Hard Times: lessons from Dickens for 21st century London

Charles Dickens was born 200 years ago. His books and articles were often firmly based in south London (as David Perdue’s excellent Dickens blog demonstrates) and Charles Dickens, a former resident of Lant Street.ANDY FORD says that Dickens, “the champion of the oppressed”, also exposed the rotten underbelly of Victorian society, offering interesting parallels to the present

Dickens was writing at a time when printing, reading and readers were undergoing profound changes and growth, allowing his books access to a mass market. The economic expansion unleashed by Britain’s victory over Napoleon led to unprecedented changes in technology and industry, culminating in the railway mania of the 1840s, followed by economic slump.

Developments in printing made books more affordable to a newly literate public, and the railways transported books and periodicals to a mass market over the whole country. But capitalist growth also saw the spread of slums in London and other cities, in poverty and the daily fear for millions of working people of unemployment and the workhouse. This was the world surveyed, from their separate vantage points, by Karl Marx and Charles Dickens.

It was to the workhouses that Dickens turned as he wrote his first novel, Oliver Twist. The workhouses were created by the New Poor Law of 1834, to “make work pay”, not by raising wages but by making unemployment unendurable. “Paupers” were herded into these grim institutions, where families were separated on entry, given uniforms instead of their own clothes, and fed on a starvation diet of bread and gruel.

English: Cover of Dickens serial, "Oliver...

The initial idea for Oliver Twist was to trace the progress of a workhouse orphan, maybe based on the memoir of Robert Blincoe. It is almost as if Oliver Twist is the child Dickens could have become, or feared he could have become, during the year when he lived alone, working in a boot-blacking factory, while his father and family were interned for debt in Marshalsea prison. Not for the last time, the figure of an abandoned child awoke Dickens’s creative powers.

Much of the book’s humour comes from mockery of the stupidity and pompousness of the parish authorities as they mistreat Oliver and other workhouse inmates. This would have been especially irksome to these worthies because, then as now, they demand “respect” and deference from their “inferiors”. Dickens also exposed their hypocritical idea that by mistreating the poor they were doing them a favour – reducing their dependency on welfare, in modern language.

His next book, Nicholas Nickleby, was conceived as an attack on the “Yorkshire schools”. These were where unwanted children – illegitimate, disabled or simply inconvenient – were sent to be “educated”. The adverts, sharply satirised by Dickens, often included the ominous phrase “no holidays”, and children were sent away to be forgotten about.

The school owners had free rein to beat, neglect and starve their pupils to maximise profits. Just a few years before, a sensational case had exposed one such school where boys had lost their sight as a result of the miserable diet and lack of medical care.

Dickens attacked the schools polemically and through biting humour. The ignorant school master, Wackford Squeers, for example, declares that education is practical: “W-I-N-D-E-R, winder, a casement. When the boy knows this out of a book, he goes and cleans it”.

In Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens began to move from attacking particular abuses to look more widely at the selfishness and hypocrisy of bourgeois society. It would seem that, now he moved in the upper circles of society, what he found there repelled him. In a letter he described the guests at an official dinner as “sleek, slobbering, bow-paunched, overfed, apoplectic, snorting cattle…”

The book is memorable for its depiction of a huge Ponzi scheme created by Montague Tigg in which most of the characters lose their money. Tigg makes his initial capital by stealing a watch. From this apt beginning he creates a fake bank, the Anglo-Bengalee Mutual Disinterested Loan and Life Company, complete with imposing offices in The City. But it is all a façade. The company has no capital or property and collapses. Sales of Martin Chuzzlewit, however, were poor, a disappointing 20,000.

Acutely aware of the need to rebuild his popularity, Dickens turned to write A Christmas Carol in 1843. This well-known tale shows that the selfishness of Scrooge not only makes others miserable, but also himself. Scrooge supports the bourgeois ideas of Malthusianism in which the poor and their children are merely surplus population. The three ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet-to-come, show Scrooge the cost of his selfishness, typified in the possible death of Tiny Tim and Scrooge’s own desolate funeral. Scrooge reforms, Tiny Tim does not die, and Scrooge and his employee, Bob Cratchit, are reconciled in Christmas cheer.

Although it has been criticised as sentimental, A Christmas Carol is at heart a deeply political book which attacked the prevailing bourgeois orthodoxy and sought to protect one of the last remaining workers’ holidays from rapacious employers. It is a plea for the retention of human values in what Marx described as a “heartless world” of commerce and calculation. It was especially popular with working-class readers and Dickens gave readings to thousands of people in cheap halls across the land.

His next Christmas book, The Chimes, was an even more explicit attack on the bourgeois who use their monopoly of ideas to convince a poor man, Toby Veck, that he has no place in this world. Fat and well-fed, they take his meal from him. And they forbid his daughter to marry in case her children are paupers. The Times was moved to comment that “the working classes may find in it nourishment for discontent and hatred of the more fortunate members of society”. The Chartist paper, Northern Star, hailed Dickens as “the champion of the oppressed”.

Such Meetings Are Illegal

Dickens maintained his focus on capital and commerce in his next book, Dombey and Son, which examined the new capitalism of limited companies and railways, and the outlook of the new masters of business. The book was published in 1848, an extraordinary year for British literature and capitalism. Within 20 months, Dombey and Son, Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and Mary Barton were all published, while the huge Chartist demonstration at Kennington, its suppression by armed force, and serious disturbances in Yorkshire and Manchester all took place that year.

