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Charles Dickens, Race and Colonialism

Updated Wednesday, 8th September 2021

What can the works of Charles Dickens tell us about race and colonialism in the Victorian era? Dr Alex Tickell, a Senior Lecturer in English, explores…

In the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall targeted sculptural monuments – notably statues of the slave-trader merchant Edward Colston in Bristol and the financier, empire builder and benefactor Cecil Rhodes in Oxford – to condemn the legacy of slavery and imperialism they tacitly condoned. These attacks may have prompted a long-overdue reappraisal of UK national history in forms of monumental commemoration, but should they also encourage us to reconsider our response to similarly monumental figures in our literary history?

Black Lives Matter Protest, Bristol, UK - the statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, being thrown in the harbour Creative commons image Icon Keir Gravil via Flickr under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license 7 June 2020, the Edward Colston statue was pulled down then pushed into Bristol Harbour during the George Floyd protests related to the Black Lives Matter movement.

After Shakespeare, the most monumental English author is probably Charles Dickens (1812-1870), whose fiction features on two Open University English modules (A111 and A335). Dickens transformed the nineteenth-century novel; created characters that most of the population still knows by name; and allegedly invented Christmas, although he competes with Prince Albert for this last honour. Less well known are his views on race and colonialism. Few readers think of Dickens as a ‘colonial’ writer and, while he lived through a period of aggressive colonial expansion and empire-building, his fictions are generally so distinctively metropolitan that empire often seems like a peripheral presence in them: the wings of a stage into which problematic characters depart never to be seen again, or from which they return, enriched and redeemed. Indeed, like many Victorian patriarchs, Dickens treated his own family relationship to empire in the same way – his younger son Walter was packed off to India as an East India Company cadet, and two of his other sons emigrated to Australia.

While empire is not very visible in Dickens’s major fictions, it is still worth paying attention to his published statements on ethnicity and colonial rule. In gauging Dickens’s views on race and empire, many critics point to his notorious article of 1853 ‘The Noble Savage’, in which he comments on the exhibitions of indigenous people that were popular in London in the mid-nineteenth century. Here, he lampoons Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s romantic idea of the nobility of so-called uncivilised peoples and argues that ‘savage’ non-European cultures have few redeeming features. Dickens was even more unequivocal in defence of the violence of empire in his seemingly genocidal reaction to the rebellion against British rule which swept across India in 1857 and loomed large as a collective act of disloyalty – a ‘Mutiny’ – in the British imagination. Never one to pass up a caricature, Dickens also contributed to antisemitic stereotyping in his infamous Jewish child-catcher, Fagin, in Oliver Twist.

Illustration of Fagin in Oliver Twist Watercolour of Fagin from Oliver Twist by 'Kyd' (circa 1889)

It is difficult, however, to condemn Dickens tout court when so often his ideas of race and difference seem to be calibrated against his reformist concerns for other social issues, such as urban poverty and the failings of Victorian social welfare. At times, in his statements about so-called ‘savagery’, his writing plays with inferences about the comparative savagery of Victorian society and in his memorable figure of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House (1850) he suggests that the British should pay attention to the mounting social problems at home before practising ‘telescopic’ philanthropy and missionary work abroad. (In this last concern, his writing anticipates one of the presiding populist political themes of our own time: a misdirected targeting of non-citizens (immigrants) as the underserving recipients of resources that the majority population should claim.) His earlier novel Dombey and Son (1848), which explores themes of power and powerlessness on multiple levels, is equally equivocal about colonial rule in the relationship between the blustering colonial Major Bagstock and his nameless African servant. In the latter’s silence and lack of identity, and in the major’s corresponding bullying tendency to speak for his employee, Dickens sounds a profound note of doubt about the British colonial project.

Ultimately, literary fictions are not exactly comparable to public monuments, even though their authors may have become celebrated national figures (or been subject to forms of revisionism in assessments of their personal lives). Fictional works can present incommensurable meanings or develop multiple perspectives, and their capacity to sustain different interpretation is what makes them so fascinating. Literary works are also inescapably of their time, and solidarity with contemporary movements for social justice and reparation for historical racism means that alongside a renewed attention to excluded or forgotten authors of colour we must pay even greater attention to ‘national’ authors such as Dickens – the better to understand the often contradictory postcolonial national culture we have inherited from them.

 

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