Charles Dickens, by George Orwell


Dickens had grown up near enough to poverty to be terrified of it, and in spite of his generosity of mind, he is not free from the special prejudices of the shabby-genteel. It is usual to claim him as a ‘popular’ writer, a champion of the ‘oppressed masses’. So he is, so long as he thinks of them as oppressed; but there are two things that condition his attitude. In the first place, he is a south-of-England man, and a Cockney at that, and therefore out of touch with the bulk of the real oppressed masses, the industrial and agricultural labourers. It is interesting to see how Chesterton, another Cockney, always presents Dickens as the spokesman of ‘the poor’, without showing much awareness of who ‘the poor’ really are. To Chesterton ‘the poor’ means small shopkeepers and servants. Sam Weller, he says, ‘is the great symbol in English literature of the populace peculiar to England’; and Sam Weller is a valet! The other point is that Dickens’s early experiences have given him a horror of proletarian roughness. He shows this unmistakably whenever he writes of the very poorest of the poor, the slum-dwellers. His descriptions of the London slums are always full of undisguised repulsion:

The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; and people half naked, drunken, slipshod and ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, and filth, and misery, etc. etc.

There are many similar passages in Dickens. From them one gets the impression of whole submerged populations whom he regards as being beyond the pale. In rather the same way the modern doctrinaire Socialist contemptuously writes off a large block of the population as ‘lumpenproletariat’.

Dickens also shows less understanding of criminals than one would expect of him. Although he is well aware of the social and economic causes of crime, he often seems to feel that when a man has once broken the law he has put himself outside human society. There is a chapter at the end of David Copperfield in which David visits the prison where Latimer and Uriah Heep are serving their sentences. Dickens actually seems to regard the horrible ‘model’ prisons, against which Charles Reade delivered his memorable attack in It is never too late to mend, as too humane. He complains that the food is too good! As soon as he comes up against crime or the worst depths of poverty, he shows traces of the ‘I’ve always kept myself respectable’ habit of mind. The attitude of Pip (obviously the attitude of Dickens himself) towards Magwitch in Great Expectations is extremely interesting. Pip is conscious all along of his ingratitude towards Joe, but far less so of his ingratitude towards Magwitch. When he discovers that the person who has loaded him with benefits for years is actually a transported convict, he falls into frenzies of disgust. ‘The abhorrence in which I held the man, the dread I had of him, the repugnance with which I shrank from him, could not have been exceeded if he had been some terrible beast’, etc. etc. So far as one can discover from the text, this is not because when Pip was a child he had been terrorized by Magwitch in the churchyard; it is because Magwitch is a criminal and a convict. There is an even more ‘kept-myself-respectable’ touch in the fact that Pip feels as a matter of course that he cannot take Magwitch’s money. The money is not the product of a crime, it has been honestly acquired; but it is an ex-convict’s money and therefore ‘tainted’. There is nothing psychologically false in this, either. Psychologically the latter part of Great Expectations is about the best thing Dickens ever did; throughout this part of the book one feels ‘Yes, that is just how Pip would have behaved.’ But the point is that in the matter of Magwitch, Dickens identifies with Pip, and his attitude is at bottom snobbish. The result is that Magwitch belongs to the same queer class of characters as Falstaff and, probably, Don Quixote — characters who are more pathetic than the author intended.

When it is a question of the non-criminal poor, the ordinary, decent, labouring poor, there is of course nothing contemptuous in Dickens’s attitude. He has the sincerest admiration for people like the Peggottys and the Plornishes. But it is questionable whether he really regards them as equals. It is of the greatest interest to read Chapter XI of David Copperfield and side by side with it the autobiographical fragments (parts of this are given in Forster’s Life), in which Dickens expresses his feelings about the blacking-factory episode a great deal more strongly than in the novel. For more than twenty years afterwards the memory was so painful to him that he would go out of his way to avoid that part of the Strand. He says that to pass that way ‘made me cry, after my eldest child could speak.’ The text makes it quite clear that what hurt him most of all, then and in retrospect, was the enforced contact with ‘low’ associates:

No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship; compared these everyday associates with those of my happier childhood. But I held some station at the blacking warehouse too . . . I soon became at least as expeditious and as skilful with my hands as either of the other boys. Though perfectly familiar with them, my conduct and manners were different enough from theirs to place a space between us. They, and the men, always spoke of me as ‘the young gentleman’. A certain man . . . used to call me ‘Charles’ sometimes in speaking to me; but I think it was mostly when we were very confidential . . . Poll Green uprose once, and rebelled against the ‘young-gentleman’ usage; but Bob Fagin settled him speedily.

