Jeremy Hunt, a man laughingly known as the minister of culture, celebrated Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday last week by giving Dickens novels to his cabinet colleagues.
If ever there was a reason for anyone of a progressive outlook to shun all Dickens’ works, surely it was this.
But that would be a mistake. And not because we should try to compete with the Tory ownership of Dickens by recruiting him as one of us.
In many ways, he isn’t. A quick skim read of Hard Times will find that our heroes, the Chartists, are given lousy treatment by Dickens.
So why spend time with him? I’ll start with Thomas Robert Malthus, an English economist and teacher.
After much research and contemplation, he came up with a theory as to why there was poverty: there were too many people.
This led him to look favourably on hunger, disease and war—they all lower the population.
Friedrich Engels called this a “vile, infamous theory” where “we have the immorality of the economist brought to its highest pitch”.
It wasn’t overpopulation that caused poverty, Engels countered, but competition. Humanity had been turned into a commodity that could be worked in production or destroyed, depending upon capitalism’s needs.
At almost exactly the same time, Dickens was looking at this vile, infamous theory as well.
He could have produced an essay, as Engels had done. He did intend to write “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child”. But instead—perhaps stimulated by seeing children working in Cornish tin mines, and after seeing the state of London’s poor children in “ragged schools”—he published A Christmas Carol.
Consider the scene early on in the book where some men come into Scrooge’s office at Christmas time asking for money for the poor. Scrooge responds that the poor may as well die to “decrease the surplus population”.
If you want to make Dickens safe in your stage production of A Christmas Carol, you’ll cut this passage.
You’ll turn Scrooge into a pantomime villain—boo, hiss—with no thought underpinning his outlook.
He won’t represent a viewpoint. He’ll just be an unexplained baddie.
What’s more, you’d amputate the whole point Dickens was trying to make with the book.
In a way, we can say that Scrooge is Malthusianism brought to life. All the meanness and nastiness and greed of the man are character traits representing Dickens’ rage at the cruelty of the rich, who justified their viciousness with this vile, infamous theory.
The book shows us Scrooge being visited by the ghosts, first of his old partner, and then of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come, who have the power to show him scenes from life as if they were videos.
At one level this idea of the visitation is as old as the pagans, who believed in unquiet creatures that could visit the living. But at another, it’s a commentary on Engels’ talk of human beings becoming commodities.
For that to happen, the power of workers to think, build and produce had to be turned into a saleable quantity of timed work.
Old ideas such as dawn-to-dusk time, seasonal time, or remembered time become much less important than time-at-the-machine, clocked-on-time.
The ghosts—who are the means by which Scrooge is terrified out of his Malthusian vileness—live in non-capitalist time. They come from some kind of time where past, present and future coexist.
It is the knowledge or memory they have, acquired from outside Scrooge’s moneymaking capitalist world, that enables them to bring about change.
Great Expectations: Pip’s progress is a tale of power, culture and class
My own favourite Dickens novel is Great Expectations. Novels can do many things, and one tradition is to show someone moving through society bouncing off people who occupy different stations in life.
The events that take place in this journey reveal thought in action, and action in thought.
There’s a pleasure to be had in sensing the social reasons for people’s behaviour. And Great Expectations does these social reasons as well as any novel ever written.
The motivating power at the heart of the book is its central character and narrator, Pip.
He has been corrupted by a kind of snobbish greed that prevents him from seeing what is valuable in human relationships with his equals.
The critic Raymond Williams talked of three strands to culture: residual, dominant and emergent. All three appear in the novel.
Pip is desperately attracted to the “residual”, represented by the decaying, self-destructive upper class Miss Havisham.
She has tried to freeze time, living forever in her wedding dress in grim acknowledgement of the groom who didn’t show up.
Pip encounters the “dominant” in London where he finds himself surrounded by go-getters that he can’t keep up with.
And we glimpse the “emergent” in the humanity of people like the blacksmith Joe, Pip’s brother-in-law and foster father. We also see it in some of the actions of the most despised layer in society, such as the convict Magwitch.
At times when reading Great Expectations you want to groan out loud at what Pip is telling us about what he has done.
That’s because the book represents a struggle. At one level it’s Pip’s struggle. At another it’s that of Dickens to find the limits of what a single person can do—the limits of individualism, perhaps.
Key people in the book are variously heavily controlled, or trying to control others. Some are desperate to “get on”, while others are satisfied with their station.
What animates all this is an extraordinary use of language.
On the one hand, Dickens’ narrations are like the speeches of an intelligent, witty, caustic, poetic tour guide.
On the other, his characters speak directly from their caste, class, sex and job.
The marks of how they’ve been treated and how they want to treat others are in their speech.
It’s not “realistic” or “natural”. It’s a kind of distillation where people speak to each other in personalised catchphrases.
Consider the passage in Great Expectations where Miss Havisham orders her adopted daughter Estella to play cards with Pip (below).
All sorts of powerful feelings run underneath and through the dialogue. And those feelings are embedded in the class interest of the characters.
That is just one such moment among thousands in Dickens’ work.
A scene from Great Expectations. The upper class Miss Havisham orders Estella to play cards with Pip:
“Let me see you play cards with this boy.”
“With this boy? Why, he is a common labouring boy!”
I thought I overheard Miss Havisham answer—only it seemed so unlikely—“Well? You can break his heart.”
“What do you play, boy?” asked Estella of myself, with the greatest disdain.
“Nothing but beggar my neighbour, miss.”
“Beggar him,” said Miss Havisham to Estella. So we sat down to cards.
It was then I began to understand that everything in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago.
Michael Rosen has written two guides to Dickens for younger readers. Dickens: His Work and His World and What’s So Special About Dickens? are both available from Bookmarks. Go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk