Today marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens birth. For many people his work doesn’t go beyond Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol and even at that it is it probably mainly due to Lionel Bart and Alistair Sim respectively, but Dickens has a lot more to offer than four ghosts and some more gruel.
Dickens started out as a political journalist, which may be were his interest in social reform and removing the stigma from the poor and marginalised in Victorian society came from. His writing often has the poor, the orphan, the outcast as the hero; while the gentry and rich are frequently less than the moral and upstanding members of justice and morality that the Victorians liked to believe they were. Several of his novels highlight the exploitation of the disadvantaged and the appalling conditions that people lived in due to poor sanitation and the animals were treated better than people in workhouses and prisons. It has been claimed that he was instrumental in having the notorious Fleet Prison in London closed down.
With the finance of Angela Burdett Coutts behind him Dickens set up a refuge for women who had been caught up in prostitution, there they learnt to read and write which along with other skills set them up to find a way out of the life that had previously trapped them. He also helped in both the setting up and continually running of the fledgling Great Ormond Street Hospital.
People of his time and since have often said that his stories were unrealistic, yet the echos of his own life which can be seen in his stories testify to that isn’t the case. Mr Micawber in David Copperfield is said to be based on Dicken’s own father; while Nancy from Oliver on one of the women in the refuge he set up; and it has even been said that Pip from Great Expectations is based on his own life. A young lonely child starting out without any future, working in a dirty occupation (Dickens himself worked in Warren’s blacking factory), until he learnt to read and a new future came into view (while Dickens himself was finally allowed to return to school).
From the Cricket on the Hearth to Bleak House, from A Tale of Two Cities to Little Dorrit, from The Pickwick Papers to Our Mutual Friend Dickens has something for everyone. What is more in using his pen to powerful effect he was part of the beginning of a shift in Victorian society which in time would see the end of the workhouses, the introduction of a welfare state and child labour no longer being acceptable. The sad thing about today is while lots has been accomplished that Dickens would rejoice at and b e glad in, I am sure he would still also be scribbling furiously away at the injustice that still finds its home in today’s society. So maybe if you take this anniversary year to pick up and read a Dickens book you will do it with new eyes and let Dickens inspire you to try and right some injustices that still remain 200 years on.