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A Haunted House

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Cross-genre i
Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Prose: Short Fiction i
Subject Great Britain—Politics and Government
Other Details
Printed : 23/7/1853
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume VII
Magazine : No. 174
Office Book Notes
Views : 615

Dickens begins this exercise in satirical allegory by alluding to the slow progress and ever-rising expense of the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament after their destruction by fire in 1834, two years after the Reform Bill had increased the number of MPs. There was much public debate in the autumn of 1845, as to whether a statue of Cromwell should be included in a series of statues of the kings and queens of England (see, for example, The Times leader of 16 September 1845). The 'Cartoons' were designs for frescoes illustrative of the nation's history submitted by artists competing for the commission to decorate the walls of the new building. They were shown in a series of public exhibitions in Westminster Hall (see ['The Spirit of Chivalry: in Westminster Hall', Douglas Jerrold's Shilling Magazine (August 1845),] Vol. 2 of [the Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism], p. 74) – Dickens had already mocked British artists' enthusiasm for 'the German taste' with their fondness for beards in 'The Ghost of Art' (HW, [Vol. I,] 20 July 1850; see Vol. 2 of [the Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism], pp. 257–64). His description of MPs' rowdiness and verbosity echoes much similar satire in his writings, most notably in David Copperfield, Chap. 34.

Here he also targets the lobbyists who seek to influence MPs to promote Private Members' Bills for the benefit of special-interest groups. He then recalls the general election of the summer of 1852, which had seen some strikingly manipulative and corrupt behaviour both by candidates and by their agents (see Headnote to ['Our Honorable Friend', HW, Vol. V, 31 July 1852], p. 68 [in the Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism, Vol. 3]. The aftermath, in the form of a stream of allegations of electoral malpractices being brought before Parliament (ten cases between 11 and 16 April alone), was a dominant feature of the political scene for many months and inspired the satire in Bleak House, Ch. 40, when Sir Leicester Dedlock replies crushingly to Volumnia's artless enquiry about election expenses. There was a renewed call for introducing the ballot, but Palmerston rejected it as 'at variance with the national character', declaring that 'a true Englishman hates doing a thing in secret or in the dark' (J. Ridley, Lord Palmerston [1971], p. 403ff.), and it was not brought in until 1872. 
      In the last paragraph Dickens refers to two of the burning issues of the day, the Government of India, still in the inappropriate hands of the East India Company whose charter was renewed by Parliament in 1853, and public education, all discussion of which was still bedevilled by sectarian disputes.

Literary allusions

  • 'cloud of witnesses': Epistle to the Hebrews 12:1.
Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume III: 'Gone Astray' and Other Papers from Household Words, 1851–59 (1998). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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