By Katherine L Aitchison, on 20 March 2012
This was the topic up for discussion at a panel debate hosted by the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction on 15 March.
The panel consisted of UCL Quain Professor of English, Rosemary Ashton; UCL Emeritus Professor of Climate Modelling, Julian Hunt and Professor Jerry White (Birkbeck) who has written a number of books describing London through the ages. Each of the panel had their own take on Dickens’s work and how it relates to the changing face of London in the years since his birth.
Professor Ashton kicked off the evening by discussing the London of the 19th century and the relationship between Dickens and Edwin Chadwick (a social reformer who placed huge emphasis on the importance of public health). As far as public health goes, it is clear that London has changed substantially since Dickens was writing; although the poverty he was so concerned about is still visible in some areas, the days of multiple families crowding into one room are long gone.
However, Professor Ashton also talked about the suspicion with which Dickens (a journalist) and Chadwick (a public servant) viewed each other and this still rings true today. The vast majority of the public still view government with a healthy mistrust and I think it is fair to say that the administration is somewhat wary of journalists!
Next Jerry White talked in more depth about the poor of 19th century London and painted a very grim picture indeed. But what struck me is how this is one theme which is very much still in evidence, people may not be suffering the extreme overcrowding, famine and disease as those of the 1800s but there are similar levels of discontent and the fear of the poor is in evidence in today’s society.
In the mid-19th century there were several instances of uprising in which there were riots and looting just like we saw last summer and, just like today, much of the poverty and misery was blamed on high rates of immigration. In closing he commented: “Whatever changes to London on the ground, ignorance and want live on.”
The public discussion that followed revealed that Dickens was referenced in Parliament and, even though it may have only been in passing, it goes to show the power of the pen when wielded well. But is there anyone writing today who can wield that power in a similar way? Someone asked the question of the panel and they all struggled to name some of today’s “geniuses” whether writers or otherwise – a few names were proffered but no one could name a figure with the prominence and authority of Dickens or Chadwick or others of the 19th century.
One explanation for this was that we live in an age of teamwork and modesty in which people are not perhaps given the credit they might once have revelled in. The alternative (in literary circles at least) is that no novelist writing about London will ever measure up to the might of Charles Dickens. A fact we should probably celebrate in this, his anniversary year.
Now, time for a personal confession: I’ve never read any of Dickens’s work. I’ve tried on a number of occasions but I’ve never made my way through a whole book. It’s not that I don’t love the stories because I do; my problem is with the many layers of description Dickens gives everything, which I find difficult to work my way through. However last night gave me a new appreciation of those lengthy descriptions and how much they reveal about the London that was. The impassioned quotes from the various speakers made me feel that I must be missing out so here’s my birthday promise to Charles Dickens: by the end of the year I will read one of your books, cover to cover!
Katherine Aitchison is a Second year PhD student at the UCL Institute of Child Health.