Charles Dickens, champion of the poor

The first novelist to put working-class people at the heart of story.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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When this reviewer first travelled to India in 1969, what was most striking to an erstwhile student of 19th-century British social and political history was the similarity between the India observed then and Britain a century before, namely, private wealth (with extremes of wealth and poverty) and public poverty.

India in 1969 bore a striking resemblance to Britain before the great reform movements of the mid and late 19th century which provided us with the infrastructure we know today, from sewage treatment and pure piped water to generally paved and clean roads, public parks and preserved common land for social use and social housing (still mainstream in 1969, not the ghettoised rump it has become), with railways still providing the greatest mass transit system, and with omnibuses (but motorised not horse-drawn!) and cycles in towns and oxcarts in the countryside (drawn by oxen or horses in Britain, by buffalo or camels in India) being the most common methods of transport.

Thus it was no surprise that the BBC chose to celebrate the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth earlier this year with an adaptation of one of his later, darker novels, Martin Chuzzlewit, to an Indian setting as The Chuzzlewits of Mumbai, with Dubai replacing the USA as the country, the idealised Eden, to which the young hero and scion of the Chuzzlewit family emigrates to seek his fortune.

Dickens’ themes in this book are the necessity to have or make money, or find a wealthy patron or indulgent relative in order to find security; the precariousness of good fortune and the dire results of its loss. These all fit well with India and all those other countries where imperialism still creates a vast mass of the abject poor, where there is no safety net against misfortune apart from the extended family and where the younger, poorer, less powerful are at the mercy of the whim and caprice of the older, richer and more powerful family members.

Money, or the lack of it, and the personal and social consequence of its presence or absence, are the recurring themes of most of Dickens’ greatest novels about contemporary life. He is often represented as purely a creator of memorable and often bizarre (to our modern sensibilities) characters.

However, his novels are much more than just picaresque accounts of the lives of his characters, though the influence of the great 18th-century novels on which he feasted in his youth can be seen in his work, especially The Pickwick Papers, his first and jolliest work, which shows clearly its origin as monthly stories (originally to go with pictures of country life, though later the precedence of picture before narrative was reversed as the stories’ popularity grew and Dickens found his long-time collaborator, the artist Cruikshank).

Simultaneously, Dickens was publishing monthly Sketches of London life under his original pseudonym, ‘Boz’.

In these and in his later works of fiction Dickens shows us (and his bourgeois and petty-bourgeois contemporaries often for the first time) the underbelly of society in the first great metropolis of the first industrialised country in the world.

This was a departure from the work of all novelists up until that time, who had written only about ‘polite’ society.

The novel was still a relatively new form, appearing first in the last half of the eighteenth century. Chaucer had written about the common people in The Canterbury Tales (though not the poor, who could not afford to go on pilgrimages).

Shakespeare included wonderful portraits of rustics and artisans in his plays, but always as bit players and usually as comic relief to his tragedies, with Merry Wives being his only play set in contemporary England and then concerning the minor gentry, Sir John Falstaff and his set.

Wordsworth sometimes wrote of the rural workers he encountered. Otherwise tales were all of the nobility (eg, in poems such as Byron’s Childe Harold or Keats’ St Agnes’ Eve) or the landed gentry (eg, in Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, published in 1749 and possibly the first book that could be called a novel) and their younger, poorer branches (eg, in all of Jane Austen’s’ works).

This was not to be wondered at, as the writers could only write of their experience, and literacy was confined to the gentry. Their experience of the lower classes was confined to servants and tenants, who are largely invisible in their writings.

These writers either preceded or were ignorant of the industrial working class, which only began to appear at the very end of the 18th century in Britain. The upcoming merchant class from the 16th century on might be numerate and literate sufficient for their needs, but without the leisure to write more than business or household accounts, letters or diaries.

How came it that the writing of Charles Dickens was so very different from all that had gone before? It was his ability (and his desire) to portray the life of the ordinary working man in the new cities and to place the poor as the central character in his works, depicting them as people worthy of love and compassion, that was so new.

This brought him the love and loyalty of a new audience of readers, and gave him that special link to those readers which he cherished and nurtured all his life. Why and how could he do this?

Dickens’ London

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth on 7 February 1812, but came to London first in 1815 at the age of three. London’s population was then 1.4 million. By the time he died, in 1870, it was 3,254,261 (1871 census figure).

His family moved to Rochester and Chatham for five years before returning to London for good when Dickens was just ten, in 1822. Dickens continued to live in London until his final years, when he bought the house at Gad’s Hill, Rochester, in Kent (of which he reported his father once said to a youthful Charles, when the latter admired it while out on a walk: “That house could be yours one day, my boy, if you work hard.”)

The 18th century had seen a slow but steady growth in London’s population. Much of the capital’s population had been transient: many young women coming to work in domestic service and young men, for apprenticeships, then moving out again.

The population grew from 500,000 in 1674, to 630,000 in 1715 and to 1,000,000 in 1800. Urban populations grew as people were driven off the land by the accelerating enclosure movement (started as early as Shakespeare’s day) and the improvement of agricultural techniques, which resulted in a steady progress from small-scale subsistence farming to larger-scale capitalist agriculture with less need for man-power.

Wool was the first large-scale commodity crop, and its profitability drove both the enclosure movement and the mechanisation and industrialisation of the spinning and weaving processes. Early industrial mass-production was dependent upon water-power or on charcoal made from wood, so was usually sited away from the existing towns.

With the development of coal and steam power and the canals that were built to move coal cheaply to the new industrial centres, and with the growth of Britain’s empire and foreign trade following the successful outcome (for British naval power and marine dominance) of the Napoleonic wars, after an initial postwar recession, London’s growth exploded in the 19th century. That fact is still obvious today in the size and number of mainly Victorian-built inner suburbs that surround central London.

