WHAT would Charles Dickens do? If he were alive today, support everyone’s favourite cause it seems. In the author’s bicentennial year, everyone wants a piece. Schools minister Nick Gibb announced this week, referring to shocking levels of student illiteracy, that there are “shadows of Dickens’s world in our own” and called for more ambition in state schools. Actor and recent Dickens biographer Simon Callow said that Dickens should be remembered as a journalist and that in today’s London he would have been up with the anti-capitalists at St. Paul’s and exposing scandal wherever it lay.
Yet while Dickens’s career included journalistic achievements, his novels were nothing of the kind. Nicholas Nickleby and Hard Times are not George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia or Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. Dickens wrote sentimental melodrama, not unvarnished reportage. Scrooge developed from the misreading of an Edinburgh gravestone. Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie’s inscription called him “a meal man,” referring to his profession. Dickens read “mean,” conjuring a reputation so warped that it was set on his tombstone. In reality, Scroggie was born in Kirkcaldy, his mother was Adam Smith’s niece, and he was notorious not for thinking of nothing but business, but for goosing the Countess of Mansfield in the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly.
Dickens’s lack of documentary realism is clearest in his description of schools. Dotheboys Hall shows the duty to act in loco parentis mutated into an utter dereliction of care. Yet as the social historian James Bartholomew has written, “people in Yorkshire were so outraged by his calumny against the county that in the second preface, Dickens withdrew and said that he understood that such places no longer existed. It is pretty clear that no such place ever existed at all.”
Despite what Gibb may think about Dickensian schools, the nineteenth century saw great achievements in education well before the first state elementary schools of the 1870s. By 1840, 99 per cent of fresh naval recruits from school could read. In 2010, an international Pisa survey found that 20 per cent of 15-year-old Britons were functionally illiterate.
Dickens the journalist would have something to say about that scandal, and Dickens the novelist might be more than a little embarrassed that his campaigning exaggerations of the late 1830s allow politicians to gloss over dire educational standards today.
When we claim Dickens for any cause, we forget his complexity. Dickens could be hard on business but he was also an innovative and hard-dealing businessman within the emerging industry of mass publication. He believed in philanthropy based on the kindness in human nature, but not in forced appropriation of wealth – it is for Scrooge to make himself a better man, not the state, and it was with the help of a banking heiress, Angela Burdett Coutts, that Dickens built Urania Cottage as a refuge for women. And Dickens was a fierce critic of state institutions that failed: Oliver Twist is no whitewash of government welfare.
Yet with no more money left, the best advice Dickens can give us today, politicians and citizens alike, are the words of Wilkins Micawber: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” We can’t say he didn’t warn us.