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‘A Sympathiser with the Poor’: Charles Dickens at 200

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dickens knew a different world growing up, a world that would imbue him with a deep interest in social reform.

Although they arose not from flesh and blood but from his imagination, Charles Dickens’s characters remain among the most vivid in all English literature: David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Betsy Trotwood, Pip, Uriah Heep, Wilkens Micawber, Fagin, Mr. Gradgrind, Miss Havisham, Ebenezer Scrooge. To make their acquaintance in his novels is to know them for life. As Virginia Woolf explained, “we remodel our psychological geography when we read Dickens," for he created "characters who exist not in detail, not accurately or exactly, but abundantly in a cluster of wild yet extraordinarily revealing remarks."

Dickens was born 200 years ago today, on February 7, 1812. One of the greatest storytellers who ever lived, the prose of Charles Dickens sweeps you into a world of his creation. If you would like to know exactly what coal-smoke-choked London was like in a bleak November of the 1840s, for instance, just read the opening paragraph of Bleak House:

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

Bleak House depicted the convoluted, lawyer-ridden complexities of the rules of civil procedure then in place in Britain. Within 20 years, they had been thoroughly reformed.

To be sure, his plots are often improbable. After Oliver Twist has been instructed in the art of pickpocketing by Fagin’s gang, he is sent out with two other boys to try his luck on the streets of London. The other boys rob a Mr. Brownlow but Oliver is caught. Mr. Brownlow, out of London’s 3.5 million inhabitants, just happens to have been the best friend of Oliver’s long-dead father. Later, when Oliver is forced to take part in a burglary, the house he enters turns out to belong to the sister of his long-dead mother.

But such is the power of his storytelling that these absurdities are only noticed in retrospect, if at all. Henry James objected to Dickens’s plots, but few other readers do.

Most English novelists before Dickens had come from the gentry, such as Jane Austen, or the learned classes, such as the Brontë sisters, whose father was a clergyman. Like all good novelists, they wrote about the world they knew. But Dickens had known a different world growing up. It was a world that would imbue him with a deep interest in social reform, an interest that perfectly melded with the reformist instincts of the rising Victorian age.

His novels often depict conditions that cried out for reform and they brought these areas of Victorian life to the attention of a wide audience, often resulting in action. Bleak House, for instance, published in 1853, depicted the convoluted, lawyer-ridden complexities of the rules of civil procedure then in place in Britain. Within 20 years, they had been thoroughly reformed.

Dickens’s father had been a clerk in the navy, a modest, middle-class position not, perhaps, unlike Bob Crachitt’s job at Scrooge and Marley. But he lived continually beyond his means, like Wilkens Micawber (“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”). The consequence was debtors’ prison for his father and a job at a blacking factory, pasting labels for six shillings a week, for young Charles, aged twelve. One of the boys working there was named Bob Fagin. As Dickens explained, “I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.”

By the early 1840s, still in his twenties, Dickens was one of the most famous novelists in the English-speaking world, quite as famous in America as in Britain.

A legacy from Dickens’s grandmother freed the family from debtors’ prison, and Dickens was able to return to school, although it was not a good one, with a sadistic headmaster and desultory teaching. (It would be depicted in David Copperfield as Mr. Creakle’s Establishment).

After school he worked at a law office, where he learned shorthand, and then as a reporter covering the law courts, giving him the knowledge that he needed to write Bleak House.

In 1833, at the age of 21, he published his first story and then, in 1836, his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. It was an immediate success. Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge soon followed. By the early 1840s, still in his twenties, Dickens was one of the most famous novelists in the English-speaking world, quite as famous in America as in Britain.

Dickens married in 1836. He and his wife would have ten children, but the marriage was not a happy one and the two would quietly separate after 20 years.

Dickens’s novels were originally published as serials in magazines and only later in book form. (The magazine versions, which were usually not saved, are today far more rare and far more valuable than are the first editions in book form, which always had very large first printings.) People would line up at book stores on the day of publication in order to buy them as soon as they arrived from the publishers. Dickens said once that he had gone into a stationery store one day to buy paper on which to write the next installment, only to find himself standing next to a man who was asking if that installment was out yet.

To be sure, his plots are often improbable.

Thanks to gas light, steam printing presses, and the rise of the middle class, the market for books and magazines was expanding rapidly at this time, and Dickens’s income was enormous. He commanded speaking fees of $2,000 a night on his first trip to America in 1842, at a time when $1,000 was a middle-class annual income. A ball was given in his honor in New York that was attended by 3,000 people.

Despite his prosperity, he remained almost frenetically active, editing magazines, taking part in amateur theatricals, and giving readings. When he was writing a new story, he would often walk the streets at night. He wrote about A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, that as he was writing, he "wept and laughed, and wept again as he walked about the black streets of London fifteen or twenty miles many a night when all sober folks had gone to bed."

The frantic pace of his life took its toll. In 1865, he was involved in a very serious railroad accident, which, while he was not personally injured, shook him to the core. He never fully recovered from the incident and his writing output began to shrink. He managed another tour of the United States in 1867, when he had a far more positive impression of the country than he had had 25 years earlier. In 1869, he suffered a mild stroke, and then in 1870, only 58 years old, he had a second, fatal one.

Dickens was laid to rest in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. His tombstone reads, “He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world."
At the end of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens famously has Tiny Tim say, “God bless Us, Everyone!” And God bless Charles Dickens.

John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

FURTHER READING: Gordon also writes “Long Live the Queen!” “Snapshot of a Creative Destruction,” “Good as Gold?” and “Occupy Wall Street Faces a Winter of Discontent.” Henry Olsen contributes “Another Day in Paradise?: Humanity, Charity and the Urban Poor.” Nicholas Eberstadt asks “Are the Poor and Middle Class Actually Getting Poorer? Reassessing Prosperity Trends Since 1980.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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