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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Great Britain—Social Life and Customs
National Characteristics; Nationalism
Other Details
Printed : 1/3/1856
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume XIII
Magazine : No. 310
Office Book Notes
Views : 804

This article is a classic example of the kind known today, thanks to Private Eye, as a 'Why, Oh, Why?' piece, in other words, the sort of column written by a journalist who, having no particular topic on hand but needing to fill his column, proceeds to a semi-humorous listing of apparently foolish or meaningless things in contemporary everyday life that exasperate him or her.

Dickens scatters his fire over a number of familiar targets: bad service in railway refreshment rooms, journalistic clichés (for the obnoxious schoolboy, see under Literary allusions below), 'petting' criminals, worship of titles, theatrical and Parlimentary conventions, national stereotyping, the game of party politics, and so on. As regards railway refreshment rooms (always a sore point with him), Dickens was able to draw on very recent experience. Describing an overnight train journey back from Sheffield to London in a letter to Mary Boyle of 8 January 1856 (Pilgrim, Vol. VIII, p. 14ff.), he had written:

 At two or three o'Clock in the morning, I stopped at Peterboro' ... The Lady in the Refreshment Room was very hard upon me—harder even, than those fair enslavers usually are. She gave me a cup of tea, as if I were a hyaena, and she my cruel keeper with a strong dislike to me. I mingled my tears with it; and had a petrified bun of enormous antiquity, in miserable meekness.

The Pilgrim editors note (Vol. VIII, p. 760) that in his attack on the English accepting the idea that they are 'eminently a money-loving people' Dickens may well have been remembering a pamphlet he had recently read, The Age We Live In, in which the writer had claimed, 'we differ from all continental states—we stand A1 in the thirst for gold'. Dickens had written to the author to remonstrate, mentioning America as 'a special instance of the over hot pursuit of money'. For details of Parisian theatres, see J. M. McCormick, Popular Theatres of Nineteenth Century France (1993). The reference to a national habit of condemning things 'in a flushed and rapturous manner' as '"un-English"' looks forward to the creation of Mr Podnsap in Our Mutual Friend (1865)—especially Book II, Ch. II, where Podsnap, 'flushing angrily', seeks to crush a dinner-guest who has been suggesting that something might be 'appallingly wrong' regarding the treatment of the poor in England: '"I see what you are driving at", says Podsnap, "...Centralization. No. Never with my consent. Not English"'.

Literary allusions

  • 'every schoolboy knows': this phrase gained wide currency after Macaulay's use of it in his essay on Lord Clive: 'Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma, and who strangled Atahualpa' (Essays contributed to the Edinburgh Review [1843], Vol. 3);
  • 'Sir Giles Scroggins': Giles Scroggins is the name of the ghost in an old ballad, who comes back to claim his former sweetheart;
  • 'yet be a man for a' that': Robert Burns, 'For a' That and a' That';
  • 'none of women born': Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 4, Sc. 1;
  • 'Buffy and Boodle': from Bleak House, Ch. 40.

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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