Author, poet and regular Socialist Worker columnist Michael Rosen is a man on a mission. His latest book, Dickens: His Work and His World, published by Walker Books, is a lavishly illustrated introduction to the Victorian writer Charles Dickens. It is aimed at opening up his novels to a new generation of readers, both adults and children, while underlining their often neglected social and political aspects.
Michael says his new book was conceived as a follow-up to his highly acclaimed Shakespeare: His Work and His World, published four years ago.
“The idea is to show young people that these writers — Shakespeare, Dickens and the like—were born into a particular time and place. You need to come to terms with that person’s life to understand their books.
“That sort of thing should be taught to children, but quite often it isn’t. There’s a school of criticism you get at colleges and universities that says you just need to keep reading the text and you’ll get all you need.”
The problem with this approach is that it inevitably loses sight of much of the novels’ subtleties. Michael cites the classic chapter from Great Expectations where the ambitious young hero Pip goes up a set of stairs to meet the “rich and grim” Mrs Havisham — a scene analysed in depth in his new book.
“Going upstairs is itself symbolic of going up a class, trying to make it in the world,” notes Michael. “So what’s going on here is much bigger than the book itself — and understanding that context and history is part of the fun of reading.”
Even the way Dickens’s work is presented to us today masks its history, he adds. “We consume Dickens’s work as commodities, as single books. But at the time they were serialised, weekly or monthly in popular magazines, with cliffhanger endings. In that sense reading them was much more akin to watching Coronation Street or Eastenders today.
“I think this opens up a much more democratic attitude to the audience. It hands the story over to the readers at the end of each episode, lays it open to people to talk about the characters, to make the stories their own.
“That’s a very different reading process, a very socialised form of reading. I’m not certain Dickens invented this — but he was certainly at the forefront of a technological revolution in reading.”
The backdrop to all this was the steady spread of literacy that occurred throughout the 19th century, culminating in the first major Education Act of 1871. “Dickens himself came from a lower middle class background,” says Michael. “His family were very keen on making sure he was educated, sending him to ‘dame schools’ [small classes that taught basic reading and writing] until the time his father’s debts meant that he was chucked out and sent to work in a factory.
“At the time there was a massive explosion of what you could call a ‘clerical caste’ centred in London. Both Dickens and his dad belonged to that caste and had a literary education. It was the beginning of mass literacy.”
But the transformation of education was only one aspect of the extra-ordinary social changes of the 19th century. “You’ve also got the Reform Bill of 1832, which extended the right to vote to around one man in five. One of Dickens’s jobs was as a reporter—he would be rushing around the country reporting on meetings and the agitation for the bill,” says Michael.
“Of course, just because you’re a witness doesn’t mean that you take sides. But from what we know, Dickens got involved in the political issues of his time. He supported universal male suffrage and the abolition of slavery, and was uneasy about certain aspects of capitalism. He was a liberal in the true sense of the word.”
Crime and punishment
This liberal stance is reflected in the way that Dickens blends campaigning social journalism with classic fairy tale themes. In Oliver Twist, for instance, the hero is eventually revealed to be born from a higher class — an aspect removed from the new Roman Polanski film of the novel.
Michael broadly approves of this change. “The real issues in the novel are the savage brutality of state institutions towards the poor and its portrayal of a criminal ‘self help’ subculture. It asks you who the real criminals are.”
But if these are undeniable themes in Dickens, there is nevertheless a battle over their interpretation. Kenneth Baker, the Tory education secretary in the 1980s, was a great admirer of Dickens. So how does the right go about appropriating socially conscious authors like Dickens?
“One of the ways they do it is to say, ‘That was all in the past. Weren’t things bad back then? Thank goodness we had decent people like Dickens to put things right’,” Michael explains.
“Of course, by doing this the right disowns its own origins and claims the liberal side of the argument. It also promotes the idea of a universal ‘British decency’, while playing down the savagery of the novels, saying all that stuff doesn’t matter.”
He also notes the irony of Dickens being championed by those who are determined to reduce education to a regime of tests, performance metrics and literacy programmes.
“It’s pure Gradgrind,” says Michael, referring to the notoriously oppressive educationalist in Hard Times. “Back to facts! Never wonder! You can’t have kids wondering about things!”
But ultimately there will always be a political argument over Dickens, says Michael, because of the nature of the times and events his novels portray.
“They don’t side with the working class — but they do show classes grinding against each other.” The left needs to argue over Dickens and point this out, he adds — and he hopes his new book will do just that.
Dickens: His Work and His World by Michael Rosen and Robert Ingpen is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, priced £12.99. Phone 020 7637 1848