In episode 6 of our podcast series History Books, we look at a terrible crime in 1850s London.

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 The podcast is on a book called The Secret Life of Celestina Sommer – Victorian Child Killer by David J. Vaughan.

Celestina Sommer had a tragic upbringing. Pregnant at seventeen, with no support and little more compassion, she relinquished her infant to the baby-farmers. Eleven years on and married, she endured not only vilification but domestic abuse - the man she trusted turning on her with misogynistic cruelty endorsed by a society turning its blind, masculine eye.

The book tells the story about the awful truth of Celestina’s short, tragic life and reveals exactly why she avoided the hangman's noose. Her heart-rending story follows the world's reaction to her crime: parliamentary debates, press outrage, allegations of royal collusion, garishly explicit reports of her trials at the Old Bailey and, finally, her collapse into madness as she struggles through a harsh Victorian penal system and, at the very end, Britain's foremost criminal lunatic asylum of the age.

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If you enjoy the podcast, you can purchase the book here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

Take care,

George Levrier-Jones

PS – just to inform you, this podcast is of a darker nature than many of our other podcasts.

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Britain in the nineteenth century was in many ways a dark and discouraging place; however there were shining lights in the gloom of working class life in the form of philanthropists. In this series, Lindsey Buteux will be looking at key philanthropists whose dedication to their cause brought many hundreds of individuals out of poverty and into education, better health, better living conditions and allowed them to experience the life that that their peers did not have access to.

 

Society did not have a particularly charitable attitude towards the poor so philanthropy at the start of the nineteenth century was not a common sight, but this had greatly changed by the end of the century. A hymn published in 1848 comments upon these social differences: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, and order’d their estate.”

So what makes certain individuals act differently to their peers, why did women such as Angela Burdett-Coutts and men such as Titus Salt, Joseph Rowntree and Charles Dickens challenge the social norm and act above and beyond in the care of the poor? Can we look to these people for inspiration in a society that is becoming increasingly insular and reluctant to be generous and giving of spirit as well as material goods?

 

Angela Burdett-Coutts, 1814-1906

Angela Burdett-Coutts is the first philanthropist who we will be looking at. Recognized for her charitable work by Queen Victoria in 1871, she was a friend of Charles Dickens and known as ‘Queen of the Poor’, but Burdett-Coutts was not put off by her lack of access to the family business of banking (due to being the last child of six and her gender), and instead channeled her enthusiasm into her philanthropic work.

Angela Burdett-Coutts.

Angela Burdett-Coutts.

Amongst her charitable donations, Burdett-Coutts supplied Florence Nightingale with the equipment she needed when treating soldiers in the Crimea and thus changed the face of nursing. Burdett-Coutts was concerned with the needs of many and in many areas such as housing, water supply, supporting military wives, child labor and education.

An 1834 report on the Poor Law made it clear that there was a “duty to promote the religious and moral education of the laboring classes” with an emphasis on literacy in order for all people to understand their “responsibilities as citizens”. There had already been plenty of work done in this area through legislation such as Sir Robert Peel’s Factory Act in 1802 which had ensured employers provided instruction in the “Three R’s” during at least some of the seven year apprenticeship however the quality of this instruction varied hugely from factory to factory. It is a wonder that by the 1830s, any form of mass education had been introduced despite the addition of more voters, as the criticism of this mass education was so brutal. MP Davies Giddy comments in 1807 that “it would teach them (laboring classes) to despise their lot in life, it would render them factious and refractory.” He also argued that the cost of this mass education would be “incalculable”.

So we learn that the role of the philanthropist in educating the “laboring classes” is invaluable in not only funding schools for the poor, orphaned and homeless children but in fighting for the cause of education. Burdett-Coutts funded schools and evening classes for children from deprived backgrounds to enable them to learn skills that would enable them to earn a living. Of course, Burdett-Coutts was not the only Victorian citizen interested in children and education. Thomas Barnardo first started his Ragged School in 1867 but just three years later had expanded into providing housing for young boys and developed a ‘no child turned away’ policy after the death of a boy who had been turned away when the shelter was full. Within seven years Barnardo had acquired tens of properties with one of his wedding gifts in 1873 being a 60-acre site to house a Girls Village.

