The more things change, the more they stay the same. The enduring veracity of this proverb is the bridge between modern readers and any writer that has ever written on the human condition and the social world it inhabits. But it is Dickens, arguably more than any other English novelist, who offers us both a hotline to the concerns of his world whilst simultaneously holding up a mirror to our own. Perhaps there has been no better time than now, in the year of his 200th birthday, to reflect on the endurance of Dickens’ work and its relation to both his and our societies.
We don’t need to read far into any of his novels before being confronted with chilling doppelgangers, inhabiting a class-conscious world. Oliver Twist gives us the Artful Dodger, who has never known a decent meal but knows his rights. He demands pocket-watches and liberties in equal measure from the classes who do everything to keep him in his place. There’s also the eponymous Scrooge, a man whose love for money isolates him from the world outside his damp counting house. Nowadays, any business page in bonus season will feature stories of financiers blind to the world outside of the Square Mile. Bleak House has Mr. Merdle, a banking magnate, whose careless investments lead to suicide and the collapse of his bank, with dire consequences. Here, the parallel draws itself.
Dickens constantly makes us do a double take. The Victorians conceived some outlandish theories about crime, without realising that most of the disproportionate levels of crime amongst the lower classes were economically driven. Dodger’s plea from the dock, “I am an Englishman! Where are my rights?”, therefore has a resonance beyond the courtroom. His rights exist only in the theoretical world of the law – not on the streets of London. Mr. Merdle is not a faceless monolith, but a man tortured by his instinct for power; he complains of an illness, which eludes his doctor but is later explained as being “simply, Forgery and Robbery”. Dickens teases us repeatedly, with the conscience manifesting itself under the guise of greed and deceit.
It is this recurrent separation of the human from the label, to “take nothing on its looks” in Mr. Jaggers’ words, that makes Dickens’ characters more than the archetypes they sometimes seem to be. Scrooge serves to show that sometimes only the external and eternal spectre of death can re-ignite one’s deep-seated humanity. Not all of Dickens’ characters are so memorable. Workhouses, colonies, and exiles to Australia are grossly Victorian, as is his ornamental prose. But despite this, the fact that his stories have been passed down through generations and shared across the world is a tribute to his ability to highlight timeless social concerns.
Dickens, although concerned with the moral implications of actions, is no didactic moralist. Indeed, Dickens’ own ethics have long been questioned. But if he has one leitmotif running through his works, it is that external problems and obstacles can only be overcome by the humanity that lies within us all. This message is delivered time and again in accessible and acrobatic prose. Thus, the carnival of characters in his London, the bankers, bailiffs, merchants, orphans, prostitutes, destitutes and down-and-outers, are rendered unforgettably. In this landmark year, and in these uncertain times, we could do worse than dust off Dickens and remind ourselves in spectacular style that if the more ignorant side of human nature never changes, neither does the capacity for common sense and liberty:
“I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to Howard Skimpole what it concedes to the butterflies!”