The somewhat cliché phrase ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ comes to mind when one reads the thoughts of Charles Dickens on the subjects of poverty and the government.
Some months ago The Independent reported that the authors of an anonymous collection of Victorian essays had been identified. After a chance discovery of Charles Dickens’ annotations and subsequent studious examinations, the names of the writers of the essays were revealed. Dickens had also penned an essay, ‘What is Sensational?’, which had previously been attributed to his contemporary writer Joseph Parkinson. In it, Dickens argues that we shouldn’t consider the reports of social inequality, injustice and disasters as sensationalised by the press but instead we should realise how sensational it really is for such calamities to exist in the United Kingdom and for high-ranking people to dismiss real problems as unimportant or exaggerated.
Gathorne Hardy, the President of the Poor Law Board, argued that the newspapers had sensationalised the deaths of two labourers; Dickens believed that it was more sensational for their deaths to have happened in the first place. “Sensational writing in the newspapers! Why, the right honourable gentleman is surely contributing sensational writing for tomorrow’s issue by the yard,” writes Dickens. If the press really went to the places that caused the two labourers to pass away early, they would find terrible working conditions, abominable healthcare and dens of vice and villainy. Is it the reports that are sensational or the circumstances themselves?
The conditions of the Victorian era and today are of course vastly different. Dickens’s exposé is not something that can be used to make direct, accurate connections with modern British society – people are not dying in factories and workhouses as they were in his day. We must read his essay with a pinch of salt, treating it as a historical source concerning Victorian urban life. But one does see distinct parallels of the two ages.
Paid by the public to protect the Poor, the official representative of a costly system under which paupers starve and die can find nothing more germane to the subject of poor law reform than abuse of those who have performed the real work of his department, and but for whom, it and its salaried servants, parasites, and admirers would have continued with folded hands and brazen front to murmur, “All is well.”
Evidently, the bad habits of statesmen were just as practiced as they are today:
…Suppose a man to succeed to office when public opinion has insisted upon reform; suppose a prime minister to herald him with a bombastic flourish as “the fittest man in the Queen’s dominions” for his onerous charge; suppose the man himself to assure the House of Commons that all previous abuses have been due to the mismanagement and indifference of his predecessor; suppose the same man to purchase the cheap cheers of his fellow- legislators by braggart promises of efficient control and personal sacrifice; and suppose him to conveniently ignore his own statements, and, while filching the labours of others, to throw stones at them from the convenient shelter of parliamentary place — would this be sensational?
The Conservatives have never stopped blaming the last Labour government for the country’s ills, justifying every cut with the need to solve the economic problems with which they supposedly left the country; plenty of governments, including the current government and the previous coalition, have jettisoned the promises they made at the election once elected; it’s a widespread opinion that our politicians are all the same; and the last government was accused of alienating common people from its cosy Westminster position.
…Suppose a servant of the State to be bold as a lion in his pledges to the public, and as meek as a sucking dove in his performances with guardians; suppose him to be outwardly rigid and privately compromising — is this sensational? Suppose he, or an officer under his direction, to preface public investigations by private interviews with the people accused, wherein friendly hints are given how damaging evidence may be suppressed; suppose him to have other investigations conducted with closed doors, and to cause others again to be so craftily managed that the evidence is published and the verdict resolutely kept back — is this sensational?
I can’t help but think of the Department of Work and Pensions…
It is refreshing to realise that many of the things through which the Victorians lived no longer exist in today’s society. We have clean water to drink, good healthcare and social services that look out for people in need. Nonetheless, there are far too many instances of poverty and hardship in this country. Dickens describes a man, Daly, who died through malnutrition, poor hygience and bad healthcare, all at the hands of those who were supposedly supporting him. Do we not have similar problems with the NHS and our social services?
Were he alive today, I believe that Dickens would marvel at the way in which society had advanced; but he might shudder at how the more things have changed, the more things have stayed the same.
These are some of the many comparisons that one could make from Dickens’s words. I recommend reading his essay, ‘What is Sensational?’, as shared by The Independent online.
Dickens’s essay can be read at the following website: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/the-unseen-charles-dickens-read-the-excoriating-essay-on-victorian-poverty-that-noone-knew-he-had-written-10386310.html
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