Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens; drawing by David Levine

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 Closing Association, The Playground and Recreation Society, The Home for Homeless Women, The Vice Society, The Pastoral Aid Society, even a Society for Promoting the Employment of Additional Curates!

From almost the beginning of Dickens’s career he was vigorously engaged in reform activities. While he was writing the early numbers of Pickwick Papers he dashed off an angry pamphlet, “Sunday Under Three Heads,” attacking Sir Andrew Agnew’s Sabbath Bill as a specimen of discriminatory puritanical tyranny directed only against the Sunday enjoyments of the working classes while leaving those of the middle and upper classes untouched. His second novel, Oliver Twist, was a bitter attack against the New Poor Law of 1834, which saved the pockets of taxpayers by cutting down on waste and extravagance, but made the workhouses, Dickens insisted, into jails that maltreated and starved their pauper victims. Since there was as yet no government support for public education, he saw the Ragged Schools—volunteer groups for giving free instruction to slum boys and girls—as bringing literacy, cleanliness, and industrial training to those who would otherwise inevitably be lost to vice and crime.

In The Quintessence of Ibsenism Bernard Shaw distinguishes between two kinds of social pioneers: those who denounce as wrong something previously regarded as harmless, and those who declare right something hitherto considered infamous. The first tend to be repressive. They include the sabbatarians, the teetotalers, some of the more rigid nonconformist sects, and some of the more punitive prison reformers. The second wish to enlarge opportunity and freedom and to improve material conditions. In the nineteenth century these latter pioneers worked for education, slum clearance and improved housing, sanitation, pure drinking water, playgrounds for children, free hospitals, factory regulation. Sometimes, to be sure, the same person might be in both groups: Lord Shaftesbury, an ardent sabbatarian, labored earnestly for an enormous number of generous reforms, and Edwin Chadwick, the architect of Dickens’s hated Poor Law, later worked with Dickens’s assistance for a variety of sanitary reforms.


As Dickens’s novels show, from the hypocritical Stiggins in Pickwick to the bullying Honeythunder in Edwin Drood, he detested the kinds of charity that interfered with what he regarded as harmless enjoyments. What was so criminal, he asked, “about crowds with picnic baskets” lunching among the trees of Greenwich Park? Closing the bakeshops on Sundays would deprive the poor of the only meat dinner they enjoyed in a week of toil. Let museums be open instead of closed on the one day the poor could visit them.

In the same way, although Dickens knew the evils of alcoholism, he opposed the fanatical teetotalers for whom a drop of wine in a glass of water was a violation of Temperance (“Whole Hogs,” in Household Words, August 23, 1851). If the people were deprived of all rational enjoyment the gin-shop was their only resource, and then “Your saintly law-givers…exclaim for a law which shall convert the day intended for rest and cheerfulness into one of endless gloom, bigotry, and persecution.”

Dickens granted that the entertainment of the cheap theaters was often crude, but insisted that it nevertheless provided a training for the imagination and the sympathies. In “The Amusements of the People”—which Mr. Pope does not mention—Dickens described the Victoria Theater, crowded with workmen and their wives, so many accompanied by “the Baby” that one looks down on a sea of sleeping baby faces. In one melodrama there, a repentant assassin exclaims, “I ster-ruck him down, and fel-led in er-orror,” and continues, “I have liveder as a roader-sider vaigerant, but no ker-rime since has stained these hands!” Absurd though such plays may be, they are better, Dickens concludes, than an exclusive diet of Polytechnic Institutes. A young man whose time has been passed entirely among cogwheels is not likely to respond with much feeling to sufferings he has never experienced; but happily there is “a range of imagination in most of us, which no amount of steam-engines can satisfy.”

These beliefs account for the portrayals of charitable intolerance and cruelty in Dickens’s novels. They animate the indignation at the stark inhumanity of the workhouse in Oliver Twist. They make Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, as I have noted elsewhere, the embodiment of the doctrine of “economic man,” with its insistence on the “iron law of wage” and on “cash-nexus” as the only bond between man and man. They provoke the wrathful outburst in Dombey and Son: “Breathe the polluted air. And then, calling up some ghastly child, with stunted form and wicked face, hold forth on its unnatural sinfulness, and lament its being, so early, far away from Heaven—but think a little of its being conceived, and born, and bred, in Hell”

In Bleak House these feelings are behind both the rendering of Mrs. Jellyby so moonily absorbed by the distant natives of Borio-boola-Gha that she is blind to the dirt and disorder in her own home, and of Mrs. Pardiggle indiscriminately browbeating the poor and bullying her children to enhance her sense of power. They make Hard Times an indictment of industrial civilization itself, demonstrating, as Shaw says, “that it is not our disorder but our order that is horrible; that it is not our criminals but our magnates that are robbing and murdering us.” They inspire the fundamental image in Little Dorrit of society as a vast jail in which both the poor and the prosperous are incarcerated; and the image in Our Mutual Friend of London as an enormous dust-heap whose filth symbolizes acquisition as the supreme value of a monetary barbarism that had made its world into a wasteland.

