In the latest of their “Literature” series, the School of Life offers insight into the incredibly prolific Charles Dickens, who used his writing to comment upon social issues and systemic failures of the day. Dickens drew upon his own childhood experience of growing up poor and told his stories with the utmost compassion for his characters.
Dickens was working with a key assumption of course everyone knew already that there were poor houses horrible working conditions and debtors prison. These were obvious facts of early 19th century life in England. The point was that comfortable people the kind of people who have the power to change things generally didn’t feel much sense of urgency. They didn’t feel personally connected to the problems, so Dickens used his own experience to get people to feel interested in and sympathetic to the plight of others that they normally have been emotionally very distance from. He didn’t say look how awful it is for them, he said here’s what it would be like for you. …His writing draws attention to many things that were going wrong, the poor, the dreadful state of schools, rampant nepotism and harsh working conditions, but he wasn’t trying to advocate specific schemes of reform. If you’d asked Dickens what exactly the government should do to improve the conditions in factories or what a better legal system would look like, he wouldn’t have had a carefully worked out alternative policy to hand. What he was doing was shaping the climate of feeling and opinion which makes it much easier for people trying to get an act through Parliament, raise funds or make local improvements.