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Dickens used imagination to address the State of the Nation

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, London, News on Friday, 28 February 2014

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This edited article about Charles Dickens first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Charles Dickens,  picture, image, illustration

Dickens sends his first literary efforts to the Monthly Magazine in a dark court off Fleet Street, by Peter Jackson

The 12-year-old boy left his first, long day at work close to rats and in a mood of deep despair. The dark, dirty warehouse seemed like a prison and the dull, mindless work of pasting labels on to bottles had felt endless. Only a year ago he had been attending school, immersed in his books and eagerly looking forward to a future that promised much. But although the young Charles Dickens did not then realise it, his parents were already in difficulty and the future was much less rosy than he imagined.

Life for the Dickens family had become a dreary, unhappy affair in which disaster always threatened. Furniture had to be sold and Charles, who could no longer be kept at school found himself running errands to the pawn shop instead. Often cold and hungry, he did not know that the worst was yet to come. Then a friend suggested he could be found work at the blacking factory for six shillings a week and so a fearful 12 year-old started his working career in the rat-infested old building that seemed to symbolise all that was wrong with the world.

Charles Dickens never forgot this episode in his life, even though times improved and he only worked there for a few months. Nor did he ever forget that he was one of the fortunate few in being rescued from such conditions and later, when he had become the most famous author of his time he did all in his power to improve conditions for the poor. His books made the public realise the scandals and abuses that existed and they helped reformers to create conditions in which changes could be made. Dickens could have little idea of the future that was to be his when he left the blacking factory, but he did have a burning ambition which drove him forward. The results echoed round the world, and also played a significant part in changing the country in which he lived.

Charles Dickens was born at Portsmouth in 1812. His father was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office and after a few years the family moved to Chatham and to London. The family’s changing fortunes sometimes made for a precarious existence and at one time (just after his start at the blacking factory) Charles’ father had to go to the Debtor’s Prison at Marshalsea. But later on prosperity returned and Charles was able to finish his schooling at the age of 15.

He started work as an office boy to a firm of solicitors but the law was a dull business to a young man with so much energy and later his father, after teaching him shorthand, was able to find him work as a newspaper reporter. Charles specialised in Parliamentary reports and soon became known as one of the fastest and most accurate reporters in the country.

When Parliament was not sitting he was sent by his paper all over the country to cover by-elections, important speeches and other occasions. Since this was before the telephone, speed was all important. The brisk Mr. Dickens, who was now a dashing young man, loved the excitement of working at high speed and then travelling as fast as horses could carry him in the hope of delivering his copy before his rivals!

But he was always drawn back to London. With his restless energy and insatiable curiosity he loved to explore the city, going everywhere and noticing everything. It gave him a wealth of material for his writing and, all too often, a sense of burning anger at the injustices that needed to be put right. To someone who had known poverty, the condition of the poor was of particular importance for behind the bustling, booming prosperity of London there were real problems.

It was estimated that 20,000 people started each day without knowing whether they would have a roof over their head when night fell. Some, no doubt, would be able to earn enough to pay for a bed at a common lodging house but many more, including children, would have to sleep rough. Warehouses, dark alleys, arches and sheds would have their miserable huddle of bodies, while Lord Shaftesbury found one boy who spent a large part of one winter sleeping inside an iron roller in Regents Park.

Dickens’ first two books, “Sketches by Boz” and “The Pickwick Papers” were pleasant and entertaining even though the latter has its serious side, too. But then he started to expose some of the social abuses of the time and while his books still entertained his public he did also force attention on to some of the things which needed changing.

“Oliver Twist” was a dark sinister book, attacking the operation of the Poor Laws and the semi-starvation which workhouse boys had to endure. “Nicholas Nickleby” looked at some of the notorious schools which existed with wretched, unwanted children bullied unmercifully and kept in appalling conditions. Dickens did not discover these evils, but he did give them colour and drama so that such scandals could not continue to be ignored.

The result of these books was that Dickens became perhaps the best known and best loved of all English novelists. Most of his books appeared in monthly instalments, often appearing over a period of nearly two years. The excitement was intense, and when “The Old Curiosity Shop” was published in this way hundreds of readers were so anxious about the fate of the heroine, Little Nell, that they wrote begging Dickens not to let her die.

Eventually, Little Nell did die and strong men like Lord Jeffrey, the lawyer and O’Connell, the Irish politician, burst into tears. Nor was England the only place affected. As the transatlantic ship docked at New York crowds at the pier shouted “Is Little Nell dead?” to the sailors, and then wept as they heard the result.

Dickens seemed to be able to mesmerise his audience, not just by his writing but by his acting, too. He was a superb actor and in later years his famous readings attracted thousands of people. In an age when there was no competition from television and cinemas, theatres were particularly popular, but Charles Dickens’ performances were unlike anything else that the theatre could provide.

He magnetised his audiences with the humour, sorrow or sheer terror of his characters. Standing alone before an enormous audience with just a small table, a glass of water and his script he could hold them entranced and although they over-taxed his health he loved the excitement and triumph that these readings provided.

Dickens lived for a time in Italy and Switzerland, but eventually returned to Kent, the scene of his happiest boyhood days. His fame was worldwide and his travels in America particularly successful but he never forgot the power of his pen where reform was necessary. He edited a magazine called “Household Words” and tried hard to help put right some of the wrongs that he could see in Society. Health, education and prison reform were some of the issues he tackled and his enormous energy was matched only by his concern.

Charles Dickens went on writing, and writing well, until he died in 1870. But he lives on in the vivid, exciting and amusing books he wrote. He mirrored the age in which he lived and the miserly Scrooge, the sinister Fagin, bright young David Copperfield and the amiable and lovable Mr Pickwick are, like all his characters, his best memorial.

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