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The Last Words of the Old Year

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Cross-genre i
Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Prose: Short Fiction i
Subjects Christmas; New Year; Holidays and Seasonal Celebrations
Progress; Memory; Commemoration; Nostaliga; Time—Social Aspects; Time—Psychological Aspects; Time perception;
Other Details
Printed : 4/1/1851
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume II
Magazine : No. 41
Office Book Notes
Views : 1133

In this piece Dickens seizes the opportunity both to mock political sloganeering in general and to remind his readers of particular scandals of the previous year. The Old Year's words, 'I have been a Year of Ruin...I have been a Year of Commercial Prosperity' look forward to the famous opening of A Tale of Two Cities [AYR, Vol. I, 30 April] (1859): 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....' Turning to particularities, Dickens mocks the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers (est. 1847), which had decreed the abolition of all cesspits with the catastrophic result that London's sewage was now discharged direct into the Thames. The Commissioners were able to resist the General Board of Health's plans (drawn up by Edwin Chadwick) for a total reorganisation of London's water-supply and drainage system because the metropolis was specifically excluded from the Board's remit.

Dickens also reverts to the scandal of London's neglected children so powerfully raised in 'A December Vision' [HW, Vol. II, 14 December 1850]. He refers back to literacy statistics given in the preceding number of HW, in the lead article for 28 December, 'Mr Bendigo Buster on Our National Defences against Education', written jointly by himself and Henry Morley (reprinted in Stone, Vol. I, pp. 191–203); also to the Household Narrative for May [p. 9] and its mention of the case of the two starving children whipped for stealing a loaf. 
      Dickens refers on [p. 338] to a number of individuals singled out for praise or blame: Robert Stephenson, the builder of Britannia Bridge; Joseph Paxton, creator of the Crystal Palace ('a great natural genius, self-improved' [p. 338]); Charles Blomfield, Bishop of London ('My Right Reverend Brother'), who first made a name for himself as an editor of Euripides and other Greek dramatists; Sir Robert Peel ('a great Statesman'), who died in a riding accident on 29 June; King Louis-Philippe, who arrived an exile in England in 1848 and died (aged seventy-seven) on 26 August 1850; Cardinal Wiseman; and Dr Gilbert Elliot, Dean of Bristol and a personal friend of Dickens's, whose vigorously anti-Tractarian speech at a meeting of Bristol clergy on 6 November had been extensively quoted and commended in the Household Narrative for November (the author of the article was presumably Forster). The wish that the Dean might be translated to the see of Exeter is a hit at the High Church Bishop Philpotts.

Literary allusions

  • 'sound and fury': Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Sc. 3;
  • 'the night cometh when no man can work': John, 9:4;
  • 'With twelve great shocks of sound...': Tennyson, 'Godiva' (1842), II. 73–6, omitting the words 'the shameless noon' after 'sound'.

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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