Dickens – A Re-appraisal

Charles Dickens stands as a hero of the Victorian era in Britain. He is considered as among Britain’s greatest novelists and countless films and presentations have been made about this wonderful man. However I wish to place before the reader an alternative image of the man. He was, by his own admission, a copper’s nark. Working in the field he exploited the young people as fodder for his serialisations of their often tragic lives. He would use the actual events of these young lives to present the reading public with a view of Britain, and more specifically London and South East England, as an expression of the injustice of the day, and the cruelty and duplicity of people. I have no doubt that David Copperfield is a close approximation to his own life.

However I come to write this, not to praise the man for his observation, but largely as a result of a programme I saw recently concerning the reporting of a failed expedition in search of the North-West passage. The expedition held the public mind for a few weeks because of its failure and the horror of events.

The British lead crew froze on their ship and after many weeks a remnant was found by the aid of the Inuit people who gave them shelter and brought them through. What was so gripping were the stories of cannibalism that surrounded their survival.

This awful event was blamed on the natives, and the failure of the expedition put down to bad luck. The Navy could not admit that British men, and officers in its service, had resorted to eating human flesh. Instead the Inuit offered an easy scapegoat for the crime. How that crime was discovered I do not recall. What I did recall was the repugnant denial made by a representative of the Navy today, who refused point blank to accept any other explanation than that the local people had committed this dreadful crime. Faced with a member of that race, whose forebears he accused of such behaviour he maintained this dreadful lie. Even 170 years or thereabouts after the event, and faced with evidence of the researchers and a descendant of the very people who had saved the lives of what remained of the expedition, he maintained the approved position. The Inuit member of the panel was affronted by the bare faced lie and in place of the apology he had expected, justifiably, was presented with the stonewalling attitude of what passes for probity among the services.

A further aspect of the programme was the testimony of Charles Dickens, who likewise maintained that such a disgrace could never have been undertaken by members of the Brittanic Majesty’s service. Faced with the testimony of the journalists who had researched the expedition, and the testimony of the Inuit tribesman, who declared that the eating of human flesh was considered amongst the most heinous of crimes by his people – people let it be understood who have for centuries made their living in the inhospitable climes that confronted the incautious, notoriety-seeking sailors – a descendant of said Dickens made a public and full apology on behalf of the family, for the misrepresentation his forebear had given of these innocent people.

It will be recalled this was the time of the missionary zeal to darkest Africa and the Pacific, which abounded with tales of flesh eating savages doing away with the luckless ‘servants of the Lord’. Here let it be remembered that the same misfortune, at least as far as killing was concerned, befell those bishops and clerics, who attempted to convert Europeans to Christianity, if only among the Scandinavians, though doubtless other examples could be found from history. Not to mention those clerics who were martyred by the ‘good Church’ throughout the late Middle Ages.

It would appear then that Dickens himself was a populist, and nothing more. Interested not in truth but in winding a good yarn, to earn a crust for himself. A rag tag reporter looking for a good headline. How accurately he portrayed the actual living conditions of his subjects is thus, in my mind at least, open to question. I write this having watched an episode of Dodger, based on Dickens characters, only to find again the misrepresentation of Fagin as a bully and a villain. What Fagin’s background may have been I cannot say. That he gave shelter to children who were sold to him in a 19th century sex trade with the orphanages of the day, is without question. But to portray him as a villain is, I think, another example of Dicken’s propaganda.

Author: Keith Armstrong

Dance teacher, writer, film-maker, educationalist, enthusiast.

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