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Exploring Dickens on Race

Charles Dickens was a staunch defender of the working classes and has often been celebrated as a champion of the oppressed and the downtrodden. Yet his thinking on race and racial difference was rather more problematic. While he was strongly opposed to slavery, for example, he also appeared to advocate genocide in the non-fiction piece ‘The Noble Savage’ and actually advocated it in response to the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

From his celebration of the exotic to the demonisation of a savage ‘other’, Dickens’ shifting and conflicting perspectives on race are revealed in a forthcoming book by Dr Laura Peters, who is Principle Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton. Titled Dickens and Race, the book is the product of a nine-month research fellowship funded by the AHRC. It is being published in 2012 to coincide with the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth.

The book explores areas including Dickens’ ongoing passion for adventure stories, such as the Arabian Nights and Robinson Crusoe, and their impact on his thinking about race; his response to ‘The Poetry of Science’; his response to the Indian mutiny of 1857; and his writing in the 1860s, the period immediately following the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

A specialist in nineteenth-century literature, Dr Peters traces the inspiration for researching Dickens and race back to her first book, Orphan Texts: Victorian Orphans, Culture and Empire, an exploration of the orphan figure in Victorian literature. ‘The orphan figure was outside the family structure, which was the main organising principle of Victorian society,’ she recalls. ‘I looked at how that figure could not only embody social anxieties, but also anxieties about difference and the presence of racial difference.’

The legacies of empire and neo-colonialism are still very powerful concepts today, and are a source of much contention, says Dr Peters, who advocates ‘a more systematic understanding of the history of ideas about race, and how they contributed to this category of scientific racism and led to some of the things that happened in the early twentieth century, from which we are still trying to recover.’

The very concept of race is unstable, she adds. ‘It is difficult to get a consensus of what race actually is – race for a while meant culture, and that meant civilisation – and it is useful to understand the moments when people have tried to solidify that and to give it certain characteristics.’

Charles Dickens is one of the most widely-read and studied authors of the Victorian era, but his views on race have been less well-understood than some aspects of his writing. ‘There were some blind spots and certain issues that people didn’t really used to talk about,’ says Dr Peters. ‘That is all changing now and we are seeing all kinds of perspectives on Dickens.’

It really is vital that we explore the more problematic aspects of his work, she adds, in order to build a fuller picture of the thinking behind his writing. ‘In society today, we can go back and evaluate writers and their writing, and things that some people may find difficult or problematic can still be explored very probingly,’ she says.

The aim is not to remove such writers from the curriculum. Rather, it is simply the case that ‘we need to see all sides. Charles Dickens is multi-faceted, like any other writer. He has strengths and weaknesses, and there are things that we don’t like. But, if you want to celebrate and appreciate a writer, you need to engage with the problematic aspects of what they do.’

Those problematic aspects include the views expressed in ‘The Noble Savage’, and the difficulty of reconciling them with the image of Charles Dickens as ‘social reformer, champion of the poor and of children, against every injustice,’ says Dr Peters. ‘People naturally assume that is how he feels about everything and everyone, which isn’t quite the case.’

Dickens published ‘The Noble Savage’ in Household Words, a weekly periodical he himself edited, in 1853. It depicts the Indians that appeared in a show by painter George Catlin as ‘howling, whistling, clucking, stamping, jumping, tearing savage[s]’ which, he said, ought to be ‘civilised off the face of the earth’.

There is a tendency to explain this piece of writing away by simply viewing it as an aberration. ‘People tend to either avoid it, or to think of it as a hiccup. It is a really difficult piece to deal with,’ says Dr Peters. She became interested in determining the extent to which ‘it wasn’t actually a hiccup, but was part of his thinking on race.’

Dr Peters’ research addresses the development of scientific racism – the use of scientific theories, facts and methods as supposed justification for racial prejudice – as a way of partly understanding why Dickens would produce pieces such as ‘The Noble Savage’.

Dickens was intensely interested in science and scientific thinking, and the more he engaged with science, says Dr Peters, the more he tried to make sense of racial differences, of the way in which England was changing the rest of the world and how empire was changing England.

She was also keen to examine the ways in which Dickens’ apparently opposing viewpoints – the celebration of the exotic versus the demonisation of the ‘other’ – overlapped. His thinking about race certainly wasn’t linear, but tended to move backwards and forwards, although he did specifically change his mind about the concept of the noble savage, explains Dr Peters.

Dickens visited America in 1842 and met an indigenous chief who interested him greatly, leading him to lament the loss of his way of life and to celebrate him ‘as a character and a person’. This was partly in opposition to the white-American slave-owning population, which he found abhorrent. ‘He was offering other visions of humanity.’

But, by 1853, Dickens had changed his mind. ‘In that essay, he clearly said the concept of the noble savage was an absolute myth and used quite derogatory images of other races as being sub-human and savage.’

Also among the texts examined in Dickens and Race is the short story ‘The Perils of Certain English Prisoners’, which he co-authored with Wilkie Collins. It was published as a direct response to the Indian mutiny of 1857 and is ‘often forgotten’ even among Dickens experts. Dr Peters was particularly interested in the story’s ‘quite startling’ depictions of its main villain, the treacherous ‘native Sambo’ Christian George King.

Dickens and Race focuses on Dickens’ writing, ‘which doesn’t just mean his fiction,’ says Dr Peters, who was also greatly interested in his journalism and how the two influenced each other. ‘People often separate the two and may not even look at his journalism, but there are dialogues between them. Dickens the journalist is more forthright about his views, because in fiction he’s working with other constraints.’

His letters, of which there are 12 volumes (there would have been more had Dickens not destroyed a lot of his personal papers) also provided insight. There were ‘some gems that show he was in conversation with his friends and peers about these ideas,’ says Dr Peters. ‘They are not just things that worked in his fiction and which he used to articulate social attitudes. They actually mattered to him, and he was busy asking people their opinions and passing judgement.’

Feature by Anne Wollenberg

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