Charles Dickens Post Mortem & Bare Life under the New Poor Law
Keywords:workhouse, mortality, human dismemberment, predation, mythopoeic biography
The theme of this article is how life writing can bury things, sometimes for generations, and how secrets buried in life can re-emerge after death, and disturb. Lives often make best sense read backwards, so here we start with revelations that emerged only after Charles Dickens’s death: in his will, and in John Forster’s famous biography and its use of the important document known as the ‘autobiographical fragment’ written by Dickens himself in the late 1840s. Forster covered gaps in the biography by guiding attention away from certain aspects of Dickens’s life, in particular his family’s geographical origins. Forster’s decisions concerning what secrets could be shared have worked to influence generations of biographers. Recent discoveries have brought fresh light to Dickens’s life after both Dickens and Forster had been dead for over a century. Attention is given to why some of these discoveries had not been made sooner, their implications and reverberations, and a fuller understanding is shared of Dickens’s fierce antipathy to the cruelties of the workhouse regime under the UK New Poor Law.
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