What is often overlooked is that London is still essentially a Victorian city in its transport networks and hidden infrastructure. From around 1 million population in 1801 (just under or just over, depending whose figures you accept), the population of London grew to 6 million by 1901 (based upon figures for the Metropolitan Police district of Greater London: the old London County Council area (Inner London) was smaller, with a population of about 4.5 million).

During the 19th century the population had became more settled and predominantly working-class following the vast increase in local employment in the docks, shipping and trade, factories and offices. During this period London became the largest city in the world, facing many problems of urbanisation on such a scale for the first time.

Problems of infrastructure were pre-eminent, especially sewerage and water supply, transport and housing. The Metropolitan Board of Works was created only in 1855 to deal with these problems, and one of its first actions, following the ‘great stink’ of 1858 (the culmination of decades of untreated sewage and industrial and other waste being discharged direct and untreated into the Thames), was to appoint the engineer Joseph Bazalgette to create the system of sewers still in use today.

State-of-the-art pumping stations down river and 4,000 miles of tunnels (the largest, into which all others fed, under the new North and South Embankments, which reclaimed land, prevented floods and also provided new thoroughfares for the city) for the first time ensured good sanitation for all inhabitants and stopped the endemic pollution of the ground water upon which so much of the population still relied, thus ending the cholera epidemics which had come to London from India in the early part of the 19th century.

Piped water was not to be universal until about 1900; until then a variety of private companies provided piped water to those who could afford it. Dickens, when living in Tavistock Square with his wife and their ten children in the 1860s, complained about the intermittent nature of the supply of water to their house.

Charles Dickens’ formative years were lived in pre-Victorian London. He lived through a time of enormous changes for the city, when the population grew far in advance of any systems to safeguard people’s welfare and he saw the city change beyond recognition.

When he first lived in London aged three the new Prince Regents’ Park was being planned for the fields at the northern end of his road. When he returned aged ten his family lived first in the new suburb of Camden Town and later in the equally new Gower Street before returning to their old home in Marylebone.

Dickens walked around the streets of London for hours on end all his life, most often at night. He would have seen the new police force on the streets from 1829. He would have seen the coming of the railways from the 1830s to the 1860s, when large areas of the town were demolished to make way for the great termini and surrounding goods yards and tracks.

He would have seen the building of the great sewerage system and the new embankments. He would have seen many of the innermost slum areas, densely populated when he first knew them, being cleared for redevelopment (though without any provision being made for their inhabitants, who often moved nearby to make neighbouring areas even more crowded). During his last decade, he would have seen the construction of the first underground railway.

A travelling man

Dickens left London for extended periods on occasion, but even when trips away were conceived as holidays Dickens worked. He wrote episodes of The Pickwick Papers when on honeymoon in north Kent, and took sufficiently copious notes when on an extensive, recuperative visit to France and Italy later in life that he was able to publish the book Pictures From Italy soon after his return in 1846.

Dickens at the height of his fame went on public reading tours around Britain, whose itinerary and timetable makes one tired just reading them, added to which were the long hours in smutty steam trains (the writer recalls that passengers and the surrounding houses and population could not escape the constant fine sooty dust that escaped with the steam from the train’s engine) and the physically and emotionally exhausting business of recreating his characters in his readings without props but solely with his voice, face and body – and doing this so vividly that his audiences were transported into another reality.

These public performances were initially always for charitable causes, of which Dickens, busy though he was, actively supported many. Later, and to the disapproval of his close friend and first biographer John Forster, Dickens himself earned money from these tours.

This disagreement can be traced to the difference in early circumstances of the friends: Forster always having lived in comfortable circumstances so that only work in the professions or the civil service was respectable, whereas Dickens had known true poverty, so that the insecurity never left him and it was acceptable to do whatever was necessary to earn a crust.

Dickens travelled twice to the USA, where his public readings were a sell-out sensation. Think Beatlemania in 1964 and you have some idea of the reception Dickens received on his first arrival in New York, and wherever else he went around the country.

By the end of his first tour in 1842 he was jaded by the Americans’ over-eager hospitality, which left him no space and no privacy whatsoever, and also by the crude materialism he found everywhere. He had gone with high hopes, as a committed republican, of finding the democracy of his dreams, but was disappointed, as well as fundamentally revolted, by the continuance of slavery and its enthusiastic defence by many he met.

He wrote American Notes for General Circulation on his return, which was highly critical of American society and values, and he also portrayed the contrast between the hopes and the reality of the USA in Martin Chuzzlewit.

The press and opinion-formers of America were outraged, and relations were not healed (though he continued to receive popular publishing success there) until his final visit in 1869, by which time, of course, slavery had been abolished and Dickens had publicly apologised for his previous harsh verdict and had promised to make recompense in future writings.

The American tours, with their vast distances covered and intensive round of social and public events at every stop, were even more tiring than the British. His last American tour almost certainly contributed to his relatively early death the following year.

Dickens’ American journeys were only possible, of course, because of the vast railway-building drive of that period, a feature of the drive to expand the colonisation of the country westwards, which continued during the years between his visits.

Dickens was a pioneer and his were the forerunner of many authors’ and academics’ speaking tours since. Modern authors still complain in similar terms to Dickens, while not having to endure the days’-long train journeys over the US’s vast distances now that air travel has replaced these.

One positive aspect for Dickens of his first trip, apart from the considerable financial reward, was that he had the company of Catherine throughout, for once untrammelled by pregnancy and childcare. This probably was one of the best times of their married relationship, as neither before nor after were they ever again able to meet on such equal terms as husband and wife as when experiencing the novel sensations of that first American visit together.

Dickens’ second American trip from November 1867 to May 1868 was his final one in every sense. His health was not good before he went and he was urged most strongly by his doctor and friends not to go, but he went and he was in pain for most of the time, recovering only during the sea voyage home.

