Mexborough & Swinton Times, April 1, 1911
A Great Novelist.
Dickens as Social Reformer.
Capital “Paper” At Conisboro’
At a recent gathering of the Conisboro’ Literary and Debating Society, a thoroughly interesting paper on “Charles Dickens and his interest in Social Questions.” was road by Mr, W. Smith. Headmaster of the Morley Place Schools. The Vicar of Conisboro (the Rev. W. A Strawbridge) presided, and took part in the animated discussion which followed the paper, along with Mr. T. R. Sellars, Mr. J. M. Heys, and the Rev. C. P. Mellor. A vote of thanks was accorded Mr. Smith on the proposition of Mr. Roebuck, who is now headmaster of the New Balby Street Schools at Denaby.
Dickens on the Sabbath
Mr. Smith prefaced his theme with reference to the world-wide popularity of Dickens and the absolute familiarity of the public with his characters. Then, after dealing with the leading features of his earlier career, he called attention to Dickens’ agitation in 1836 against a Bill which sought by more restrictive measures to secure the better observance of the Sabbath. Dickens believed most earnestly that such legislation would press more heavily upon the poor than upon the rich, and he wrote a brochure on
“Sunday under three heads”—(1) as it is, 1 (2) as Sabbath Bills would make it, and (3) as it might be.
Dickens, in this little work, deplored the manner in which Sunday was observed by the mass of the poorer classes—gambling and cock-fighting being common Sunday occupations—but contended that the remedy was to be found, not in repression, but in the encouragement of harmless amusements. Much that was warmly advocated by him has, in a measure, been since realised, in the opening of museums and picture galleries and places of historic interest, and the running of cheap excursions.
A Debtor’s Prison.
In “Little Dorrit” Dickens exposed the horrors and oppression of the system of imprisonment for debt. He could write of this system from knowledge he gained at first hand, his father having been incarcerated in the Marshalsea, where his mother and his younger brothers and sisters went to reside. At the time Dickenes wrote his powerful indictment of the system of imprisonment for debt, a man could be placed in a debtor’s prison, and There until his creditors were satisfied; the debtor thus be removed to a place where he was quite unable to follow his occupation and earn sufficient to discharge his debt. Imprisonment for debt was abolished in 1861, and towards the accomplishment of this reform the pen of Charles Dickens contributed no inconsiderable share.
The terrible conditions under which the waifs and strays of large cities lived was a source of real pain to Dickens. Most of his audience were familiar with the ragged crossing – sweeper, “Jo,” in “Bleak House.” Dickens at Street such characters as “Jo”; there were no pigment of the brain; he overstated nothing intentionally, and the service he rendered to humanity by his vivid portrayal of the forlorn outcast was great. He did not hesitate to attack philanthropic societies and religious bodies when he considered their efforts wrongly directed. He inveighed more especially against that philanthropy which concern itself more especially with people who live in remote parts of the earth, and ignored the wretchedness of many who were close at hand.
Probably much of the bitter irksome minutes which Dickens experienced in early years were stored up and poured on the devoted head of the Reverend Mr Chadband, in “Bleak House,” for of his earlier days he says:
“Time was when I was dragged by the hair of the head, as one might say, to hear too many preachers. On summer evenings, when every tree and bird might better advised my young soft heart, I have been caught in the palm of female hand by the crown, having been violently scrubbed from the roots of the neck to the hair as a purification for the temple, and have been carried off, to be steamed like a potato in the unventilated breath of the Boanerges boiler and his congregation. I’ve been hauled out of the place of meeting at the conclusion, and categorised respecting his fifthly, sixthly and seventhly. Time was when I was carried off in platform assemblages. I have sat under Boanerges when he has specifically addressed himself to us as the infants – and I hear is canteen chocolatey and I behold his big round face, and I look up the inside of his outstretched coat sleeve, and I hate him with an unbroken hatred for two hours.”
Replying to a criticism of an attack on foreign missions, he said, “I decidedly of opinion that the two works, the home and the following, are not conducted with an equal land, and that the open claim is by far the stronger and more pressing of the two. He gave to the cause of the poor outcasts all the strength of his tremendous personality, with its venom in enthusiasm and eager personal exertion he wrote because he felt, and not as many novelists who try to feel because they have to write.
