Re-reading Dickens: Barnaby Rudge

Re-reading Dickens: Barnaby Rudge

Gordon Riots - Newgate Prison

In 1841, aged just 29, Dickens was on a roll with four novels to his name. Each one had been published to ever-greater critical and popular acclaim: Pickwick, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickelby had been topped with the triumphant success of The Old Curiosity Shop.  This fabulous run came to an abrupt end with Barnaby Rudge. Not that the novel was a complete flop: it was still selling 30,000 copies at the end.  But each issue of The Old Curiosity Shop had sold more than 100, 000 copies.

Barnaby Rudge has been damned as ‘the least loved and the least read’ of Dickens’ novels.  Certainly, I hadn’t read it before I reached it in my Dickens project – reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography and breaking off to read each successive novel.  Reviews at the time of publication ranged from the negative to the severe (one renaming it Barnaby Rubbish – which is much too harsh) and the critical disfavour still largely persists.  For myself, although it is a strange work and flawed in some respects, I found Rudge to be an enjoyable read, with the scenes in the second half set amongst the Gordon Riots being especially gripping. There are also some classic Dickensian characters to savour.

Dickens’ fifth novel could have been his first: he had signed a contract in 1836 to write the book (then titled Gabriel Varden-The Locksmith of London) for Richard Bentley’s Miscellany, where Oliver Twist was published. But he had still not begun to write by 1838 when Nickelby was under way.  He made a start in January 1839, but soon broke off, and it was not until January 1841 that he returned to the novel – now entitled Barnaby Rudge – and was soon working at it ‘morning, noon and night’.  He clearly enjoyed the work, writing to John Forster on 11 September 1841, ‘I have just burnt into Newgate, and am going in the next number to tear the prisoners out by the hair of their heads’ and one week later, ‘I have let all the prisoners out of Newgate, burnt down Lord Mansfield’s, and played the very devil. Another number will finish the fires, and help us on towards the end. I feel quite smoky when I am at work. I want elbow-room terribly.’

The novel was serialized through 1841 in weekly parts in Master Humphrey’s Clock, the same magazine in which The Old Curiosity Shop had appeared.  It is the first of Dickens’ two historical novels (A Tale of Two Cities is the other) and was written in conscious emulation of Sir Walter Scott’s historical romances, which Dickens greatly admired.  Dickens follows Scott in mixing styles, genres and plots, and combining realism with the conventions of melodrama and romance.

The novel deals with the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, now long forgotten but in Dickens’ day fresh in the public mind (reflected in the book’s subtitle, A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty).  Certainly I knew very little about the riots, other than their name.  But you learn a lot from Dickens’ novel, which was based on his own extensive reading of the written records of the events of 1780 – the Annual Register, Holcroft’s Narrative of the Late Riots (1780) and Watson’s Life of Lord George Gordon (1795) were all in his library.  Dickens’ choice of the Gordon riots as a backdrop to the novel was not as eccentric as it might seem:  not only were the riots, in historian Linda Colley’s words,’the largest, deadliest and most protracted urban riots in British history’, they would also have been fresh in the mind of his reader, having occurred only two generations before.

Moreover, recent events gave the book an urgent topicality (indeed, Dickens’ vivid account of the riots has a very contemporary feel when read in 2013, eighteen months after similarly destructive riots in London).  Fresh in Dickens’ mind would have  been the riots and disturbances that followed the introduction of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, and the Chartist riots of 1839, when the jail in Newport was stormed in an attempt to free Chartist prisoners.

The Gordon riots arose as a  consequence of Lord George Gordon’s call for the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 and a return to the repression of Catholics. The 1778 Act had repealed harsh anti-Catholic legislation from the 17th century and excused Roman Catholics from swearing the oath of allegiance (with its implicit recognition of the Church of England) on joining the army.  On 2 June Gordon led a crowd of 60,000 to the House of Commons to present a petition stating that the legislation encouraged ‘popery’ and was a threat to the Church of England.  Anti-Catholic riots ensued in London, lasting for many days. Protests were violent and aimed at Catholic targets, such as homes and chapels, and a distillery owned by a Catholic in High Holborn. They also seem to have expressed a more general frustration: prisons and the Bank of England were attacked (all riots, whatever their origin, seem to follow this course, as we know from our own time).

Dickens’ sympathies may have been with the working class poor, but he had an inveterate horror of political violence.  He clearly had no sympathy with the Protestant anti-Catholic rioters of 1780, portrayed as a mindless mob swept along by opportunist leaders from the upper class in a movement that was part attempted coup d’etat, part popular uprising, which became a religious pogrom. His visceral riot scenes reflect his great fear of the ‘mob’, a fear he shared in common with his readers.

As in Walter Scott’s historical fictions, Dickens has his own created characters rub shoulders with real historical personalities – most notably Lord Gordon himself, along with his secretary, the public hangman, Dennis, who joined the rioters (though Dickens’ characterization is, apparently, quite different to the real man), and the bumbling, ineffectual Lord Mayor.

Gordon Riots Newgate Prison
Gordon Riots: rioters set fire to Newgate Prison (more detail: British Museum)

Barnaby Rudge has a strange structure, with a sharp break in the narrative that occurs when the story moves abruptly forward five years in chapter 34 and the lives of characters begin to intertwine with the events of the Gordon riots. The tale had begun, as many Dickens tales did, as old cronies sit around the fireside in the Maypole Inn in Chigwell recounting to a stranger the story of an unsolved double murder committed several years previously at The Warren, the local mansion belonging to the Catholic Haredale family.  ‘Mystery, monstrous and ridiculous events and characters, prodigies, secret powers and things veiled in mystery’ drive forward the plot and the action according to John Bowen in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition.

Another unusual, perhaps risky feature of the book is Dickens’ decision to make Barnaby Rudge his central character.  Rudge is a young man who has been mentally handicapped since birth, portrayed as something of a caricatured fool and idiot who wanders around with his pet raven, Grip. One of the story’s mysteries concerns Barnaby’s father: his mother, widow of one of the men  murdered at the Warren, begins to receive visits from a shadowy, ghostly man which cause her to take fright and flee from London taking Barnaby with her.  In the first part of the novel, Barnaby represents a character outside the bounds of social convention, limited and language and understanding, but an imaginative free spirit, walking and dancing merrily where he will through the countryside. But, returning to London, he joins in the riots for the thrill of wearing the rebels’ colours in his cap, the privilege of carrying a flag, and drawn by the lure of acquiring gold.  In this respect, Rudge may stand for Dickens’ view of the rioters, led on by unscrupulous bigots by little more than the lure of excitement, easy gains, and communal identification.  Sound familiar?

The novel has Gothic and melodramatic elements, but it also has plenty of typical Dickensian comic interludes.  Some of the funniest scenes are centred on Miggs, the maid in the household of Gabriel Varden, the honest locksmith to whom Simon Tappertit, a leading agitator in the riots, is apprenticed. These scenes invariably involve Miggs in comical alliance with Martha Varden against her husband, for both servant and wife are ardent supporters of the Protestant cause.

Miggs is an example of how Dickens’ most memorable characters define themselves through their speech and a distinctive private language. Apart from being highly entertaining, this method serves as an effective way for Dickens to distinguish one person from another in panoramic novels crowded with characters.  In his first novel, Pickwick Papers, the vivid characterization of Sam Weller and Jingles is achieved through these means, Weller having a mastery of the short, pithy comparison (‘Dumb as a drum with a hole in it, sir’, he says when Pickwick asks him to be quiet at the magistrates court) and Jingles being defined by his jerky, staccato speech that is a forerunner of 21st century tweets.  One of Dickens’ favourite devices is the speech tag, a particular exclamation, word or expression uttered by a particular character.  The hangman Dennis’s chilling desire to ‘work people off’ is an example here, along with Wemmick’s ‘portable property’ and Joe Gargery’s ‘Which I meantersay, Pip, old chap’ in Great Expectations.  Miggs, with her ‘Ally Looyer!’, personal rendition of certain words, and unique grammar is a harbinger of Mrs Gamp who would appear in his next novel – probably the most individual and most praised example of the technique.

John Forster, in his Life of Dickens, described Miggs as a ‘vicious and slippery, acid, amatory, and … uncomfortable figure, sower of family discontents and discords, who swears all the while she wouldn’t make or meddle with ’em “not for a annual gold mine and found in tea and sugar”‘.  Here’s an example of how Miggs is almost completely characterized through her speech.  During the riots she is seized by rioters and locked up in a remote house, along with Dolly Varden, the lovely and coquettish daughter of the locksmith, and Emma Haredale, daughter of the owner of The Warren.  All the women can hear are groans from the next room, perhaps emanating from someone wonded or tortured by the rioters.  (These scenes, involving the incarceration of three defenceless virgins by rough and fully armed men worse the wear for drink, have an erotic frisson that I feel sure must have been intentional on Dickens’ part.)

At first, Miss Miggs wondered greatly in her own mind who this sick person might be … she opined … that it must be some misguided Papist who had been wounded: and this happy supposition encouraged her to say, under her breath, ‘Ally Looyer!’ several times.

‘Is it possible,’ said Emma, with some indignation, ‘that you who have seen these men committing the outrages you have told us of, and who have fallen into their hands, like us, can exult in their cruelties!’

‘Personal considerations, miss,’ rejoined Miggs, ‘sinks into nothing, afore a noble cause. Ally Looyer! Ally Looyer! Ally Looyer, good gentlemen!’

It seemed from the shrill pertinacity with which Miss Miggs repeated this form of acclamation, that she was calling the same through the keyhole of the door; but in the profound darkness she could not be seen.

‘If the time has come—Heaven knows it may come at any moment—when they are bent on prosecuting the designs, whatever they may be, with which they have brought us here, can you still encourage, and take part with them?’ demanded Emma.

‘I thank my goodness-gracious-blessed-stars I can, miss,’ returned Miggs, with increased energy.—’Ally Looyer, good gentlemen!’

Even Dolly, cast down and disappointed as she was, revived at this, and bade Miggs hold her tongue directly.