It was as well that there should be ‘a space between us’, you see. However much Dickens may admire the working classes, he does not wish to resemble them. Given his origins, and the time he lived in, it could hardly be otherwise. In the early nineteenth century class animosities may have been no sharper than they are now, but the surface differences between class and class were enormously greater. The ‘gentleman’ and the ‘common man’ must have seemed like different species of animal. Dickens is quite genuinely on the side of the poor against the rich, but it would be next door to impossible for him not to think of a working-class exterior as a stigma. In one of Tolstoy’s fables the peasants of a certain village judge every stranger who arrives from the state of his hands. If his palms are hard from work, they let him in; if his palms are soft, out he goes. This would be hardly intelligible to Dickens; all his heroes have soft hands. His younger heroes — Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, Edward Chester, David Copperfield, John Harmon — are usually of the type known as ‘walking gentlemen’. He likes a bourgeois exterior and a bourgeois (not aristocratic) accent. One curious symptom of this is that he will not allow anyone who is to play a heroic part to speak like a working man. A comic hero like Sam Weller, or a merely pathetic figure like Stephen Blackpool, can speak with a broad accent, but the jeune premier always speaks the equivalent of B.B.C. This is so, even when it involves absurdities. Little Pip, for instance, is brought up by people speaking broad Essex, but talks upper-class English from his earliest childhood; actually he would have talked the same dialect as Joe, or at least as Mrs. Gargery. So also with Biddy Wopsle, Lizzie Hexam, Sissie Jupe, Oliver Twist — one ought perhaps to add Little Dorrit. Even Rachel in Hard Times has barely a trace of Lancashire accent, an impossibility in her case.

One thing that often gives the clue to a novelist’s real feelings on the class question is the attitude he takes up when class collides with sex. This is a thing too painful to be lied about, and consequently it is one of the points at which the ‘I’m-not-a-snob’ pose tends to break down.

One sees that at its most obvious where a class-distinction is also a colour-distinction. And something resembling the colonial attitude (‘native’ women are fair game, white women are sacrosanct) exists in a veiled form in all-white communities, causing bitter resentment on both sides. When this issue arises, novelists often revert to crude class-feelings which they might disclaim at other times. A good example of ‘class-conscious’ reaction is a rather forgotten novel, The People of Clopton, by Andrew Barton. The author’s moral code is quite clearly mixed up with class-hatred. He feels the seduction of a poor girl by a rich man to be something atrocious, a kind of defilement, something quite different from her seduction by a man in her own walk of life. Trollope deals with this theme twice (The Three Clerks and The Small House at Allington) and, as one might expect, entirely from the upper-class angle. As he sees it, an affair with a barmaid or a landlady’s daughter is simply an ‘entanglement’ to be escaped from. Trollope’s moral standards are strict, and he does not allow the seduction actually to happen, but the implication is always that a working-class girl’s feelings do not greatly matter. In The Three Clerks he even gives the typical class-reaction by noting that the girl ‘smells’. Meredith (Rhoda Fleming) takes more the ‘class-conscious’ viewpoint. Thackeray, as often, seems to hesitate. In Pendennis (Fanny Bolton) his attitude is much the same as Trollope’s; in A Shabby Genteel Story it is nearer to Meredith’s.

One could divine a great deal about Trollope’s social origin, or Meredith’s, or Barton’s, merely from their handling of the class-sex theme. So one can with Dickens, but what emerges, as usual, is that he is more inclined to identify himself with the middle class than with the proletariat. The one incident that seems to contradict this is the tale of the young peasant-girl in Doctor Manette’s manuscript in A Tale of Two Cities. This, however, is merely a costume-piece put in to explain the implacable hatred of Madame Defarge, which Dickens does not pretend to approve of. In David Copperfield, where he is dealing with a typical nineteenth-century seduction, the class-issue does not seem to strike him as paramount. It is a law of Victorian novels that sexual misdeeds must not go unpunished, and so Steerforth is drowned on Yarmouth sands, but neither Dickens, nor old Peggotty, nor even Ham, seems to feel that Steerforth has added to his offence by being the son of rich parents. The Steerforths are moved by class-motives, but the Peggottys are not — not even in the scene between Mrs. Steerforth and old Peggotty; if they were, of course, they would probably turn against David as well as against Steerforth.

In Our Mutual Friend Dickens treats the episode of Eugene Wrayburn and Lizzie Hexam very realistically and with no appearance of class bias. According to the ‘Unhand me, monster!’ tradition, Lizzie ought either to ‘spurn’ Eugene or to be ruined by him and throw herself off Waterloo Bridge: Eugene ought to be either a heartless betrayer or a hero resolved upon defying society. Neither behaves in the least like this. Lizzie is frightened by Eugene’s advances and actually runs away from him, but hardly pretends to dislike them; Eugene is attracted by her, has too much decency to attempt seducing her and dare not marry her because of his family. Finally they are married and no one is any the worse, except Mrs. Twemlow, who will lose a few dinner engagements. It is all very much as it might have happened in real life. But a ‘class-conscious’ novelist would have given her to Bradley Headstone.

But when it is the other way about — when it is a case of a poor man aspiring to some woman who is ‘above’ him Dickens instantly retreats into the middle-class attitude. He is rather fond of the Victorian notion of a woman (woman with a capital W) being ‘above’ a man. Pip feels that Estella is ‘above’ him, Esther Summerson is ‘above’ Guppy, Little Dorrit is ‘above’ John Chivery, Lucy Manette is ‘above’ Sydney Carton. In some of these the ‘above’-ness is merely moral, but in others it is social. There is a scarcely mistakable class-reaction when David Copperfield discovers that Uriah Heep is plotting to marry Agnes Wickfield. The disgusting Uriah suddenly announces that he is in love with her:

‘Oh, Master Copperfield, with what a pure affection do I love the ground my Agnes walks on.’

