Most people know about Charles Dickens even if few have ploughed through his novels. They have heard of Oliver Twist, the little orphan boy who asked for more food, or Ebenezer Scrooge, the skinflint employer who dismissed time off for Christmas as humbug.
Alan Bleasdale's critically acclaimed adaptation of Oliver Twist on ITV started on Sunday of last week. The film of the novel, starring Alec Guinness, and the musical get big audiences every time they are shown on television. Several versions of Dickens's A Christmas Carol will be shown over the holidays. There have also been many television adaptations of other of his novels.
His characters are part of our everyday culture. They are an image of the reality of 19th century England, in which the rich accumulated their wealth without a thought for the miserable conditions inflicted on the poor and destitute, particularly children. Dickens wrote in the middle third of the 19th century. Conditions in Britain's cities resembled those in many Third World countries today. People were driven off the land and into atrocious conditions in the mines, mills and factories which grew with the industrial revolution.
His novels are full of angry protests about the way those at the top of society blamed the poor for their own poverty. The workhouse summed up the way the poor were brutalised. There was no welfare state, so those who were deprived of land and left unemployed found themselves forced to work in prison-like conditions in the workhouses. Dickens detested the inhumanity of the workhouse and he wrote Oliver Twist in 1837 in order to expose what was happening. The number of workhouses was growing as the rich 'modernised' the old Poor Law system, which had provided some relief.
The 'modernisers' were intent on making the system of giving relief to the poor fit the new free market economy. Life in the workhouse had never been generous. But the new rich saw it as ruinously expensive as society changed with the impact of industrialisation. The attitude towards the poor hardened. The poor would be 'encouraged' to work for whatever wages they could get by making life in the workhouse as difficult as possible. All this was justified as being in their own best interests.
The 'modernisers' were firm believers in the doctrine that it was sentimental folly to be kind to the poor. If the diet was too good it would only encourage the poor to breed. They needed to be thrifty and self denying in order to better themselves. So the workhouse was really a blessing in disguise. No wonder the poor called the workhouses Bastille prisons, after the symbol of injustice that the French Revolution of 1789 had destroyed.
But many other people were also disgusted at the hypocrisy of the wealthy, who would never apply the same doctrine of thrift and self denial to themselves. And they were disgusted at the new hard-nosed philosophy of reform that saw common humanity and generosity towards the unfortunate as wrong. Dickens mercilessly satirised the 'modernisers'. This is what he has to say in Oliver Twist about the 'philosophical men' who run the workhouse:
'So they established the rule that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they) of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with the corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays. They made a great many other wise and humane regulations having reference to the ladies, which it is not necessary to repeat; kindly undertook to divorce poor married people, in consequence of the great expense of a [lawsuit]; and instead of compelling a man to support his family, as they had always theretofore done, took his family away from him, and made him a bachelor!'
Dickens raged at the way the authorities hounded the poor. In a much later novel, Bleak House, which he wrote in the early 1850s, there is the pathetic figure of the crossing sweeper boy, Jo, who the police are always moving on. Jo dies of disease bred by slum housing. Dickens originally wanted to call the novel Nobody's Fault, as an ironic attack on the fact that nobody is prepared to take responsibility.
Education was another of Dickens's targets. In Hard Times, also of the 1850s, Dickens satirises the way in which the 'modernisers' were reforming education on the same principles as the workhouse. Spontaneity and imagination are to be crushed and children turned into little pitchers (or jars), 'to be filled full of facts'. Regurgitating facts is the measure of a proper education.
'Girl number twenty', who has lived all her life with horses, but is not yet 'educated', fails to define a horse when asked. The product of the system trots out the 'correct' but meaningless answer: 'Quadruped. Gramnivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too...' This answer satisfies the government inspector, 'a mighty man at cutting and drying', as Dickens sarcastically puts it.
Dickens attacks particular evils in his early novels such as Oliver Twist. There is the hope that by exposing the horrors of the workhouse, or the brutality and deficiency of education, that decent men and women will take steps to reform society. Dickens is less confident in the later novels. He is increasingly aware that the nature of the system as a whole hinders the scope for individuals to make a difference. He sees not so much the corrupt or greedy individual as the way in which the system breeds corruption and greed. The enemy is the edifice of the law (in Bleak House) concerned only with its own workings and not with dispensing justice.
His last two novels, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, both written in the 1860s, are magnificent attacks on the commercialism of the triumphant Victorian middle class. But, as Pip discovers to his own cost in Great Expectations, no individual can escape the pervasive snobbery of the system.
Does Dickens see any way out? He champions the poor but never sees the poor as capable of speaking and acting for themselves. Or if he does, as in his novel about the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, he fears them as a bloodthirsty mob. His one novel about the industrial north of England, Hard Times, sees trade unionists as a gullible herd, manipulated by their leader. So it comes back to a sentimental hope that somehow there can be a fairy tale ending, in which the poor will find comfort at the hands of some kind benefactor. How the benefactor manages to escape the corruption of the money society he comes from is never explained.
It would be nice to think that heartless attitudes towards poverty and education disappeared with the Victorian age. Yet 'modernisers' of the type Dickens caricatured are back. Labour's 'homelessness tsar' denounces charity as only encouraging the homeless to sleep on the streets. Chris Woodhead preaches the virtues of rote learning. In these circumstances we could do with more, rather than less, of Dickens's appeal to common humanity.