Charles Dickens: More relevant than ever

Author, journalist, champion of the poor. As Charles Dickens pounded the pavements of London through the night, he drew energy and anger from the poverty he saw. Peter Ross shines a light on a new exhibition celebrating the writer’s shadowy life.

It is three feet tall, likely made of oak, and can be viewed between the hours of 10 and five at 48 Doughty Street in the Holborn area of London. The walking stick of Charles Dickens (below) is too valuable a relic to leave the museum that now occupies his former home, but at one time it would have gone everywhere with him – as marks of wear on the grip and tip attest. While the hand that held it and the feet it helped along are now bone and dust beneath the flagstones of Poet’s Corner, the brain of the author, and, indeed, his heart are still evident to anyone who cares to read his work. More, Dickens’ walking stick stands as a better symbol of the man than his writing desk and chair – both of which the museum also owns. It is a reminder that he saw the world on foot, that the rhythm of his steps was the rhythm of his mind as he flitted, a restless shadow, through the city.

“Dickens liked to walk 12, 15 or even 20 miles a day,” says biographer Claire Tomalin, “and he got very lost if he couldn’t walk like that. I think he used walking to nourish his imagination.” Also, one suspects, to nurse his wrath. Dickens was a habitual, even obsessive visitor of workhouses, prisons, fetid midnight streets, and any area of London – and elsewhere – where the poor lived and suffered and too soon died. His great subject as a writer and social activist, those he sought to portray and protect, were, he said, “the rejected ones whom the world has too long forgotten, and too often misused”.

Charles Dickens writing at his desk, by Herbert Watkins, 1858. Copyright: Charles Dickens Museum

His championing of these people is world famous, of course, in great novels such as Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit, but much less well known now is that Dickens was a journalist and magazine editor dedicated to exposing social evils, and a campaigner dedicated to eradicating them. It is this rather forgotten aspect of his life and work that the Charles Dickens Museum – in association with The Big Issue – is seeking to highlight in the forthcoming exhibition Restless Shadow.

Were Dickens to walk from his grave in Westminster Abbey today, he find plenty to anger and energise him in our society

Dickens worked as a reporter from 1829, when he was 17, and from the early 1830s covered the House of Commons. Joining the staff of the Morning Chronicle, he began publishing sketches of London life which would first bring him to public attention. Success as a fiction writer arrived in 1836 with The Pickwick Papers, but he had by no means forsaken journalism. In 1850, he established a current affairs magazine, Household Words, writing and commissioning others including Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins. Household Words has been an inspiration for the direction of The Big Issue under the editorship of Paul McNamee. “It’s the idea of highbrow populism, which is a driving force of what we do. That’s from Dickens.” Dickens established a second magazine, All The Year Round, in 1859, and this was where his classic essay Night Walks, republished here, first appeared. The walk through London he describes so atmospherically (which Google Maps suggests was about 10 miles) was prompted by a bout of insomnia caused by “a distressing impression”. This is thought to have been witnessing his father undergoing surgery without anaesthetic; his room, as Dickens wrote in a letter, was “a slaughter house of blood”.

There were an estimated 70,000 rough sleepers in the capital, and Dickens encounters some on his walk. A young man rises before him, a ragged spectre, feral with cold, from the steps of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, and one thinks of George Orwell’s essay, Hop Picking, in which, intending to shelter in the crypt, he spends the night instead on benches in Trafalgar Square. One thinks too of The Big Issue, launched in 1991 at St Martin’s.

Were Dickens to walk from his grave in Westminster Abbey today, he would no doubt find plenty to anger and energise him in our society. We may have a welfare state, which his Britain did not, but it is striking how the inequities of his time chime with the inequalities of our own. I am writing this in Glasgow where, in March, Matthew Bloomer, 28, just a little older than the man Dickens encountered, froze to death on a pavement outside a department store on one of the city’s main shopping streets. “Why, in the name of a gracious God, should such things be?” Dickens asked, during a visit to Scotland, on witnessing a dying child. It is a question that anyone might, on hearing Matthew Bloomer’s story, very well repeat.

Charles Dickens in his last public reading. Copyright: Charles Dickens Museum.

“As we experience more poverty, homelessness and social inequality, I feel passionately that we need the voice of people like Dickens to point out what a dreadful mistake this is,” says Tomalin, whose book Charles Dickens: A Life opens with an account of an inquest he attended into the death of a newborn, and the lengths he went to help its mother, a servant girl, escape a murder verdict. As described by Tomalin, he is an agent and angel of reform – advising his friend, philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts to fund schools for the poor and a home for rehabilitating prostitutes. His secret motivation was, almost certainly, his own experience of poverty. When he was 12 his father was taken into debtors prison; he went to work in a blacking factory, living in lodgings, lonely, often hungry.

How would Dickens feel to learn that, 174 years later, they are still with us?

A 21st-century Dickens would, Tomalin believes, be outspoken on prison overcrowding, lack of social housing, and income inequality. “The gap between what you can hope for in life if you are the child of poor parents and rich parents is almost immeasurable. That’s the sort of thing he would have looked at.” His voice and sense of indignant curiosity feels immediate. It does not echo faintly down the centuries, it could come booming out of a radio phone-in on foodbanks, a blog on our failure to take in greater numbers of refugee children – angry, articulate and alive.

Simon Callow holds and examines Charles Dickens' wooden walking stick from the 1860s. Photo: Rex

In A Christmas Carol, two starving infants appear; the personification of Ignorance and Want. How would Dickens feel to learn that, 174 years later, they are still with us? “Unsurprised but outraged,” says actor Simon Callow, who created an acclaimed theatrical version of the story. We could do with him now, couldn’t we? “We certainly bloody well could,” Callow agrees. “I feel that all the time. Where is our tribune of the people?”

Dickens would have entirely endorsed the ethos of The Big Issue

Helplessness and despair are natural emotions for anyone considering the state of the world; a feeling there is nothing we can do about the many complex problems confronting us. But if Dickens teaches us anything, it is that human agency is a powerful force. “Dickens would have entirely endorsed the ethos of The Big Issue,” says Callow.

“‘A hand up not a handout’ is exactly what he believed. He knew he could so easily have become a criminal or simply destitute, but there was a spark inside him that refused to accept that, and he wanted to ignite the same spark in everybody else.”

The name of that spark is hope. Out of the shadows, light.

Restless Shadow: Dickens the Campaigner, Charles Dickens Museum, London, May 9–October 29; dickensmuseum.com