But while his symptoms improved, fundamentally his health never recovered. Nevertheless, he went on a tour of ‘farewell’ readings in Britain during 1868 and 1869. He had contracted for 100 but was forced to stop, on doctor’s advice, after 75 in April 1869.

He performed more readings in early 1870 to make up for those his sponsors had lost the previous year, but his travelling days were finally over. He retired to Gad’s Hill and died on 9 June 1870, working til the end on his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in which he hoped to atone for the harsh words contained in his earlier writings on America.

A product of his times

Why was Dickens so driven, both to write and perform and to make money? Why was he a republican and radical reformer showing detailed awareness of and compassion for the poorest and weakest in his writings and his life?

Why was he able to connect so directly with his readers from every walk of life, speaking to them and being accepted by them as a friend; for the first time writing about ordinary people, and the poorest and the weakest, as persons worthy of respect and compassion?

His works are so different from previous writers’ concentration on the aristocracy, land-owners and the professional classes, in whose works even the mercantile and rising industrial bourgeoisie are often treated with disdain, where they are mentioned at all.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Dickens’ contemporaries, approved of his writing. In 1854, Marx placed Dickens in a company including William Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell, describing him as the first amongst “the splendid brotherhood of fiction writers in England whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together”.

Recent research and scholarship have revealed truths about Dickens’ life, especially about his birth family and his childhood, which were assiduously kept secret during his lifetime. Bourgeois scholars have greatly added to our understanding and hence appreciation of Dickens’ life and work and have shown the close links between his experiences, especially those of his childhood and youth, and his fiction.

They have correctly drawn attention to his phenomenal personal energy and stamina coupled with a determination to write (not quite single-minded, as Dickens had a lifelong passion for the theatre and for acting and he devoted time and energy to both, even when expenditure rather than income was the result, though he was briefly a theatre critic as a young man and did turn his playwriting, producing and acting to a commercial end towards the end of his career).

This reviewer is indebted to and has been as enthralled by three of the most recent biographical works on Dickens as by any of his novels, as they combine a rattling good story, detective work, and social and political history of a time of momentous change in Britain.

But while it shouts at the attentive reader from the pages of those books, and while it is constantly referred to, as it must be, there is no conclusion drawn about Dickens’ class origins, nor why these so exactly chimed, in company with his talents, with his existence at that precise location at that precise moment in world history and the history of the development of the means of production and of the class struggle.

It was no mere coincidence that Dickens was a contemporary of Marx and Engels. The fire in all of their bellies was fuelled and stoked by the same conditions, although with very different results.

Dickens was also driven by a wish to change society, but he sought to do it by campaigning through his fiction to change public opinion and impel others to action by revealing uncomfortable truths, and by his extensive charitable work, which he undertook as a committed christian (who nonetheless disliked formal organised religion intensely) and out of true empathy with life’s victims, which was very different from the formal charity-by-rote that he so effectively lampooned in Oliver Twist.

Dickens was no political economist – he didn’t have the education and his talents lay elsewhere – and Marx and Engels were yet to begin their work when Dickens first achieved fame as an author in 1836, at the age of 24.

Dickens’ avoidance of any political route to his ends may be explained by his intense dislike of the politicians of the time, with whose work, or lack of it (there were frequent, long recesses when parliament didn’t sit) he had become intimately acquainted during his early career as a parliamentary reporter.

Before starting in that job (which he did from 1832-36, but never exclusively), Dickens worked in the law courts near by (as law clerk from 1827-28 and as court reporter from 1828-32), learning then honing the reporting skills that helped him get employment in Parliament alongside his father, with whom he was still living in the family home.

Dickens must have been aware of the debates in 1831 and 1832 on the great Reform Act of 1832, as well as of the controversy which surrounded this legislation when Whig prime minister Earl Grey got the king’s authority to create enough new peers to ensure its passage through the Lords.

That act abolished rotten boroughs (country towns or villages where the MPs were simply appointed by the local great landowner), recognised the growing industrial cities for the first time by giving them their own MPs and extending the franchise a little.

Although this new franchise was nowhere near the universal (male) franchise demanded by the Chartists, whose movement peaked in the revolutionary year of 1848, the electorate expanded from 400,000 to just 650,000 under the act – out of a total population of 12 million.

However, the reason the aristocratic Earl Grey and his equally aristocratic fellow Whigs drove the legislation through in the teeth of opposition from the Tories and the Lords (who were reluctant to lose any of their ancient powers of patronage and who saw government as essentially a task of the landed aristocracy, not of the arriviste industrial bourgeoisie), was fear of the French revolution.

The Whigs grasped the fact that the potentially revolutionary workers and peasants were far more to be feared and it was necessary to bring the new industrial bourgeoisie into government to prevent a much greater cataclysm were their discontent to find common cause with the masses.

Corn laws and poor laws – deciding the fate of Britain’s poorest

This was a momentous time of change for Britain and saw a major realignment of class forces. The Corn Laws had for years protected British agriculture from foreign competition (mainly from America as the West was opened up to European settlement and large-scale cultivation) by prescribing fixed, high, prices for wheat.

But these laws had exacerbated the deprivation suffered by the demobbed and injured and unemployed and by the widows and children of the deceased soldiers and sailors at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815.

It was not in the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie that bread should be expensive, as that raised the cost of labour, and so there ensued a titanic struggle, at the end of which the centuries-old truce between the mercantile bourgeoisie and the feudal, land-owning aristocracy was effectively broken.

This truce had formed the basis for the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the further Great Settlement of 1668, which spelt out the terms of the relative power of crown and parliament more clearly.

Now, with the Corn Laws gone and the Reform Act in place, the industrial bourgeoisie were finally at the helm of affairs and ‘free trade’ was to become the motif of government for the next 150 years (except when applied to the colonies and semi-colonies, of course, as their existence as captive markets as well as sources of raw materials and cheap labour was an essential element in the success of British manufacture).

