Gems of Wisdom from Dickens    
    Dr Donald Stevens says our greatest novelist was politically incorrect    

Charles Dickens was without doubt the greatest novelist in the English language, and probably the greatest novelist in the world.l Therefore, his works are no longer studied in most universities in this country, and are rarely to be found in syllabi for A-level examinations. Ten years ago I encountered a university which had a course in nineteenth-century English literature - without any novel by Dickens.

The reason for the removal of Dickens from our schools and universities is obvious. Firstly, he represents excellence; and excellence is the last thing that our political rulers want, since it shows them to be the conceited, illiterate and uncultured morons that they are. Secondly, Dickens was not "politically correct." He was highly critical of aspects of society that existed in Victorian Britain and exist on an even greater scale today. This makes his offence even greater to a government that prides itself on being totally "modern."

I have taken only three aspects of Dickens; but these are enough to condemn him in the eyes of any government of the past twenty years or more.

Dickens believed in justice. His villains were punished for their evil ways. In two of his novels, they are punished physically. Young Nicholas Nickleby thrashes the detestable and sadistic schoolmaster Squeers until he writhes with pain. Old Martin Chuzzlewit deals with the arch-hypocrite Pecksniff is a similar manner: "As he came smiling on, and got within his reach, old Martin, with his burning indignation crowded into one vehement burst, and flashing out of every line and wrinkle in his face, rose up, and struck him down upon the ground."2

In modern Britain, no matter whether a Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative government were in power, both young Nicholas and old Martin would be sent to prison, and would stay there while IRA murderers were released.

Views on prisons

Nor was Dickens in favour of 'holiday-camp' prisons. The new prison:

‘...was an immense and solid building, erected at vast expense. I could not help thinking, as we approached the gate, what an uproar would have been made in the country if any deluded man had proposed to spend one half the money it had cost on the erection of an industrial school for the young, or a house of refuge for the deserving old... It being just dinner-time, we went into the great kitchen, where every prisoner's dinner was in course of being set out... I wondered whether it occurred to anybody that there was a striking contrast between these plentiful repasts of choice quality, and the dinners, not to say of paupers, but of soldiers, labourers, the great bulk of the honest, working community; of whom not one man in five hundred ever dined half so well.’3

The chief complaints of the two prize prisoners were: that the beef was tough, and that the cocoa had been made with milk of inferior quality. One of the prisoners admits that he is far more comfortable in prison than he was outside, and would like his mother to join him.

In one of his last novels, Dickens describes a visit to Newgate Prison:

‘..At that time jails were much neglected, and the period of exaggerated reaction...was still far off. So, felons were not lodged and fed better than soldiers (to say nothing of paupers), and...’

(Dickens adds in his sarcastic vein)

‘...seldom set tire to the prisons with the excusable object of improving the flavour of their soup.’4

Dickens' views on capital punishment appear to be ambiguous. He was certainly against public executions, as they afforded a tawdry opportunity for the semblance of heroism in the most depraved, who were executed, and the event attracted mostly the only slightly less depraved as an audience.

While attending an execution in Rome, he felt the hands of a thief going through his pockets. With typical Dickensian humour, he let the thief complete his task without making a protest, since Dickens knew that his pockets were empty. This incident reinforced his view that the public execution of criminals attracted other criminals.

In 1845, Dickens crossed literary swords with Mr (later Lord) Macaulay, saying:

‘..After reading a speech by Macaulay in the House of Commons in which that accomplished gentleman hardly seemed to recognise the possibility of anyone entertaining an honest conviction of the inulity and bad effects of capital punishiment in the abstract... without being the victim of "a kind of effeminate feeling".’

In 1849. he witnessed from the roof of a neighbouring house the public hanging of Mr and Mrs Manning at Horsemonger Gaol. Afterwards he wrote to The Times saying that the wickedness and levity of the crowd would shame even a heathen country.5

It is one of the major errors of shallow or biased thinking to view facts as static. The world changes; people change physically, morally, mentally.6 It is a favourite left-wing ploy to rake up a remark made in the remote past and treat it as an example of present thinking, when the person concerned has matured and developed his thought perhaps to the opposite point of view.

