When issues of social justice and children coincide, it’s just the sort of context in which someone says, ‘what we need is another Dickens!’ Indeed. The other day I was told of a family where two children go to school on alternate days, because there is only one uniform to share. An issue like this would have incensed Dickens, particularly because of his own personal experience of disrupted education.
As it happens, I was asked to give a short talk about Dickens the other day, to introduce some readings from A Christmas carol as part of an open air ‘Victorian’ high street festival. Groping around for some reminders, I chanced upon a phrase used by one of Dickens’s biographers, Edgar Johnson, who refers to his ‘uncompromising humanitarian radicalism’: fifteen syllables in three words may be OTT, but what an encapsulation!
Sadly, we can’t have another Charles Dickens. Not because there are not talented, persuasive writers and passionate social commentators in our own time – there are. But because no commentator today could expect to sustain the level of attention that Dickens managed to command for several decades in the nineteenth century. The media channels were fewer and the hall of fame far less crowded then; and Dickens had the skills, energy and temperament to maximise his impact in the interests of social justice.
He wasn’t ‘just’ a novelist, he was a communicator adept in the dominant media of his time. Lord Northcliffe described him as the greatest magazine editor of his or any age – how was that possible? It’s scary to be reminded that Dickens died at about the age I am now – he achieved so much that we might mistakenly think of him as long-lived.
All of which leaves me wondering quite why we are in such a mess now, and what is needed to signal positive social change. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to start interpreting the above-mentioned child poverty map as representing many thousands of family crises, weeks of hunger, months of debilitating stress, sickness, sense of abandonment, fear and maltreatment and loss and ruined lives. What kind of influence over our power-mongers is needed to restore a respectable insistence on social justice?
In 1843, Dickens was just 31 years old and a huge celebrity. He was at the height of his powers, full of ideas and overflowing with creativity. And he was besieged on all sides by people seeking to persuade him to use his influence in one cause or another. We should not overlook his skill in dealing with persistent lobbyists. He did not shy away from difficult issues and frequently took up a cause about which he felt passionate, and would take it further than anyone else ever could.
And so it happens that around March 1843, one of the representatives of the Children’s Employment Commission, no less, Dr Southwood Smith, sent or lent to Dickens a copy of the Commission’s second report. Sounds like a gripping read doesn't it? Nowadays we can well imagine the kinds of nasties that were depicted. On 6 March Dickens writes to Smith:
‘I am so perfectly stricken down by the blue book you have sent me, that I think… of writing, and bringing out, a very cheap pamphlet, called ‘An appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child’…
This is Dickens the journalist, moved by what he has read or heard or seen, and ready to use his formdiable reporting skills to bring social injustices to public attention. But a few days later he writes again to Dr Smith:
‘…since I wrote to you last, reasons have presented themselves for deferring the production of that pamphlet, until the end of the year. I am not at liberty to explain them further just now; but rest assured that when you know them, and see what I do, and where, and how, you will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force - twenty thousand times the force – I could exert by following my first idea…’
The phrase ‘until the end of the year’ is a clue. We are witnessing the germ of an idea in the author’s mind and he has perhaps already glimpsed the opportunity to shift his commitment from a short piece of journalism to a hugely influential work of – let’s face it – very fanciful fiction. This letter is part of the genesis of A Christmas carol.
We may not see the ghosts that Dickens conjures in the way that his contemporaries did as they read, nor feel engrossed by the polarised moralities he delineates. We don’t do sentimental any more. To me, it’s a mediocre fable, a rather laboured parable. But Dickens seems saturated with his own power, he is saying, I can do anything with words, I can persuade you of the virtue of compassion and generosity of spirit through imaginary beings, you will believe it. It would be hard not to be in awe of the prose, its forceful confidence based so solidly on ‘uncompromising humanitarian radicalism’.
Perhaps ignition was inevitable when the spark of Dickens’s genius was brought so close to a necessarily dry report from an official commission. And it’s generated plenty of warmth and light over the decades. How do we replicate that sense of compassion, now that we need it so badly?