review by Emily Sutherland
Night Walks is a slim volume, part of the Penguin Great Ideas series, which consists of works that have engendered debate or changed the way we see ourselves. Other writers in this series include Charles Darwin, George Orwell and Sigmund Freud. Charles Dickens is so well known as a novelist that we tend to neglect his journalism. This is a mistake because his journalism was an important part of his writing, and was as influential in bringing to light the ‘social ills of the time’, as were his novels.
Dickens was the editor of a number of literary magazines in which he published his own articles and serialised fiction, along with the work of others including Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. As an editor, he sought historical, comic, and scientific articles as well as articles aimed at highlighting the poor social conditions of many working-class Londoners. While Dickens was not advocating revolution and did not follow a defined political creed, he did aim in his writing to challenge and educate his middle-class readership. Night Walks could be said to reflect this, he certainly did not hold back with his descriptions of the incredible poverty in London at that time.
The book is a series of literary sketches taken from a larger volume, The Uncommercial Traveller, published in1860 [note 1]. In that collection Dickens wrote descriptions and reminiscences as though by a ‘Traveller’ who journeyed about, observing and reporting on what he saw. The pieces come about, Dickens explained, because of ‘a temporary inability to sleep’ that found him walking the streets of London at night. Although his avowed object was simply to get through the night, he found ‘the pursuit brought [him] into sympathetic relations with people who have no other object every night in the year’, and this inspired him to write.
Even the ‘idlest walk must always have its appointed destination’, and Dickens as the Traveller sets himself a specific task before setting out on each walk; he never deviated from this set plan. His night wanderings took him to Covent Garden, where he saw, on market day:
They took him to the Chatham Dock, where he is instructed by a young boy, whom he names the ‘Spirit of the Fort’ in the art of identifying vessels on the river and ‘precious secrets in reference to beer’. The Traveller undertakes a tour of a workhouse, the worst part being the ‘Foul wards’:
He observes women with faces devoid of expression or hope. He visits a hovel, where he sees a
On this bed lay a woman, a ‘poor creature’ suffering from lead poisoning due to working in the lead factory – a common fate for women.
In the ‘Star of the East’, the Traveller describes a hospital established by a young couple, both medically trained, where children are treated, assisted by ‘a common mongrel dog called Poodles’, which makes the rounds ‘like a house surgeon’. The hospital and its volunteer staff are a source of inspiration among the degradation and neglect.
In ‘On an Amateur Beat’ the Traveller comes upon a homeless child:
As he stops to help this child he is assailed by fifty like it ‘begging, tumbling, fighting, clamouring yelling, shivering in their nakedness and hunger’, and he wonders how the people of London can reconcile the ‘public savagery of neglected children’ in a city that was ‘proud of its power by sea and land and never used its power to seize and save them’.
In Night Walks Dickens uses personification and striking analogies that highlight rather than mask the darkness, homelessness, drunkenness and misery. These literary sketches also throw light on his other writings and novels. We can read Night Walks on a number of levels. First, each chapter is a vivid description of London in the nineteenth century, at a time when there was great wealth and great poverty. Each chapter shines a light on a specific ill, be it the Betting Shops which induce those who could ill afford it to gamble, and whose proprietors often fleeced their customers or the misery of those working for a pittance in factories and steel works or by piece-work at home, or the bewilderment of a small boy lost for an entire day in London.
Secondly, we can use this small volume as an introduction to the social journalism which Dickens began publishing in 1850. In ‘A Nightly Scene in London’ he describes a group of people:
In another piece he gives an account of home for homeless women set up by certain ladies who were ‘grieved to think that numbers of their own sex were wandering the streets in degradation, passing through and through the prisons all their lives’. In this report Dickens gives details of specific cases of young women who were saved from such a fate by the ministrations of those who supervised this house, giving shelter and education to the women. We can see his focus is not on entertaining in these longer pieces published as articles but on giving precise information.
Finally, this collection is illuminating because we can see the extent to which both Dickens’ personal life and his observations and reflections on the ‘social ills’ of London influenced his novels. In Little Dorrit Old Nandy’s fading years are limited and circumscribed by workhouse rules. In Our Mutual Friend it is noted that paupers are treated worse than criminals. Dickens’ father spent time in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison, a place described in Little Dorrit. Charles was taken from school and sent to work in a blacking factory for six shillings a week, a sum that was not adequate for his needs. This experience was mirrored in David Copperfield. Charles Dickens had an early acquaintance with poverty, an acquaintance that he continued, even when his personal circumstances improved, forcing himself to observe and write. This book serves as an introduction to both his social journalism and his fiction.
1. Phillip, N and Neuburg, V (eds) 1986 Charles Dickens: A December Vision. His Social Journalism London: Collins, 1986. return to text
Emily Sutherland is a Research Scholar at Flinders University. She is a published novelist, poet and playwright. She is the joint editor of Integrity and Historical Research which will be published later this year by Routledge Taylor & Francis.
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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy