Dickens and the Indians

Amongst novelists, in my personal pantheon, there is Tolstoy and there is Dickens; and then, all the others.

And yet, Dickens is in many ways a difficult writer for me to come to terms with. Dickensians, understandably, speak of his humanity, of his generosity of spirit;  and yet, this humane author advocated mass-slaughter of the Indian people. In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, Dickens – not once, but several times – made his feelings quite explicit, writing in a letter at one point that were he Commander-in-Chief in India, he “would do [his] utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of late cruelties rested … with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution, to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth…” Biographer Peter Ackroyd comments laconically that it is not often that a great novelist advocates genocide.

One can, of course, make excuses for Dickens. We can now look back on the Indian Mutiny and see in both sides the most barbaric cruelty and also the most admirable heroism (this is George Macdonald Fraser’s perspective in the excellent Flashman and the Great Game); but in the immediate aftermath of the Mutiny, Indians were widely depicted in Britain as an irredeemably savage and violent people, devoid of any saving grace. One might have expected Dickens to have seen through this, but he didn’t. And, for someone like myself, who reveres Dickens the Novelist virtually to the point of idolatry, this is hard to take, and impossible to square with the generosity and decency that are all too apparent in his novels. Well, I suppose the only Dickens I have to deal with is Dickens the Novelist: Dickens the Man is, of course, long gone. And I suppose also that an artist puts the best of himself in his art. My knowledge of Dickens’ outbursts against Indians – his desire to exterminate my forefathers – is not going to affect my love of and admiration for Bleak House, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend. But it continues to trouble me, nonetheless.

In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens gives the following lines to a Jewish character, Mr Riah:

For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, ‘This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.’ Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough – among what peoples are the bad not easily found? – but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say All Jews are alike.

Is it really possible that the man who could pen such lines never thought to himself that there are bad Indians, but that there are also good Indians? It is very strange.

4 responses to this post.

  1. I remember reading Ackroyd’s biography in college; didn’t Dickens come in on the side of the “conservatives” in the Eyre controversy of the 1860s? It’s weird to think of his righteous concern for American slaves in “Martin Chuzzlewit” and then to face his mockery of Mrs. Jellyby’s similar (if exaggerated) concerns in “Bleak House” barely a decade later. Mind you, the former was concern on behalf of the oppressed in America, so I guess that weighed less than the plight of the oppressed in areas either under British control or about to come under it (the Caribbean, West Africa, and India).

    I need to reread “Flashman and the Great Game.” I was dreading what G-Mac would have made of the Mutiny, but it was a surprisingly nuanced take, especially with Flashman’s unexpected travails towards the climax. “Flashman at the Charge” is probably my favorite.

    Thanks again for this blog! It’s great to know there’s one place on the Internet on which one can always depend for erudite and considered opinions on things that seem to be increasingly forgotten.


  2. Cheers for the kind comments!

    Dickens did, indeed, side with Eyre. Those opposed to Eyre were people like John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, and T. H. Huxley: sadly, Dickens was not in this company.

    I think I can take the satire on the do-gooders in “Bleak House”. These are people for whom charity is no more than self-aggrandisement: it is certainly not something borne of compassion – indeed, when they do encounter misery at first hand, they appear blind to it. And it is made quite clear that, lacking asthey do any understanding of Africa, their charitable work does no good at all to the people it is intended to help. Such people as Mrs Jellyby I can recognise, even today. I generally have no problem with opinions expressed in the novels: it’s the things he said outside the novels that bother me. I can’t square Dickens the Man with Dickens the Novelist. Dickens the Novelist I love, but Dickens the Man … well, I am glad I don’t have to deal with him.

    As far as I can remember, there is one Indian character in Dickens’ novels: in “Dombey and Son”, there’s a Major Bagshot who has brought back to Britain an Indian servant, whom he mistreats. This servant is only an incidental character, but Dickens’ sympathies are very much on his side.

    I haven’t yet read all of Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, but the ones I have read are superb. I was thinking of doing a blog post on Flashman. Macdonald Fraser is, I think, conservative in his outlook, but in his treatment of history – allowing for the fact that we are seeing it all from the perspective of a completely amoral character – he does seem to me scrupulously fair. I get teh impression that he admires courage and heroism, but, since we live in an age that appears not to value these qualities, he could not present these qualities directly. So he presents them from the perspective of someone who is not merely not heroic himself, but who lacks the ability to admire or even to recognise heroism when he encounters it. Only a reader as lacking in moral compass as Flashman himself could fail to see beyond Flashman’s perspective.


  3. Posted by alan on October 17, 2010 at 11:24 am

    I have a similar problem with Yukio Mishima’s stuff, but the difference is that I don’t idolise anyone. Perhaps you are right to say that these writers put the best of themselves into their work.
    On the other hand, perhaps your difficulty with seeing the text apart from the man is that it might lead you into relativism and away from a fixed and knowable authorial intention ?


    • I find it hard *not* to idolise Dickens the writer: his literary achievements seem to me to be on so high a level, that I am filled with wonder and awe. And quite clearly, the Dickens who wrote “Little Dorrit” or “Our Mutual Friend” was quite clearly *not* the small-minded murderous bigot who made those extraordinary comments. I don’t think I have any difficulty at all in distinguishing the man from the work. However, human beings are extrardinarily complex and self-contradictory creatures: that the man who could advocate genocide could also write “Bleak House” and “Great Expectations” indicates just how complex we, as human beings, really are.


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