What the Dickens?!
rom the portraits, of one England’s canonised writers and the greatest of the entire Victorian age looks to have had a moneyed upbringing, a comfortable life and good education. He sits calmly, yet inspired, and looks as if his mind is on the edge of grasping a literary landmark plot or character as it blossoms inside his thoughtful mind. He is habitually portrayed smart and besuited, seated pensively in a fine wooden chair with curved armrests, and appears to be quite at home in an exclusive library or prestigious gentleman’s club. The paintbrush lies. Charles John Huffam Dickens may appear to be the quintessential London Victorian gentleman, setting all of his novels in London apart from A Tale of Two Cities, which also includes Paris. However, he was in fact born in Portsmouth, spent his early childhood in Kent and suffered as a result of his family’s money difficulties. Any “champagne socialist” label is sorely misplaced. The novelist, who is as famous for his characters as Oscar Wilde is for his quotes, produced several works in protest against the Victorian London in which he lived; A class-divided city with few intermediates between the two extremes of wealthy gentry and the impoverished majority struggling to survive
Christmas Issue 2011
on a daily basis. It was the fashion for the rich Victorian lady to be round and plump: to grow fat and merry was an attractive sign of wealth. Dickens lived among the unbelievably poor masses (sic- read on!) and was appalled by their living conditions. They were forced to suffer homelessness and ruthless factory bosses who paid insultingly low wages for work hours that were literally painfully long. Short life expectancies and mothers dying in childbirth meant orphans were commonplace; the Victorian novel is littered with them. The insufferable poverty and need to eat drove the women into making the painful choices of working as prostitutes and sending their children to clean the chimneys of the wealthy; a dangerous and risky endeavour highly detrimental to their lungs. The most notorious yet unchallenged institutions of Victorian London were by far the workhouses and the prisons. To the minds of the modern British population, the common and accepted nature of these establishments, which essentially punished people for being poor, is simply unthinkable, unrecognis- able and intolerable. But exist in large numbers they did, as Charles Dickens himself discovered.
“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
n 1824, when Charles Dickens was only twelve years of age, his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison after struggling to make ends meet. Due to his father’s fate, Charles Dickens was forced to work in a warehouse that manufactured shoe polish, thereby reluctantly absenting himself from education. This experience was the pivotal point of Charles Dickens’ life; he saw the true extent of poverty and the suffering it brought. He was disgusted at the physical pain and hardships incurred by the workhouses that were cited and intended as an aid, solution and a refuge for poor people. Fortunately, Charles Dickens’ father was released after a matter of months, allowing his son to resume his valued education, which he completed at the age of fifteen. Then, he (Charles) found work as an office boy in an attorney’s headquarters, learning shorthand by night and likely by candlelight. His work with the written word began to intensify and gather momentum from 1830, when he started working as a shorthand reporter, progressing into a career parliament and journalistic reportage. The lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Lennon and McCartney of the Victorian age, describe the politics of the day, when there was no socialist movement nor Labour party or coalitions, only Whigs (the Left) and Tories (the Right): “Every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive / is either a little Liberal, or else a little Conservative.” Charles Dickens was certainly born a little Liberal, a leaning that intensified following his workhouse experience. He supported Reformation, a belief he both channels into and convinces readers towards in his novels, by demonstrating how severely the
poor in the London he knew were suffering. Oliver Twist escapes the frying (gruel?) pan of the orphanage only to land in the fire of a gang. The Jewish leader of the gang, Fagin, bullies Oliver and other boys into crime. Anyone who thinks this character is an anti-Semitic jibe on Dickens’ part needs review the situation. If anything, Dickens thereby challenges the stereotype of wealthy Jewry, indicat-
‘‘He saw the true extent of poverty and the suffering it brought’’
ing that poverty affects all segments of society; this hardened, cruel character is the result of a difficult and impoverished upbringing. This gang, headed by “The Jew”, as Dickens refers to him, subject Oliver to a horrific life ‘on the edge’, that was middle of the road for so many in Victorian London. His long-lost grandfather, with whom Twist becomes acquainted at the end of the tale, rescuing his grandson from his ordeal and life of poverty, embodies the caring Reformation Dickens supported and longed to see. Similarly, greedy and misanthropic Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol –this novel contains the first ever examples of the concept of time travel! - personifies how Dickens wanted Victorian society to see the evils it was permitting. Scrooge is taken away from his own comfortable setting and placed in one where the error of his ways, such as treating workers like Bob Cratchett ruthlessly, becomes shockingly, shamefully and unsettlingly evident: he is shown how the Cratchetts are a poor but happy, loving family, who wish the wealthy no ill and and are not parasites. The ‘reformed’ Scrooge becomes happy when he helps and shares his wealth with others. Dickens, who invented the word “boredom” whilst on the London underground and published it for the first time in Bleak House, evokes the Victorian atmosphere in his novels so vividly and powerfully that the reader feels they are having flashback visions akin to those of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. We can hear the jangle of cast ironmongery as references thereto punctuate Scrooge’s adventures: The novel’s opening lines include the vivid “Marley was dead...Dead as a doornail.” We can smell the cobwebs in Miss Havisham’s room (Great Expectations). Furthermore, it is his honesty, pessimistic yet hopeful for improvement, in depicting the Victorian age that makes Dickens so great. His warts-and-all,
politically-motivated description of life in the London he knew (and maybe loved unconditionally) gives his novels body, structure and unforgettable impact. His faithful description of Victorian Britain shocks his readers into remembering his descriptions. His writings will always be a relevant source of information about how difficult life in Britain then was, and how far we have come.