Dickens' original views on capital punishment stemmed from the situation in the previous century, when petty theft was punished by hanging:

‘...the hangman, ever busy and ever worse than useless, was in constant requisition... today, taking the life of an atrocious murderer, and tomorrow of a wretched pilferer who had robbed a farmer's boy of sixpence.’7

The horrendous story of Mary Jones is retold in Dickens' preface to Barnaby Rudge. Her husband had been seized by a press-gang, and, with two very small children, she had to live by begging in the streets. She went into a shop, took a piece of cheap linen to provide clothes for her almost naked children, and hid it under her cloak. The shopman saw her, and she immediately replaced the cloth. For this she was taken to the gallows, breast-feeding her baby on the way, and was hanged.

Surely this was enough to cause any person with even the slightest sense of justice to revolt against such a system.

Not anti-hanging

Yet at the same time, Dickens was portraying hangings in his novels. In Oliver Twist the evil corrupter of youth, Fagin, is hanged; and the scene in the death-cell is truly horrific.8 Nevertheless, Dickens never even hints that Fagin should not have been hanged. Two chapters earlier, the brutal murderer Sykes is accidentally and dramatically hanged while trying to escape from a crowd thirsting for his death. There is no word of condemnation from the author for anyone save Sykes; even Mr. Brownlow one of Dickens' most liked characters, raises no breath of criticism as he rides among the mob offering a reward for Sykes' capture, which would have resulted, as Dickens well knew, in Sykes being hanged in public.9

By the second half of the nineteenth century, Dickens had come firmly to believe that there are people who ought to die, whether naturally or unnaturally.

In a humorous and delicately roundabout manner, Dickens comments: "Mr Wopsle's great aunt conquered a confirmed habit of living into which she had fallen."10 Personally, I can think of several people, mainly politicians, who would well be advised to conquer their bad habit of living, and leave the world a better place for their absence.

More forceful is Dickens' description and condemnation of revolutionary Paris, as in A Tale of Two Cities. A grindstone had been set up in a courtyard, and the revolutionaries resorted to it to sharpen their weapons.

According to the story:

‘...The grindstone had a double handle, and turning at it madly were two men, whose faces, as their long hair flapped back when the whirlings of the grindstone brought their faces up, were more horrible and cruel than the visages of the wildest savages in their most barbarous disguise. False eyebrows and false moustaches were stuck upon them, and their hideous countenances were all bloody and sweaty, and all awry with howling, and staring and glaring with beastly excitement and want of sleep. As these ruffians turned and turned, their matted locks now flung forward over their eyes, now flung backward over their necks, some women held wine to their mouths that they might drink; and what with dropping blood, and what with dropping wine, and what with the stream of sparks struck out of the stone, all their wicked atmosphere seemed gore and fire. The eye could not detect one creature in the group free from the smear of blood.’

These men and women had been murdering defenceless prisoners: men, women, and children. The men were "devilishly set with spoils of women's lace and silk ribbons"; swords were tied to their wrists with "strips of linen and fragments of dress" - from the clothes of the women they had murdered; and every piece of cloth was dyed with blood.

The story continued:

‘...the same red hue was red in their frenzied eyes - eyes which any unbrutalised beholder would have given twenty years of life to petrify with a well-directed gun.’11

If the emperor Nicholas II had read and noted this novel by Dickens, Russia might have been spared its tragic revolution.

Against internationalism

The cosmopolitan (or "internationalist") was anathema to Dickens. "I am a cosmopolitan gentleman. I own no particular country," says one of his worst villains, Rigaud, who is a blackmailer, murderer, and thief.12 Rigaud is French, but Dickens is no narrow jingoist - he sees and depicts the best and the worst (and many between) - of two of the nationalities that appear in his novels: British and French.13 The view of Dickens and others of his time, (both British and French), is represented by the landlady of "The Break of Day" in Chalons:

‘...Listen then. I am a woman, I know nothing of philosophical philanthropy. But I know what I have seen, and what I have looked in the face in this world here, where I find myself. And I tell you this, my friend, that there are people (men and women both, unfortunately) who have no good in them - none. There are people whom it is necessity to detest without compromise. That there are people who must be dealt with as enemies of the human race. That there are people who have no human heart, and who must be crushed like savage beasts and cleared out of the way. They are but few, I hope; but I have seen (in the world here where I find myself, and even at the Break of Day) that there are such people.’14

Of course, we do not crush such people nowadays. We clear them out of the way - into prison holiday camps for a short time (if they happen to be convicted of a crime at all), or (if not actually imprisoned) into the House of Commons or the House of Lords, or into the elected European Parliament in Strasbourg or into the non-elected European Parliament in Brussels.