These convictions invigorate Dickens’s relations both with individual reformers and with reform and charitable organizations. “In general,” as Mr. Pope says, “Dickens was consistently hostile to evangelicalism, and especially to its cruder, harsher, and nonconformist manifestations.” His antagonism to officious repressiveness, however, did not prevent his liking and working harmoniously with many reformers, whether they were Anglican or nonconformist.

Though furiously against both the slave trade and slavery, Dickens was not much interested in African missions. His picture of the crossing-sweeper Jo, in Bleak House, munching a crust of stale bread on the steps of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, is ferocious: “he is not,” Dickens writes sardonically, “one of Mrs. Pardiggle’s Tockahoopo Indians; he is not one of Mrs. Jellyby’s lambs…he is not a genuine foreign-grown savage; he is the ordinary home-made article.”

The attack aroused clamorous evangelical outcries. But the four principal societies for foreign missions enjoyed annual incomes of over £100,000 each, and the best-known domestic missionary agency only £14,000. “Foul smells, disgusting habitations, bad workshops and workshop conditions, want of light, air, and water, the absence of all easy means of decency and health,” Dickens insisted, were the main causes of misery at home, which England should deal with first, before turning her eyes abroad.


Among the earliest charities Dickens actively helped were the Ragged Schools. After his very first visit to the Field Lane School he tried to help them and he urged his friend Angela Burdett-Coutts to give them money. Although he recognized many shortcomings, including an overemphasis on Sunday-school moralism, and a lack of professional and technological teachers, he felt sure that the schools rescued many slum boys and girls from what might otherwise be lives of vagabondage, thievery, and prostitution. In his weekly paper Household Words he repeatedly published articles praising much of their work, and when the Ragged Schools Dormitories were established for the shelter of homeless children he contributed both money and journalistic support.

One of the aims of the Ragged Schools, and of a number of other organizations, such as Caroline Chisholm’s Family Colonization Loan Society, Sidney Herbert’s Female Emigration Society, and Miss Burdett-Coutts’s Home, was promoting emigration to the colonies, where the neglected waif and the reformed criminal might make a fresh start. All of these organizations Dickens supported; Miss Coutts’s Home, indeed, he not only organized but superintended for over a decade. It was, in essence, as Mr. Pope points out, “a colonial training school” and “had many more successes than failures.”

Dickens’s position on emigration, he continues, “thus places him on the side of the philanthropists, liberals, free traders, and moderate political economists—but not on the side of the arch-Malthusians, who regarded emigration as a waste of capital…or on the side of the working-class radicals, who were increasingly coming to see emigration as a policy designed to exonerate capitalists from the ugly consequences of unregulated competition, the real cause of poverty and misery at home.”

Another of Dickens’s great causes was health and housing reform. He was a close friend of Dr. Southwood Smith, whose reports on children’s employment, on laboring conditions in factories and mines, and on the lack of sanitation in the homes of the poor filled him with horror. Dickens’s brother-in-law Henry Austin was the secretary of the Metropolitan Sanitary Commission, and came to work closely with Chadwick on the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers and the General Board of Health.

Their statistics showed that the most crowded slums had the highest mortality rates. In the cholera epidemic of 1848-1849 the number of deaths was appalling; in that of 1853-1854 twenty thousand died in England during the summer alone. Neither education nor religion, Dickens emphasized, could do anything for the poor without cleanliness. “Give them a glimpse of heaven,” he pleaded, “through its light and air; give them water; help them to be clean….”

Nor were the deadly consequences of slum conditions limited to the slums themselves. Again in a passage not quoted by Mr. Pope, it was certain, Dickens said, “that the air from Gin Lane will be carried by an easterly wind into Mayfair” and that “the furious pestilence raging in St. Giles no mortal list of lady patronesses can keep out of Almack’s.”

