Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London
In the middle of Charles Dickens’s most famous work, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Scrooge encounters two children revealed to him by the Spirit of Christmas Present. They are “yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish.” Appalled by their appearance, Scrooge asks, “Spirit are they yours?”
“They are Man’s,” replies the Spirit. “The boy is Ignorance. The girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing is erased.”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” Scrooge asks.
The Spirit responds by turning Scrooge’s own words from earlier in the book against him. “Are there no prisons?” he asks. “Are there no workhouses?”
By the end of the book, Scrooge undergoes a change of heart, better understanding the causes and consequences of poverty as well as his obligations to the poor. He could easily stand in for Dickens’s well-to-do readers and their indifference to the plight of many of their fellow citizens.
"[T]he greatest value of Warren’s book is its powerful defense of literature as a tool for social change."
At the time that Dickens was born in 1812, the average lifespan of a Londoner was 27 years; for the poor, 22. Life, even for the wealthy, could be brutal and short, but for the poor it was a misery most of us cannot even imagine. Among the working poor, parents worked up to 16 hours a day for six or seven days a week in jobs that were poorly paid, physically grueling and often dangerous. Half of the children died before reaching their fifth birthday, and for those who survived, they could expect to begin working beside their parents in factories by age 10.
Charles John Huffman Dickens was lucky enough to be born to a middle-class family in a country town. But his father was a naval clerk with a taste for the good life, frequently landing the family in financial trouble. In search of better opportunities, they moved to London in 1822. This is when their fortunes took a turn for the worse. Dickens’s father got so deep in debt that he was thrown into a debtors prison. At the age of 10, Dickens was sent to a blacking factory --- a place that made “blacking,” or polish for shoes and appliances --- to help support his family. The death of a wealthy relative allowed them to pay off their debts.
But by 1827, they were in financial trouble again. Dickens left school at the age of 15 to work, using his education to become a junior clerk in a law office. From there, he became a freelance court reporter, teaching himself shorthand to be able to do the job, then working for a newspaper covering politics.
His first short story was published when he was 21, but lacking the courage to sign his own name, he submitted it under the pseudonym “Boz.” These stories and sketches would eventually become SKETCHES BY BOZ, published in 1836. The book was so popular that his publisher suggested he write a novel to be serialized in a monthly publication. Dickens accepted the challenge and wrote THE PICKWICK PAPERS. Londoners of all backgrounds loved the its lighthearted humor.
This success gave him the courage to write his next novel on a subject close to his heart. In 19th-century London, workhouses were places of last resort for the destitute. Conditions were so poor that people would rather go to prison, take their chances on the street, or commit suicide rather than pass through those doors. Dickens’s family had narrowly escaped the workhouse. And it was in this place of despair that that he would set OLIVER TWIST, his first serious novel about an orphaned boy who escapes the workhouse only to fall in with a gang of pickpockets. While some critics protested the final revelation of Oliver’s highborn origins, the fact that a person of good birth could fall into such misery became a rallying point for social reform, with Dickens as the spokesman for the deserving poor.
Dickens used his influence not just to sway public opinion, but also to raise money for social institutions, among them the London Foundling Hospital. Originally founded by a persistent sea captain, the institution was chartered in 1741 to prevent the “dropping” of infants in the streets. Murder was a capital offense in England, but according to the law, “dropping” a child in the street to die a “natural death” was not.
Despite his own patchy education, Dickens believed that a good education was foundational to improving the lives of the poor. Thus he championed Ragged School Union, a series of schools, begun as Sunday Schools for religious education, that eventually expanded to teach writing, math and job training to poor children in their off-hours. Dickens also believed in reforming existing schools for wealthier children. Horrified by the poor conditions and limited education of the Yorkshire Schools, where unwanted children were sent to board for years at a time, he wrote NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, which galvanized public opinion to outlaw its abuses. Each of his books spans class divides, giving us a window into life as it was lived in another place and time.
Andrea Warren’s CHARLES DICKENS AND THE STREET CHILDREN OF LONDON focuses primarily on Dickens’s life as it relates to social reform. It does not shy away from difficult topics, including the ways in which children were used for all manner of labor and often given away by their parents in the hopes that they would find a better life at one of London’s charity institutions. It does not delve deeply into Dickens’s literature, but does get into the history of many of the charitable institutions and the customs and attitudes that led to conditions deemed unthinkable today.
Warren also acknowledges that the problem of poverty --- with particular attention to its impact on children --- is with us today. While we are shielded from many of these problems in the U.S. --- in part by a welfare system that keeps families intact and sends children into foster care rather than institutions --- we have not yet solved the problem of what to do with the world’s poor. Contemporary statistics at the end of the book give shocking insight into the issue. According to estimates by the United Nations, one in six children under the age of 15 --- 150 million children --- works full time. While 300,000 children have been adopted internationally into the U.S. since 1950, currently 1.5 million American children are in foster care and in need of permanent homes. Worldwide estimates put the number of street children across the globe at 100 million, while in Africa, 35 million children have been orphaned by AIDS.
In addition to an excellent bibliography, CHARLES DICKENS AND THE STREET CHILDREN OF LONDON does offer a few “what can you do?” suggestions for donations. But the greatest value of Warren’s book is its powerful defense of literature as a tool for social change. For modern-day readers, Dickens’s work is often seen as a quaint window into the past. But in his day, it was a clarion call with serious social consequences. In an age of austerity where we are cutting back both on social welfare and the humanities, this book suggests that these things can have a powerful impact on human life. Literature (and I would include all the humanities) can be more than a frivolous pursuit or a disposable entertainment. It has the potential, as with Scrooge, to change the human heart.
The coming year will mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth. CHARLES DICKENS AND THE STREET CHILDREN OF LONDON will be one of many biographies examining the impact and inconsistencies of his work and life. While it is easy to ask where to fit such a niche-specific title --- and the appeal of Dickens’s wordy and sentimental novels as they relate to contemporary young adult readers --- Warren’s book asks a bigger and more difficult question. Ignorance and Want are still with us: Who will be the Charles Dickens of our time?
Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on December 14, 2011