Dickens was not an uncritical patriot: he has many scathing things to say of his own country and his own people, but he expected loyalty to one's family, to one's friends, to one's country. And he has much to criticise in the world of society and politics.

Understood politicians...

In Little Dorrit, his most political novel, there are several politicians at an important social event:

‘... one who had leaped through twenty places in quick succession, and was always in two or three at once, and who was the much-respected inventor of an art which he practised with great success and admiration in all... governments. This was, when he was asked a Parliamentary question on any one topic, to return an answer on any other. It had done immense service, and brought him into high esteem.’15

We are all too well acquainted with this type of politician, who hands a British colony over to the most despotic regime in the world, comes back to mismanage Northern Ireland, and gets a plum post with the European Union. For all the corruption and hypocrisy of Victorian politicians (which was not nearly so great as modern text-books make out), at least they did not sell off colonies to brutal tyrants.

As to the rank and file of Members of Parliament:

‘... they did all their hearing, and ohing, and cheering, and barking, under directions... and they put dummy motions on the paper in the way of other men's motions; and they staved disagreeable subjects off until late in the night and late in the session, and then with virtuous patriotism cried out that it was too late ... and they fetched and carried, toadied and jobbed, and corrupted, and ate heaps of dirt, and were indefatigable in the public service.’16

Watch any session of our present House of Commons, and you will see the same thing; observe any public conference of the three main political parties, and you will find the same people.

And financiers

The great financier is given to us in uncompromising terms uncomfortable to modern political thinking:-

‘...Mr Merdle was immensely rich; a man of prodigious enterprise; a Midas without the ears,17 who turned all he touched to gold. He was in everything good, from banking to building. He was in Parliament, of course. He was in the City, necessarily. He was Chairman of this, Trustee of that, President of the other.’

At a party given by Merdle:

‘...there were magnates from the Court and magnates from the City, magnates from the Commons and magnates from the Lords, magnates from the Lords, magnates from the bench and magnates from the bar, Bishop magnates, Treasury magnates, Horse Guard magnates, Admiralty magnates - all the magnates that keep us going, and sometimes trip us up.’

(In Victorian slang this phrase had associations with crime.)

With his satirical accuracy of observation, Dickens comments:

‘...Society had everything it could want, and could not want, for dinner. It had everything to look at, and everything to eat, and everything to drink. It is to be hoped it enjoyed itself...’

The magnates were there to flatter and to extract what money they could from Merdle, for worthy and not so worthy causes. "When they rose" (from dinner) "so many of the magnates had something to say to Mr Merdle that he held little levees by the sideboard, and checked them off as they went out at the door." In each case, Merdle promises that he will think about it, but promises nothing else.18

Merdle founds a bank, and thousands of people invest their all in it. The end is Merdle's suicide and financial disaster for the investors, because this great capitalist, this great benefactor of the nation, this great philanthropist courted by every influential person in Society, "was simply the greatest forger and the greatest thief that ever cheated the gallows."19

And that is a message that no modern government, whether it be pseudo-Conservative (which conserves nothing except itself and its own welfare) or pseudo-Socialist (which cares not a scrap for the social condition of the poor - or of anyone else, except itself), does not want people to hear. With that message in their ears, people might think that those wealthy benefactors who so generously donate millions to party political funds, who are given privileged positions as advisors to the government, who obtain seats in the House of Lords, are merely modern Merdles. They might also regret that nowadays there are no gallows on which to hang them!


