Books: The Blair facts about Dickens and politics

Who would get the Great Inimitable's vote in a 1997 General Election? John Sutherland thinks New Labour has it; Dickens's Journalism Volume II, The Amusements of the People and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews 1834-51 edited by Michael Slater, Dent, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
Why should I write for posterity", asked Oscar Wilde, "what has posterity ever done for me?" Quite a lot, Wilde scholars might retort, looking at the library shelves. But of all the Victorians, the writer who has been best served by posterity is Charles Dickens. His literary remains have been curated with the reverence normally reserved for sacred relics, Dickens has been particularly fortunate in attracting a corps of modern British scholars whose brilliance is partnered with the willingness to suppress ego that editorial labour demands. Pre-eminent in this group are Kathleen Tillotson, K. J. Fielding, Philip Collins and Michael Slater, who is now half-way through his four-volume collection of Dickens's journalism.

Had he never penned a word of fiction, Dickens would live for posterity as one of England's greatest journalists. Indeed, we might pay more attention to this facet of his genius were it not obscured by his fame as a novelist. But journalism is the most ephemeral of the literary arts. Even the best newspaper writing loses its force and relevance within weeks. Wisely, Slater has not attempted a complete reprinting - although he offers in his appendices an up-to-date checklist of all Dickens's hitherto identified periodical writing. Since 19th-century journalism was routinely anonymous this, in itself, is a valuable resource for Dickensian scholars. Among its many attractions, this collection is impeccably edited and discreetly but amply annotated.

This second volume covers the period from Dickens's first submissions as a staff reporter on the Morning Chronicle in 1834 to his first editorial essays for his own weekly, Household Words, in 1851. There is also a good selection from Dickens's fiery contributions to the Examiner in the late 1840s, many of which have only recently come to light.

Slater has been careful to include some of the familiar plums - "On Duty with Inspector Field", for instance, which reflects Dickens's fascination with "thief-takers" and lays the ground for the Inspector Bucket sub-plot in Bleak House. But the value of Slater's enterprise is that unlike previous selections it offers a chronological record of the fluidities in Dickens's thinking on current affairs over 17 intellectually formative years. The journalist who emerges in the early 1850s is opinionated, and sometimes pig-headed, but on most matters wonderfully sensible.

This is a book less to consult than to read through consecutively. Anyone who does so will, I think, know Dickens (Dickens 1834-51, that is) much better than before. So much so that one can play the game of wondering who would get the Great Inimitable's vote in the forthcoming 1997 General Election. Is he a Blairite or a Majorite? One can ignore the early pieces for the Morning Chronicle which are, to editorial order, rabidly anti- Tory. In the 1840s, Dickens emerges as something of a swing voter. On law and order, he is undeniably soft on some criminals, but hard on all the causes of crime. The spectacle of judges sending starving single mothers to the gallows for infanticide, or transporting children for theft, regularly rouses him to furies of sarcasm. Why do the decent poor turn to criminal ways? - because they are ignorant and desperate and society has made them so.

There is little on political sleaze in the articles here, although much to come in 1855 when - following the corruption revealed by the Crimean War - Dickens becomes the hammer of the Administrative Reform Association. It's a fair guess that Boz would not be writing pieces in Household Words supporting Neil Hamilton. On social welfare he is radical. The most ferocious pieces in the collection are those attacking the parsimony of workhouses and laissez-faire "baby farms" (childcare centres for the poor) such as that at Tooting in 1848, where 150 children died of cholera. An unexpected piece in March 1851 about the barbarous treatment of cattle in London's Smithfield slaughter-houses suggests that Dickens might have some sympathy for the Animal Rights Movement. The Liberal-Democrats could be in with a chance.

On the other hand, Charles Dickens in the 1840s is definitely anti-Europe - a continent which he sees as both tyrannic and revolutionary and best kept away from. For the same Europhobic reason he despises "the well-meaning men who would disarm England". Michael Portillo's "Don't mess with us" would find an answering echo from Dickens. He dislikes the Catholic Irish and would be staunchly pro-Union. Dickens hates strikes - particularly railway strikes, They are "unpatriotic" and cannot be defended by "any honest man". He would bash the unions as gleefully as any Chingford skinhead. Increasingly, as he approaches middle-age, there is a streak in Dickens which believes that prison works. Not, that is, the Molly-coddling "model prisons" such as that set up at Pentonville in 1842 about which he writes a scathing piece ("Pet Prisoners") in 1850. Dickens believes, with Michael Howard, in the sharp shock - and for hardened criminals the shock should be very short, no longer than a body takes to drop ten feet.

My guess is that Dickens would, after much soul-searching, probably go for Blair - if only because New Labour will be friendlier to the homeless outside his house in Doughty Street. But it's nicely poised.