not have family wealth to support him as a writer.  Instead, drawing on his deep reserves of skill and energy, he exploited his chosen modus operandi – the novel published as a serial – to the full:

The new thing, in every way, was for an author to support himself or herself through sales of his or her work, and in this Dickens was pioneer and exemplar. The form of serial monthly or weekly publication not only helped him find a wide audience (every issue sold, it has been estimated, found fifteen readers), it also helped him keep that audience interested. The analogy, of course, is to soap opera-type serials. Dickens’s exquisite natural responsiveness, combined with his amazing inventiveness, meant that a form other authors found onerous was perfectly suited to him.

Dickens, Smiley notes, had perpetual money worries.  Juliet John, Professor of Victorian literature at Liverpool University, and author of Dickens and Mass Culture, also remarked on how he wrote letters about money all the time:

When he did public readings, which were really PR tours, from the 1850s onwards, he would write to friends literally characterising the audience as pounds or dollars.

His lowly class origins were what made Dickens so dependent on earnings from his writing and, later, his reading tours (which brought him to Liverpool and the Concert Room in St Georges Hall many times between 1842 and 1869). But, argues, Smiley, Dickens’ social mobility made him unique in another respect:

Dickens found  himself in a unique position to observe all facets of British society. He was unconstrained by a classical   education, untrained, as it were, to look at English society in the traditional way. His first thirty years were, in a fashion that contrasted with that of almost everyone around him, a training in freedom – in forming his own opinions, in judging for himself, in observing the effects of one group upon another, one class upon another, of institutions upon individuals and individuals upon institutions. He differed from all of his contemporaries in that he represented no group, therefore he came to represent all. His medium, the novel, enhanced his freedom, since the novel can never work except through freedom – the author is free to write, and the reader is free to read. […] The very oddities of both the man and his work further promoted his freedom, since his mind ranged freely over all sorts of characters, ideas, and settings. And he frequently took pains to speak out against abridgments of freedom, such as the closing of shops on Sunday, the only day when working people were able to buy, and other laws restricting the lives of the poor, as well as narrow and joyless religious and charitable institutions. By temperament, by training, and by intention, Dickens was a modern man, whose essential quality was the desire for freedom of thought and action.

The issue that has fascinated all observers is the relationship between Dickens’ politics and the novels. Smiley presents a complex picture of a man whose ideas became more radical as the years went by – who supported charities aimed at the betterment of the poor and marginalised, and spoke out in favour of campaigns to improve factory working conditions to which he donated the proceeds from several public readings – but whose radicalism was not Marxism.  Explaining the sources of his radicalism, Smiley traces a nexus between Dickens’ focus as a novelist and ideas rooted in his Christian values:

The conditions that so appalled Dickens constituted the major political and philosophical challenge of his era. The novel, like any other artistic form, makes an inherent philosophical assertion – that the mental life of the individual is worth anatomizing and that the disruptions that exist among individuals and between individuals and groups are understandable and soluble through individual transformation and action. Dickens expanded and expanded his canvas because he intuited that the complexities of the social dilemmas he was interested in could not be convincingly portrayed in miniature. Other thinkers, not novelists, had other ideas about the significance of individuals and individualism, but Dickens’s chosen form saddled him with a philosophical question he tried ardently to solve, both artistically and personally, for his entire life. The controversies that arise about Dickens’s real political views, in my opinion, arise primarily from the fact that a novelist always, and increasingly, sees the trees rather than the forest, and is naturally unsympathetic to a collective solution, while always more or less in favour of a connective solution.

It was that ‘connective solution’, Smiley suggests, which was central to Dickens’ view of the social problems of his time.  In an essay about a millworkers’ strike in Preston that lasted half a year and which provided the inspiration for Hard Times, Dickens wrote:

Into the relations between employerrs and employed, as into all the relations in life, there must enter something of feeling and sentiment; something of mutual explanation, forbearance, and consideration … otherwise those relations are rotten to the core and will never bear sound fruit.

