“…The great drama — which is to say, the abiding trauma—of Dickens’s childhood -
- was his year-long stint in a rat-infested blacking factory near the Thames – when he was twelve years old -
- following the arrest of John Dickens for debt in 1824 and his incarceration in the debtors’ prison at Marshalsea.
Much has been written about this long-secret episode in Dickens’s life, including, most recently, Michael Allen’s heavily documented Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory (2011) -
- a work of some three hundred pages of interest primarily to Dickens scholars -
- but very likely impenetrable to Dickens readers in its concentration upon historical minutiae only tenuously related to Dickens and his novels.
Another recent book, Ruth Richardson’s Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor (2012), gives a more intimately evoked view of Dickens’s childhood –
- and the New Poor Law of 1834 by which workhouses became “a sort of prison system to punish (the poor).”
For the child Dickens, the shock of this change of fortune was all the more in that his seemingly loving parents so readily agreed to the enslavement of their bright young son:
‘No one made any sign. My father and mother were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so, if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge.’
At the factory—which manufactured blacking for men’s and boys’ boots—Dickens had a relatively light job, covering and labeling the pots of blacking; he was known there as “the young gentleman”;-
- but the horror of his situation never altered:
‘No words can express the secret agony of my soul…the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position… My whole nature was penetrated with grief and humiliation’.
His parents’ betrayal was unforgivable – and his year in the factory humiliating -
- yet twenty years later, recounting the episode to his first biographer, his beloved friend John Forster -
- Dickens acknowledged that the blacking factory had given him the determination to persevere, with “a sense that everything was possible to the will that would make it so.”
And of course, servitude as a child worker would provide the author with both material and a sharply informed perspective as well -
- as a natural empathy for the enslaved working poor of all ages -
- which remained with Dickens throughout his life…”
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