28 April 2012

Dickens and real life

My Grandad died when I was one year old. He left me two things: a teddy bear and a nearly complete collection of the novels of Charles Dickens.

My Grandad, like many working class people, loved Dickens’ books. Dickens remains one of the most popular writers ever. He had a huge working class audience, but managed to break into the establishment. He showed great sympathy for the poor, but also hostility to their forms of organisation. As perhaps the first thoroughly urban writer, he captured both the fear and the excitement of the Victorian city. His characters are vivid caricatures: it’s like they are stuck looking and behaving like people you’ve just bumped into on a busy street corner [1]. This is perhaps not surprising given that Dickens loved to walk London’s streets, especially at night.

Was Dickens politically radical? Yes: he was a radical reformist. To be wilfully anachronistic for a moment, his novels can be read as an answer to the Tory Lord Hailsham’s famous warning from 1943, “If you don’t give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution.”

At his best, Dickens spoke with the voice of the most radical of middle class reformers: outraged by the appalling lot of the poor, but also fearful of them.

The birth of the novel

Dickens came to prominence when the novel was still a relatively new literary form. The emergence of the novel was bound up with the rise of the English middle class - itself a product of the growth of capitalism.

It’s worth dwelling on this point for a moment. Today novels are ubiquitous. Yet it is less than 300 hundred years old, and has been a dominant literary form for much less than that.

Literary forms reflect in complex ways the societies from which they emerge. Marx famously suggested (somewhat controversially) that the epic poem - a dominant form for centuries - expressed the “childish” state of society in the ancient world. The epic poem is now a historical form, in the double sense that epic poems are bound up with the historical times in which they were produced, and that as a literary form today it is pretty much dead as a dodo. For Marx, the epic poem was a form which beautifully expressed the primitive completeness of people’s lives in ancient times, something which cannot be repeated in later, more complex societies.  

It wasn’t just the form of the novel that emerged in the 18th century. The English language was transformed as industrialisation took hold. New words entered the language, and old ones acquired new, often broader, meanings.

The Welsh Marxist Raymond Williams identified five “keywords” that acquired particular significance with the advent of capitalism: industry, democracy, class, art and culture. [2] “Industry” for example, previously was just name for a human attribute - it was essentially a synonym for “skilled”, in the same way that we might still call someone “industrious” today. Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, was among the first to use industry in its new, larger sense to mean the collective word for a nation’s manufacturing and productive infrastructure.

So, the crop of mid-Victorian middle class novelists - Dickens, George Elliot, Elizabeth Gaskell etc - found themselves with a changed language with which to develop a relatively young literary form in order to describe a radically new class society. The challenge, as Lenin is supposed to have said, was to be as radical as real life.

I think Dickens occupies a unique place in our society because he was among the first and most successful to articulate through the relatively new literary form of the novel, the new era of industrial capitalism.

Bleak houses

Although Dickens’ writing is inseparable from the growth of capitalism in England, he evidently didn’t know much about the factory system that had implanted itself in the north west. His only industrial novel, Hard Times, has none of the spirit of interpret investigation present in, say, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. As Eagleton puts it, Dickens’ blandly generic Coketown setting “is portrayed in vaguely impressionistic terms, almost as though he was seeing it from a train.” [3]

Above all, Dickens was an urban writer, especially comfortable when writing about London life. His forays into the countryside feel otherworldly; the country houses of characters like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations or Lady Dedlock in Bleak House seem distant and ethereal. Its as though their inhabitants are stuck in the landscape of a watercolour painting. By contrast, the houses of the urban poor are delightfully ramshackle, with children popping up from behind every chair and floorboard.

By contrast, the Victorian metropolis is where characters collide with each other and must announce their presence like amateur actors arriving on stage. Dickens’ hope was for a reconciliation of social classes, rather than their abolition. While the city of course doesn’t erase social class, it does invariably bring different classes into close proximity, where the gulf between “upstairs” and “downstairs” is often more than a little uncertain.

The East and West End are united by the streets, diseases and the smog they share. The toffs are not so safely ensconsed in country mansions, the workers not so isolated in their factories. Neither factory workers nor the landed aristocrats are, as it were, on their home turf. But the worldly flâneur (city walker) is in his element.

Dickens’ weird characters bounce off each other like circus performers, each instantly defined by a single gesture, a detail of their appearance, a verbal tick. Many seem incapable of interacting meaningfully with others - instead they spring onto the stage, perform their turn, and then disappear without leaving a trace. Their strange bodies conceal the history of their upbringing. Their class position appears to be a fact rather than the expression of complex social relationships. This is probably why orphans appear all over the place, and why many of the plots hinge on piecing together a character’s mysterious personal history.

