Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London by Andrea Warren

Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London by Andrea Warren

Author:Andrea Warren
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Dickens’ hero, Nicholas Nickleby, is an intelligent and compassionate young man who is horrified by the ill treatment of students at the Yorkshire school where he is hired to teach.

Dickens took careful note of everything he saw—the buildings, the boys, the barren landscape of the countryside—all of which later appeared in his novel. In a nearby church graveyard he counted the graves of thirty-four schoolboys, ages ten to nineteen, buried there in the last twenty years. Seeing their headstones inspired one of his most famous characters: the boy Smike, who dies in Nicholas Nickleby as the result of illness brought on by his mistreatment at Dickens’ fictional school.

Home from his journey, Dickens set to work. Once again he employed romance, comedy, pathos, and melodrama, along with a colorful cast of characters that included devilish villains, brave heroes, and virtuous heroines—all the things Victorian readers loved. He called his boarding school Dotheboys Hall. Its students—thin, pale, and fearful young boys—suffered the evils present in actual Yorkshire schools: squalid living conditions, vermin, illness, disease, beatings, and starvation.

Dickens wrote in the book’s introduction that the Yorkshire headmasters were “the lowest and most rotten . . . traders in the avarice, indifference, or imbecility of parents, and the helplessness of children; ignorant, sordid, brutal men, to whom few considerate persons would have entrusted the board and lodging of a horse or dog.” He created one of the most villainous of all headmasters in sadistic Wackford Squeers, an apelike man with one eye, whose trousers were too short, his sleeves too long, and with hair that stood on end. He had “a very sinister appearance, especially when he smiled, at which times his expression bordered closely on the villainous.” Through threats, beatings, and starvation, Squeers kept the boys in his charge so terrified of him that they dared not complain.

When the novel was published in serial form in 1838 and 1839, it created a sensation. Several headmasters, including William Shaw, threatened Dickens with legal action, certain they were the model for Squeers. Nothing came of their threats, for Dickens had become too powerful a public figure to sue.


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