I believe I had the delirious idea of seizing the red-hot poker out of the fire, and running him through with it. It went from me with a shock, like a ball fired from a rifle: but the image of Agnes, outraged by so much as a thought of this red-headed animal’s, remained in my mind (when I looked at him, sitting all awry as if his mean soul griped his body) and made me giddy . . . ‘I believe Agnes Wickfield to be as far above you (David says later on), and as far removed from all your aspirations, as the moon herself.’

Considering how Heep’s general lowness — his servile manners, dropped aitches and so forth — has been rubbed in throughout the book, there is not much doubt about the nature of Dickens’s feelings. Heep, of course, is playing a villainous part, but even villains have sexual lives; it is the thought of the ‘pure’ Agnes in bed with a man who drops his aitches that really revolts Dickens. But his usual tendency is to treat a man in love with a woman who is ‘above’ him as a joke. It is one of the stock jokes of English literature, from Malvolio onwards. Guppy in Bleak House is an example, John Chivery is another, and there is a rather ill-natured treatment of this theme in the ‘swarry’ in Pickwick Papers. Here Dickens describes the Bath footmen as living a kind of fantasy-life, holding dinner-parties in imitation of their ‘betters’ and deluding themselves that their young mistresses are in love with them. This evidently strikes him as very comic. So it is in a way, though one might question whether it is not better for a footman even to have delusions of this kind than simply to accept his status in the spirit of the catechism.

In his attitude towards servants Dickens is not ahead of his age. In the nineteenth century the revolt against domestic service was just beginning, to the great annoyance of everyone with over £500 a year. An enormous number of the jokes in nineteenth-century comic papers deals with the uppishness of servants. For years Punch ran a series of jokes called ‘Servant Gal-isms’, all turning on the then astonishing fact that a servant is a human being. Dickens is sometimes guilty of this kind of thing himself. His books abound with the ordinary comic servants; they are dishonest (Great Expectations), incompetent (David Copperfield), turn up their noses at good food (Pickwick Papers), etc. etc. — all rather in the spirit of the suburban housewife with one downtrodden cook-general. But what is curious, in a nineteenth-century radical, is that when he wants to draw a sympathetic picture of a servant, he creates what is recognizably a feudal type. Sam Weller, Mark Tapley, Clara Peggotty are all of them feudal figures. They belong to the genre of the ‘old family retainer’; they identify themselves with their master’s family and are at once doggishly faithful and completely familiar. No doubt Mark Tapley and Sam Weller are derived to some extent from Smollett, and hence from Cervantes; but it is interesting that Dickens should have been attracted by such a type. Sam Weller’s attitude is definitely medieval. He gets himself arrested in order to follow Mr. Pickwick into the Fleet, and afterwards refuses to get married because he feels that Mr. Pickwick still needs his services. There is a characteristic scene between them:

‘Vages or no vages, board or no board, lodgin’ or no lodgin’, Sam Veller, as you took from the old inn in the Borough, sticks by you, come what may . . . ’

‘My good fellow’, said Mr. Pickwick, when Mr. Weller had sat down again, rather abashed at his own enthusiasm, ‘you are bound to consider the young woman also.’

‘I do consider the young ‘ooman, sir’, said Sam. ‘I have considered the young ‘ooman. I’ve spoke to her. I’ve told her how I’m sitivated; she’s ready to vait till I’m ready, and I believe she vill. If she don’t, she’s not the young ‘ooman I take her for, and I give up with readiness.’

It is easy to imagine what the young woman would have said to this in real life. But notice the feudal atmosphere. Sam Weller is ready as a matter of course to sacrifice years of his life to his master, and he can also sit down in his master’s presence. A modern manservant would never think of doing either. Dickens’s views on the servant question do not get much beyond wishing that master and servant would love one another. Sloppy in Our Mutual Friend, though a wretched failure as a character, represents the same kind of loyalty as Sam Weller. Such loyalty, of course, is natural, human, and likeable; but so was feudalism.

What Dickens seems to be doing, as usual, is to reach out for an idealized version of the existing thing. He was writing at a time when domestic service must have seemed a completely inevitable evil. There were no labour-saving devices, and there was huge inequality of wealth. It was an age of enormous families, pretentious meals and inconvenient houses, when the slavey drudging fourteen hours a day in the basement kitchen was something too normal to be noticed. And given the fact of servitude, the feudal relationship is the only tolerable one. Sam Weller and Mark Tapley are dream figures, no less than the Cheerybles. If there have got to be masters and servants, how much better that the master should be Mr. Pickwick and the servant should be Sam Weller. Better still, of course, if servants did not exist at all — but this Dickens is probably unable to imagine. Without a high level of mechanical development, human equality is not practically possible; Dickens goes to show that it is not imaginable either.

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 20:48