Bleak household;Books

29th January 1999 at 00:00
GONE ASTRAY AND OTHER PAPERS 1851-59. DICKENS' JOURNALISM VOLUME III. Edited by Michael Slater. Dent. pound;30.

In 1859, amid gossip about his extra-marital affairs and the breakdown of his marriage, Charles Dickens fell out with the publishers and co-owners of his successful weekly journal, Household Words. In May that year he bought the title outright at a knock-down price and swiftly closed it down.

Household Words was first published on March 30, 1850, and by the summer of 1851 it had fulfilled its editor's dream by becoming "a good property" with the correct balance of "fact and fancy". The articles he wrote for the journal, collected here, show Dickens at his most satirical.

When he wound up his journal it was with an apparent critique of society itself, fuelled by anger that his private life provoked more interest than his social conscience.

Dickens drew on his own childhood in many pieces, being a firm believer in the need for childhood recollections to sustain adults through gloomy times. The real Miss Havisham appears in "When We Stopped Growing", and "Our School" inspired David Copperfield. This piece is based on Wellington House in Hampstead Road, London which, Dickens affectionately remembers, "was remarkable for white mice ... kept in drawers...The boys trained the mice much better than the masters trained the boys."

By 1853 he had written his dark condition-of-England novel, Bleak House, and some powerful investigative journalism for Household Words. "A Sleep to Startle Us" is a grim report on one of London's ragged schools; Dickens was incensed by the underfunding of the schools and lobbied Parliament relentlessly on their behalf.

For Dickens' biographer, Peter Ackroyd, the article on "Legal and Equitable Jokes" written in 1854 sees Dickens attacking Parliament and the Law "with a ferocity that was altogether new" and which thereafter characterised his journalism up to the demise of Household Words. In his introduction, Michael Slater convincingly attributes this ferocity to mounting anger about the difficulties in his private and public life.

Dickens sardonically records legal injustices as practical jokes to which even orphaned infants of downtrodden teachers fall victim. "A poor national schoolmaster insured his life for two hundred pounds, and made a will, giving discretionary power to his executors to apply the money for the benefit of his two children...One of the executors doubted whether...after payment of debts and duty, he could appropriate the buying the two small children into an orphan asylum. The sanction of the Court of Chancery would cost at least half the fund; so nothing can be done, and the two small children are to be educated and brought up on four pounds ten a year between them!" He turns irritatingly patrician when he describes education in the "Home for Homeless Women" which he co-founded. "The book education is of a very plain kind, as they have generally much to learn in the commonest domestic duties, and are often singularly inexpert in acquiring them." The idea that young women might prize literacy over domestic skills isn't a letter in Dickens's alphabet.

He mellows in his final contribution, which appeared in the New Year's Day edition of 1859. After four anxious years, he looks back not only on childhood, as in "When We Stopped Growing", but also on more recent European travel. Two years later, he was to write Great Expectations, a departure from the gritty social realism of Bleak House. The piece entitled "New Year's Day" ends a dark period that nonetheless inspired sharp satire and exposes of social injustice.

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