Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown

Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown

Dickens had a genuine and long-standing concern for the condition of the industrial working class, but when he came to write Hard Times, a novel that makes that subject its main concern, his imaginative powers failed him. His general view of society and the relations between social classes enfeebled the book’s plot and characterisation. That’s not to say that it doesn’t contain scenes of deliciously merciless satire, but it does strike me as being the weakest of the novels that I have encountered so far in this project to re-read, or read for the first time, all of Dickens’s works. Continue reading “Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown”

Re-reading Dickens: Dombey and Son

Re-reading Dickens: Dombey and Son

Captain Cuttle by Phiz

Solomon Gills, Walter Gay and Captain Cuttle by Phiz

I found Dombey and Son to be rather strange: at its heart is Paul Dombey, the man whose rigid certainty and pride form the world of all the other characters.  Yet, among all the novel’s wonderful characters brought vividly to life by Dickens through their words and actions, Dombey remains, in the end, a person who we only really know through Dickens’ authorial descriptions of his state of mind.  Maybe that was a deliberate intent on Dickens’ part: for Dombey is unknowable to the rest of the world; an impenetrable man who ‘has lived too long shut up in his towering supremacy’ determined to ‘hide the world within him from the world without’.

In my project to re-read (or in some cases, as here, read for the first time) Dickens’ novels, I’ve reached his seventh novel, generally considered to the first novel of his artistic maturity.  It was begun while he was living with his family in Switzerland in 1846, worked on further in Paris and completed in Brighton in March 1848. It was serialized in 20 monthly parts, and there are surviving working notes by Dickens which show that he planned each number in detail, something he had only begun to do with Martin Chuzzlewit.

Dombey and Son cover

As this cover of the first part, published in October 1846, indicates, the full title of the novel is Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation.  This suggests a novel that will poke its nose far more than it does into the House of Dombey, where money changes hands, deals are made and broken, property conveyed, and fortunes lost. For although a proud, arrogant capitalist is at the heart of the story, this is not a novel in which Dickens dissects the workings of the capitalist system, though there are plenty of his characteristic observations on the morality of public institutions and those who lead them.

Paul Dombey’s ambition is focussed on having a son to carry on his business. ‘The House will once again …. be not only in name but in fact Dombey and Son,’ is his satisfied comment on the birth of his second child, a son. The first child, a daughter is an irrelevant irritant; no – it has to be ‘Dombey and Son’:

Those three words conveyed the one idea of Mr Dombey’s life. The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre. Common abbreviations took new meanings in his eyes, and had sole reference to them. A. D. had no concern with Anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombei – and Son.

The Dombey Family Phiz

The Dombey Family by Phiz

As in any Dickens’ novel there are vivid sketches of a society undergoing enormous changes. England at mid-century was experiencing rapid urbanization and industrial development as global trade increased with the expanding empire and other distant parts. The novel reflects these upheavals through Dickens’ use of two main symbols – the sea and the railway.

The novel seethes with wonderful characters, many of them connected or living near the port of London, a place of arrivals and departures, of foreign shipping and foreign peoples that pulsed with the commerce of empire. Here we find Solomon Gills, proprietor of a ship’s chandler’s The Wooden Midshipman, an old man only too aware of the changes taking place around him:

The world has gone past me. I don’t blame it; but I no longer understand it. Tradesmen are not the same as they used to be, apprentices are not the same, business is not the same, business commodities are not the same. Seven-eighths of my stock is old-fashioned. I am an old-fashioned man in an old-fashioned shop, in a street that is not the same as I remember it. I have fallen behind the time, and am too old to catch it again.

Solomon is uncle to Walter Gay who is employed in the house of Dombey and Son. Walter befriends Dombey’s daughter Florence; the great man is displeased and despatches him to the firm’s branch in Barbados, and the ship in which he sails is lost. When that happens, Sol leaves the shop in the care of the book’s his old sea-faring friend, and the book’s most enjoyable character, Captain Cuttle, a bulbous-nosed mariner with a hook in place of his right hand, who has left the sea but not its lingo: ‘Stand by!’ he constantly urges those around him. He’s fond of book-learning, often declaiming misquoted passages and insisting to his listeners: ‘When found, make a note of’:

In the Proverbs of Solomon you will find the following words, ‘May we never want a friend in need, nor a bottle to give him!’  When found, make a note of.

Train up a fig tree in the way it should go, and when you are old sit under the shade on it.  Overhaul the – Well, I ain’t quite certain where that’s to be found, but when found, make a note of.

Constructing the cutting at Park Street, Camden Town, 1837. Wash drawing by J. C. Bourne.

‘Constructing the cutting at Park Street, Camden Town’, drawing by J. C. Bourne, 1837

While Solomon Gills senses that ‘the world has gone past him’, the greatest evidence of change – literally ripping apart the landscape of parts of London at this time – is the result of the coming of the railway.  For these are the years of railway mania,  the speculative frenzy that swept Britain in the 1840s.  Dickens not only employs the railway as a monstrous symbol of speed and destruction that destroys the novel’s most evil character; he gives us one of the most vivid, documentary-like accounts of the devastation wrought in Camden by the construction of the cutting through to Euston:

The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond. Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations; carcases of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing. There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream. Hot springs and fiery eruptions, the usual attendants upon earthquakes, lent their contributions of confusion to the scene. Boiling water hissed and heaved within dilapidated walls; whence, also, the glare and roar of flames came issuing forth; and mounds of ashes blocked up rights of way, and wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood.