At the same time as the Reform Bill was going through Parliament, the Commons were passing the Anatomy Act (in late-night sittings in an effort to avoid publicity).

Ostensibly, this act was passed to prevent the horrors of the resurrection men, who dug up recently-buried corpses to sell to the expanding medical schools for dissection, or ‘Burkers’ (so called after the notorious Edinburgh murderers, Burke and Hale, who killed their victims to sell the bodies to the medical schools when the supply of fresh ‘natural’ corpses ran out).

However, in reality it set the seal on the fate of the poor by allowing those ‘in charge’ of corpses to sell them. The workhouse masters were thus able to dispose of the corpses of the poor who died within their walls, saving the money and space their burials would have required and turning their deaths into ‘a nice little earner’.

There was a universal horror of dissection after death, which had previously been limited to executed criminals, but the number of offences punished by hanging was diminishing, especially with the growth of transportation.

This horror can only be understood in terms of centuries of christian belief in the resurrection of the body. There was great opposition, too, to the legalisation of cremation, which didn’t happen until the 20th century, although pre-christian societies, here as well as elsewhere, had had no problems with the practice.

The horror in the early 19th century at this aspect of the treatment of the poor was no less profound for all that. In one reported case in London at this time, a group of poor women had raised £30 to bury their friend, who had died in the workhouse; they begged to be allowed to bury her, but were refused, so that the dead woman’s body went for dissection.

Exactly the same situation existed in the USA in the first half of the 20th century and is depicted in Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, a similarly ground-breaking depiction of the black urban poor as persons worthy of our love and compassion.

The recommendations of the Poor Law Commission report, which led to the new and hated Poor Law of 1834, were even then being implemented ahead of the legislation in many parishes. The poor laws had remained unchanged since the reign of Elizabeth I, when there had been the necessity to fill the gap left by the dissolution of the monasteries by her father, Henry VIII.

Those laws were parish-based (see Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin for some of their effects) and allowed for outdoor relief so that a poor family might be able to care for a sick or elderly relative at home without risking their own ability to work and to maintain themselves. The able-bodied poor were put to work wherever possible, either outside the workhouse or tending the less able within.

The old Poor Laws were administered by the local magistrates on behalf of their fellow local landowners (from whom the magistrates had the power to raise the necessary funds) and all parties would be known to each other, so there were elements of feudal paternalism and noblesse oblige in their administration.

The new Poor Law did away with any sentimental feelings of responsibility for a fellow human being. Its intention was punitive: to ensure that conditions inside the workhouses were worse than the lot of the poorest labourer outside.

The horrors of the workhouse

Edwin Chadwick was the civil servant with responsibility for bringing in the report, and he later became the hated secretary to the equally hated new Poor Law commissioners, who exercised (as did he) apparently unassailable power for decades. The report set out the authors’ intentions with admirable clarity:

“Throughout the evidence it is shown that as the condition of any pauper class is elevated above the condition of independent labourers, the condition of the independent class is depressed. Their industry is impaired, their employment becomes unsteady, and its remuneration in wages is diminished.

“Such persons, therefore, are under the strongest inducement to quit the less eligible class of labourers and enter the more eligible class of paupers. The converse is the effect when the pauper class is placed in its proper position below the condition of the independent labourer.

“Every penny spent that tends to render the position of the pauper more eligible than the position of the independent labourer is a bounty to indolence and vice. We have found that as the Poor Rates are at present administered, they operate as bounties of this description to the amount of several millions annually.

“The standard therefore to which reference must be made in fixing the condition of those who are to be maintained by the public, is the condition of those who are maintained by their own exertion.”

There are uncanny echoes here of the recent debates and government pronouncements relating to the ‘reform’ of the benefits system, the modern version of poor relief.

The ‘reformed’ workhouses were to be organised on military lines, with the accent on efficiency and cost-saving (plus ça change ..!) One of the commissioners stated that the intention was to render the conditions in the workhouses similar to those of a prison: the paupers were to be a social chain gang.

Outdoor relief was abolished and inside the workhouse conditions were made far worse than before. The prescribed bill of fare for the inmates was not far short of starvation rations, with an express prohibition against their ever being any additional rations being given to any inmate without a doctor’s prescription.

For the first time, families were separated: men and women lived separately, without any means of contact whatsoever by day or night; children were separated from adults; babies were sent out of the district (in London at least, as out-of-area accommodation was cheaper – more echoes in the modern London boroughs’ housing of their homeless or housing benefit recipients) to ‘baby farms’, where their natural mothers were expressly forbidden from being included among the women looking after them.

The administration of the Poor Law was still parish-based, but the act allowed for the union of parishes for more efficiency – an early example of ‘economies of scale’. This was especially useful in London, where old rural parish boundaries made little sense when submerged in the new streets of the expanding city.

However, it did not prevent the continuing practice of the poor being turned away from the doors of the workhouse because they were from the wrong parish.

Under the new regime the old managers and doorkeepers were frequently sacked so that any lingering ideas of charity or compassion were extirpated, and former policemen were favourites for the post of door keeper, as no-one could enter the workhouse without letters of authorisation.

The detailed terms of the new act were a convenient response to any pleas for leniency or flexibility: the first ‘jobsworth’ replies.

Dickens was working as a parliamentary reporter throughout the time this bill was being debated and passed into law in 1834. Christopher Lee, in This Sceptred Isle, comments that the Poor Law Commission’s report was biased and inadequate but was passed into law in its entirety as a result of the MPs’ failure to scrutinise it adequately.

Most of them had no knowledge of the new class of urban poor and were happy to hand over to the Poor Law commissioners the responsibility for poor relief without having to spend time thinking about or debating a distasteful subject.

Dickens characterised those who could think of or implement this regime as having “blood of ice and hearts of stone”.

Many years later, in an editorial for his magazine Household Words, he wrote about an incident when he had seen five bundles of rags in pouring rain outside a workhouse gate during one of his night-time walks through the town, which turned out to be people who had been refused entry.

Dickens went inside when the gate was opened at his knock and sent his card to the workhouse master. The workhouse was full, so he went back and gave to each of the five enough money to secure food and a night’s lodging.

He asked: “Stop and Guess! What is to be the end of a state of society which leaves us here!”

He continued his editorial: “I know that the unreasonable disciples of a reasonable school, demented disciples who push arithmetic and political economy beyond all bounds of sense (not to speak of such a weakness as humanity), and hold them to be all-sufficient in every case, can easily prove that such things ought to be, and that no man has any business to mind them.

“Without disparaging those indispensable sciences in their sanity, I utterly renounce and abominate them in their insanity; and I address people with a respect for the spirit of the New Testament, who do mind such things, and who think them infamous in our streets.”

We can recognise the modern-day ‘demented disciples’ among the current crop of lawmakers and their ‘reforms’ of welfare benefits.

Dickens lived his convictions. On 14 January 1840, at the height of his fame, when his workload was phenomenal, he could be found as a member of the jury at an inquest at the Marylebone workhouse, having recently moved back into the area.

He argued eloquently in favour of a young, sick woman who had given birth to a child in the middle of her daily tasks as a maid-of-all-work and who had been handed over to the workhouse master, with her dead child, by her unsympathetic employer.

Dickens convinced his fellow jurors to accept the woman’s account that the child had been born dead and not killed by her, so the threat of execution was removed from her. She still had to face trial and Dickens, undoubtedly the busiest of all the jurors present, made arrangements for food and comforts to be sent to her in jail. (Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life, 2012)

Dickens the republican

In late 1869, towards the end of his life, Dickens spoke of the people and of the government in the following terms: “My faith in the people governing us is, on the whole, infinitesimal; my faith in the people governed is, on the whole, illimitable.”

When repeating this remark after being challenged, he quoted the then famed Liberal historian, H T Buckle in his support:

“When lawgivers have succeeded, it is because, contrary to their usual custom, they have implicitly obeyed the spirit of their time, and have been, as they should always be, mere servants of the people, to whose wishes they are bound to give a public and legal sanction.”

Clearly, his years of being feted by ‘the great and the good’ had not bought him off, nor brought him over to the side of the ruling class.

Dickens remained a republican all his life. It is ironic that ‘Dickensian’ has become almost synonymous with ‘Victorian’ in popular parlance.

Often it is taken to represent that rose-tinted, sentimental view of the Victorian era of the 19th century based on the happy ending of A Christmas Carol (missing its points about the possibility of change and redemption, about the value of family life and the pleasure music and dancing can bring even for the poorest).

But Dickens’ works are often far darker. (A presenter of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 recently referred to “Dickensian workhouses”, almost as though workhouses were fictional and Dickens was their inventor, rather than the author who brought the new regime to general attention in Oliver Twist!)

Later authors have criticised a sentimental vein in his work, and Dickens’ difficulties in portraying women as rounded characters, along with a general falling out of favour of all things Victorian in art, may account for the fact that for a long period in the 20th century Dickens’ work was not regarded as literature of great merit.

Simon Callow, in Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, wrote: “He was … mildly irritated by the fiddle-faddle surrounding the new young queen – first her ascension to the throne in 1837, then her coronation (which had interrupted his work) the following year and finally by the royal wedding in 1840.

“Exasperated by this assertion of everything he thought absurd about Britain, he longed, he said for ‘a democratic kingless country freed from the shackles of class rule’.” (2012)

In view of the ‘fiddle-faddle’ surrounding the royal wedding of 2011 and this year’s diamond jubilee, one can only sympathise.

Dickens wrote satirically to friends about the royal wedding of 1840: “Society is unhinged by her majesty’s marriage, and I am sorry to say that I have fallen hopelessly in love with the Queen and wander hopelessly up and down with ague and dismal thoughts of running away to some uninhabited island with a maid of honour …

“I think she will be sorry when I have gone. I should wish to be embalmed, and to be kept (if at all practicable) on the top of a triumphal arch at Buckingham Palace when she is in town, and on the northeast turrets of the round tower when she is at Windsor.”

One can recognise the antics of royalty devotees behind this satire and be reminded of modern followers of royalty.

Dickens, according to his friend and biographer John Forster, wanted to leave England for good. He reports Dickens as saying:

“Thank God there is Van Dieman’s land! That’s my comfort. I wonder, if I went to a new colony with my head, legs and strength, I should force myself to the top of the social milk-pot? What do you think? Upon my word I think I should.”

One can also recognise the insecurity and resentments born of his own class position in these extracts. In September 1841 Dickens telegraphed Forster: “I have made up my mind (with God’s leave) to go do America”.

His disillusionment with the States was greater, of course, because of the high hopes he had of the country before he eventually travelled there in January 1843.

Dickens refused all honours in his lifetime and required that he be buried in Rochester under a plain stone with just his name and dates and no title, not even ‘Mr’.

However, popular demand meant that Dickens’ wishes were disregarded – in respect of his place of burial, at least, as he was interred in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey on 14 June 1870, just five days after his death, in a simple ceremony.

Early years and formative influences

Charles Dickens was so adept at hiding his true class origins that the obituary in the Daily Telegraph, written by a member of his circle, reported that Dickens “had not been born in poverty but in a respectable middle-class family. He had never known – save, perhaps, in early youth, the occasional harduppishness of a young man striving to attain a position – actual poverty.

“He had no terrible experiences to tell … of days passed in slavish toil or dirt, and destitution, and opprobrium – or in pacing the stony-hearted street, bedless and breadless. He had never, like Goldsmith, ‘lived in Axe Lane among the beggars’, or eaten his meals in a ragged horseman’s coat, being thought unfit to join Mr Cave’s well-dressed contributors at table.

