Restless Shadow: Dickens the Campaigner
Tuesday 9th May to Sunday 5th November 2017
I want to suppose a certain SHADOW, which may go into any place, by sunlight, moonlight, starlight, firelight, candlelight, and be in all homes, and all nooks and corners, and be supposed to be cognisant of everything, and go everywhere. (Dickens in a letter to his friend John Forster, 1849)
Charles Dickens was a novelist who addressed social ills in his fiction. He was also a journalist and activist who boldly and imaginatively campaigned to improve the lives of the most desperate and overlooked in Victorian society.
The exhibition Restless Shadow explores a largely unknown and under-rated body of Dickens’s work that speaks plainly to social justice with energy and relevance—both then and now. It reveals his keen interest in ‘street level’ problems along with other Victorian reformers such as Florence Nightingale and Angela Burdett-Coutts. It shows the practical, hands-on solutions which flowed from his campaigns.
Dickens was especially powerful in pioneering new forms of investigative reporting and satirical exposé. As a young journalist and shorthand-writer with the pen-name ‘Boz’, he honed a peerless style of urban description, combining humour, pathos and a heightened kind of graphic realism. In his artistic maturity as a journalist, editor and speech-maker, Dickens drew the attention of a huge and diverse international readership to an astonishingly broad range of campaigns.
Restless Shadow focuses in particular on Dickens’s campaigning on homelessness; workhouses for the poor; schools and schooling; conditions in the armed forces and for veterans; and prisons and punishment, including his fervent opposition to the death penalty. It also shows how Dickens’s investigative reporting informed his fiction, for example, in Fagin’s sentencing and Bill Sikes’s accidental hanging in Oliver Twist.
At the heart of this exhibition is the monthly journal, All The Year Round, which Dickens founded in 1859. It represents the pinnacle of his ability to turn magazine articles into activism and activism into literary art.
As editor, Dickens published others’ contributions to All The Year Round anonymously. For more than a century, researchers were unable to prove their authorship. Then, in 2014, Dr Jeremy Parrott discovered a unique set of volumes annotated with contributors’ names. This is the first time that Dr Parrott’s discovery has been on display to the public. It reveals the identities of the men and women whom Dickens gave a platform to write on the most vital and controversial issues of the day.
The exhibition also includes Dickens’s editorial chair, and his walking stick from the 1860s. He used the stick to walk huge distances exploring London’s streets by day and night. It’s a powerful symbol of his desire to go into every corner of society, to bring himself face-to-face with suffering, and expose what others couldn’t see.
Dickens's Charities Today
Several of the charities with which Dickens worked are still thriving today, including the Hospital for Sick Children (now Great Ormond Street Hospital), the Foundling Hospital (now Coram), Field Lane School and the Artists’ Benevolent Fund.
Another charity he supported, the Warehousemen & Clerks’ School, is now the Fashion & Textile Children's Trust. It is a partner with the Museum on the exhibition, along with pioneering homeless charity and magazine The Big Issue.
Restless Shadow is co-curated by John Drew, Professor of English Literature at the University of Buckingham and director of the international research project Dickens Journals Online.
We are very grateful to Dr Jeremy Parrott for the generous loan of one of his unique volumes of All The Year Round.