In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.

But as yet, the neighbourhood was shy to own the Railroad. One or two bold speculators had projected streets; and one had built a little, but had stopped among the mud and ashes to consider farther of it. A bran-new Tavern, redolent of fresh mortar and size, and fronting nothing at all, had taken for its sign The Railway Arms; but that might be rash enterprise—and then it hoped to sell drink to the workmen. So, the Excavators’ House of Call had sprung up from a beer-shop; and the old-established Ham and Beef Shop had become the Railway Eating House, with a roast leg of pork daily, through interested motives of a similar immediate and popular description. Lodging-house keepers were favourable in like manner; and for the like reasons were not to be trusted. The general belief was very slow. There were frowzy fields, and cow-houses, and dunghills, and dustheaps, and ditches, and gardens, and summer-houses, and carpet-beating grounds, at the very door of the Railway. Little tumuli of oyster shells in the oyster season, and of lobster shells in the lobster season, and of broken crockery and faded cabbage leaves in all seasons, encroached upon its high places. Posts, and rails, and old cautions to trespassers, and backs of mean houses, and patches of wretched vegetation, stared it out of countenance. Nothing was the better for it, or thought of being so. If the miserable waste ground lying near it could have laughed, it would have laughed it to scorn, like many of the miserable neighbours.

In later chapters Dickens observes a nation transformed by the railway and its requirements: ‘There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses; railway plans, maps, views … There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in.’  Dombey rides the railway, and Dickens gives us this brilliant image of the shrieking locomotive charging through the countryside:

Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, from the town, burrowing among the dwellings of men and making the streets hum, flashing out into the meadows for a moment, mining in through the damp earth, booming on in darkness and heavy air, bursting out again into the sunny day so bright and wide; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, through the fields, through the woods, through the corn, through the hay, through the chalk, through the mould, through the clay, through the rock, among objects close at hand and almost in the grasp, ever flying from the traveller, and a deceitful distance ever moving slowly within him: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!

Doctor Blimber's young gentlemen, illustration by “Phiz

‘Doctor Blimber’s young gentlemen as they appeared when enjoying themselves’: illustration by Phiz

Another example of the way in which the novel is attuned to contemporary issues is Dickens’ satirical portrayal of Dr and Mrs Blimber’s school in Brighton.  Dombey sends his son Paul to this institution, since:

Dombey and Son had often dealt in hides, but never in hearts. They left that fancy ware to boys and girls, and boarding-schools and books.

Doctor Blimber’s is an excellent establishment – ‘strictly conducted, and there is nothing but learning going on from morning to night.’ And, adds Dombey approvingly, ‘It’s very expensive’. While in Brighton, Paul Jnr and Florence stay at a boarding house run by Mrs Pipchins, who observes:

‘There is a great deal of nonsense—and worse—talked about young people not being pressed too hard at first, and being tempted on, and all the rest of it, Sir,’ said Mrs Pipchin, impatiently rubbing her hooked nose. ‘It never was thought of in my time, and it has no business to be thought of now. My opinion is “keep ’em at it”.’

At Blimber’s school, Paul and the other boys undergo an intense and arduous education under the tutelage of Mr Feeder, BA and Cornelia Blimber.  I’m writing this a couple of days after both the head of Ofsted and a government minister called for children as young as two to be engaged in ‘structured learning’, so this passage has a certain contemporary piquancy:

In fact, Doctor Blimber’s establishment was a great hot-house, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work. All the boys blew before their time. Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons, and from mere sprouts of bushes, under Doctor Blimber’s cultivation. Every description of Greek and Latin vegetable was got off the driest twigs of boys, under the frostiest circumstances. Nature was of no consequence at all. No matter what a young gentleman was intended to bear, Doctor Blimber made him bear to pattern, somehow or other.

This was all very pleasant and ingenious, but the system of forcing was attended with its usual disadvantages. There was not the right taste about the premature productions, and they didn’t keep well. Moreover, one young gentleman, with a swollen nose and an excessively large head (the oldest of the ten who had ‘gone through’ everything), suddenly left off blowing one day, and remained in the establishment a mere stalk. And people did say that the Doctor had rather overdone it with young Toots, and that when he began to have whiskers he left off having brains.

‘How old are you, Dombey?’ said Miss Blimber.

‘Six,’ answered Paul, wondering, as he stole a glance at the young lady, why her hair didn’t grow long like Florence’s, and why she was like a boy.

‘How much do you know of your Latin Grammar, Dombey?’ said Miss Blimber.

‘None of it,’ answered Paul. Feeling that the answer was a shock to Miss Blimber’s sensibility, he looked up at the three faces that were looking down at him, and said:

‘I have’n’t been well. I have been a weak child.’

