The Victorian era was a time of unprecedented social upheaval, when the stratification of England’s society was mainly being disturbed through the Industrial Revolution – when an economy based on manual labor was replaced by one dominated by industry and the manufacture of machinery – and the emergence of the middle-class. Charles Dickens, pre-eminent novelist in this period, was highly influenced by these changes and consequently employed his pen in order to exhibit these alterations. As a result, all this is reflected in his works especially in all those novels which tackle social mobility and educational issues as their primary themes.
Given his childhood experiences and the uphill struggle he had to go through to reach eminence as a writer, Dickens’ work generally described issues involving social mobility during his time. From his public activities in both the previously mentioned areas, we can see that he realizes his power and authority, and wields them consciously in his writing.
Born to a genteel family lineage in 1812, Dickens, the second child of John and Elizabeth Dickens, had an early encounter with poverty, and simultaneous fall in social status. This took place in 1824, shortly after his twelfth birthday, when he was taken away from school, separated from his family, and packed off to labor in Warren’s Blacking factory, a North London shoe-dye factory, as a consequence of his father’s financial incompetence. What humiliated Dickens most, as Andrew Sanders outlines in his work Charles Dickens, “was the fact that he, a middle-class boy, with social aspirations and expectations of a professional career, should suffer such an acute loss of status” (2003: 6). The trials he went through at this factory also had a profound psychological effect on him, as Everett H. Rupert notes in the biography The Life of Charles Dickens, and Favourite Stories: “His own room was a miserable garret overlooking a damp, malodorous court. Here there were no lessons to be learned except the lessons of neglect and poverty.” (1936: 4). This effect made him not just a spokesman for the oppressed, but also gave him an intense horror of extreme poverty causing him to focus his stories more on the concept of genteel poverty, where people with formerly prosperous circumstances have fallen upon bad times as he does in Nickleby. In the book, the Nickleby family falls into destitution because Nicholas’s father, a leisured gentleman, loses money in speculation and subsequently dies, leaving nothing for his wife and two children, Nicholas and Kate. This leaves the Nickleby family in the unenviable situation of being respectable genteel folk unable to keep up the lifestyle that their position had afforded them before.
Our own 21st century America has many of the same issues facing the people who live here as they attempt to keep up their social positions in spite of job layoffs, unaffordable mortgage payments and the necessity of having a car that is less than 2 years old. In our own time, if you do not dress a certain way, have a certain look, drive the right class of car, perform the right kind of job and own the right kind of house, you are doomed to be labeled ‘lower class’ and deemed unfit for ‘polite’ society. If you cannot financially keep up with the entertainments of your friends, they do not work to find less expensive things to do so you can join them; they simply snub you and pretend you don’t exist. After reading this book, one realizes just how ridiculous it is for us to judge others based on such external, superficial differences of fortune. If we were more accepting of poverty and willing to overlook it in order to give others a chance, what might they accomplish? If they weren’t so focused on trying to maintain a false appearance, what more could they achieve? Dickens was fortunate in that he was saved a life of failure as a result of poverty, but what did he really achieve if we still focus our attention more on the possession rather than the inner character?
- Dickens, Charles. Nicholas Nickleby. (1838-9) U.K.: Penguin Books, 1994. Print
- Rupert, Everett H. The Life of Charles Dickens, and Favourite Stories. New York: Books, 1936. Print
- Sanders, Andrew. Charles Dickens. U.S.A.: Oxford University Press Inc., New York, 2003. Print