“From youth to age, he lived in honour, and affluence, and splendour. It was calm, peaceful, and, I should say, happy life.”

Simon Callow comments: “In a sense, Dickens was a greater mystery to his contemporaries than he is to us: they had absolutely no clue where it all came from – the darkness, the passionate empathy with the disadvantaged, the massive driving energy, the overwhelming willpower.”

Dickens was clearly as good an actor in his social life outside his family (with the exception of just one trusted friend) as he was on the stage. (In 1832 he missed an audition to become an actor owing to a bad cold and he later commented to his friend that his life might easily have taken a different turn.)

Just two years after Dickens’ death, that friend, John Forster, to whom Dickens had sent his only directly autographical account of his early life several years earlier, on condition of absolute secrecy during Dickens’ life, published his biography of Dickens and revealed the truth – or at least that part of it about Dickens’ childhood which he knew.

Dickens had already burnt much of his collection of letters to and from others, and never revealed the greatest secret of his life, namely the fact or the nature of his relationship with the young actress Ellen Ternan, which lasted from 1857 until Dickens’ death in 1870.

This relationship still poses many questions for scholars of Dickens’ life and works. It began after his formerly daily contact with Forster had waned – both events a result of Dickens’ late foray into the professional theatre, as writer and producer of and actor in plays he wrote or co-wrote, quite separately from his public readings of extracts from his stories and novels.

The truth is that Dickens’ parents and their families were from the skilled working class and the petty bourgeoisie, and were therefore much poorer and more insecure than any of those with whom he later socialised.

Dickens adopted a flamboyant and theatrical style of dress once prosperous, but he could not fool the trained eye of one society hostess, who pronounced him ‘common’ in both dress and table manners.

It was precisely his common touch and his empathy with honest working people of all ranks that endeared him to the masses of his ordinary readers, who were sufficiently financially fortunate to be literate but who knew the necessity of daily work and the real and present risk of destitution awaiting the feckless or the unlucky.

Dickens’ paternal grandparents were of the servant aristocracy: his father’s mother was housekeeper in the London house of Whig nobleman Lord Crewe, who numbered among his friends the dramatist Richard Sheridan and the MP George Canning.

Dickens’ father John was brought up in the grand Crewe house, albeit below stairs, and must have met at least his contemporaries among the family and guests, as a daughter of the house later recalled that Elizabeth Dickens, while housekeeper to the Crewe family, was wont to entertain the younger members of the household with riveting stories.

It does not appear that she entertained her grandchildren so; Charles Dickens recounts a story of himself (during his family’s first stay in London, making him under five years of age) while on his way with his grandmother – a forbidding figure in widow’s dress of black bombazine – to choose a present for himself at a toy market in Soho Square, being dragged into a side street off Oxford Street (already a busy shopping street) for chastisement, then having his infant nose wiped “on the screw principle”.

His grandmother was then living in retirement with another son over the latter’s tobacco shop in Oxford Street.

John Dickens started work at the advanced age of 17 years as a junior clerk in the Navy Pay Office in Somerset House, a position most likely obtained for him by George Canning, the friend and associate of his mother’s employer. Canning was then the treasurer to the Navy and patronage was the usual route to a coveted (because secure) job in the civil service in the days before competitive examinations decided entry into the service.

John then met and married Elizabeth, the sister of a fellow clerk, Thomas Barrow. Elizabeth and Thomas were the children of a senior figure in the pay office, Charles Barrow.

Shortly after John and Elizabeth were married, however, the elder Mr Barrow was found to have been conducting large-scale embezzlement of Navy funds and he fled the country before he could be caught and prosecuted (offenders had been hanged for the theft of lesser sums).

The young couple thus found themselves deprived both of any future financial support and also of an important constituent of their social status, instead having to live down the shame of their connection with an embezzler.

It didn’t prevent the couple always having pretensions of gentility, which were never lost throughout all the financial vicissitudes of their lives, but it did make the consequences of John’s social pretensions and his tendency to live beyond his means more disastrous than might otherwise have been the case if he had had an influential voice within the office supporting his preferment at work and a father-in-law providing occasional help to his wife at home.

John’s mother had no substantial independent means following her retirement from service and was most likely afraid of the workhouse as the ultimate destination of the destitute elderly without family support.

Charles was the second child of John and Elizabeth, being born when his sister Lydia was two and his mother and father just 22 and 27 respectively. His mother was educated, however, and she taught the infant Charles, giving him a good grounding in the English language and a basic knowledge of Latin.

In 1812, the Napoleonic wars were drawing to their initial close. While the war continued the Navy office was busy, with ships constantly being built, repaired, manned and provisioned. When Napoleon was defeated the work was less. John Dickens was recalled to London and, under the convoluted pay system of the Navy office of those days, that meant that he lost the out-of-town supplement to his pay.

From the ages of three to five (1815-17), young Charles lived with his family in lodgings over the cheese and provisions shop of Mr Dodds at 10 Norfolk Street, just behind the newly-built Middlesex hospital. The expedition to Soho Square with his grandmother dates from this time, so it is apparent that some memories were retained from the period.

It was only discovered as a result of research last year that Dickens had lived in Norfolk Street both then and later when he was beginning his working life at about 16 years old, until he married and set up home separately from his parents. It was also revealed that Mr Dodds’ shop was almost opposite the workhouse for the parish of Marylebone, although outside the parish boundaries.

Thus, the young Charles would have had an excellent view of the workhouse and all its visitors and daily comings and goings (including the pauper burials coming to the burial ground within its boundaries) from the first and second-floor windows of his parents’ home.

