Dickens was writing at a time when people of noble birth
were no longer the only rich people in the country. Many middle-class people
were rising to power and wealth by running successful factories or industries –
and through their own hard work rather than the family they were born into. In
addition, the Great Reform Bill of 1832 meant middle class property owners
could vote for the first time, so these people became influential in
society. The belief amongst some middle-class
people was that anyone could succeed with enough effort, and that the poor were
lazy and not worth bothering with.
Dickens hated this attitude –the one seen in the
character, Scrooge, and believed anyone with wealth and influence should help
those less fortunate than themselves. He also thought that it was particularly
unfair to neglect the poor, as, for example, the wealthy factory owner’s riches
was usually built on the hard work and often low wage exploitation of the
Scrooge represented the unfair world where for many,
human relations were secondary to profit.
Prisons and Workhouses - Poverty
In Victorian England, if a man could not
pay his bills, the government could send him to prison. There, the wardens
treated him like a common criminal. The government designed purposefully
useless tasks for prisoners to perform so that debtors would realize the
pointlessness of their crime. For example, prisoners had to walk the treadmill,
a large metal cylinder with evenly spaced steps attached to it. The cylinder
spun around and around while the prisoner walked for hours, struggling not to
miss a step and to keep pace with the other prisoners suffering the same fate.
Charles Dickens’ father struggled with
debt for most of his adult life, and when Charles was just 12, his father was
sent to the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison who those who could not afford to pay
their bills. At this time, as the family
suddenly had little money, Charles was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking
factory, where he was employed to fix labels on to bottles of boot blacking for
11 hours a day. Whilst his father was
released later that year, a sensitive child, Dickens was traumatised by this
harsh experience, and never forgot his experience of poverty, particularly the
children he worked with who unfairly lost their chance at gaining an education
and a fair start in life, simply because of their poverty.
Dickens also visited ‘ragged schools’ –ones where those
too poor to be able to got to school had evening classes. Again, he spoke of
these children as experiencing ‘neglect’, ‘misery’ and ‘travelling to their
graves’. Dickens thought ‘ignorance’ by
the rich ignoring the poor and ‘ignorance’ of children due to their lack of
education, was as frightening a prospect as poverty.
Charles’ experience in the factory was frightening, but
not as bad as the dreaded ‘Workhouse’ where illegitimate children, or children
that families could not afford to support, were sent away to. These places were
a source of terror to the poor. The rich thought that the ‘workhouse’ was a
good way of persuading people not to be lazy (and simply ‘work harder’ –as
Scrooge mentions in the story) whilst the reality was that many children and
adults sent there were simply not as fortunate in terms of getting jobs. They
were supposed to be charitable institutions, provided by the government, providing a roof over the poor’s heads, and a
tiny allowance of food.. but conditions were similar to prison – starvation and
abuse were commonplace.
The job of the Clerk and his pay
Can you imagine
spending your entire school day, plus all of your homework time, copying words
from a textbook? Add a freezing room and one candle as your only source of
light, and you have Bob Cratchit’s working conditions—and he had a good job by
Victorian standards! Since there were no printers or copiers in the 1800s,
businesses hired clerks to copy documents all day by hand. Scrooge expected Bob
to keep copying documents word by word for the entire workday—that’s 8 to 10
hours per day, six days a week!
how much did Bob make at this “good” job?
Scrooge paid Bob
15 shillings a week, just 5 shillings short of a pound, or 39 pounds a year.
Experts disagree on today’s equivalent of the Victorian pound, but they think
in the worst-case scenario, Bob earned around £15 in modern money a week. Rent
on a decent house would have been about 9 shillings a week, leaving just 6
shillings to feed and clothe a family of six. When you consider a loaf of bread
cost about a shilling, things were very, very tight for the Cratchits!
Gothic and Ghosts
was very familiar with the Gothic genre, and in Scrooge provides a world which
combines elements of the supernatural with reality to powerful effect.
The use of Gothic conventions such as the spine-chilling
ghosts –one of which never speaks –only points, the icy imagery –often to
symbolise Scrooge’s heart, the old churches, graves, bells, darkness, door
knockers that turn into faces and old towers are all referenced in the story,
and provide a strong contrast to the warmth of the Cratchit family scenes, and
those on Christmas morning.