Charles Dickens – Social Reformer – William Walter Crotch
It seems important to emphasize the fact that Charles Dickens was in a very special sense a social reformer. It was not simply that he loathed shams. With him it was not merely a case of creating characters at which the whole world laughed, humbugs who excited its wrath and impostors who provoked its derision. He was at heart and by conviction a reformer. He looked out upon his age and found corruption in public places and cynicism displayed towards the vital things in national life and character. He found the poor neglected in primary things, such as education, housing, and sanitation, and drilled, dragooned and disciplined out of all reason in non-essentials. Stupendous neglect of child-life went side by side with a grotesquely organized hypocrisy for its welfare. And he set himself to remedy these things, not merely by creating Squeers, Bumble, Jarndyce, Gradgrind, Bounderby, and the rest, but by a constant endeavour in other directions to awaken the social consciousness to clamant evils and imperious needs. More than in his novels, the deep and passionate reforming zeal of the man is disclosed in those many anonymous articles and sketches which he contributed to quite a variety of journals. In these the enthusiasm, the scorn, the hatred, and sometimes even the plaintive acrimony of the real Charles Dickens is to be found. One arises from a perusal of these comparatively unknown examples of his work with a renewed assurance that the views of his characters in his novels were not interpolated merely for the purpose of creating a literary or emotional effect: they were the burning conviction of the creator of the character himself.
Charles Dickens – Social Reformer.
Excerpt from the text:
” To leave one’s hand . . . lastingly upon the time, with one tender touch for the mass of toiling people that nothing can obliterate, would be to lift oneself above the dust of all the Doges in their graves and stand upon a giant’s staircase that Samson could not overthrow.”
In those words Charles Dickens, the premier novelist of our age, crystallized the master-passion of his life. The sentiment was no transient one; it was no fleeting aspiration evoked by one of his many moments of deep sympathy with the poor; it was rather the careful asseveration of a profound and long-cherished conviction. He had returned from Venice, overflowing with the exhilaration which new scenes and fresh sensations of beauty invariably create in the mind of man.
” Lofty emotions rise within me when I see the sun set on the Mediterranean,” he had written during his stay at the little villa which he rented outside Genoa; and all that was majestic and all that was resplendent under the undying glory of Italian skies had excited his warmest admiration. But the spectacle of natural glories and the joy which comes of the contemplation of hitherto unseen richness in art and architecture were as nothing to him beside the pursuit of what might have been regarded as the humble, but abiding, purpose of his life. ” To strike a blow for the poor ” — this was his heart’s desire; ” to leave one tender touch for the mass of the toiling people ” — this was alike the permanent hope and the constant purpose of all his work. In this was his destiny fulfilled. Circumstance, that heedless arbiter of men’s lives, had willed it so. Into the very fibre of his being was woven his love of the poor; upon the tablets of his experience was enshrined the record of their miseries, their sufferings, their endurance, their weaknesses, their needs, and their follies. All the emotions of his childhood stirred his manhood to a keen appreciation of social injustice; all the bitterness of poverty which, as a lad, he endured warmed the heart of his age to active compassion for misfortune; like Robert Louis Stevenson, ” the sights and sounds of his youth pursued him always.”
The early, if not the earliest, associations of Charles Dickens were with debt and poverty. The impressions which first stamped themselves upon his young mind were of financial difficulties, of worries which grew to miseries, of embarrassments which became slow agonies as his family sank, gradually but surely into the pit of penury and want. At nine or ten years of age his home was in a mean tenement in a squalid Camden Town slum, and from ” the little back garret in Bay ham Street ” he derived his first knowledge of the struggles which the poor daily wage against poverty. That he understood it all then, he in after life affirmed again and again, and it was this intimate knowledge which produced his passionate zeal for social reform, and made him, to the day of his death, the unflinching champion of the weak and oppressed.
Dickens, however, was doomed not only to be a spectator of the miseries of the poor, but to feel the poignant pain of hunger himself. When we laugh at the foibles and smile at the pecuniary embarrassments from which Mr. Micawber was scarcely ever free, we are likely to forget the tragedy which those same difficulties involved for his counterpart in real life. As the elder Dickens fell into deeper and deeper straits, the family were compelled to endure greater and greater privations. A removal to Gower Street North, where the boy’s mother set up a school in the hope of stemming the inrushing tide of debt and of restoring the lost prosperity of the family, proved quite unavailing. ” We got on very badly with the butcher and the baker,” says Dickens himself, referring to those stressful days, and ” very often we had not too much for dinner, and at last my father was arrested.” Then, by degrees, almost everything in the little home was sold or pawned to buy bread, and the boy went through those experiences which he ascribes to David Copperfield, and which he touches lightly in his description of Master Peter Cratchit, who ” might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s.” Eventually the house was denuded of everything save a few chairs, a kitchen table, and some beds, and there, in the two parlours of the emptied house, the family encamped night and day.
