On the 7th February 2012, Britain celebrated the bicentenary of the birth of one of the greatest literary figures; Charles John Huffam Dickens. Dickens’ work resonates throughout British popular culture; with Oliver Twist’s famous words of “Please Sir, can I have some more?” and the iconic character of Ebenezer Scrooge symbolising those who lack the festive cheer with the renowned statement “Bah Humbug”.
Dickens’ popularity can further be explained through his role as a social commentator of his time, as his novels display the severity of poverty and despair of the working classes in the 19th century. In addition, the assumption that Dickens’ social commentary was limited to the crime and violence embodied by characters such as Bill Sykes in the East End of London is misinformed; Dickens was also attracted to other areas of England that were also affected by the Industrial Revolution, such as Manchester.
Dickens’ novel Hard Times (1854), is set in the fictitious northern English mill-town of Coketown, and was based upon Dickens’ own Mancunian experiences. In a similar vein as the rest of his novels, Dickens’s intention was to educate readers about the working conditions of some of the grim factories that had been spawned during the Industrial Revolution, outside of London.
He wrote in Hard Times that he saw Coketown or rather Manchester as: “a little world of labour” “It contained several large streets, all very like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another…all went in and around the same hours, with the same pavement, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow.”
Has Manchester really changed all that much? It may not be a morally corrupt factory owner who is the villain in our modern tale, but could it not be said that the social ills of inequality and poverty are still very much present in our society? Nevertheless, Dickens’ connection with Manchester is not confined to a novel. His Mancunian experiences stemmed from the fact that his own sister Fanny lived in Ardwick. Dickens, a huge celebrity of his time, was eager to involve himself in the opening of Manchester’s first free city library in 1852. In his speech Dickens announced his delight that such a source of pleasure was to be made available to the lower classes of society. Our cultural perception of Dickens is that he was a man who illuminated the deprivation of the lower classes to the higher classes.
However, one can also detect a personal belief in wanting to provide said lower classes with greater opportunities to educate themselves. Charles Dickens was a literary genius and social commentator who provided an insight into the working class population. Victorian England and its upper classes condemned the working classes as diseased, violent and morally corrupt; Dickens, however, provided a gateway into the sphere of working class life that still provides a powerful insight today.