Charles Dickens: What Is Sensational? Essay on Victorian poverty

The Right Honourable Mr Gathorne Hardy, the President of the Poor Law Board, has a grievance. The newspapers have, he says, written “sensationally” upon workhouse mismanagement, and an interest “wholly disproportionate to the circumstances” has been roused in the public mind. Further, lest any public writer should misunderstand his meaning, he is kind enough to particularise the cases to which sensation writing has been applied.
These were the condition of the Strand Union workhouse, and the deaths of the paupers Daly and Gibson. It is a noble and instructive sight to look down upon from our snug perch in the House of Commons while this genial remark is made. Opposition and government benches both full; legislators smugly quiet, attentive, and approving; while our orator, who is tediously fluent, well dressed, and self-complacent, pours forth his shameless aspersions against those who have borne disinterested testimony to the truth. Paid by the public to protect the Poor, the official representative of a costly system under which paupers starve and die can find nothing more germane to the subject of poor law reform than abuse of those who have performed the real work of his department, and but for whom, it and its salaried servants, parasites, and admirers would have continued with folded hands and brazen front to murmur, “All is well.” During the celebrated Chelsea inquiry into Crimean mismanagement, a true humorist and draughtsman, now no more, gave us a sketch of “The witness who ought to have been examined”, in the shape of the skeleton of one of the hundreds of horses dead of starvation.

But that the heartless perversity which can sneer at human suffering as sensational would not be convinced though one rose from the dead, we might well wish that the two murdered paupers, Daly and Gibson, could be brought from their graves to bear testimony against their accuser and his accomplices. Mr Hardy proclaims himself an accessory after the fact by his audacious attack on witnesses not to be suborned, and he is himself criminal in his miserable palliation of crime. “Wholly disproportionate to the circumstances,” smiles this Christian statesman, with a propitiatory wave of the hand; while well clad, well fed, clean, comfortable, prosperous legislators smile back assent, and no man says them nay.
Yet professional philanthropists, platform orators, great religious lights, men well known at Exeter Hall, and without whose names no charitable subscription-list is complete, can be seen from our point of observation here, placidly beating time to Mr Hardy’s verbose cadences, and murmuring to each other afterwards that his performance has been very creditable indeed.

The tu quoque line of argument is to be deprecated, but the daring of the arch-mediocrity below us suggests the question, what would a sensation[al] poor law president be like ? Suppose a man to succeed to office when public opinion has insisted upon reform; suppose a prime minister to herald him with a bombastic flourish as “the fittest man in the Queen’s dominions” for his onerous charge; suppose the man himself to assure the House of Commons that all previous abuses have been due to the mismanagement and indifference of his predecessor; suppose the same man to purchase the cheap cheers of his fellow- legislators by braggart promises of efficient control and personal sacrifice; and suppose him to conveniently ignore his own statements, and, while filching the labours of others, to throw stones at them from the convenient shelter of parliamentary place — would this be sensational?

Suppose the nation to be so outraged by the abuses and cruelties tacitly sanctioned by one notorious department and its officers, that some show of justice and humanity to paupers is found necessary to prolong the life of an unpopular ministry — is the use of charity and decency as political counters, sensational? Suppose a servant of the State to be bold as a lion in his pledges to the public, and as meek as a sucking dove in his performances with guardians; suppose him to be outwardly rigid and privately compromising — is this sensational? Suppose he, or an officer under his direction, to preface public investigations by private interviews with the people accused, wherein friendly hints are given how damaging evidence may be suppressed; suppose him to have other investigations conducted with closed doors, and to cause others again to be so craftily managed that the evidence is published and the verdict resolutely kept back — is this sensational? Suppose a pinchbeck popularity to be earned by the adoption of other men’s ideas and a wholesale renunciation of one’s own — is this sensational? Suppose underhand relations are endeavoured to be established between a public body and its critics, and sops to be proffered to Cerberus so deftly that a stern front and frowning brow is successfully maintained even while coaxings, fondlings, and tit-bits are being offered — is this sensational? To ally oneself with pitiful intriguers; to purchase hirelings who, having played fetch and carry to one set of masters, are ready to transfer their venal and shameful services to the highest bidder with a cheerful unscrupulousness that such light o’ loves only know — is this sensational? Is it sensational to pander, palter, truckle, and deceive; to hush up cruelty and brutality to the helpless, frauds on the ratepayers, and dishonesty to the poor? Is it sensational to bid for political support by throwing the judicial mantle over parochial misdeeds? Is it sensational to make active sympathy with suffering a matter for punishment; and selfish indifference the key to favour and reward? Is it sensational to blow hot and cold, to reprove bluffly, and cringe servilely; to degrade a Christian’s duty into a charlatan’s trick; to abet the oppressor, and use the giant’s strength against the oppressed? Which was sensational, the dynasty converting “the negation of God into a system of government” or the statesman who called down the indignation of Europe on its atrocities ? Let Mr Hardy give us benighted public writers information on such points as these.

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