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Dickens the Journalist
John M. L. Drew
London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

£47.50, 264 pages. ISBN 0-333-98773-X.

Max Véga-Ritter
Université Blaise Pascal Clermont-Ferrand II


John M. L. Drew’s study* aims to survey the texts which compose the "canon" of Dickens's journalism themselves and the context of their production. It is accordingly predicated upon the Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens Journalism (4 volumes, 1924-2000) by Michael Slater. Though it does not purport to offer a critical reading of the relationship of Dickens's journalism to his novels or a reconsideration of his biography, it will undoubtedly raise new questions and give rise to reappraisals in those two fields because of the quality of its import.

J. M. L. Drew traces Dickens's trajectory from the moment he leaves his solicitor's clerkship (1829-1830) to set up as a freelance shorthand writer with the support of his uncle Thomas Barrow. Dickens who is now 18 acquires the needed practice by working in a variety of ecclesiastical and Admiralty courts sitting at Doctors' Commons. Soon he graduates to the small pool of Gallery reporters. The rhetoric of prominent politicians—"their sarcasm, invectives and spirit-stirring eloquence"—has an impact on the young reporter. He is first engaged as a reporter for The Mirror of Parliament and eventually gets (1832) an appointment to the reporting staff of the True Sun, the most radical London evening paper where he holds a position of influence.

In 1834 Dickens secures an appointment on the Morning Chronicle, the most respected of the Whig dailies. For several years he works hard, up all night and asleep all day, reporting late-night sittings of Parliament, but also carries out special reporting assignment and already submits original literary work. Soon Dickens begins to emerge as an authorial presence. He develops a variety of narrative skills, such as using several person forms of address to button hole the reader and situate him inside the events or the proceedings he is reporting. Distrustful of all political agendas he expresses dissatisfaction both with established authorities and with reformers and innovators who wanted to sweep away old popular customs. Meanwhile he finds his way into the more genteel world of literary journalism though never severing his connection, personal or stylistic, with radical journalism. J. M. L. Drew remarks that Dickens's position in the Gallery gained him two invaluable things: “a vantage point from which to view the conduct of public affairs, and a style (if not a ward-robe of styles) in his recreation of a moving world.” He built from his experience as a parliamentary reporter a belief in the supremacy of the people's authority and of the face-to-face encounter to parliamentary proceedings. Obviously his genius as a writer is then shaped by his experience as a parliamentary reporter listening to politicians' rhetoric, or to people talk in the street, transcribing their words, exposing himself to what they say and how they say it, playing one register against another in order to turn their arms back against them.

After two failed attempts at founding his own newspaper, Dickens eventually made it good with the launching of Household Words. Between March 1850 and his death in July 1870, Dickens was responsible as editor for over 1061 issues of Household Words and its look-alike successor, All The Year Round: 23 million words of original letterpress, and well over 600 articles, poems and instalments of serial fiction. It was a popular success and a profitable business, too, with an average circulation of 60000 and a substantial profit share for Dickens to “cushion” his fluctuating income.

The concept of the weekly was his just as he had control of its editorship. He meant to “show all, that in familiar things [...] there is Romance enough if we will find it out [...] to teach the hardest workers [...] that their lot is not necessarily a moody and brutal fact.” Part of the paper was often dedicated to some form of political agitation on social issues. He would vehemently give expression to his democratic belief that Britain's people needed to reform their corrupted governing institutions and have them serve the welfare of the majority. Moreover Household Words did engage modernity and modern issues. Dickens even promoted friendship between France and England, praising the “long and constant fusion of the two great nations there, which [has] taught each to like the other, and to learn from the other.” Dickens himself handled many of the controversial issues—factory legislation, housing and hygiene, public health, the cholera, education, prison discipline and reform work, criminal trials, the Great Exhibition—trying to invest the manner of narration with grace in order to get the publication down into the masses.

Of course Dickens's own brand of prejudices were recognizable, among them his patriarchal assumptions about the natural “roles” of men and women—one of the reasons Harriet Martineau fell out with him—but he did make a stand against the Law's insensitive treatment of women.

In spite of all the gossip and scandal surrounding his separating from his wife, the sales of Household Words remained as high as at any time in the last six years of its life. Dickens mounted guard over his child and could be ruthless. Feeling betrayed by his partners, and as they refused to sell their share in the property and in the copyright, he swiftly dissolved the partnership and closed the journal down. His rule over the next weekly All the Year Round was still more wilful and autocratic.

Not only does Dickens emerge from John Drew’s account of his career as a true journalist and editor in his own right but also as a man who was able to found and run successfully his own newspaper, as well as to master all the latest developments of a modern press undertaking. The amazing thing about his whole enterprise as magazine editor is the level of energy, creative drive, concentration and planning Dickens was able to put into it. He was considered in his time as the most potent individual force in weekly journalism and at a later period of media development by Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail as “the greatest magazine editor either of his own, or of any other, age.”

Eventually two further remarks present themselves to the present reader's mind. Obviously Dickens the man goes way beyond the novelist. The journalist and newspaper founder-owner-editor-manager does not have his like in his fiction. The very area of experience Dickens knew best is left out of his novels. There is no one like the type of man he was in life to be found in his work of fiction. None of his heroes has the sheer drive, creative energy, determination, strength of will he was able to harness to his projects, except for David Copperfield and perhaps some of his villains such as Magwitch. His good heroes all seem hampered by guilt, inhibited by some masochistic streak in them.

This is not to say that Dickens the journalist and his work did not evince the same fault lines as the man and the writer. J. L. M. Drew points out the contradiction between the title of the weekly Household Words conducted by Charles Dickens and its motto “Familiar in their mouths as Household Words.” The latter is a quote from Henry V's speech rousing his dispirited soldiers before the battle of Agincourt. It provides a masculine heroic framework to the feminine overtones of the title. Dickens meant to inspire his readers with an ambition for upward mobility and self-improvement which clashed with the more “feminine” idealised domestic virtues of renunciation and forgiveness he strongly advocated. He liked to cast himself in the role of lone warrior soldiering on in the battle of life or climbing after his princess sword in hand in order to free her from the stronghold where she is kept in fetters by an Ogre with seven heads. He would do so even on the eve of playing Richard Wardour in The Frozen Deep—a character who surrenders the woman he loves to his more fortunate rival—a performance which caused an extraordinary emotional release in Dickens and was the start of his secret affair with Ellen Ternan.

What is newer and perhaps of still greater interest is Dickens's own representation of his role and of the persona he wanted to project into his journalistic work. In order to bind together all the contents and aspects of his magazine he envisaged establishing a character at the centre “a certain SHADOW which would go into any place, be in all homes, and nooks and corners, would be cognizant of every thing, go everywhere,” “a kind of semi-omniscient, omnipresent, intangible creature...,” “a previously unthought-of Power going about” which would set every one wondering “what will the Shadow say about this or that.” This may only be an echo of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. Yet Orwell's Big brother is not a long way off. The idea eventually came to nothing. Should it be seen as one more sign of Dickens's own fault lines, his life-long difficulty with a sadistic superego or more generally as a touch of the hand of one of the tempting Devils of Modern journalism? John Drew seems to answer we should start looking at Dickens's fictional and journalistic work as a whole with both a unity of its own and a relevance to our contemporary brand of journalistic modernity.

* J. M. L. Drew is lecturer in English Literature at the university of Buckingham. back


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