I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.
The Dickens World – Humphry House
House examines Dickens’ biases, professional experiences, and the era’s social and intellectual currents that influenced Dickens' treatments of social problems in his novels. For instance, House points out that Dickens consistently set novels like Oliver Twist in the past although the abuses he depicts were real abuses - orphans, workhouses, the Poor Laws - at the time when he was writing. While Little Dorrit set in the 1820s, the Circumlocution Office was based on the atrocious muddles during the Crimean War (1853 - 1856), chronicled in The Destruction of Lord Ragland by Christopher Hibbert. House says that while Dickens was nostalgic for the old coaching days of Mr. Pickwick’s Merrie Olde Englande, he was scornful of old abominations like putting people into prison due to debt.
House also warns us to be careful about assigning Dickens the role of the influential reformer. In fact, plenty of people were voicing concerns about social problems along with Dickens. Also, Dickens was not far ahead of his readers in terms of possible solutions – if he were too far ahead, he would have been considered a radical and written off accordingly. Most provocatively, House points out that the main feature of reform during Dickens’ professional lifetime was its sloth. For example, it was not until 1869 that the Debtors' Act abolished imprisonment for debt, and even then debtors who had the means to pay their debt, but did not pony up, could still be put in the clink for up to six weeks.
I like antique literary criticism because critics in bygone days had pulled quotations that I’d never find on my own:
A great deal has been written and said about Dickens as a writer for "the people." Yet his chief public was among the middle and lower-middle classes, rather than among the proletarian mass. His mood and idiom were those of the class from which he came, and his morality throve upon class distinctions even when it claimed to supersede them. He belonged to the generation which first used the phrase "the great unwashed" and provided a Chadwick to scrub the people clean. His character was well described by Blackwood in June 1855:
We cannot but express our conviction that it is to the fact that he represents a class that he owes the speedy elevation to the top of the wave of popular favour. He is a man of very liberal sentiments — and an assailer of constituted wrongs and authorities — one of the advocates in the plea of Poor versus Rich, to the progress of which he lent no small aid in his day. But he is, notwithstanding, more distinctly than any other author of the time, a class writer, the historian and representative of one circle in the many ranks of our social scale. Despite their descents into the lowest class, and their occasional flights into the less familiar ground of fashion, it is the air and breadth of middle-class respectability which fills the books of Mr. Dickens. [p. 152]
Chadwick, by the way, was Edwin Chadwick, friend to Bentham and J.S. Mill and a social reformer who devoted his life to sanitary reform in Britain.
House readily confesses that this book treats Dickens more as a journalist than a creative novelist. Still, I think readers looking for information about the social and historical background of the novels will find this book useful.