Dickens the radical

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The great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens was born 200 years ago this month. Gareth Jenkins looks back at his life and work

What would Dickens have made of Britain as it celebrates his bicentenary? For all the differences, he would have been only too familiar with the shameless piling up of wealth, the poor struggling to survive, the penny pinching of welfare, and the lofty contempt of our rulers.

In his day Dickens was known for his reforming zeal - one of his novels was accused of "sullen socialism". He was none too keen on the aristocratic coterie that ran Britain. He had faith, as he put it, in the people governed rather than the people governing. He loathed society's treatment of children and particularly the way in which education turned young minds into little fact-filled pitchers.

If he was more than the jolly inventor of the Christmas spirit, what kind of radical was Dickens?

Dickens' formative years were the late 1830s and early 1840s - a period of turbulent capitalist transformation of the great cities, of enormous social conflict between different social forces, and of fierce ideological turmoil. Dickens' own family knew something of this everlasting uncertainty. They moved house frequently to stay one step ahead of their creditors. Dickens' father was imprisoned for debt and Dickens himself was removed from school to do menial work in a shoe-blacking factory.

These were humiliating experiences, about which Dickens kept quiet. At the same time he was acutely aware, through direct experience, of the wretched lives of the poor. The horror Dickens felt at the poverty into which he so nearly descended and his sympathy for its victims form the imaginative axis of much of his writing. They also define his radicalism.

Social dislocation also opened up - in this new bourgeois world - the possibility of using your own talents to get ahead in life. Dickens was a case in point: as something of a one-man literary factory, he succeeded by constantly producing a stream of novels, short stories and journalism that appealed to a new public. He had nothing but contempt for the kind of aristocratic assumption that birth and breeding were owed a living. In this sense Dickens was an impatient radical, eager to rid society of the indolent parasitism that strangled individual initiative.

At the same time, he was deeply suspicious of another strand of radicalism shared by many of those who, like him, wanted to reform the existing order. This was a radicalism that focused on disciplining the poor and the vulnerable. "Reforming" the poor law and the workhouse to make "welfare" (such as it was) as unpleasant as possible for the "workshy" provoked Dickens' wrath - as seen in Oliver Twist (1839). This was the period when "free market" ideas, alongside the capitalist interests they served, were making inroads. The idea that those at the bottom of society had only themselves to blame if they starved struck Dickens as callous when there was wealth enough to satisfy their needs.

Dickens appealed to the idea that we share a common humanity beyond social division. He did so in order to fight what was fast becoming the reality of bourgeois society: its lack of common interests. Appealing to the "good" side of bourgeois society against its "bad" side is something we see in Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) and the way in which the heartless, tight-fisted Scrooge becomes a generous benefactor of the poor. Sentimental, yes, but it was a protest against the notion that there was no alternative.

The early Dickens novels are open and episodic. The serial technique of novel writing in monthly, and occasionally weekly, parts (a technique which Dickens virtually invented) meant that he could reach a new audience. It gave him the freedom to introduce new characters and address issues (the reality of the poor law or cruelty in education that might challenge this audience's feelings and conscience). The breadth of form also enabled him to vastly expand the social world of the novel: the rich and wealthy have to make way for characters from the lower classes. Plebeian voices jostle for the right to be heard.

The "opening up" of society - seen, for example, in the dislocation caused by the building of railways in the heart of London described so memorably in Dombey and Son (1848) - brings these excluded voices into proximity with establishment voices. Thus the haughty businessman, Mr Dombey, is forced to hear condolences from the train driver, whose wife has nursed his dying son - something that offends his sense of social distance.

These plebeian characters often lack rounded personalities or individuality. Circumstances have reduced them to little more than a defining and fixed phrase or gesture. But the way in which they constantly invent themselves through their idiomatic use of language bestows life and energy on them. If human beings are disempowered, the city that surrounds them can seem to take on a life of its own, as if animated by forces that humanity cannot control. You cannot read much Dickens without being struck by the way his novels capture, in comic and grotesque form, central aspects of capitalist alienation.