Pip squeaks and Krook spontaneously combusts

Above all, for Dickens, the city is a place of street theatre in which the unexpected is always about to leap into your path. Bleak House may be a cynical story about an impenetrable court case, but that doesn’t stop Dickens including moments of wild whimsy: about half way through a rag merchant called Krook spontaneously combusts for no good reason.

Most Dickens characters are paper thin caricatures; their individuality doesn’t seem to rely on their relationships with other people, they just sprout from the ground fresh and rootless. But especially in his later fiction, there is a tension between the characters’  fresh-faced individualism and the their inability to define their own destinies in a society that seems to be governed by unfathomable laws. Will David Copperfield turn out to be the hero of his own life? Perhaps, but only with the help of some blatant contrivances inserted by the author. Bleak House on the other hand showcases a vast cast of characters who, rich and poor, become utterly consumed by an unstoppable bureaucratic court case which is out of everyone’s control. Hence it’s original title, “Nobody’s Fault”.

Like the amiable Pip in Great Expectations, Dickens was a social climber who had an uncomfortable relationship with his humble origins. Pip is at times callously dismissive of his former carer, the blacksmith Joe Gargery, but he at least has the decency to feel bad about it. And finally of course Pip discovers the benefactor that has enabled his rise in the world is not the aristocratic Miss Havisham but the ruffian convict Magwitch. If Dickens relished his position among the aspirant middle class, he was also keenly aware of the popular origins of his fame.

A time of reform; a time of revolution

Of all the novels, A Tale of Two Cities fits least comfortably into Dickens’ cannon. It’s filled with an uncharacteristic amount of moral ambiguity and is peopled by characters who (for the most part) cannot be defined by a single stark gesture or physical defect. Indeed the plot turns on various instances of mistaken or uncertain identities. At times the novel feels more Shakespearean than Dickensian.

It’s commonplace to say that A Tale, along with Hard Times, reveals Dickens to be a hater of popular power.

It’s perfectly true that in A Tale Dickens displays contempt for the revolutionary “mob”, consistently portraying them as consumed by a bestial rage. But if his portrayal of the sans culottes is often lurid, he is even more disgusted by the French aristocracy. Down to the dints in his nose, the Marquis St. Evremonde is the arch villain of the piece. When he first appears he runs down and kills a child with his carriage, tossing a coin by way of compensation to the child’s parents. When he is murdered in his sleep by the boy’s grieving father, one of the revolutionary Jacques (i.e. Jacobins), we are invited to relish in his bloody demise.

Here, as elsewhere, Dickens identifies strongly with his middle class protagonists, is hostile to the aristocracy, and treats the poor with a mixture of patronising sympathy and suspicion. The polemical thrust of A Tale is clear: if you treat the lower classes like animals, don’t be surprised if they repay you in kind. As I wrote in International Socialism [4], I think Dickens considers revolution a reasonable response to unreasonable rule. This means that he doesn’t celebrate revolution, he urges reforms that can avert it.

Dickens was writing during a period in which the new ruling class, having emerged victorious in their struggles against the centres of feudal power, were now having to confront the trickier problem of curbing their own power in order secure the long term sustainability of capitalism. Various reforms from the 1840s onwards (notably the Factory Acts which placed legal limits on the length of the working day) were conceded in order to ensure the working class didn’t die out due to overwork and wretched conditions. Dickens was a vocal participant in this process.

It’s not surprising that Dickens felt able to identify more easily with the French Revolution that had swept his class to power (albeit with huge popular support), but was far more hostile to the new power of workers which implicitly demonstrated the limits of middle class progressiveness.

Dickens time was a period of transitions. The energetic bourgeois upstarts who had ousted the indolent upper classes had to face the increasingly apparent contradictions of the new society they had created. Only after the advent of capitalism could a single sentence speak of the best of times and the worst of times. With his cast of crazy characters, sporting their peculiarities like bright badges, Dickens painted in shocking colours the contrariness of his age and, to a lesser extent, our own.
[1] Terry Eagleton says this in a couple of places, but I think he got it from: Raymond Williams,The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence

[2] See the introduction to: Raymond Williams, Culture and Society

[3] Terry Eagleton, The English Novel, p.143

[4] Revolution Rewritten, ISJ 129, http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=710&issue=129