Angela Burdett-Coutts’ giving was not limited to the poor in England, her giving extended into other parts of the Empire by providing vast sums to relieve the suffering in Ireland during the Potato Famine. Not only did she provide goods such as corn, flour, tea and sugar, but she paid for boats and equipment in an attempt to stimulate the fishing industry - something that is considered to be a very modern approach to charity, providing the needy with the tools to better their situation themselves rather than the nineteenth century tradition of giving only what the poor needed when they came begging.

Clearly this charitable nature ran in the family as her father became the first politician to fight against animal cruelty by sponsoring the first act against cruelty to animals brought to the House of Commons. She was made President of the Ladies Committee of the RSPCA in 1870.  Angela Burdett-Coutts also sponsored scientific discovery by sponsoring the Royal Marsden Hospital, David Livingstone in his African exploration and Charles Babbage in his attempts to develop an early computer.

Most significantly, Burdett-Coutts kept her giving discreet as so many of her gifts were donated anonymously. She was one of the wealthiest women of her time and it is estimated that she donated around £350 million.

 

What encouraged her to become so philanthropic?

So why did this young woman, of massive fortune who was well read and well travelled, decide that she would dedicate her life to improving the lives of others, most of whom she would never meet or interact with? Her contact with politicians such as William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli surely had an impact as despite their opposing political views, both political leaders acted to pass legislation to protect the vulnerable and needy through the allowance of Trade Unions in 1871 and the demolition of slums in 1875 under Gladstone and Disraeli respectively. Most significantly has to be her relationship with Charles Dickens: known philanthropist and author who used his gift to share the situation that disgusted him so greatly and to encourage middle and upper class readers to take on charitable roles. Burdett-Coutts was aware of the problem of prostitution but Dickens had an action plan to create houses for women where they could be taught, become grounded in religion and train them in a steady, firm yet cheerful and hopeful manner. Burdett-Coutts gave Dickens almost “free rein in setting it up” according to author Claire Tomalin.

Burdett-Coutts’ strength of character is shown here as her very close friend, and some would say, lover or even secret husband, guided her against becoming involved with Dickens’ project to house and reform prostitutes. The Duke of Wellington, as explained in one biography: “could not understand her enthusiasm for social reform, for popular education, clearing slums and sewers, all these were outside his comprehension”. The view of the Duke of Wellington was most definitely the popular view and one that her peers would have shared especially with regards to ‘fallen women’ who had allowed themselves to fall to the depths of society and showed no moral fiber as per Victorian values.

Angela Burdett-Coutts is not one of the most well known philanthropists, in part due to her discretion, there are no hospitals named after her or modern charities bearing her name (just one small primary school in central London), but she was surely a pioneer, not only for women but for all nineteenth and twentieth century philanthropists. She did not seek fame and gave away a significant percentage of her vast fortune, she made alliances with key politicians, authors and members of the nobility who all gave her the knowledge that she sought and the opinions she valued, even if she did not agree with them. So, if you are ever in London, take a walk around Victoria Park and spend a moment at the Burdett-Coutts fountain that was generously donated at a cost of £6,000 in 1862 to ensure that people living in the East End of London had access to clean water.

 

Want to read more? Click here to read our article on the contrasting lives of the rich and poor in Victorian Britain.

References

  • http://philanthrocapitalism.net/bonus-chapters/victorian-giving/ 
  • http://www.fergys.co.uk/Blogs/BritPMs.php 
  • http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/london/122.html
  • http://www.barnardos.org.uk/what_we_do/our_history/thomas_barnardo.htm
  • http://www.coutts.com/private-banking/coutts-institute/philanthropy-and-social-investment/angela-burdett-coutts/#
  • http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/chapter02.html#01

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

In this article, Jennifer Johnstone continues her look at Charles Dickens and poverty in Victorian Britain. She considers his impact on social change, and then thinks about something that you may not know – his perhaps racist views.

 

In part one of this two-part look at Charles Dickens and poverty, we considered how Dickens may have viewed social inequality and poverty in modern Britain. We reflected on how he might have viewed the Welfare State, and looked at some of his works, including Oliver Twist. In this concluding part of ‘Dickens and Poverty’ we will explore Dickens further. I want to examine whether or not he was a true social critic of inequality at heart, by reflecting on what Dickens’ impact was on Victorian Britain. Was he the social reformer that we often think of him? Then we will look at a less favorable aspect of Dickens, a Dickens that we don’t often see when he is critiqued. But before that, I begin by looking at his work Little Dorrit

A caricature of Charles Dickens. L'Eclipse, June 14, 1868.

A caricature of Charles Dickens. L'Eclipse, June 14, 1868.

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit is a story about debt and imprisonment; it is also a condemnation towards the government and society. Dickens portrays his characters in Little Dorrit as people being down on their luck, while the characters analyze themselves in relation to poverty. By analyze, I mean that they feel shame or guilt for being in poverty. As such, Dickens touches on a theme that is in Oliver Twist - poverty breeds crime. Little Dorrit is about different social classes, and how these classes are seen within society. Indeed, a major theme of Little Dorit is social stratification, and instead of valuing a person for who they are, and what impact they have on others, Victorian society is portrayed as a shallow society, obsessed with material goods.

Dickens’ highlighting of this shallowness, and the focus on unimportant material objects, is a valuable contribution by the writer because it highlights that people often value material possessions more than they value people. But, what impact did Dickens have in the real world, outside his writings?

 

Dickens’ limited impact?

Although Dickens was a vocal critic of parts of Victorian society, the influence Dickens had in changing Victorian attitudes towards poverty is debatable. Some argue that Dickens did not reform Victorian Britain very much, that he did not influence social change. Perhaps there is something to be said for this. After all, true social reform and the Welfare State were not introduced in Britain until much later, after Dickens death. If you were poor in Victorian Britain, then the government did not look after you; instead, you had to rely on charities, or you became destitute. It was only in the year of Dickens’ death, 1870, that we were beginning to see the early stages of a welfare state. But, it can be suggested that it is mere coincidence that the reforming Education Act (1870) coincided with Dickens’ death, and had nothing to do with Dickens’ vocal condemnation on deprivation and poverty. Rather than the Education Act being about Dickens, it was more about the politics of the time, military politics to be precise. This argument is given further credence when we consider that little else was reformed socially in Britain until the early 20th century.

There are two important reasons that can be suggested for why Dickens’ work did not have much of an influence in Victorian society. The first is illiteracy levels. With such high levels of poverty, and a lack of education for the poor, Dickens’ audience was not the poor, but the rich. That leads to the second reason why he did not create the social reform he sought; many of the rich did not want to share their wealth with the poor, something that is suggested through laws such as the ‘The Poor Law.’ So, we can perhaps say that part of the reason that social reform arose much later than 1870 was that in later years the poor became better educated, and could read Dickens’ work.

 

Dickens and Poverty

Charles Dickens had sympathy towards the poor because he was one of them. He was a man who worked in the factories he portrayed in his novels, and who despised those same factories. He was born into poverty, but he was treated unfairly and harshly just for being poor. Therefore, he knew what it was like to be in the position of the poor; whereas most of the unsympathetic and immoral upper classes, had no such reality check. But, the upper class being out of touch with the poor, was as much a problem in Victorian Britain as it is today. And, I think that Dickens would have condemned this today too.

Researching Dickens has led me to conclude that he was ahead of his time. Instead of seeing human beings, the upper class Victorians vilified the poor. Essentially, they made their life a living hell. But this was not only a period of suppressing the poor British people, but a period of colonization, and the suppression of other people, in other nations.

 

Dickens and Native Americans

Analyzing his views about other cultures, we see a different side, a darker side, to Dickens. For example, Dickens essentially expressed racist views about Native American people. Indeed, in The Noble Savage, he expressed a hatred of their existence. We can even go as far to say that Dickens did not oppose the genocide of Native Americans; for example, he writes that they could be ‘civilized out of existence.’ One could argue, that by Dickens using the word ‘civilized’, he means to humanely remove Native Americans. It is clear that he is explicitly stating that they should be wiped out, however much flowery connotation there is to his language. As you can’t really remove a culture out of existence, without using force, or even brutality. In effect, Dickens seems intolerant of the Native American’s way of life. The Noble Savage projects a dark side of Dickensian ideology, and that is one of contempt for other ways of life, contempt for another race. What it shows is something that is not often discussed when we look at the history of Dickens; his racist attitudes.

It is important to look at how Dickens viewed other races and cultures. This is because, if we can see that Dickens was as opposed to the oppression of other cultures and races as he was to his own, then it would show that he is all an all round good character, condemning suppression, whether in relation to poverty our not. Dickens did a very good job at highlighting the poverty in his own country, but Dickens failed in applying his message universally - that you should stand up for the underdog, and the suppressed, whoever they maybe.

 

In sum

In conclusion, it seems to me that Dickens was a very interesting character, much like the characters he created. Not only that, but an odd man too. Odd in the sense that for someone who chastised the rich of his own country for treating the poor like dirt, he was a supporter of oppressing other groups. So, many of the attitudes that Dickens held in contempt, and was vocally opposed to, were the very attitudes which he expressed to other peoples. In short, Dickens was not a very consistent character; he was as complex as the characters he portrayed.

Dickens, though, stood up for the impoverished in a way that nobody else of his time did. But, there is more that Dickens could have, should have, expressed in his works; the suppression of other people, in other countries.

If any words could be expressed to Dickens about himself, suppression, and poverty, they would be ‘’Please sir, I want some more....’

 

In the meantime you can read more about crime in 19th century Britain here.

 

Now, if you enjoyed the article, please like it, tweet about it, or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below!

References

http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/bleakhouse/carter.html

http://classiclit.about.com/od/dickenscharles2/a/aa_cdickensquot.htm

http://exec.typepad.com/greatexpectations/dickens-attitude-to-the-law.html

http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/diniejko.html

http://orwell.ru/library/reviews/dickens/english/e_chd

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16907648

http://www.dickens.port.ac.uk/poverty/

http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/bleakhouse/carter.html

http://charlesdickenspage.com/twist.html

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/2012/jan/12/welfare-reform-charles-dickens

Little Dorrit: http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/dickens/LittleDorrit6x9.pdf

Olive Twist: http://www.planetebook.com/ebooks/Oliver-Twist.pdf

A Christmas Carol: http://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Dickens/Carol/Dickens_Carol.pdf

The Noble Savage: http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/2529


In her latest article, Georgie Broad reflects on the life of women in Victorian Britain. She does so by contrasting the lives of rich and poor – and then showing just what these two very different groups had in common.

 

Few eras in history can evoke such ideas of contrast between the lives of different people as that of the Victorian era of 1837-1901 in Britain. The reign of Queen Victoria brought with it an age of prosperity and national pride in Britain, and is often considered one of the most important and influential times in the country’s history.

As easy as it is to romanticize this period, especially given the push toward arts, a more gentile and sentimentalized way of life, and the stirrings of a more liberal type of politics, we must also remember the vast divides in lifestyle, and gender and class equality. This can be seen in the rigid class division of the time. Four main classes existed: the nobility and gentry at the top of the ladder, trailed by the middle class (often these two are combined to cover the “upper class” in general), and then the “upper” working class, swiftly followed by the poorest of the poor, the “lower” working class (again, these latter two are often combined to form the “lower class” as a whole).

The best way to not only explain and investigate class differences, but to highlight just how vast the problems of inequality and division were at the time, is to consider rich and poor in turn. There was the rich lady, who led the nostalgically stylized view of Victorian life – all bustles, petticoats and jewels, and conversely there was the somewhat less rosy existence of the poor woman; a life of chimney sweeping, workhouses, and prostitution.

 

PART I: THE RICH

Victorian England was a man’s world. More specifically, it was a rich, upper-class, man’s world, and even better if you had land, a large house, a title, and a doting wife. Women of this class enjoyed a life full of all the things money could buy; travel, fine clothes, good food and of course, servants and staff to do chores for them. 

The Victorian upper-classes in their fine clothes.

The Victorian upper-classes in their fine clothes.

Their allotted goal in life was to marry, have children and raise them in an appropriate and respectful manner. This in itself was seen to be sufficient fulfillment for an upper class woman and the role of devoted wife and mother was highly idealized in Victorian Britain. The perfect role model for the domesticity expected of upper, and especially middle class women, was that of Victoria herself, who doted upon her husband and children, and after Albert’s death remained loyal, modest and demure – engrossing herself in her regal affairs.

Unlike their lower class counterparts, upper class Victorian women more often than not had staff to help with the running of their home and the raising of their children, leaving them with plenty of time to enjoy the finer things in life. Dancing and grand social parties were commonplace in the lives of wealthy Victorian women, and offered them a chance to mingle with other women of similar backgrounds and to show off their fineries. However, in doing so, the ladies had to remember to adhere to certain unspoken rules of etiquette, lest they come across as vulgar and gain an unsavory reputation among the other members of the elite. The rules ranged from what kind of jewelry to wear, to where and with whom they were allowed to walk.

Aside from the work (or lack thereof) that upper class Victorian women did, the most interesting and noticeable way to distinguish between rich and poor women was clothing. The images we have today of Victorian women, clad in fine fabrics, grand dresses, bonnets and petticoats, are the clothes of the upper classes. They would be expensive, exotic and made to impress – but also came imbued with many subtle reminders of the upper class woman’s place. It was at this time in the 19th century that women’s clothes in the upper echelons of society came to be more sexualized. Women’s clothing accentuated and exaggerated the hips, breasts and derriere not only to make the wearer seem more attractive, but to separate these wealthy ladies from the world of work. Obviously, it would be beyond impractical to be in a workhouse or cleaning in a heavy and corseted dress, and so in wearing such clothes, the rich were making a subtle but definitive statement: no manual labor for us. Instead, the garments were designed beautifully so that women may resemble and compliment the décor of their lavish home, where they could look after their family and entertain, minus the strains and stresses of working and getting messy.


PART II: THE POOR

So, although the upper class life seemed pretty settled, they weren’t as secure as they may have appeared, as many of the middle class women risked slipping into the “upper” sector of the lower class through the death of a father or husband. As was and is often the case in noble families, inheritance would go to the eldest male child or next-of-kin, so many women were often left by the wayside, without money or a home. These women would be employed in jobs that required skills, often ones that had been acquired during their time in the upper and middle classes, such as teachers and governesses. Some even worked in shops or as bookkeepers. They had a comfortable life, not being exactly poor, with steady jobs and no manual labor involved; however it was a far cry from their previous lives of leisure, and an even further cry from the lives of the lowest class of Victorian women; those of the “lower” working class. 

Women working in the 'wash-house at the Brixton prison.'

Women working in the 'wash-house at the Brixton prison.'

t was the “lower” working class that we generally associate with the “other end of the spectrum” that we contrast with the lavish lifestyle of the ladies of leisure. Their food was tasteless and consisted of anything that they could afford, their clothes were vastly different from the luxurious outfits of the upper class women – consisting of rag and cheap cloth, and their homes would be cold, dank and dark. These women were usually single, and relied only upon themselves for support, often working among men of the same class in workhouses. Life in the workhouses was arduous and dangerous, but as long as the women were pronounced as “able bodied” they had to work, not only because of the legal requirement to do so, but to scrape together any money they could.

