The English social novels of the 1840s-50s were concerned with analysing the relations between the haves and have-nots. Generally, the conclusions suggested in novels like North and South (1854-55) was that there was misunderstanding between these sectors, and if they both listened to each other, they would get along and work productively together. In North and South, the protagonist Margaret Hale befriends a household of poor factory workers, the Higginses, and at times mediates between them and mill-owner John Thornton.
Margaret is welcomed into the Higgins household. But the course of trans-class friendship does not always run smooth. The charitable instincts of a middle-class lady are not necessarily met with gratitude from the working class. There is a compelling scene quite early in Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-53) wherein a group of would-be philanthropists enter a brickmaker’s house. The house and its environs are a scene of dismal poverty. Characteristic of Bleak House, the initial description of the setting emphasizes dirt, grime and an overall sense of decay and stagnation:
[I]t was one of a cluster of wretched hovels in a brick-field, with pigsties close to the broken windows and miserable little gardens before the doors growing nothing but stagnant pools. Here and there an old tub was put to catch the droppings of rain-water from a roof, or they were banked up with mud into a little pond like a large dirt-pie. At the doors and windows some men and women lounged or prowled about, and took little notice of us except to laugh to one another or to say something as we passed about gentlefolks minding their own business and not troubling their heads and muddying their shoes with coming to look after other people’s. (Bleak House, Ch. VIII)
Dickens’ narrator here is Esther Summerson, and she implicitly raises one of the key themes of the book when she notes the “gentlefolk” passing by “minding their own business”. Like Gaskell, Dickens is concerned with the lack of interaction between classes, and the middle-class disinterest in the problems of the working class. But Dickens’ passage here goes on to show the difficulty in initiating an inter-class exchange. In this passage, it is not Esther who initiates the exchange, but Mrs Pardiggle, a philanthropist whose efforts are characterised by “rapacious benevolence” according to Dickens/Esther. As far as the characters with whom she interacts are concerned, Mrs Pardiggle is both tireless and tiresome:
“Well, my friends,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, but her voice had not a friendly sound, I thought; it was much too business-like and systematic. “How do you do, all of you? I am here again. I told you, you couldn’t tire me, you know. I am fond of hard work, and am true to my word.”
“There an’t,” growled the man on the floor, whose head rested on his hand as he stared at us, “any more on you to come in, is there?”
“No, my friend,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, seating herself on one stool and knocking down another. “We are all here.”
“Because I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?” said the man, with his pipe between his lips as he looked round upon us.
The young man and the girl both laughed. Two friends of the young man, whom we had attracted to the doorway and who stood there with their hands in their pockets, echoed the laugh noisily.
Esther maintains a critical attitude towards Mrs Pardiggle, characterizing her as “too business-like and systematic”. It is clear that her charitable efforts are not approved of by Dickens, and he also satirizes organized charity through the characterization of Mrs Jellyby elsewhere in the book. In a manner that is somewhat typical for Dickens, the energy from the scene doesn’t really come from any of the main players. It comes, instead, from the brickmaker himself, who only appears in this scene and plays no part in the plot of the novel. He doesn’t even have a name. His role in this scene is to frustrate Mrs Pardiggle’s attempts at charity, and to express the anger and hostility that Esther also feels, but is too respectable to say. The brickmaker’s first sally is the sarcastic observation that “I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?”. Then he is given the opportunity to launch into a powerful speech.
“You can’t tire me, good people,” said Mrs. Pardiggle to these latter. “I enjoy hard work, and the harder you make mine, the better I like it.”
“Then make it easy for her!” growled the man upon the floor. “I wants it done, and over. I wants a end of these liberties took with my place. I wants an end of being drawed like a badger. Now you’re a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom—I know what you’re a-going to be up to. Well! You haven’t got no occasion to be up to it. I’ll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she IS a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That’s wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin instead! An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty—it’s nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat’rally onwholesome; and we’ve had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book fit for a babby, and I’m not a babby. If you was to leave me a doll, I shouldn’t nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I’ve been drunk for three days; and I’da been drunk four if I’da had the money. Don’t I never mean for to go to church? No, I don’t never mean for to go to church. I shouldn’t be expected there, if I did; the beadle’s too gen-teel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn’t, she’s a lie!”
As well as powerful, this speech from the brickmaker is a rather complicated one. It indicts Mrs Pardiggle’s arrogance and insensitivity. It also refers with brutal frankness to the infant mortality rate. It characterizes the brickmaker as a violent tyrant in his domestic setting, as well as a drunk. Dickens is well known for sentimentality, and rightly so, but here there is no sentimentality, just a vision of degradation, and an unjudgemental portrait of an individual who is both a victim and a bully. All of Dickens’ condemnation seems to be directed against intrusive philanthropists. The brickmaker’s frank assumption of all the worst traits of the “undeserving poor” gives him a momentary heroism, a breaking through of all social conventions that is riveting to read. Say what you like about the brickmaker, he has no cant – an important point for such 19th-century commentators as Dickens and Carlyle, and certainly not something that one could say for Mrs Pardiggle.
The brickmaker’s black-eyed wife is also nursing a baby. As the scene goes on, there is more Dickensian drama:
Ada, whose gentle heart was moved by [the baby’s] appearance, bent down to touch its little face. As she did so, I saw what happened and drew her back. The child died.
“Oh, Esther!” cried Ada, sinking on her knees beside it. “Look here! Oh, Esther, my love, the little thing! The suffering, quiet, pretty little thing! I am so sorry for it. I am so sorry for the mother. I never saw a sight so pitiful as this before! Oh, baby, baby!”
Presently I took the light burden from her lap, did what I could to make the baby’s rest the prettier and gentler, laid it on a shelf, and covered it with my own handkerchief. We tried to comfort the mother, and we whispered to her what Our Saviour said of children. She answered nothing, but sat weeping—weeping very much.
When I turned, I found that the young man had taken out the dog and was standing at the door looking in upon us with dry eyes, but quiet. The girl was quiet too and sat in a corner looking on the ground. The man had risen. He still smoked his pipe with an air of defiance, but he was silent.
We felt it better to withdraw and leave them uninterrupted. We stole out quietly and without notice from any one except the man. He was leaning against the wall near the door, and finding that there was scarcely room for us to pass, went out before us. He seemed to want to hide that he did this on our account, but we perceived that he did, and thanked him. He made no answer.
This is the last we see of the brickmaker, stepping quietly aside to let Esther and Ada pass outside. We presume he returned to his errant ways, but that simple final gesture of respect and decorum is subtly powerful, in the circumstances. It is Dickens at his most unsentimental and dignified. Sometimes, in Bleak House and elsewhere, he lays it on with a trowel, but there are moments where he transcends.
George Orwell famously said of Dickens: “He is all fragments, all details — rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles.” The Brickmaker is a gargoyle: he doesn’t need to be there. He doesn’t return later to tie up any loose ends in the plot. But he does provide one of the most compelling, if narratively inessential, characterizations in the novel. In that, he is classic Dickens.