Should We Feel Guilty? reading Dickens biography by Claire Tomalin
February 22, 2012
Kilburn High Road is a grey frozen wash. The sky spits ice that is about to become snow. I’ve nearly reached Kilburn tube station when I see her. A woman who uses two wooden sticks to draw herself to a half standing position. Her back is stooped. She is struggling to open some kind of box. I look closer and I see it is in fact a plastic tub. The kind you might buy ice cream in. She pulls the lid off and holds the carton in front of her. Only then do I realise she is starting to beg. It is too cold to think of sitting on the pavement. How long can she possibly hope to stand there? Should I give her money? Should I ask her where she’s sleeping tonight? I do neither. I’m in a hurry.
On the tube, I begin to read Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens A Life. It begins with a description of Dickens helping to save a poor servant girl who is accused of murdering her new born baby. Not only does he persuade his fellow jurors to show mercy, he has food sent to the prison where she is incarcerated. He does this at a time when he’s extremely busy and has financial pressures of his own. He takes a personal interest in someone that his society considers to be amongst the lowest of the low.
Dickens not only wrote about the poor. He defended their rights and helped support them all his life. As a young journalist, he reported on the failed attempts to amend the Poor Law. This law saw whole families thrown out of their homes and into large institutional workhouses. Here men and women were strictly separated, including husbands from their wives, and they were forced to wear special clothing. In other words, they were treated like criminals guilty of the crime of being poor. Tomalin points out that for most of the middle class MPs of the time this made perfectly good sense.
This morning on the radio I listened to a banker defending his right to a salary of over a million pounds a year. He believes he works very long hours, that hard work and excellence should be rewarded. He says he is not a robot and he’s hurt by criticism of what society has decided it should pay him. Is it his fault there is still such a division between rich and poor? How much responsibility should we take for the society we live in? Would Dickens have considered the woman on crutches begging with her ice cream box in the snow a reproach to us all?