Acting the Slum in Dickens’ London – Hayley Russell

The scene at Astley’s In Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz is written mainly focusing on this famous amphitheatre where various forms of entertainment occurred, such as the circus or a theatre production. The slums are presented by the actors and the way they are depicted throughout the scene both within Astley’s and outside of it. Both the theatre production itself and the actors are a form of entertainment enjoyed by the middle and upper classes. The comparison of the poor and the affluent emphasises the gap that is in between the two social classes and by separating the poor and the rich by where they sit. Intermingling of the classes was undesirable as both could have been hostile to the other due to a lack of understanding about their social status. The narrator deliberately focuses upon manners and items such as clothing as a way of describing the classes and by identifying them. The actors have a lack of identity as they have to pretend to be something they are not. The acting could be seen as a way of forgetting the hardships faced within the slums.  This blog post will focus upon this extract to view entertainment and culture within Victorian Britain.

Entertainment and culture is shown through the amphitheatre as being a place where well-to-do people would enjoy an afternoon of watching a circus or a theatre production. This is connected to the slums as the people who hang round the stage doors are the actors and they are represented negatively as they are clearly ill-dressed and have a poor sense of personal hygiene. The actors themselves are a form of entertainment to the middle and upper classes as they present to them something that they are better than morally and financially. They are a spectacle in themselves as it is unfamiliar territory to the upper classes as they are often familiar with keeping in good health and exerting a good hygienic routine throughout their lives. The circus is often related to in terms of the performers being something the audience ridicule- like in the case of the freak show- or something they admire, like in the case of skilled performers. The audience are automatically ridiculing the actors by not only their performance but the way they are dressed as it does not conform to the idea of middle class identity.

The description of appearance is a way of conveying the poor people who lived in poverty are a form of entertainment. The detail in which Dickens mentions the poor highlights that the state of the actors’ clothes are a spectacle and middle-class members of the audience are amazed at the way they present themselves in public. The amount of effort that is commented on to make sure that the audience are presented as well dressed, conforms to the notion of appearance being linked with morals. The audience when not viewing the performance recognised the men stood by the stage door commenting on the ‘faded brown coat, dirty white Berlin gloves’ which the man wears.[1] Dickens describes the opposites of being an actor and living in a slum through clothing. This is depicted by ‘he is the walking gentleman, who wears a blue surtout, clean collar, and white trousers, for half an hour, and then shrinks into his worn-out scanty clothes’.[2] Little of the man’s time is taken up by being a gentleman and it conveys that the man is aware of his predicament when faced with the upper classes in the audience and by the characters he depicted.

The acknowledgement of the life that the actor had to pretend to be immersed in and the harsh reality of his real life are polar opposites to one another. Acting for the slum dweller could be a way of escaping the harsh realities of life whilst attempting to convey a character and act in front of an audience. The slum dweller is unable to relax and spend an evening watching a form of entertainment and is instead the entertainment himself. The audience who have a role during a performance to critique if it is enjoyable or boring event, shows that the audience even during a form of entertainment still exert more power over the slum dwellers and working class, as they are the reason the performance is occurring. The hanging around the stage doors could be a sign that the actors have not come to grips with their life in the slum and are instead clinging onto the other life which they represent in the form of their characters on stage.

The scene at Astley’s is heading back to the past as it is recollecting the characters childhood and recalling fond memories of the entertainment the family watched. Society has changed as people have got worse according to the narrator. ‘we are far more delighted and amused with the audience’  shows that the morals of people upon their essence of character has become more widely known.[3] The audience themselves are a form of entertainment to one another, as they focus on how well dressed the people are. Also the way that people present themselves in terms of their manner and how well-spoken they are is also a potential factor in the morality of their character. The admiration from the governess of the whole family shows that what people thought of you was crucial to middle class ideals. Lack of respect is mocked, which is what happens when people laugh at the boy whose name was said loudly disturbing the other spectators among them. The middle class ideals which are mentioned so frequently throughout the scene at Astley’s is contrasted at the end with that of the slum dweller. The position of the paragraphs shows  the direct contrast between the two social classes.

Hayley Russell


[1] Dickens, C., Sketches by Boz (London, 1836), p. 309.

[2] Dickens, Sketches by Boz, p. 310.

[3] Dickens, Sketches by Boz, p. 310.

An extract of this is available online: