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The more things change, the more they stay the same

By Peter van Vliet - posted Friday, 5 May 2006

John Howard’s recent revelation that he is a Charles Dickens fan warrants some reflection on Dickens in the Australian context. Howard referred to his like for Dickens during the latest battle in his culture wars, which now pits the might of the office of prime minister against Australia’s much-maligned English teachers.

Charles Dickens lived in London during the 19th century. Born into the lower middle classes, his father sank into debt and was sent to London’s Marshalsea Debtors' Prison, back in the days when bankrupts were jailed. The young Dickens worked in a shoe polish or “blacking” warehouse to help keep the family afloat. These two great life-forming experiences developed Dickens’ keen eye for society, class, injustice and human weakness.

Unlike most contemporary novelists who have been displaced by television and cinema, Dickens had a huge popular readership. Australia has never produced a novelist of Dickens’ extraordinary output and stature and Henry Lawson would be the only Australian writer who came close to having Dickens’ popular appeal. Interestingly Lawson was clearly a Dickens fan and in one short story referred to the relationship between Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, from A Tale of Two Cities, as best exemplifying the Australian creed of mateship.


Dickens’ first book is the rollicking Pickwick Papers. Serialised in newspapers and immensely popular in England at the time, it is a comic masterpiece, and one of his best. Its hero is the working class Sam Weller who declares, “we shan’t be bankrupts and we shan’t make our fort’ns. We eats our biled mutton without capers, and don’t care for horse raddish ven ve can get beef.” Dickens captures the best of cockney London in Sam’s jocular exchanges with his “widder” (widow) loving father, Tony Weller. It’s a rhythmical slang that has much in common with Australian working class slang today.

Dickens’ second book, Oliver Twist, is probably his most famous. The hungry Oliver immortalised the words, “Please, Sir, I want some more”. Oliver’s further entrapment with Fagin and the world’s most famous pickpocket, the Artful Dodger, has become the stuff of legend. Dickens was highly critical of institutions that effectively imprisoned children. In Oliver Twist Dickens denounces orphans' workhouses and in Nicholas Nickleby he criticises the then infamous “Yorkshire Schools” for illegitimate children.

One can only assume that Dickens would have been equally horrified at Australia’s immigration detention centres, within which children again look set to be incarcerated, although this time overseas. Maybe John Howard could revisit these two novels to remind himself of the inhumanity of institutionalising children.

Dickens’ other famous work was his second last novel, the romantic Great Expectations. The story of Pip’s rise from humble origins to great expectations, his love for Estella and his reconciliation with his murky past makes for a gripping novel. Returning to his humble old town in his best London suit, Pip is greeted by a plucky local boy saying “Don’t know ya, don’t know ya, pon my soul, don’t know ya”. One can almost see Eddie McGuire returning to the streets of Broadmeadows.

There are treasures in some of Dickens’ lesser-known works. A Tale of Two Cities tells the story of revolutionary Paris and a watchful, apprehensive London across the English Channel. The cool, patient and murderous Parisian wine merchant’s wife Madam Defarge is one serious piece of work. It’s unfair that Julia Gillard is occasionally derided with that nickname. Who knows, perhaps that moniker emerged from the prime minister’s office. John Howard would certainly understand the reference.

Barnaby Rudge tells the story of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in London of 1780. The scheming “bulldog” apprentices and the villainous and ultra-violent Hugh of the Maypole run amok during the Gordon Riots, and practice unfathomable cruelty against fellow human beings on the basis of creed. Their warped mentality of blind hatred seems disturbingly familiar given the cowardly Cronulla anti-Muslim riots earlier this year and the equally cowardly retaliation against innocent Anglo-Australians days later.


Another Dickens’ classic is the brooding Our Mutual Friend. It tells the story of Boffin the Golden Dustman, who makes his fortune from a dust heap. Much of the story, with its criminal and romantic twists, is set upon the majestic River Thames. On these waters the arch-villain Rogue Riderhood plies his trade picking up dead bodies in his riverboat. While this was Dickens’ last completed book, it was one of his best.

Dickens was to tour Australia around 1864 but never got here. He did get to America and in Martin Chuzzelwit his disdain for America is all too apparent. Dickens certainly didn’t share John Howard’s uncritical stance on the United States. In Martin Chuzzelwit, the archetypal American always introduced himself to strangers “as a worshipper of freedom” but in reality was “the consistent advocate of Lynch law, and slavery, and invariably recommended, both in print and speech, the ‘tarring and feathering’ of any unpopular person who differed from himself”. The Guantanomo Bay Prison shows that in some cases the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Perhaps if Dickens had made the long voyage to Australia he would have better liked the egalitarian society that was developing here in the 1860s. He may have seen a third way between the then impoverished and class-ridden Great Britain and the ultra-capitalist United States. He undoubtedly would have warmed to the distinctive Australian character that was then emerging.

Dickens deserves his place as one of literature’s greats and on this I am in furious agreement with the prime minister. While Australia is made up of a rich human tapestry, the influence of 19th century England is a significant part of Australia’s on-going story and Dickens is the key to understanding that epoch. Through Dickens we can see just a little of ourselves. But please, Prime Minister, let people come to Dickens themselves. And let Australia’s wonderful English teachers enlighten students with not just the classics, but also a variety of contemporary texts and methodologies to help draw out the literary critic in us all.

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Peter van Vliet is a senior public servant.

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