I’ve never read Charles Dickens. I was never assigned to read any of his books during high school or college. I’ve watched various Christmas Carol movies, but had not really watched any other versions of a Charles Dickens book. A few months ago my wife and I watched an old 1930s version of A Tale of Two Cities with Ronald Colman and we both loved it. Soon after I then read an essay by George Orwell that talked about how subversive a writer Dickens was and how his stories attacked most of English institutions for their apathy towards the poor. It turns out that many radicals and social activists have been influenced by the books of Charles Dickens for his sympathy for the poor and for his critique of the British capitalist system.
In a collection of Orwell essays called All Art Is Propoganda: Critical Essays is an essay that Orwell wrote on Charles Dickens. Dickens is one of Orwell’s favorite writers and Orwell examines the particular aspects of Dickens work that appeals so much to him. Orwell finds Dickens to be a writer full of literary invention, who can create memorable characters that appeal to the common reader and not just the intellectuals. The most important characteristic that Orwell found is that Charles Dickens writes from a moralist point of view who consistently sides with the underdog in all his works. Orwell would write:
But in his published work there is implied a personality quite different from this, a personality that has won him far more friends than enemies. It might have otherwise, for even if Dickens was a bourgeois, he was certainly a subversive writer, a radical, one might truthfully say a rebel. Everyone who has read widely in his work has felt this. Gissing, for instance, the best of the writers on Dickens, was anything but a radical himself, and he disapproved of this strain in Dickens and wished it were not there, but it never occurred to him to deny it. In Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never been approached.
Charles Dickens had a strong social conscience that was reflected in his life as well as his writings. He made public speeches and organized fund-raisers to benefit fellow artists and the downtrodden. Dickens collaborated with Angela Burdett-coutts, the heiress to the Coutts banking fortune and the second wealthiest women in England, on several charitable projects, notably the Urania Cottage project to help retrain and rehabilitate fallen women. Dickens wrote articles against the New Poor Law for the deleterious effect it had on the poor. On his trip to the United States, Dickens angered many Southerners when he criticized the slave system. The wealthy initially reacted unfavorably to his Christmas Carol because they felt it was an economic fable against the merchant class. A good summary of Dickens political views in the context of his society are found in Jane Smiley’s book Charles Dickens:
Charity and charitable enterprises were at the very heart of Victorian life and constituted the main way in which those unable to take care of themselves were taken care of by society. Very few social services as we know them were provided by the government- rather, churches and privately supported charitable institutions, upholding a wide variety of theories and methods, provided education, sustenance, sometimes employment, and care for those in need. Dickens did not uniformly support all of these institutions, especially not those sponsored by Evangelical groups. The combination of puritanical narrowness and crabbed strictness opposed Dickens’s instinctive sense that true charity was an outgrowth of kindly benevolence and good cheer. He had his own theories about the failures of his society and their proper alleviation and he was frequently in sympathy with radical political ideas. At the same time, he deeply distrusted social unrest, including incipient revolutionary movements, labor strikes, or any potential violent confrontation between classes. Social order was his highest goal, a social order that recognized the responsibility of all to all and made plenty of room for the pleasures of life- entertainment, good fellowship, good food and drink, congenial surroundings, familial affection. While he feared social unrest, he deplored any means by which the moneyed classes might shirk their social responsibilities: harsh poor laws, legal obfuscation, bureaucratic incompetence and red tape, failure to attend to public works and public sanitation, or simple personal selfishness and profligacy. It can be fairly argued, in this context, that Dickens never shirked his. His mode of life demonstrated that he lived by play as well as work, believed equally in the value of each, and promoted the value of both for all members of Victorian society.
Charles Dickens’ concern for the poor inspired many other radicals beside George Orwell. Dorothy Day, the radical Catholic activist, was inspired by Dickens’ social conscience. In Robert Coles’ book Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion, Coles observes:
Novelists also figured predominantly in her life, especially, as already noted, the nineteenth century ones, Dickens, Dostoievski, and Tolstoy. She loved Dickens’s effort to bring the poor to the attention of his readers, Dostoievski’s religious fervor and philosophical subtlety, Tolstoy’s largeness of mind and heart.
Howard Zinn was introduced to Charles Dickens works at the age of ten, when he received a set of Dickens’s books from a coupon offer by the New York Post. Zinn would write about Dickens in his book You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train
I did not know where Dickens fitted into the history of modern literature because he was all I knew of that literature…
What I did know was that he aroused in me tumultous emotions. First, an anger at arbitrary power puffed up with wealth and kept in place by law. But most of all a profound compassion for the poor. I did not see myself as poor in the way Oliver Twist was poor. I didn’t recognize that I was so moved by his story because his life touched chords in mine.
How wise Dickens was to make readers feel poverty and cruelty through the fate of children who had not reached the age where the righteous and comfortable classes could accuse them of being responsible for their own misery.
Today, reading pallid, cramped novels about ‘relationships’ I recall Dickens’ unashamed rousing of feeling, his uproariously funny characters, his epic settings- cities of hunger and degradation, countries in revolution, the stakes being life and death not just for one family but for thousands.
Dickens is sometimes criticized by literary snobs for sentimentality, melodrama, partisanship, exaggeration. But surely the state of the world makes fictional exaggeration unnecessary and partisanship vital. It was only many years later after I read those Dickens novels that I understood his accomplishment.
The praise that George Orwell, Jane Smiley, Dorothy Day and Howard Zinn have given to Charles Dickens have inspired me to start reading his books. I just checked out a book-on-cd of his book “Hard Times” and have enjoyed listening to it so far. I end this blog with a quote of Dickens that I found in the Annotated Christmas Carol. In a letter of April 4, 1844, Charles Dickens wrote:
I have a great faith in the poor. To the best of my ability I always endeavor to present them in a favourable light to the righ; and I shall never cease, I hope, until I die to advocate their being made as happy and as wise as the circumstances of their condition, in its utmost improvement, will admit of their becoming.
The first scene of A Tale Of Two Cities
An audio book of A Christmas Carol
Masterpiece Classic’s The World of Charles Dickens for PBS