‘WHICH, was you pleased to observe, Miss Varden?’ said Miggs, with a strong emphasis on the irrelative pronoun.

Dolly repeated her request.

‘Ho, gracious me!’ cried Miggs, with hysterical derision. ‘Ho, gracious me! Yes, to be sure I will. Ho yes! I am a abject slave, and a toiling, moiling, constant-working, always-being-found-fault-with, never-giving-satisfactions, nor-having-no-time-to-clean-oneself, potter’s wessel—an’t I, miss! Ho yes! My situations is lowly, and my capacities is limited, and my duties is to humble myself afore the base degenerating daughters of their blessed mothers as is—fit to keep companies with holy saints but is born to persecutions from wicked relations—and to demean myself before them as is no better than Infidels—an’t it, miss! Ho yes! My only becoming occupations is to help young flaunting pagins to brush and comb and titiwate theirselves into whitening and suppulchres, and leave the young men to think that there an’t a bit of padding in it nor no pinching ins nor fillings out nor pomatums nor deceits nor earthly wanities—an’t it, miss! Yes, to be sure it is—ho yes!’

Having delivered these ironical passages with a most wonderful volubility, and with a shrillness perfectly deafening (especially when she jerked out the interjections), Miss Miggs, from mere habit, and not because weeping was at all appropriate to the occasion, which was one of triumph, concluded by bursting into a flood of tears, and calling in an impassioned manner on the name of Simmuns.

In a final comic thrust, after the riots Dickens has Miggs appointed as a jailor in a woman’s prison.

Gordon riots Destruction of Kings Bench Prison
The destruction of the Kings Bench Prison in Southwark

Although Dickens does not sympathise with the cause of the rioters, his is a sympathetic portrayal of the way in which poor and frustrated, ill-educated or illiterate individuals are drawn into participating in the disturbances.  The novel is also marked by several passages highly critical of the English ruling class.  One that I enjoyed tremendously occurs as Barnaby and his mother are making their way back to London, on foot and penniless, earning a few coppers by having Grip, the talking raven, perform.  In one village they encounter an English country gentlemen. Barnaby’s mother tells him, with tears in her eyes, that her son is ‘of weak mind’:

‘An idiot, eh?’ said the gentleman, looking at Barnaby as he spoke. ‘And how long hast thou been an idiot?’

‘She knows,’ was Barnaby’s timid answer, pointing to his mother—’I—always, I believe.’

‘From his birth,’ said the widow.

‘I don’t believe it,’ cried the gentleman, ‘not a bit of it. It’s an excuse not to work. There’s nothing like flogging to cure that disorder. I’d make a difference in him in ten minutes, I’ll be bound.’

‘Heaven has made none in more than twice ten years, sir,’ said the widow mildly.

‘Then why don’t you shut him up? we pay enough for county institutions, damn ’em. But thou’d rather drag him about to excite charity—of course. Ay, I know thee.’

Now, this gentleman had various endearing appellations among his intimate friends. By some he was called ‘a country gentleman of the true school,’ by some ‘a fine old country gentleman,’ by some ‘a sporting gentleman,’ by some ‘a thorough-bred Englishman,’ by some ‘a genuine John Bull;’ but they all agreed in one respect, and that was, that it was a pity there were not more like him, and that because there were not, the country was going to rack and ruin every day. He was in the commission of the peace, and could write his name almost legibly; but his greatest qualifications were, that he was more severe with poachers, was a better shot, a harder rider, had better horses, kept better dogs, could eat more solid food, drink more strong wine, go to bed every night more drunk and get up every morning more sober, than any man in the county. In knowledge of horseflesh he was almost equal to a farrier, in stable learning he surpassed his own head groom, and in gluttony not a pig on his estate was a match for him. He had no seat in Parliament himself, but he was extremely patriotic, and usually drove his voters up to the poll with his own hands. He was warmly attached to church and state, and never appointed to the living in his gift any but a three-bottle man and a first-rate fox-hunter. He mistrusted the honesty of all poor people who could read and write, and had a secret jealousy of his own wife (a young lady whom he had married for what his friends called ‘the good old English reason,’ that her father’s property adjoined his own) for possessing those accomplishments in a greater degree than himself. In short, Barnaby being an idiot, and Grip a creature of mere brute instinct, it would be very hard to say what this gentleman was.

I happened to read this passage on the same day that I read that this year’s initiation ceremony of Oxford University’s notorious Bullingdon Club (whose past members include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson) involved burning a £50 note in front of a beggar.  Nothing changes – or, perhaps more accurately, we are steadily reverting to the inequalities and injustices of the past.

One of the things I love most in Dickens are his descriptive passages, usually painting a vivid portrait of London. Here’s one such from Barnaby Rudge, in which Dickens evokes nightfall in 18th century London:

A series of pictures representing the streets of London in the night, even at the comparatively recent date of this tale, would present to the eye something so very different in character from the reality which is witnessed in these times, that it would be difficult for the beholder to recognise his most familiar walks in the altered aspect of little more than half a century ago.

They were, one and all, from the broadest and best to the narrowest and least frequented, very dark. The oil and cotton lamps, though regularly trimmed twice or thrice in the long winter nights, burnt feebly at the best; and at a late hour, when they were unassisted by the lamps and candles in the shops, cast but a narrow track of doubtful light upon the footway, leaving the projecting doors and house-fronts in the deepest gloom. Many of the courts and lanes were left in total darkness; those of the meaner sort, where one glimmering light twinkled for a score of houses, being favoured in no slight degree. Even in these places, the inhabitants had often good reason for extinguishing their lamp as soon as it was lighted; and the watch being utterly inefficient and powerless to prevent them, they did so at their pleasure. Thus, in the lightest thoroughfares, there was at every turn some obscure and dangerous spot whither a thief might fly or shelter, and few would care to follow; and the city being belted round by fields, green lanes, waste grounds, and lonely roads, dividing it at that time from the suburbs that have joined it since, escape, even where the pursuit was hot, was rendered easy.

It is no wonder that with these favouring circumstances in full and constant operation, street robberies, often accompanied by cruel wounds, and not unfrequently by loss of life, should have been of nightly occurrence in the very heart of London, or that quiet folks should have had great dread of traversing its streets after the shops were closed. It was not unusual for those who wended home alone at midnight, to keep the middle of the road, the better to guard against surprise from lurking footpads; few would venture to repair at a late hour to Kentish Town or Hampstead, or even to Kensington or Chelsea, unarmed and unattended; while he who had been loudest and most valiant at the supper-table or the tavern, and had but a mile or so to go, was glad to fee a link-boy to escort him home.

There were many other characteristics—not quite so disagreeable—about the thoroughfares of London then, with which they had been long familiar. Some of the shops, especially those to the eastward of Temple Bar, still adhered to the old practice of hanging out a sign; and the creaking and swinging of these boards in their iron frames on windy nights, formed a strange and mournful concert for the ears of those who lay awake in bed or hurried through the streets. Long stands of hackney-chairs and groups of chairmen, compared with whom the coachmen of our day are gentle and polite, obstructed the way and filled the air with clamour; night-cellars, indicated by a little stream of light crossing the pavement, and stretching out half-way into the road, and by the stifled roar of voices from below, yawned for the reception and entertainment of the most abandoned of both sexes; under every shed and bulk small groups of link-boys gamed away the earnings of the day; or one more weary than the rest, gave way to sleep, and let the fragment of his torch fall hissing on the puddled ground.

Then there was the watch with staff and lantern crying the hour, and the kind of weather; and those who woke up at his voice and turned them round in bed, were glad to hear it rained, or snowed, or blew, or froze, for very comfort’s sake. The solitary passenger was startled by the chairmen’s cry of ‘By your leave there!’ as two came trotting past him with their empty vehicle—carried backwards to show its being disengaged—and hurried to the nearest stand. Many a private chair, too, inclosing some fine lady, monstrously hooped and furbelowed, and preceded by running-footmen bearing flambeaux—for which extinguishers are yet suspended before the doors of a few houses of the better sort—made the way gay and light as it danced along, and darker and more dismal when it had passed. It was not unusual for these running gentry, who carried it with a very high hand, to quarrel in the servants’ hall while waiting for their masters and mistresses; and, falling to blows either there or in the street without, to strew the place of skirmish with hair-powder, fragments of bag-wigs, and scattered nosegays. Gaming, the vice which ran so high among all classes (the fashion being of course set by the upper), was generally the cause of these disputes; for cards and dice were as openly used, and worked as much mischief, and yielded as much excitement below stairs, as above. While incidents like these, arising out of drums and masquerades and parties at quadrille, were passing at the west end of the town, heavy stagecoaches and scarce heavier waggons were lumbering slowly towards the city, the coachmen, guard, and passengers, armed to the teeth, and the coach—a day or so perhaps behind its time, but that was nothing—despoiled by highwaymen; who made no scruple to attack, alone and single-handed, a whole caravan of goods and men, and sometimes shot a passenger or two, and were sometimes shot themselves, as the case might be. On the morrow, rumours of this new act of daring on the road yielded matter for a few hours’ conversation through the town, and a Public Progress of some fine gentleman (half-drunk) to Tyburn, dressed in the newest fashion, and damning the ordinary with unspeakable gallantry and grace, furnished to the populace, at once a pleasant excitement and a wholesome and profound example.

Barnaby in jail with Grip
Barnaby in Newgate Prison with Grip

There’s no doubt, though, that the most powerful scenes are those depicting the riots.  In one, Dickens describes the rioters attacking and burning to the ground Lord Mansfield’s house in fashionable Bloomsbury Square.  Mansfield was probably a target for the rioters, not just for his elite standing, but also for his progressive views and legal judgements.  Mansfield is best known for his judgement in the Somersett Case, where he held that slavery was unlawful in England.  James Somersett was an American slave, purchased by Charles Stewart, an English customs officer employed in the British Crown colony of Massachusetts.Stewart brought Somersett with him when he returned to England in 1769, but in 1771 Somersett escaped, only to be recaptured.  The case concerned an application for habeas corpus on Somersett’s behalf.  Mansfield concluded that:

The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of now being introduced by Courts of Justice upon mere reasoning or inferences from any principles, natural or political; it must take its rise from positive law; the origin of it can in no country or age be traced back to any other source: immemorial usage preserves the memory of positive law long after all traces of the occasion; reason, authority, and time of its introduction are lost; and in a case so odious as the condition of slaves must be taken strictly, the power claimed by this return was never in use here; no master ever was allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he had deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever; we cannot say the cause set forth by this return is allowed or approved of by the laws of this kingdom, therefore the man must be discharged.

Dickens’ description of the attack on Mansfield’s mansion is vivid, and symbolic in the narrative: after order had been re-established by the authorities, hundreds were arrested and 21 rioters were hanged.  Barnaby is one of these arrested and sentenced to hang – not with others at Newgate Prison, but on a scaffold erected in Bloomsbury Square.  He is reprieved at the last minute after Gabriel Varden, the locksmith, helps clear Barnaby’s name.

The mob gathering round Lord Mansfield’s house, had called on those within to open the door, and receiving no reply (for Lord and Lady Mansfield were at that moment escaping by the backway), forced an entrance according to their usual custom. That they then began to demolish the house with great fury, and setting fire to it in several parts, involved in a common ruin the whole of the costly furniture, the plate and jewels, a beautiful gallery of pictures, the rarest collection of manuscripts ever possessed by any one private person in the world, and worse than all, because nothing could replace this loss, the great Law Library, on almost every page of which were notes in the Judge’s own hand, of inestimable value,—being the results of the study and experience of his whole life. That while they were howling and exulting round the fire, a troop of soldiers, with a magistrate among them, came up, and being too late (for the mischief was by that time done), began to disperse the crowd. That the Riot Act being read, and the crowd still resisting, the soldiers received orders to fire, and levelling their muskets shot dead at the first discharge six men and a woman, and wounded many persons; and loading again directly, fired another volley, but over the people’s heads it was supposed, as none were seen to fall. That thereupon, and daunted by the shrieks and tumult, the crowd began to disperse, and the soldiers went away, leaving the killed and wounded on the ground: which they had no sooner done than the rioters came back again, and taking up the dead bodies, and the wounded people, formed into a rude procession, having the bodies in the front. That in this order they paraded off with a horrible merriment; fixing weapons in the dead men’s hands to make them look as if alive; and preceded by a fellow ringing Lord Mansfield’s dinner-bell with all his might.

Perhaps the most powerful scene describes the rioters’ attack on and burning of Newgate Prison.  The prison was meant to be escape proof, and the door impregnable. In the story, Dickens has the locksmith Gabriel Varden seized by the rioters and hauled to the door whose lock he devised.  He refuses to pick the lock, and so the rioters attempt to break the door down with sledgehammers and crowbars:

And now the strokes began to fall like hail upon the gate, and on the strong building; for those who could not reach the door, spent their fierce rage on anything—even on the great blocks of stone, which shivered their weapons into fragments, and made their hands and arms to tingle as if the walls were active in their stout resistance, and dealt them back their blows. The clash of iron ringing upon iron, mingled with the deafening tumult and sounded high above it, as the great sledge-hammers rattled on the nailed and plated door: the sparks flew off in showers; men worked in gangs, and at short intervals relieved each other, that all their strength might be devoted to the work; but there stood the portal still, as grim and dark and strong as ever, and, saving for the dints upon its battered surface, quite unchanged.

While some brought all their energies to bear upon this toilsome task; and some, rearing ladders against the prison, tried to clamber to the summit of the walls they were too short to scale; and some again engaged a body of police a hundred strong, and beat them back and trod them under foot by force of numbers; others besieged the house on which the jailer had appeared, and driving in the door, brought out his furniture, and piled it up against the prison-gate, to make a bonfire which should burn it down. As soon as this device was understood, all those who had laboured hitherto, cast down their tools and helped to swell the heap; which reached half-way across the street, and was so high, that those who threw more fuel on the top, got up by ladders. When all the keeper’s goods were flung upon this costly pile, to the last fragment, they smeared it with the pitch, and tar, and rosin they had brought, and sprinkled it with turpentine. To all the woodwork round the prison-doors they did the like, leaving not a joist or beam untouched. This infernal christening performed, they fired the pile with lighted matches and with blazing tow, and then stood by, awaiting the result. […]

Newgate prison door
Newgate prison door: now displayed in the Museum of London

Great pieces of blazing wood were passed, besides, above the people’s heads to such as stood about the ladders, and some of these, climbing up to the topmost stave, and holding on with one hand by the prison wall, exerted all their skill and force to cast these fire-brands on the roof, or down into the yards within. In many instances their efforts were successful; which occasioned a new and appalling addition to the horrors of the scene: for the prisoners within, seeing from between their bars that the fire caught in many places and thrived fiercely, and being all locked up in strong cells for the night, began to know that they were in danger of being burnt alive. This terrible fear, spreading from cell to cell and from yard to yard, vented itself in such dismal cries and wailings, and in such dreadful shrieks for help, that the whole jail resounded with the noise; which was loudly heard even above the shouting of the mob and roaring of the flames, and was so full of agony and despair, that it made the boldest tremble. […]

Not one living creature in the throng was for an instant still. The whole great mass were mad.  A shout! Another! Another yet, though few knew why, or what it meant. But those around the gate had seen it slowly yield, and drop from its topmost hinge. It hung on that side by but one, but it was upright still, because of the bar, and its having sunk, of its own weight, into the heap of ashes at its foot. There was now a gap at the top of the doorway, through which could be descried a gloomy passage, cavernous and dark. Pile up the fire!

It burnt fiercely. The door was red-hot, and the gap wider. They vainly tried to shield their faces with their hands, and standing as if in readiness for a spring, watched the place. Dark figures, some crawling on their hands and knees, some carried in the arms of others, were seen to pass along the roof. It was plain the jail could hold out no longer. The keeper, and his officers, and their wives and children, were escaping. Pile up the fire!

The door sank down again: it settled deeper in the cinders—tottered—yielded—was down!

Gordon Riots by Charles Green
The Gordon Riots by Charles Green

Amongst those in the crowd that stormed Newgate was the future poet and artist William Blake. Blake’s first biographer Alexander Gilchrist records that on 3 June 1780, Blake was walking towards Basire’s shop in Great Queen Street when he was swept up by a rampaging mob that stormed Newgate Prison in London. They attacked the prison gates with shovels and pickaxes, set the building ablaze, and released the prisoners inside. He reports that Blake was in the front rank of the mob during this attack.  Interestingly, among several prisons which were attacked and had prisoners freed was the Clink, a notorious prison in Southwark.

Gordon riots 19th century painting
Troops restore order during the Gordon riots: a 19th century painting

For six days London was ungovernable. Eventually the army was brought in to restore order. Around 700 rioters were killed, and 21 were publicly hanged.  It had been a period, in Dickens’ words, when

the worst passions of the worst men were thus working in the dark, and the mantle of religion, assumed to cover the ugliest deformities, threatened to become the shroud of all that was good and peaceful in society.

Barnaby Rudge is an imperfect novel; as John Forster put it in his biography of Dickens:

As the story went on …what had been accomplished in its predecessor could hardly be attained here, in singleness of purpose, unity of idea, or harmony of treatment; and other defects supervened in the management of the plot. The interest with which the tale begins, has ceased to be its interest before the close; and what has chiefly taken the reader’s fancy at the outset, almost wholly disappears in the power and passion with which, in the later chapters, the great riots are described. So admirable is this description, however, that it would be hard to have to surrender it even for a more perfect structure of fable.

It is, indeed, those chapters in which Dickens vividly describes the events of the five days of the Gordon riots that make Barnaby Rudge a gripping read.

See also

Re-reading Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop

Re-reading Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop

Old Curiosity Shop: Little Nell by George Cattermole

I’ve returned to my Dickens project – reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography and breaking off to read each successive novel.  As far as The Old Curiosity Shop is concerned, like everyone I suppose, I have long been familiar with the novel’s central character Little Nell, and the story that when the last instalment of was about to appear in 1841, his American fans were so desperate to find out the ending that they stormed the New York piers shouting to incoming ships, ‘Is Little Nell dead?’  But – probably put off by the novel’s reputation for sentimentality – I never read it when I was younger.

The issue of sentimentality is something I’ll return to later.  For now, let me say that, though first impressions were not too promising, I grew to enjoy the novel – gripped by Dickens’ distinctly unsentimental account of Nell’s journey through the Black Country with her grandfather, and captivated by its rich assortment of comic and grotesque characters, most notably Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness, and the shrewd and cunning ‘little hunchy villain and a monster’ Daniel Quilp.

George Cattermole’s plate depicting Quilp and Samuel Brass

There’s a stylistically awkward moment at the end of the third chapter, when the character who has been narrating the story up to that point is dropped by Dickens abruptly:

And now that I have carried this history so far in my own character and introduced these personages to the reader, I shall for the convenience of the narrative detach myself from its further course, and leave those who have prominent and necessary parts in it to speak and act for themselves.

These words are spoken by the elderly Master Humphrey, who walks the streets of London alone at night and whose words begin the story:

Night is generally my time for walking. In the summer I often leave home early in the morning, and roam about fields and lanes all day, or even escape for days or weeks together; but, saving in the country, I seldom go out until after dark, though, Heaven be thanked, I love its light and feel the cheerfulness it sheds upon the earth, as much as any creature living.  I have fallen insensibly into this habit, both because it favours my infirmity and because it affords me greater opportunity of speculating on the characters and occupations of those who fill the streets.

Dickens was in his late twenties in 1840 when, with the great successes of The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby already behind him, he launched a weekly periodical called Master Humphrey’s Clock.  The idea was that a small group of men, old friends of Master Humphrey, would gather to hear tales from old manuscripts kept in an antique grandfather clock. The first issue of the magazine appeared in April 1840 with sketches and short stories, along with what were to become the first three chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop.  The model Dickens had in mind was something like the 18th century journals, such as The Spectator, that he had enjoyed reading as a child – but ‘more demotic, democratic, and popular’.

The first issue sold well but, when readers discovered the magazine did not contain a new novel, sales quickly fell away.  Dickens’ quick response was to expand the sketches concerning Nell and her grandfather’s shop, and abandon the characters of Master Humphrey and his friends altogether.  The result was exactly as Dickens had hoped – the serialization of Nell’s story in weekly instalments was an enormous commercial success, selling over 100,000 copies a week, better than any previous Dickens novel.  This is a phenomenal figure, given that it’s been estimated that every issue sold found 15 readers, as well as being read aloud to more who could not read.

Master Humphrey's Clock
The first few issues of Master Humphrey’s Clock

While those were the commercial and opportunistic origins of the novel, but, as many commentators have observed, the emotional impetus for the character of Nell came three years earlier when his 17 year old sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, fell suddenly ill and died in his arms (probably of heart failure or stroke).  Dickens had loved her deeply, and later told a friend, ‘I solemnly believe that so perfect a creature never breathed’.  Dickens appears to have modelled Nell on Mary, making her, in Peter Ackroyd’s assessment, the embodiment the virtues of purity and innocence, the two most important qualities that Dickens prized in a woman.  Jane Smiley adds that ‘clearly, he saw innocence itself as something possessed in its purest form by certain presexual women’.

As in Oliver Twist, Dickens’ central character is an innocent child beset by greedy, scheming predators. Nell’s innocence  embraces endurance, forgiveness and martyrdom – qualities that are evinced in the journey out of London (‘often casting a backward look towards it, murmuring that ruin and self-murder were crouching in every street, and would follow if they scented them; and that they could not fly too fast’) on which she leads her grandfather, its trials and encounters with squalor, temptation and corruption, echoing Christian’s flight from the ‘City of Destruction’ in The Pilgrim’s Progress:

‘Yes, let us go,’ said the child earnestly. ‘Let us begone from this place, and never turn back or think of it again. Let us wander barefoot through the world, rather than linger here.’

‘We will,’ answered the old man, ‘we will travel afoot through the fields and woods, and by the side of rivers, and trust ourselves to God in the places where He dwells. It is far better to lie down at night beneath an open sky like that yonder–see how bright it is– than to rest in close rooms which are always full of care and weary dreams. Thou and I together, Nell, may be cheerful and happy yet, and learn to forget this time, as if it had never been.’

‘We will be happy,’ cried the child. ‘We never can be here.’

To a modern reader, the scenes with Nell are the least satisfactory, the language ‘often uncharacteristically inert and banal’ (Norman Page, introduction to the Penguin Classics edition) and Nell’s character hardly changing, remaining passive ‘like some gentle, frightened animal’.

Yet, as the story progresses the scenes with Nell and her grandfather are less frequent and are overshadowed by the crackling energy and vitality of the episodes involving the malevolent dwarf Quilp, Dick Swiveller and the exploited servant girl with whom he falls in love and names The Marchioness, and the corrupt sibling lawyers Samuel and Sally Brass.  Dickens may have prized purity and innocence, but he always gives the best lines to his grotesque and morally tainted characters. As Norman Page observes, ‘the descriptions and dialogue of Quilp and Swiveller  … are truly Shakespearean in their unpredictable felicity of language’. This part of the story, Page reckons,  ‘defies squalor poverty, conventional morality and religion itself in its exuberant assertion and celebration of life’.  He continues:

While the young Dickens had a heavy emotional investment in Nell and all she stood for, his instincts and impulses were on the side of life, and it is in the comic and grotesque elements of the book that his creative powers are most fully engaged.

This is not to suggest that everything about the scenes involving Nell and her grandfather is less satisfactory.  Their quest may be a spiritual one – seeking peace and salvation, and fleeing from human temptations (including the old man’s addiction to gambling) –  but there are moments when Dickens leavens the spiritual allegory with some harsh contemporary realism.  I was particularly impressed with his account of their tramp from central London to the outskirts of the city:

Again this quarter passed, they came upon a straggling neighbourhood, where the mean houses parcelled off in rooms, and windows patched with rags and paper, told of the populous poverty that sheltered there. The shops sold goods that only poverty could buy, and sellers and buyers were pinched and griped alike. Here were poor streets where faded gentility essayed with scanty space and shipwrecked means to make its last feeble stand, but tax-gatherer and creditor came there as elsewhere, and the poverty that yet faintly struggled was hardly less squalid and manifest than that which had long ago submitted and given up the game.

This was a wide, wide track – for the humble followers of the camp of wealth pitch their tents round about it for many a mile – but its character was still the same. Damp rotten houses, many to let, many yet building, many half-built and mouldering away – lodgings, where it would be hard to tell which needed pity most, those who let or those who came to take – children, scantily fed and clothed, spread over every street, and sprawling in the dust – scolding mothers, stamping their slipshod feet with noisy threats upon the pavement – shabby fathers, hurrying with dispirited looks to the occupation which brought them ‘daily bread’ and little more – mangling-women, washer-women, cobblers, tailors, chandlers, driving their trades in parlours and kitchens and back room and garrets, and sometimes all of them under the same roof – brick-fields skirting gardens paled with staves of old casks, or timber pillaged from houses burnt down, and blackened and blistered by the flames – mounds of dock-weed, nettles, coarse grass and oyster-shells, heaped in rank confusion – small dissenting chapels to teach, with no lack of illustration, the miseries of Earth, and plenty of new churches, erected with a little superfluous wealth, to show the way to Heaven.

At length these streets becoming more straggling yet, dwindled and dwindled away, until there were only small garden patches bordering the road, with many a summer house innocent of paint and built of old timber or some fragments of a boat, green as the tough cabbage-stalks that grew about it, and grottoed at the seams with toad-stools and tight-sticking snails. To these succeeded pert cottages, two and two with plots of ground in front, laid out in angular beds with stiff box borders and narrow paths between, where footstep never strayed to make the gravel rough. Then came the public-house, freshly painted in green and white, with tea-gardens and a bowling green, spurning its old neighbour with the horse-trough where the waggons stopped; then, fields; and then, some houses, one by one, of goodly size with lawns, some even with a lodge where dwelt a porter and his wife. Then came a turnpike; then fields again with trees and hay-stacks; then, a hill, and on the top of that, the traveller might stop, and – looking back at old Saint Paul’s looming through the smoke, its cross peeping above the cloud (if the day were clear), and glittering in the sun; and casting his eyes upon the Babel out of which it grew until he traced it down to the furthest outposts of the invading army of bricks and mortar whose station lay for the present nearly at his feet – might feel at last that he was clear of London.

And his description of their trek through the dark night of the Black Country, its flares and furnaces, poverty and unemployment, is superb:

A long suburb of red brick houses – some with patches of garden-ground, where coal-dust and factory smoke darkened the shrinking leaves, and coarse rank flowers, and where the struggling vegetation sickened and sank under the hot breath of kiln and furnace, making them by its presence seem yet more blighting and unwholesome than in the town itself – a long, flat, straggling suburb passed, they came, by slow degrees, upon a cheerless region, where not a blade of grass was seen to grow, where not a bud put forth its promise in the spring, where nothing green could live but on the surface of the stagnant pools, which here and there lay idly sweltering by the black road-side.

Advancing more and more into the shadow of this mournful place, its dark depressing influence stole upon their spirits, and filled them with a dismal gloom. On every side, and far as the eye could see into the heavy distance, tall chimneys, crowding on each other, and presenting that endless repetition of the same dull, ugly form, which is the horror of oppressive dreams, poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air. On mounds of ashes by the wayside, sheltered only by a few rough boards, or rotten pent-house roofs, strange engines spun and writhed like tortured creatures; clanking their iron chains, shrieking in their rapid whirl from time to time as though in torment unendurable, and making the ground tremble with their agonies. Dismantled houses here and there appeared, tottering to the earth, propped up by fragments of others that had fallen down, unroofed, windowless, blackened, desolate, but yet inhabited. Men, women, children, wan in their looks and ragged in attire, tended the engines, fed their tributary fire, begged upon the road, or scowled half-naked from the doorless houses. Then came more of the wrathful monsters, whose like they almost seemed to be in their wildness and their untamed air, screeching and turning round and round again; and still, before, behind, and to the right and left, was the same interminable perspective of brick towers, never ceasing in their black vomit, blasting all things living or inanimate, shutting out the face of day, and closing in on all these horrors with a dense dark cloud.

But night-time in this dreadful spot!–night, when the smoke was changed to fire; when every chimney spirited up its flame; and places, that had been dark vaults all day, now shone red-hot, with figures moving to and fro within their blazing jaws, and calling to one another with hoarse cries–night, when the noise of every strange machine was aggravated by the darkness; when the people near them looked wilder and more savage; when bands of unemployed labourers paraded the roads, or clustered by torch-light round their leaders, who told them, in stern language, of their wrongs, and urged them on to frightful cries and threats; when maddened men, armed with sword and firebrand, spurning the tears and prayers of women who would restrain them, rushed forth on errands of terror and destruction, to work no ruin half so surely as their own– night, when carts came rumbling by, filled with rude coffins (for contagious disease and death had been busy with the living crops); when orphans cried, and distracted women shrieked and followed in their wake–night, when some called for bread, and some for drink to drown their cares, and some with tears, and some with staggering feet, and some with bloodshot eyes, went brooding home–night, which, unlike the night that Heaven sends on earth, brought with it no peace, nor quiet, nor signs of blessed sleep–who shall tell the terrors of the night to the young wandering child! […]

Procession of the unemployed
Nell and her grandfather encounter a procession of the unemployed

Later, her grandfather complaining of intense hunger, Nell approaches a wretched hovel by the roadside, and knocks on the door:

‘What would you have here?’ said a gaunt man, opening it.

‘Charity. A morsel of bread.’

‘Do you see that?’ returned the man hoarsely, pointing to a kind of bundle on the ground. ‘That’s a dead child. I and five hundred other men were thrown out of work, three months ago. That is my third dead child, and last. Do you think I have charity to bestow, or a morsel of bread to spare?’

