Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London
“Ms. Warren’s crisp, energetic prose is enhanced with a multitude of photos, drawings, and paintings that reveal the Victorian age Dickens examines in his novels. . . . On the eve of the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth, this is a welcome resource with a generous helping of notes, bibliographies, and recommended websites for further research.”
At the age of 12, Charles Dickens’s childhood crumbled when he entered a rat-infested warehouse to work 60-hour weeks as a bootblack boy. Just a few days later, his spendthrift father was thrown into debtors’ prison, soon to be joined by his mother and the family’s three youngest children.
Thanks to his grandmother’s death and legacy, Dickens did not have to see his family grow old in an eight-by-twelve-foot cell. Instead, he would cultivate his memories of that harrowing time to enrich his fiction, reaping not only fame but also the power to transform British society’s treatment of the poor.
In an inspired approach, Andrea Warren weaves threads of history with Dickens’ biography and his literary feats, highlighting events that appear in some form in his many masterful novels—David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and others—now known throughout the world.
Ms. Warren’s crisp, energetic prose is enhanced with a multitude of photos, drawings, and paintings that reveal the Victorian age Dickens examines in his novels.
Even after he becomes a famous writer, Dickens relentlessly walks the streets of London, sometimes covering 20 miles a day. Ms. Warren seizes upon this interesting fact to structure part of her narrative; readers seemingly join Dickens in observing life in the dangerous alleys, thereby gaining insight into the plight of desperate young outcasts. Ms. Warren describes the crammed tenements, the dead babies left in trash cans, and the slums’ filthy drinking water that came from the Thames, the repository for the city’s sewage.
Like Dickens, children in the slums rarely get to attend school. Instead, they must labor in the mills or take in wash or steal rotten leaves at the marketplace. Girls as young as eight tramp filthy streets to hawk apples or matches, flowers or eggs. Thin little boys find work clambering up chimneys, where some will get stuck and suffocate.
Gazing at the photo of Dickens as a carefully coiffed, dashing young gentleman, it is easy to believe his peers knew nothing of his childhood miseries. That is especially true when one learns Dickens refused to speak of that desperate time even to his wife and children.
Yet one can find references to the poor throughout his novels, from the workhouse orphan Oliver (Oliver Twist) to the terrified boys abandoned in a Yorkshire school (Nicholas Nickleby) to the malnourished Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.
Charles Dickens was not alone in his efforts to improve British society’s treatment of the poor. Ms. Warren provides context for the novelist’s values by describing the efforts of such reformers as Handel, the painter William Hogarth, Thomas Barnardo, who fed and educated poor children; and Thomas Coram, who built the much-needed Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, where Dickens lived.
Ms. Warren makes a compelling case that Dickens exposed society’s failings not only for personal reasons but also for the cause of justice. “Dickens changed the popular assumptions about the poor and made reform possible as readers fell in love with his characters, giving the poor, especially children, a voice. But he also worked directly for reform, writing articles to newspapers, giving speeches, donating money to causes, raising money with public readings and talks and working for the poor,” she writes.
Not only did the novelist galvanize forces to change or close the workhouses, the abusive boarding schools, and the debtors’ prisons, he is credited with changing the celebration of Christmas. “The book [A Christmas Carol] nearly put suppliers of geese out of business . . . for in the story, Scrooge sends Bob Cratchit’s family the prize turkey hanging in the window of a local poultry shop. Ever since, the British have favored roast turkey over roast goose for their Christmas feast.” More significantly, the author asserts, the story “continues to remind readers of their responsibility to help the less fortunate. It inspires them to honor the spirit of Christmas ‘all the year,’ just as Scrooge pledged to do so. . . .”
On the eve of the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth, this is a welcome resource with a generous helping of notes, bibliographies, and recommended websites for further research.