Victorian age and Charles Dickens



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The reign of Queen Victoria was the longest reign in English history. It was characterised by many remarkable and rapid changes in economy and society. The railway system rapidly grew. Steam and iron substituted sail and wood in the British mercantile marine. Britain dominated the seas. Communication became easier thanks to the electric telegrapher. The first industrial cities developed and Britain underwent a shift from an agricultural to an industrial society. But there was the growth of the areas covered by overcrowded slums in which people lived in appalling conditions and women and children were obliged to work in the coal-mines. The Poor Law brought to the creation of the work houses, public institutions where people unable to support themselves were housed and made to work. The several Mines Acts limited the work-day of women and children. Education became universal and the right to vote was extended to all men. The Victorian Age marked the growth of the middle class. In this period life was ruled by integrity, respectability and a strong sense of family. These values influenced the writers of the age. Many novels reflected Victorian behaviour and moral standard. But some of them were also an attack on the problems of urban society. The felicity of the Victorian Age ended with the death of Queen Victoria.
Charles Dickens was born in Landport in 1812 into a lower middle class family which had great financial difficulties. After the family’s move to London, Charles was employed in a blacking factory. His father was imprisoned for debts. The boy did not stay with his parents because he had to maintain his job. He suffered greatly from his experience in the factory. The vicissitudes of this period helped him to become mature and develop a keen sense of observation. When Dickens’s father was released, the boy, was sent to school, he became a legal clerk and learnt shorthand, he become a freelance reporter and he worked for some newspapers. He published Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers. Dickens married Catherine, a few years before he had fallen in love with Maria but the affair had not had a happy ending because Maria’s parents considered him socially inferior. After his marriage, dissatisfied with his wife, he became emotionally involved with her younger sister Mary, who lived with them, but she died. Dickens’s relationship with women were always painful: his mother’s fault, his wife’s limits, Maria’s rejection and Mary’s early departure affected his interest in women, and, as a result, his female character are often unattractive. Dickens’s next novel was Oliver Twist. This work, like The Pickwick Papers, were published in serial form. He published The Old Curiosity Shop, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield and Hard Times. Dickens met Ellen, an eighteen year old actress, and fell in love with her. After a year he separated from his wife and moved to a country house where he stayed with Ellen and his children. It was not a happy period because his Victorian conscience could not accept his relationship with a woman other than his wife. He died in 1870.
Oliver Twist is a child of unknown parents, born in a workhouse, where he leads a miserable existence under the tyranny of Bumble. He runs away to London and meets a boy dressed as a man, the Artful Dodger, who takes him to the old Jew, a teacher of theft’s art. Oliver is caught to the police but he is acquitted. He is taken home by Mr Brownlow who notice the likeness between Oliver and the portrait of a young man in his house. A mysterious figure, Monks wants to know all about Oliver. He reveals that he is Oliver’s brother. His father was a friend of Mr Brownlow. Oliver is adopted by Mr Brownlow and begins a new life.
Hard Times is the only novel not set in London, in fact it is set in an imaginary industrial town. One of the main characters is Mr Gradgrind, the owner of a typical Victorian school. He has two children, Tom and Louisa, and he brings them up teaching them the principles which are taught in his school. He marries his daughter to a ruthless manufacturer, but she is nearly seduced by a politician, James. Tom has become unscrupulous and calculating. Sissy, was father works in a circus, is found ineducable by Mr Gradrind. Later she became one of his depandants, and she finds the force to help his daughter Louisa because she faces James and compels him to leave the town. Tom takes some money from the bank where he works, he decides to confess his crime to his father, who makes him go abroad. Gradrind has to admit that he is a failure both as father and as a teacher.

Charles Dickens is the symbol of the deep contradictions typical of the Victorian Age and embodies what was both positive and negative in it. He condemned the rigidity of the Victorian morality but he was imbued with it: he denounced the evils of his society but he was not able to propose radical solutions for them. He identifies the origin of social evils in man’s hypocrisy, lack of love and greed for money. All Dickens’s novels were published in serial form and editors imposed a censorship on the writers. This type of publication became very popular because it provided to buy fiction at a very low price. The reading public increased, including the low middle class. His novels were often pervaded by too much sentimentalism, sensationalism and melodrama. The restrictions imposed by popular tastes and exigencies resulted in a lack of balance in the plots of many of his novels. Dickens’s novels are also characterised by an episodic structure. In the end good and justice were triumph: his ideas of justice was idealised. The narrator is usually third person and omniscient. Dickens’s style is clear, vivid and effective: journalistic.