Dickens and Parliament
Earlier this week I gave a micro-lecture at an event to celebrate Dickens’ connections with Parliament, and I reproduce some of it here.
Having had an indifferent education up to 12 and then famously being put to work in a boot-blacking factory by his feckless and Micawber-like father, Dickens joined a solicitor’s office at the age of 15 in 1827. He combined this with a voracious programme of self-education at the British Museum library (now the British Library) to make up for a lack of university education which he deeply resented all his life.
One element of this was to teach himself the Gurney system of shorthand (and for those working in Parliament today, Gurney’s is still familiar as a shorthand writing company). As with many of Dickens’ experiences as an adolescent, he reused it in a novel – in fact in David Copperfield – whose eponymous hero learns tachygraphy and having done so then goes back to the start and discovers he’s forgotten every word. Dickens used his new skill on legal cases for his uncle’s paper The Mirror of Parliament, a rival to Thomas Hansard’s Official Report. This was what brought Dickens into contact with Parliament for the first time, when his uncle sent him to cover proceedings after he had learned the ropes of reporting on ecclesiastical law cases at Doctor’s Commons.
Many years later Dickens himself declared in a speech to the Newspaper Press Fund, “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.” And our hero David Copperfield recalls how, as a Parliamentary reporter himself: “Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify…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.” In fact, Dickens, I’m afraid, remained unimpressed with politicians throughout his life: “My faith in the people governing,” he said in 1869, less than a year before his death, “is, on the whole infinitesimal; my faith in the people governed is, on the whole, illimitable.”
There is plenty of information in Dickens’ correspondence from the late 1820s and early 1830s about his lifestyle as a Parliamentary reporter. It was a time when he was also infatuated with his first love, Maria Beadnall – a love which cooled rapidly on her part, and the letters give a picture of the 18- or 19-year old Dickens working till the early hours on his Parliamentary reports for the Mirror, transcribing and filing them, and then walking briskly through the London streets through the rest of the night to burn off his unrequited passion. In fact, his habit of strenuous nightwalking was never to leave him after this point. He was working incredibly hard – as he did all his life, an incurable workaholic – not least because it appears that he was part of the reporting team dealing with passage of the various bills which eventually became the Great Reform Act in 1832.
Conditions were grim in the stuffy and cramped chambers, with the temperature in the Lords reaching 29 degrees during the marathon second-reading debate in October 1831. The bill fell by 41 votes, and riots ensued across London. So Dickens would not only have been exhausted by his efforts in this environment which today would have been thoroughly condemned by Health & Safety, but he would also have had to contend with the very real threat of being caught up in a violent civil commotion on tumbling out of the building crumpled and exhausted when the debate was over.
But David Copperfield was not the only place where Dickens drew on his Parliamentary experiences. In 1834 began using his pen-name ‘Boz’. In August that year he had been appointed as a reporter by the leading London Whig paper, The Morning Chronicle, where he reported on provincial elections and other special events at a salary of five guineas a week. He was commissioned by the paper to write a series of Street Sketches about London life, and these eventually became Sketches by Boz. In particular ‘A Parliamentary Sketch’ is a fascinating read for anyone interested in Parliamentary history at the time of the Great Reform Act, not least for the description of Bellamy’s refreshment rooms and its menu, and Nicholas the butler, the unequalled mixer of cocktails and salad dressings (who was in fact a real person). Of course, in October that year, the Palace of Westminster burnt down. There is no surviving letter of Dickens which mentions it. It would be tempting to assume that some of the copy on the fire in The Morning Chronicle was written by Dickens, but this cannot be confirmed, and a listing of his known journalism does not suggest it. However, lack of direct evidence does not mean Dickens was not there or was not influenced by this once-in-a-lifetime event, and I found some startling pieces of evidence during my research into The Day Parliament Burned Down. I’ll leave readers to find out what I discovered when the book is published in August.
Meanwhile, on to Dickens’ other works with Parliamentary connections. In The Pickwick Papers, his first novel, published in 1836, there is a hilarious account of the Pickwick Club’s encounter with an election hustings at “Eatanswill” (not so very far distant, one might imagine, from the neighbouring constituency of Snowts-on-the-Troff). In Dickens’ third novel Nicholas Nickleby, there is a similarly mischievous portrait of Mr Gregsbury, an MP whom Nicholas approaches for a job. But then discovering that Gregsbury wants him to do all the work that the MP should be doing, as well as to cram him for appearances in the chamber, all for 15 shillings a week (remember Dickens’ five guineas a week from the Chronicle), he turns him down. In fact, the more you delve into it, the more you realise that Dickens’ experience of four years working in and around Parliament provided him with a wealth of inspiration for the rest of his life. So do, if you can, revisit your favourite Dickens and see if you can pick up some of the trail of the young Parliamentary reporter who became one of England’s greatest novelists.
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Further reading: The Letters of Charles Dickens General editors: Madeline House, Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson. 12 vols (Oxford, 1965-2002) vol. 1: 1820-1839; Dickens’ Journalism, ed. Michael Slater (London, 1994-2000); Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life (London, 2011).