Even worse was to follow, for a little later we find the boy ” a child of singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily and mentally,” as he described himself in a fragment of autobiography, working as a poor little drudge in a blacking factory at Hungerford Stairs for a wage of six shillings per week. Never came bird of paradise into more dismal region. The memory of that time and place seared itself on his brain. He described it as “a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats.” ” Its wainscoted rooms and its rotten floors and staircase and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place rise up visibly before me as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string, and then to clip the paper close and neat all round until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary’s shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label and then go on again with more pots.” His companions were two or three ragged urchins — children of the slums — and no words, he later avowed, could express the secret agony of his soul as he sank into these circumstances. ” The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless, of the shame I felt in my position, of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned and thought and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing away from me never to be brought back any more, cannot be written.” He little dreamed then of the influence which these things were exerting upon him, or how, out of all the tragic squalor of his life, there were being born the elements, by means of which, he was afterwards to render yeoman aid to the race of men.
It has been said again and again that he never forgot that time; that to the end of the chapter he remained in many things a dreary boy-drudge. The first contention is undoubtedly true. After a silence of a quarter of a century he wrote: ” Until old Hunger ford Market was pulled down, until old Hungerford Stairs were destroyed and the very nature of the ground changed, I never had the courage to go back to the place where my servitude began. I never saw it. I could not endure to go near it. For many years, when I came near to Robert Warren’s in the Strand, I crossed over to the opposite side of the way to avoid a certain smell of the cement they put upon the blacking corks, which reminded me of what I was once.”
Robert Buchanan used to prefer to think and write of Dickens as a great, grown-up, dreamy, impulsive child, who had learnt the things which made some of his characters immortal, not by poring over books within college walls, but by brooding life in stirring streets. Others of our modern men of letters have emphasized the same view, declaring that he never escaped the fog of the dingy warehouse in which he was a drudge; that though naturally of a light and cheerful temperament, his early experiences so loaded his soul with sorrow that he could never grow any older or rightly shake off, by a spark of volatile spirits, the weight of a world full of suffering. That view I certainly do not share. His faithful historian, Forster, has left an indelible record of the almost inexhaustible fund of natural good spirits upon which he was able to draw quite to the last; of the intense delight which he evinced in contrasts or anything that savoured of game or sport. Then again, there is the positive evidence that in his own business affairs, and in his outlook on politics and social reform, he was intensely practical, shrewd, painstaking and wide awake. His capacity for romance was but in the nature of things which decrees that every man’s mental disposition is a paradox. Even his undoubted humour did not preserve him from occasional excesses of sentiment. Despite his practicality, there was nothing he loved more than to play the part of a child, looking out on to life with bewildered eyes. Mark that half-poetic touch which occurs again and again in his books in characters who, like little Paul Dombey, delight in sitting by the sea of life and wondering what, after all, the incoming waves are saying, or of others who see pictures and faces in the fire or who review snatches of their childhood in the quietude and serenity of the night! It is undoubtedly true that in his romantic moments, whenever Dickens is vitalizing characteristics or selecting an abstract emotion and radiating his creation outward from that centre, there is an irresistible suggestion and a far-away echo of those troublous times of his boyhood, a faint tremulous fluttering of distant miseries.
Take one instance and see how aptly it reveals the heart of the author himself. He is describing Arthur Clennam, who, when he got back to his lodgings, ” sat down before the dying fire, as he had stood at the window of his old room looking out upon the blackened forest of chimneys and turned his gaze back upon the gloomy vista by which he had come to that stage in his existence.” That is a typical setting to the scene. Now see how the mood develops.