Later, he would have been living near it again when the regime was changing in anticipation of the new Poor Law, as the parish guardians enthusiastically embraced and began the changes without waiting for the act to become law (another event which resonates with our own recent experience, as the Health and Social Care Act 2012 was being implemented even while it was still a bill being debated and amended in Parliament and before its provisions had been finally, formally decided).

Like many others, the Marylebone workhouse much later became the outpatients’ department of the Middlesex hospital. It survived initially when that hospital was demolished after its merger with UCLH in 1987 and the building of the new hospital (with PFI funding) on the Euston Road in recent years.

Local campaigners seeking to have the building listed as a rare surviving example of a London workhouse enrolled the help of historian Ruth Richardson, who discovered the connection with Dickens.

It is thought that the Marylebone workhouse is almost certainly the model for the one depicted in Oliver Twist, even though the latter was situated outside London for the purposes of the story. (The fact that Oliver was farmed out as a baby makes it like a London and not a provincial workhouse.)

Dickens would later have gained a more intimate knowledge of the inside of a workhouse and what it was like to be raised in one.

Whilst living at Norfolk Street, the Dickens family were in the centre of their extended families and also in a busy area close to the centre of town, known for its local artists and sculptors, with many shops, with street traders attracted by the constant traffic to and from the hospital and workhouse, and with the Queen’s theatre only a short distance away.

The area was on the borders of the slum area of St Giles to the south east and the prosperous area of Marylebone to the west. An in-between area in terms of class and status, much as the family occupied the uncertain area between the petty bourgeoisie and the working class.

Their first period in the house was during the severe depression that followed the defeat of Napoleon, and the child Charles would have seen many of the victims of the war and that post-war period at the workhouse doors.

In 1817, when Charles was five years old, the family left Norfolk Street for Chatham when John Dickens was posted there. The adult Charles always referred to the five years the family lived in Chatham and Rochester as the idyllic period of his childhood. He was ignorant of any money troubles of his parents, and he was attending school.

A sickly child, he escaped the rough games of boyhood and instead read all of his parents’ books, becoming adept at performing recitations for doting parents and their friends and relations. He also went for long country walks with his father, developing a love for walking that stayed with him all his life.

Another child had been born and died while the family were in London. While in Kent, the Dickenses had three more children, all of whom survived. There appeared to be no cloud on the horizon until John Dickens was again recalled to London, to work at the Navy Pay Office in Somerset House, in 1822.

This time, the family moved into a newly-built house in a new suburb, Camden Town. Like many new areas before and since, it was deficient in shops and facilities. It also seemed to be a place where there were many families struggling with debt, as Charles Dickens recalled that the bailiffs were a familiar sight.

His own parents’ debts – building since their original stay with Mr Dodds and now exacerbated by having to support a larger family upon reduced pay – were becoming apparent.

The first casualty was the young Charles’s education. Free elementary education did not begin until 1870, and although he had been a promising pupil and most probably had been encouraged to look forward to a university place in due course, he was now condemned to kicking his heels at home.

His resentment was not helped by his parents finding the £40 per year needed to enable his elder sister Fanny to take up her scholarship to study music and dance at the Royal Academy of Music. During the family’s time in Camden Town, Charles would walk by himself to one uncle in Soho and to another in Shoreditch and back when he wanted relief from the family’s isolation in their new suburb.

On one occasion, Charles was out with his father and an uncle and became separated from them and was lost. He walked through the city for hours until hunger, cold and the night caused him to find shelter in the doorway of a building in the City. There he was found by a night watchman, who got a message to his parents to come and collect him.

This was over a decade before the new police force was created by Sir Robert Peel, and shows how safe was the early 19th-century city and how effective the night watchmen at that time, before the period of rapid expansion changed the city forever.

There were fields at the northern end of Norfolk Street, where the Prince Regent (later George IV) was beginning to create his park when they first lived there; the park was not finished until after the death of that king and after the Dickens family’s return to Norfolk Street.

There was one desperate last attempt by his parents to achieve financial stability, when Elizabeth Dickens set up a school in a house in a new development in Gower Street. Alas, not a single pupil enrolled.

Charles was sent on occasion to take items to the pawn shop, and so learnt at first hand what the inside of such places were like, how the system worked and what it meant to have to part with treasured items which were part of the family’s history with no certainty that they could ever be recovered – to see them become anonymous, ticketed items with no meaning beyond their monetary value.

Debt, poverty and separation: lessons in insecurity

Soon the situation became irredeemable and, after a short period in a sponging-house (a half-way stop), John Dickens was imprisoned in the Marshalsea prison for debt. His family all moved in with him, with the sole exception of Charles.

John Dickens was known for his good humour and sociability. The famous remark of Mr Micawber to the young David in David Copperfield was based on John’s words to his son Charles: “Annual income £20, annual expenditure £19 19s and 11d, result happiness. Annual income £20, annual expenditure £20 and 1d, result misery.”

Dickens used his experiences in Little Dorritt, too, and it is likely that his father was also the inspiration for Dorritt senior, “the father of the Marshalsea”. Unlike Mr Dorritt, John Dickens’ stay in prison was only for a couple of years until he was able to clear his debts with a family legacy, but just like Dorritt he was often asked for help and advice by other prisoners on account of his superior education.

While the rest of his family lived in the Marshelsea, in Southwark, Charles was sent out to work at the ripe age of 11 years old. He said later that his childhood ended then, and it was not until much later in his life that he forgave his father for the double betrayal of stopping his education and sending him to work at the blacking factory.

This factory had recently been set up by a good friend of John, who offered to employ Charles, no doubt as a way of helping the family in their financial difficulties. The factory was initially in an old and rat-infested house on the banks of the Thames, near where the Hungerford Bridge and Steps are now. There was no Embankment then, and the cellars were liable to flooding.

Charles was first kept to work in the office next to his father’s friend, wrapping and labelling the bottles of blacking, but in due course he joined the other boys downstairs in the factory, where he worked next to a workhouse boy but was called ‘the little gentleman’ by all on account of his superior dress, manners and education.

