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Proposals for Amusing Posterity

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Great Britain—History
Great Britain—Social Conditions—Nineteenth Century
Progress; Memory; Commemoration; Nostaliga; Time—Social Aspects; Time—Psychological Aspects; Time perception;
Other Details
Printed : 12/2/1853
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume VI
Magazine : No. 151
Office Book Notes
Views : 583

In this article, as in 'Gone to the Dogs' [HW, Vol. XI, 10 March 1855] (article 36 [in the Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism Vol. 3, pp. 283–91]), Dickens uses a device that enables him to string together a number of disparate satirical points he wishes to make. The contrast between the money spent in honouring Nelson and that spent in honouring Wellington connects with his earlier condemnation of the costly and ostentatious State Funeral given to the latter [see 'Trading in Death', HW, Vol. VI. 27 November 1852]. The allusion to a 'pauper provision' for Nelson's daughter concerns Horatia, his daughter by Lady Hamilton, officially known as his 'adopted' daughter until his paternity became public knowledge in 1849. In his will Nelson famously left Lady Hamilton as 'a legacy to my King and Country'; also Horatia, to 'the beneficence of my country'. But the death of Pitt meant that no public provision was arranged for the women.

By 1849 Horatia was, as the Morning Chronicle put it (8 May 1850) when launching on its front page a public appeal on her behalf, 'the exemplary wife of an excellent clergyman with a small income and a large family'. Subscriptions came in very slowly, despite reproachful jesting about the matter in Punch (see R. D. Altick, Punch. The Lively Youth of a British Institution 1841–1851 [1997], p. 425), and when the fund closed in 1855 the amount realised was only £1,4000; for a detailed account see Winifred Gérin, Horatia Nelson (1970). The ironic description of how Britain bestows peerages on distinguished inventors anticipates Esther's comment in Ch. 53 of Bleak House (pub. June 1853): 'I said it was not the custom in England to confer title on men distinguished by peaceful services, however good and great; unless occasionally, when they consisted of the accumulation of some very large amount of money.' 
     Of the two travesties of justice Dickens here cites as having occurred since the New Year, the first has proved surprisingly elusive to track down. The second case concerning Mary Oldham, a nurse in the Greenwich workhouse who had put a burning coal on the hand of a six-year-old child; convicted of assault, she was sentenced to fourteen days in Newgate. Her case was reported in HN for January 1853

Literary allusions

  • 'as Othello says': Shakespeare, Othello, Act 1, Sc. 3: 'hath this extent, no more';
  • 'the Tower of Babel': Genesis 11:1–9. 
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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