The later Dickens is less convinced that the individual can prevail against an increasingly constraining society. The tone is less exuberant, the comedy darker. His novels from the 1850s and 1860s are tighter in form, less episodic, as if in recognition that systems - legal, judicial and financial systems - bind the individual and every gesture of benevolence to impotence, or worse. In Bleak House (1853) individuals cannot escape the grip of a self-consuming lawsuit over an inheritance. In Little Dorrit (1857) physical, mental and linguistic imprisonment traps people in deadening notions of what is genteel and proper. Dickens' last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend (1865), shows society as a dust heap, charity as a business and orphans in danger of being farmed out as marketable commodities (quite a shift from the early Dickens).

Dickens runs into difficulty when, instead of speaking for the excluded, he is confronted with the excluded speaking for themselves. Urging social reform on behalf of the victims, or championing their rights, is one thing - the focus is on the moral and spiritual qualities of the hero, who can move among the deprived but is not one of them. It's quite another when the victims themselves constitute an active subject and need no hero to represent them. Dickens' weakest novels are those in which the victims represent themselves as a rioting or revolutionary mob - Barnaby Rudge (1841) and A Tale of Two Cities (1859) - or with the potential to become a collective trade union force (as in his 1854 "condition of England" novel, Hard Times).

Dickens's weakness is particularly obvious in his proneness to sentimentalise and idealise women. Women are reduced to types: the child bride, the saintly figure, the object of romantic desire, or the "fallen woman". They operate in the context of the domestic ideal that the hero yearns for - as, for example, in David Copperfield (1850), where David's intellectually-challenged child bride conveniently dies to make way for the "perfect" wife that complements his attainment as a writer.

Occasionally there are women characters that suggest Dickens was dimly aware of the real complexity in women's lives. This is the case in his late novels - particularly Great Expectations (1861), in which Dickens came closest to tackling the problematic nature of the bourgeois hero. Both Great Expectations and David Copperfield centre on the question of how to become a true "gentleman" - not because of birth but because of attainment.

David's youthful protector and mentor, Steerforth, may have aristocratic grace and charm but he behaves in a selfish and destructive way, particularly towards women. The true gentility David learns depends on bourgeois qualities of self-reliance and dedication to the domestic ideal.

But there is a nasty side to bourgeois advancement, represented by the "umble" Uriah Heep, who uses cunning, deceit and hypocrisy to advance in the world. Uriah's and David's social status may not be so different but the disgust, verging on the physical, David feels for Uriah (quite unlike the regret David feels for the aristocratic Steerforth's fate) points to something else. The contrast in emotional response suggests that we are meant to believe that David's true nature, beneath the accidents of early deprivation or poverty, is genteel: he could never behave like Uriah.

In Great Expectations, arguably Dickens' greatest novel, gentility is explored more critically through a searching exploration of shame and the consequences of a person denying their origins.

The orphan Pip, unlike the orphaned David, is of genuinely humble origins: the family breadwinner, Jo Gargery, works as a blacksmith. What propels him towards becoming a gentleman isn't the bourgeois ideal of hard work and enlightened morality but deep shame about his social status as well as the baseless (but telling) assumption that the hidden source of his inheritance is socially superior.

Eventually Pip learns the real source of his wealth: not the decayed aristocratic Miss Haversham, but the convict Magwitch, whom Pip had helped as a child. When Magwitch secretly returns from the penal colony of Australia to see the gentleman he has made, Pip is shattered by the realisation that he has turned into a kind of Frankenstein's monster (Dickens refers to the story) - a monster of ingratitude. By repudiating his past (most clearly seen in the episode when Pip is visited by Jo in London and is deeply ashamed of having to acknowledge the relationship), he has sacrificed his humanity.

There is no way back. For once Dickens holds back from providing a sentimental ending. Pip may be repentant but there is no reward. Estella, the woman he loves and whose contempt for such a common, labouring lad spurred his youthful desire for advancement, has become as dehumanised by gentility as he has. Dickens leaves it unclear as to whether they marry - his first ending leaves them separated; the second, published ending is ambivalent.

This is a novel with no confidence that anything humane can be salvaged from bourgeois society - a sentiment worth remembering amidst the celebrations that will surround his bicentenary.