Dickens: law and politics

The case for change

Jeremy Bentham by Henry William PickersgillStrong moral and religious reasons were put forward in favour of legal changes to improve society:

  • Perhaps the most important moral argument came in Jeremy Bentham's writing on the principle of utilitarianism. He argued that the rightness of laws should be tested by the extent to which they promoted the greatest happiness of the greatest possible number. More on utilitarian ‘happiness'?

Dickens' writing shows that this idea might well have been attractive to him but it is likely that he was more concerned with practical answers to urgent human needs than with political theory:

  • even when he did write about large systems (e.g. the Chancery Court in Bleak House), his real interest was in their inefficiency and its effect on individual lives
  • he was interested less in what Parliament might do than in what individual people might achieve, as can be seen, for instance, in Little Dorrit, where characters are shown struggling against a hide-bound and impervious system that stifles enterprise and creativity
  • he was outraged by the failure to use the possibilities of the new wealth to change the lives of the poor
  • he hated the way in which the law was often an enemy of, rather than a protector of, the people.

Dickens' knowledge of the law and Parliament

In his attempts to lift himself out of the misery of his early life, Dickens became first a legal clerk, then a parliamentary reporter. He was articled to a solicitor and began to learn about the ways in which the law worked. He then taught himself shorthand, and became a newspaper and parliamentary reporter. In Parliament he had to take down everything as it was said and then transcribe it for publication. It was a demanding and responsible job. While working as a parliamentary reporter, he could see in great detail what Parliament had in mind to do; outside, he could see the gap between those intentions and the daily reality endured by many people.

Political reform

There was much going on in Parliament when Dickens was a young man:

  • the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 removed most of the legal disadvantages suffered by Roman Catholics
  • the 1832 Reform Act enabled more men to vote but electors still had to possess a minimum amount of property before they could exercise this right
  • there were several Factory Acts that - among other things - limited the hours children were allowed to work
  • in 1834, the new Poor Law set up the notorious workhouses, where the poor were sent to work for their board and lodging. The effects of the Poor Law were central to Oliver Twist
  • in 1846, the Corn Laws, which kept the price of wheat artificially high, were repealed, and the price of bread fell.

Dickens and reform

Dickens actively participated in the pressure for reform movements in a number of ways:

  • when cholera broke out in the 1850s, Dickens joined the call for reforms that would reduce (and eventually remove) this danger - mainly the construction of the enormous sewerage systems in London and other great cities
  • the horrors of disease and maladministration exposed by the suffering of soldiers in the Crimean War prompted him to join the Administrative Reform Association, which had the ambitious goal of reforming Parliament; this was the time during which he wrote Little Dorrit (see also ‘The case for change' earlier in this section)
  • local and national politics in his day were still dominated by powerful landowners, especially the aristocracy, and Dickens feared revolution if matters were not improved: the 1840s had seen a great deal of agitation by the Chartists, a movement seeking greater political and civic rights for the mass of the people.
Key Fact: Social, moral and political concerns are deeply woven into much of Dickens' writing. It is hard to think of any of his novels as having no political point of view or purpose.
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