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Proposals for a National Jest-Book

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Great Britain—Politics and Government
Great Britain—Social Life and Customs
Social classes; Class distinctions; Aristocracy (Social Class); Aristocracy (Social Class)—Fiction; Middle Class; Working Class; Servants;
Other Details
Printed : 3/5/1856
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume XIII
Magazine : No. 319
Office Book Notes
Views : 637

Sending the following piece to Wills on 20 April, Dickens described it as 'a capital paper, with an odd and novel idea in it', and asked Wills to alter the number 'so as to make it the first article; or some of the points of which it treats, will get out of date' (Pilgrim, Vol. VIII, p. 93).

Lord Palmerston's fondness for facetious sallies provides the idea for the satirical device of which Dickens evidently thought so highly. The Prime Minister appears as Britannia's 'First Lord of the Jokery' (he is also, of course, the footpad, 'an old hand', who robs John Bull under pretence of fighting his enemies). The notion of 'a learned body of not fewer than forty members' parodies the Académie Française. Since 1855 Dickens had been spearheading a campaign to reform the administration of the Royal Literary Fund (founded as the Literary Fund Society in 1790 to relieve indigent authors and their dependants), hence the unflattering reference to that institution in this piece (see further Speeches, p. 176ff.).

For examples of 'national jests' Dickens drew on recent news items such as the rather lame speech of Sir Robert Peel's son, the Under-Secretary for War, in the Commons on 8 April opposing an Edinburgh MP who raised a perennial Scottish greivance about the billeting of soldiers (in Scotland soldiers had always, since the Act of Union, been billeted on all classes of society and in larger numbers than in England); a speech opposing the introduction of compulsory vaccination by the MP for Bodmin, Dr William Mitchell (born 1794), which was reported in The Times on 1 April (Mitchell claimed that vaccination 'encouraged smallpox' because people 'fancied they were protected, went where smallpox was rife, got infected, and became, in consequence, propagators of the disease'; also that vaccination 'induced paralysis, leprosy and other diseases'); the polemical outbursts of the Bishop of Exeter (see Vol. 3 of the Dent edition in Dickens's Journalism, p. 319); and a Times report on 5 April of a delegation of MPs and manufacturers from the Potteries who waited on Palmerston to urge a reduction in the duty of foreign wine.

Literary allusions

  • 'By this sign ye shall know it': adapted from Matthew 7:15.


J. F. Dexter Collection, The British Library. The ms. is somewhat heavily revised and shows a few minor variants from the printed text —at one point, for example, the 'Person of Quality' is made to quote from 'Rule Britannia!'.

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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