The child recoiled from the door, and it closed upon her. Impelled by strong necessity, she knocked at another: a neighbouring one, which, yielding to the slight pressure of her hand, flew open.

It seemed that a couple of poor families lived in this hovel, for two women, each among children of her own, occupied different portions of the room. In the centre, stood a grave gentleman in black who appeared to have just entered, and who held by the arm a boy.

‘Here, woman,’ he said, ‘here’s your deaf and dumb son. You may thank me for restoring him to you. He was brought before me, this morning, charged with theft; and with any other boy it would have gone hard, I assure you. But, as I had compassion on his infirmities, and thought he might have learnt no better, I have managed to bring him back to you. Take more care of him for the future.’

‘And won’t you give me back MY son!’ said the other woman, hastily rising and confronting him. ‘Won’t you give me back MY son, Sir, who was transported for the same offence!’

‘Was he deaf and dumb, woman?’ asked the gentleman sternly.

‘Was he not, Sir?’

‘You know he was not.’

‘He was,’ cried the woman. ‘He was deaf, dumb, and blind, to all that was good and right, from his cradle. Her boy may have learnt no better! where did mine learn better? where could he? who was there to teach him better, or where was it to be learnt?’

‘Peace, woman,’ said the gentleman, ‘your boy was in possession of all his senses.’

‘He was,’ cried the mother; ‘and he was the more easy to be led astray because he had them. If you save this boy because he may not know right from wrong, why did you not save mine who was never taught the difference? You gentlemen have as good a right to punish her boy, that God has kept in ignorance of sound and speech, as you have to punish mine, that you kept in ignorance yourselves. How many of the girls and boys–ah, men and women too–that are brought before you and you don’t pity, are deaf and dumb in their minds, and go wrong in that state, and are punished in that state, body and soul, while you gentlemen are quarrelling among yourselves whether they ought to learn this or that? –Be a just man, Sir, and give me back my son.’

‘You are desperate,’ said the gentleman, taking out his snuff-box, ‘and I am sorry for you.’

‘I AM desperate,’ returned the woman, ‘and you have made me so. Give me back my son, to work for these helpless children. Be a just man, Sir, and, as you have had mercy upon this boy, give me back my son!’

The child had seen and heard enough to know that this was not a place at which to ask for alms. She led the old man softly from the door, and they pursued their journey.

John Watkins Chapman - The Old Curiosity Shop
John Watkins Chapman – The Old Curiosity Shop

So there is much to enjoy and appreciate in this novel, flawed though it may be.  But it is the question of its sentimentality which has exercised critics and academics since the late 19th century.  Oscar Wilde famously remarked, ‘one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing’, while Aldous Huxley in Vulgarity in Literature (1930) took Dickens and other Victorian writers to task for excessive sentimentality.

At the time of its publication, however, the open expression of emotion was not only socially acceptable, but also reflected a radical critique of the materialism associated with the rapid industrialisation of the times.  Men as well as women openly shed tears (as indeed they did in our own time, at the death of Princess Diana).  Fred Kaplan, in his study of Victorian sentimentality, Sacred Tears: Sentimentalism in Victorian Literature, observed that the Victorian ‘sentimentalists’ believed that ‘the alienating and dehumanizing pressure and structures of modern culture … dry-eyed exponents of misery and suppression’, were  separating human beings from their natural sentiments. Kaplan added that sentimentality operated as ‘an attempt…to generate, or at least to strengthen the possibility of the triumph of the feelings and the heart over self-serving calculation’

Philip Davis, in his essay ‘‘Victorian Realist Prose and Sentimentality’, supports this:

When people moved from the countryside to the towns and hardly knew where they were any more in that harsher and faster world, at least they still knew the communal heart was in its right place. Is that not what Victorian sentimentality is: a defensive part of urban social history, democratizing inarticulate good feeling, offering family feeling a place in the new world?

For the Romantics, reason had failed to improve either human nature or social conditions.  Romantic writers sought to move readers emotionally and spiritually by appealing to sentiment – ‘the capacity for moral reflection’, in the words of Paul Schlicke in The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens. In Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination, Sally Ledger goes further, arguing that The Old Curiosity Shop can be understood as radical, in a way that is difficult for readers today to imagine, noting especially the final nightmare journey of Nell and her grandfather. On their way they pass carts loaded with coffins, orphans crying, and bands of unemployed labourers gathering by torchlight to be urged on to ‘frightful cries and threats’ by their leaders. Starving and exhausted, Nell is forced to beg for food, knocking upon the door of a hovel. She is repulsed by a man who points to his own dead child, saying that he and five hundred men were thrown out of work three months earlier, and telling her ‘that is my third dead child, and last. Do you think I have charity to bestow, or a morsel of bread to spare?’

Ledger notes that these scenes depict the desperate need caused by recession and poor harvests, conditions which provoked popular unrest expressed in the Chartist riots that occurred in Birmingham and other places a few months before Dickens began writing the novel.  Nell and her grandfather’s poverty, sickness, unemployment, homelessness, and itinerant lifestyle are mirrored in those they meet. Following Nell’s death, the old, ‘the deaf, the blind, the lame, the palsied, the living dead in many shapes and forms’ gather around her grave, and Nell’s sufferings become the sufferings of the poor, the ill, the unemployed, and the desperate.

The account of Nell’s last few hours recalls her dreaming of those who had helped her and saying ‘God bless you!’  For Ledger, her death can be interpreted not only as an invocation of moral sentiments but also as a radical call  for justice for those in need. The Dickens who used his work to challenge the New Poor Law or Yorkshire schools is present at Nell’s death, too.

Little Nell's death

See also

Dickens sees through the fog

The other night I attended Dickens: a writers’ contemporary, a symposium in which a panel of writers discussed the relevance of Dickens to their own work. Each writer chose a favourite passage from Dickens and then spoke about its significance for them.  Screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell-Boyce chose the opening of Bleak House, with its invocation of fog at the heart of the establishment.  Cottrell-Boyce, who worked with Danny Boyle on the Olympics opening ceremony this summer, explained how the passage had inspired an initial idea for the ceremony, subsequently discarded, in which darkness and fog would be dispersed by shafts of light.

He chose the passage not only for the brilliance of the writing – its repetitions like an incantation or spell, and its cinematic quality before cinema was invented – but because it exemplifies the way in which great literature, in Auden’s words, can enable the reader to ‘break out of the prison of the present’.  Listening to the opening of Bleak House, it might be our times, the fog veiling the machinations of the establishment pierced by the revelations of the Hillsborough tribunal, the Leveson inquiry or the tax-dodging manouevres of big corporations.

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.

On such an afternoon, if ever, the Lord High Chancellor ought to be sitting here—as here he is—with a foggy glory round his head, softly fenced in with crimson cloth and curtains, addressed by a large advocate with great whiskers, a little voice, and an interminable brief, and outwardly directing his contemplation to the lantern in the roof, where he can see nothing but fog. On such an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be—as here they are—mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might. On such an afternoon the various solicitors in the cause, some two or three of whom have inherited it from their fathers, who made a fortune by it, ought to be—as are they not?—ranged in a line, in a long matted well (but you might look in vain for truth at the bottom of it) between the registrar’s red table and the silk gowns, with bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters’ reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them. Well may the court be dim, with wasting candles here and there; well may the fog hang heavy in it, as if it would never get out; well may the stained-glass windows lose their colour and admit no light of day into the place; well may the uninitiated from the streets, who peep in through the glass panes in the door, be deterred from entrance by its owlish aspect and by the drawl, languidly echoing to the roof from the padded dais where the Lord High Chancellor looks into the lantern that has no light in it and where the attendant wigs are all stuck in a fog-bank! This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”

Listening to these voices in the last 24 hours, could there be more Victorian contrast?

We must be fair to the person who leaves home every morning to go out to work and sees their neighbour still asleep, living a life on benefits.
– George Osborne, Autumn Statement, 5 December

They don’t care about people like me. I feel that they’re persecuting people like me to be perfectly honest. The actual reality of the situation is that people on benefits are living hand to mouth.
– Nicola Marshall, working single parent on Working Tax Credit interviewed on The World at One, 6 December

The sense of a wealthy establishment existing in a bubble remote from the lives of most people was reinforced by yesterday’s brilliant Guardian front page with the photo (top) of Cameron, Osborne and Alexander guffawing after the Chancellor had ensured that the poor bear the brunt of his budget measures – beneath the headline, ‘At least someone’s laughing…’

Dickens: a writers’ contemporary was held in the Small Concert Room of St George’s Hall in Liverpool – where Dickens gave public readings on five separate occasions in the 1860s.  The event – a celebration of Dickens in the last month of his bicentenary year – was presented by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain in association with The Reader Organisation of Liverpool. With Frank Cottrell-Boyce on the panel were playwright David Edgar, who in the 1980s wrote The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, the 8 hour adaptation of Dickens’ novel, scriptwriter Gwyneth Hughes who adapted – and completed – The Mystery of Edwin Drood for TV and and local novelist Deborah Morgan.

See also

The mean streets of Somers Town

Walk around Somers Town today – as I did on a short visit to London last week – and it is hard to summon up a vision of the area as it was in the second half of the 19th century, one where more than a third of the inhabitants lived in abject poverty, lacking the bare minimum required for food and a roof over their head, in area of mean and squalid streets and crumbling tenements.

This is the world conjured up by Anthony Quinn in his third historical novel, The Streets.  I had read and admired his first book – The Rescue Man, set in Liverpool during the blitz – so I looked forward to his latest opus, and began reading it on the train journey down to London.

In The Rescue Man, Quinn took the bare bones of the story of a real-life architect responsible for some of the most innovative 19th century buildings in Liverpool and turned it into a cracking read, full of excitement and replete with a real sense of the city and its people.  He has done something similar here: at the end of The Streets he acknowledges his debt to the journalism of Henry Mayhew whose London Labour and the London Poor, a series of articles documenting the lives of the poor who worked and traded wares on the streets of London, was published in the 1840s in the Morning Chronicle.

