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The Pickwick Papers | Context


Social Class and the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution began in the late 18th century, but its effects continued to grow and impact England decades later. New technologies, such as coal and steam power, and new methods of doing business, such as mass production in factories, changed the world. Workers began to congregate in urban centers where new jobs were centered. Manufacturing was largely unregulated, which led to dangerous working conditions, the mistreatment of workers, child labor, and other social issues. Many goods were mass produced for the first time, and a new wealthy class of factory owners began to grow. There was a new potential for upward mobility—no longer was inherited wealth the only way to grow rich—but that wealth was often gained by exploiting workers.

England had always been a society with very clear class distinctions, but that was starting to change. In England there were the nobles and titled individuals (upper-upper class), wealthy non-noble people (upper class), financially stable people (middle class), working people (lower-middle class), and the poor (lower-lower class). Prior to the Industrial Revolution, it was extremely difficult to move between classes. As factories grew, it became possible for middle or lower-middle class people to earn enough money to move up in society. This social mobility sometimes set up confusing situations because it was hard to determine to what class someone belonged.

In general people would be judged based on how they spoke, their level of education, their clothes and possessions, and their house (if they had one). But in post-Industrial Revolution England a factory owner might be a very wealthy man with fancy clothes and a beautiful home who still spoke in a "lower-class" accent and had limited education. Mr. Pickwick and his friends are taken in by Alfred Jingle, for example, because Jingle speaks in an "upper-class" manner and loads his conversation with references that an upper-class person would use.

Charles Dickens himself was a middle-class person, but he had great sympathy for a certain percentage of the lower-class people. Dickens clearly divides poor people into "good" and "bad" ones. The "good" ones deserved help and may be poor because of bad luck or mistreatment by people in power; the "bad" ones were out for what they could get, ready to steal or be violent if it served their purpose. In The Pickwick Papers, the "good" poor far outnumber the bad, but at least some of Dickens's characters are aware that the "bad" are out there.

Dickens had personal experience with the mistreatment of workers and with the desire of lower class people to obtain middle class status. While The Pickwick Papers does not explore the sufferings of workers as explicitly as some of Dickens's other works, it is nevertheless a product of this era and its class distinctions. Dickens saw his novels as a way to encourage social change, and he was more successful than many of his contemporaries at calling attention to the suffering of the poor and industrial workers.

Debtors' Prison

In the 19th century people who could not pay their bills were thrown into debtors' prison. The debtor would be incarcerated until the bill was paid off. Often entire families went to jail together.

By some estimates, more than half the people imprisoned in Victorian England had been arrested for debt. In some cases debtors were put into separate prisons; in other cases they were put into the regular prison system.

The debtors' prison system was corrupt and unfair. Some reports describe people being thrown in jail for debts they did not incur. A wealthier or more powerful person could declare that someone owed them money and have them thrown in jail for the debt, even without documents or proof. However, people in debtors' prison had to pay for their own food and care, and ways to earn money were limited. This often meant that people would languish in debtors' prison for years, unable to pay the debt.

Debtors' prisons were run as the private province of the jailers. Many jailers took bribes and arranged services for people with the money to pay, as Mr. Pickwick experiences in the novel. A wealthier person in debtors' prison might arrange for a private room and high quality meals, but most prisoners did not have the money for that. They lived in large rooms with many other prisoners crammed together. Sanitation was limited; rats, fleas, and other pests were common. Disease spread. With limited food or fresh air and poor sanitation, many prisoners died of disease.

When Charles Dickens was 12, his father was thrown into debtors' prison. The whole family suffered and young Charles had to leave school and work in a boot-blacking factory to help pay the bills. When Dickens's father inherited enough money to pay off the debt, the family was freed, but the experience left a powerful impression on Dickens and gave him insight into the sufferings of poor people in England. The Pickwick Papers delves into that experience when Mr. Pickwick himself is thrown into debtors' prison. While Mr. Pickwick is rich enough not to suffer too greatly, he sees great pain and sorrow. Mr. Pickwick is luckier than most in the prison, just as Dickens's family was lucky to escape after only a few months although Dickens's father struggled with money management for the rest of his life.

Dickens's Experience with the Law

After his father was released from debtors' prison, young Dickens returned to school briefly before taking a job in a law firm. Dickens contemplated being a lawyer; it is not clear whether he gave up that idea because he didn't have the money to pursue a legal education or because he got so disgusted by the legal profession. Dickens used his legal knowledge to become a reporter for the Court of Chancery, eventually building a career as a journalist covering legal cases and Parliament.

If Dickens had any ideals about the British legal system, his time in the Court of Chancery would have been enough to change them. In Great Britain at that time, there were two types of courts: Common Law and Chancery. This division has some similarities to the modern American court system of criminal and civil cases. Common Law courts handled criminal acts, while Chancery dealt with inheritance or property issues. In theory Chancery court decisions could set a precedent that would affect other cases, so its cases were of greatest significance. In reality Chancery was complex, expensive, and time-consuming. Dickens himself ended up in Chancery a few years after the publication of The Pickwick Papers. He started the case to protect the copyright of his works and he won, but he spent more in court costs than he got in damages. In The Pickwick Papers, he introduces a minor character who is known as "the Chancery prisoner"; he would later use Chancery as a much more important component of his novel Bleak House.

Even today a complex legal matter can take years to resolve. That was equally true in Dickens's time. The overall level of education in the Victorian era meant that legal issues could be even more confusing to the general public. After all, there were far more people who could not read or write effectively: imagine how confused they must have been to receive a subpoena or to handle other legal paperwork, such as wills.

Dickens had personal experience with lawyers and clerks who may have been as unenthusiastic or downright unethical as the characters in his novels. Many Dickens novels include lawyers, and they are rarely positive or admirable characters: Perker, the lawyer in The Pickwick Papers, is one of the better ones, and even he has his limitations.

He developed a strong skepticism about lawyers, politicians, and anyone in a position of power who talked about reform. As Dickens knew well, reforms were slow in coming and people were suffering while the powerful chatted and indulged themselves. The Pickwick Papers was Dickens's first attempt to call attention to the hypocrisy of people in power.

Publication of The Pickwick Papers

The Pickwick Papers was originally envisioned as a series of sketches about a gentleman's sporting club by well-known artist Robert Seymour; the virtually unknown Dickens was hired to write loose stories to tie the sketches together. Two things prevented The Pickwick Papers from becoming just another serialized story of its day.

First, Robert Seymour committed suicide before finishing his sketches for the second installment of The Pickwick Papers. As a result, the publishers decided to focus more on the story, hiring a different artist to produce a smaller number of sketches for each issue. Even then, The Pickwick Papers did not really catch the public's attention until a second development turned The Pickwick Papers into a huge success. During the fourth installment of the story, Dickens introduced Sam Weller, who became Mr. Pickwick's servant and a central character of the story. Sales soared. At its peak, The Pickwick Papers was selling 40,000 copies per month; it sold more than 1.6 million copies in Dickens's lifetime, making it his most popular book during his lifetime.

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