In the late 1800’s, English society had a social commentator in the form of the novelist Charles Dickens. Though he did not profess to be anything more than a writer, his work not only reflected society, it also influenced it. Although best known for his memorable characters and their unforgettable names (the cold-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge, the “ever so humble” Uriah Heap, and cunning Mr. Crook, etc), Dickens also brought awareness to the most pressing concerns of the day: poverty in the lower classes, abuses of the judicial system, and chauvinism. His horrific description of the workhouse conditions in Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield, as well as the life of poor Oliver Twist, drew public attention to over-worked, under-fed children in factories and orphans on the street. Little Dorrit involved debtor’s prison and a money scheme in which everyone’s investments leds to the collapse of a major bank and economic upheaval. And Bleak House was as much a criticism of the judicial system as it was an exploration of true villainy. Dickens is, as such, not to everyone’s liking—it is much darker and more foreboding a world than many of his contemporaries but reveals profound truths about human nature as well as offers many of the nastiest villains in literature. Forget Jane Austen’s charming cads; from manipulators to murders, Dickens knew something about evil and was making as much of a statement through his characters about Victorian society as he was commenting its evils.
Recently, someone inquired of me in my opinion what a modern-day Dickens would write about, as there are no longer workhouses where children are beaten and given almost no supper, girls do not have to rely on the kindness of male relatives in order to have an income, marriage is an option rather than essential for survival, and status at birth has no influence on our eventual fate—anyone can rise out of any situation or background and achieve greatness if they put their mind to it, unlike the figures in his books who must either purchase a profession or remain simple and poor. Yet certain sinister figures remain that are as relevant today as they were when Dickens invented them.
Perhaps the most approachable work in this regard is Bleak House, in which the villainous attorney Mr. Tulkinghorn plays the role of a cruel, single-minded man who uses people to his advantage and then discards them. He sets his attention on Lady Dedlock, the wife of his employer, when his suspicion is aroused over her past. He eventually unearths her dark secret at great cost, ruining not only her life but that of her husband and others as well, those he climbed over and abused in his single-minded pursuit of gaining control over her. That alone is his intention—he simply wants to control every aspect of her life for no other reason than sheer meanness. Tulkinghorn is an opportunist with a grudge, a man without a shred of decency or compassion who holds as much contempt for the lower working classes as the upper aristocracy has for him. He is a man who has obtained power and seeks to abuse it in the interest of demolishing another individual.
Interestingly, Tulkinghorn is not the only scoundrel in the mix—the novel boasts an impressive horde of despicable villains, among them Mr. Skimpole, who feigns innocence in the ways of the world but lives off the charity of others and winds up manipulating the young hero. In the beginning, Richard is an enthusiastic idealist who cannot seem to settle on a profession. His guardian encourages him to put his mind to earning money rather than waiting for his inheritance, as his inheritance is tied up in endless legal disputes (there are a number of claimants and multiple wills). Alas, Richard falls into the company of Skimpole, who convinces him he has no need for employment and should put what little money he has into legal representation. Richard falls into massive debt and is eventually brought to ruin. His situation is paralleled in Mr. Tulkinghorn’s dealings with other characters who are also in debt and find him a most unforgiving creditor. In one instance he promises to relieve a man of his debt in exchange for information, but once obtaining the information, forecloses on the debt out of sheer meanness.
While there were many “false aristocrats” living above their means in Dicken’s day, I suspect he would be much surprised to discover the fate of poor Richard and others in his novel is shared by many in our modern society. In recent years, we have all become accustomed to living above our means, and in many instances, the dreams of our young people (of obtaining wealth without working hard for it) reflect Richard’s similar reliance on an “inheritance.” It would also shock him to find our Government in a similar state of disarray, in debt for far more than a mere few hundred pounds. In my mind, there are the unwitting innocents like Richard who wander into trouble without fully grasping the ramifications, and then there are the more sinister forces like Tulkinghorn, waiting on the sidelines to take advantage when resistance is at its weakest, and seek to control our lives through debt. The greatest evil of all is to intend to manipulate and control another person… whether it be in the interest of helping or hindering them. ♥
You can acquaint yourselves in 8 hours with Dickens’ “Bleak House” through the terrific Masterpiece Theatre production, available at most local libraries.
This article published with permission from its original source (c) Charity Bishop.