A Tale of Two Democracies:
rowing up under the classification of ‘British Asian’ has always helped to provide a security amongst those of South Asian origin, with regards to our national identity. I had always found pride in the ease with which I had found myself being accepted as British. This was only re-enforced by coming to Bangor University, and so it came as a massive shock when after seven months of living in France as an English language Assistant, somebody pointblank refused to accept that I was British. Of course it did not come as that much of a shock: after all, just before I had moved into my own place in Valenciennes – I was given the clear warning to ‘beware of the Algerians’. Even at that point, it was clear that that the person who said this was talking, not only of Algerians who had immigrated to the country – but of their children who had been born in France as well. My preparation for encountering this attitude was in large part due to Dr Jonathan Ervine’s second year module Race & Immigration in France, which had taught me of some attitudes held exclusively toward people of North African descent. What I was not prepared for was that I would go on to be lumped into this ethnic minority and subse-
quently find myself feeling more and more iso- sheep in bathtubs for Eid do not help. That which lated from people. became increasingly clear to me was the fear that Although in the UK there is the complaining is generated toward Arabs; simply from the looks of immigrants and the un-based wails that they I was given every single time I was outside. This come over here to steal what few resources we may sound like me being too sensitive, and I myhave, it does not tend to limit itself to one group. self was at a total loss at first as to why (mostly Indeed, recently the tabloids have enjoyed stig- when I was not dressed for work), so many peomatising Eastern ple refused to ‘‘I have never in my life been made smile back at me, European Immigrants, but generas to why I would to feel like a second-class citizen” ally speaking –the often catch people problem has more to do with xenophobia in gen- watching me with blatant suspicion and often, eral. However, the case is not so simple in France. with distaste. Maybe I was in denial at first, but There, the issue is always to do with immigrants after having my bag searched, for what had to be and children of immigrants who are of a ‘non- the third time in a week whilst purchasing my European’ background. This distinction alone re- groceries at the supermarket – there was no doubt lies on distinguishing an individual based on the left in my mind. colour of their skin and explains much of why life That is how the whole seven months went, and in France for me was so frustrating compared to I would like to state that whilst I have had to deal my life in the UK. with the odd ignorant comment made against IsWhilst in France, a whole new world was lam or immigrants, I have never in my life been opened up – a world where someone needn’t use made to feel like a second-class citizen, potential racial slurs violence to convey racism. The image criminal or come across a system whereupon racof the ‘violent Arab’ is rampant in the mindset ism is so obvious and yet underhand. My patience of many; conditions like Sarkozy’s unnecessary eroded severely near the end of my stay in two warning to Muslims in France to not slaughter separate incidents. The first was during my final
The issues of Racism impacting international students by Syada Fatima Dastagi.
food-shop, when whilst paying for my shopping – the clerk pointed to my rucksack, which I had strategically opened in the bagging area to avoid suspicion, and demanded that I open it wider for her to check. I asked her bluntly if she would like to check my passport as well – to which she politely declined. The second incident was a case of aforementioned refusal to recognise someone as both Asian and British: A man noted the English conversation I was having with my friend and asked us where we were both from. Hannah and I both replied that we were English, to which he started shaking his head at me in stark refusal of this fact. To prove this fact to him, I pulled out my beautiful pink passport and flashed the page where it says clearly in black ink: PLACE OF BIRTH – CROYDON. Whilst this being a trying experience, it is nonetheless an experience which can be taken in order to appreciate the comparably higher levels of acceptance and tolerance we have in Britain. It is these aspects which make us a socially advanced society and personally has helped me reaffirm my pride in being British.
Published on Dec 2, 2011
This is the December 2011/12 issue of Seren, Bangor Univeristy's English Language Newspaper. Produced by students for students.