Charles Dickens statue in Portsmouth. Source: - Basher Eyre Charles Dickens statue in Portsmouth. Source: - Basher Eyre

Dickens’s acute observations of social inequality illuminate the cruelty of our government 150 years after his death, says Katherine Connelly

‘“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”’ In Charles Dickens’ 1843 story A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present recalls Scrooge’s sarcastic reply to a request for charity for the ‘thousands [who] are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands [who] are in want of common comforts’. When Scrooge is told that ‘many would rather die’ than enter the workhouse, he retorts that in that case ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’

Now, Scrooge finds himself faced with two figures – Ignorance and Want – who appear as impoverished children. He is about to meet the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come who will teach him what kind of society the values Scrooge once upheld is going to create.

Anniversaries provide a moment to think, like Scrooge, about the impact of the past on the present and what we must change in the present for a better future.

The anniversary of Dickens’ death provides an opportunity to consider the power of his writing on social inequality that ensured the deep affection in which he was held. In the words of one biographer:
The ordinary people saw that he was on their side, and they loved him for it. He did not ask them to think but showed them what he wanted them to see and hear. 1

And we might ask what his acute observations of social inequality illuminates about Britain today.

Capitalism and the Poor Laws

In his study of capitalism, Karl Marx noted that the weakening of feudal ties so necessary to create a ‘free’ proletariat with nothing to sell but their ability to work, created a destitute class of those individuals who were unable to find a market for their labour.2

In England, this situation was exacerbated by the dissolution of the monasteries, thus removing a source of assistance for the very poor. The state responded to this social crisis by passing poor laws, which categorised the destitute – dividing a small number who were deemed deserving of support from a much larger group who were judged undeserving. This latter, and the means to which they were forced to resort to survive (such as begging), were criminalised.

The message was clear: poverty was the fault of the individual.

By the nineteenth century, with the rapid development of industrial capitalism, and mass migration into the cities of people looking for work, the social crisis became even more extreme.

There was widespread rejection of the idea that poverty was the fault of the poor. Bitter experience revealed that the anarchy of the capitalist economy caused destitution, that workers (often referred to as ‘hands’) were thrown out of work when new machinery became available; that employers cut wages to the bare minimum in their race to maximise profits and beat their competitors. The inherent inequality of contemporary society was epitomised by the corrupt political system.

In the early 1830s, there was significant social unrest. When political reform was blocked by politicians in 1831 there were revolts in cities across England: Bristol was set on fire and its prison attacked, Nottingham Castle was burnt down. The following year, the political crisis was abated when the Reform Bill was passed by a frightened parliament.

Agricultural workers whose livelihoods were being lost to mechanisation undertook direct action, smashing up machinery and demanding higher wages, in what were called the ‘Swing Riots’. The ruling elite was determined that the poor themselves would not decide the response to the social crisis.

In 1834, the same year that agricultural workers in Dorset were transported to Australia for attempting to form a union, the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed.

Dickens and the Poor Law

The proponents of the new Poor Law argued that the old system had been too expensive – and too generous.

The new law saw the massive expansion of workhouses where the destitute would be imprisoned. Operating on the assumption that the poor were responsible for their condition, the authors of the new law determined that the conditions of the workhouse would be so appalling that they would provide a deterrent to anyone seeking support.

Dickens expressed a widely held feeling about the workhouses when he had his charity worker in A Christmas Carol say that ‘many would rather die’ than enter them. People called them ‘Bastilles’ – which not only compared them to the symbol of tyranny that was torn down at the start of the French Revolution, but also suggested that they wanted to do the same thing to the workhouses.

Those who were forced into the workhouse were punished for their poverty. They were fed meagre rations – the source of one of Dickens’ most famous scenes in Oliver Twist when orphaned Oliver asks the workhouse Beadle for ‘more’. Like prisoners, workhouse inmates wore uniforms, were instructed to be silent, and were put to work – Oliver is told he will pick oakum.

Men and women were separated and families split up. For the legislators, this cruel refinement had the benefit of stopping the poor from having children. Influenced by the ideas of the political economist and clergyman Thomas Malthus, they regarded the destitute as a ‘surplus population’ (as Scrooge expressed it).