Another trade which lower class women could turn their hand to was that of domestic service. Although it was not as physically draining as factory work, it had its own difficulties. Catering for the demanding upper class ladies all day and cleaning up after their families seven days a week, for at least twelve hours a day, was in itself a monumental task, especially when if anything were to go wrong in the family it would be the servants who were to get the blame.

One of the less grim work options for women of this class was to turn to prostitution. Prostitution in Victorian Britain was a prevalent and often well earning business, with streets and streets dedicated to its work. Many girls turned to prostitution, viewing it as a means to an end - a way to build up capital so that they may invest in a business or live a more comfortable life. However, many of these young women had their lives cut tragically short by untreated sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which of course they passed on to a great many of their customers who could also fall victim to the more fatal side of the trade.

 

NOT SO DIFFERENT

Although women in the upper and lower classes had many differences, they also had some similarities. Women in the Victorian era were very much seen as second best to men, as a trophy, a wife and a mother, and were expected to be content with this role in society. It was toward the end of the Victorian era that the women’s suffrage movement began in the United Kingdom. Women of every class came together to stand against the injustice and inequality of the voting system and to lobby for their right to vote.

So despite the vast differences between the women in this era, their similarities encouraged a change that shaped the history of Britain. Between the idealized view of Victorian life demonstrated by upper class women and the less desirable lifestyle of poorer women, we can learn a lot about the society of Victorian Britain, and begin to sense the stirrings of one of the most important and dramatic social changes in history.

 

Now, listen to our new podcast about a dark crime in Victorian London. Click here.

 

And if you enjoyed the article, like it, tweet about it, or share it! Click one of the buttons below.

References

Images

  • http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-6fgaguD08Jg/TV8-JCZxhbI/AAAAAAAAAo0/kHfS_ga-0rI/s1600/Victorian_fashions.jpg
  • http://waywardwomen.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/brixton-prison.gif


Text sources

  • www.newsteg.com/index.php/females-in-victorian-era
  • www.bl.uk/learning/hiscitizen/victorians/peor/workingclass.htm
  • kspot.org/holmes/kelsey.htm
  • www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/staff/academicstaff/jonesc/jonesc_index/teaching/birth/uk11_victorian_britain_handout.pdf 

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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In this article, Jennifer Johnstone looks at what Charles Dickens thought about poverty in 19th century Britain. And considers what Dickens may think about modern-day attempts to reduce the size of the British Welfare State.

 

No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.

- Charles Dickens

 

By observing Charles Dickens’ work, what is clear is that poverty is a major theme. Dickens was an outspoken social critic in general, but especially about poverty. Before the birth of Britain’s Welfare State, which aims to support the poor, Dickens sought to help the poor by highlighting the social inequality in his country. In this respect, Charles Dickens was a man ahead of his time. The British Welfare State was founded in 1945, with the aim of providing people with a safety net ‘from cradle to grave.’ Dickens identified the reality of poverty many years before that. He acknowledged that poverty was not the fault of the people who endured it, but rather, the fault of the establishment, including the government. Indeed, I daresay that he would be of the same view today – that poverty is the fault of the government.

Mr Bumble, the beadle from the workhouse, leading Oliver Twist. The painting is based on the book  Oliver Twist  by Charles Dickens.

Mr Bumble, the beadle from the workhouse, leading Oliver Twist. The painting is based on the book Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

How would Charles Dickens view modern poverty?

The short answer is: he would have had as much contempt for the way society treats the poor today as he did when he was alive. With modern Britain vilifying the poor, or those on benefits, Dickens would have seen this as an attack on the poor; instead of society trying to eradicate poverty, society is blaming the poor for something that is outside of their control. Victorian Britain condemned ‘idleness.’  This Victorian attitude is something that we see creeping back into modern society. Since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, Britain has been slowly eradicating its Welfare State. This weakening of the Welfare State is essentially attacking the poor, because, the poor rely on the Welfare State, whether they are the working poor, or the unemployed poor.

Dickens would have seen this as classism. And condemned it as such. He quite clearly condemns classism in Oliver Twist, and A Christmas Carol. Dickens, in both these works, portrays the rich as greedy, and as people who are unsympathetic to the poor.

 

The Poor Law

Dickens condemned ‘The Poor Law.’ This law resulted in the middle and upper-classes paying less to support the poor. In much the same way, Dickens would have said that cutting poor people’s benefits in modern Britain, was about punishing the poor. The book A Christmas Carol comes to mind at this point; we can view Scrooge as the symbol of taking more and more from the poor. We can see similarities with the Poor Law, and cuts to unemployment benefits today.

But, was Dickens right, was the Poor Law an attack on those who were poor? I think the answer is yes. The first reason is that The Poor Law attacked the impoverished, and meant that the richest contributed less. The second reason why the Poor Law attacked the poorest was because it forced people into the horrible workhouses. Workhouses were deliberately cruel. Usually one would only enter a workhouse as a last resort; they were internationally hard places to live in, forcing people into work in harsh conditions, even children. Not only that, but, as we see in Oliver Twist, people were not given an adequate living area, and nor were they fed well. Proper nutrition was absent within workhouses, except for the rich who worked in them.

Within the workhouses, people were essentially treated like prisoners; not human beings who were just unlucky enough to be born into poverty. The only seeming difference with workhouses and prisons was that the door was always open with workhouses. But, in reality, people did not have the choice to leave as they had no means to support themselves.

 

Oliver Twist

Dickens novel Oliver Twist is about an orphan boy. In the novel, Oliver is born within a poorhouse, but his mother dies. Later Oliver is sent to an ‘infant farm.’ Finally escaping the poorhouse, Oliver is sent spinning into the dark underworld of London, working for a gang of thieves led by Fagan and the Artful Dodger, Bill Sykes and Nancy. The reader sees through Nancy’s character, that those who are forced into this criminal underworld (in Nancy’s case - prostitution), are forced into poverty because of the problems in the system. Not only does it destroy their lives, but it also has a negative impact on society at large. We often see Nancy as a sympathetic character, one who tries to get Oliver out of this life of crime. It is interesting that Dickens uses Nancy’s character, as a symbol of domestic abuse. Not only does Nancy represent domestic abuse, but she also seems to be symbolic of the Victorian’s beating down on those who were sympathetic to the poor. It also seems like an indirect criticism from Charles Dickens to the state for having such an attitude.

 

In Conclusion

Dickens was a writer who often injected his work with realism and social criticism. His work may have included ghosts or time travel (A Christmas Carol), but Dickens work was more about reality than fantasy. And that is what makes Dickens’ novels so memorable; we are being educated about Victorian Britain, but in a way that is engaging to the reader. At the very heart of Dickens’ writing is a very serious message: the tragedy of inequality, poverty, and deprivation. In the second part of my analysis of Dickens, I want to turn to what can only be described as the dark side of Dickens.

 

Part 2 in this series will follow soon. In the meantime you can read more about crime in 19th century Britain here.

 

Now, if you enjoyed the article, please like it, tweet about it, or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below!

References

  • http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/bleakhouse/carter.html
  • http://classiclit.about.com/od/dickenscharles2/a/aa_cdickensquot.htm
  • http://exec.typepad.com/greatexpectations/dickens-attitude-to-the-law.html
  • http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/diniejko.html
  • http://orwell.ru/library/reviews/dickens/english/e_chd
  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16907648
  • http://www.dickens.port.ac.uk/poverty/
  • http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/bleakhouse/carter.html
  • http://charlesdickenspage.com/twist.html
  • http://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/2012/jan/12/welfare-reform-charles-dickens
  • Little Dorrit: http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/dickens/LittleDorrit6x9.pdf
  • Olive Twist: http://www.planetebook.com/ebooks/Oliver-Twist.pdf
  • A Christmas Carol: http://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Dickens/Carol/Dickens_Carol.pdf
  • The Noble Savage: http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/2529/