When Doctor Blimber informs Dombey that his son has made great progress and is naturally clever, Dombey is ‘more bent than ever on his being forced and crammed’

In short, however high and false the temperature at which the Doctor kept his hothouse, the owners of the plants were always ready to lend a helping hand at the bellows, and to stir the fire.

Such spirits as he had in the outset, Paul soon lost of course. But he retained all that was strange, and old, and thoughtful in his character: and under circumstances so favourable to the development of those tendencies, became even more strange, and old, and thoughtful, than before.

The scenes at Dr Blimber’s are enjoyable, too, because it is here that Paul is befriended by a fellow pupil, another of the novel’s great characters – the scatterbrained Mr Toots who falls helplessly in love with Florence Dombey and who constantly apologises for himself: ‘it’s of no consequence’.  Like Captain Cuttle, he is a character of great humanity, as well as humour.

Paul Dombey postcard

Paul Dombey: a 19th century postcard illustration

Turning now to the character around whom all the others revolve: Paul Dombey.  Dickens portrays a man who believes that human relationships can be controlled by money.  For Dombey, money can do anything’; it may not be able to keep us alive – ‘we must all die, unfortunately, even in the City, though we were never so rich’, he tells his young son – but money can cause us ‘to be honoured, feared, respected, courted, and admired, and made us powerfuland glorious in the eyes of all men’.

Dombey is always a witness to the emotions of others, with no feelings of his own.  This is how he recalls observing his daughter at her dying mother’s bedside:

The last time he had seen his slighted child, there had been in that sad embrace between her and her dying mother, what was at once a revelation and a reproach to him. Let him be as absorbed in the Son on whom he built such high hopes, he could not forget that closing scene. He could not forget that he had no part in it. That, at the bottom of its clear depths of tenderness and truth, lay those two figures clasped in each other’s arms, while he stood on the bank above them, looking down—a mere spectator—not a sharer with them—quite shut out.

Dombey cauterizes his feelings by hating those of others. Anyone else displaying grief becomes ‘a bidder against him’.  Interestingly though, Dickens displays some sympathy for his cold and distant central character:

Was Mr. Dombey’s master-vice, that ruled him so inexorably, an unnatural characteristic? It might be worth while, sometimes, to inquire what Nature is, and how men work to change her, and whether, in the enforced distortions so produced, it is not natural to be unnatural. Coop any son or daughter of our mighty mother within narrow range, and bind the prisoner to one idea, and foster it by servile worship of it on the part of the few timid or designing people standing round, and what is Nature to the willing captive who has never risen up upon the wings of a free mind – drooping and useless soon – to see her in her comprehensive truth!

Despite Dombey’s attempts to hide his grief it reveals itself:

He cannot hide those rebel traces of it, which escape in hollow eyes and cheeks, a haggard forehead, and a moody, brooding air. Impenetrable as before…he is humbled, or those marks would not be there.

Central to the development of the narrative is Dickens’ portrayal of a marriage arranged for financial gain – a practice common at the time.  After the death of his first wife, Dombey encounters the grotesque Mrs Skewton, who is 70 years old but tries to appear much younger through the use of cosmetics and various devices. Dickens describes her being dismantled for bed by her maid, taking off of paint, clothes and wig, as being  ‘tumbled into ruins like a house of painted cards’.  Mrs Skewton has a daughter, Edith Granger, who she has already lured one rich gentleman to marry. But Edith was left a widower and now her mother sees Dombey as the ultimate catch.  I found Edith to be one of Dickens’ strongest and most interesting female creations – though he seems to lose interest in her later on in the novel.

Edith sees herself as chattel, little better than a prostitute, ‘corrupted, and perverted, to amuse the leisure of a world of mothers’.  Hardened and accepting her fate, she nevertheless gives her mother and her new husband no quarter, seeing them as complicit in her degradation. To her mother she rages:

‘There is no slave in a market: there is no horse in a fair: so shown and offered and examined and paraded, Mother, as I have been, for ten shameful years,’ cried Edith, with a burning brow, and the same bitter emphasis on the one word. ‘Is it not so? Have I been made the bye-word of all kinds of men? Have fools, have profligates, have boys, have dotards, dangled after me, and one by one rejected me, and fallen off, because you were too plain with all your cunning: yes, and too true, with all those false pretences: until we have almost come to be notorious? The licence of look and touch,’ she said, with flashing eyes, ‘have I submitted to it, in half the places of resort upon the map of England? Have I been hawked and vended here and there, until the last grain of self-respect is dead within me, and I loathe myself? Has been my late childhood? I had none before. Do not tell me that I had, tonight of all nights in my life!’

