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Nobody, Somebody and Everybody

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Bureaucracy; Civil Service
Great Britain—Politics and Government
Other Details
Printed : 30/8/1856
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume XIV
Magazine : No. 336
Office Book Notes
Views : 2303

For the satirical device used in this article Dickens returns to the first idea he had had for the title of Little Dorrit, 'Nobody's Fault', and an idea for a leading character that he had, a man who 'should bring about all the mischief in [the story], lay it all on Providence, and say at every fresh calamity, "Well, it's a mercy, however, nobody was to blame, you know!"' (Forster, Book 8, Ch. 1).

Butt and Tillotson in their Dickens at Work (Methuen University Paperbacks edn [1968], p. 229 ff.) note that 'in the ironic formula "Nobody's Fault", [Dickens] was catching up a current notion ... "Who's to Blame?" was the question everyone was asking'. Prompted by his disgust at the findings of the Crimean Board of Enquiry (held at the Military College, Chelsea, hence often called the Chelsea Board), Dickens returns in the following article to the subject of the war, recapitulating some of the campaign's most notorious disasters. The Board was convened to investigate charges of incompetence and gross inefficiency brough against Lords Lucan and Cardigan and other staff officers in the Crimea following a highly critical report submitted by the Parliamentary commissioners appointed to inquire into the conduct of the war. Sir Alexander Woodford and the other generals who constitued the Chelsea Board were all very much part of the senior military establishment and there was little public belief in their impartiality; The Times reprinted (11 April 1856) criticism made by the Manchester Examiner: 'The authorities who appointed these judges have already taken sides with the accused; they have appointed judges who are dependent on themselves for professional advancement...'. Dickens's comments about 'My Lord's' haughty behavior at the Enquiry refer to Lucan, who, according to a Times leader of 8 April 1856, was 'very indignant against the Crimean Commissioners for daring to call his conduct in question'. The Board's findings, which largely exonerated Lucan and Cardigan from all blame, were widely regarded in the way Dickens's present them here—that is, as mere whitewash.

Dickens goes on to attack Palmerston, whose skill in political manoeuvring and fondness for facetious sallies in Parliamentary debate never failed to enrage him; as usual, he portrays the Prime Minister as a versatile performer of comic old men parts. For a culminating example of the evasion of responsibility for catastrophic errors which Dickens sees as such a terrible national malaise, he turns to the case of the Irish MP and swindler John Sadlier, who poisoned himself on Hampstead Heath on 16 February 1856 after the failure of his Tipperary Bank on which he had an overdraft of £200, 000. Sadlier had been made a Junior Lord of the Treasury in 1853, evidently as a result of some kind of deal with the Aberdeen Government. Dickens had told Forster back in March that he had 'shaped Mr Merdle [the swindling financier in Little Dorrit] ... out of that precious rascality [Sadlier]' and that 'Mr Merdle's complaint, which you will find in the end to be fraud and forgery, came into my mind as the last drop in the silver cream-jug on Hampstead-heath' (Forster, Book 8, Ch. 1).

Literary allusions

  • 'the Brazen Head ... crying "Time is!"': from Robert Greene's comedy Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1594), in which Bacon constructs a brazen head capable of speech (Bacon's servant, set to watch it, thinks its first two speeches too unimportant to disturb his sleeping master for; but after the head utters for the third time, crying 'Time is past!', it falls and smashes to bits);
  • 'My heart, as the ballad says, is sore for Somebody': from Robert Burns's 'For the Sake O' Somebody' (1796): 'My heart is said—I dair na tell—My heart is sair for Somebody'.

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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