Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London is a biography of Charles Dickens and a brief history of a reform movement. The industrial revolution created great wealth for a few and new opportunities for a growing middle class. It also created great misery. (Best of times, worst of times, and all that.) Among the collateral damage: the street children of London who make up this book’s subtitle.


Author Andrea Warren makes her purpose clear from the first sentence: “Perhaps because I grew up in the security of a large family in a small town, I have always been sympathetic to the plight of homeless children.” [1] To Warren, Charles Dickens is more than a great author. He is an example one individual making a difference through vigorous, focused action.


The book’s narrative camera shifts between close-ups of Dickens and wide angle shots of industrializing London–occasionally with Dickens, tramping slump-shouldered through the sooty streets, as cameraman. Both stories get equal time.


Dickens’s youth is crucial to the whole. His idyllic early years were cut short, first when his family moved to a shabbier home in London and then when, to alleviate his father’s debts, the twelve-year-old Charles was sent to work in a blacking factory (as in shoe and boot polish). Abandoned, in a certain way, by his parents, Dickens developed an authentic empathy for London’s orphans, on which he would build an entire career. (See Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Pip, among others.)


It was fascinating for me to read that Dickens’s “musically gifted” sister, Fannie, was given music lessons while Charles was sent to work. [19] John Dickens, a chronic debtor, borrowed yet more money to pay Fannie’s music school tuition. A daughter received better perks than a son! It almost felt like a certain kind of justice. Yet Fannie’s musical education was later cut short, too, and she became just a music teacher. As for Mr. Dickens’s non-investment in his son, it paid off handsomely in the end both for Charles and all of mankind.


As it happened, Grandma Dickens died, leaving her ne’er-do-well son enough money to pay his way out of debtor’s prison. Newly freed, John Dickens had a change of heart about indenturing his own son to a bootblacker. In a dramatic scene worthy of the best fiction, John Dickens stormed into the factory and hauled his son home. (Apparently, he had to persuade his wife not to send him back.) After at least a year living as a working-class lad, Charles returned to school.


He made the most of it, as we know. And he became obsessed with the trappings of middle class respectability and, perhaps even more so, security. He dressed well. He shunned debt. But he did not go so far as to turn into Ebenezer Scrooge, though he understood the origins and outlines of such miserliness.


After tracing Dickens entry into the writing profession, Warren shows how the course of his career was shaped by both his own experiences and the people and institutions that preceded him. Surrounding chapters that focus on early Dickens novels, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, are chapters on the workhouse, the London Foundling Hospital, and the reformist efforts of Handel, Hogarth, and Dr. Barnardo. This is context in the best form. It was satisfying to be shown the world Dickens inhabited and the wider reform movement of which he was a part. Occasionally in these contextual chapters, I wondered if we were getting perhaps a bit too far afield, but invariably my doubts were allayed by the end of the chapter. Once or twice, the time shifts felt jarring–largely because, even with shifts in focus, the chronology is otherwise smooth and uninterrupted.


Warren focuses in on one more story, A Christmas Carol, pointing out that Dickens wrote it as a potential money-maker. As successful as he was, his responsibilities were many, including the support of his money-challenged father. The tale served its purpose and then some. Indeed it is making substantial money for theaters and film studios more than a hundred fifty years on.


The pace of Warren’s narrative picks up in Dickens’s later years as speaker and public figure, in addition to author. Dickens even earned a reputation for reading his own work aloud in public performances. It is not until the penultimate chapter that we get the private man: Dickens the father and husband. Warren tells us that his own family life was “only partially” reflective of the happy scenes of hearth and home that inhabited his fiction. Charles could be an entertaining dad (“loving and funny”) but also distant (“restless and moody”). Warren says it is likely that “Little Nell and Pip and David Copperfield and all the others were his true offspring.” [129-131] His marriage dissolved, though without a shame-inducing divorce.


It is only on the last page of this chapter that David Copperfield and Great Expectations, which had previously garnered just brief mentions, are introduced as his great autobiographical novels, especially the former. There is no need for Warren to give a plot synopsis. We have just finished the story of the great author’s life. But Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London is more than a simple biography. It is also an account of a nation’s response to the great social crisis of the nineteenth century: the breakdown of the family in the Industrial Revolution and the potential loss of a generation. Rather, it is how one man forced his country to respond by shining a light on a dark corner others chose to ignore. In the world of his fiction, Dickens humanized otherwise faceless victims, pushing his countrymen and women to open their hearts to “the street children of London.”


  • Andrea Warren, Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London, Houghton Mifflin, 2011
  • Images from Wikimedia Commons: Thomas Kennington “Orphans,” St. Briavel’s Debtors’ Prison, Charles Dickens by Francis Alexander, 1842

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