If the Children Dared to Speak
Hugh Pennington · Dickens's Weeklies
With the exception of the novels he serialised in them – Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations – the contents of Charles Dickens’s weeklies Household Words and All the Year Round have mostly been forgotten. But the lucky purchase by the book dealer Jeremy Parrott of a bound set of All the Year Round with handwritten marginalia identifying nearly all the anonymous contributors of its 2500 articles, stories and poems has generatedmuchexcitement. The handwriting seems mostly to be Dickens’s own, and names Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins and Lewis Carroll among many others: the speculation is that the bound set was Dickens’s file copy, which he kept in the flat above the office.
Whether the number of general readers will increase – in spite of the complete availability of both weeklies’ contents online – is hard to say. It would be a great pity if it didn’t. Although the articles were written a century and a half ago, they covered many issues that still trouble us, and show that what we tend to think of as new and malignant manifestations of modernity are anything but new.
So, for instance, the leading article in Household Words for 19 April 1856, ‘Horse-Eating’, about horse-meat frauds, was perfectly relevant to events of 2013. The privacy of electronic communication was an issue in 1868 (‘Telegraphs under Government’): transfer of the telegraph from private control to the Post Office was being resisted because it ‘would place too much power in the hands of the Government, which... might be tempted to use the information they could obtain through it, to the detriment of their political adversaries’. Not only are gang-masters still with us (‘Slavery in England’), but sexual abusers still get away with their crimes because of a reluctance of victims to come forward: ‘One old gang-master of seventy-two is convicted of an indecent assault upon a girl of thirteen, who worked under him; and a member of parliament who forwards the particulars, adds “I am afraid such cases would come oftener before the magistrates if the children dared to speak.”’ Northern Ireland got optimistic treatment in 1866 (‘Orange and Ribbon’): ‘But at this moment Orange prospects are anything but bright . . . They have fallen on evil days. The only satisfaction left is firing a few shots on a loved anniversary, and walking in surreptitious procession on the great July days.’ The 1860s respite was brief. Sectarian songs were sung as loyalists loudly marched earlier this month from Protestant Woodvale to Catholic Ardoyne with water cannon accompaniment.
And just as depressing today are the Dickensian remnants expressed in current government welfare policy, put nicely in 1866 in ‘In Praise of a Rotten Board’, a satirical piece spoken in the voice of a workhouse governor:
I’ve been a metropolitan guardian these twenty years, and I say the fuss that’s being made about paupers is disgraceful. I know them root and branch, as you may say, and a more ignorant idle vicious worthless lot I’ll defy you to point out. Coddle ’em, and they’ll turn on you; be kind to ’em, and they’ll cheat you to your very face; try to find ’em employment, and they’ll pretend they’re too old or too weakly to get on with it... We sit at this here board to prevent people dying of starvation; that’s our duty, and the moment we go beyond it, why, we’re robbing the people that send us here, by burdening the rates. Don’t talk to me of common humanity to the sick and old. I’m as humane as any man, in reason, but if you once begin this messing and coddling system with paupers, where is it to end? Every other house in London a workhouse, and arm-cheers and drawing-rooms in ’em, every one.