This is how Dickens expresses his critique of business and profit: by analysing the ways in it works in the domestic context, and further, by dividing his characters into good or bad according to their desire for privacy or publicity.  On the one hand there are those characters who act solely with a mind to seek power or recognition, who attempt to impose their vision on the world.  On the other are good characters who keep themselves hidden, letting their deeds go unrewarded.  Little Paul keeps ‘his character to himself’ and Florence quietly bides her time, remaining constant. Meanwhile, the manipulative Carker the manager is a sly, insinuating Iago muttering falsehoods into Dombey’s ear while his younger brother seeks to remain ‘unquestioned and unnoticed’.  Above all, Dombey thinks only of his standing in the world:

The world. What the world thinks of him, how it looks at him, what it sees in him, and what it says—this is the haunting demon of his mind. It is everywhere where he is; and, worse than that, it is everywhere where he is not. It comes out with him among his servants, and yet he leaves it whispering behind; he sees it pointing after him in the street; it is waiting for him in his counting house; it leers over the shoulders of rich men among the merchants; it goes beckoning and babbling among the crowd; it always anticipates him, in every place; and is always busiest, he knows, when he has gone away. When he is shut up in his room at night, it is in his house, outside it, audible in footsteps on the pavement, visible in print upon the table, steaming to and fro on railroads and in ships; restless and busy everywhere, with nothing else but him.

There’s a brilliant passage in ‘The Thunderbolt’, the thematically pivotal forty-seventh chapter, in which Dickens draws upon the medical and scientific understanding of his time about the airborne spread of disease to draw a picture of moral and social disorder spreading through the city like a pestilence:

Those who study the physical sciences, and bring them to bear upon the health of Man, tell us that if the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palpable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portions of a town. But if the moral pestilence that rises with them and in the eternal laws of outraged Nature, is inseparable from them, could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation! Then should we see depravity, impiety, drunkenness, theft, murder, and a long train of nameless sins against the natural affections and repulsions of mankind, overhanging the devoted spots, and creeping on, to blight the innocent and spread contagion among the pure. Then should we see how the same poisoned fountains that flow into our hospitals and lazarhouses, inundate the jails, and make the convict-ships swim deep, and roll across the seas, and over-run vast continents with crime. Then should we stand appalled to know, that where we generate disease to strike our children down and entail itself on unborn generations, there also we breed, by the same certain process, infancy that knows no innocence, youth without modesty or shame, maturity that is mature in nothing but in suffering and guilt, blasted old age that is a scandal on the form we bear. Unnatural humanity! When we shall gather grapes from thorns, and figs from thistles; when fields of grain shall spring up from the offal in the bye-ways of our wicked cities, and roses bloom in the fat churchyards that they cherish; then we may look for natural humanity and find it growing from such seed.

Oh for a good spirit who would take the house-tops off, with a more potent and benignant hand than the lame demon in the tale, and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes, to swell the retinue of the Destroying Angel as he moves forth among them! For only one night’s view of the pale phantoms rising from the scenes of our too long neglect; and from the thick and sullen air where Vice and Fever propagate together, raining the tremendous social retributions which are ever pouring down, and ever coming thicker! Bright and blest the morning that should rise on such a night: for men, delayed to no more by stumbling-blocks of their own making, which are but specks of dust upon the path between them and eternity, would then apply themselves, like creatures of one common origin, owing one duty to the Father of one family, and tending to one common end, to make the world a better place!

Not the less bright and blest would that day be for rousing some who never have looked out upon the world of human life around them, to a knowledge of their own relation to it, and for making them acquainted with a perversion of nature in their own contracted sympathies and estimates; as great, and yet as natural in its development when once begun, as the lowest degradation known.

Florence Dombey in 'Captain Cuttle's Parlour'; by William Maw Egley,1888

 Florence Dombey pictured in ‘Captain Cuttle’s Parlour’ by William Maw Egley, 1888

‘What was a girl to Dombey and Son!’ Against all this we have Florence Dombey, another Dickensian angel, who has no fault but her blindness to her father’s cruelty.  It’s odd that Dickens could create convincing three dimensional female characters who were either middle-aged or morally questionable, yet his younger women so often seem vapid and sentimentalised. It’s a weakness here, because Florence represents naturalness and the absence of dissimulation. Crucially, the ending a transformation from the dysfunctional to harmony – is the result of her constancy.

Admittedly, Florence is not wholly passive. She is not afraid of risk (after her father strikes her, she runs away from home),  and she repeatedly takes the initiative toward reconciliation with her father, despite his neglect, rebuff, even physical anger. She operates through love, and ultimately her ‘perfect goodness’ saves her father.

In the end, there is reunion and salvation, and a flurry of forgiveness: Dombey forgives Florence and Walter for eloping; Edith forgives her mother; Edith forgives Dombey; Florence forgives Edith for leaving her father, and abandoning her; Florence forgives her father.  It’s heart-warming, but hardly real life.  As often in Dickens, the loose ends are tied up too neatly.

Yet, despite the rather rushed and sickly ending, this is a book that is well worth reading. This is due to the way in which Dickens blends solemn themes with great characters, social commentary, comedy and passages of brilliant, poetical writing:

Another time, in the same place, he fell asleep, and slept quietly for a long time. Awaking suddenly, he listened, started up, and sat listening.

Florence asked him what he thought he heard.

‘I want to know what it says,’ he answered, looking steadily in her face. ‘The sea’ Floy, what is it that it keeps on saying?’

She told him that it was only the noise of the rolling waves.

‘Yes, yes,’ he said. ‘But I know that they are always saying something. Always the same thing. What place is over there?’ He rose up, looking eagerly at the horizon.

