Charles Dickens on Homelessness

In essay XIII of The Uncommercial Traveller, Charles Dickens writes of the prevalence of homelessness, as it was found in the London of 1860. The essays that formed the book were drawn from essays written for his weekly periodical All the Year Round, which had a circulation as high as 300,000. London at the time was the largest city in the world, with a population of 2½ millions.

Charles Dickens: The Uncommercial Traveller

Charles Dickens: The Uncommercial Traveller

The essay, based upon the construct of Dickens’s temporary insomnia having led him to “Night Walks,” is, writes biographer Peter Ackroyd, one of the strangest and most extraordinary of contemporary writing of its type. Dickens uses the term ‘houselessness,’ and in the essay, he presents a series of those so afflicted: those soaked by the nightly rains; the murdered; the suicides of the Thames; the debtors and condemned at Newgate Prison; those huddled in the reek of the breweries and grain storage at waterside; those standing near the warmth of dray horses; those infected with untreated disease; the insane in Bethlehem Hospital; those caught beside the darkness of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the Courts of Law; those readying to lie in cemeteries; those turned away from the churches; the drunkards; children who compete with the dogs in the  market gardens; and, those so wretched and miserable that their rags fall from their body.

Of the insane, he writes of what is regarded as the preposterousness of their waking dreams, and wonders if the dreams of the sane are any the less so. Is not “Sleep the death of each day’s life …, Dreams the insanity of each day’s sanity”?

Of the children, he comments that “painful and unnatural result comes of the comparison one is forced to institute between the growth of corruption as displayed in the so much improved and cared for fruits of the earth, and the growth of corruption as displayed in these all uncared for (except inasmuch as ever-hunted) savages.”

Paul Martin: Street 'urchins,' London, UK, 1893 (Courtesy: www.phaidon.com)

Paul Martin: Street ‘urchins,’ London, UK, 1893 (Courtesy: http://www.phaidon.com)

This situation is unchanged in our own world. And Dickens was clear in his own mind that the change would be unlikely; for “it was a solemn consideration what enormous hosts of dead belong to one old great city, and how, if they were raised while the living slept, there would not be the space of a pin’s point in all the streets and ways for the living to come out into. Not only that, but the vast armies of dead would overflow the hills and valleys beyond the city, and would stretch away all around it, God knows how far.”

As it is the actuality that every individual’s houselessness wanders a very great distance, the street one frequents becomes “its own solitary way;” for, though during this wandering, company is to be encountered “like most of the company to be had in this world, it lasted only a very short time.”

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