It is well known that 2012 is the year of the London Olympics. What is less well-known, at least at present, is that 2012 is also the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens.
Born on the 7th February 1812, Dickens was at heart a social reformer, and many of his books reflect his first-hand experiences of the struggles of the working class population and the effect of poverty on their lives. His own life was fairly short by our 21st century expectations, as he died of a stroke at the age of 58 years.
One of Dickens’s books, Barnaby Rudge, was an historical novel using the clash between the English Protestants and Catholics as its theme. The differences between the two religious movements came to a head in 1780, when there was widespread anger against the Papists Act of 1778. The Act allowed a softening of attitude towards Roman Catholics in England, and essentially reformed the Popery Act of 1698. Such was the unhappiness of the dissenters that riots ensued on the streets of London where, according to a writer of that time (Joseph Nightingale), destruction and looting became the worst that 18th century London experienced. The riots became known as the Gordon Riots; named after the leader (Lord George Gordon) of the Protestant Association, formed to overturn the new legislation. Such was the violence in the capital that the constabulary were unable to contain the mobs and the army was called in. It is recorded that the riots greatly damaged the reputation of Britain in Europe and posed questions in respect to the stability of British democracy as a form of government. Of course, many readers will no doubt by now have started to draw parallels between Barnaby Rudge, the Gordon Riots and the recent violent uprisings in London and other English cities. Once again, the international reputation of Britain has been damaged, and the validity of our system of government called into question by more authoritarian states.
Whatever the precise triggers in 1780 or today, it is clear that a significant percentage of the population is unhappy with their lot in life. Happiness is of course a very subjective feeling, meaning different things to different people. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘happy’ as ‘feeling or showing pleasure or contentment’. Being unhappy is not necessarily the same as being depressed, which has far more medical connotations. It is said that G. K. Chesterton knew what being happy was all about. A recent article by Bernard Manzo (Times Literary Supplement, 10 June 2011) discussed the life of this writer and journalist, who is probably most famous for his Father Brown detective stories. Chesterton apparently claimed that throughout his life he had ‘been indefensibly happy’; a claim which gives rise to at least two questions around what it was that made him so happy, and whether being in a permanent state of happiness is wrong. It is difficult to believe that Chesterton would ever have felt the need to join a riot on the streets of London. Manzo thinks he has the answer, attributing Chesterton’s happiness to his Christian beliefs, and more precisely, the sense of hope his belief brought to him.
In the diagnostic phase which will follow these present day riots, our politicians might do well to consider the lessons to be learned from the writings of Charles Dickens and G. K. Chesterton and the insights they give to the workings of society and the need for the human mind to be given at least a sense of hope. A state of hopelessness often leads to despair and depression. If social reform is to work, a sense of hope is possibly what is most needed as the foundation of that reform.
(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday 18th August 2011.)