Charles Dickens (1812-1870): cities
Dickens wrote at a time of intense change in London and this change can be seen in the progress of his novels. His descriptions of nineteenth century London permit the readers to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the old city.
Victorian London was the largest, most spectacular city in the world. While Britain was experiencing the Industrial Revolution, its capital was both collecting the benefits and suffering the consequences. In 1800 the population of London was around a million souls and increased to 4.5 million by 1880. Perhaps the biggest impact on the growth of London was the coming of the railroad in the 1830s which dislocated thousands and accelerated the expansion of the city.
The price of this explosive growth and domination of world trade was great squalor and filth.
Homes : The homes of the upper and middle class were built near areas of unbelievable poverty and rich and poor lived together in the crowded city streets. The chimney pots were polluting with coal smoke and in many parts of the city raw dirt flowed into the Thames. Pick-pockets, prostitutes, drunks, beggars, and vagabonds of every description add to the colorful multitude.(Oliver Twist)
Sanitary conditions: Personal cleanliness was not a big priority. Until the second half of the 19th century London residents were still drinking water from the Thames. Several outbreaks of Cholera in the mid 19th century, along with The Great Stink of 1858, when the disgusting odor of the Thames caused Parliament to stop, brought a cry for action. The link between drinking water and the incidence of disease slowly oppressed the Victorians.
The law: The Metropolitan Police, London’s first police force, was created by Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel (hence the name Peelers and, eventually, Bobbies) in 1829 with headquarters in what would become known as Scotland Yard. The old London watch system, in effect since Elizabethan times, was then abolished.
The Poor: In 1834 the parliament enacted the New Poor Law. The new law required parishes to group together and create regional workhouses where assistance could be applied for. The workhouse was little more than a prison for the poor. Civil liberties were denied, families were separated, and human dignity was destroyed.
Dicken’s novels: Dickens, because of the childhood trauma caused by his father’s imprisonment for debt and his consignment to the blacking factory to help support his family, was a true champion to the poor. He repeatedly pointed out the atrocities of the system through his novels.
Hard Times: Coketown: Dickens is, under the influence of Carlyle, an enemy of Victorian utilitarianism, he rejects the principles on which an industrial society is based: money and individualism. In Hard Times Dickens describes an industrial town: Coketown, expression of the capitalistic system, has got unnatural and artificial colours, like the strange red that isn’t red of brick that is caused by the smoke and ashes; it is a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage, these two colours dominate the description of Coketown, in particular black paint even the channel and river’s water. From this water then come a terrible stink that is caused by industrial refuses. This ideal town is full of machinery and chimney noise, in the form of rattling and trembling dominates. The metaphor of the head of an elephant in a sort of madness reproduces the movement of the piston of a steam engine, mad is the machine, mad is the consequence of industrial revolution. Dickens introduces an idea of alienation: man is identified with the product and even with the machine that produces this; the machine causes a lack of identity. Dickens shows how the system determines the life of people and criticizes the alienation caused by mass production: persons go out and in at the same hours, they do the same work and for them every day is the same as the last and the next.
Oliver Twist – Chapter 50: The pursuit and escape.
Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.
To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of waterside people, and devoted to the traffic they may be supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman’s door, and stream from the house-parapet and windows. jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river, he makes his way with difficulty along, assailed by offensive sights and smells from the narrow alleys which branch off on the right and left, and deafened by the clash of ponderous waggons that bear great piles of merchandise from the stacks of warehouses that rise from every corner. Arriving, at length, in streets remoter and less-frequented than those through which he has passed, he walks beneath tottering house-fronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half crushed half hesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginable sign of desolation and neglect.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870): cities