Charles Dickens: Happy Birthday

By Timko, Michael | The World and I, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Charles Dickens: Happy Birthday


Timko, Michael, The World and I


February 7th marks the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens! Many readers know some or many of his novels, especially "A Christmas Carol," but few probably know that Dickens considered himself more than an entertainer. His goal was a more serious one: he wanted his novels to serve as entertaining "tracts" that would show readers how to become better humans.

Dickens believed that through his fiction he could promote moral solutions to social ills; through his novels he could change society for the better.

Today, Dickens is probably known best for "A Christmas Carol." Written in 1843 in just six weeks for the "Christmas trade," it is now widely recognized as Dickens' most popular work.

In contrast to the Carol that has been made into a popular entertainment, we should view the Carol as a serious work, one that demonstrates the connection between the concern for our fellow beings and our own happiness and salvation. What makes Scrooge such a wonderful character, in spite of his reputation as greedy and uncaring, is that he really represents all human beings who are seeking to find the secret of what makes life meaningful.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, an eminent 19th-century critic, stressed in one of his lectures that Dickens had "a hawk's eye for truth of morals. You never find him mocking a good or condoning an evil thing."

These 'moral' ideas can be seen clearly in "The Life of Our Lord," a book Dickens wrote for his children in 1846 and from which he read aloud to them frequently. In this book Dickens depicts Jesus as kind and loving. He tells his children that he is anxious that they know something about the history of Jesus Christ because, he tells them, no one ever lived "who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in anyway ill or miserable, as he was."

It is not surprising, then, that "charity and Dickens" should be one of the longest entries in the Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens (Oxford UP, 1999). Dickens devoted an unbelievable amount of time and energy to charitable causes; through speeches, public readings, subscriptions, and writings he attempted to get support for adult education, soup kitchens, emigration schemes, model dwelling associations, health and sanitary organizations, prison reform, and recreational societies. He at one time was actively attempting to get donations and support for 13 separate hospitals and sanatoriums. He was also active in attempting to get funds to provide relief and pensions for disabled writers, actors, and artists and their families.

Two of the projects Dickens supported deserve brief comment: the Ragged Schools and Urania Cottage. Ragged Schools were originally established to provide instruction to, as Dickens put it in an letter he sent to the Daily News in1846, "the most miserable and neglected outcasts in London ... to commence their recognition as immortal human creatures, before the Goal Chaplain becomes their only schoolmaster."

Based on the Sunday School movement, Ragged Schools were established in the 1830s and 1840s in such places as "Devil's Acre" in Westminster and Field Lane in Saffron Hill. In 1844 the Ragged School Union was formed and proved successful, growing from 20 schools in 1845 to almost 200 by 1870. …

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