1. Dickens' closest rivals are Balzac (French), and Dostoievsky and Tolstoy (Russian). Balzac fails the test because of his almost total gloom; to paint only the dark side of human nature is to leave at least one half or the French character untouched. Dostoievsky disappoints on the third or fourth reading: most of his characters seem irrational, either because of mental instability or drunkenness. I feel that the title of The Idiot should be amended to "The Idiots", as everyone in the novel appears to be incapable of consistent and logical thought or behaviour. Although not so erratic as the characters in in The Idiot, those in Dostoievsky's other novels, I feel, are tragic mainly because of their inability to think, or because of an excessive intake of vodka. Setting aside War and Peace, which I have never been able to appreciate - the settings are too contrived, and the characters mostly lack the vitality of those in Anna Karenina, which is Tolstoy's, and Russia's, greatest novel. However, one great novel does not make the greatest novelist. An important characteristic of greatness is fecundity of invention: only death writes "finis" to the works of the truly great.

2. Martin Chuzzlewit, chap. 52. The other reference is to Nicholas Nickleby, chap. 12. Tony Martin, the farmer imprisoned for life for killing a habitual criminal in defence of himself and his property, would have been a hero in any of Dickens' novels.

3. David Copperfield, chap. 61. When the governor observes that one of the prisoners is reading a hymn book: "There was such a rush of heads immediately, to see Number Twenty Seven reading his hymn book that the little hole was blocked up, six or seven heads deep." Last year there was a notable photograph, in certain newspapers, of the Prime Minister and his wife apparently singing devoutly from a hymn-book in a Methodist Chapel. No matter that Blair's spouse is supposed to be a CathoIic the truth is that the service was stopped to enable the press to mount the pews and take this remarkable picture. The prisoner mentioned in Dickens' novel was that smooth, humble, hypocrital, nasty piece of work, Uriah Heep. I shall press the parallel no further.

4. Great Expectations, chap. 32.

5. Public hangings were eventually abolished in 1868. In the mid-nineteenth century, The Times was a radical newspaper, nicknamed "The Thunderer" in Trollope's short novel The Warden.

6. In the first year of my undergraduate course, John Donne was portrayed as a blatant hypocrite by a left-wing lecturer, who lumped his early, smutty poetry with his later Divine Sonnets. I believed the lecturer, until I read Donne's biography, which showed how his life was completely changed in midstream, and from being a clever but salacious poet, he became a moral and intelligent writer. The lecturer made merry of the fact that Donne became Dean of St. Paul's; but this was well after the change in his life. Whether the lecturer was dishonest or merely ignorant, I cannot say; but it was a warniing to me to verify all facts and opinions.

7. A Tale of Two Cities, chap. 1.

8. Oliver Twist, chap. 52.

9. Oliver Twist was written three years before Barnaby Rudge was completed.

10. Great Expectations, chap. 16.

11. A Tale of Two Cities, Book Three, chap. 2.

12. Little Dorrit, chap. 1. Even worse (in British eyes), he poisons a dog. op. cit., chaps. 42, 43. 1 distinctly refrain from all mention of the fate of a certain cat at No. 10 Downing Street.

13. A third nationality, Italian, Dickens depicts mainly favourably, e.g. Cavaletto - also in Little Dorrit. Americans are portrayed in Martin Chuzzlewit; whether it is a fair portrayal will depend very much on one's opinions of Americans. The Swiss are only lightly touched upon. A maltreated Indian servant in Dombey and Son is treated sympathetically. There are two interesting Sri Lankans (brother and sister) in the unfinished Edwin Drood, and one regrets that Dickens did not live to complete the novel and round out this pair of exotica. There are many absurd academic writers who have portrayed Dickens as a hater of the French. "The foreign characters in his novels are always villains..." This unthinking statement by Sidney Dark (his two examples are both French), is all the more preposterous because he writes it in his preface (Collins Olive Classics) to A Tale of Two Cities, which has three prominent and wholly admirable characters who are French: Charles Darnay, Lucy Manette, and her father Dr. Manette. Dickens spoke both French and Italian.

14. op. cit., chap. 11.

15. ibid, chap. 34.

16. ibid. "Hearing" is the uttering of the congratulatory "Hear, hear!"

17. In the Greek legend, Midas, having rid himself of his "lucky touch" (to use a Victorian expression), was given a pair of donkey's ears in place of his own by the contemptuous god. Only his barber knew the secret, but being as loquacious as all barbers he could not refrain from going down to the river and telling the secret to the reeds. To his dismay. the reeds took up his words, "Midas has ass's ears," and the secret was out.

18. Little Dorrit, chap. 21.

19. ibid. chap. 62.

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