Charles Dickens

The Best of Times The Worst of Times

This year marks the bicentenary of Charles Dickens's birth, and the novelist and journalist lived through several major technological changes – but what did he make of them?

In an article written for Household Words, a magazine that he edited in the 1850s, Charles Dickens describes a trip by express train and Channel ferry from London to Paris. The title, 'A Flight', gives an indication of his feelings – houses, stations, fields flashing by. After paying his fare at London Bridge he had been, he wrote, "discharged 'of all responsibility apart from the preservation of a voucher, ruled into three divisions". The article ends: "No hurry, ladies and gentlemen, going to Paris in eleven hours. It is so well done, that there really is no hurry!"

The article reveals Dickens's enthusiasm for the railways, marvelling at the greatly reduced journey times they had brought about. He could be seen, as John Ruskin said, as "a pure modernist – a leader of the steam-whistle party par excellence".

Dr Cathy Waters, reader in Victorian studies at the University of Kent, agrees. "There is a strong element of truth in Ruskin's statement," she says, "but it is not the whole truth because, though Dickens does see the technological advances as evidence of progress and social advancement, he also sees some of the damaging effects. He would, of course, have been sensitive to poor communities being displaced by the need to open up new railway lines and he disapproved of the self-congratulation that sometimes accompanied developments. In fact, Dickens's attitude to the new technology and industrialisation was ambivalent. This ambivalence is expressed in his journalism and in some of his novels."

Progress and nostalgia

It has often been thought that his first novel, 'The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club', published in 1836-37, is a last look at a pre-industrial time of transport – a nostalgia for the coaching past with horse-drawn vehicles meandering through villages and towns stopping at old coaching inns. Jonathan Grossman, in his book 'Charles Dickens's Networks: Public Transport and the Novel', disagrees: "Dickens portrays and revels in, not some bygone era of stage coaching but the speeding up of the stage coaches that had preceded, and was still occurring in, the period he describes."

By the 1820s, the time in which the novel is set, the speed and organisation of coach transport had improved dramatically. Strong wheels constructed of elm, oak and ash with iron rims and metal spring suspension meant that coaches could go faster without discomfiting passengers, and could more easily cope with ruts in the road. But roads were also improving, solidly constructed by "colossus of roads" Thomas Telford and others, the introduction of Macadamisation ensuring a hard, smooth surface.

Fresh, specially bred horses were always available at roadside inns, and professional Mackintosh-attired drivers further improved the service. As Grossman explains: "The fast-driving stagecoach system of Dickens's day was efficient, regular, interlinked and continuously available, offering a polished national system of routes' It represented to its contemporaries technological progress and accelerating life. It established the internal passenger transport system that the railways would copy."

Pickwick depicts coach travel in 1827-28 when it was nearing its technological peak and could improve no more on horse power alone. Dickens's nostalgia for those coaching days does show though in an article published in 1860, in which he recounts a visit to his childhood home Chatham, referred to as "Dullborough". He mourns the loss of a well-loved playing field, its trees and flowers consumed by the railway station and sees beyond an "ugly dark monster of a tunnel... its jaws open, as if it had swallowed them and were ravenous for more destruction. The coach that had carried me away, was melodiously called Timpson's Blue-Eyed Maid, and belonged to Timpson, at the coach-office up-street; the locomotive engine that had brought me back, was called severely No. 97, and belonged to S.E.R., and was spitting ashes and hot water over the blighted ground."

So the loss of the family-owned coaches, and probably also the gradual decline in business for the privately owned coaching inns, troubled him – numbers instead of names and the standardisation of everything. As Trey Philpotts points out in his article 'Dickens and Technology', the author's concerns are voiced through Mr Weller, an old stagecoach driver in 'Master Humphrey's Clock', who complains that all railway stations seem the same – same people, same policeman, same bell ringing, everything the same except the name but even that is written "in the same sized letters as the last name, and with the same colours".