Smiley pursues this idea through analysis of the novels, showing how Dickens reveals the failings of social institutions through the connections between his characters.In Bleak House, for example, the overarching metaphor is the ancient and costly Chancery suit of Jarndyce v Jarndyce to which every character, highborn or lowborn, is connected.

The book charts a succinct course through Dickens’ life, subtly interweaving biographical details with comments on the novels and Dickens’ developing style.  Smiley writes that,

Dickens’s tonal and stylistic choices were always remarkable for their richness and variety. He could do low comedy, melodrama, farce, fairy tale, confession, sarcasm, lyricism, romance, extended analogy, dialect imitation. He had an ear for every sort of discourse, both written and oral. He did not always use an elevated literary style, something for which he was criticized in his time. He was not always considered to be in control of his material, but rather he was sometimes accused of being carried into sentimentality or tastelessness.

One thing about Dickens’ novels that has been acknowledged by many commentators (though not discussed by Smiley) is how well they lend themselves to being adapted to screen and stage (though Smiley does suggest how his dramatic public readings were , in a sense, the start of this). Dickens has been adapted for film and TV more than any other  novelist. Television adaptations have followed at a steady flow over the decades.  In fact, sometimes it can be hard to recall whether our personal memories of a Dickens novel derive from book or screen (I touched on this, writing about Great Expectations recently).

A few weeks ago, in Dickens on Film, a documentary shown in the BBC Arena strand, the claim was even made for Dickens as the progenitor of film.  Ever since the first adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 1902, the programme argued, film-makers have identified all the key elements of cinema language in his work, from montage to cliff-hangers, and the importance of dialogue and cinematic pace in storytelling. Apparently, Sergei Eisenstein, George Bernard Shaw, and DW Griffith all contended that Dickens wrote in a cinematic language years before cinema. They perceived a cinematic quality to his narrative, in which chapters open with large, framing panoramic sweeps – the widescreen shot – and then home in on the particular – a household, a character, a street.

These days, as a result of over familiarity perhaps, we can take Dickens a little for granted.  Smiley identifies the significance of his contribution to the evolution of the novel, encompassing the lives of servants and masters in a way that only Shakespeare had done before him:

Dickens repeatedly pushed the English novel away from standard realism at the same time that he pushed it away from depicting the English bourgeoisie. He expanded the social and economic scope of the novel while expanding its linguistic resources with no regard for class status or stylistic propriety – he gave his narrator and his array of characters many tongues to speak in, quite a few of which were visionary or poetical, and which themselves undermined the  ‘realism’  of   the  form.  Ultimately, he required, or allowed, the reader to regard more of the life around him by allowing it to be important enough to get into a novel. He thereby expanded the audience of the novel itself.

Smiley concludes:

Some novelists plough the same field novel after novel. Others map the world. No novelist has mapped so much of the world, right at the borderline where the inner world and the outer world meet, as Charles Dickens. He has inexhaustibly delineated states of mind,  emotions,  symbols, ideas, the rational life, and the irrational life, but also London and Kent and Manchester and America and Italy and France and Scotland and Sussex and Essex and Norfolk. He is the novelist who comes closest of all novelists to delivering on that illusory promise of the novel – to tell everything there is to know about everyone, and to tell it in an incomparably fresh and delightful way.

Great Expectations: what is a person’s worth?

I was dismayed by the recent BBC TV adaptation of Great Expectations (and by the almost uniform acclaim that it received), but unsure how much my memory of the work was influenced by the David Lean film version, so I decided to read the book again.  It proved to be a welcome return to a novel that had a profound effect on me as a child, with its central question as to how far the pursuit of status and wealth lead to loss of humanity: as Pip ascends he falls, and as he falls he rises.