Charles was sent to board with a woman who lived in College Street, Camden Town, walking from work to the prison to see his family and then back to Camden Town to dine and to sleep alone. He was desperately unhappy, and his parents were eventually persuaded by their friend to find him lodgings near the prison, so that Charles could join his family for breakfast and dinner and spend the evenings with them until the hour when visitors were obliged to leave the prison.

When the business relocated to Covent Garden, Charles and the other boys worked by the windows in a room at street level. Here he was seen and recognised by a family acquaintance, who went in and gave Charles a tip and wrote a letter to his father. As soon as John Dickens received this, he went to the factory and brought Charles back with him to the Marshalsea.

His mother “was warm to send me back”, according to Charles (she no doubt thinking of the loss of income to the family), and that was why he never forgave her, even when relations with his father improved. (Dickens later wondered: “How I could so easily have been cast away at such an age? … I never afterwards forgot, I never can forget, I never shall forget that my mother was warm for my being sent back.”)

His father was adamant that Charles should not go back to the factory, presumably because the damage to the family reputation would be too great. John Dickens never lost his social pretensions to be a gentleman, no matter how straightened his circumstances. Dickens’ view that the proper role of woman in the household was to be ruled by the man may have dated from this time.

It was during this period that the young Charles learnt more about what it was like to be on the inside of a workhouse – knowledge no doubt given added poignancy by the extreme uncertainty of his own fate at that time.

Not only was one of his workmates a workhouse child, but for many years his parents’ maid was an orphan girl from the Chatham workhouse. She moved with the family from Rochester to Camden Town and then into the Marshalsea, and Dickens recounts telling stories to amuse her when he met her while waiting to enter the prison.

John Dickens had continued to receive his pay from the Navy office during his incarceration. It was sufficient to provide for his families’ needs while in prison, though not to clear his debts, so that his family’s stay there (apart from their cramped quarters) was almost more comfortable than had been their recent experience outside, except for poor Charles.

However, once Dickens senior was free again he resigned before he could be sacked (thus preserving his pension) and started working with his brother, who was a parliamentary reporter.

Charles was sent back to school for a few years, where he did not receive an education of the standard he had enjoyed in Chatham, but where he briefly was able to be a boy among boys again.

In 1857, when Charles was 15, his father found him a found a more congenial job as messenger in the offices of a law firm situated in the Inns of Court and specialising in Chancery work, thus enabling the young Charles to find his way around the legal system and visit other offices and court rooms.

After a year with them he learnt shorthand and became a freelance court reporter: submitting reports of court cases to the daily papers, sitting in court every day for four years, and garnering the knowledge that would later be used in his novels such as Bleak House.

He spent his evenings at the theatre or walking around the streets of the town, starting to take notes of all he saw and write anecdotes and stories.

The young Dickens’ story-telling style began to be developed and early newspaper reports ascribed to him (very few, as all such reports were anonymous) show his empathy with the accused and his sharp observations of all the players in the scene. Meanwhile, the family had also returned to Norfolk Street and to the hub of London life once more.

Dickens the provider

From the time he started work, Charles Dickens lived life at a furious pace and worked extremely hard. At work all day, he spent his evenings at the theatre, walking through the streets or writing. A driven man, he was writing stories and getting them published while still a parliamentary reporter.

He wanted to be famous and wealthy but did not know how he would achieve this, although he knew he had talents.

Sketches of London by ‘Boz’ were his first works to be published, and weekly instalments of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club were next, in 1836. Dickens was now able to stop being a reporter and begin life as a magazine editor.

The Pickwick Papers were so successful that he was able to negotiate new terms for his contract for his next serial, The Adventures of Oliver Twist: the History of a Parish Boy, for the first time retaining a right to royalties rather than just receiving a fixed payment and afterwards seeing his publisher reap the rewards of his success.

The writing of all of his novels by weekly or monthly instalments was an amazing intellectual feat, as it meant that from the beginning he had to have the story mapped out in his mind from start to finish, with no opportunity to go back and change anything previously published.

He was also simultaneously starting Oliver while still writing Pickwick, and later he was finishing the instalments of Oliver at the same time as beginning those of The Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby – all three works of very different natures.

In 1832, Dickens had fallen in love, but the parents of his beloved disapproved of him and sent her away to Paris in order to end the relationship. She remained an idealised figure in his memory, probably the model for Dora in David Copperfield, until he met her again in later life and found her (naturally!) aged by years and childbearing. He later made her the model for the cruelly-drawn Flora Finching in Little Dorrit.

In 1836, he married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of George Hogarth, editor of the Evening Chronicle, after a year-long engagement while he was writing Pickwick. They went on to have ten children, but Dickens left her in 1858, never to see her again, while her sister Georgina continued to live with him at Gad’s Place and bring up the nine children who stayed with him. His relationships with women, as well as his literary depictions of them, were a weak point.

Charles Dickens became the provider for both of his parents in their old age, as well as giving help and support to his siblings. He also provided for his own children a prosperous life, all through his own exertions and without help from anyone.

He still managed to find time to write and produce plays with family and friends for the sheer pleasure it afforded him and to raise money for the many charities dear to his heart – from rescuing poor women who had been forced into prostitution by necessity to providing for old, sick or indigent newsvendors (a charity he founded and which survives to this day).

His early experiences and class position gave him the insecurity which was the driving force behind his need to work and make money; his talents provided the means; and the unique and momentous times of change and class struggle that he lived through provided the subject matter for his most memorable and enduring works.

Two hundred years after his birth, Dickens deserves to be remembered and honoured, not only for his great literature but also for his contribution to the understanding of the lives of urban workers and the poor under the conditions of untrammelled capitalism, as well as for his efforts to improve those conditions.