In Neo-Dickensian Britain Politicians Should Heed the Ghost of Marley
There’s a reason Dickens’ Christmas Carol is a perennial festive favourite, says A V Deggar – the Malthusian ideas of Scrooge are still with us
“Marley was dead: to begin with” – the first sentence of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, a defining tale of transformation and redemption in Western literature.
On Christmas Eve, ghostly apparitions confront the miser and misanthrope, Ebenezer Scrooge, with the mistakes of his past, the misdeeds of his present, and his own mortality. So shocked is he by the ramifications of his conduct, that on Christmas Day morning, he emerges into the world a changed character, reformed by his journey through actions and consequences.
A seam that runs thick in A Christmas Carol and many of Dickens’s works is the socioeconomic inequality of the time – something Dickens himself experienced when his father was sent to debtor’s prison and he was forced to work ten-hour days in a shoe polish factory, at the age of just 12.
Dickens was born in 1812, a century after Thomas Newcomen “first drove a piston through the agency of steam and created the world’s first steam engine.” It was also the year that Parliament passed The Destruction of Stocking Frames, etc. Act 1812, a law making the destruction of mechanised looms punishable by death.
The Industrial Revolution would reweave British society at a speed and in a manner that would make its faults more visible – poverty would migrate from fields to factories, mines to mills. Villages would empty as towns and cities began to fill and brim over, connected by soot-covered steam trains.
Dickens’s London, a main protagonist in many of his works, had doubled in size from 1760 to 1815. Topping 1.4m inhabitants, it had become the most populous city in the world. By the time of his death in 1870, it would have doubled again. Like cities all over the UK, 18th-century infrastructure buckled under 19th-century population demand. Districts became slums. Demand for lodging became so expensive that many were forced into itinerant indigence, drifting from place to place with no fixed abode.
Labour rights were largely non-existent. Children toiled alongside their parents from the age of 10 and younger – in the 1851 census of England and Wales, a third of boys and a fifth of girls between the ages of 10–14 were part of the workforce. Healthcare was for the rich, and even then, pre-germ theory medicine was inadequate. Disease was common – average life expectancy hovered around 40 years of age. Four major cholera outbreaks would hit the capital in Dickens’s lifetime, killing tens of thousands. In the year A Christmas Carol went to press, only two-thirds of men in England, and half the women, were literate.
When we read or hear about “Dickensian conditions” it is these stark realities that come to the fore, with the well-to-do Scrooges of the world living cheek-by-jowl with the impoverished Cratchits. Nearly two centuries later, A Christmas Carol has sinister echoes in our present day.
Health, Housing, Hierarchy
The recent, shocking death of toddler, Awaab Ishak, from a respiratory condition caused by the unsafe state of his home, made national headline news in the UK. Even the coroner in the case asked the question: “How in the UK in 2020 does a two-year-old child die as a result of exposure to mould?”
In South East London, residents of a tower block on Regina Road began complaining about leaking in their flats in 2019. By 2021, the state of disrepair was so hazardous that it led Polly Neate, the CEO of the UK’s biggest housing charity, Shelter, to declare: “There isn’t really any possible way that those properties are fit for human habitation.”
According to the latest English Housing Survey, 3.4m occupied dwellings, or 14% of homes, did not meet the Decent Homes Standard – which includes “a reasonable degree of thermal comfort”, “a reasonable state of repair”, and have “reasonably modern facilities and services.”
“Dickensian diseases” have gained a foothold in 21st century Britain, including whooping cough and scarlet fever, while poliovirus was detected in London sewage, causing the UK Health Security Agency to declare a national incident. An outbreak of 70 cases of diphtheria at the overcrowded Manston migrant processing centre in Kent “had put asylum seekers and potentially hotel workers at avoidable and preventable risk.”
This is all happening at a time when the rich are getting richer, and the life chances of the poor are plummeting.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 14.5m people – a fifth of the UK population – are living in poverty, including almost one in three children. The New Economics Foundation estimates that 30.6m Britons will be unable to afford the cost of essentials by 2024, and the National Literacy Trust states that some 8.5m adults in the UK have functional literacy problems, while the likelihood of school buildings collapsing, has been raised to “critical – very likely.”
All of this exists in a country where the number of billionaires has increased by 20% since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, British private schools benefit from tax exemptions to the tune of £3bn per annum, and life expectancy between wealthy and deprived areas differs by as much as 27 years.
Today, as in Dickens’s time, the root of this punishing disparity, is choice.
Austerity, Malthus and Redemption
Before his encounter with the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited at his counting house by two benefactors, who ask if he would like to give a donation for the destitute at Christmas. The penny pincher responds: “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.” Scrooge argues that prisons and workhouses are the only institutions he supports for dealing with the poor, and that those who would rather die than go there “had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
In these statements, we see the malign influence of Thomas Malthus, the English economist who posited that overpopulation would lead to mass starvation and that the poor would always breed themselves into further poverty. “Positive checks” that increase the death rate – such as famine, plague and war – and “negative checks” that decrease the birth rate, such as abstinence and celibacy, were necessary to prevent catastrophic societal collapse.
The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, which Dickens opposed, was influenced by Malthusian thought. It sought to limit taxpayer contributions for the relief of the needy, forcing the poor into workhouses to remedy their circumstance through hard graft. Even at the time, these establishments were considered by some to be “prisons for the poor.”
We feel reverberations of Malthus and the patrician attitude to working people in the policy and rhetoric of the 21st-century Conservative Party. In Britannia Unchained’s statement that Britons “prefer a lie-in to hard work”, telling people struggling in a cost-of-living crisis to cope “by taking on more hours or moving to a better-paid job”, opposing free school meals and voting against making homes fit for human habitation, Scrooge is there.
In the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the British prime minister told people on national television that: “more families, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time” or said to aids behind closed doors “no more f*cking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands”, Malthus’s positive checks lurked behind the words.
“The Ghost of an Idea”
In the preface to A Christmas Carol, Dickens writes: “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea” – the idea that even a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” like Ebenezer Scrooge, can be brought to salvation.
During his visitation, the tormented, shackled apparition of Scrooge’s former partner bemoans “life’s opportunity misused”, to which Scrooge entreats “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.”
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
At a time when souls are strained, children and their parents go hungry, workers are underpaid, undervalued and undeniably maligned, modern life increasingly feels like the return to a bleak and bygone era. As “fiscal tightening” promises to further enmire a country buried in a dozen years of austerity, and rip the fabric of society from fraying seams, the political class must learn from the painful lament of Jacob Marley, or face all their Christmases Yet To Come.