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Schwan, Anne



Sally Ledger

Holly Furneaux


Reflecting on society's treatment of convicts in 1891, Oscar Wilde declared that ‘one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted; and a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment, than it is by the occurrence of crime’. Long before Wilde's condemnation of Victorian penal practice, and his own subsequent imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’ only four years later, crime and the punishment or reformation of offenders preoccupied many Victorians from different backgrounds and professions. Charles Dickens was no exception. As Philip Collins has shown in detail, crime was a matter of great concern to Dickens. Dickens's traumatic childhood experience of seeing his own father incarcerated for debt in the Marshalsea prison, when Charles was only 12 years old, is certainly one of the reasons behind this strong interest. The Marshalsea itself later became the setting for Little Dorrit, and imprisonment for debt also occurs in Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield.

The administration of criminal law underwent significant changes during the writer's lifetime, witnessing several prison acts, alterations in prison regimes and the introduction of the Metropolitan Police in the 1830s, followed by a special detective force in 1842 – the latter immortalised in Dickens's portrayal of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Dickens was a keen observer of and commentator on these changes and was involved in campaigns, such as the movement to abolish capital punishment and later, more restrictedly, public executions (a goal achieved in 1868).

Publication Date 2011
Deposit Date Aug 22, 2011
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Pages 301-309
Book Title Charles Dickens in Context
Chapter Number 37
ISBN 9780511975493
Keywords Crime; Victorian Britain; Charles Dickens;
Public URL