‘Dickensian’ came up a few times in my recent search for uses of ‘medieval’ in the reported pontifications in Parliament, and it seemed an interesting additional line to pursue. Hansard 2015-20 (online) tells me ‘Dickensian’ has cropped up 80 times in that period.
Some of the uses are rather clueless. It does appear that there are some MPs who think that ‘Dickensian’ is a label for a particular period of history. I suppose I see what they mean – vaguely 19th C -ish time – but it does look odd to see James Cleverly rather dimly spouting about the ‘Dickensian and Edwardian eras’.[i] Not just historically vague, and mismatched with the certainty of ‘Edwardian’, but also suggesting a lack of understanding of the fact that Dickens was predominantly a writer of fiction (whereas the Edwardian era was not a story made up by a bloke called Edward). We also see ‘Dickensian if not medieval’ – a particularly weird history/fiction from an entirely different period crossover.[ii]
Unsurprisingly, the general import of ‘Dickensian’ is negative. There is one possible exception, though the statement is somewhat confused: a ‘noble Lord’ suggests that people see ‘Dickensian’ Britain as something of a golden age (without immigrants),[iii] but this is unusual. Whenever there is talk of squalor, or contagious disease, then there is likely to be an outbreak of ‘Dickensians’. The standard scientific unit for disease, poverty and squalor may in fact be the ‘Dickensian’.[iv] ‘Pauper funerals’ seem to demand it too.[v] Calling poor employment conditions ‘Dickensian’ may have some justification (Scrooge, O. Twist, etc. etc.),[vi] but Dickensian’ is dragged in as a general intensifier of badness, even when the subject matter is not something with which Charles Dickens would have had particular sympathy. Not sure that Dickens is that into discussions of tax either, though it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine a storyline based on the ‘Bedroom tax’ and its effects.[vii] But, despite the frequent criticism of anti-trade union legislation as ‘Dickensian’, I am not sure that Dickens had a huge amount to say about trade unions (what am I forgetting?), but a.[viii] A rather selfish individual (see treatment of his wife) and one who sneered at efforts at solidarity (see Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House), I don’t see his sympathies lying with combinations of workers.
Slightly better-focused references, to complex administration – I presume we are thinking Circumlocution Office – pop up occasionally.[ix] See also what is perhaps a reference to Hard Times in relation to education,[x] and a decent point on management style, suggesting Scrooge (though let down by a rogue ‘feudal’ – clearly another one I need to look at).[xi] I was taken by a decently creative use of ‘Dickensian’ by David Lammy: in an attempt to get some of his fellow MPs to see that gangs and gang violence are not inevitably a ‘black issue’. Adopting the language they love is a smart move.[xii] White people can be rough too – Dickens show us. Bravo.
An interesting (in the sense of mask-off nasty compound-sneering) usage is seen in remarks responding to a ‘Dickensian’ gambit: a Tory MP, infuriated at the suggestion that something his government have done (the entirely modern mess of Universal Credit) is ‘Dickensian’ has a go at a Labour MP by mocking the sentimentality of A Christmas Carol.[xiii] Unwittingly ‘Dickensian’ (in the sense of a touch of the Pecksniffs) himself.
The ‘literary name-drop-pile-up’ is seen a few times: thus, for example we may be treated to ‘Orwellian’ meeting ‘Dickensian’.[xiv] There is a ‘Dickensian’/’Trollopian’ mash-up.[xv] I confess to a sneaking appreciation of one MP who really goes for it with the literary references, giving us not only ‘Dickensian’, but also ‘Kafka-esque’ and Catch-22.[xvi] If you are going to ‘culture-drop’, go big, and show that you realise it’s all a bit showy-off and public school debate-ish. Alternatively, of course, just speak straightforwardly and truthfully. I know, that’s never going to happen.
(Tension mounts – future episodes may include: which literary male is most frequently ‘dropped’, what use is made of ‘feudal’, ‘Biblical’ and ‘the size of Wales’? More anon – ooh, a bit Shakespearean there!)
[xiv] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-01-17/debates/B8EEB96C-261A-4773-9F97-77AE7911065C/DWPPoliciesAndLow-IncomeHouseholds?highlight=dickensian#contribution-DB8C9E5A-8355-4DC8-A76F-CD74490ED99F https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-11-07/debates/605BEFA9-1A9E-443E-A746-BBCC40758D18/ExitingTheEUAndWorkers’Rights?highlight=dickensian#contribution-AB0F0674-F531-4B93-A338-D27EA71CFA05