Monday, March 18, 2013

The London Dickens’ Knew

Charles Dickens’ unlike a lot of his Victorian cotemporaries did not believe in ghosts. Despite this, ghosts did fascinate him and he wrote about them.  

His short ghost stories like all of his novels reflected a strong social message. Dickens grew up in London during a time of great poverty and disarray. His stories reflect the London he knew.

Over a million people lived in Victorian London, which by the 1830s was a center for world trade. The upper and middle classes lived in close proximity to those who lived in desperate poverty. 

All of London's residents lived amidst fifth. Thousands of horse-drawn vehicles kept street cleaners busy clearing the manure from dawn to dusk. Thousands of chimney’s emitted coal smoke, which landed soot everywhere. 

In parts of the city sewage flowed from gutters that emptied into the Thames. Up until the second half of the 19th century Londoners drank water from these areas of the river. As a result many died of cholera. Experts at this point felt that cholera was spread through the air. It was not until later the connection between this disease and polluted water was made.

The typical London street of Dickens’ day teamed with street vendors hawking their wares, pickpockets, prostitutes, drunks and beggars. 

Personal cleanliness was not a big priority in the Victorian era. The smell of unwashed clothes and bodies was the typical aroma whether it be stifling hot of freezing cold. Dickens’ in his book Little Dorrit pointed out that even the rain would not freshen the air.

“In the country, the rain would have developed a thousand fresh scents, and every drop would have had its bright association with some beautiful form of growth or life. In the city, it developed only foul stale smells, and was a sticky, lukewarm, dirt-stained, wretched addition to the gutters.”

London’s thoroughfares were particularly dangerous at night. These streets were lit with feeble gas lamps. Side streets were not lit at all. Only the wealthy could afford to pay a guide bearing a candle or oil lamp to light their way. 

With so much poverty came every crime known to man. London in an ineffective effort to curtail this crime created the “New Poor Law” in 1834.

This law resulted in more workhouses being established where the poor for the lack of a better word were imprisoned. 

Families that sought help from these workhouses were separated, their civil liberties were taken away and what was left of their hope and dignity was destroyed. 

Because of this London’s poor went to great lengths to avoid these workhouses.

Dickens’ own father was imprisoned for debt when Charles was just a boy. Dickens’ at the age of 12 was sent to work at the Warren's Blacking Factory (blacking is boot polish) in order to help support his family. He spent hours each day affixing labels to bottles of blacking. 

He never forgot the indignity of this work or the rough characters that worked in this factory with him. The result was he became a life long champion of the poor and most of his stories pointed out the horrendous treatment of London’s lower classes.

Dickens’ most famous ghost tale was originally published in 1843 under the name, A Ghost Story for Christmas. This story today is universally known as A Christmas Carol

As mentioned in another post this story was one of several short ghost tales that started the craze of telling ghost stories at Christmas time. But it should not be forgotten that this story is also an example of how Dickens used his writing to raise public consciousness about the plight of the poor. Dickens’ knew that Christmas was a time of the year when people of means felt more charitable.

His compassionate focus in A Christmas Carol was the Cratchit family. Bob Cratchit and his youngest son, Tiny Tim are brilliant vehicles Dickens used to highlight the terrible conditions and suffering of all the poor in London in the 1800s. 

By the turn of the century the Victorian era was over. Many of the problems this era faced were remedied by the rise of technology and social reforms. Most credit these social reforms to the popularity of Charles Dickens’ stories. Therefore, his writing, which was a gift by itself, also left a powerful social legacy.

Just one last endnote, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post Dickens didn’t believe in ghosts but since his death in 1870 his ghost has been seen by the living. The first time was soon after his death. 

The Victorian era was when Spiritualism started and séances became popular etc. So it not surprising that people stated they saw Dickens’ ghost at an American séance that was held just five days after his death. 

Others in the following years reported his ghost made several more appearances in order to provide an ending for his last unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Some state if finished this tale would have been a ghost story.

Other ghost stories written by Charles Dickens:

The Pickwick Papers (1836)

The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848)

To Be At Dusk (1852)

Well-Authenticated Rappings (1858)

The Haunted House (1858)

The Trial For Murder (1865)

The Signal-Man (1866)

London street scenes from the turn of the century. 

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