Satire and Sentiment
By Gabriel Blanchard
The work of Dickens is at once politically radical and warmly domestic.
Nineteenth-century Britain was rich in popular literature, much of which is still read in English-speaking countries all over the world today: Frankenstein and Dracula both hail from this period, as do a variety of romantic and domestic novels, including Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, and Wuthering Heights. One of the most celebrated novelists of the century was Charles Dickens, whose A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol remain immensely popular and have been adapted to film many times.
Dickens did not have an easy life, and it clearly influenced his writing. His father was put into a debtor’s prison in 1824—along with his wife and some of his children, as was then customary!—when Dickens was only twelve, and he was forced to begin working in a factory to support himself and assist his family. Even when his father was released, his mother wanted the young Dickens to continue working there instead of returning to school, a preference which devastated him. The many orphans and abandoned children and the many cold or sadistic adults which populate his novels owe a great deal to these early hardships.
Child labor was commonplace in England at the time; the Factory Act of 1819 mandated that children under the age of nine should not be permitted to work, and that children between nine and eighteen should not work more than twelve hours, but even this was an improvement (and an ineffectual improvement at that, since enforcement was minimal). Even worse than the factories, by some lights, were the workhouses, which in theory provided the destitute with the opportunity to earn a living through manual labor, but imposed miserable conditions upon the inmates and strictly segregated them by sex, including taking children away from their parents. The frequently dangerous and unhealthy working conditions in factories, slums, and workhouses are represented in David Copperfield, which incorporates a great deal of autobiographical material, as well as Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby, and others.
Eventually, Dickens was able to return to school and later took a job as a lawyer’s assistant. He published his first story in 1833, and went on to become a journalist as well as an author of fiction. His stories were generally published in serial installments in periodicals and newspapers; this made for eventful, often melodramatic chapter-by-chapter writing, lively caricatures, and a tendency to conclude on cliffhangers (and, since he was paid by the word, a rather verbose style). Combined with his interest in political and economic reform to protect the lives and well-being of the poor, he became extremely popular; it was even commonplace for illiterate person to pay to have his fiction read aloud to them. At the other end of the social spectrum, Queen Victoria is known to have read The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, and discussed them with intense interest.
His legacy is somewhat uneven. Though it was conventional for its time, many subsequent commentators have found his sentimentality cloying or counterproductive; Oscar Wilde remarked of The Old Curiosity Shop that “It would take a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” On the other hand, it is not for nothing that he has retained his popularity for well over a hundred years. A Christmas Carol in particular, with its indictment of avarice and its influence on the festivities of the titular holiday, is one of the classics of the short story form. He won the admiration of such greats as Tolstoy, Verne, and Dostoevsky, and his books have never been out of print. If St. Augustine was right in saying Securus judicat orbis terrarum, “The verdict of the world is certain,” then Dickens seems to have earned his place in the canon.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this essay, check out our weekly podcast, Anchored, and our seminar series, Journey Through the Author Bank. You might also like these posts on Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, and Mary Wollstonecraft.
Page image of the original frontispiece to Dickens’ novel Bleak House.