She told him that there was another country opposite, but he said he didn’t mean that: he meant further away—farther away!

Very often afterwards, in the midst of their talk, he would break off, to try to understand what it was that the waves were always saying; and would rise up in his couch to look towards that invisible region, far away.

At the close of the novel, Dickens’ words hark back to that earlier scene with Florence at her ailing younger brother’s bedside:

And the voices in the waves are always whispering to Florence, in their ceaseless murmuring, of love – of love, eternal and illimitable, not bounded by the confines of this world, or by the end of time, but ranging still, beyond the sea, beyond the sky, to the invisible country far away!

See also

Re-reading Dickens: The Christmas Books

Re-reading Dickens: The Christmas Books

A Christmas Carol illustration by John Leech

‘A Christmas Carol’: illustration by John Leech

The conversation overheard in the changing rooms at Everton Park swimming pool this week spoke volumes about the continuing presence in the popular consciousness of Dickens’s best-known and most popular story.  Spoke, too, of  the renewed relevance of the message and social critique at the heart of A Christmas Carol, and of the anxieties that twist through lives hereabouts.

‘We’ve decided, our lot, this year, we’re not buying each other Christmas presents.’


‘Don’t get me wrong, we’ll celebrate – get the food and drink in.  But we decided that there’s no point in spending a lot when there’s nothing we really want; and none of us has much money to spare.’

‘I know what you mean.  I said to the wife – ‘How’s about if I go down to Matalan and get you one of those cardigans you’ve been wanting.  They’re one-third off this week, and wearing one of those, we can turn down the central heating and save on the gas’. She says, ‘Bah – humbug”

My re-reading Dickens project has reached an appropriately seasonal point with the Christmas Books.  During the 1840s, and beginning with A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote five books for the Christmas market, plus several more Christmas stories in the succeeding two decades. They have forever linked Dickens’s name with Christmas and contributed to the view of many readers that they contain the essence of Dickens: cheerful, benevolent and morally idealistic.

Re-reading A Christmas Carol was a joy, but I must admit that I found the others heavy going.  Though I found things to enjoy in the characters and political satire of the opening chapters of The Chimes, the others I read – Cricket on the Hearth and The Haunted Man – seemed dated, especially in their overwrought supernatural effects.

This was the first time I had read A Christmas Carol since childhood, but the story has remained fresh in my memory through various film and stage adaptations that I’ve seen – especially when our daughter was a child. Re-reading it now, I was struck by how much of its imagery and phrases have burrowed into popular consciousness.  Perhaps only Shakespeare and Dickens have done this.

Here’s a novel of which most people know the opening and closing words – from ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’ to ‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!’  To be ‘a scrooge’ has entered the language, while the exclamation ‘Bah! Humbug!’ and the characters of Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, Marley (‘dead as a doornail’) and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present Future remain vividly ever-present.

I am the Ghost of Christmas Present

‘I am the Ghost of Christmas Present’.  Illustration by John Leech from the first edition, 1843

In his Dickens biography, Peter Ackroyd writes of A Christmas Carol that ‘this powerful Christmas tale, which has achieved a kind of immortality, was born out of the very conditions of the time’. Here is a story of redemption in which the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the two allegorical children, Ignorance and Want, exclaiming as he points to Ignorance, ‘Most of all, beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased’.

Dickens’s interest in education as the key means of alleviating poverty illuminates his novels, journalism and public speeches.  In 1843, not long before he started to write A Christmas Carol, Dickens had made his first visit to one of the Ragged Schools then being established – charitable schools dedicated to providing religious instruction and a rudimentary education for destitute children. He visited the squalid ragged school in Saffron Hill, an area considered to be the worst in London – a place of filth and disease and every kind of vice.  Here were children steeped, in Dickens’s words, ‘in profound ignorance and perfect barbarism’. Dickens broadly supported the work of the ragged schools, though he disapproved of introducing religious doctrine at the expense of a practical education which would help the pupil become a self-sufficient member of society. He believed that the legions of ‘doomed childhood’ would, if they were not properly instructed and their wants alleviated, rise up one day and tear down the very edifice of 19th century civilisation.  As he wrote some time later, ‘side by side with Crime, Disease and Misery in England, Ignorance is always brooding, and it is always certain to be found.’

Within a few weeks of this visit, Dickens had started work on A Christmas Carol, in which, as Peter Ackroyd puts it, ‘the themes of selfishness, money, greed and the commercialised society which results from them are conveyed in condensed and fantastic form’.  In abbreviated form, he writes, the book blended Dickens’s central social concerns –  the effects of industrialism, the ragged schools and the children of the poor, and his own past:

All these things came together, and flowed towards the little book which now emerged … into the light of Dickens’s imagination. […] For in A Christmas Carol he returns to his childhood and relives it.  Not just in the sense that this Christmas story is strangely reminiscent of the tales and chapbooks which he had read as a child … but also in the more important sense that, for the first time in his published writings, the whole nature of Dickens’s childhood informs the little narrative.