I had  great expectations of the BBC series, following as it did a recent sequence of superb BBC Dickens adaptations: Andrew Davies’  superb Bleak House (2005),  Little Dorrit (2008 – Andrew Davies again), and Julian Farino’s Our Mutual Friend (1998). But this Great Expectations was a travesty, totally lacking the sense of Pip’s journey to moral awareness, as well as the one thing that makes any Dickens novel memorable and great – comedy and character.  Pip is not a prig, but this was how he was presented in the TV adaptation, seemingly ignoring the fact that the novel is narrated by an older Pip looking back and reflecting subtly and frankly on his earlier fears, ambitions and limitations.

Clearly, when you’re restricted to a three hour dramatisation you can’t include everything. But to leave out the humour, to distort key characters and to omit or leave undeveloped other important characters, such as Biddy or Wemmick, was lamentable.  Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Miss Havisham was just plain daft, her youthful appearance making nonsense of the chronology of the novel.  The repeated club scenes and the brothel scene took one paragraph from the novel – that has Pip and Herbert joining the Finches in Covent Garden with a very subtle hint of a brothel – and over-egged it.

Dickens dreams of his characters – Robert Buss, 1870

Dickens gave us characters drawn from across the whole social gamut, and was the great delineator of the gulf that separated those at either end of the spectrum. Dickens’ great theme in Great Expectations (or at least, one of them) is the dream of social betterment (a dream that is revealed as a mirage).  Pip’s desire for self-improvement is the main source of the novel’s title: because he believes in the possibility of advancement, he has ‘great expectations’ about his future.  Advancement may be obtained through money or by learning;  but affection, loyalty, and conscience prove more important than social advancement, wealth or class.

Pip desires educational improvement: it’s a  desire deeply connected to his social ambition and longing to marry Estella. A full education (as well as money) is a requirement of being a gentleman. As long as he is an ignorant country boy, he has no hope of social advancement. There’s a hilarious scene early in the novel which reveals Pip’s understanding of this fact as a child. He learns to read at Mr. Wopsle’s aunt’s dame school, where Biddy is an assistant:

The Educational scheme or Course established by Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt may be resolved into the following synopsis. The pupils ate apples and put straws down one another’s backs, until Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt collected her energies, and made an indiscriminate totter at them with a birch-rod. After receiving the charge with every mark of derision, the pupils formed in line and buzzingly passed a ragged book from hand to hand. The book had an alphabet in it, some figures and tables, and a little spelling,— that is to say, it had had once. As soon as this volume began to circulate, Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt fell into a state of coma, arising either from sleep or a rheumatic paroxysm. The pupils then entered among themselves upon a competitive examination on the subject of Boots, with the view of ascertaining who could tread the hardest upon whose toes. This mental exercise lasted until Biddy made a rush at them and distributed three defaced Bibles (shaped as if they had been unskilfully cut off the chump end of something), more illegibly printed at the best than any curiosities of literature I have since met with, speckled all over with ironmould, and having various specimens of the insect world smashed between their leaves. This part of the Course was usually lightened by several single combats between Biddy and refractory students. When the fights were over, Biddy gave out the number of a page, and then we all read aloud what we could,— or what we couldn’t — in a frightful chorus; Biddy leading with a high, shrill, monotonous voice, and none of us having the least notion of, or reverence for, what we were reading about. When this horrible din had lasted a certain time, it mechanically awoke Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt, who staggered at a boy fortuitously, and pulled his ears. This was understood to terminate the Course for the evening, and we emerged into the air with shrieks of intellectual victory.

Later, as he begins to make his way, Pip takes lessons from Matthew Pocket; and later on Pip tells of hours, days spent in extensive reading.  Ultimately, though, Pip learns by absorbing lessons from his relationships with Joe, Biddy, and Magwitch, that social and educational improvement are irrelevant to one’s real worth.  Wealth is not a ticket to happiness; conscience and affection are far more valuable than erudition and social standing.  Joe provides a lesson along these lines early in the narrative, though Pip fails at this point to understand.  He’s just admitted to Joe (the only person with whom he can be so honest) that he lied to everyone about the nature of his first meeting with Miss Havisham:

I told Joe … that I wished I was not common, and that the lies had come of it somehow, though I didn’t know how. This was a case of metaphysics, at least as difficult for Joe to deal with as for me. But Joe took the case altogether out of the region of metaphysics, and by that means vanquished it.

