It is the stuff of larger-than-life fiction. A campaigning journalist who happened also to be among the greatest novelists and prose writers in English. A philanthropist who was the most celebrated performing act of the day. A tireless advocate for the rights of women and children and workers and the poor, who wrote about and directly helped all those.
Such a diverse character, blessed with boundless energy and innate humanity, seems too good to be true. And yet someone such did live and do all those good works and much more, and in so little time, dying at only 58.
Tuesday 9 June marked the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens. His is the life outlined above, in which pen was never put to paper to greater effect for what we now call social justice. Dickens fought on the side of the poor his whole life, stemming from the misery of his own experience. His father thrown into Marshalsea debtors’ prison, Dickens himself was forced to leave school and put in 10-hour shifts putting labels on to pots of blacking, or metal polish.
Tedious and dispiriting though the work was, it gave Dickens two priceless gifts: a desire to reform the working and social conditions of the poor and a name: Bob Fagin. The real-life Bob was the boy who showed Dickens on his first day at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse how to tie up the labelled pots neatly with string. The fictional Fagin, years distant, was to prove not kind but murderous.
Scarred by his daily toil and by visits to his father in jail, Dickens reacted not with selfishness but with a selflessness that arguably makes him the person who best combined and excelled in journalism, activism, campaigning and the matter of creating much of the most beloved and best English prose literature.
To each of these pursuits – essentially simultaneous and parallel careers – Dickens brought an intellectual and emotional commitment and an unwavering determination to improve the lives of others. His career in journalism came by escaping the warehouse, becoming an office boy, smartly learning shorthand and then reporting on debates in the House of Commons for the Morning Chronicle newspaper.
There is an old journalistic wisdom that says court reporting is the best foundation for a journalist. In the case of Dickens, his acute observation and accurate and insightful accounts of parliamentary business encouraged his inherent powers of description and analysis. Parliamentary sketch writing is a literary form in itself and the writing of other sketches was soon to launch Dickens on his literary path.
The pieces of writing later to be published as Sketches by “Boz”, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People, appeared in periodicals and newspapers in 1836 and 1837. The famous Mr Pickwick followed in 1837 and at only 25, Dickens had arrived in the literary world, too.
What is significant about the “Boz” sketches is their subject: everyday life and everyday people. Dickens had been an everyday person, living an everyday life among everyday people, and it was that education in life and its lived and felt textures that makes him so accurate and empathic a novelist. Dickens sees into the human heart through all the exteriors and defences and deflections, all the delusions and illusions, of the body and the mind and the ego.
It was the autobiographical reality of his father being in debtors’ prison and the effects that had on the family, plunged straight into the terrible living conditions of the poor, that forged Dickens into someone who is so much more than just the great novelist, so much more than just a campaigning journalist, so much more than just a fighter for social justice.
Dickens founded a home for working-class women who at the time were referred to as “fallen women” but in today’s parlance would be called sex workers. He managed Urania Cottage in Shepherd’s Bush, London, for 10 years, taking charge of interviewing candidates, formulating rules and checking the books. It’s thought that around 100 women were trained in domestic charring and “graduated” into the world between 1847 and 1859.
Dickens would divert money to his philanthropic causes from his writing income and the enormously popular reading tours that he made in England and the United States. His devotion to social improvement and promoting social change was as marked in his writing, literary and “non-literary”, although it is sheer temerity to think of anything that he wrote as being unliterary.
Dickens deserves to be quoted in great chunks and even a sizeable extract conveys only smidgeons of his grandeur. But look at what he can compress into a short space, here the opening paragraph of the last chapter of A Tale of Two Cities.
“Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrils carry the day’s wine to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.”