Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Dickens: A Warning from History

Today's Dickens celebrations, including the news that Jeremy Hunt gave out copies of Dickens' books at today's Cabinet meeting, have got me thinking about the world he portrayed, and how far we have come since then, especially for the poor, sick and vulnerable.

As I've discussed before, there are a number of challenges having a disabled family member, and we have often reminded our children how different things would have been for my daughter if she'd been born in earlier centuries. 

We come from hearty stock, and most of our ancestors appear to have lived to a ripe old age (although one can't be certain how many babies never made it as far as civil registration - long gaps between birthdates indicate there were some stillbirths.) When I went into labour, my daughter's umbilical cord was wrapped round her neck. After 3 full days in labour and still no progression, despite lots of medical intervention and inducement, she was born by emergency C-section. The chances of a successful outcome for baby or mother under these circumstances in Dickens' time would have been pretty low. Thanks to the NHS, we got all the help we needed in a well-equipped hospital. 

Epilepsy. Nasty condition, and can still be fatal, but thanks to modern medicine it can usually be controlled, even to the point of brain surgery in extreme cases. None of this was available in Dickens' time. It is extremely likely, therefore, that my daughter would not have survived the prolonged seizures she had at 6 months old. It was phenobarbital (1902) and carbamazapine (1965) which helped stabilise her condition. 

Similarly, her Sturge Weber Syndrome (first identified 1879) would not have been noticed as a potentially serious health problem. Instead of losing the sight in one eye, she could well have lost both, as there would have been no healthcare to monitor her sight (every 3 months, from birth).

Of course, an early death would have precluded having to address her autism (a condition which was still a hundred years away from being identified when Dickens was writing). For all those people who say "Why have autism rates risen so much recently?" the answer is, in the main, better diagnosis. In the past, such children would have just been classified as 'simple' and, in an age where a child was effectively an economic unit, a burden on a poor family. High infant mortality would have prevented many such children reaching adulthood, as disease and poor conditions took their toll on those least able to fend for themselves.

So, all in all, better to be born in the 20th century. 

The 21st, however, is looking decidedly less rosy, as attitudes towards those who are "different" are becoming more hostile. Dickens wrote of the appalling social conditions and inequality he saw in Victorian Britain as a warning. His writing inspired social change. Maybe Jeremy Hunt's gifts to his colleagues should come with an inscription that reminds them that these are works of social commentary on a society riven with inequality.... 

....and are not an instruction manual.

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