“There’s one thing you may be sure of, Pip,” said Joe, after some rumination, “namely, that lies is lies. Howsever they come, they didn’t ought to come, and they come from the father of lies, and work round to the same. Don’t you tell no more of ’em, Pip. That ain’t the way to get out of being common, old chap. And as to being common, I don’t make it out at all clear. You are oncommon in some things. You’re oncommon small. Likewise you’re a oncommon scholar.”

Joe offers a further lesson as he and Pip part at the end of the visit to London that has so embarrassed the young man:

“Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Diwisions among such must come, and must be met as they come. If there’s been any fault at all to-day, it’s mine. You and me is not two figures to be together in London; nor yet anywheres else but what is private, and beknown, and understood among friends. It ain’t that I am proud, but that I want to be right, as you shall never see me no more in these clothes. I’m wrong in these clothes. I’m wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th’meshes.”

I had not been mistaken in my fancy that there was a simple dignity in him. The fashion of his dress could no more come in its way when he spoke these words, than it could come in its way in Heaven.

Reading these passages again, imbued with the sense of class and the perils of getting too far above yourself, I recalled how, in my teens, these ideas spoke powerfully to me as a boy from a working class background who had passed the 11 plus to go to a Direct Grant grammar.  This was a school which took fee-paying boys from privileged backgrounds, whose rugby team competed in a league with public schools, and where you would be caned if you played football in the lunch hour.

Coincidentally, while I was engaged in re-reading Great Expectations, BBC 4 broadcast a documentary about grammar schools that focussed on their heyday – the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, during which they were opened up to youngsters like me from working class homes, and before the introduction nationally of comprehensive schools.  What was remarkable about this film was the way in which Dickens’ theme in Great Expectations resonated throughout.  Remarkable, too, was the fact that just about everyone who told their personal story ended up at some point in tears.  For some, tears came with the memory of a teacher who had shown faith in their potential, for some recalling  sacrifices made by parents, while for others it was the memory of tensions and conflict with parents or peers who resented their advancement or could see no point in it.

That was my story, for sure. Later, at university and doing a course in sociology, echoes of Great Expectations came back to me when we studied the research that explored the tensions of between class, culture and school.  One such study was Education and the Working Class by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden. First published in 1962, it took a sample of 88 working-class children educated in Huddersfield and revealed how they were caught between two cultures – home and school.  Meanwhile, there was Basil Bernstein’s work on language that underlined the point that the working class pupil is culturally different – but not deficient.

In Great Expectations, Dickens puts into Biddy’s words an awareness of these cultural differences:

I took Biddy into our little garden by the side of the lane, and, after throwing out in a general way for the elevation of her spirits, that I should never forget her, said I had a favor to ask of her.

“And it is, Biddy,” said I, “that you will not omit any opportunity of helping Joe on, a little.”

“How helping him on?” asked Biddy, with a steady sort of glance.

“Well! Joe is a dear good fellow,— in fact, I think he is the dearest fellow that ever lived,— but he is rather backward in some things. For instance, Biddy, in his learning and his manners.”

Although I was looking at Biddy as I spoke, and although she opened her eyes very wide when I had spoken, she did not look at me.

“O, his manners! won’t his manners do then?” asked Biddy, plucking a black-currant leaf.

“My dear Biddy, they do very well here —”

“O! they do very well here?” interrupted Biddy, looking closely at the leaf in her hand.

“Hear me out,— but if I were to remove Joe into a higher sphere, as I shall hope to remove him when I fully come into my property, they would hardly do him justice.”

