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Dickens and the eradication of social evils: for a novelist, he did much

04 January 2012


From Dr John A. Florance

Sir, — I enjoyed Canon Giles Fraser’s piece on Charles Dickens (Comment, 30 December), but really must take issue with his comments on the great novelist’s sense of social justice.

It is perfectly true that, especially in his early novels, Dickens is too ready to have conveniently benevolent, well-off (usually portly) gentlemen solve the problems set up by the narrative. The Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby are a good example of this sort of thing. But even in that book we have the devastating attack on the Yorkshire schools which provoked a public outcry and their closure.

Dickens saw very clearly the need for institutional reform where education and the Poor Law was concerned in his early novels, and later became directly concerned with agitations in a number of areas. He was, for example, together with Angela Burdett-Coutts, instrumental in the setting up of the Urania Cottage, a home that helped young women who had “turned to a life of immorality”, including theft and prostitution. He put his kindness, generosity, energy and sense of social injustice at the service of charities and campaigns that had demonstrable effects.

By the time we reach his greatest novel, Bleak House, Dickens’s sense of society and its harshness has deepened and become infinitely more penetrating. Here he shows a complex web of interconnection between the Dedlocks at the top of the heap and the heartbreaking Jo, the doomed crossing-keeper, at the bottom. The novel is often described as an attack on the law’s delay, but it is much more than that. Dickens shows society as something that, in its injustice and unfeeling institutions, blights lives and militates against our better instincts. One comes away from it with a sense that the sytem is rotten right though.

Now, it is perfectly true that Dickens does not offer a solution to the massive problem that he so eloquently diagnoses. But then he was a novelist, not a politician. What fuels his best novels is a unique, harshly funny imagination suffused by a moral anger that is unique in English literature. It is up to readers to engage with the products of that extraordinary imagination and draw our own conclusions.

One final point. I find it extraordinary that Canon Fraser finds the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations so good. It certainly had interesting points. But the production relentlessly drained the humour out of the book, and Dickens without humour is simply not Dickens.

19 Sweetbriar Road
Leicester LE3 1 AP

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