Dickens was often rather bold in his assertions surrounding the injustices plaguing Victorian society. Yet his eloquent charisma, sharp wit, and utmost humility enabled him to express his arguments to those holding positions of privilege and influence, seeking to establish the changes he so strived for whilst (usually…) avoiding antagonism or offence.

One of Dickens’s primary aims throughout his career was the improvement of educational availability and standards. He tactfully employed earnest social commentary in support of his upstanding religious and personal values, all wrapped up in his charming manner, in order to portray these ideas to his audiences effectively. He was once described as ‘full of good spirit and good spirits, of kindly feeling and cheerful vivacity’!

Introducing Dickens

Charles Dickens himself had personal experience amongst the lower classes of Victorian society; he temporarily worked at Warren's Boot Blacking Factory as a child. These memories of frugality, grimness and poverty undoubtedly shaped his later views on class injustice, inspiring many of his greatest novels such as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. In these novels, the idea of poverty plays a central role. It is said that Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was directly inspired by a tour he attended around the Cornish tin mines!

He was also greatly influenced by the Second Commission on Children’s Employment (1842), which described children being made to work fifteen to eighteen hours per day in factories, not being able to read, or even write their own names. The inspiration from harrowing accounts of child labour in Victorian England can clearly be seen in many of the characters from Oliver Twist, and particularly in Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol.

But Dickens saw that drawing mere inspiration from this injustice for his literary work was not enough: real world advocacy and action had to be taken to put an end to this suffering.

Social context

During the years of Dickens’s life (1812-1870), the living conditions for the poor within growing industrial centres was abysmal. The Industrial Revolution forced large swathes of people from the countryside into the cities. Inaccessible education, overcrowding, terrible sanitation, limited access to clean water, and shockingly low wages were a fact of life for many rural immigrants.

Class segregation was so stark that many upper class people simply weren't aware of the inhumane conditions that most poor families were subjected to. Little care was given to the poor, as long as their numbers remained stable, providing relatively consistent labour power to fuel the growing industries.

Very few possessed an awareness of the true extent of this disparity between rich and poor. Despite the occasional effort made to quantify and publicise their suffering, the upper classes remained blissfully ignorant.

Booth’s ‘Poverty Map’ gives us an indication as to just how closely the heights of wealth and the depths of poverty co-existed within the city of London. This suggests that upper-class ignorance of the poor was maintained not out of blindness, but out of self-interest. Dickens found this attitude despicable, and in certain cases was explicit with his opinions on matters of inherited wealth and privilege.

Henry Mayhew’s extensive investigation into the lives of London’s poor, London Labour and the London Poor (1861) focuses particularly on lack of education as a primary driver of poverty and vagrancy. Again, this sentiment would be backed up by Dickens consistently in his speeches throughout his career.