“It is said that the children of the very poor are not brought up, but dragged up.” Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
It’s an image that is haunting, and daunting, this observation from 1852 Victorian England: the idea that some children- many children, in fact- in the very prime of their learning and forming years were forced to find their way to young adulthood through the hauling and heaving of desperate poverty and abuse. It was a reality distinctly at odds with the Victorians’ self-proclaimed progressive era of reform and improved societal standards. Author Charles Dickens made his mark, in part, chronicling the sad realities of the time.
That was a long time ago. The pokes at our collective conscience by Dickens have persisted since his time, as his works are among the most revered and widely-read in the English language. As a result, we should have every reason to expect that, with the passage of time and a presumed greater enlightenment about healthy societies, our nurture of children might have changed since 1852.
Dickens would find endless fuel for his anger today. Even a short visit to the Mexico-U.S. border would engender sufficient affront for him to create two volumes the size of Bleak House. The experiences of border children is little better than those endured in the streets of London more than 150 years ago. The realities of the War in Yemen have claimed 85,000 children under the age of 5 since 2015, more than enough to flame Dickens’ sense of outrage. The outlook there suggests the potential demise of another 14 million people over the next several years. And if the well-known writer deigned to travel to the U.S., he would be dismayed to learn that the British progeny has fostered more than 16 million hungry children in 2018. If Dickens took a side trip down to Nicaragua, he would encounter children facing family upheavals, disappeared parents, and poverty that is among the worst in the entire Western Hemisphere. He might begin to wonder whether his famous works really made any impact at all.
I’ve re-read a number of Dickens’ classics in recent years, including Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. I’m drawn to his characters and the ambience of the times in his writings. But I also find myself distracted by the conditions encountered by many of his characters, especially the children. The stories are uncomfortable. The children’s circumstances are often abhorrent, to the point occasionally when I think that Dickens has likely exaggerated the realities faced by his young protagonists. But I read on in the certain hope that things will get better by the tale’s end.
Dickens’ hopes for any kind of empathetic reforms or changed sensitivities as a result of his works would be shattered in the face of today’s world. The travesties of Victorian England are comparatively small compared to the cold calculations of despots today. Reading fictional accounts of treachery and evil pales in comparison to the very real atrocities that we tolerate repeatedly on the world stage today.
A Christmas Carol delights audiences because of its ability to take us from the depths of human greed to the pinnacle of generosity and redemption. It makes us feel good in the hope that it creates for eventual justice. I wonder if Dickens would be inclined to write very different conclusions to his stories today….