He also salutes the work of the social researcher (the founding father of British sociology, as we were taught at university), Charles Booth, who conducted a seminal twelve-year study of poverty in London whose results were published in 1889 as Labour and Life of the People.

Coincidentally, Booth hailed from Liverpool, the son of a wealthy shipowner and corn merchant.  He attended the Royal Institution School in Liverpool before being apprenticed in the family business at the age of sixteen. When his father died in 1862, he was left in control of the family business.  The family were Unitarians, and siblings and cousins debated issues of the day, such as the extension of the franchise, the works of Charles Darwin and Comte’s doctrine of positivism.  In the election of 1865, Booth canvassed house to house in the slums of Toxteth in support of the Liberal candidate.  This proved to be a shocking exposure to squalor and poverty, which contributed to a gradual abandonment of religious faith.

But Booth developed a profound sense of obligation and responsibility towards the poor and to the improvement of social conditions. Disillusioned with party politics following the failure to dislodge the Liverpool Tory ‘beerocracy’ he became involved with Joseph Chamberlain’s Birmingham Education League, on whose behalf he conducted a survey which suggested that 25,000 Liverpool children were neither at school nor at work.

This might be said to be Anthony Quinn’s trademark as a novelist: the fictionalisation of an aspect of the life a key historical figure, and a complete immersion in the chosen period. This time it is the 1880s, and the slums of Somers Town, that wedge of north London streets roughly bounded today by Euston and St Pancras railway stations and the British Library.

We realise that we are firmly in Quinn territory a couple of pages in, when he has the novel’s protagonist, apprentice journalist David Wildeblood, meet his new boss Henry Marchmont, Quinn’s conflation of Mayhew and Booth.  Along one entire wall of Marchmont’s study stretches a huge map of London with each neighbourhood of the city blocked out in a particular colour.  In different-coloured inks, Marchmont fills in the map to indicate the social class of the people living in each street. Gesturing towards the map, he explains what his project is about, and the part Wildeblood will play in it:

Why, it is journalism.  We go through these neighbourhoods, street by street, house by house, and in so doing we glean a systematic and impartial understanding of the causes and conditions of poverty.

Between 1886 and 1903 Charles Booth produced a remarkable series of maps of London carefully coded for social class with data gathered by visiting, literally, every street in London. Equally remarkable, Booth devised, funded a research team, and conducted the study in his spare time while continuing to manage a successful international leather trade and steamship company.

A detail from Charles Booth’s map: Somers Town 1898

Interestingly, Quinn inverts Booth’s original motivation for embarking on his research in his character Marchmont’s explanation of his quest:

[He] pointed to the most heavily inked portion of the map. ‘Behold the East End, where we began our project.  Do you know the most signal fact our enquiries have uncovered?  It is that nearly a third of its inhabitants live in a state of abject poverty.  By this I mean they cannot raise the basic minimum … to cover the cost of rent and food for themselves and their dependants. … But we are beginning to discover something even more extraordinary.  Since broadening our field of interest to Blackfriars, to Holborn and Drury Lane, to Borough, to Southwark – and to Somers Town – we are learning that the East end is by no means exceptional in its state of destitution.  Some years ago, when I put an estimate of the city’s poor at three hundred thousand, I was abused and derided – people were angry , dismissed it as ‘provocation’.  But all the evidence thus far suggests I was too cautious …

Quinn has tapped into the greatest political debate of the 1880s, a question that gripped and divided citizens, politicians and philanthropists: the extent and causes of increasing poverty in an increasingly wealthy industrial Britain. There were fears of social unrest following a series of riots. In 1885, Charles Booth contested the results of a report on poverty by Henry Hyndman of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, which indicated that 25% of Londoners lived in abject poverty. Booth thought the rate was lower, and decided to discover for himself the true extent of poverty in London. For twelve years he and the research team he assembled systematically gathered and mapped living conditions of first, London’s East End, and later the entire city. As a social scientist, he was forced to accept his initial hypothesis had been wrong: he concluded that the rate of extreme poverty was in fact nearer 35% – far higher than the original figure.

The challenge that faced Quinn must have been how to dramatise a sociological inquiry.  He achieves this by extrapolating the journalistic inquiry from Henry Mayhew, who, in the early 1850s, wrote two or three ‘reports’ a week on the London poor for the Morning Chronicle, a liberal newspaper that had previously published Dickens’s Sketches by Boz.  These were the reports subsequently selected and published as the single work, London Labour and the London Poor, with the addition of highly evocative ‘illustrations from photographs’ of street traders such as these.

So Quinn’s main character Wildeblood is an investigative journalist who we follow along the mean streets of Somers Town, his appointed patch: ‘a terra incognito, as remote to most people as those tribes that dwell at the ends of the earth’.  His job is to write up daily reports of his encounters with the denizens of the streets and slums of Somers Town.  Quinn gambles on holding the reader’s attention in the early pages with lengthy examples of entries from Wildeblood’s notebook (in turn modelled on Mayhew’s reports).

But the pace soon quickens as Wildeblood begins to suspect that the area is not completely unknown territory for certain wealthy men with profit in mind and political interests to advance.  The story soon evolves into a fast-paced thriller, with Wildeblood increasingly exposed to danger as he attempts to expose the powerful interests at work in the slums.

His suspicions are first aroused when he realises that ‘somebody must be making a great deal of money on property that was barely fit for human habitation’. No-one he asks knows who their landlord is – only that they pay ‘the man’ who comes round each week to collect the rent.

His investigations soon reveal the identity of the slum landlord, though his employer, the wealthy Henry Mayhew, does not appear impressed by his endeavours.  Someone who is interested, however, is Alfred Kenton, a socialist agitator whose Union for Rental and Sanitary Reform organises a rent strike.  But powerful interests are threatened, and both Kenton and Wildeblood soon find themselves pursued with deadly intent.

It’s a gripping read, with Wildeblood’s friends in Somers Town and those he rubs shoulders with in the drawing rooms of the rich presented as well-rounded characters.  At its heart, this a 19th century political thriller, and Quinn successfully weaves into the narrative the reactionary obsessions of the day:  the laissez-faire rejection of social reforms that might ameliorate the condition of the poor, and the notion of the deserving and undeserving poor.  Wildeblood finds himself debating these questions with wealthy businessmen at an elegant dinner in his godfather’s mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens. It is at this dinner table that he hears the first expression of the ideology that lies behind the conspiracy he is beginning to identify, eugenics:

We must accept that there is a whole underclass prey to vice and drunkenness and what have you.  This degraded element has to be prevented from infecting the rest of society, and the safest means of doing so is to create a place where they would be, as it were, quarantined.

It’s a philosophy that Wildeblood later hears elaborated by Father Kay, a Catholic priest who is a prominent member of the Social Protection League, a body with shadowy intentions:

You see it very strongly in children – that taint in the blood.  There is a school of thought, I’m sure you know, that says allowing our weakest elements to breed will lead to the degeneration of humankind. … The children of the very poor are not born but damned into this world.  Their only inheritance is a weak mind and a deformed physique. … This is the hereditary taint, and unless something is done to check it, evolution itself will be reversed.

The conspiracy which Wildeblood seeks to unmask is a successful dramatisation by Quinn of the theory developed by Sir Francis Galton, based on distorting the theory of evolution propounded by his half-cousin Charles Darwin in this period. After reading Origin of Species, Galton argued that the mechanisms of natural selection were potentially thwarted by human civilization. If human societies sought to protect the underprivileged and weak, they were at odds with the natural selection responsible for extinction of the weakest. Only by abandoning these social policies could society be saved from a ‘reversion towards mediocrity’.

The eugenicist conspiracy at the heart of Quinn’s novel did have genuine parallels in the period.  Although eugenics never received significant state backing in the UK (as it did, for example in the United States, Australia and Sweden), it was supported by many prominent figures of different political persuasions before World War I, including Liberal economists William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes; Fabian socialists such as George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Sidney Webb; and Conservatives such as Winston Churchill.

Galton’s application of eugenics to the question of class was revealed in this diagram in which he placed British society into groups, indicating the proportion of society falling into each group and their perceived genetic worth (red bad, green good). He suggested that those in the lowest social group (the ‘Undesirables’) should be prevented from bearing offspring, while those in the higher classes should be encouraged to breed more.

It’s interesting to compare Galton’s chart with the classification which Charles Booth used in his research; this is his definition of the two lowest of his five social groupings :

A: Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal. The lowest class which consists of some occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals. Their life is the life of savages, with vicissitudes of extreme hardship and their only luxury is drink

B: Very poor, casual. Chronic want. Casual earnings, very poor. The labourers do not get as much as three days work a week, but it is doubtful if many could or would work full time for long together if they had the opportunity. Class B is not one in which men are born and live and die so much as a deposit of those who from mental, moral and physical reasons are incapable of better work

Wildeblood is an engaging protagonist – a rather inept amateur detective, driven to reveal the truth by his growing admiration and compassion for the people he has befriended on the street, and his strengthening conviction that the poor and the criminal are not born, but made:

I will tell you.  They deserve to be free to enjoy their life, instead of worrying and struggling over the means to sustain it.  That is the difference between the poor and the rest of us.  We are at liberty to ask, ‘How do I wish to live?’  The poor man only asks, ‘How can I keep myself alive?’  If you had ever witnessed the sort of privations and desperate economies that go on in this city, at this very instant, you would not be tempted to wonder at what they ‘deserve’.

In this brisk narrative, populated by believable and engaging characters and permeated with a sense of social unease, Quinn succeeds in making the political debates and moral questions of the 1880s relevant to the Britain in the second decade of the 21st century, when week after week the media bring news of corruption and conspiracy in high places while social divisions increase. Another enjoyable and intellectually stimulating read from Anthony Quinn.

