Andrew Emery
December 2016.

Was Charles Dickens a socialist?

1 answer

I think that's very tricky. His attitudes aren't particularly philosophical, they're not intellectual, they're very much emotional. He is radical in the Victorian sense of radical in that he believes that ordinary people should be allowed to have happy and meaningful lives. He's not socialist in the sense that he doesn't want to level everybody up or down in the class system, but he's quite aware of class distinctions. Having said that, what he does want is for people to be allowed their own independence and their own dignity.

One of my favourite stories is in an almost unknown work that he wrote early in his career called ‘Sketches of Young Couples’. It includes a story, just a few pages, about a little girl who is a scullery maid. Down the street from where she works, a young lady in a house is getting married and she gets to go in and see the room where the feast is going to take place. She sees the bride in her gown and she thinks she's gone to heaven. There's no envy in it, and no sense that she herself could be a middle class bride, but just the sheer delight of being allowed to see these things shows that the class consciousness is very strong there, in the sense that this little girl's imagination and her experience are valuable in and of themselves for what they are.

One can again look at ‘Bleak House’ which is in some ways his masterpiece, and his most overtly political novel, and one can argue that, finally, it's a Carlylean or, to be anachronistic, a fascist, attitude, because it's police, soldiers and people in authority who are valourised. The soldier Trooper George and the detective Inspector Bucket are the really positive characters, along with the doctor who looks after poor and impoverished people. They are favoured, as opposed to the people who are officials in government. You loathe the lawyers, you loathe the politicians, but people who can get things done in practical ways, and for the benefit of the people they're interacting with, those are the people he admires.

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