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If Dickens were alive today


'Bleak House' by Charles DickensWhen ruminating on the conditions under which asylum seekers and Indigenous people in Australia are forced to live, one is tempted to exclaim, 'Were that Dickens was alive today!' The phrase itself has a characteristically Victorian ring, an unconscious tribute to Charles Dickens, the 200th anniversary of whose birth we celebrate this week.

Dickens was an energetic social reformer as well as a novelist. He drew attention to his causes through his novels. It is not surprising that his work was translated and disseminated widely through the Soviet Union. They were presented as a realistic account of 20th century England. A cynical use of literature, but with literary fringe benefits.

I imagine that Dickens would have been thoroughly at home in today's culture. He would have been a natural in the world of soapies. My favorite among his novels, Bleak House, has all the makings of the genre. It was published in installments, left the reader hanging at the end of each chapter, had a multitude of small characters and sub-plots, all woven into the development of the story and neatly enough tied up by the end of the series.

The plot and characters of Bleak House also have the staples of soapies. The noble and the base are instantly recognised by their names. Lord and Lady Dedlock, Esther Summerson, Ada Clare, the Krooks, Mlle Hortense, Mr Tulkinghorn and Mr Bucket announce their dispositions before they appear.

Characters and plot are also larger than life. An impossibly noble benefactor and an impossibly sweet natured heroine, both apparently born without original sin, a promising but doomed love affair, a proud woman with a terrible secret, an implacable policeman with a deep concern for justice and dodgy ways of winning it, a gaggle of avaricious and smarmy lawyers engaged in an interminable suit, the chief lawyer whose incorruptibility is a natural consequence of his lack of flesh and blood humanity, a vicious French servant maid, a greedy landlord, a do-gooder neglectful of her family, and at the centre of the novel an aristocratic couple whose social self-understanding finally crumbles as their own reality is made public.

As good soapies do, Bleak House allows the reader to know how various other halves live. Prisons, poorhouses, the unsanitary lanes where the homeless sleep and Lady Dedlock's life ends. These are set against the felicity of the heroine who finally finds a good home and good husband.

Of course, there are well-written telly series and bad ones. The power and the interest of Bleak House and Dickens' other novels come from the quality of his writing. He is a master of description, catches high and low style perfectly, can move from good humor through satire to poignancy within a phrase or two. However unlikely his characters are in total, they are persuasive in their small interactions.

As a socially committed writer Dickens displays the reality of the world in which he and his readers live. The plot of Bleak House brings Lord and Lady Dedlock from bad consciousness to a recognition of a human reality. The quality of the writing, the comic elements of the plot and the caricaturing of the minor characters create space for the readers to reflect on the reality of their own world.

Were that Dickens was alive today! But would he be equally successful in persuading our society to confront scandalous policies and neglect? Certainly, the success of Underbelly and its derivatives suggests an interest in the picaresque and in the way in which breeds lower than ours live. Dickens would surely have caught the voice and the social context.

But whether he could now share widely his insights into the defects of society and provoke reform is doubtful. His readers shared a generally religious view of the world and believed that the wrongs of society should be healed. The general view was not turned into reforming practice because they did not see the reality of the world in which they lived, and were happy to remain uninformed. Because reading was a principal means of entertainment for the educated as well as of instruction, a novelist who could describe an unacceptable reality could also promote a demand that it be changed.

If Dickens today wished to address the deprivation and discrimination suffered by Indigenous Australians and asylum seekers, he would need to turn to popular culture. But he would then need to address an audience whose members share a sense of entitlement, and weighs the claims of others by their own interests.  It is not in their interests to remedy the conditions that afflict asylum seekers and Indigenous Australians live. So they do not want to recognise them.

For this reason, even the best of teledramas in which the lives of people like us intersect with those of the excluded would most likely flop.

Were Dickens to return today with his passion to set things right, he might remain poor and unnoticed a lot longer. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Charles Dickens, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

A beautiful piece, thank you. Yes, Dickens may well find stony ground these days, but I think his humour and anger would still win through. It may be worth noting that part of the power of Dickens' 'voice' and advocacy came from experience. A posthumously-released contemporary biography revealed that when his father was imprisoned due to debts, 12-year-old Charles slaved away at Warren’s Shoe Blacking Factory for long hours under dire conditions and for miniscule pay. Personal misery informs advocacy; experience can engender compassion if the individual is open to the same. Under that kindly light, perhaps we need to seek out 'insider' voices; to see and hear creative individuals from the Indigenous community and those seeking asylum who are imprisoned here. They may walk in Dickens' shoes, but their voices - if allowed to be heard - will be truly their own and strengthened by their own recounting of pain and sorrow.

Barry G | 08 February 2012  

Towards the end of the piece, I couldn't help but think of the television program The Wire, which had all the hallmarks of a Dickensian look at the intersection of classes in a society (in this case, Baltimore US), and had a very strong social message. Unfortunately, despite being lauded as one of the best TV shows ever produced, the show has never had a full run on commercial TV in Australia, and even now it's being shown on the ABC at a late night timeslot beyond most viewers.

Joseph Vine | 08 February 2012  

Another reason Charles Dickens was revered in the Soviet Union was because of the adulation accorded him by two Russian writers the Soviet could not airbrush out: Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Dickens was Dostoyevky’s model for fictional depiction of social issues and the inspiration for finding the courage to write on challenging questions. This even helps us understand where Dostoyevsky derived some of his more tearfully sentimental expression, passages that sit strangely beside the hard gaze of his best work. Count Tolstoy simply declared Dickens the greatest novelist of the 19th century, something requoted in this sprightly article by his biographer Claire Tomalin in this week’s Guradian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/feb/07/letter-charles-dickens-200th-birthday The relationship of Dickens to Christianity has always been less clear than that of the two great Russian masters, for whom Orthodoxy was the solution, not the problem. Their strong Christian perspectives were something the Soviet political correctness found most difficult to explain, let alone explain away.

PHILIP HARVEY | 08 February 2012  

I'm smiling to myself imagining Dickens as a blogger! I suspect he would have a 'cult' following. I know that reading his novels was always a revelation for me and his prose is wonderful. And should be read aloud.

Pam | 08 February 2012  

Maybe it's the flip-side of a sense of entitlement, but the unwillingness or inability to see the other as oneself - 'made in the image of God'-, or maybe even to see oneself as such, is i think fundamental to how we treat others.

hilary | 08 February 2012  

Curious too that the Christmas stories of Charles Dickens have so influenced the way people everywhere now celebrate that festival. A snowy Christmas is unknown in urban Australia, but is also actually not regular in England. The snow comes most often in January and February, as they are finding up there right now. Climate people say that during Dickens’s time there were an unusually high number of unseasonal December snowfalls in England, which may explain the myth he then generated. More interesting for the theme of the article, the character of Scrooge became the universal grump figure that epitomised everything Christmas is not. He was mean, selfish, uncaring. Dickens identified as central the sense of charity and generosity towards others that comes with Christmas and, sentimentalised as this has become at times, it sticks in the popular imagination as something humans are capable of being. Even the meanest is capable of rising to the occasion, some time.

PHILIP HARVEY | 09 February 2012  

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