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Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian poor

Dickens and dissection

Engraving depicting Sam Weller and Mr Pickwick reviewing books in a study, set within a gothic nicheFrontispiece from The posthumous papers of the Pickwick ClubEchoes of burking and the anatomy debates can be discerned in many of Dickens's writings, especially so in his early works.

We have already seen that burking is mentioned in Pickwick Papers, and elsewhere in that work, Mr Pickwick is made to feel increasingly uncomfortable by the trainee doctor Bob Sawyer and his medical student friend, who discuss with bravado - over breakfast - dissecting a child's leg, an arm, a human head and human brains. The young men seem to have been trying to make Mr Pickwick abandon the room so they could devour double portions of food, but Mr Pickwick manages to silence them with an appeal to Victorian gallantry when a young lady arrives.

Wood engraving depicting the inner yard of the prison with various groups of figuresThe Fleet Prison yardAmong the interpolated tales which punctuate the novel is one that confronts directly the agonising bereavements of the poor, the desire to be buried near loved ones, and the hope (or fantasy) of churchyard rest. In chapter 21, a man consigned to the Marshalsea debtors' prison by the refusal of help from his own father-in-law witnesses the death of his son, and then of his wife, and vows implacable revenge against the man who could have saved them. The story feels like the tap-root of the story Dickens developed later into The Old Curiosity Shop.

'It was necessary that his wife's body should be removed from the prison without delay.' As the coffin is borne out of the prison precinct, the other prisoners fall silent or lament. The husband touches the coffin as it is carried past, and falls to the ground.

Dickens specifically says, as if addressing parliamentarians:

'They little know, who coldly talk of the poor man's bereavements, as a happy release from pain for the departed, and a merciful relief from expense to the survivor - they little know, I say, what the agony of those bereavements is.'

'Relief from expense' here is clearly relief from funeral costs, borne under the Anatomy Act by the dissectors, for whom bodies had to be removed 'without delay'. The remainder of Dickens's story charts the enactment of this husband's terrible retribution.

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