At the opening of the book, Mr Dombey sits with his new son, Paul, exulting in the fact that “the firm” now has an heir. But Paul’s mother has died, so Dombey must secure a wet nurse for him. With cold capitalist logic, Dombey tells Mrs Toodle: “I understand you are poor, and wish to earn money by nursing the little boy, my son… You will receive a liberal stipend in return for the discharge of certain duties… When those duties cease to be required and rendered, and the stipend ceases to be paid, there is an end of all relations between us. Do you understand me?”

The book brilliantly captures the arrogance of the capitalists, who invert reality so that the world exists for the capitalist system and falsely elevate profit above all other considerations: “The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships, rainbows gave them promise of fair weather, winds blew for or against their enterprises, stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre.”

Bleak House takes as its theme the legal system and its disregard of the needs of real people. The book centres round a legal case, Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, which has been running for decades and threatens to “soil and corrupt” all those who come into contact with it. The case contains the secrets at the heart of the book, and many of the characters spend their time waiting for secrets to be revealed, for the case to be resolved, or for a new will to be found.

There is a curious polarity between literate and illiterate protagonists in the book. Tulkinghorn the lawyer is well-versed in the law and knows everyone’s secrets. But it is Jo, the illiterate and impoverished crossing sweeper, who reveals the central mystery. Krook is an illiterate rag-and-bone dealer who has the crucial will in his possession, yet cannot read it.

When he dies, it is the mean-minded moneylender Smallweed who finds and deciphers the will. The death of Krook, by spontaneous human combustion, so that all that is left is a “thick yellow liquor” and a “sprinkle of white ashes”, symbolises the self-destruction of a system which is rotten to the core. When the will is discovered and read, the case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce can be settled. However, the value of the estate has been consumed in legal costs rendering the whole case futile.

In Hard Times Dickens decided to address the conditions of workers in the northern factory districts, but it almost seems as if his talent could not survive transplantation from his beloved London. Hard Times never really comes alive, despite graphic depictions of greedy, grasping and inhumane factory owners, contrasted with the creative freedom, kindness and imagination of a group of circus performers.

Dickens also depicted trade union leaders as self-interested demagogues and makes a hero of a mill worker, Stephen Blackpool, who refuses to join the union. In Hard Times the message overcomes the characters and the plot reveals the limitations of Dickens’s ideas. Without a socialist viewpoint he can offer no convincing and positive alternative to the capitalist system and its inhumanity – “horror without end”, as Lenin described it.

In Little Dorrit, Dickens returned to the time his family spent in the Marshalsea, the south London debtors’ prison. The novel opens in a jail in Marseille, then sees William Dorrit and family confined in Marshalsea prison until his debts are paid. Even when the Dorrits are freed by an unexpected legacy they find themselves metaphorically imprisoned by the rigid hierarchy of Victorian society.

In one passage, Dickens sees London itself as a giant prison: “Far aslant across the city, over its jumbled roofs… struck the long bright rays, bars of the prison of this lower world.”

Dickens also targets capitalist swindling as the Dorrits’ money is lost all over again in a financial crash caused by the fraudulent transactions of Mr Merdle, a capitalist who had been the doyen of bourgeois society.

Merdle was based on an actual financier, John Sadleir, the “Prince of Swindlers”, who was implicated in the collapse of several banks in 1856.

photo of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, a Victorian author with a strong social conscience

Not only the financial elite, but also the political system, was the target of bitter satire in the depiction of the Circumlocution Office, a corrupt and self-serving government department which exists only to support and protect the incompetence and venality of the ruling class.

In his final completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, Dickens drew together his views of society into a single, bleak vision. The joyous, humorous London of Pickwick Papers is now a dark and menacing place. The book begins with the discovery of a body in the Thames and there is a constant theme of death and false life. One of the main characters, Mr Venus, makes his living as a taxidermist, stuffing animals and articulating their skeletons.

It is a picture of a society in decay. Silas Wegg, the one-legged ballad seller, fittingly reads Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the illiterate owner of giant dust heaps. These huge mounds of rubbish, manure and refuse were nevertheless exceedingly valuable. They were sources of scrap metal and timber, dust and ash for brick-making, and manure for fertiliser.

The plot of the book revolves around who will get the wealth of the dust heaps. The overall feeling is that wealth is a veneer, and the source of money is in death, filth and corruption. Peter Ackroyd, a biographer of Dickens, describes Our Mutual Friend as a “full frontal assault upon English life”.

Dickens was not a revolutionary, or even a socialist. But in his impassioned assertion of the right of working people and the poor to be recognised as human beings, he championed their cause and exposed the rotten underbelly of Victorian capitalism. The call for the poor to be treated as human beings was itself a revolutionary demand.

His denunciation of the abuses of Victorian capitalism met with little response from the country’s rulers. Even the workhouses were not seriously reformed until 1905 under the pressure of the newly formed Labour Party.

Charles Dickens gradually grew disillusioned, first with particular institutions, then widening his targets until the whole financial and political system seemed to fill him with disgust at the emptiness and falsity of bourgeois society. Much of his criticism – of financial chicanery, the callous mistreatment of the poor, and the inhuman pursuit of money and profit – remains just as relevant today.

  • This is an edited version of an article first published by Socialism Today, reproduced here with the author’s permission
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