Speaking of such outcasts as “Jo”, he says, “There is not one of these, not one, but sows a harvest that mankind must reap. From every seed of evil in this boy a field of ruin is grown shall be gathered in and garnered oh, and son again in many places in the world, until regions are overspread with wickedness enough to raise the waters of another deluge.”
In Nicholas Nickleby they got public attention drawn to the horrors of cheap boarding schools in the North part of Yorkshire. Dickens took care to put nothing before the public which would not stand the test of careful enquiry. The notorious Wackford Squeers, whose school Dickens described, had his counterpart in real life in the person of one William Shaw, who conducted one of those schools at Bowes near Greta Bridge. This person had been proceeded against by the parents of one of his pupils for gross neglect, and he was cast in heavy damages. That was in 1823, when Dickens was but 11 years of age, but evidentially the case made a deep impression upon his mind. The descriptions of the degrading scenes enacted at some of the schools aroused public opinion upon the matter, and articles and letters in the provincial papers were numerous. So effective were his efforts that several the worst type of the schools were compelled to close for lack of patronage.
Rich and Poor
In “Hard Times” the ever occurring and difficult problems of the relationship existing between Capital and Labour, is discussed, and we have once more brought out the deep and heartfelt sympathy he had with the toilers of the land, which was one of the strongest features of his writings. Mr Bounderby, the prosperous mill owner and employer of “hands,” as he termed his work people, is made a representative of the employer of labour of the time. That his objectionable qualities are largely exaggerated, is one is unable to deny. Granted that is a caricature, we are yet able, from his portraiture, to arrive at a fairly accurate estimate of the views of the average employer of the Labour the time. To him the work people were really and truly “hands,” were machines for the performance of so many manual tasks. Harshness and lack of sympathy on the part of those in office, whose duty it was to administer the law of the land, were but by no means rare qualities in the first half of the 19th century, and the various magistrates who Dickens introduced into his books were rarely characterised by sympathy, as in the case of Alderman Sir Peter Lawrie, who was immortalised as “Alderman Cute,” in “The Chimes.”
The maladministration of the Poor Law came under his lash in “Oliver Twist.” The evil system of farming out young children to persons who contracted to feed, house, and cloth them at so much per head per week was condemned in scathing terms, the loose administration of the work house, the want of proper supervision and inspection, the unsympathetic attitude of the Guardians, were all woven into the story, and formed a whole which no one could peruse without being impressed with the need for drastic reform of the conditions which were described. The ruthless presentment of the horrible system of sick nursing practiced by the Gamps and Prigs of the day, which he included in Martin Chuzzlewit,” brought about a speedy improvement.
The Laws Delays
In 1849 Dickens witnessed a public execution. The whole scene impressed him so strongly by its absolute offensiveness that he was induced to offer, in a letter to the “Times,” his opinion respecting public executions, and the demoralising effect they had upon the minds of callous observers.
The scandalous delays of the law whereby litigants were often reduced to abject poverty, is the main social question dealt with in “Bleak House.” The Court of Chancery was assailed and in his supposititious Case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce he succeeded in drawing attention of the thoughtful portion of the public to the enormous waste of time and money which was characteristic of the Court of Chancery. Defending himself against a very strong criticism, he stated most emphatically that everything he set forth in “Bleak House” with regard to the Court of Chancery was “substantially true and within the truth,” and stated that if other authorities for the fairness of his attack on the Court of Chancery were wanting he could rain them upon the pages of the book.
What Dickens Lacked
As a social reformer Dickens lacked the analytical mind. He had a large experience of life in many of its phases: he knew from this experience that the evils and the social system, which he outlined in his various works, marred the happiness of tens of thousands of the people of the country, but he failed to probe sufficiently into the social questions which met him on every side, so to try to discover the causes to which the defects were due.
Proceeding, the lecturer said it was quite impossible to estimate fully the indirect influence of the works of Dickens upon the various agencies which have been, and were now, working to ease the hard lot of the less fortunate portion of the community. He concluded by quoting Dean Stanley’s tribute to Dickens:
“Farewell, our teacher, playfellow and friend!
Little it matters where thy grave be made.
Whether where England’s mightiest dead are laid,
Or where the vaulted heavens above thee bend:
Thy resting places in the people hearts,
Which throbbed with sorrow when the tidings came
That all now left England is the name
Of him would nobly used a noble mind.”