UK Politics

Charles Dickens: Reporting on Parliament

Two hundred years after his birth, BBC Parliament looks in detail into the early years Charles Dickens spent slaving away in Parliament.

The future novelist was still a teenager when he started work as a reporter on The Mirror of Parliament, but over the course of five years he covered some of the most turbulent events in Westminster's history.

Verbatim parliamentary accounts were hugely popular at the time, with reports of what was said appearing on the front pages of newspapers or sold separately at a profit.

Dr Philip Salmon, of The History of Parliament Trust, says: "We estimate that about two million people were reading parliamentary debates on a regular basis making it one of the mass entertainments of the time."

Although their reporters did not use bylines, it is likely Dickens would have covered some of the century's most dramatic political developments.

While he was working in Westminster the Great Reform Act of 1832 was passed, abolishing rotten boroughs and giving major cities MPs. There were changes to the Poor Law, establishing workhouses, so important in his later fictional works.

Dickens was still working in Parliament in 1834 when much of the building burned down.

However Dickens appeared to have thought little of MPs and Parliament.

Circus or bear garden

The Guardian's Andrew Sparrow says: "He found politicians pompous. He thought they made promises which they weren't keeping. He wasn't impressed with the rhetoric. He obviously found it boring."

His disdain for the institution he often likened to a circus or bear garden could be seen later in life when Dickens turned down invitations to stand for Parliament himself.

According to Prof John Drew, author of Dickens the Journalist, he considered several requests from constituencies.

Illustration from The Pickwick Papers
Chaos at the Eatanswill election scene, from The Pickwick Papers

However, established in his career as a popular social novelist, "he realised he could wield a much more direct, if not more glamorous kind of power, by using his position as a leading writer of fiction and a magazine editor".

Dickens had used family connections to get the job on The Mirror of Parliament, a publication started by his uncle and a rival to Hansard, which stands as today's parliamentary archive. After a few years he moved to the leading newspaper The Morning Chronicle, where he started creative writing.

It would have been a hard existence, often working through the night and without the space given to modern political reporters.

In a speech to the Newspaper Press Fund many years later, he said: "I have worn my knees by writing on them on the old back row of the old gallery of the House of Commons; and I have worn my feet by standing to write in a preposterous pen in the old House of Lords, where we used to be huddled together like so many sheep."

Dickens left after about five years, but in a programme to mark the bicentenary of his birth, Dickens in Parliament, Dickensian scholars and parliamentary historians say how those years were hugely important to his future works.

Prof Drew says that the unique perspective of a parliamentary reporter, literally looking down on and sitting on the outside of debates, shaped his style of writing for years to come.

"I don't think other writers of the period who didn't have that particular angle could get the same tone, that sort of arch tone, partly facetious, partly knowing, partly on the inside but still on the margins.

"Those five or six years were absolutely crucial, they were formative," says Prof Drew.

Events covered by Dickens the reporter may have influenced events in his novels, such as the dramatic scenes at the fictional Eatanswill election from the Pickwick papers.

But it is the eponymous hero of David Copperfield who, as a parliamentary reporter, may best sum up Dickens' experience in Westminster.

"Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify," says Copperfield.

"I am sufficiently behind the scenes to know the worth of political life. I am quite an Infidel about it - and shall never be converted."

Watch Dickens in Parliament presented by Carolyn Quinn on the BBC Parliament channel at 21:00 on Saturday, 24 March, repeated on 25 March.

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