Dickens and Orwell - radical conservatives?

Posted by Helen Thursday, December 28, 2006

On Boxing Day Tory Historian fulfilled a long-standing plan and visited Dickens House in Doughty Street. Charles Dickens lived there for only three years but it would appear that all the other houses in London that he lived in have been knocked down. So, one takes what one can get.

The house is well-arranged and there is a great deal of information about the man, his work, his life and his friends. A rather surprising failing was in the food department. The drawing room was decorated as for an early Victorian Christmas but the display of festive goodies on the table was rather miserable, as were the promised refreshments before a reading of a part of “The Christmas Carol”. This is not a question of greed. Dickens was pre-eminent in his descriptions of food and drink and general jollity. Those refreshments should have included at least a few of the goodies he describes. To have a couple of boxes of Marks and Spencer biscuits and a few cartons of juice with two bottles of rather uninteresting wine did not do the great man justice. Why not mulled wine with a great deal of raisins and orange peel in it together with a really fine Christmas pie? (Is there a possible career for Tory Historian here?)

There was an exhibition called “Ignorance and Want”, referring to the two miserable children who cling to the Ghost of Christmas Present and dealing with Dickens’s fight both in his writing and in action against those evils. The exhibition immediately raised the question of whether Dickens was a radical as he is described by many.

Undoubtedly, he was on the side of the underdog, of the oppressed, of the humiliated, no matter who they were. In “Tale of Two Cities” he makes it clear that the horrors of the revolution are brought about by the behaviour of the French aristocracy or the rather degenerate members of it that he writes about. But, once the tables are turned, the tumbrils are rolling, the tricoteuses are in place there can be no doubt as to whose side the author is on.

Be they underfed and severely flogged children, exploited clerks, girls forced into prostitution or any other group of victims, Dickens was on their side. He wrote about them with real passion and he tried to help through various organizations such as those set up by Angela Burdett-Coutts. But was he a radical?

It was George Orwell in his first-class essay of 1939 entitled simply “Charles Dickens” who first posed this question and noted that Dickens and his novels are loved by all those he attacked: lawyers, civil servants, teachers of all kind, rich and poor alike. The reason for that, Orwell posited, is that Dickens had not interest in either changing or subverting society.

A true representative of the English urban middle class, according to Orwell, Dickens had no interest in serving society.

Parliament is simply Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle, the Empire is simply Major Bagstock and his Indian servant, the Army is simply Colonel Chowser and Doctor Slammer, the public services are simply Bumble and the Circumlocution Office – and so on and so forth. What he does not see, or only intermittently sees, is that Coodle and Doodle and all other corpses left from the eighteenth century are performing a function which neither Pickwick nor Boffin would ever bother about.
Similarly, with education, a topic very close to Dickens’s heart. As Orwell points out, the schools Dickens approves of, such as that of Dr Strong’s are no different from Mr Creakle’s except that the former is run well by a man of noble feelings and attitudes who genuinely loves learning. Why does Dickens not offer some ideas of educational reform, asks Orwell. Why cannot he see that it is the whole system of private property and private enterprise that is wrong?

The obvious answer to that is provided by the essayist himself: Dickens was not a political animal and did not really believe that changing structures was more important than changing human souls.

Looking back on the twentieth century one cannot help agreeing with Dickens rather than with Orwell, except that the latter also half-agreed with the former. It’s just that he could never completely discard his socialist assumptions. Now that we have an almost complete state control of education, classics have been discarded and teaching has become modern, relevant and child centred, Ignorance is more strongly ensconced than ever before.

The people in countries where private property was abolished led and still lead a more wretched existence than those where private property remained the norm. It is, after all, private individuals like Shaftesbury who fought against injustice and oppression, such as the overworking of young children in homes and factories.

Dickens was nearer the mark about trade unions: they did turn out to be little more than cartels and not really the great hope of the working man.

For all of that, Orwell has a point about Dickens. He may be on the side of the oppressed but he does not particularly intend to have the oppressed take their lives into their own hands. The famous episode of David Copperfield working in the glass washing factory, based on Dickens’s own experience in the blacking factory, is a case in point. David is miserable and the author is entirely on his side. But part of his misery is that he has to associate with the low boys of the factory. David escapes and we cannot help feeling that it is right and proper that he should not work ten hours a day for a miserable pittance in appalling conditions. There is no indication that Dickens thinks that the other boys should not work ten hours a day for a miserable pittance in appalling conditions. Perhaps, if some kindly gentleman or lady rescues them and restores them to their rightful middle class position that can be acknowledged.

Dickens has little sympathy with men who try to better themselves. Such characters range from the creepy and oleaginous Uriah Heep to the tragic Bradley Headstone, driven by his demons to attempt murder and commit suicide. Young women may marry above their station, it being an accepted way of advancing, but young and not so young men must not look up in their search for a partner. (Though Florence Dombey marries somewhat below her to a young naval officer, possibly the only time servicemen appear in a positive light.)

There is a great deal more one can say about Dickens, of course, but also about Orwell, who strangely enough finds himself in great sympathy with the man who thought that it was personal change and personal improvement that mattered. Some of Orwell’s comments are entirely correct – it is odd the way none of the heroes ever seem to want to do a job of work in Dickens’s novels unless they are driven to it by some hideous misfortune – sometimes he is completely wrong as when he suggests that Dickens “is scarcely intelligible outside the English-speaking culture”. But he ends with a rousing defence of Dickens and his particular brand of conservative radicalism:
When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. … What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.
Something similar could be said about Orwell, despite his determined attempts to cling to socialist ideology.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. "...and not so young men must not look up in their search for a partner." Esther's attitude toward Mr. Guppy, which we are supposed to sympathize with, is exactly what you are talking about. We are to take as an absolute given that a woman of quality, even one with not a nickel to her name, would never dream of even looking at a man like Mr. Guppy, and that his advances are beneath disdain, almost against the order of nature. As a lawyer of only modest success,scrabbling along myself, I feel sorry for Guppy.

