l by Dr Ruwantissa Abeyratne
(February 14, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) On 7 February this year, we celebrated the 200th birth anniversary of one who is arguably the greatest English novelist that ever lived. Although Shakespeare is perhaps the best known of the English writers, not much else is known of him, whereas Charles Dickens left a clear account of himself, his life, his political outlook and his indelible mark through his many works.
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born February 7 1812 to a middle class family in Portsmouth, Hampshire but left it in his infancy. He had an interesting family tree, where one of his grandfathers was a domestic servant, and the other, an embezzler. His father was a clerk in the naval office, a profligate who brought financial embarrassment to the Dickens family. From 1817 to 1822 Charles lived in Chatham and thereafter moved to London, where he wrote most of his books.
Charles’s somewhat sporadic schooling ended when he was fifteen, at which time he commenced work as a clerk in a solicitor’s office. He became a journalist in the 1830s working in the Morning Chronicle where most of his political personality and outlook was formed.
Most writers come and go, but not Dickens, who has been a compelling influence on the world for several reasons. The first is that, to quote Dickens himself, he lived in the best of times and the worst of times. The other and more importantly, is that Dickens exposed political and economic reality and the evils of class distinction through his books like no one did. His first book, “The Pickwick Papers” was written in the pre Industrial era where there was a transition in London society which was undergoing significant social turmoil as English society came face to face to terms with a palpable change occurring at that time, from as an aristocratic, rural society to a rapidly-changing, complex and convoluted one, at grips with an urban-based industrial economy.
In 1842, when Charles Dickens returned to London from a reading tour in the United States, the city was in a terrible mess. There was unemployment everywhere and the soup kitchens could not cope. London was besieged by impoverished rural migrants looking for employment, and the resultant poverty prompted a Dickens contemporary Thomas Carlyle to say – “with millions no longer able to live…it is too clear that the nation itself is on the way to suicidal death”. What affected Dickens most was the violence and the chasm of class distinction that was prevalent. He adroitly exposed them through his delightful novels.
For example, the famous “please Sir, I want some more” plea by Oliver Twist (the protagonist of the novel with the same title) personified the reality of the day in London where men and women were segregated in veritable prisons called “workhouses”, and made to work hard for “three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sundays”. One of Dickens’s most effective political messages was delivered in “A Christmas Carol” where the main character Ebenezer Scrooge, a proponent of the “workhouse syndrome” converts from a miserly recluse to a benevolent benefactor of society through a revelation of ‘the Ghost of Christmas” who, in an apparition, changes Scrooge. Dickens hoped that his novel would “hit the world like a sledgehammer” and that it did, selling six thousand copies almost instantaneously.
Getting back to “Oliver Twist, Dickens wrote the novel at the height of the Poor Law of 1834 which changed how poverty and paupers were to be treated through a muddled rationalization of wasteful relief. Dickens attacked workhouse incarceration encouraged by the 1834 law and the inarticulate political premise that the more dead paupers, the less cost to the State to upkeep them. “The Old Curiosity Shop” which followed was a scathing indictment on the effrontery of factory towns in England which blatantly exploited the townsfolk, an inequity he exposed through a stint at journalism later, where he castigated the Cotton Mills Act of 1819 and the Factory Act of 1833, the latter of which allowed boys of nine years and over to be employed as factory workers. In “Hard Times” Dickens appealed to the conscience of his society against the economic reality of the times. In “Bleak House” he warned the rich that the slime and filth of pestilence would lead to retribution through every stratum of society.
In recognition and admiration of Dickens’s influence on the social and economic mores of his time, George Bernard Shaw, another immortal of the time warned England that the fanciful world of Thackeray and Trollop would inevitably give way to the World of Dickens, which, Shaw called “the real England we live in”. Yvonne Bezrucka of the University of Verona writes of another penetrating novel of Dickens, “Little Dorritt”: “In Little Dorrit goods become deeply linked to issues of social stratification, the appetite for class mobility, and to a politics of class and identity. Dickens’s use of commodities shows that in nineteenth-century society these are shorthand icons for wealth and status, so that class differences and appetites for class mobility are defined by him and deployed in terms of a struggle for material objects and a war of emulation”.
Dickens made a forceful pronouncement on society and class distinction in “Great Expectations” where he unequivocally brought out social reality through the protagonist Pip and his thinking and actions which revealed that any naïve attempt at jumping from a deprived class of society to a more affluent one would be self destructive and grossly undignified. Dickens exposed in this novel that society was divided and demarcated by clear class lines which were composed of impenetrable barriers between social classes. He cautioned that any attempt by a member of the more disadvantaged class to penetrate the barriers would result in a sense of profound loneliness and loss. Dickens visualized society as being rotten at the core that bred internal chaos and anarchy.
“David Copperfield” is a somewhat autobiographical novel by Dickens, written midstream in his writing career. It resonates with the reader as the story of an average young lad torn between a blend of two societies: aristocratic; and working class. Numerous comic characters bring to bear the thrust of Dickens’s construction and structure of writing and the eminent adaptability of his works to the theatre. Another most endearing novel of Dickens is a “Tale of Two Cities” which is a perceptive interpretation of the French Revolution. Both the Revolution and the commentaries in the book are calculated to shape British attitudes towards national identity and political legitimacy. In addition to the book’s political and economic significance, it offers the reader a powerful melodramatic plot that throws individuals face to face with the political systems they are faced with.
Now, 200 years on after the birth of Charles Dickens, one can wonder what the significance of this great novelist is to the current political and social context of the world. Politically, the message of Dickens conveyed through his brilliant themes and plots, is that politicians, whether they be in Greece, Spain or Portugal, or anywhere else, must look after their people and watch out for them so that a chasm is not created between the haves and the have-nots. They must be accountable. A more compelling thrust of the Dickens novels is that the youth of today would do much better if the classics are included in their school curricula so that they obtain a sense of direction and purpose in their lives through erudite thoughts of the literati. Julius Grey, an eminent lawyer of Montreal has written to the Montreal Gazette (11 February 2012) an article entitled “In Dickens, A Way Forward” about his own experience as a young migrant child from Poland : “The 200 years of Dickens, and the phenomenon of his perennial popularity, should lead us to consider the role of the classics in our society. The classics are somewhat harder to read and digest than purely topical, fashionable works. However, they can give us personal and theoretical knowledge and understanding, and help us develop a sense of beauty as no other works can. As my experience of David Copperfield shows, this can happen early in life and it can remain with us forever”.
Grey adds: “It is a pity that so many places, including Quebec, have replaced the classics in the school curriculum with less powerful works and with topical, politically correct texts. In the times of the Internet where we are bombarded by vast quantities of information of varied quality, our youth could both have breathtaking experiences and a better understanding of their path and their role if they read Homer, Balzac, Tolstoy and Dickens.
That is the true lesson to be learned from a 200-year-old perennial best-seller”.
Grey is right and I cannot agree with him more. To add my own perspective, our younger generation would do well particularly with what Dickens said in “The Tale of Two Cities”, which still, after all this time resonates his opening statement: “ It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only”.
This is exactly what the Dickens is going on now.