Magdalen fellow Robert Douglas-Fairhurst highlights some of the numerous parallels between the period in which Dickens came of age as a novelist and our own recessionary world.
The recent BBC adaptation of Great Expectations included a scene in which the returned convict Magwitch opens a battered leather bag of money, and lets the notes flutter slowly to the floor. “It’s me that done this for you,” he explains proudly to Pip. “It’s me that is your benefactor.” A surprised Pip recoils in horror. Just as Magwitch represents a fragment of his past suddenly thrusting its way into the present, so the money represents his hopes of a fresh start being scattered to the winds.
Modern viewers are far less likely to be surprised – not only because many already know Dickens’ plot in advance, but also because stories of riches being bestowed upon the unprepared or undeserving have become as familiar in the news as suspect politicians or philandering footballers. As an apprentice blacksmith who suddenly finds himself being cocooned in velvet and silk, Pip differs little from bankers who are granted Ferrari-sized bonuses, or lottery winners who declare that “the money won’t change us” after becoming wealthy beyond avarice.
It is tempting to ignore such contemporary echoes, seeing them as no more than historical overspills from a writer who is as central to our image of the nineteenth century as foggy streets and flickering gas-lamps. It is no coincidence that ‘Dickensian’ and ‘Victorian’ have become more or less interchangeable terms. Both refer to a world that is usually treated either as a nostalgic alternative to the present – a time of resiliently chirpy urchins and endless plum puddings – or a grim and grimy past we have happily escaped. And for generations of readers, Dickens has given the illusion of direct access to this world; reading a page of Bleak House or David Copperfield is like opening a doorway into the Victorian home and the heads of its inhabitants alike.
Yet such fiction is far more than a barometer of cultural change. It is also a mirror in which we see distorted reflections of some of our most pressing concerns. Just as Pip discovers that he cannot escape his past, so many of the anxieties that ripple through Dickens’ writing can patiently lie low for years before returning to bother the present. Consider the fraudulent banker Merdle in Little Dorrit, whose fall creates a whirlpool effect that sucks in the guilty and innocent alike; or the thin-lipped references to share-dealing in Our Mutual Friend, a novel in which “ruin” quietly tolls like a bell, as Dickens imagines ordinary people crying out: “Relieve us of our money, scatter it for us, buy and sell us, ruin us, only we beseech ye take rank among the powers of the earth, and fatten on us.” Nor is Dickens’ satire limited to bankers. In The Chimes, one of his Christmas stories, he introduces three busybodies who try to disguise their hostility towards the poor as a form of practical good sense. They include a magistrate who is convinced that, “There’s a great deal of nonsense talked about Want – hard up, you know; that’s the phrase, isn’t it? Ha! Ha! Ha!” and a pompous philanthropist who is only willing to help those who vow to “be respectful, exercise your self-denial, [and] bring up your family on next to nothing.” Presumably both would be enthusiastic supporters of a “Big Society”.
Nowhere do such echoes resonate more strongly than in the 1830s, a decade which Dickens began as an anonymous member of the London crowd, and ended as the most famous novelist in the world. But Dickens was not alone in experiencing this decade as both the best of times and the worst of times. Seen from one angle, it was a period of unprecedented financial uncertainty. An economic collapse in 1825 had led to around 80 banks failing and almost 500 companies going bankrupt, and thirteen years later the memory was still raw enough to resurface in Nicholas Nickleby, as Mrs Nickleby encourages her husband to “speculate” with their assets. The outcome is sadly predictable: “A mania prevailed, a bubble burst... four hundred nobodies were ruined.”
Add several noughts to this figure and Dickens could be writing about recent events in global finance, from banking failures to the slow creep of the Euro crisis, all of which have somehow ended up making the rich slightly richer and the poor much poorer. In the pages of fiction, of course, Dickens could give these events a happy ending, with the Nickleby family returning to their old family house to live wealthily ever after, but no writer was more haunted by the alternatives of poverty and homelessness, and it is difficult now to read his address at the end of Hard Times without it ringing with contemporary relevance like an alarm bell, “Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not.”
More optimistically, the 1830s also witnessed a remarkable set of political changes, as the 1832 Reform Bill opened up an age of burgeoning democracy. If the nation was nervously looking back over its shoulder, it was also looking forward to what would soon become known as the Victorian Age. The future was a blank sheet of paper waiting to be written on, and many of these changes would be achieved through technology. The invention of the electric telegraph meant that within a decade the news was humming across wires that gradually spread through the nation, binding it together in a web of copper and steel. The foundations of modern social networking and its political offshoots – campaigning websites, electronic petitions, even the Arab Spring – were being established.
Other parallels are more down to earth. London in the 1830s was experiencing a building boom every bit as ambitious as our own Olympic Park and shiny new Stratford shopping centre; the skyline bristled with scaffolding, punctuated by regular plumes of dust, as old buildings were demolished and new ones erected. Some examples of progress were even more tangible. The 1830s saw the first properly organised system of public transport, as railway lines started to stretch their fingers greedily across the landscape and horse-drawn omnibuses had started to weave their way through London’s streets, allowing passengers to hop on and off just as easily as a modern commuter taking a Boris bus. March of Intellect, a drawing by William Heath published in the same year, shows equally radical social changes. In the foreground, a workman delicately eats an ice cream and his companion gnaws at a hothouse pineapple, both happily oblivious to traditional class divisions, while steam-powered machines whisk people across the ground and through the air. Like many satires on the shape of things to come, its scoffing has largely been silenced by the passage of time. Only a bat-like snout and wings prevent the artist’s imaginary flying machine from resembling a modern airliner, while a few decades later Londoners would think nothing of entering a ‘tube’ to carry them across the city. Even in 1829, the idea that people might travel in little motorised vehicles of their own was not entirely outlandish: for eighteen months between 1827 and 1829, Goldsworthy Gurney’s prototype steam-powered road carriage could be seen puffing around London at speeds of up to twenty miles per hour.
Yet while some sections of the population enjoyed what Bleak House described as “the moving age”, others were painfully stuck in a rut. For anyone who lacked Dickens’ talent and drive, social mobility was chiefly reserved for the pages of fiction. Street beggars continued to travel the same rounds, day after day and mile after mile, like a hamster on its wheel. A growing underclass produced gangs of thieving children, whose antics were rarely as picturesque and amusing in real life as they were in Oliver Twist, and whose only escape was transportation or the gallows. Dickens never forgot how easily he could have ended up as one of the anonymous poor; his fiction is shadowed by the alternative lives he could have led, the paths he could have taken. Equally, no writer was more conscious of how easily history can repeat itself, as one disadvantaged generation produces another, and if he could be transported to the scene of his bicentenary celebrations in 2012, he would see little to surprise him.
He would shake his head at the idea that, after a tentative period of social progress, the gap between rich and poor was once again widening and deepening. He would recognise the many descendants of Our Mutual Friend’s Mr Podsnap, who “felt conscious that he set a brilliant social example in being particularly well satisfied with most things, and, above all other things, with himself”, and would be spoilt for choice when it came to finding equivalents in modern celebrity culture of the Veneerings, a married couple who are as glossy and empty as a pair of Christmas baubles. He would respond sympathetically to the corrosive effects of debt, especially upon the young, and would observe that, even in the absence of prisons like the one that swallowed up his father, debt is an invisible ball and chain that grows heavier with the years.
And if he read reports of rioting in the streets, the author of Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities would shake his head at how quickly hard times had, once again, produced hardened hearts. It is difficult to think of a writer who would be more unhappy at feeling so strangely at home.