Magazine article The Spectator

Losing Patience with the Poor

Magazine article The Spectator

Losing Patience with the Poor

Article excerpt


This collection of Dickens' journalism covers his life from the age of 22 to nearly 40. During these years Queen Victoria came to the throne, Marx met Engels, Europe was in a turmoil of revolution, Dostoevsky was sentenced to penal servitude in Siberia and someone invented the Christmas card. Dickens got married, fathered nine children, wrote The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield, visited America, performed endless amateur theatricals and started Urania Cottage, a home for fallen women. With time on his hands he also wrote innumerable sketches, stories, polemics and articles on subjects from pantomime to the penal system. Dickens' journalism, of which this is the admirably edited and annotated second volume, contains some shocks for those who would respect him as the voice of liberal humanism, the eloquent denouncer of a society infected by hypocrisy, cruelty and greed. The unqualified admirer of Dickens' progressive attitudes may find too much knowledge uncomfortable.

We have, of course, grown used to the idea that the warm-hearted admirer of family life and the lover of children was the Dickens who nailed up the door leading to his wife's bedroom, despatched a son to the colonies and protested vehemently that there was no truth in the rumours about his love for Ellen Ternan. We did, however, cling to the belief that his ideas on penal matters would be sensible, humane, acceptable and the direct opposite of any opinions which might be held by Mr Michael Howard. I have to say we are in for a few shocks.

When Scrooge is approached by the portly gentlemen to help the poor at Christmas he asks, `Are there no prisons?' and, `Is the treadmill still turning nicely?' We laugh at Scrooge, confident that we have joined the author in hatred and mockery of such barbaric institutions, until we discover that Dickens was quite in favour of the treadmill as a punishment for those unfortunate prisoners who broke the regulations and dared to speak to each other during periods of association. Far from mocking the demonstrably fallacious theory that `prison works', he recommended its use for a class of offender he found most heinous -- those who wrote begging letters inviting him to send them money. When an abusive and perhaps drunk young girl shouted at him in the street, he went to great lengths to have her arrested and hauled up before the magistrate, even having looked up the particular statute under which she might be prosecuted. When the officer in charge of the case said, `Surely you don't want her sent to prison, do you, sir?' Dickens grimly answered, `Why else do you think I've taken the trouble to come down here?' He felt he was being treated more objectionably than the prisoner, who was merely fined ten shillings.

Although he was always against public executions, abolished in his lifetime, his opposition to the death penalty became somewhat wobbly towards the end of his life. Was there any sense in which Dickens was not only the generous, open-hearted nephew in A Christmas Carol but Ebenezer Scrooge himself?

Well, of course he was, or he couldn't have written Scrooge as such a huge and comic character. Dickens knew exactly what it felt like to lose patience with the poor, particularly when they wrote begging letters. He knew how discouraging it was to help fallen women and send them to start a new life in Australia, only to have them fall again as soon as they met a sailor on the voyage out. …

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