Monotony and homogeneity

One famous example of the treatment of the railways is in 'Dombey and Son', first with the vivid description of Mr Dombey's railway journey to Leamington after the death of his son in which the steam engine is described as "The power that forced itself upon its iron way – its own – defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster...". However, Dr Waters sees this not as a criticism of the railway but "more as a vehicle being used to say something about Dombey's inner state".

In the same book, Dr Waters continues: "Dickens describes Staggs garden, an area that is being dug up to make way for the new railway terminus, with lives being thrown into chaos. But later in the novel we see that the railway has brought a whole lot of benefits to the neighbourhood – new shops have opened up and Mr Toodles has had his position improved by becoming a stoker on the railway." So Dickens acknowledges the pain of technological progress but ultimately celebrates the benefits.

Similarly, with regards to the new factories, Dickens and his authors record in Household Words the wonders of the new manufacturing processes and the mass production of affordable consumer goods. But according to Dr Waters, the downside is examined in 'Hard Times': "Coketown has this really monotonous homogenous aspect to it with something mechanical and repetitive about the nature of life there. The workers who operate the machinery in the factories similarly have their lives routinised and mechanised as if they are just like the machinery they themselves operate. In fact they are called 'factory hands'. But the main object of the attack in that novel is not so much industrialisation but the utilitarian philosophy that deals so much in calculating quantities and measuring everything rather than attending to the human beings with all of their complexity and their need for the powers of fancy and imagination."

Production lines

Also in 'Hard Times', Dickens complains of the standardisation of everything. Concerning the recently mechanised furniture trade he wrote: "M'Choakumchild, along with some 140 other schoolmasters had lately been turned at the same time in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs." Philpotts says: "Dickens is suggesting...that a narrow utilitarian education 'produces an inferior product, just as the turning machine produces items of standard design and poor quality."

The Great Exhibition

Britain felt it had much technological progress to showcase. The result was the Great Exhibition of 1851, partly a response to the French Industrial Exposition of 1844. In an article, Dickens praised the Great Exhibition and the vast array of machinery on display including his highlight – the printing press, "an extraordinary piece of mechanism" on which the Illustrated London News was produced.

However, Dr Waters suggests that, "as the exhibition opened with massive publicity, he felt there was a self-congratulatory aspect to the whole thing which he found repugnant when there was so much evidence around of lack of progress in the relief of poverty and the provision of education".

Dickens also detected a lack of progress in British bureaucracy, which he saw as stifling inventiveness and driving inventors abroad, causing the country to lag behind. This was famously expounded in 'Little Dorrit' with his fictional creation – the Circumlocution office, an institution that was foremost in the art of "How not to do it".

The frustrated engineer Daniel Doyce, who fails to have his invention accepted by the office, complains of bureaucracy's "fixed determination to be miles upon miles, and years upon years, behind the rest of us... and persisting in the use of things long superseded, even after the better things were well known and generally taken up".

Written at the time of the Crimean War, the book was a response to bureaucratic bungling that had left soldiers ill-provisioned and lacking in the most up-to-date rifles.

Of course, Dickens profited from the new technologies as an author and journalist. "He would not have become the household name he did," Dr Waters comments, "without the mass circulation of his journalism, and of course the developments in publishing too helped with his fiction."

The steam printing press enabled the rapid and cheap production of his journal Household Words, and railways its wide circulation. With steam ships, his novels could be published and distributed at the same time on both sides of the Atlantic. Trains enabled him to travel as a journalist and to undertake frequent public readings of his novels. But if he wondered at the technology that allowed him to "fly" to Paris in 11 hours, another rail journey may well have curtailed Dickens's creative spirit.

The train crash on 9 June 1865, east of Staplehurst Station in Kent, in which 10 people were killed and 15 badly injured so traumatised Dickens, who was a passenger, that he completed only one more novel, leaving 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' unfinished. If he had disapproved of stifling bureaucracy, he now realised that unfettered and unregulated development could also be a menace.

So in the end, as Philpotts writes"Dickens desires to have it both ways: to acknowledge the dark side of industrialisation and technological innovation, but also to promote a more positive outlook, one that accords with his general optimism and personal buoyancy." 

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