“And don’t you think he knows that?” asked Biddy.

It was such a very provoking question (for it had never in the most distant manner occurred to me), that I said, snappishly,—

“Biddy, what do you mean?”

Biddy, having rubbed the leaf to pieces between her hands,— and the smell of a black-currant bush has ever since recalled to me that evening in the little garden by the side of the lane,— said, “Have you never considered that he may be proud?”

“Proud?” I repeated, with disdainful emphasis.

“O! there are many kinds of pride,” said Biddy, looking full at me and shaking her head; “pride is not all of one kind —”

“Well? What are you stopping for?” said I.

“Not all of one kind,” resumed Biddy. “He may be too proud to let any one take him out of a place that he is competent to fill, and fills well and with respect. To tell you the truth, I think he is; though it sounds bold in me to say so, for you must know him far better than I do.”

By the end of the novel, Pip has discovered the true worth of Joe and Biddy. Even the taint of crime and prison which Pip has been desperate to escape cannot hide Magwitch’s inner nobility, and Pip is able to ignore his social status as a criminal and offer him gratitude and succour. Pip has learned to trust his conscience and to a see the real worth of a person, irrespective of wealth, learning or social standing.  He has discover that the Victorian idea of a ‘gentleman’ is built on sand.

First publication of Great Expectations in All The Year Round, 1860

Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations was published in thirty-six weekly instalments in Dickens’s journal All the Year Round between 1860 and 1861. The first part appeared on December 1st 1860 (above).

I first saw David Lean’s atmospheric 1946 adaptation when it was shown by the film society at my grammar school (what is a good education worth!)  And did I find that the pictures in my mind were from that film or Dickens’ novel?   Well, the critic Roger Ebert writes:

Great Expectations’ has been called the greatest of all the Dickens films …[it] does what few movies based on great books can do: creates pictures on the screen that do not clash with the images already existing in our minds. Lean brings Dickens’ classic set-pieces to life as if he’d been reading over our shoulder: Pip’s encounter with the convict Magwitch in the churchyard, Pip’s first meeting with the mad Miss Havisham, and the ghoulish atmosphere in the law offices of Mr. Jaggers, whose walls are decorated with the death masks of clients he has lost to the gallows.

Certainly those were the images I had in my mind.  The film is memorable for its opening sequence on the marshes, enhanced by beautiful black and white cinematography by Guy Green.  In the TV version I had missed the scene where Miss Havisham, supported by Pip, marches around the table on which her mouldering wedding banquet is still laid out, stabbing each place setting with her stick.  That’s in the film – and in the book, too:

“This,” said she, pointing to the long table with her stick, “is where I will be laid when I am dead. They shall come and look at me here.”

With some vague misgiving that she might get upon the table then and there and die at once, the complete realization of the ghastly waxwork at the Fair, I shrank under her touch.

“What do you think that is?” she asked me, again pointing with her stick; “that, where those cobwebs are?”

“I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”

“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!”

She looked all round the room in a glaring manner, and then said, leaning on me while her hand twitched my shoulder, “Come, come, come! Walk me, walk me!” […]

“Matthew will come and see me at last,” said Miss Havisham, sternly, when I am laid on that table. That will be his place,— there,” striking the table with her stick, “at my head! And yours will be there! And your husband’s there! And Sarah Pocket’s there! And Georgiana’s there! Now you all know where to take your stations when you come to feast upon me. And now go!”

At the mention of each name, she had struck the table with her stick in a new place. She now said, “Walk me, walk me!” and we went on again.

The best of Lean’s film is in the first hour, but later on the film takes great liberties with the story with, for example, Estella never marrying the odious Drummle, Miss Havisham’s death occurring much earlier, and culminating in a happy ending quite different even to Dickens’ revised version.

This is the opening sequence of David Lean’s film:

‘Which I mean to say, Pip old chap.  What larks!’

See also