novelist was still a teenager when he started work as a reporter on The
Mirror of Parliament, but over the course of five years he covered some of
the most turbulent events in Westminster's history.
parliamentary accounts were hugely popular at the time, with reports of
what was said appearing on the front pages of newspapers or sold
separately at a profit.
Dr Philip Salmon, of
The History of Parliament Trust, says: "We estimate that about two
million people were reading parliamentary debates on a regular basis
making it one of the mass entertainments of the time."
reporters did not use bylines, it is likely Dickens would have covered
some of the century's most dramatic political developments.
While he was working
in Westminster the Great Reform Act of 1832 was passed, abolishing rotten
boroughs and giving major cities MPs. There were changes to the Poor Law,
establishing workhouses, so important in his later fictional works.
Dickens was still
working in Parliament in 1834 when much of the building burned down.
appeared to have thought little of MPs and Parliament.
OR BEAR GARDEN
The Guardian's Andrew
Sparrow says: "He found politicians pompous. He thought they made
promises which they weren't keeping. He wasn't impressed with the
rhetoric. He obviously found it boring."
His disdain for the
institution he often likened to a circus or bear garden could be seen
later in life when Dickens turned down invitations to stand for Parliament
According to Prof
John Drew, author of Dickens the Journalist, he considered several
requests from constituencies.
in his career as a popular social novelist, "he realised he could
wield a much more direct, if not more glamorous kind of power, by using
his position as a leading writer of fiction and a magazine editor".
Dickens had used
family connections to get the job on The Mirror of Parliament, a
publication started by his uncle and a rival to Hansard, which stands as
today's parliamentary archive. After a few years he moved to the leading
newspaper The Morning Chronicle, where he started creative writing.
It would have been a
hard existence, often working through the night and without the space
given to modern political reporters.
In a speech to the
Newspaper Press Fund many years later, he said: "I have worn my knees
by writing on them on the old back row of the old gallery of the House of
Commons; and I have worn my feet by standing to write in a preposterous
pen in the old House of Lords, where we used to be huddled together like
so many sheep."
Dickens left after
about five years, but in a programme to mark the bicentenary of his birth,
Dickens in Parliament, Dickensian scholars and parliamentary historians
say how those years were hugely important to his future works.
Prof Drew says that
the unique perspective of a parliamentary reporter, literally looking down
on and sitting on the outside of debates, shaped his style of writing for
years to come.
"I don't think
other writers of the period who didn't have that particular angle could
get the same tone, that sort of arch tone, partly facetious, partly
knowing, partly on the inside but still on the margins.
"Those five or
six years were absolutely crucial, they were formative," says Prof
Election at Eatanswill
covered by Dickens the reporter may have influenced events in his
novels, such as the dramatic scenes at the fictional Eatanswill
election from the Pickwick papers.
But it is the
eponymous hero of David Copperfield who, as a parliamentary
reporter, may best sum up Dickens' experience in Westminster.
after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions
that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to
mystify," says Copperfield.
sufficiently behind the scenes to know the worth of political life. I am
quite an Infidel about it - and shall never be