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Gone to the Dogs

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Editorial i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Architecture; Building; Housing; Property; Landlord and Tenant;
Crimean War, 1853-1856
Great Britain—Politics and Government
Great Britain—Social Conditions—Nineteenth Century
London (England)—Description and Travel
Poverty; Poor Laws—Great Britain; Workhouses—Great Britain
Progress; Memory; Commemoration; Nostaliga; Time—Social Aspects; Time—Psychological Aspects; Time perception;
Other Details
Printed : 10/3/1855
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume XI
Magazine : No. 259
Office Book Notes
Views : 548

The personal-reminiscent tone of the earlier part of this article anticipates that of many of Dickens's later 'Uncommercial Traveller' essays, though the device on which the piece turns, the play upon the idiomatic phrase that supplies its title, is characteristic of his 1850s' journalism.

In the last three paragraphs Dickens moves from the familiar essay mode to that of satirical journalism to follow up his scating allegory 'Prince Bull' (HW, 17 February 1855) lashing the Government and the Civil Service for the appalling mismanagement of the Crimean War (Prince Bull is plagued by 'a tyrannical old godmother' called 'Tape', who can paralyse all purposeful and constructive work). Dickens makes a contemptuous reference to the national day of 'Solemn Fast, Humiliation and Prayer' that had been ordained by royal proclamation and was scheduled to take place on 21 March. This Fast Day was further derided by Dickens in the next piece he wrote for HW after this one, 'Fast and Loose' (24 March), which begins by comparing the Government to a group of incompetent Railway Company directors, who, having 'destroyed thousands of lives, wasted millions of money, and hopelessly bewildered and conglomerated themselves and everybody else', should call their shareholders together and 'with an audacious piety' say to them: 'Lo, ye miserable sinners, the hand of Providence is heavy on you! Attire yourselves in sackcloth, throw ashes on your heads, fast, and hear us condescend to make discourses to you on the wrongs you have done!'

Dickens glances at the heavy British losses both in battle (the Charge of the Light Brigade took place on 25 October 1854), and even more, as a result of the physical privations suffered by the ill-equipped and ill-nourished troops in their winter quarters at Balaklava, the terrible scandal of which had been exposed by W. H. Russell in his Times despatches. The Earl of Aberdeen's coalition Government was defeated on 29 January, when the radical MP John Roebuck's motion for a Select Committee to enquire into the condition of the army in the Crimea was passed by a large majority. Lord Palmerston managed to form a ministry after Lord John Russell had failed, but the new Government was essentially a reshuffling of the old one. It is the seventy-year-old Palmerston, celebrated for his jokes and political adroitness, whom Dickens lampoons as the 'jocular old gentleman throwing somersaults on stilts', and the reference to Nineveh points to Austen Layard, the great excavator of the Assyrian capital, now a Liberal MP who had criticised Palmerston's Government in a Commons debate on 19 February, declaring that what the country needed as not 'septuagenarian experience, but more of youthful activity and energy'. Later Dickens joined the Administrative Reform Association, of which Layard was a moving spirit, and delivered a powerful speech supporting its aims at a big meeting of the Association on 27 June (see Speeches, pp. 197-208).

Literary allusions

  • 'did ... things he ought not to have done': The Book of Common Prayer, the General Confession at Morning Prayer;
  • 'Britannia rules the waves...': James Thomson, Alfred, A Masque (1740), Act 2, Scene the Last;
  • 'crying Havoc! ... and letting us slip': adapted from Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1: 'Cry "Havoc!" and let slip the dogs of war'.

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume III: 'Gone Astray' and Other Papers from Household Words, 1851-1859, 1998.

DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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