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The Sunday Screw

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Communication; Telegraph; Postal Service
Great Britain—Politics and Government
Great Britain—Social Life and Customs
National Characteristics; Nationalism
Popular Culture; Amusements
Religion; Religion and Culture
Social classes; Class distinctions; Aristocracy (Social Class); Aristocracy (Social Class)—Fiction; Middle Class; Working Class; Servants;
Work; Work and Family; Occupations; Professions; Wages
Other Details
Printed : 22/6/1850
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume I
Magazine : No. 13
Office Book Notes
Views : 3041

From the time of his 1836 Sunday Under Three Heads (Vol. 1 of [The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism], pp. 475–99), Dickens took a strongly anti-Sabbatarian stance. [...] The following article was provoked by the success of Lord Ashley's motion in the House of Common on 30 May (carried by a majority of ninety-three votes to sixty-eight), asking for an Address to the Crown to end all Sunday collections and deliveries of letters throughout the country; the measure was due to come into effect on 23 June. The Postmaster-General, Rowland Hill, had been trying to accommodate Sabbatarian criticisms of Sunday working, but his plans had been misunderstood and also deliberately misrepresented; this resulted in increased pressure from the powerful and energetic Sabbatarian lobby for the total abolition of all Sunday postal services and the success of Ashley's motion (for a full discussion of all this, see Norris Pope, Dickens and Charity [1978], p. 63f.).

The Times, as Dickens's allusion to it makes clear, was also very anti-Sabbatarian and declared (31 May 1850) that the success of the motion showed how 'the general interests of the public are subordinated to the fanatical persuasions of a minority'.
      Ashley's speech is fully reported in The Times (31 May 1850, p. 4, col 1–4). He declared that 'No other object had ever excited a deeper attention, or had created a more intense sentiment in the public mind.' The detail about the committee formed by Liverpool merchants quoted by Dickens comes from Ashley's speech and the 'perilous bombast' to which Dickens refers is a lengthy quotation made by Ashley from a working man's prize essay entitled 'Heaven's Antidote to the Curse of Labour'. The writer asserted that to allow workers only the minimum amount of rest and recreation that was physically necessary was to 'embrute' them, 'yea, to degrade beings original fashioned in the image of God into mere animate machines to be used in the production of wealth, luxury and patrician indulgences in which they are never suffered to participate'. After comparing the labourer to Sisyphus condemned to endless toil, the writer goes on: 'But cheer thee, child of travail! The blessed Sabbath is thine own! It is the excellent gift of thy Maker...the heirloom of thy family â€“ see that it be not alienated from thy possession!' The 'Sage' whom Dickens mocks for considering Sunday police necessary but not Sunday postmen was the Conservative MP for East Kent, John Pemberton Plumptre, and the MP for Birmingham who was 'tired of reading and writing letters on Sunday' was the Radical George Frederick Muntz, a merchant and manufacturer who argued, for social reasons, that Parliament should defend Sunday as a day of rest, otherwise 'Masters would soon force their workmen to labour on Sunday, as some masters now compelled their men to work longer than they ought to do on week days'. 
      For the reference to Egyptian sorcery in paragraph 3, see George Eliot's Adam Bede (1859), Ch. 1, and compare Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1868), Ch. 3. Dickens refers again to this practice in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Ch. 3. During his early career in Parliament, before he was created the first Baron Brougham (1830), Henry Brougham was a great champion of liberal causes and a notable law reformer. By calling his generic Sabbatarian MP 'the member for Whitened Sepulchres', Dickens is attributing hypocrisy to him as Jesus did to the scribes and Pharisees when he compared them (Matthew 23:27) to "white sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness'. The 'notable public example' of a violent reaction resulting from 'too tight a hand' in governing a nation alludes to the execution of Charles I in 1649. 
      Dickens's most famous novelistic onslaught on Sabbatarianism appears in Little Dorrit, Book 1, Ch. 3 (1857). 

Literary allusions

  • 'and all uncharitableness...': The Litany ('...malice and uncharitableness'), The Book of Common Prayer
  • 'The Sabbath was made for man...': Mark 2:27; 
  • 'upstairs, downstairs...': the nursery rhyme 'Goosey goosey gander';
  • 'Tom Thumb made his giants first...': from Henry Fielding's burlesque satire The Tragedy of Tragedies, or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great (1731), Act I, Sc. 5, in which Tom's envious rival Grizzle says to the Queen, 'I tell you, madam, it was all a trick, / He made the giants first, and then he killed them.'

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume II: 'The Amusements of the People' and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews, 1834-51 (1996). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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