Dickens, Charles (Charles John Huffam Dickens)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Dickens, Charles (Charles John Huffam Dickens)

Dickens, Charles (Charles John Huffam Dickens) (1812-1870)

English social novelist Like other observers of his day, the writer Charles Dickens noted the impact of the British Empire on England's social and economic values. He was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812, to a navy pay clerk. He came of age at the height of underworld melodrama, ghost tales, picaresque novels, and episodic crime thrillers featuring murderers, scoundrels, highwaymen, and procurers. Poverty ended his education at age 12, when he began supporting his family with a factory job pasting labels on bottles of shoe blacking. For professional on-the -job training as a writer, he collected court, jail, and gallows news for the London Morning Chronicle. In freelanced articles, he pictured the moral decline of the world's major trading nation in terms of the miscarriages of justice resulting in alienation and human misery. Later, his novels appeared initially as serials in newspapers, beginning with The Pickwick Papers in 1836-37.

Hardship sharpened the author's investigation of England's underclass. As models of venality, he populated his novels with child enslavers, grifters, misers, and grotesque orphan tenders, stepparents, and foster parents flourishing in London, which he considered the empire's heart. By serializing vignettes, stories, and potboilers in weekly journals, he amassed a huge following of readers. Like Sir ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE in his popular Sherlock Holmes detective stories, Dickens tinged his didactic fiction with a dark tone, disturbing atmosphere, and GOTHIC glimpses of the colonies as sources of villainy, profiteering, and escape, such as slave trafficking in Brazil and Cuba in The Pickwick Papers and the escape of the bankrupt Micawbers and of Mr. Peggoty and Little Em'ly to a new life in Australia in David Copperfield (1849-50). In Pickwick, Dickens draws SATIRE out of the misguided intentions of missionaries “for providing the infant negroes in the West Indies with flannel waistcoats and moral pocket handkerchiefs” (Dickens 1986, 1:256). Of the contrast of human fortunes at home and in the colonies, chapter 57 of David Copperfield tells of the upbeat departure to Australia of “crowded groups of people, making new friendships, taking leave of one another, talking, laughing, crying, eating and drinking, some, already settled down into the possession of their few feet of space” (Dickens 1986, 2:535). Subsequent generations enjoyed the 1969 and 1999 film versions of the emigrants' embarking.

The Empire's Failures

Dickens doubted the attainment of lasting world peace through Britain's infliction of war, diplomacy, and law on dependent nations. His distaste for colonial excesses cropped up in unforeseen places—for example, in chapter 17 of American Notes for General Circulation (1842), a denunciation of the Southern plantation system in which he warns of future imperialism in the United States with the enslavement of “human cattle” (Dickens 1867, 115). He referred to imperial greed and to the empire's destruction of social institutions in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) and promoted marriage and domesticity over imperial treasures in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, left incomplete at Dickens's death in 1870. In Bleak House (1853), Dickens satirizes Mr. Baguet's purchase of a brace of fowls as an imperial luxury. In a speech in London to parodists on May 20, 1865, he warned of the excesses of an empire in which the press has no critical voice. However, in his summation for young readers of the British past, A Child’s History of England (1853), he lessened charges against the British by sanitizing events and concluding with a salute to Queen Victoria for her benevolence.

In his most enduring works, Dickens dipped into particulars of malfeasance from the empire, including administrative corruption, diaspora, and the transportation of felons to alleviate overcrowded prisons. In A Tale of Two Cities (1859), he employs a doppelganger motif to contrast the cynical barrister Sydney Carton with his lookalike, the family man and condemned Bastille prisoner Charles Darnay. Carton takes the place of Darnay at the guillotine as a victim of the French Revolution, which executed Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and ended the king's rapacious, self-indulgent reign. Great Expectations (1860-61), a classic bildungsro- man, idealizes New South Wales, Australia, as a second chance for Abel Magwitch, a con man and thwarted father. While England built its treasury in the mid-1800s on investments in imperial holdings, Dickens shamed the exploiter and enslaver for accumulated human failings, particularly the degrading effects of a fleet of derelict ships fitted out as floating prisons. Like Alice Brown Marwood, returned from transportation in Dombey and Son (1846-48), the escaped convict Magwitch returns to London after making his fortune in Australia's sheep market. He conveniently frees the motherland of colonial contamination by dying of pneumonia after a self-sacrificing feat, the drowning of Compeyson, a more virulent criminal.

For vehement writing against inhumanity, Dickens earned a major place among world authors. Queen Victoria and gothic masters Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins were among his millions of readers; his concern for the underdog influenced the peasant stories of the Nigerian author CHINUA ACHEBE and the postcolonial fiction of RUTH PRAWER JHABVALA, a survivor of the Holocaust. Hollywood increased Dickens's fan base. In 1946, director David Lean featured Finlay Currie as the convict Magwitch in a film version of Great Expectations. Subsequent remakes starred James Mason as Magwitch in 1974, Anthony Hopkins 1989, and Robert De Niro in 1998. In 1933, the satirist Evelyn Waugh assembled strands of Dickens's gothic plots for a short story, “The Man Who Liked Dickens,” set in the Amazonian jungle of Brazil.


Dickens, Charles. American Notes for General

Circulation. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867.

----- . The Annotated Dickens. 2 vols. Edited by Edward Guiliano and Philip Collins. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1986.

Moore, Grace. Dickens and Empire: Discourses of Class, Race, and Colonialism in the Works of Charles Dickens. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2004.