By Cicero Bruce|February 6th, 2020
Dickens and the Social Order, by Myron Magnet (266 pages, ISI Books, 2004)
Critics have well acquainted us with Dickens the sentimentalist—lover of the oppressed, defender of childhood innocence, decrier of England’s industrial sweatshops. But seldom have they given readers a glimpse of the Dickens with whom Myron Magnet deals in his study of Britain’s preeminent fictionist, the Dickens who had an “almost fanatical devotion to the Metropolitan Police,” who reproved his government’s failure to punish sufficiently the hardened violators of its laws, supported Governor Eyre’s notoriously violent quelling of the 1864 Negro uprising in Jamaica, and called the proverbial noble savage and annoying “superstition” that “ought to be civilized off the face of the earth.” In short, critics have said far too little about the philosophical traditionalist reconsidered in Dickens and the Social Order.
Yes, Dickens was a reformer, a radical one at that, but his reforming spirit, as Dr. Magnet carefully reveals, was checked by the intrinsic conservatism by no means shared by his present-day enthusiasts, who, for the sake of validating generally liberal aims and assumptions, prefer to focus on the sanguine aspects of his achievement. True, Dickens may have been qualitatively liberal, at least by the standards of nineteenth-century English liberalism. But he was neither a liberal per se nor a conservative liberal of any sort. He was, to make an important semantic distinction, a liberal conservative.