News Ticker

Charles Dickens: novelist, journalist and mediator

Essays in Magazine Media, No 3, December 2012
Andrew Calcutt

Compared to Joseph Addison, writer/editor/publisher of The Spectator, Charles Dickens (1812-70) was twice the mediator; he undertook twice as much mediating activity as Addison. Not only in the sense that Dickens was a novelist as well as, like Addison, a journalist, editor and publisher; but, more importantly, with regard to the additional role which journalism was called upon to perform in Dickens’ day.

Following Addison’s example, journalists had previously established themselves mid-way between the merchant and the philosopher. Even before Dickens was born, periodicals already furnished a good measure of the common ground between otherwise disparate individuals, i.e. they performed a mediating role. But in the nineteenth century journalism was also required to address a range of contradictions inherent in the shockingly new mode of capital accumulation via commodity production. Journalism, in other words, was drafted in to cope with the consequences of industrial capitalism.

Dickens’ lifetime spanned the period in which British industry grew at an unprecedented rate. As the industrial machine doubled and redoubled its speed, so journalism was obliged to work twice as hard.

Throughout its various incarnations, for and on behalf of its readers journalism has always put the world (or a portion of it) onto the page (or, latterly, screen). Information reaches readers via journalists and the periodicals they produce; conversely, via journalism readers reach out to those parts of the world of which they have no immediate experience. Hence journalism is a form of mediation, inserted between the individual and the surrounding society. It puts readers in the picture by (a) downloading parts of the world which would otherwise remain inaccessible to them; and (b) uploading readers into the life world which they are only now able to access (via periodical journalism). In this sense, journalism as mediating activity both pre-dates and post-dates Charles Dickens. It is as true of journalists today as it was of Joseph Addison three hundred years ago.

Addison was writing and publishing in the mercantilist era. At this time, as the expansion of trade required different parties to arrive at the true value of commodities, so these same individuals were expected to observe commonly agreed standards of behaviour – standards which journalism helped to identify. Both economy and society were equally oriented towards consistency and coherence; hence classical music and classical architecture. Similarly, journalism composed in the classical style of Addison and Steele comprised much of the common ground – the mediating space – which this society required.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, however, the mercantilist era was over; and classical culture was undergoing a transformation. Music, architecture and journalism composed and constructed in the expectation of consistency and coherence, was giving way to a new style, which came to be known as ‘the Romantic’. In the process of acquiring its own distinctive character, the new, industrial era required a different form of representation.

Instead of consistency, what could be more inconsistent than the onset of the general mode of commodity production? Instead of the promise of coherence, to be fulfilled over time by the actions of rational individuals, i.e. the expectations of Addison et al in the Age of Enlightenment, the industrial world presented itself as a mass of contradictions – the contrast between rich and poor; the conflict between classes; the paradox of social production
(more people working together to make many more things) and private appropriation (the things they make being seized by a small minority of self-appointed owners); the contradiction between the measure of free will afforded to the individual and the restrictions on free will pouring forth from the realm of necessity, i.e. having to go to work to perform mindless tasks to put bread on the table to feed the family, etc, etc. Whereas Addison and Steele could
envisage the people of their world gradually coming together, deepening social division was the paramount experience of Dickens’ generation.

Into this maelstrom came journalism. Seen from another angle, Dickens took journalism into this maelstrom and used it to address particular manifestations of the contradictions inherent in the newly emerging society of industrial production. By addressing these contradictions, Dickens mediated them. That is, he created something which does not belong to either side of the contradiction, but resides in between its polarities. In doing this, for his mainly middle class readers Dickens created a new territory between opposing elements in capitalist contradiction. Moreover, this was middle ground forged in the face of contradiction – not only the middle ground which Addison and Steele had drawn out as a map of coherence and consistency. Thus Dickens’ work constituted a
revised form of mediation, now extended to address the contradictory nature of industrial capitalism.

That Dickens became the most famous man of his times, more recognisable in the UK and USA than anyone else except Queen Victoria, shows the level of demand for mediation – now in an expanded form, capable of taking account of the contradictions arising from industrialisation.

The first page of the first issue of Household Words: a weekly journal conducted by Charles Dickens (Dickens 1850) shows that Dickens was dealing with contradiction. The first column is a litany in praise of the English cathedral as the centrepiece of English cities. It is picturesque in the extreme – more myth than reality. But in the second column Dickens describes the flaws and failings of the Church of England and its less-than-perfect clergymen. Towards the end of the story, at the bottom of the page, Dickens calls upon the reader to recognise the Church’s imperfections, but to act in accordance with its virtues; to ‘do honour to the good …. (which is much) and …. do what in me lies for the speedier amendment of the bad.’

In this article Dickens has diverted his readers from their immediate surroundings and put them into a picture which is, to begin with, one-sidedly picturesque. But then he gives us the other side, so that the two columns of this first page constitute a version of the contemporary contradiction, in miniature. He ends with a small-scale resolution of this miniature contradiction: the individual reader resolving to address what is wrong and ‘do what in
me lies’ for its ‘speedier amendment’. As a whole, the article offers diversion, contradiction, and resolution, so that when Dickens’ readers put down their copy of Household Words and revert to their immediate surroundings, they are re-entering the world with the sense that it is manageable; perhaps no less manageable than their own middle-class households. Dickens’ words, written to be read inside the household,  have nonetheless managed to mediate the contradictions in the world outside.

For journalism to perform the expanded, mediating role required of it (with the capacity to address contradiction as well as suggest commonality), it would have to be re-formulated. Again, Dickens is the exemplar of how journalism was re-written to take account of society’s new configuration:

Everybody had seen the lame old man upstairs asleep, but he had unaccountably disappeared. What he had been doing with himself was a mystery, but when the inquiry was at its height, he came shuffling and tumbling in with his palsied head hanging on his breast – an emaciated drunkard, once a compositor, dying of starvation and decay.

(Dickens 1852)

The writing is taut, terse and compressed – no room here for Addison’s lengthy ruminations. Try reading Dickens aloud and you will hear how his prose has picked up speed along with the pace of social change. It echoes the accelerated dynamic of industrialisation, without being a straightforward imitation of the relentless, thoughtless industrial process. On the contrary, by consciously composing his stories – whether as novelist or journalist – Dickens also constructed a shared space, part-real/part-imaginary, in which the uncontrolled energy of industrialisation could be brought to order. Engaging with unforeseen reality, in the act of writing about it he suggested that human beings could get the measure of it, after all. In place of unmediated contradiction, Dickens provided his readers with the means of mediating it.

Bibliography

Dickens, C (1850), ‘The Doom of English Wills’, Household Words, September 28th 1850

Dickens, C (1852), ‘A Sleep to Startle Us’, Household Words, 13th March 1852

Print Friendly