    Good also to have a nice slice of Orwell along with our Dickens.

    And, career-wise, catering "Charles Dickens-style Christmas dinners" for the tourist trade could be lucrative. You could rent some Victorian house, and schedule dinner parties by appointment all during December. I say: Do it.

  3. Anonymous Says:
  4. Equally importantly, with Dickens-style drinks.

    We are meant to have more sympathy for Lizzie for wanting to stay near the river out of shame for her father's former profession than for her brother Charley who wants to become a teacher, which is a far more productive use of time and ability. Their father had had an unpleasant profession which the working class people who surround them are disgusted by, so Lizzie's behaviour is not staying true to "her class", but simply saying that you must stick with the situation into which you were born no matter how bad it is.

    Charley and Bradley are both ashamed of where they have come from, which is shown as negative, but Dickens himself was embarrassed by his time of poverty and told as few people as possible. They are just negative characters and we have to accept that without questioning their motives too much.

    I think the conclusion is partly that Dickens was very interested in individuals, and he is happy to will the best for his individual characters whom he likes, but when it comes to more abstract ideas, or willing good for people he does not like, he loses interest.

  5. Helen Says:
  6. Yes, indeed, Dickensian drinks. Does anyone know what milk punch is? I have been trying to find out since I first read about it in "Pickwick Papers" at the age of 8.

  7. Anonymous Says:
  8. George Orwell has "form" in his criticism of literature that does not propose radical reform. In his famous essay on Boys' Weeklies he lampoons the public school adventures, set in a world unchanged since before the Great War. But in that essay, bewildered by the popularity of such papers amongst working class children, he admits that "no one in his senses would want to turn the so-called penny dreadful into a realistic novel or a Socialist tract". If Dickens had written turgid radical or socialist tracts would the "lawyers, civil servants, teachers of all kind, rich and poor alike" have been inspired to turn to more radical reform in the 20th century ? Anyway, who is the greater radical, one who wants to change systems or one who wants to change human souls ?

  9. Anonymous Says:
  10. Trader Vic's Milk Punch recipe

    4 ounces bourbon whiskey
    4 ounces milk
    1/2 teaspoon dark rum
    1 tablespoon simple syrup

    Shake with ice. Strain into a chilled 10-ounce highball glass. Dust with nutmeg.

    Not very Dickensian, though. Bourbon? No.

    This is also modern, but may be nearer the thing: Benjamin Franklin's milk punch recipe.

  11. Helen Says:
  12. Thanks for that link, Lex. Brandy is much more likely to have been in Dickens's milk punch.

  13. HM Stanley Says:
  14. I am not yet in a position to positively contribute to this. All I know is that I have lately fallen in love/obsession with Trollope...been thru the Palliser novels and halfway thru BArchester Chronicles. Trollope detested Dickens....and nicknamed him "Mr. Sentimentality" in one of his roman a clef passages...I forget which one. Hope to anser more the more Trollope I read.

  15. Helen Says:
  16. HM Stanley,

    Please, could you let us know which Trollope novel has that passage? I have read a fair number of them but do not recall it. Must be one of the hundreds I have not read.

    It is true, as Orwell points out, that if you want to understand British politics in the nineteenth century you are better off reading Trollope than Dickens.

  17. HM Stanley Says:
  18. Tory Historian:

    Relevant Trollope book is “The Warden”. (You should read rest of hundreds you have not read.) [The saintly Reverend Septimus Harding, Preceptor of Barchester Cathedral and gem of Chapter holds, in the gift of his friend, Bishop Grantley of Barchester (father of Archdeacon Grantley, son-in-law to Harding) the Wardenship of Hiram hospital, endowed (sometime in the lost mists of time by a tycoon, Hiram…no one can find or has read Hiram’s will) as a charity to house “pensioner” indigents, from which he gets 800 pounds pa for practically no work. The crusading “Jupiter” newspaper (read “The Times”) takes up a crusade against this case of church corruption.] Trollope was writing after the real life infamous scandal of the Hospital of St. Cross at Winchester. [Reverend Francis North, 5th Earl of Guilford, enjoyed from the Mastership of the hospital an income considerably greater than the revenue applied to the hospital’s charitable purposes, in addition to a Winchester canonship and two parish livings, all to which he was appointed by his father the bishop of Winchester, who in turn had been preferred to bishopric by his brother, the eponymous Prime Minister.] Trollope is critical of all these shenanigans, but dubious about cures legislated at the behest of the crusading press and the incoming reforming Whig administration. [Even though he contested a parliamentary seat as a Whig, Trollope refers to himself as a liberal Conservative, though not in a One-Nation Disreali sense, whom he detested.] Connoisseurs will undoubtedly note similar unintended consequences of state effectively dis-endowing endowed grammar schools over education “reforms” of the last century.

    Trollope sets up two discussants of the modern condition of the poor/church/school/charity in the book, one Dr. Pessimist Anticant (thinly veiled Thomas Carlisle) and another Mr. Popular Sentiment (similarly veiled Charles Dickens, according to the notes)…latter very much as a misty-eyed, ineffectual, almost camp do-gooder-commentator.

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