Liverpool Mechanics Institution 1841

Liverpool Mechanics Institution in 1841

I’m going to deviate here to observe a local connection to Dickens’s concern for educational reform: in 1844, weeks  after A Christmas Carol had been published to great acclaim,becoming the most successful book of the season, on 26 February 1844, Dickens gave a lecture at a soiree at the Liverpool Mechanics Institution – another example of his commitment to the cause of human improvement and rational education.

Artist impression of the Soiree  - 26th February 1844

An artist’s impression of the Soiree addressed by Dickens on 26 February 1844

In his speech, Dickens spoke of how, in 1825, ‘certain misguided and turbulent persons proposed to erect in Liverpool an unpopular, dangerous, irreligious, and revolutionary establishment, called a Mechanics’ Institution’.  Its primary purpose was to provide educational opportunities, mainly through evening classes for working men. Lectures were also provided covering topics ranging from Arctic exploration to Shakespeare and philosophy. Now, he continued:

Here it stands triumphant, its enemies lived down, its former students attesting, in their various useful callings and pursuits, the sound, practical information it afforded them; its members numbering considerably more than 3,000, and setting in rapidly for 6000 at least; its library comprehending 1 1,000 volumes, and daily sending forth its hundreds of books into private homes…

One of the features that had particularly impressed him, he said was

That regulation which empowers fathers, being annual subscribers of one guinea, to introduce their sons who are minors; and masters, on payment of the astoundingly small sum of five shillings annually, in like manner their apprentices, is not the least valuable of its privileges and, certainly not the one least valuable to society.

Dickens plaque

The blue plaque that records Dickens’s readings at Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution

Dickens added that he derived great  pleasure from a proposal to establish of a girls’ school in connexion with the institution.

This is a new and striking chapter in the history of these institutions; it does equal credit to the gallantry and policy of this, and disposes one to say of it with a slight parody on the words of Burns, that

It’s ‘prentice han’ it tried on man,
And then it taught the lasses, O.

That those who are our best teachers, and whose lessons are oftenest heeded in after life, should be well taught  themselves, is a proposition few reasonable men will gainsay.

That girl’s school was opened in 1844 under the name Liverpool Institute High School for Girls. It was housed in Blackburne House, a merchant’s mansion across the street from the Institution which now offered evening classes, lectures, a library and a boys’ school – the future Liverpool Institute for Boys grammar school whose pupils would include Paul McCartney and George Harrison (later, too, an Art College would be established on the site, and its most famous student would be one John Lennon; today the building houses LIPA – Liverpool Institute for performing Arts).  As for the girls’ school: it was one of the first in Britain which was open to the public and established exclusively for the education of girls.  For the past 25 years Blackburne House has pioneered training courses for women, in non traditional areas of work such as Information Technology and senior management.

Liverpool Institute

The building that has served as the Mechanics’ Institution, Liverpool Institute, the School of Art and now LIPA

Before the publication of A Christmas Carol, Dickens had taken control of every aspect of the book’s appearance.  The result was a handsome volume, bound in red cloth, with a gilt design on the cover.  Inside were  four full-colour etchings, with another four black and white woodcuts.  The book was an immense success.  Dickens was just 31 years old: this youthful portrait was made when he was in Liverpool for the Mechanics’ Institution address.

Dickens portrait for Mechanics Institution 1844Dickens portrait for Mechanics Institution 1844 text

Dickens’s portrait, made for Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution in 1844

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol during October and November 1843, at the same time as he was writing Martin Chuzzlewit.  In the novella Dickens compresses and crystallizes the theme he was exploring in the longer novel – the social ramifications of selfishness. As Jane Smiley observes in her study of Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge completes the  moral journey in one night which takes the old and young Martin Chuzzlewit many years and several thousand miles of journeying.

These were troubled times for Dickens – his wife was pregnant with a fifth child, Chuzzlewit was not proving a success, and he was beset with family obligations and money worries.  Little srprise, then, that A Christmas Carol is preoccupied, as Ackroyd succinctly expresses it, with money:

Miserliness as a vice.  Generosity as virtue.  How people obtain money.  How people exert power over others because of money.  How money can be an aspect of cruelty.  How money can destroy a family.  How the want of money is oppressive.  How the greed for it is a form of unworthiness, a form of human alienation.

The Christmas Books have certain features in common: seasonal settings, supernatural agents and spiritual conversions, along with an intimacy of tone and colloquial style, as if the storyteller is sitting beside you. But reading the Christmas books together, it is clear just how precise, understated and non-melodramatic is Dickens’s writing in A Christmas Carol compared to the others. Because the tone of the writing and the gestures of the characters are understated, the supernatural elements of the story – the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future – flow convincingly from the narrative and succeed in conveying the tale’s essential ideas, whereas in The Chimes the chiming church bells and their goblins seem awkwardly unbelievable: there simply to drive home Dickens’s satirical attack on the utilitarian view that poor people – with their joyless, wasted lives and propensity to do evil – are simply a burden on the rich and would be better off dead.

A Christmas Carol had just as strong a political message: with its attack on those who spurned the poor and the unemployed it takes its place alongside other pieces of radical literature of the period – notably Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt‘ and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Cry of the Children‘.

