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The Great Baby

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Food; Cooking; Gastronomy; Alcohol; Bars (Drinking Establishments); Restaurants; Dinners and Dining
Great Britain—Politics and Government
Religion; Religion and Culture
Temperance; Alcoholism
Other Details
Printed : 4/8/1855
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume XII
Magazine : No. 280
Office Book Notes
Views : 1839

The immediate provocation for this article was the evidence given during July by magistrates, the police and some temperance campaigners like Cruikshank to a Parliamentary Select Committee set up to review the working of the 1854 Sunday Beer Act, known as the Wilson Patten Act.

This Act had severely restricted Sunday opening hours for pubs and beer-houses and was believed by Dickens and others to have contributed to the Hyde Park Riots (24 June, 1 and 8 July), an outburst of working-class hostility to the introduction of still more sabbatarian legislation, this time seeking to restrict Sunday tradiing. In a letter to Miss Burdett Coutts after the first riot Dickens represented himself as constantly saying to politicians, '"the people are going wild by being worried on the subject; they have suffered an amount of cruel denial and discomfort through the last Sunday bill, which you don't or won't understand"' (Pilgrim, Vol. VII, p. 659). In fact, as Norris Pope shows in his very thorough discussion of this article (Dickens and Charity [1978], pp. 71-86), Dickens seems not to have understood that the 1855 Committee's not-very-hidden agenda was, in fact, to repeal the 1854 Act and to liberalise Sunday opening hours (it 'apparently refused to hear any sabbatarian evidence'—Pope, p. 77), and his satire conflates evidence given to the 1853-1854 Committee with that given to the 1855 one. One of the 1853-1854 witnesses, the Clerical Secretary of the Lord's Day Observance Society, had actually compared the working classes to children ('if a place is open the will go into it, and if you close that place they will go elsewhere'), perhaps giving Dickens the idea for the satirical device he uses in this article. Another, a prison chaplain from Preston, reported that convicted felons 'ascribe their ruin to the beer-house and public-houses' and handed over a petition signed by 232 out of the 240 convicts in his care asking Parliament to pass a law leading to 'the suppression of the beer-house curse' (Pope, p. 73). This clergyman undoubtedly helped to reinforce Dickens's sardonic view of prison chaplains' gullibility, already expressed in 'Pet Prisoners' (HW, 27 April 1850; see Vol. 2 of the Dent edition of Dickens's Journalism, pp. 212-227). Dickens refers back to this article in paragraph 5 of this piece, and in 'It Is Not Generally Known' (see Vol. 3 of the Dent edition, p. 210). The gullible chaplain also helps to inspire in this piece the creation of 'the Reverend Single Swallow' ('a single swallow doesn't make a summer'). Cruikshank's temperance 'monomania' had already been satirised by Dickens (see 'Frauds on the Fairies', Vol. 3 of the Dent edition, p. 166) and he is here lampooned as 'Mr Monomaniacal Patriarch'. As Pope shows, Cruikshank's excitable evidence to the 1855 Committee certainly laid him open to the kind of parody Dickens provides here.

'The Great Baby' continues Dickens's fierce and long-standing opposition to the kind of class legislation constantly being promoted by sabbatarians and temperance reformers; see, for example, 'Sunday Under Three Heads' (Vol. I of the Dent edition, pp. 475-499) and 'Demoralisation and Total Abstinence' (Vol. 2 of the Dent edition, pp. 159-169; it is in this piece that the generic Sloggins first makes his appearance').

Literary allusions

  • 'Mr Gamp': Dickens borrows the comic name from that of perhaps his greatest satiric creation, the utterly self-satisfied and grotesquely incompetent old nurse in Martin Chuzzlewit;
  • 'Camel-cum-Needle's Eye': ironic allusion to Christ's saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24);
  • 'Slough of Despond': from Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress;
  • 'the original fly with the little eye': from the nursery rhyme 'Cock Robin' ('"Who saw him die?" "I" said the fly. "With my little eye I saw him die"').

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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