- Charles Dickens on Poverty, edited by Pete Orford (Hesperus, 2013).
The latest entry in Orford's "Charles Dickens on . . ." series. Knowing how fiercely Dickens fought for the poor all his life, one would expect a consistently fiery tone throughout this essay collection. This turns out, surprisingly, not to be the case.
The first group of essays, about the high-profile case of Bartholomew Drouet (who owned a school where more than 150 children died of cholera under "appalling conditions"), is suitably fiery -- indeed, I think it's some of the best writing Dickens ever did. But just at the end, when we learn that Drouet got off scot-free and one would expect Dickens to boil over with rage, he instead writes quietly and matter-of-factly, as if almost too weary for words anymore. The effect is far more sobering than any outraged eloquence he could have possibly come up with.
In other essays he studies different facets of poverty: the "shabby-genteel," the begging-letter writers who plague him as a known philanthropist, the tramps, residents of the workhouse, and residents of his own Urania Cottage. Sometimes he shows genuine sympathy, but any group or individual that he finds more colorful than pitiable is fair game for his wit. He goes even further with the begging-letter writers; they come in for a full share of his wrath, as he blames them for taking bread out of the mouths of the genuinely poor: "The begging-letters flying about by every post, made it perfectly manifest, that a set of lazy vagabonds were interposed between the general desire to do something to relieve the sickness and misery under which the poor were suffering, and the suffering poor themselves. . . . The writers are public robbers; and we who support them are parties to their depredations. . . . Let us give all we can; let us give more than ever. Let us do all we can; let us do more than ever. But let us give, and do, with a high purpose; not to endow the scum of the earth, to its own greater corruption, with the offals of our duty."
In his general attitude toward poverty, in fact, Dickens comes across as far more nuanced, knowing, and thoughtful than most modern writers on the subject. Which, indeed, one probably should have expected all along.