The end papers of The Streets feature a map of Somers Town in 1880, and Quinn is quite precise about naming the streets where his characters live or ply their trade.  Wildeblood is able to get closer to the people of Somers Town after befriending Jo, a coster, and his attractive and mysterious sister Rosa.  They live in the Polygon (above), the first housing built in Somers Town in 1784, when it stood amid fields, brick works and market gardens on the northern fringes of London (there’s an excellent Time Travel account of the Polygon here).  In essence it was a housing estate, a distinctive, almost circular Georgian building with 15 sides and three storeys that contained 32 houses (seen on the 1880 map below, almost at the centre). Charles Dickens lodged there as a boy, and put the Polygon into Bleak House in 1852, as the home of the down-at-heel eccentric, Mr Skimpole:

He lived in a place called the Polygon, in Somers Town, where there were at that time a number of poor Spanish refugees walking about in cloaks, smoking little paper cigars. Whether he was a better tenant than one might have supposed, in consequence of his friend Somebody always paying his rent at last, or whether his inaptitude for business rendered it particularly difficult to turn him out, I don’t know; but he had occupied the same house some years. It was in a state of dilapidation quite equal to our expectation. Two or three of the area railings were gone, the water-butt was broken, the knocker was loose, the bell-handle had been pulled off a long time to judge from the rusty state of the wire, and dirty footprints on the steps were the only signs of its being inhabited.

A slatternly full-blown girl who seemed to be bursting out at the rents in her gown and the cracks in her shoes like an over-ripe berry answered our knock by opening the door a very little way and stopping up the gap with her figure. As she knew Mr. Jarndyce (indeed Ada and I both thought that she evidently associated him with the receipt of her wages), she immediately relented and allowed us to pass in. The lock of the door being in a disabled condition, she then applied herself to securing it with the chain, which was not in good action either, and said would we go upstairs?

We went upstairs to the first floor, still seeing no other furniture than the dirty footprints. Mr. Jarndyce without further ceremony entered a room there, and we followed. It was dingy enough and not at all clean, but furnished with an odd kind of shabby luxury, with a large footstool, a sofa, and plenty of cushions, an easy-chair, and plenty of pillows, a piano, books, drawing materials, music, newspapers, and a few sketches and pictures. A broken pane of glass in one of the dirty windows was papered and wafered over, but there was a little plate of hothouse nectarines on the table, and there was another of grapes, and another of sponge-cakes, and there was a bottle of light wine. Mr. Skimpole himself reclined upon the sofa in a dressing-gown, drinking some fragrant coffee from an old china cup–it was then about mid-day–and looking at a collection of wallflowers in the balcony.

A map of Somers Town in 1880

I decided to walk around the area – a terra incognito to me – to see if anything of the atmosphere of Quinn’s novel still lingered there.  Nothing remains that offers any semblance of the streets featured in Quinn’s tale.  The Polygon has gone – demolished in the 1890s – and the land where it stood is now occupied by the blocks of Somers Town estate.  But there is still a Polygon Road (below), and if you turn off Polygon Road and go down Werrington Street you will find a plaque to the Polygon’s most renowned resident.

It’s plaque recording the fact that ‘in a house on this site lived Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman‘. It was put up by Camden Borough Council, prodded by Claire Tomalin, author of The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (2004). You have to really look for it –  turn down Werrington Street, and where a set of stairs rises above a garage entrance, it’s on the wall halfway up the steps, well above head height.  In the London Review of Books in 1989, Tomalin wrote:

‘Mary Who?’ is still the common form of her name, outside a small circle of specialists and enthusiasts. People stumble over the three simple syllables; its awkwardness has stood in the way of her fame. Pankhurst has an easy ring to it, and Mrs Pankhurst got a statue. When I set about organising a modest plaque on the site of the house in which Mary Wollstonecraft died in Somers Town, there was talk of naming flats or even a street after her: but again, those three syllables defeated too many people.

Further along Polygon Road is a striking wall mural (top of post) that vividly portrays the history of Somers Town.  It’s hard to appreciate the detail of the painting, as it is obscured by a high chain fence as you can see from my photo.  Its present location is its third: the mural was originally created by Karen Gregory in 1984 and located in the St Mary and St Pancras School. It had been funded by the Greater London Council with additional funds from Camden Council and the Arts Council. It was intended not just to be a decorative piece but also educational with posters and leaflets made up to explain the local history stories.

The mural depicts a view looking out from old Somers Town, showing the industrial landscape of Victorian London in the left hand side, the Fleet river divides the picture and Old St Pancras church is seen on the riverbank. On the right hand side is a modern house with contemporary people. Famous faces from Somers Town over the years are featured, including Mary Wollstonecraft and her partner William Godwin, Charles Dickens, who lived and worked in the area in the 1820s, and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who founded a women’s hospital nearby. Local scenes are depicted too, such as Mr Darke’s dust heaps (where King’s Cross station now stands), the brick kilns which once provided the main employment, and The Brill, a network of alleys and courts that formed a market place that features in Anthony Quinn’s novel.  Some of the detail can be seen more clearly in this photo of the mural in its original location.

In 1992, the mural came under threat from redevelopment.  Claire Tomalin successfully lobbied for its retention, calling it ‘probably the finest in London’:

…in 1980 the GLC [Greater London Council, abolished by Thatcher] commissioned the London artist Karen Gregory to paint a mural on the wall of a school to celebrate the history of the district and its famous residents…It offers a journey through time, drawing on the styles of many artists; Stubbs, Constable, Gainsborough, Ford Madox Brown, Sickert and Gilman. Old St Pancras church is in the background, surrounded by hay fields. The Fleet river runs by under an elm tree. Beneath it are seated the figures of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who belong to the earliest period of Somers Town’s history. Their daughter Mary is shown as a young woman, with her husband Shelley, sailing paper boats from the bridge over the Fleet, while behind them appears the head of Frankenstein’s monster.

The mural was moved again in 2007 and repainted after a vote from the local community to keep it. The painting now includes Claire Tomalin, the current headteacher of the school where it was first situated, and Sue Child, a teaching assistant who has seen all three versions of the mural.  as flats were built, but in that time has won the hearts of the community.

Artist Karen Gregory, who painted all the murals and spent three months on the most recent, said the inspiration behind the original creations was feminism: ‘We decided to base it on famous women who lived and worked here – it was the flavour of the times, we were very feminist’.

The most dramatic change to this area came with the arrival of the railway and the construction of Euston and St Pancras stations.  The streets where The Brill, the market place that features in Anthony Quinn’s novel, have long gone – partly buried beneath St Pancras.  Now, roughly on the site where some of the the streets that formed The Brill were, is arising another behemoth, to join the new British Library building which has transformed the area in the last decade.

Brill Place is the site for the Francis Crick Institute, a major medical research institute being established by a partnership of Cancer Research UK, Imperial College London, King’s College London, the Medical Research Council, University College London (UCL) and the Wellcome Trust.  It’s a building site now (above), but will soon be a building as massive and significant as its neighbour, the British Library.

The streets have seen it all – change and decay, destruction and rebuilding – and through it all, the people drift like ghosts, coming into the light and fading from sight.

See also

Re-reading Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby, the most scrumdiddlyumptious story

Re-reading Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby, the most scrumdiddlyumptious story

Dreams are the bright creatures of poem and legend, who sport on earth in the night season, and melt away in the first beam of the sun, which lights grim care and stern reality on their daily pilgrimage through the world.

Reading Nicholas Nickleby straight after Pickwick and Oliver Twist, the abilities and ambitions of the young author begin to to take shape, while the autobiographical element continues to thread its way through the narrative.

The writing and serialization of Nicholas Nickelby, through 1837 -1839, overlapped with that of Oliver Twist, and encouraged by the popular success of that novel with its indictment of the workhouses of the New Poor Law, Dickens began with the idea of taking on another social injustice which he had learned of from press reports: the scandal of the ‘Yorkshire Schools’ and in particular the notorious case of William Shaw, headmaster of Bowes Academy in Greta Bridge.

Dickens decided that he would expose these schools in his new novel – schools where unwanted children were incarcerated in squalid conditions, malnourished and tyrannised by brutal adults.  The schools were often advertised in the London newspapers, and Dickens had seen William Shaw’s own advertisement which claimed that ‘YOUTH are carefully instructed in English, Latin and Greek languages …Common and Decimal Arithmetic; Book-keeping, Mensuration, Surveying, Geometry, Geography and Navigation … No extra charges whatever, Doctor’s bills excepted.  No vacations.’

That ‘navigation’ tickled Dickens, who adapted it for the advertisement for Dotheboys Hall which Ralph Nickleby reads out to his nephew Nicholas in chapter 3:

 ‘This caught my eye this morning, and you may thank your stars for it.’  With this exordium, Mr Ralph Nickleby took a newspaper from his pocket, and after unfolding it, and looking for a short time among the advertisements, read as follows:

“EDUCATION.–At Mr Wackford Squeers’s Academy, Dotheboys Hall, at the delightful village of Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, Youth are boarded, clothed, booked, furnished with pocket-money, provided with all necessaries, instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry, the use of the globes, algebra, single stick (if required), writing, arithmetic, fortification, and every other branch of classical literature.

Dickens actually met Shaw, when travelling incognito with his illustrator Hablot Brown (Phiz) to Yorkshire in January 1838 to research the Yorkshire Schools for his novel.  Shaw had been prosecuted in 1823 by the parents of two children who went blind while in his care at Bowes Academy, and in the local graveyard Dickens noted that between 1810 and 1834 twenty-five boys from the school, aged between 7 and 18 had been buried there.

The scenes at Dotheboys Hall which form the early chapters of the novel echo those of the workhouse in Oliver Twist, and reflect his  concern with child cruelty and neglect, the failings of educational provision and the way in which ignorance lay at the root of social ills – a deep concern that threads its way through all his work:

Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining; there were vicious-faced boys, brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail; and there were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness. With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!

But there is much comedy, even here in the harsh Yorkshire episodes.  Indeed, although the novel pits light against dark, evil against goodness, the overall tone is comic and lively, with episodes that hark back to Pickwick Papers: the storytelling in the inn on the way to Yorkshire, the hilarious breakfast set-to between Madam Mantalini and her husband, the performances of the Crummles’ theatrical troupe, and the old gentleman on the other side of the wall who becomes infatuated with Mrs Nickleby are all richly comic and light-hearted.

