This is Charles Dickens’s lengthy pen-portrait of a visit to Newgate prison, the ancient and notorious jail on the edge of the City of London that saw continuous use (with much renovation) from 1188 to 1907. Dickens describes the prison as essentially a house of death:
men in full health and vigour, in the flower of youth or the prime of life, with all their faculties and perceptions as acute and perfect as your own; but dying, nevertheless – dying as surely – with the hand of death imprinted upon them as indelibly – as if mortal disease had wasted their frames to shadows, and corruption had already begun!
Dickens writes of a prisoner:
The girl belonged to a class – unhappily but too extensive – the very existence of which, should make men’s hearts bleed. Barely past her childhood, it required but a glance to discover that she was one of those children, born and bred in neglect and vice, who have never known what childhood is … Talk to THEM of parental solicitude, the happy days of childhood, and the merry games of infancy! Tell them of hunger and the streets, beggary and stripes, the gin-shop, the station-house, and the pawnbroker’s, and they will understand you.
Written when Dickens was 24, this piece nevertheless reflects a number of obsessions that he would carry with him into his mature journalism and fiction. Newgate itself featured in four of his later novels (Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Barnaby Rudge and Great Expectations); while in life Dickens made a point of visiting new prisons as they opened, or when he heard that some new style of incarceration or correction was being employed. By the time of his visit to Pentonville Prison in North London in 1850, Dickens was agitating strongly for reform of the whole prison system in England.
The above passage shows Dickens’s characteristic concern for the young and bereft in such institutions, a concern most famously expressed in Oliver Twist (published two years later). Indeed, on its publication, Oliver Twist was described as a ‘Newgate novel’ – a derisive term for a new type of social fiction that seemed to some critics to sensationalise criminal life in London. Dickens argued in response that Oliver Twist was a serious study of London’s dispossessed and in fact an attempt to deglamorise street crime.
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- The novel 1832–1880, Crime and crime fiction
Crime exists as a powerful psychological force throughout Dickens’s Great Expectations. Professor John Mullan examines the complicated criminal web in which the novel’s protagonist, Pip, finds himself caught.
- Article by:
- Judith Flanders
- Crime and crime fiction
Judith Flanders explores how the creation of a unified Metropolitan Police force in 1829 led to the birth of the fictional detective.
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