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It Is Not Generally Known

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Great Britain—Politics and Government
Popular Culture; Amusements
Social classes; Class distinctions; Aristocracy (Social Class); Aristocracy (Social Class)—Fiction; Middle Class; Working Class; Servants;
Work; Work and Family; Occupations; Professions; Wages
Other Details
Printed : 2/9/1854
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume X
Magazine : No. 232
Office Book Notes
Views : 1606

Relaxing in Boulogne after finishing Hard Times Dickens promised Wills that he would 'endeavour to come off my back (and the grass)' to do a leading article for the number that was to carry the first instalment of Mrs Gaskell's North and South (Pilgrim, Vol. VII, p. 384).

He decided to write a discursively satirical piece like his earlier 'Raven' pieces (see Vol. I of the Dent edition of Dickens's Journalism, p. 189ff.) and found a good device for it in a favourite newspaper cliché of the day, which he used for his title. After mocking journalists' fondness for the phrase, Dickens glances at a few recent news items that have excited his irritation; inevitably. These included some Parliamentary speechifying (though Wills was unable to find for him as many instances of members making personal attacks on each other as Dickens had been expecting him to—see Pilgrim, Vol. VII, p. 395). Just about this time Dickens had, Forster tells us, reluctantly abandoned the idea of running in HW a whole series of satires on Parliament to be called 'The Member for Nowhere' by which he hoped 'to have made every man in England feel something of the contempt for the House of Commons that I have' (Forster, Book II, Chapter 3), and 'It Is Not Generally Known' clearly owes something to this state of mind. With his intense concern for public health, Dickens would have been particularly outraged by Lord Seymour, the member for Totnes and a former, 'notoriously neglectful' (Pilgrim, Vol. VII, p. 384, n. 6) President of the General Board of Health, making catchpenny jokes in the House about alarm over the threat of cholera. The article ends with a reprise of satirical points made in a similar way in his earlier Examiner article, 'Demoralisation and Total Abstinence' (see Vol. I of the Dent edition, p. 159ff.)—the ridiculous injustice of legislation on social matters based on the behaviour of a depraved minority (Sloggins here is successor to 'Bill Brute and Mr Brallaghan of Killalloo' in the earlier piece) and absurdity of believing the protestations of prisoners to prison chaplains and the like about the causes of their downfall. Compare with the last paragraph of this piece the following from 'Demoralisation and Total Abstinence':

if a notion arose that the wearing of brass buttons led to crime, and they [prisoners] were questioned to elucidate that point, we should have such answers as 'I was happy till I wore brass buttons', 'Brass buttons did it', 'Buttons is the cause of my being here', all down long columns of a grave return.

Literary allusions

  • 'Am I not a Lord and a Member': adaptation of the famous anti-slavery slogan 'Am I not a Man and a Brother?' given wide currency by Josiah Wedgwood in 1787, when he used it on a jasper medallion depicting a black slave kneeling in chains;
  • 'Britons ... ever, shall-be slaves': ironic allusion to James Thomson's 'Rule Britannia' (Alfred, A Masque, 1740).

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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