Friday Blog May 18 – life and society in Dickens’ time

Today we welcome another member of the Mitchell Classics book group -our Dickens Champions –  as Matthew gives us a bit of background to what life was like and the state of society during Dickens’ lifetime.

Charles Dickens 1812-1870

From Dickens’ early childhood, the social structure of British society was changing. Wellington referred to his common soldiers as scum, and after the Napoleonic campaigns, many soldiers were no longer required, and for the disabled all they could hope for was begging.

At the time when John Constable (1776-1837), British landscape painter, was painting ‘The Hay Wain’, etc., the country was changing. Many people were moving off the land, to the expanding cities north and south of the border because of the industrial revolution.

Through overcrowding and squalid housing, to the working classes, or lower orders (the term used in the nineteenth century), cholera and typhoid were endemic in the major cities, and, an extra hazard in the East end of London, the river Thames was polluted.

Dickens’ characters such as Fagin, Uriah Heep, The Beadle, Ebenezer Scrooge, to the modern reader, appear caricatures rather than unpleasant and evil. He was writing mostly for the newly emerging middle class known as polite society, therefore could not touch on the real vicious and cruel side of life endured by the lower class. His novels always end with good prevailing over evil and his heroines always have a high moral stance such as ‘Little Dorrit’.

From the early to late Victorian era, middle class people of doubtful reputation had easy access to the East end of London, under the guise of good works such as temperance societies. Some later writers touched on this darker side of life such as:

  • Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’
  • Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) – The Picture of Dorian Grey

The aforementioned novels deal with men of the upper class seeking hedonistic and perverse pleasure in the East end of London, away from polite society. The Duke of Clarence, a grandson of Queen Victoria, had to be removed from similar situations, fortunately he died young. His brother, who became George V, the present Queen’s grandfather, was more respectable. William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), Liberal Prime Minister four times, had a mission to redeem fallen women and walked the East London streets at night to confront them. In this age of cynical media to say the least he would be considered extremely naïve.

If you are new to the blog, you may have missed Anne Marie’s interesting piece on Dickens’ Women.


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