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread –
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”


“Oh, Men, with Sisters dear!
Oh, men, with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
Stitch – stitch – stitch,
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

(Reading that again in 2013 pulls one up sharp. They don’t sing the song of the shirt in this country any more; now the song is sung far away, only occasionally drifting into earshot.)

Go out, children, from the mine and from the city –
Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do –
Pluck you handfuls of the meadow-cowslips pretty
Laugh aloud, to feel your fingers let them through!
But they answer, ” Are your cowslips of the meadows
Like our weeds anear the mine?
Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows,
From your pleasures fair and fine!
“For oh,” say the children, “we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap –
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep.
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping –
We fall upon our faces, trying to go;
And, underneath our heavy eyelids drooping,
The reddest flower would look as pale as snow.
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring,
Through the coal-dark, underground –
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem was written in the same year that Dickens came to Liverpool to address the Mechanics’ Institution, at a time when government investigations had exposed the exploitation of children employed in coal mines and factories. Like Dickens in A Christmas Carol, she directed her attack towards those who denied the facts, or were unmoved. Two years earlier,  in June 1842, Dickens had fired off a fiery letter to the Morning Chronicle supporting Lord Ashley’s Bill to bar women and girls from working in the mines.

While there may not be child labour in Britain today, similar attitudes towards the unemployed and working poor were on show the other day in the Commons debate on food banks:

Times are tough and we all have to pay back the £1.5 trillion of personal debt, which spiralled under Labour. We are all trying to live within our means, change the gear, and ensure we are paying back all the debt that we saw under Labour.
– Esther McVey, Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

There was laughter from the government benches, and Ian Duncan Smith and his colleagues walked out of the debate.  Some attitudes remain unchanged from those castigated by Dickens a century and a half ago.

A Christmas Carol first edition illustration by John Leech

Jacob Marley’s ghost appears to Scrooge in John Leech’s illustration for the first edition of A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol displays in concise form what has been called ‘the enigmatic mixture of radicalism and conservatism’ in Dickens.  Scrooge may be a rich man, but Dickens is concerned with his moral failings, rather than his class position.  When Scrooge is visited by Jacob Marley’s ghost, Scrooge reminds him that he was a good businessman. Marley responds that his business ought to have been mankind, and that the choices that he made did not make him happy. Dickens suggests that the origins of our attitudes to others lie in childhood experiences, and that the possibility of change must come from within the individual:

I wear the chain I forged in life….I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.

So, for Dickens – in both his personal life and his novels – the solution to social division and injustice lies in philanthropy, rather than political movements or government.  At the novella’s conclusion Scrooge is redeemed through charity and benevolence; the solution lies within the individual, rather than in collective action:

“A merry Christmas, Bob,” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year. I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob. Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

Trotty Veck

Trotty Veck: illustration by John Leech for the 1844 edition of ‘The Chimes’

I was enjoying The Chimes, up to the point where the bells and goblins enter the story.  Like A Christmas Carol, the story concerns the conversion of the protagonist by a supernatural agency.  Trotty Veck is a good-hearted ticket porter (wearing badges, or tickets, they were licensed by the city of London to carry goods, documents and messages) who waits for custom, day in day out, beneath the bells that ring out every quarter-hour from the steeple of a church.

The opening chapters (or ‘chimes’) provide a vivid character portrait of Trotty Veck, as well as presenting a sharply topical political satire directed against heartless magistrates, smug politicians and bone-headed political economists of the Utilitarian variety.  It’s entertaining stuff, but lost me at the point where Trotty ascends the bell-tower to be confronted with his moral failings.  It was not just the mechanical nature of the bells as a device, but also a sense of puzzlement as to why it was Trotty being confronted with his failings – rather than the blinkered and uncaring figures of authority Dickens satirises in the opening pages.

The explanation for this lies in the extreme topicality of the story.  Trotty is convinced that poor people are naturally wicked, influenced by a newspaper article about a young woman who tried to drown herself and her child. Dickens’s readers would have immediately understood this to be a reference to Mary Furley, a destitute young woman sentenced to death in 1844 for infanticide after her desperation not to return to the workhouse led to a failed suicide attempt in which her illegitimate child drowned. The case provoked great public debate in the months before Dickens wrote The Chimes, and he was one of several prominent figures who condemned the sentence, which was eventually commuted to transportation.

Who turns his back upon the fallen and disfigured of his kind; abandons them as vile; and does not trace and track with pitying eyes the unfenced precipice by which they fell from good—grasping in their fall some tufts and shreds of that lost soil, and clinging to them still when bruised and dying in the gulf below; does wrong to Heaven and man, to time and to eternity. And you have done that wrong!

For Dickens the Malthusians and the Utilitarians were ‘the maggots of the time’, eating the heart out of the present.  In The Chimes he pillories those who believe – in the words of the political economist and friend of Alderman Cute – that ‘the poor have no earthly reason to be born’.  Here’s Filer:

‘A man may live to be as old as Methuselah,’ said Mr. Filer, ‘and may labour all his life for the benefit of such people as those; and may heap up facts on figures, facts on figures, facts on figures, mountains high and dry; and he can no more hope to persuade ’em that they have no right or business to be married, than he can hope to persuade ’em that they have no earthly right or business to be born.  And that we know they haven’t.  We reduced it to a mathematical certainty long ago!’

