Charles Dickens was one of those rare authors that combine lasting critical acclaim with stunning popularity in his own time. His novel “A Tale of Two Cities” is still the best-selling book of all-time, originally composed in English. (The Bible, Quran and works of Chairman Mao dust it, for example). He is still the best-selling all time author in English, although J. K. Rowling is getting close. Much about his life and works is well known, and well explored, but I want to meditate a little on it anyway.
His dad was thrown into debtor’s prison when Charles was young, and he was reduced to a fairly working-class life. Charles had an education in a crappy school with the occasional side jaunt to working in a shoeshine manufacturing factory. He eventually became a junior law clerk, and then a journalist, then a journal editor and novelist. His first novel brought him immediate fame, and by the age of 30, he had published 5 novels (only one of which I’d heard of), and was famous enough that during his trip to the US, they threw a ball in his honor in New York, and he visited President Tyler at the White House. He spent the whole of the rest of his life writing novels, and giving public readings of them, frequently as part of literary tours. Most of his novels were published in monthly or weekly installment in popular journals of the day, before being reprinted in whole as novels. Social reform and social commentary was a long abiding theme of his work, and once he was famous he was involved in trying to create new forms of charity that would not suffer from the problems of existing charitable institutions, such as the “Urania House” that was funded by the richest lady in England, and run largely by Dickens. On the other hand, he and he wife Catherine “separated” when he was 45 and lived with a much younger woman named Ellen Terman, whom he seems to have spent the rest of his life with. The split was bitterly painful too, some of the children sided with Charles and some with Catherine, and even Catherine’s sister Georgina took Charles side rather than hers during the split. Charles Dickens was one of the early members of “the Ghost Club,” a London based paranormal investigation club founded in 1862, which appears to be the first of its kind. He also survived a major rail crash in 1865, but managed to keep his name out of the papers. He died in 1870, at 58 after a series of strokes.
The obvious things to say about Dickens involve his social commentary. Dickens was a liberal’s liberal and wanted people to understand what life was like for the less fortunate. He was keenly interested in how people could fall through the cracks of the social system, and was always looking for ways to patch the cracks, as well as to point them out. He was a fierce opponent of poverty and of social stratification, and worked to “humanize” people who occupied various marginal positions, such as prostitutes or criminals. He tackled the legal system in one novel, and corrupt patent offices and unfettered market speculation in another. Karl Marx said of Dickens that he (and other Victorian novelists like him)
"...issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together..."
Charles Dickens is also one of the most famous Unitarians of England, well kinda. He was born and raised as an Anglican, but had little patience with Anglicanism as a young adult. When he first visited the US, in 1842, at age 30, he met and interacted with a number of Unitarians, whom he found both humorous and impressive. He makes fun of them in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. In his own notes to himself, he writes of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays that they contained "much that is dreamy and fanciful," but also "much more that is true and manly, honest and bold." Back home in England, he began attending the Essex Street Unitarian Church several times, and then took a pew at the Little Portland Street Unitarian Church. According to Dickens, Tagart, his minister, had "that religion which has sympathy for men of every creed and ventures to pass judgment on none." Dickens wrote to Unitarian Harvard professor Cornelius Felton, "I have carried into effect an old idea of mine and joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement if they could; and practice charity and toleration." He remained a Unitarian for around a decade, and it’s not that hard to see its influence on him. During this time, he wrote the Christmas Carol (and most of his other Christmas work), as well as several of his other novel. This is also the part of his life where he was involved in running experimental forms of charity. He also wrote a purely religious book “The Life of Our Lord” that was intended only for his children. It was read aloud in the family every Christmas, and he begged that the manuscript never be taken out of the house or given to publishers, although it was published in 1934, after the death of his last surviving son. The book begins
“My Dear Children, I am very anxious that you should know something about the History of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about Him. No one ever lived who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in any way ill or miserable, as He was.”
By the 1850s, a form of Anglicanism called “Broad Church” had developed that emphasized Latitudinarianism, and what we would call religious liberalism. Dickens, returned to the Anglican Church, but remained friends with many Unitarians including his ex-minister, to his death. He accepted Darwin’s theory of Evolution, had an interest in Biblical criticism, and when the curate at his Anglican Church was replaced with one he found dull, he just stopped attending.
In many ways, Dickens is the creator of the modern version of Christmas. Historian Ronald Hutton (who I like a lot on many fronts), argues that the current state of observance of Christmas in our culture is a result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by Christmas Carol, and I agree. I’ve written elsewhere about the many subtle changes in our understanding of Christmas represented by Dickens vision, but here are a few points. Dickens imagined a family centered celebration of generosity, rather than a church-centered or community-centered celebration, and he wedded the commercial message and the religious message together as intimately as he could.
Another interesting story about Dickens involves his anti-Semitism and racism. A lifelong champion of misunderstood underdogs, it’s nonetheless possible to find evidence of racial bias against Eskimos, Indians, and Jews in Dickens corpus in various ways. But most interesting to me is his anti-Semitism. His early work Oliver Twist, has an impressively vile villain named Fagin, a Jew, who runs a gang of child pickpockets. Fagin seems to have been based on Ikey Solomon, a real criminal that Dickens interviewed while he was a reporter. Nonetheless, the portrayal of Fagin, who is frequently refered to in the novel simply as “the Jew” does not seem free from bias. In 1854, the Jewish Chronicle asked why "Jews alone should be excluded from the 'sympathizing heart' of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed." Then in 1863, one of Dickens friends, Eliza Davis, wrote to Dickens complaining to him about his portrayal of Fagin, and arguing that he had "encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew", and that he had done a great wrong to the Jewish people. What is interesting to me, is that he responded to the criticism. He halted the printing of the book version of Oliver Twist, and altered the wording on the sections that had not yet been sent to the typesetters. Then in his next novel he made a caricaturishly good Jewish lady, named Riah (friendship in Hebrew), and at one point gives her the line: "Men say, 'This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.' Not so with the Jews ... they take the worst of us as samples of the best ..."
I remember keenly a discussion I had with my father as an adult, when I described a black girl I had had a crush on in high school, but never worked up the guts to ask out. He said that he didn’t know how he would have reacted if I had, or if he would have been able to act honorably. I said, c’mon you’re not a racist or anything. And he said, oh yes I am. I have been all my life. It’s part of how I was brought up. But as an adult, I’ve struggled against it, and tried to hide it from you kids because I didn’t want you to grow up to be be racists too. That’s kinda how I see Dicken’s anti-Semitism. He has it, and it isn’t really that hard to see if you look. But he’s embarrassed by it, he tries to cover it up, or make up for it, when he can perceive it. He was trying to grow beyond it.
I am grateful for Christmas as a holiday of family celebrations and generosity.
I am grateful for Scrooge’s example of self-reform.
I am grateful for Dicken’s tireless work to humanize all classes of society and shed light on where social systems are failing.
I am grateful for people who fund and direct experimental charities, looking for new ways to deal with societies flaws.
I am grateful for serialized narratives as an art form, from Dickens to comic books and TV shows.
I am grateful for religious toleration, where people of different beliefs work together for mutual goals.
I am grateful for the inner urge to reform our own flaws, the secret good side of embarrassment
Other Notables for me for this day
Donald Duck’s debut, Joseph Welch stands up to Senator McCarthy during the 1950s.
birth of Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman, death of Tsukiyoka Yoshitoshi (last master of Ukiyo-e)