Happy Birthday Charles

Me and Charles

A Christmas Carol

It is exactly 200 years since the birth of Charles Dickens. I admit I had difficulty ‘getting on’ with Dickens at school. I encountered his work in more detail than I wished to through GCSEs and then  A level English Literature. I found the novels (I know I won’t win any fans here)  contrived. I didn’t feel they were genuine and I didn’t feel they spoke to me.

They didn’t speak to me until I was an adult. They didn’t speak to me until I had a greater understanding of the world and the inequalities that exist in our world. They didn’t speak to me until I understood them beyond the stories that they tell.

My appreciation and yes, love, for Dickens has developed over my adulthood and was not nurtured in my childhood because as I learnt more about society and the world I live in, I was able to relate his world to mine and I saw him more as holding a critical eye up to the world and society around him and remarking on it.

He wasn’t just ‘telling stories’ although those stories are, indeed, fine – reflected by the sheer number of interpretations and reinterpretations that they hold up to – but he was telling of a world and it isn’t a pretty world, nor a kind world.

Dickens
A Mirror to the World (or London, at least)

Dickens dredges up through his fictional works, a world that is uncomfortable and unjust. It challenges us with the imagery of poverty, hulk ships and vaguely sinister aristocrats. Life isn’t fair. Sometimes some of the protagonists find happy endings, but it is the reflection of the ‘walk on’ parts that adds to the sum of the whole.

The perceptions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor are turned on their heads. We see into workhouses and slums. We see into the homes of artistocrats and lawyers. Place and position of birth does not reflect differences in morality, indeed, sometimes they are diametrically opposed. Coming up to the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, it is particularly resonant as the government pushes through this old Victorian agenda, just as, I suspect they would have challenged those in a position of power in the time in which they were written.

Reading through some of  his books over the last couple of years, it’s hard not to draw parallels with some of the actions of the governments (not just the current one) today. With inequality rising in the UK it’s worth remembering the power of fact couched in fiction to drive the imagination of the public.

Dickens challenged and still challenges an elite who accept the artistry in his writing to acknowledge poverty, hunger, injustice, exploitation and cruelty in a way that less skilful writing would not.

Rochester High Street

Charles Dickens, Social Worker

When I studied social policy in more depth through my social work training, some of the power of Dickens still resonated with me. He may not consciously have tried to teach those lessons but they are important to all who work in social care and social work as we struggle, beyond some of the paper pushing irrelevancies to fight for social  justice in a macro sense.

Will I claim Charles Dickens for social work? The thought, I imagine would make him chuckle and while it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek to suggest it, I’ll do just that.

Social Work is the promotion and fight for social justice. Yes, there are tasks related but the power of social work has to remain in keeping the fire burning and the focus aimed at injustices in society as we see them from a unique viewpoint and making a difference. Not just a difference to individuals but shouting about the need for differences in perceptions of those who are marginalised.

Dickens did that and social work can learn from him. We must shine a light into the darkest recesses of society (the government, the press) and push and fight for a change. We need to make the societies we live in better. As Dickens tried to do.

Madame Tussauds - Charles Dickens

Power of Fiction

At the weekend, I wrote about the power of fiction to present truths that sometimes can be more difficult when they are a true representation. Dickens is a great master of the art of fiction and can teach us lessons in how to affect social change. We who see some of the underbelly of society that the government and media want to try to forget can use the power of words and yes, the power of fiction to shine a light at them and force changes.

For that, Dickens is an inspiration. It took me a while to ‘get’ him but once ‘got’, my life and understanding of the world has been enriched by his writing. As for personal recommendations, A Tale of Two Cities remains my (and Wilkie Collins’) favourite but Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Bleak House and Great Expectations would follow closely.

Do you have favourites? What have you learnt from them?

Happy Birthday Charles. Thank you for caring.
Charles Dickens

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7 Responses to “Happy Birthday Charles”

  1. I loved Dickens as a kid, I would lose myself in his stories. Unfortunately, I had a lot of that love of story-telling knocked out of me by doing an English degree. 3 years of analysing texts sort of killed reading stories for pleasure for me for quite some time.

    However, I have begun rediscovering the power of story-telling, and remembering what I learned from the likes of Dickens and Thomas Hardy. The project I’ve been working on for the Big Lottery with David Wilcox (http://socialreporters.net) has been exploring how organisations can use story-telling to celebrate what they do and describe client journeys. And I love the work of Nick Jankel on tools for story-telling (http://youtu.be/vqEhJR0WfXs).