Alderman Cute and his friends

Alderman Cute and his friends: illustration by John Leech, 1844 edition

And his friend, Alderman Cute:

‘You see, my friend,’ pursued the Alderman, ‘there’s a great deal of nonsense talked about Want—“hard up,” you know; that’s the phrase, isn’t it? ha! ha! ha!—and I intend to Put it Down.  There’s a certain amount of cant in vogue about Starvation, and I mean to Put it Down.  That’s all!  Lord bless you,’ said the Alderman, turning to his friends again, ‘you may Put Down anything among this sort of people, if you only know the way to set about it.’ […]

Then there’s Sir Joseph Bowley, wealthy Member of Parliament and self-proclaimed ‘friend of the poor’:

‘Your only business, my good fellow,’ pursued Sir Joseph, looking abstractedly at Toby; ‘your only business in life is with me.  You needn’t trouble yourself to think about anything.  I will think for you; I know what is good for you; I am your perpetual parent.  Such is the dispensation of an all-wise Providence!  Now, the design of your creation is—not that you should swill, and guzzle, and associate your enjoyments, brutally, with food; Toby thought remorsefully of the tripe; ‘but that you should feel the Dignity of Labour.  Go forth erect into the cheerful morning air, and—and stop there.  Live hard and temperately, be respectful, exercise your self-denial, bring up your family on next to nothing, pay your rent as regularly as the clock strikes, be punctual in your dealings (I set you a good example; you will find Mr. Fish, my confidential secretary, with a cash-box before him at all times); and you may trust to me to be your Friend and Father.’

In the story, Trotty encounters Will Fern, a poor countryman; Dickens gives Fern this little speech:

‘Now, gentlemen,’ said Will Fern, holding out his hands, and flushing for an instant in his haggard face, ‘see how your laws are made to trap and hunt us when we’re brought to this.  I tries to live elsewhere.  And I’m a vagabond.  To jail with him!  I comes back here.  I goes a-nutting in your woods, and breaks—who don’t?—a limber branch or two.  To jail with him!  One of your keepers sees me in the broad day, near my own patch of garden, with a gun.  To jail with him!  I has a nat’ral angry word with that man, when I’m free again.  To jail with him!  I cuts a stick.  To jail with him!  I eats a rotten apple or a turnip.  To jail with him!  It’s twenty mile away; and coming back I begs a trifle on the road.  To jail with him!  At last, the constable, the keeper—anybody—finds me anywhere, a-doing anything.  To jail with him, for he’s a vagrant, and a jail-bird known; and jail’s the only home he’s got.’

The Alderman nodded sagaciously, as who should say, ‘A very good home too!’

Alderman Cute’s response is a reminder of the brilliant passage from A Christmas Carol in which two collectors of charitable contributions for the relief of the poor call at Scrooge’s door:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?”  demanded Scrooge.  “Are they still in operation?”

“They are.  Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?”  said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh!  I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge.  “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth.  We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.  What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge.  “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer.  I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.  I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

These days, with Christmas seemingly hollowed-out of all meaning bar rampant consumerism, it’s easy to be tempted, like Scrooge, into asserting that ‘Christmas is a poor excuse every 25th of December to pick a man’s pockets’.  However, as Scrooge’s good-hearted nephew observes:

There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say … Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round-apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that-as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Amen to that!

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.

Charles Dickens: a bicentennial fanfare

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

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

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

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

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

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, 40 feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Gustav Dore’s ‘London’

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

The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond. Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations; carcases of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing. There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream. Hot springs and fiery eruptions, the usual attendants upon earthquakes, lent their contributions of confusion to the scene. Boiling water hissed and heaved within dilapidated walls; whence, also, the glare and roar of flames came issuing forth; and mounds of ashes blocked up rights of way, and wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood.

In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.

But as yet, the neighbourhood was shy to own the Railroad. One or two bold speculators had projected streets; and one had built a little, but had stopped among the mud and ashes to consider farther of it. A bran-new Tavern, redolent of fresh mortar and size, and fronting nothing at all, had taken for its sign The Railway Arms; but that might be rash enterprise — and then it hoped to sell drink to the workmen. So, the Excavators’ House of Call had sprung up from a beer-shop; and the old-established Ham and Beef Shop had become the Railway Eating House, with a roast leg of pork daily, through interested motives of a similar immediate and popular description. Lodging-house keepers were favourable in like manner; and for the like reasons were not to be trusted. The general belief was very slow. There were frowzy fields, and cow-houses, and dunghills, and dustheaps, and ditches, and gardens, and summer-houses, and carpet-beating grounds, at the very door of the Railway. Little tumuli of oyster shells in the oyster season, and of lobster shells in the lobster season, and of broken crockery and faded cabbage leaves in all seasons, encroached upon its high places. Posts, and rails, and old cautions to trespassers, and backs of mean houses, and patches of wretched vegetation, stared it out of countenance. Nothing was the better for it, or thought of being so. If the miserable waste ground lying near it could have laughed, it would have laughed it to scorn, like many of the miserable neighbours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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