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Perfect Felicity. In a Bird's-Eye View

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Cross-genre i
Prose: Report i
Prose: Short Fiction i
Subjects Crime; Criminals; Punishment; Capital Punishment; Prisons; Penal Transportation; Penal Colonies
Great Britain—Social Conditions—Nineteenth Century
Other Details
Printed : 6/4/1850
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume I
Magazine : No. 2
Office Book Notes
Views : 4433

'Happy Families', or collections of small animals and birds who were natural enemies shown living peaceably together in the same cage, were a popular form of street entertainment in the mid-Victorian period, one such show being elaborately described by Mayhew (London Labour and the London Poor [1861–2], Vol. III, pp. 214–19). This provides Dickens with a fine device for a general satire on contemporary squabbling over such matters as national education (bedevilled by sectarian rivalry) and ecclesiastical affairs, dubious social experiments such as the Pentonville Prison 'solitary system' [see 'Pet Prisoners', HW, Vol. I, 27 April 1850], Parliamentary conventions (more extensively ridiculed in 'A Few Conventionalities', HW, Vol. III, 28 June 1851), and the organised hypocrisy of 'Society'.

Sir Peter Laurie, whom Dickens had already satirised as 'Alderman Cute' in The Chimes (1844) following the former Lord Mayor's notorious campaign to 'put down' suicide, is again singled out for special attack. he had just made himself ridiculous by declaring at a meeting of the Marylebone Vestry in March that the slum area of Jacob's Island did not really exist, but was 'only' an invention of Dickens's in Oliver Twist. Dickens had seized the opportunity of the issue of the Cheap Edition of Oliver in that same month to write a whole new Preface mocking Laurie's absurdity ('when Fielding described Newgate, the prison immediately ceased to exist...') and gives him the coup de grâce here. 
      The device of this piece also gives Dickens an opportunity to express his delight in the nature of ravens. He had kept two successively as pets and took great pleasure in studying their behaviour. The first died in March 1841 and Dickens write a marvellous comic lament for him in a letter to Maclise (Pilgrim, Vol. II, pp. 230–2); the second, 'older and more gifted', was soon afterwards found for Dickens at a village pub in Yorkshire and survived till 1845. Both birds contributed to the character of Grip in Barnaby Rudge (1841) and were celebrated by Dickens in the Preface to the Cheap Edition of that novel (March 1849). 

Literary allusions 

  • 'his quiddits, his quillets...': Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 5, Sc. I; 
  • 'sham': a favourite word of Carlyle's. 

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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