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The Finishing Schoolmaster

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Digest; Review i
Prose: Leading Article i
Prose: Letters; Correspondence i
Subjects Crime; Criminals; Punishment; Capital Punishment; Prisons; Penal Transportation; Penal Colonies
Great Britain—Social Life and Customs
Literature; Writing; Authorship; Reading; Books; Poetry; Storytelling; Letter Writing
Other Details
Printed : 17/5/1851
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume III
Magazine : No. 60
Office Book Notes
Views : 819

This article relates closely to Dickens's long-standing concern with the issue of capital punishment. He had contributed to a powerful series of letters advocating total abolition of the death penalty to the Daily News (23 February–16 March 1846). The previous year he had offered to write an article on capital punishment for the Edinburgh Review, but never did so (see Pilgrim, Vol. IV, pp. 340–41). By the time of his two 1849 letters to The Times deploring the disgusting scenes at the Mannings' execution (Pilgrim, Vol. V, pp. 644–45 and 651), he had come to believe that total abolition was not a practical possibility and concentrated on arguing for the abolition of public executions. For the texts of the five Daily News letters, see D. Paroissien (ed.), Selected Letters of Charles Dickens (1985), pp. 213–55; for an excellent detailed discussion of them, and Dickens's attitude to capital punishment generally, see Philip Collins, Dickens and Crime (1962), Ch. 10.

      In this piece (described as a 'striking article' by Collins, op. cit., p. 245) Dickens links one of the main themes of his opposition to capital punishment – the degrading effect it has on the public and the morbid fascination it engenders – with his angry concern about successive British governments' neglect of education for the poor. (cf. ['A December Vision', HW, Vol. II, 14 December 1850]). The grim pun of his title (a 'finishing school' draws its pupils from privileged backgrounds and trains them in the social graces) welds the two things together.
      Maria Clarke was a twenty-two-year-old woman tried at Bury St Edmunds on 18 March for the murder of her illegitimate infant son by burying him alive. The defence plea of insanity was not admitted by the judge and she was found guilty and sentenced to death (The Times, 7 April 1851, p. 8, col. 1). On 19 April The Times reprinted (p. 7, col. 6) a report from the Standard describing the Sheriff of Suffolk's dilemma resulting from the non-availability of William Calcraft, the public hangman, to carry out the execution of Clarke on the appointed day. If no substitute could be found and the date could not be altered, the Sheriff would have 'to perform a duty repugnant to the feelings of thousands of Her Majesty's subjects'. In the event, however, 'a statement of circumstances indicating the woman's insanity was forwarded to the Home Secretary, and her execution, consequently respited' (Household Narrative for April 1851, p. 87).

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume II: 'The Amusements of the People' and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews, 1834-51 (1996). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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