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

By Professor Martin Daunton
 Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens 

How much can we discover about a historical period from a novel of the time? Martin Daunton examines Dickens' brilliant evocation of Victorian social conditions in Bleak House, and gives a historian's view of the story.

Poverty and despair

Charles Dickens was no stranger to the poverty and despair of London and other great cities in the first half of the 19th century. His own father's total incapacity for financial management had led him and his family to a debtors' prison - where the young Charles witnessed misery at very close quarters. (His feckless parent was eventually used by Dickens as the model for Mr Micawber in David Copperfield).

'Memories of the prison ... gave [Dickens] a deep sense of the miseries suffered by the poor.'

Memories of the prison, and of his later spell working as a young boy in a blacking factory, never left Dickens and gave him a deep sense of the miseries suffered by the poor. Oliver Twist (1838) portrayed the 'rookeries' of London, the crime-ridden areas from which Fagin and his gang preyed on their victims. Bleak House (1853), from which the extracts below are taken, similarly described life as lived in the seamier parts of London. Then in 1854, he published his vision of a northern industrial town in Hard Times.

Dickens was not alone in his fictional representation of the 'condition of England' - other examples include Benjamin Disraeli's Sibyl, or the Two Nations (1845), and Mrs Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855).

Published: 2004-11-04

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