Week in, week out, Dickens hammered away on these points in the pages of Household Words—“Health by Act of Parliament,” “A Home Question,” “Commission and Omission.” The state of public health in London, he said, “was the tragedy of Hamlet with nothing in it but the gravedigger.” But Dickens did not limit himself to propaganda, either spoken or printed, for sanitary and housing reform. He advised Miss Burdett-Coutts on the slumclearance and cheap-housing project of Columbia Square—one of the first Victorian public housing enterprises—which she built in Bethnal Green. He conceived an entire scheme of multiple flats with good foundations, sound walls, gas, running water, and drainage, surrounded by schools, playgrounds, savings banks, and libraries.

A word should be added about Dickens’s campaign against working conditions in factories and factory accidents, to which Mr. Pope pays little attention. Dickens ran a long series of fiery articles: “Ground in the Mill,” detailing scores of hideous mutilations and deaths; “Fencing with Humanity,” reporting the formation of a Manufacturers’ Association to defy the law against unfenced machinery; “Death’s Ciphering Book,” pointing out that there was a far smaller percentage of burglaries and murders than of deaths from factory machinery.

Mr. Pope is a rather arid writer, and some will find his book overloaded with lists of names and statistics. But he comes to fair and judicious conclusions about Dickens’s relations with his fellow welfare workers. Though Dickens and the evangelicals could agree about the importance of remedying social ills and even about many of the means, he sometimes caricatured them cruelly in his criticisms. Nevertheless, he gave powerful help as well; more than one of them warmly eulogized him when he died, and decades later his name was still being invoked in their publications. Lord Shaftesbury spoke for many of them when he said, “God gave him…a general retainer against all suffering and oppression.”

From a somewhat different angle, Dickens on America and the Americans has many of the same emphases as Dickens and Charity. The volume is mainly an anthology of quotations from Dickens’s letters from the United States written during his first trip in 1842 and his second in 1867-1868, and from American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit. Dickens’s impressions during both visits are dominated by social comment drawn from perspectives identical to those he brought to institutions at home.

In this collection, for example, we find laudatory accounts of Boston’s poorhouses, blind asylums, and other charitable institutions, of the factories of Lowell, and of the educational influence of Harvard University; less favorable ones of the jails and insane asylums of New York and Philadelphia; horrified descriptions of New York slums; vigorous attacks on slavery and on newspaper corruption. Although Dickens admired some American statesmen, such as Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, he found many American politicians blood brothers to Fizkin, Slumkey, and the Honorable Mr. Gregsbury, MP. Dickens came to America dazzled by its great goals of liberty and equality, its promise of a future unstained by the privilege and corruption of the Old World. The less gleaming reality shook his belief that America had realized these ideals.

On his second visit, a quarter-century later, Dickens revised many of his unfavorable impressions. In his farewell speech on April 18, 1868, he bore testimony to the huge improvements that the nation had wrought—“changes moral, changes physical,…changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older cities almost out of recognition, changes in the Press without whose advancement no advancement can be made anywhere.”

Michael Slater’s selections for the book, on the whole, are discerningly chosen, although some, I think, are more entertaining than critically significant. Additional space might have been given to passages dealing with institutions and social conditions. Slater contributes a lively and fair-minded introduction analyzing the reasons both for Dickens’s high expectations of the United States and for his unhappy conclusion that America was “not the Republic of my imagination.”

The Supernatural Short Stories of Charles Dickens is less valuable than either of the other two volumes. Several of the tales from Pickwick Papers—the two Bagman’s stories, and the “Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” and “The Baron of Grogzwig” from Nicholas Nickleby—are only pieces of facetious Gothicism, and “A Madman’s Manuscript” is clumsy melodrama. Few of the later stories, from Master Humphrey’s Clock, The Keepsake, and All Year Round, are more than passable.

The truth is that Dickens rarely excelled in the supernatural, except when—as in A Christmas Carol and The Chimes—his ghostly tale is irradiated and intensified by a warmhearted social purpose. Although we can believe that Scrooge is terrified by Marley’s Ghost and by the three Christmas Spirits, we feel no terror and are asked to feel none. These tales are not included in this collection, because, as the editor notes, they are not short stories but novelettes.

But the shiver down the spine—the frisson for its own sake—never inspired Dickens. His shiver was that of indignation and pity at all the suffering and injustice of the world: “Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.”

This Issue

March 22, 1979