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Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Dickens and the Lesson of History

It's very difficult to say anything about the Victorian era without suddenly becoming intolerably smug. To our sophisticated, post modern minds, that entire period seems to be characterised by a prudish self righteousness and political naivety we tend to find laughable. There seems to be a general consensus that 'progress' has opened a yawning, unbridgeable gulf between the Victorians and ourselves, despite the irony of 'progress' being an archetypically Victorian idea.

Like most popular conceptions, this one doesn't really stand up to proper scrutiny. Closer examination of the period reveals its general aura of quaint stuffiness as little more than a veneer - a difference in mode of expression, rather than any fundamental intellectual or moral separation. I suspect this anomaly is directly attributable to Charles Dickens. Dickens is arguably the only well known voice of the period, which makes it natural for us to assume that Dickensian tropes are somehow representative of the entire age. They're not, of course. They're not even really representative of Dickens. 

There is no doubt whatsoever that Dickens was keenly aware of the political role and impact of his books. His private correspondence makes it very clear that he deliberately set out to use his platform to effect political change, targeting poor relief, private schools, and Chancery, in quick succession. Far from being an uncomplicated spinner of middlebrow pop culture, Dickens was the Change.org of his day, deliberately leveraging the mass distribution of pity and outrage in an effort to improve society. In context, then, Dickens is actually much more reliable as a record of sociopolitical controversy than as an accurate representation of the past.

An examination of the Victorians on these terms tends to turn up more similarities than differences. The 19th century was a time in which the world was shrinking with unprecedented rapidity as a result of revolutionary breakthroughs in transport and communications technology. The rapid pace of mechanisation and automation were shaking the foundations of global power, as coal seams and gas pipelines suddenly displaced forests and arable fields as prime strategic resources. These and other fundamental shifts caused a crisis of faith in prevailing systems of political power, with the rise of anarchism recognisable as a near exact parallel for the resurgence of libertarianism we see today. Looked at more closely, the preoccupations of the Victorian period seem eerily similar to our own. The potential for technology to redefine humanity and society, for automation to devastate employment and re-write the social contract, fear of the impacts of rapid increases in the pace of life, fear of a man-made environmental apocalypse - all these were the hot button issues of the Victorian age. Which makes it difficult to see how we can believe ourselves to be all that different.

This leads me to wonder how historians of the future will see us. To my mind, our increasing inability to express ourselves by any means other than polemic, the devolution of our public discourse into a binary contest between fierce moral and political revanchism and meaningless progressive rhetoric, our growing inability to engage rationally with events and ideas - all of this is basically a carbon copy of the bewildered, reactionary ferment of the Victorian age. As far as I can tell, there isn't any real reason to doubt that we're going to sound at least as foolish to our descendants, as our recent ancestors do to us. Unless, of course, we suddenly break with millennia of tradition and actually do something differently instead of merely re-branding and repeating the idiocies of the past. I'd like to say that's likely to happen but unfortunately, being a student of history, I can't.

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