Dickens continues to re-work episodes from his own history.  Poor Smike’s abandonment by his father echoes that of Oliver – and Dickens’ own experience of the blacking factory, which he never forget.  His love of the stage and his own involvement in theatrical productions find their way into the high-spirited scenes that feature Mr Vincent Crummles, Mrs Vincent Crummles, Master Crummles, Master P. Crummles, and Miss Crummles, ‘the infant phenomenon’. Several commentators suggest that the personality of Nicholas himself – impetuous, quick to anger, firm in his opposition to injustice – is not unlike that of the writer himself, while Mrs Nickleby is cited as a portrait of Dickens’ own mother.  There is much more on the parallels between real people and fictional characters in Nicholas Nickleby in Peter Ackrod’s biography, though Ackroyd warns that

Dickens is rarely, if ever, a ‘realistic’ writer in any accepted sense; all of his polemic and observation are at the service of the larger themes or moods with which he animated his narrative.  What he saw, and remembered, was determined by what he felt; his temperament, grave or gay, filled the world its own shapes.

Dickens is ‘a mythologist, a poet of the novel’, writes Robert Giddings, in what is ostensibly a review of a 2002 film version of Nicholas Nickleby, but is in fact one of the most extensive online essays on the novel.

The novel is highly melodramatic, with goodness relentlessly pitched against pure evil, and a great deal of sentimentality in the portrayal of Smike and Kate Nickleby. The coincidences and lengthy and creaking plot expositions, can make the book frustrating in parts for a modern reader.  In the last few chapters especially, Dickens seems in a hurry to tie up the very loose ends of the mystery of Smike’s parentage. The final chapter in which, in the 18th century style, the author feels it necessary to tell us what happened to everyone afterwards is bathetic and unnecessary.

Set against these indictments, though, consider this, from Joyce Carol Oates in the current issue of the New York Review of Books:

If Dickens’s prose fiction has “defects”—excesses of melodrama, sentimentality, contrived plots, and manufactured happy endings—these are the defects of his era, which for all his greatness Dickens had not the rebellious spirit to resist; he was at heart a crowd-pleaser, a theatrical entertainer, with no interest in subverting the conventions of the novel

The Cheeryble brothers, Tim Linkinwater and Nicholas by Phiz

The melodramatic representation of moral values, the struggle between good and evil is central to the novel. Dickens’ heroes and villains are embodiments of moral absolutes, portrayed most vividly in the contrast between Ralph Nickleby and the Cheeryble brothers, all three of them in business, but pursuing their calling in diametrically different ways.

Ralph is introduced as a man of business, though what kind of business is unclear:

Mr Ralph Nickleby was not, strictly speaking, what you would call a merchant, neither was he a banker, nor an attorney, nor a special pleader, nor a notary. He was certainly not a tradesman, and still less could he lay any claim to the title of a professional gentleman; for it would have been impossible to mention any recognised profession to which he belonged. Nevertheless, as he lived in a spacious house in Golden Square, which, in addition to a brass plate upon the street-door, had another brass plate two sizes and a half smaller upon the left hand door-post, surrounding a brass model of an infant’s fist grasping a fragment of a skewer, and displaying the word ‘Office,’ it was clear that Mr Ralph Nickleby did, or pretended to do, business of some kind …

As Robert Giddings notes in his essay, this makes Ralph is a particularly relevant figure for our times:

He does not own land. He does not farm. He does not, apparently, actually work. He makes nothing. Except money.  He is a dealer, a chancer, a speculator and a swindler.

When we meet him, Ralph is on his way to a public meeting, part of a campaign to lobby support in Parliament for a bill to recognise a new joint-stock company – the delightfully-named and, again, very modern-sounding United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company which intends to deal with the appalling state of the Muffin Trade (the houses of the poor in the various districts of London being destitute of the slightest vestige of a muffin) by ‘prohibiting, under heavy penalties, all private muffin trading of every description’ and ‘themselves supplying the public generally, and the poor at their own homes, with muffins of first quality at reduced prices’.

Meanwhile, we have learned that Ralph Nickelby’s brother, deceased father of Nicholas and Kate, has left the family destitute after speculating all his money on a similar enterprise, and losing everything:

Speculation is a round game; the players see little or nothing of their cards at first starting; gains MAY be great – and so may losses. The run of luck went against Mr Nickleby. A mania prevailed, a bubble burst, four stock-brokers took villa residences at Florence, four hundred nobodies were ruined, and among them Mr Nickleby.

Ralph Nickelby, though, is forged of a different metal.  A rich and miserly moneylender, he might seem to be a prototype for Scrooge; the difference is that Dickens allows Ralph Nickelby no redemption.  His evil plans and schemes ultimately are his undoing and he eventually hangs himself.  Nickelby’s impending doom is foreshadowed in several melodramatic passages such as this:

The night was dark, and a cold wind blew, driving the clouds, furiously and fast, before it. There was one black, gloomy mass that seemed to follow him: not hurrying in the wild chase with the others, but lingering sullenly behind, and gliding darkly and stealthily on. He often looked back at this, and, more than once, stopped to let it pass over; but, somehow, when he went forward again, it was still behind him, coming mournfully and slowly up, like a shadowy funeral train.

…….He had to pass a poor, mean burial-ground – a dismal place, raised a few feet above the level of the street, and parted from it by a low parapet-wall and an iron railing; a rank, unwholesome, rotten spot, where the very grass and weeds seemed, in their frouzy growth, to tell that they had sprung from paupers’ bodies, and had struck their roots in the graves of men, sodden, while alive, in steaming courts and drunken hungry dens. And here, in truth, they lay, parted from the living by a little earth and a board or two – lay thick and close – corrupting in body as they had in mind- a dense and squalid crowd. Here they lay, cheek by jowl with life: no deeper down than the feet of the throng that passed there every day, and piled high as their throats.

The Cheeryble brothers, by contrast, build a thriving business by treating others with respect and compassion. They are largely responsible for helping Nicholas and his family rise from their sorry circumstances.  The chapter in which they are introduced and Nicholas starts his employment with them and chief clerk Tim Linkinwater’s birthday is celebrated is a crucial one, in which Dickens sketches his dream of an alternative world, however unlikely, ruled by goodness and kindness.

Everything gave back, besides, some reflection of the kindly spirit of the brothers. The warehousemen and porters were such sturdy, jolly fellows, that it was a treat to see them. Among the shipping announcements and steam-packet list’s which decorated the counting-house wall, were designs for almshouses, statements of charities, and plans for new hospitals. A blunderbuss and two swords hung above the chimney-piece, for the terror of evil-doers, but the blunderbuss was rusty and shattered, and the swords were broken and edgeless. Elsewhere, their open display in such a condition would have realised a smile; but, there, it seemed as though even violent and offensive weapons partook of the reigning influence, and became emblems of mercy and forbearance.


Dickens will come to be regarded as the great poet of London.  Already, in Nicholas Nickelby, there are splendid passageslike this one that richly evoke the city in his time:

They rattled on through the noisy, bustling, crowded street of London, now displaying long double rows of brightly-burning lamps, dotted here and there with the chemists’ glaring lights, and illuminated besides with the brilliant flood that streamed from the windows of the shops, where sparkling jewellery, silks and velvets of the richest colours, the most inviting delicacies, and most sumptuous articles of luxurious ornament, succeeded each other in rich and glittering profusion. Streams of people apparently without end poured on and on, jostling each other in the crowd and hurrying forward, scarcely seeming to notice the riches that surrounded them on every side; while vehicles of all shapes and makes, mingled up together in one moving mass, like running water, lent their ceaseless roar to swell the noise and tumult.

As they dashed by the quickly-changing and ever-varying objects, it was curious to observe in what a strange procession they passed before the eye. Emporiums of splendid dresses, the materials brought from every quarter of the world; tempting stores of everything to stimulate and pamper the sated appetite and give new relish to the oft-repeated feast; vessels of burnished gold and silver, wrought into every exquisite form of vase, and dish, and goblet; guns, swords, pistols, and patent engines of destruction; screws and irons for the crooked, clothes for the newly-born, drugs for the sick, coffins for the dead, and churchyards for the buried– all these jumbled each with the other and flocking side by side, seemed to flit by in motley dance like the fantastic groups of the old Dutch painter, and with the same stern moral for the unheeding restless crowd.

Nor were there wanting objects in the crowd itself to give new point and purpose to the shifting scene. The rags of the squalid ballad-singer fluttered in the rich light that showed the goldsmith’s treasures, pale and pinched-up faces hovered about the windows where was tempting food, hungry eyes wandered over the profusion guarded by one thin sheet of brittle glass–an iron wall to them; half-naked shivering figures stopped to gaze at Chinese shawls and golden stuffs of India. There was a christening party at the largest coffin-maker’s and a funeral hatchment had stopped some great improvements in the bravest mansion. Life and death went hand in hand; wealth and poverty stood side by side; repletion and starvation laid them down together.

But it was London.

Roger Rees and David Threlfall in David Edgar’s stage adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby

Leaving the novel aside, I’d like to recall the wonderful Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Trevor Nunn and adapted by David Edgar, that was filmed in a 9-hour version for television, the first major drama commissioned by Channel 4, transmitted in four parts on consecutive Sundays in November 1982. In his adaptation, Edgar drew out the novel’s evocation of a world of individual greed and ruthless commercialism in a subtle comment on the ethos of monetarism and Victorian values espoused by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.  Later Dickens adaptations such as the BBC’s Bleak House (1985) and Christine Edzard’s two-part film of Little Dorrit (1987) brilliantly followed its lead.

Finally, a memory of the time when I would read to my daughter:

‘I is reading it hundreds of times,’ the BFG said. ‘And I is still reading it and teaching new words to myself and how to write them. It is the most scrumdiddlyumptious story.’

Sophie took the book out of his hand. ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’ she read aloud.

‘By Dahl’s Chickens,’ the BFG said.

― Roald Dahl, The BFG

See also

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