” He was a dreamer in such wise, because he was a man who had deep-rooted in his nature a belief in all the gentle and good things his life had been without. Bred in meanness and hard dealing, this had rescued him to be a man of honourable mind and open hand. Bred in coldness and severity, this had rescued him to have a warm and sympathetic heart. Bred in a creed too darkly audacious to pursue, through its process of reversing the making of man in the image of his Creator to the making of his Creator in the image of erring man, this had rescued him to judge not, and, in humility, to be merciful and have hope and charity.” That was just the position. From his own experience, Dickens found what kind teachers even the bitternesses and the sorrows of life may be.
In spite of his wage of six shillings per week — nay, rather because of it — Dickens knew what it was to have an appetite unappeased. His mother and the children being in the end forced to share quarters with his father in the Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison, the boy obtained still another of those invaluable glimpses into the life of the poor in the lodgings he had to seek, and in the efforts to maintain himself out of his scanty earnings. The details of his struggle, as he has set them down, make pitiful reading. A penny cottage loaf and a pennyworth of milk made up his breakfast, and bread and cheese were the only luxuries he enjoyed for his supper. And day after day, at the blacking factory, he had to economize over his midday meal, comprising two pennyworth of hot pudding, in order to ” make his money last through the week.” ” I know,” he says, ” I do not exaggerate, unconsciously and unintentionally, the scantiness of my resources and the difficulties of my life. I know that if a shilling or so were given me by any one I spent it in a dinner or a tea. I know that I worked from morning to night with common men and boys, a shabby child. I know that I tried, but ineffectually, not to anticipate my money, and to make it last the week through by putting it away in a drawer I had in the counting-house, wrapped into six little parcels, each parcel containing the same amount and labelled with a different day. I know that I have lounged about the streets insufficiently and unsatisfactorily fed. I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond.” Small wonder, is it not, that in after life he could enter into the spirit and describe in vivid, living prose, the schemings of a mother to keep her children with bread? Small wonder that, throughout the many mutations of his literary life, his zeal for the poor should have remained as constant as it was passionate! Lord Morley years ago declared that hardship in youth creates an interest in men real, and not merely literary. In no case has this been demonstrated more completely than in that of Dickens. What momentous issues hung upon so mundane an act as a change of lodgings! The boy shifted his quarters to Lant Street, so as to be near his people now living in the debtors’ prison, and to the Marshalsea he used to go daily for breakfast and supper. It needs no stretch of the imagination to conceive who sat for that moving picture of the old forbidding Marshalsea in the cold grey of the early dawn, and of a small slight figure dressed in worn clothing waiting for admittance! Amy Dorrit was a child whom the boy met, and he invested her with splendid qualities and gentle attributes, but it is obvious, nevertheless, that he transferred to her story his own actual experiences of the inside and the outside of the debtors’ prison. It was an imperishable memory. When, in after years, Time’s relentless ravages had razed the foul institution to the ground, the vision of it in his mind was so clear that he could describe its aspect with the minutest accuracy. Writing in May, 1857, he relates how he visited the scene of the onetime prison; how he found the outer front courtyard metamorphosed into a butter shop; how he went to Marshalsea place, ” the house in which I recognized not only as the great block of the former prison, but as preserving the rooms that arise in my mind’s eye when I become little Dorrit’s biographer. The smallest boy I ever conversed with, carrying the largest baby I ever saw, offered a supernaturally intelligent explanation of the locality in its old uses and was very nearly correct … A little further on I found the older and smaller wall which used to enclose the pent-up in a prison, where nobody was put except for ceremony. But whoever goes into Marshalsea place . . . will find his feet on the very paving stones of the extinct Marshalsea Gaol; will see its narrow yard to the right and the left, very little altered . . . will look upon the rooms in which the debtors lived; and will stand among the crowding ghosts of many miserable years.” Verily for him it was crowded with miserable associations. Modern buildings and the operation of excellent sanitary laws have made it impossible for us to visit this ghostland of buried hopes and man’s despair, but it is of importance, in tracing the effects of his childhood’s environment on his after social teachings, to look at the old prison as he saw it out of those wondering, dreaming, boyish eyes of his.
” It was an oblong pile of barrack buildings partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top. Itself a close and confined prison for debtors, it contained within a much closer and more confined gaol for smugglers; offenders against the Revenue Laws and defaulters to Excise or Customs who had incurred fines which they were unable to pay were supposed to be incarcerated behind an iron plated door closing up a second prison consisting of a strong cell or two, and a blind alley some yard and a half wide, which formed the mysterious termination of a very limited skittle ground in which the Marshalsea debtors bowled down their troubles.”