Me and Charles
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 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.
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.
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?