Victorian-era historians say Dickens really wasn't all that influential

Historians in the News

From the orphan begging for more in Oliver Twist to the heartless Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens highlighted poverty and squalor. But did he really help change things?

It's an adjective that still echoes down the ages. Need to emphasise the filth and squalor of a rundown housing estate or prison? It's Dickensian....

"Although in his journalism and novels he attacked specific targets - Poor Law legislation in Oliver Twist, the brutal Yorkshire schools in Nicholas Nickleby, the law [Pickwick Papers and Bleak House], government bureaucracy, lethargy and nepotism in Little Dorrit, extremist utilitarianism in Hard Times - it's hard to trace any direct consequences on reformist legislation in any of those areas to Dickens's influence," argues Prof Malcolm Andrews, editor of the Dickensian, journal of the Dickens Fellowship.

Charles Dickens was born in 1812 into a volatile period often referred to as the Age of Reform, where industrialisation was rapidly reshaping Britain, and legislators were - more than ever - struggling to adapt to the demands of a changing population.

He was born in the era of the stagecoach, but when he died in 1870 had witnessed the birth of the railways, the telegraph and the steamship.

During that time the population of London alone had exploded from one million, to three times that figure, with all its attendant social ills.

Dr Heather Shore, a social history expert at Leeds Metropolitan University, describes the period of the 1830s and 1840s as one in which a great deal of "big society"-type activity was undertaken....

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