The English Literature students are studying Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is frustrating that a writer with a profound message against inequality and injustice seems chiefly remembered for the tale of Scrooge. Dickens is worthy of remembrance for much more than being the writer who inspired popular musicals and feature films. Dickens was an outspoken champion of the poor, he deplored their treatment at the hands of the state.
At the beginning of Chapter Six of his novel Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens describes for his readers the debtors’ prison at Marshalsea:
“Thirty years ago there stood, a few doors short of the church of Saint George, in the borough of Southwark, on the left-hand side of the way going southward, the Marshalsea Prison. It had stood there many years before, and it remained there some years afterwards; but it is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it. It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top. Itself a close and confined prison for debtors, it contained within it a much closer and more confined jail for smugglers. Offenders against the revenue laws, and defaulters to excise or customs who had incurred fines which they were unable to pay, were supposed to be incarcerated behind an iron-plated door closing up a second prison, consisting of a strong cell or two, and a blind alley some yard and a half wide, which formed the mysterious termination of the very limited skittle-ground in which the Marshalsea debtors bowled down their troubles.
The concept of a debtors’ prison seems as bizarre in Dickens as it does in in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, where a man is thrown into prison until he is able to pay his debts. Dickens felt a deep personal hostility towards such institutions, his own father having been imprisoned in one. He asserts, with vehemence, “it is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it”. Not only was Marshalsea Prison a squalid place; it was also a pointless place. How were debtors to make any attempt at repaying their debts while incarcerated? Making their situation worse simply reduced the prospect of debt repayment.
Worse than the debtors’ prison were the workhouses, which had become virtually the only place of refuge for the poorest after the 1834 Poor Law was introduced and which robbed the poor of all dignity. In a note at the end of Our Mutual Friend, Dickens is blunt
“that my view of the Poor Law may not be mistaken or misrepresented, I will state it. I believe there has been in England, since the days of the Stuarts, no law so often infamously administered, no law so often openly violated, no law habitually so ill-supervised. In the majority of the shameful cases of disease and death from destitution, that shock the public and disgrace the country, the illegality is quite equal to the inhumanity—and known language could say no more of their lawlessness.”
Defending the poor may be less popular than being the inspiration for Christmas musicals, but it offers much more to Twenty-First Century students.