    Story-telling can engage people in the work of an organisation. The current BBC2 series on social work is a great example of this, although I admit I find some of it very difficult to watch (and turned over to watch “This is Spinal Tap” last night – another great story). In the current climate in what appears like cheer-leading against public services, giving people intimate knowledge of the essential work public agencies do can serve to challenge them to think carefully about which element of that work they might consider could be done without.

  2. Professor of Eng. Lit. at Manchester Uni c.1989 “Bloody Dickens, can’t stand it: on, and on, and on, and on…”

    Despite many attempts, never managed to finish a complete Dickens…

    And to be honest, I think Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and a Clergyman’s Daughter give what is still virtually a contemporary account of poverty.

    Hey, we’re not going to need fiction this time next year – we’re all going to be living it.

  3. I write as a former senior local government Director whose portfolio from time to time included adult social care services, but I myself am not a social worker.

    Not surprisingly I am in sympathy with much of this.However the primary contention – that social work is about fighting for justice – is flawed in that it does not have any accepted social legitimacy – which is to say, that I am not sure that the profession or the public see it (and are prepared to fund it) as a force to fight social injustice.
    Surely it is an ameliorative and hopefully can provide solutions for some people and families facing desperate situations?Those situations often arise because of personal misfortune relating to or arising from wider structural inequalities or because the challenges that individuals and their carers face are not adequately catered for in society.Sometimes in our poorest communities it’s more complex than that and I would hesitate to say it is always about injustice or inequality.

    • While I can see your point, social work IS about social justice as noted in the definition of by the International Federation of Social Work

      ‘The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.’

      While it doesn’t always feel like that at the frontline of local authority social work in the UK, I think it’s important to remember the roots of the profession and act on them in and out of work :)

      • “The roots of the profession.” Ahem. I thought they were to be found in the Parish Beadle and the Workhouse Master. [BM ducks below parapet to avoid empathic brickbats.] Mind you, with my metaphorical Nursey starched hat on I have to admit that the roots of mental health nursing may be in Grace Poole and Mrs Gamp. Or perhaps we should both look to a much earlier time – maybe to the ‘amnchara’ [soul friend] in early Celtic monasteries (a point Z has raised elsewhere in the past).

        My parents had a full set of the first edition of the collected works of Dickens, long before ebay of course. I’m afraid I made ‘David Copperfield’ very grubby by constantly re-reading at 10-12. I had a crush on a kind of honorary cousin whom I didn’t see very often who I identified with L’il Emly and who used to say that we were going to get married. So I was rooting for Master David and Emly to get it together. Alas, it never happened. (No, it didn’t happen in mundane, real life either.)

        Dickens wrote three different endings to ‘Great Expectations’, which I did for O-level. In one of these, not our set text, Pip and Estella fall in love as adults. From a caring professions point of view I think this is important as he seems to be trying to deal with the complex, ‘grey’ areas of life. He is not generally known for this: black-and-white monsters, errm, whoops, I mean Type A personalities such as Sykes, Squeers, Scrooge, Bounderby and Quilp seem more in his line, or is that just to boost readership of the magazines in which his works were published in weekly instalments? Trollope found all this distinctly phoney and always referred to Dickens as “Mr Popular Sentiment”.

        As to your last point, I suggest fighting for social justice carries its own legitimacy. With Trollope, we may wonder whether that was what Dickens was really doing, particularly in view of his private life. His family certainly didn’t think so.

  4. Bleak House is the one that turned it around for me from books I felt no connection to to something I really enjoyed. (yeah I know, not a very worthy response compared to some of those here). Tale of Two Cities is a remarkable book, and I generally love pretty much all of his work now, other than The Pickwick Papers which I don’t think I’ll ever give a second chance to. It was the first non-Oliver/Great Expectations one I read and I hated it.. so it took quite a while for me to give Dickens another chance. His writing did touch on many interesting social aspects, and really paints some great pictures. But, he wasn’t supposed to be much of a nice person himself (as is often the case!).

    We used Dickens, actually, and his commentary on social life in Britain at the time, compared with his home life, as a reason to embrace the ‘death of the author’ literary critical response :-)

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