Dickens, poverty and progress

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dickens-poverty-and-progress
Charles_DickensIt's Charles Dickens's birthday. He was born on this day back in 1812. He had a career in journalism, reporting on Parliament and writing in various papers and journals, though today we remember him as the most popular novelist of the Victorian age. Indeed, his name has given us a description of Victorian Britain – Dickensian, meaning depressing cities dominated by dark, polluting smoke-stack factories, with underpaid workers living cheek-by-jowl in overcrowded squalour.

So powerful is Dickens's writing that even historians have come to accept this description as objective fact. But we have to remember that Dickens was a social campaigner as well as a great wordsmith. He used his literary talents to highlight the problems of industrialisation through emotion and exaggeration. Indeed, he was brilliant at it, and his writings did actually change the Victorians' attitudes on issues such as poverty and class inequalities, which most thinking people at the time believed were the immutable condition of humanity and the working out of God's plan.

In fact, though, the factories, for all their ills, represented a step up for the working poor. The alternative was a life of equally long hours and backbreaking physical labour on the land in rain, sleet, snow or baking heat, a life made worse by the certainty of periodic crop failure, starvation and disease. The poor were not forced into urban factories: rather, they knew (in the words of William Barnes's poem) that they could 'make money faster, in the air of darkened towns' and that Linden Lea was not the rural idyll that it was painted. It was, of course, a revolution, an industrial revolution, in which things changed rapidly: with shoddy, functional buildings thrown up with little knowledge or understanding of the social consequences. How could anyone know? But before long, standards improved, hygiene and sanitation became standard, and the wealth generated by the new industries allowed even the poorest to rise out of the 'Dickensian' world.