Dickens and Victorian Britain

Britain transformed

During Dickens' lifetime Britain underwent changes that transformed the lives of its people:

  • British manufacturing became dominant in the world and trade and the financial sector also grew significantly
  • the rail network, begun in the 1830s, was largely completed by the 1870s and had a great effect not only on the accessibility of travel and speed of movement but also on the appearance of the countryside; Dickens writes about this new phenomenon in both Pickwick Papers and Dombey and Son
  • British power and influence overseas expanded and seemed to be permanent
  • the population grew enormously, from around 12 million at the time Dickens was born to 25 million by the time he died
  • this period also sawa significant shift of population from the countryside to the towns and the consequent growth of large cities.

An age of optimism

The age of Dickens was a turbulent period which in many ways saw itself as a time of confident progress. Many people believed that Britain was leading the world into a new and better age:

  • more enlightened laws
  • the benefits of wealth created through industrial development
  • greater political stability than in the rest of Europe
  • other important beliefs included
    • deference to class and authority
    • respect for the law
    • the conviction that work is a duty which is good for the soul.

Dickens and social concern

There is, however, little of this optimism in Dickens' novels. He focuses instead on the daily needs and problems of ordinary people: poverty, poor housing, ill health, a horrifying level of child mortality, hunger, long hours of grinding labour.

The rapid changes of the time benefited some people long before others. Dickens is concerned with those still waiting for improvements and raises key moral and social questions in his writing:

  • the need for schooling and the care of orphans and other deprived children
  • cruelty to children and the corruption of children by criminals
  • the problems created by emphasis onsocial class and newly acquired wealth
  • the problems created by rapid industrialization and urbanization and the conflict between employers and workers.
Key Fact: The phrase ‘Dickensian conditions' now conjures up a picture of dark, ruined buildings in which uneducated people scratch a bare living, surrounded by filth, the victims of harsh social and legal systems, ignored by the wealthy. Crime flourished, cruelty was normal, and improvement depended on chance and on individual benevolence rather than on systematic policy. Dickens' extraordinary imagination inhabited the gap between long-term promises of social and economic progress and the daily realities of those still waiting for the promises to be fulfilled.
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