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18 September 2014
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'Bleak House': The Novel as Source Material

By Professor Martin Daunton
Novels as representations

'Punch' cartoon depicting an old soldier of Dickens' era, starving to death
'Punch' cartoon, 1894: Dickens' portrayal of social conditions were intended to elicit a response 
When reading passages like those above, try to see how the author is using metaphors to create an impression and elicit a reaction. Remember that the techniques of Dickens could be used for different and, to our minds, less attractive purposes, such as in Thomas Carlyle's acerbic attack in 1849 on the former slaves of the sugar colonies in the West Indies.

We need to understand how any demand for action would have had to be converted into specific policies - and this requires a close analysis of political processes and ideologies. Dickens himself does not tell us what Lord Coddle and his colleagues should do. Indeed, any attempt to take power into their hands might simply have led to an outcry against their attack on the freedom of local authorities. Would the inhabitants of Tom's-all-Alone be much better off if it was simply swept away?

' ... Dickens satirised Mr Gradgrind and his demand for "facts".'

We also need to establish, as far as we can, hard facts about the social conditions that existed in Victorian London. The novels of Dickens, and many of the more apparently 'objective' accounts of Chadwick and other sanitary reformers, are representations - and as historians we should be fascinated with the ways in which society is represented and interpreted. But we also need to move beyond this to enquire into known trends in infant mortality, or patterns of employment.

In Hard Times, Dickens satirised Mr Gradgrind and his demand for 'facts'. As historians, we should attempt to combine an appreciation of the changing ways in which society was represented in different texts, with an understanding of the importance of Mr Gradgrind's 'facts'. We need to ask questions about the life expectancy of people who lived in industrial towns, the level of investment in sewers, and the number of orphans who, like Little Jo, had a short and unpleasant life on the streets of Victorian London.

It is only when we know the answers to some of these questions that we can consider ourselves to have an informed opinion, and to have the right to call ourselves historians.

About the author

Martin Daunton is Professor of Economic History at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Churchill College. He is the author of Progress and Poverty: The Economic and Social History of Britain, 1700-1850, (Oxford University Press, 1995). He has recently edited The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, Volume 3, 1840-1950, (Cambridge University Press, 2000), and completed Trusting Leviathan: The Politics of Taxation in Britain, 1799-1914, (Cambridge University Press, 2001).


Published: 2004-11-04

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