Two hundred years ago this year, Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth on 7 February. As a result, we are about to be drowned in Dickensiana. So I thought I’d get in early by looking at one common element in many of Dickens’ novels, his use of Australia as a plot device.
After a grim beginning working in a factory sticking on labels, Dickens started work as a reporter at the age of 16 in 1828. He taught himself shorthand, giving him an edge in reporting parliamentary debates and court cases – all grist for the mill in his later novels. His first book, Sketches by Boz, came out in 1836 – and he was on his way.
Like most Englishmen of his time, Dickens began with only a rudimentary knowledge of Australia, but when did that ever stop a novelist? For most people, Australia was best known as the place where convicts were sent – and in his early novels he transports his baddies there: John Edmunds from Pickwick Papers (1836-7), Mr Squeers from Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9), and Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (1849-50) – who probably avoided transportation, since the last transport ship to Van Diemen’s Land sailed in 1851.
Fagin goes to the gallows in Oliver Twist (1837), but he is modelled on a real life character, Ikey Solomon, who ended his life in Van Diemen’s Land. Solomon’s real story is far more fascinating than that of Fagin, the cardboard cut-out Jew. The novelist Bryce Courtenay tells it in The Potato Factory (1995).
By the time Dickens wrote Great Expectations (1861), he created a convict, Abel Magwitch, who is a much more complex character than his early efforts. Peter Carey has re-written the story as literary fiction in Jack Maggs (1997).
At first Dickens only saw Australia as a place of transportation, but by the 1840s, free emigration to the Australian colonies was becoming important. This sparked Dickens’ interest. He supported a number of emigration schemes, including the Family Colonization Loan Society, started by Caroline Chisholm.
In David Copperfield (1849-50), Dickens sends an absolute torrent of redundant characters – the Micawbers, Mr Peggotty and Little Em’ly, Mrs Gummidge – to New South Wales at the end of the book, and just to round things off nicely, he then has Mr. Peggotty return, 10 years later, to tell David just how successful they have all been. Mr Micawber has become a magistrate! Mrs Gummidge received an offer of marriage!! Martha has married a farm labourer, and they now live happily on their own land, 400 miles from the nearest settlement.
And Em’ly? Well, the great thing about migration was that the past could be forgotten, and even a fallen woman could re-establish herself. As Mr. Peggotty said as they left: ‘No one can’t reproach my darling in Australia.’
In 1851, gold was discovered in Australia, reinforcing the message of David Copperfield that emigration was a Good Thing. Two of Dickens’ own sons, Alfred and Edward, migrated to Australia during the 1860s, perhaps influenced by their father’s optimism. Both had their ups and downs – but at least they got away from their workaholic father and could put their parents’ scandalous marriage breakdown behind them.
But what was the impact in Australia of Dickens’ emigration myth making? Little Em’ly’s redemption made a good story – but it must have made things very much worse for many women who migrated to Australia during the following years. Colonists were always wary of single women who travelled alone, outside the family group. At best they were husband hunters; at worst, they must have something to hide. Mr. Peggotty was wrong; colonists were more than eager to reproach young women who might have a tarnished history.
As was often the case, Dickens tried to have it both ways. He supported the Family Colonization Society, and encouraged both Caroline Chisholm and Angela Burdett-Coutts, another advocate of female emigration. But he also mercilessly lampooned Chisholm as Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House (1852-3), the philanthropist forever in pursuit of good causes, but without any time to care for her own family. A bit like Charles Dickens himself, really.