Charles Dickens showed great concern for the despicable conditions of London slums and campaigned for their improvement. His hatred of slums and the governmental practices that allowed them to exist is especially apparent around the time he began conceiving and writing Bleak House (published in installments from March 1852 through September 1853). In the new preface to Martin Chuzzlewit of November 1849, he upholds literature's utility in social activism: "In all my writings, I hope I have taken every available opportunity to showing the want of sanitary improvements in the neglected dwellings of the poor" (qtd. in Butt, p. 11). He published several articles on the subject, such as "Health by Act of Parliament, "A Home Question," and "Commission and Omission," in 1850 editions of Household Words. Again in 1850, he made a speech to The Metropolitan Sanitary Association condemning slum landlords and local politicians and, in 1852, he advised philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts on the model flats she was financing for London's Columbia Square (Blount 341). In Bleak House, the theme of sanitation, or the lack thereof, surfaces prominently in Dickens's treatment of the brick-maker's house and Tom-all-Alone's. Dickens actually used "Tom-All-Alone's" as a working title for Bleak House, further demonstrating slums' importance for the novel.
Though they might easily choose to ignore it, the general public would not have been totally ignorant of urban poverty around the time Dickens published Bleak House. For example, fifty-four people living in the slums wrote a horrifyingly descriptive letter to The Times which the paper then published on July 5, 1849 under the headline "A Sanitary Remonstrance":
THE EDITUR OF THE TIMES PAPER
Sur, — May we beg and beseech your proteckshion and power. We are Sur, as it may be, livin in a Wilderniss, so far as the rest of London knows anything of us, or as the rich and great people care about. We live in muck and filth. We aint got no priviz, no dust bins, no drains, no water-splies, and no drain or suer in the hole place. The Suer Company, in Greek St., Soho Square, all great, rich and powerfool men, take no notice watsomdever of our complaints. The Stenche of a Gully-hole is disgustin. We all of us suffer, and numbers are ill, and if the Colera comes Lord help us.
Some gentlemans comed yesterday, and we thought they was comishioners from the Suer Company, but they was complaining of the noosance and stenche our lanes and corts was to them in New Oxforde Strect. They was much surprized to see the seller in No. 12, Carrier St., in our lane, where a child was dyin from fever, and would not believe that Sixty persons sleep in it every night. This here seller you couldent swing a cat in, and the rent is five shillings a week; but theare are greate many sich deare sellars. Sur, we hope you will let us have our complaints put into your hinfluenshall paper, and make these landlords of our houses and these comishioners (the friends we spose of the landlords) make our houses decent for Christions to live in. Preaye Sir com and see us, for we are living like piggs, and it aint faire we shoulde be so ill treted.
We are your respeckfull servents in Church Lane, Carrier St., and the other corts. Teusday, Juley 3, 1849. [qtd. in Blount, pp. 342-3]
The signatures of all fifty-four slum-dwellers then follow the text of the letter. The letter's humanity — how it captures a sense of the real people living in horrendous conditions — effectively presages Dickens's treatment of the poor in Bleak House. He always leads the reader to consider the potential wholesomeness of people surrounded by debasement, while he points to the despicable apathy of those in power who allow the debasement to continue unchecked. Dickens condenses his criticism of courts, officials and urban squalor in Tom-all-Alone's since the never-ending litigations of a chancery case cause its condition as a polluted slum.
Though Dickens summons a feeling of humanity as the letter does, he refrains from describing the full actuality of slum-dwelling in Bleak House. The contents of the letter are truly horrifying, a characteristic which Dickens's prose has to avoid. His call for social awareness and action depends on maintaining a connection with a readership unaccustomed to extreme poverty. The reader cannot be repelled from the text into further defensive indifference. As Blount points out, "Dickens tries his equivocal best to rouse indignant disgust without actually being disgusting" (344). Dickens's prose addresses terrible conditions more directly than Phiz's illustrations, likely because scenes of visual horror are especially repellant and unacceptable.
Tom-all-alone's by Phiz.
Dickens occasionally brings the offensiveness of the slums from reality into his writing: the brickmaker's cottage consists of a "damp, offensive room," when Lady Dedlock visits Nemo's grave there are "deadly stains contaminating her dress" and there are "some dungeon lights burning, as the lamp of life hums in Tom-all-Alone's, heavily, heavily, in the nauseous air, and winking . . . at many horrible things." In the illustrations that correspond to Dickens's descriptions, Phiz summons an atmosphere of dark confinement and dampness, but his illustrations "The Visit to the Brickmaker's," "Tom All Alone's" and "Consecrated Ground" only allude to the true horror of the slums. Dickens and Phiz never directly shows the open sewers, grossly overcrowded rooms and diseased bodies as described in the letter so that their readership can feel emotionally akin to the people living in slums, even if they cannot materially.
Blount, Trevor. "Dickens's Slum Satire in Bleak House." The Modern Language Review 60.3 (1965): 340-51.
Butt, John. "Bleak House in the Context of 1851." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 10.1 (1955): 1-21.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Bradbury & Evans. Bouverie Street, 1853.
Last modified 28 November 2007