By Stephen Reid
JOURNALIST & SOCIAL REFORMER
Although Charles Dickens regularly contributed to such periodicals as The Examiner and The Daily News, much of his journalistic writing first appeared in the journals that he himself established—Household Words (1850–59) and All the Year Round (1859–70). For two years early in his career as a professional writer, Dickens had served as the editor of publisher Richard Bentley’s weekly magazine Bentley’s Miscellany, in which he published stories, poems, sketches, and a complete novel, Oliver Twist (24 instalments, February 1837 through April 1839).
However, he enjoyed his greatest freedom as editor and writer with the two later magazines.
Dickens had some difficulty choosing a title. According to his first biographer, the following were thought of: The Rolling Years, Everything, The Comrade, The Household Voice, The Household Guest, The Microscope, The Household Face, The Robin, The Holly Tree ... until finally came: Household Words— ‘‘This is a very pretty name’—and the choice was made” (John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens II, p.423).
The first number of the new 24-page weekly journal—‘Conducted by Charles Dickens’—appeared on 30 March 1850. It sold for twopence.
In A Preliminary Word, the Conductor set forth his magazine’s aims:‘We aspire to live in the Household affections, and to be numbered among the Household thoughts, of our readers. We hope to be the comrade and friend of many thousands of people, of both sexes, and of all ages and conditions, on whose faces we may never look. We seek to bring to innumerable homes, from the stirring world around us, the knowledge of many social wonders, good and evil, that are not calculated to render any of us less ardently persevering in ourselves, less faithful in the progress of mankind, less thankful for the privilege of living in this summer-dawn of time.’
Through imaginative journalism and stories, Household Words would both raise the standard of such reportage and also teach ‘the hardest workers at this whirling wheel of toil, that their lot is not necessarily a moody, brutal fact ...’
Each issue usually featured six to ten items and was printed in double columns. Articles from contributing authors were all unsigned. Poems—‘for edification and for pleasure’—appeared more frequently in earlier volumes than in later ones. The first issue contained the opening chapter of Lizzie Leigh by Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865). Her later novels, Cranford—a gentle, episodic tale of village life (1851), and North and South (1854–55)—focusing on the lives of the industrial poor, were also both serialised here.
Among others of the identified contributors were: Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861), Wilkie Collins (1824–1889), who wrote more than 150 articles and became a close friend of Dickens, and the prolific journalist George A. Sala (1828–1895).
The greatest sin of all contributors—according to Dickens—was to present an article that lacked ‘an elegance of fancy’. Dickens himself wrote the short story A Child’s Dream of a Star (a pious tear-jerker even by his standards) that appeared in the second issue. Yet, the first 18 months of the journal—which was soon selling 40,000 copies a week—also included articles written by ‘The Conductor’ on visits to workhouses, factories and asylums as well as pieces on sanitation and education. Its pages contained oddities as well—one being a notoriously savage attack by Dickens on the Pre-Raphaelite artists, in which he objected to the ‘realistic’ style of the Millais painting of Christ in the House of his Parents. (Household Words No. 12—15 June 1850).
His loudest complaints, however, were directed at public men generally and at government in particular. Such was Dickens’ outspokenness that one critic complained of Household Words: ‘There is scarcely a work in the land that tends more to separate class from class, or to make the poor man feel oppressed and overborne by the rich, and that the laws and institutions, and authorities of the country, are against him and for them.’
That Dickens was increasingly at odds with the world is vividly illustrated by an article entitled ‘The Last Words of the Old Year’ that appeared on 4 January 1851.
“I have been,” said the good old gentleman, penitently, “a Year of Ruin. I have blighted all the farmers, destroyed the land, given the final blow to the Agricultural Interest, and smashed the Country.”
Dickens then went on to list its other crimes and omissions—overcrowded slums, disease-ridden sewers, illiteracy: ‘‘How many of those whom Nature brings within your province, in the spot of earth called England, can neither read nor write, in after years?” The Registrar answered (referring to the last number of the present publication), “about forty-five in every hundred.”
... and starving children:
‘In my History for the month of May,’ said the old year with a heavy groan, ‘I find it written: ‘Two little children whose heads scarcely reached the top of the dock, were charged at Bow Street on the seventh, with stealing a loaf out of a baker’s shop. They said, in defence, that they were starving, and their appearance showed that they spoke the truth. They were sentenced to be whipped in the House of Correction.’ To be whipped! Woe, woe! can the State devise no better sentence for its little children! Will it never sentence them to be taught!’
It was a disturbing indictment, especially so in the optimistic year of the Great Exhibition—a world fair of culture and industry displays—to be held in the glittering showpiece of a great glass Crystal Palace at Hyde Park in London, between May and October 1851.
To add to it, Dickens listed the dismal legacies to the New Year: ‘“I bequeath to my successor, a vast inheritance of degradation and neglect in England, a general mismanagement of all public expenditure, revenues and property. I do give and bequeath to him the Court of Chancery. The less he leaves of it to his successor, the better for Mankind.”
This was a timely reference, as the Court of Chancery was the topic of considerable public comment during 1851. The Court, a legal body dating from the 13th century, which had jurisdiction over trusts, deceased estates, land law and guardianship, had by the mid-19th century become notorious for its slow pace of decision making, corruption, inefficiency, backlog of cases and high costs that drove numerous litigants to ruin.
In March 1852, Dickens began writing Bleak House, perhaps his greatest novel. In it, he took aim at the evils of Chancery as he traced the lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which corrupts and ruins all involved with it—except the lawyers who swallow up the whole estate in costs.
In the preface he wrote: ‘... at the present moment (August 1853) there is a suit before the Court which was commenced nearly twenty years ago ... and which is (I am assured) no nearer to its termination now then when it was begun.’ Social criticism, once incidental to his novels, was now the central purpose of this new work and all the characters within were driven by it—a network of frauds and abuses, the past and present miseries in the condition of English society were all revealed within its pages.
So influential was Dickens in his reformist zeal that he appears as the author ‘Mr. Popular Sentiment’ in Anthony Trollope’s novel, The Warden (1855) and is the target of mild parody: ‘Of all such reformers Mr. Sentiment is the most powerful. It is incredible the number of evil practices he has put down: it is to be feared he will soon lack subjects and that when he has made the working classes comfortable, and got bitter beer put into proper-sized pint bottles, there will be nothing further for him left to do.’
POSTSCRIPT: An Historical Meeting I Would Like to Have Happened—Charles Dickens & Karl Marx .... As Dickens was assailing what he saw as the ills of English society—in middle class comfort in his offices at 16 Wellington St, Covent Garden—a short stroll away at 28 Dean St, Soho, ‘in one of the worst, and hence the cheapest quarters of London’, a German immigrant, Karl Marx (1818–1883) was toiling to complete the first volume of his work Capital, which would provide the impetus to change the world in quite a different way.
Bleak House ($9.95); Selected Journalism 1850–1870 ($28.00); Cranford—Elizabeth Gaskell ($11.95); North and South—Gaskell ($9.95); The Warden—Anthony Trollope ($9.95); Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1 ($35.00)—all available in handsome Penguin Classics Editions. Stephen Reid