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0 How Victorian was Charles Dickens?

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  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 20-01-2012
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With the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens fast approaching it is worth asking to what extent he was the "great Victorian novelist", not because his genius is in question in any way but because he was not quite as Victorian as is generally assumed. Born on 7 February 1812 he was a child of the Regency, that short period from 1811 to 1820 when the madness of George lll led to a crisis and the appointment of his eldest son George as Prince Regent. On the death of the old King, the Regent became George lV. He, in turn, was succeeded by his younger brother, the 64 year old William who, because of his youthful service in the Navy was known as The Sailor King. William lV reigned from 1830 until his death in 1837 when the young Victoria came to the throne.

By the time of Queen Victoria's Coronation in 1838, Dickens had in publication as a serial episodes of Oliver Twist a brilliant satirical attack on the recently enacted New Poor Law of 1834 which was a nineteenth century version of our contemporary attempts to "get tough" on welfare. Oliver Twist, is not therefore strictly speaking, Victorian. His earlier Sketches by Boz are quite recognisably from an earlier era.

It is fair to say, of course, that by 1838 Dickens had become a Victorian and it is interesting to see what he had to say about the Coronation of the young Queen. He was asked by Sunday paper, the Examiner, to contribute a piece on the fair held in Hyde Park and in it he was able to display his great affection for popular entertainment. Here is a short extract, reprinted from the edition of 1 July 1838, to celebrate the birth anniversary of a truly astonishing, but only partly Victorian, writer:

"The fair in Hyde Park–which covered some fifty acres of ground–swarmed with an eager, busy crowd from morning until night....In the refreshment booths, of which there was a goodly show, were piled, in high and long array, butts of porter and barrels of ale, with sturdy rounds of beef and goodly hams in most beautiful abundance....This part of the amusement of the people, on the occasion of the Coronation, is particularly worthy of notice, not only as being a very pleasant and agreeable scene, but as affording a strong and additional proof, if proof were necessary, that the many are at least as capable of decent enjoyment as the few."

In contrast to the enthusiasm Dickens had for the jolly celebrations in the Park was the impression the Coronation Procession through the streets made on him. He wrote: "Of the general effect of the Procession let us simply add, on excellent authority, that though in parts extremely grand, it wanted mass, the intervals were too long, and above all it wanted noise and music. The band of the 10th indeed were present, and people wondered it did not play until it did, and then they wondered more than ever that it did. Fortunately the infliction was short, for no puppet-show music could possibly have been worse."

And so began the reign of Victoria who was to outlive Dickens by man years. He, in fact, survived only just over half of her reign, dying in 1870 when there was still thirty years of Victoriana proper to go. Rather surprisingly, since Dickens became so associated with the Victorian Christmas, there were no Christmas Trees in England when he was a boy and he died before the arrival of the modern Father Christmas who turned up fitfully from the 1870s from North America. As for Dickens entering into the "Victorian Spirit" he was not at all keen on "machines" in the great age of machinery. While millions flocked to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, Dickens fled to Kent resort of Broadstairs, renting out his London house. He wrote to a friend that he could not bear to have people explain to him how bits of machinery worked so if he was asked if he had seen an exhibit he would lie and say Yes just to shut them up.