June 12. The most famous literary description of lockdown is to be found at the beginning of chapter 3 of Dickens’ Little Dorrit. Arthur Clennam, a middle-aged businessman, has returned to London from Marseilles to close down his late father’s estate. He is gazing out of the window of a coffee shop, summoning the courage to visit his old family home:
“It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale. Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick and mortar echoes hideous. Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look out of windows, in dire despondency. In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round. Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people. No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world – all taboo with that enlightened strictness, that the ugly South Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again. Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up. Nothing for the spent toiler to do but to compare the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it – or the worst, according to the probabilities.” Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857; Penguin 1967), pp. 67-8.
It should be noted that this was the perspective of a particular section of British society. That symbol of a more secular sabbath, the Sunday newspaper, had recently been invented – Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper in 1842, the News of the World in 1843, Reynolds’ News in 1850. At the time that Dickens was writing, Henry Mayhew, whose surveys of food and flowers we have cited in earlier Friday diaries, was walking the London streets collecting material on the vivid, noisy world of the costermongers, which continued the week round.
Nonetheless it was a vivid account of the experience of the evangelical middle class of the time. As with the current lockdown, it was an essentially man-made event. In this case it replicated the response to a pandemic without the medical justification. And whilst the full observance of a day of church services and Bible reading was confined to a religious sect, their influence on the political process was such that they were able to impose their restrictions on the rest of society. What most annoyed Dickens was their success in closing the widening range of improving entertainments which had opened in the capital and elsewhere during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Working a six-day week for the most part, Sunday was the only time that the bulk of the London workforce could take their families to visit attractions which were both entertaining and instructive. They both deserved and would benefit morally from the opening of the British Museum and other venues.
In normal times, museums and galleries are now open on Sundays as are a host of more profane entertainments. But we continue to experience the Sabbatarian legacy, with larger shops closed before 10 and after 4 in order that we might attend a church service. As we begin to explore a return to a post-pandemic world, Sunday opening has become one of the many issues that were described in yesterday’s diary, where Government proposals are provoking argument rather than consent. In order to boost the retail sector which has been so badly hit, a Minister has suggested that the Sunday trading laws be suspended for a year. The British Chambers of Commerce is in favour of the change, but Labour argues that it would favour supermarkets over the smaller shopkeepers, as does the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores. USDAW, the shopworkers’ trade union, protests that “the last thing the retail industry needs is longer trading hours, there is no economic case for this and it will put extra pressure on the retail workers who have worked so hard throughout this crisis.” Then there associated disputes about whether any relaxation of social contact should be allowed, and if so, what distance should be kept between people.
We need a Dickens fully to describe the times we are living through. And we need a basis for agreeing change, without setting interest against interest, class against class.