Dickens and Charity
Dickens on America and the Americans
The Supernatural Short Stories of Charles Dickens
Conventional wisdom describes the Victorian age as one of monolithic assurance, solid with horsehair furniture and heavy Sunday sermons followed by heavy Sunday dinners. Only little by little, according to this view, was its moral complacency chipped away by what Ruskin called “the dreadful hammers” of the geologists clinking at “every cadence of the Bible” and later in the century by the still more ominous speculations of Darwin.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Waves of political and moral reformers had been surging across England since the previous century; long before Victoria ascended the throne utilitarians and evangelicals were dashing themselves against every conceivable abuse and evil. When Dickens began as a Parliamentary reporter in 1832 the air was heavy with criticism both of political institutions and of moral assumptions. Dickens himself was an earnest, even a fiery radical, his zeal mingling some of the goals of both the utilitarians and the evangelicals—though he recoiled from the coldhearted inhumanity of some utilitarian thought and the narrow repressiveness of some evangelical aims.
His cooperation and also his conflict with such crusaders are the themes of Norris Pope’s Dickens and Charity. Dickens’s reforming activities and attitudes are well known to scholars, as are those of some great philanthropists like Lord Shaftesbury and Angela Burdett-Coutts, and of reformers like Sir Edwin Chadwick and Dr. Southwood Smith. Readers who continue to think of Dickens as a sentimentalist to whom charity meant sending a Christmas turkey to Bob Cratchit have probably never heard of the London City Mission or the host of other charitable organizations Dickens helped out or fought against. In fact, Dickens was a shrewd and hardheaded activist who worked for reform in countless practical ways.
The word “charity” Mr. Pope uses in its broad Paulian sense of “love,” which includes a solicitude for the moral quality of people’s lives as well as for their material welfare. About both concerns there was violent dissent among the reformers themselves. The evangelical wing of the Established Church strove for legislation on many questions; the dissenters—Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists—while sharing many of the same aims, opposed government encroachments on their hard-won religious freedom.
The Lord’s Day Observation Society tried to prohibit not only all work but all travel and recreation on Sunday; the National Sunday League, while protesting that it was “firmly opposed to any desecration” of the Sabbath, advocated opening the British Museum, the National Gallery, and other such institutions on Sunday. Often, indeed, the disagreements among reforming groups came to resemble a pitched battle, in which the contenders labored more to defeat each other than to advance their titular aims.
The number and the specialized aims of these competing—and only occasionally cooperating—organizations may seem astonishing today. A sample list: The Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, The Poor Man’s Guardian Society, The Orphan Working School, The Hospital for Sick Children, The Royal Hospital for Incurables, The Metropolitan Improvement Society, The Early …