Dickens knew all the arguments that were put forward for the new Poor Law because in 1834 he was a parliamentary reporter sat feverishly recording every word of the debates.

In Oliver Twist, which began to be published in serialisation from 1837, Dickens bitterly satirised the supporters of the law and their pretensions to philosophy and political economy. He describes Oliver’s first encounter with a scrap of meat, which as a workhouse boy had been denied to him because of the ‘Philosophy’ behind the Poor Law, and the anger scorches the page:
I wish some well-fed philosopher, whose meat and drink turn to gall within him; whose blood is ice, whose heart is iron; could have seen Oliver Twist clutching at the dainty viands that the dog had neglected. I wish he could have witnessed the horrible avidity with which Oliver tore the bits asunder with all the ferocity of famine. There is only one thing I should like better; and that would be to see the Philosopher making the same sort of meal himself, with the same relish.

A Tale of Two Fictions

As well as knowing the hypocritical arguments of the philosophers and politicians, Dickens knew quite a lot about the conditions in which the poor lived and died. He regularly visited prisons, morgues, and workhouses. But he also knew from direct experience what poverty, imprisonment, and child labour were like.

When Dickens was a child, his family was locked up in the Marshalsea prison because his father was a debtor. The ambitious young book-loving Dickens was forced to forgo his education and work in a blacking factory.

Dickens kept that personal experience a secret for the rest of his life. He told perhaps only one person: his close friend John Forster who kept his confidence until after Dickens’ death when he told the story in his biography.

But although Dickens did not publish an autobiographical account of these experiences, he vividly and painfully reimagined them in his novels. The inhumanity of the workhouse is seen through the eyes of his young characters – David Copperfield, who like Dickens, works as a child and visits his (adopted) family in the workhouse, or Amy Dorrit, born in the Marshalsea prison because, like Dickens, her father is a debtor. And like the young Dickens, David and Amy face a blighted future through no fault of their own.

Through these stories Dickens, the great nineteenth-century fiction writer, was able to expose another fiction: the stories that the powerful and the wealthy told themselves about the poor.

Contemporary fiction

Dickens’ angry satire and acute observations illuminate similarities between ‘Victorian morality’ and the attitudes of our own government today.

Like the men who designed the 1834 Poor Law, from 2010 onwards the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government and the subsequent Conservative governments invented stories.

Like the politicians of 1834, they said what happened before was too ‘generous’, too expensive.

And then, on 25 June 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech at Bluewater shopping centre justifying cuts to what he called ‘benefits’. He did so by telling stories, comparing individuals who happened to live nearby, actually very nearby: ‘on the same street’. In the first instance was someone we were told worked hard but couldn’t do the things they wanted to do (like move out of their parents’ home, or start a family). And then, there was the contrast: ‘the couple down the road, who have four children, haven’t worked for a number of years’. It went on and on, example after example.

They weren’t real people, these were examples that could have happened (or stories that Cameron made up), in which the narrator gave them individual characters: he might have called them the Deserving and the Undeserving Poor. And there was only one conclusion from this speech: the Undeserving would have to suffer so that they would have no incentive to claim those ‘benefits’.

The terrible result of this approach is Universal Credit which has been widely blamed for plunging the most vulnerable in our society into poverty and destitution. Like the workhouses of the nineteenth century, the guiding ideology of Universal Credit maintains that it is the fault of the poor for being poor.

But recently, in the face of the pandemic, one of the biggest Tory fictions has been exposed. The key workers are not the CEOs, hedge fund managers, and bankers, who were continually told we must prevent ‘leaving the country’ by keeping their taxes low. They are those who do the caring and the cleaning and the transporting in our society – often on very low wages, many of them forced to turn to food banks and Universal Credit to try to make ends meet.

The justification for a decade of austerity, which has inflicted immeasurable suffering, was based on Tory lies that would have been familiar to Charles Dickens. Unlikely to be haunted by what they have done, we can ensure that they are terrified by what is Yet To Come, by changing the present.

[1] Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life (London: Penguin Books, 2012), p.68.
[2] Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol.1, (London: Penguin Books, 1990), p.896.

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Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.