Biography of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

Novelist and Social Reformer. In these days when critics so often repeat the cry of ‘art for art’s sake’ and denounce Ruskin for bringing moral canons into his judgments of pictures or buildings, it is dangerous to couple these two titles together, and to label Dickens as anything but a novelist pure and simple. And indeed, all would admit that the creator of Sam Weller and Sarah Gamp will live when the crusade against ‘Bumbledom’ and its abuses is forgotten and the need for such a crusade seems incredible. But when so many recent critics have done justice to his gifts as a creative artist, this aspect of his work runs no danger of being forgotten. Moreover, when we are considering Dickens as a Victorian worthy and as a representative man of his age, it is desirable to bring out those qualities, which he shared with so many of his great contemporaries. Above all, we must remember that Dickens himself would be the last man to be ashamed of having written ‘with a purpose’, or to think that the fact should be concealed as a blemish in his art. There was nothing in which he felt more genuine pride than in the thought that his talents thus employed had brought public opinion to realize the need for many practical reforms in our social condition. If these old abuses have mostly passed away, we may be thankful indeed; but we cannot feel sure that in the future fresh abuses will not arise with which the example of Dickens may inspire others to wage war. His was a strenuous life; he never spared himself nor stinted his efforts in any cause for which he was fighting; and if he did not win complete victory in his lifetime, he created the spirit in which victory was to be won.

Charles Dickens was born in 1812, the second child of a large family, his father being at the time a Navy clerk employed at Portsmouth. Of his birthplace in Commercial Road Portsmouth is justifiably proud; but we must think of him rather as a Kentishman and a Londoner, since he never lived in Hampshire after his fourth year. The earliest years which left a distinct impress on his mind were those passed at Chatham, to which his father moved in 1816. This town and its neighboring cathedral city of Rochester, with their narrow old streets, their riverside and dockyard, took firm hold of his memory and imagination. To-day no places speak more intimately of him to the readers of his books. Here he passed five years of happy childhood till his father’s work took the family to London and his father’s improvidence plunged them into misfortune.

For those who know Wilkins Micawber it is needless to describe the failings of Mr. Dickens; for others we may be content to say that he was kindhearted, sanguine and improvident, quite incapable of the steady industry needed to support a growing family. When his debts overwhelmed him and he was carried off to the Marshalsea prison, Charles was only ten years old, but already he took the lead in the house. On him fell the duty of pacifying creditors at the door, and of making visits to the pawnbroker to meet the daily needs of the household. His initiation into life was a hard one and it began cruelly soon. If he was active and enterprising beyond his years, with his nervous high-strung temperament he was capable of suffering acutely; and this capacity was now to be sorely tried. For a year or more of his life this proud sensitive child had to spend long hours in the cellars of a warehouse, with rough uneducated companions, occupied in pasting labels on pots of boot-blacking. This situation was all that the influence of his family could procure for him; and into this he was thrust at the age of ten with no ray of hope, no expectation of release. His shiftless parents seemed to acquiesce in this drudgery as an opening for their cleverest son; and instead of their helping and comforting him in his sorrow, it was he who gave his Sundays to visiting them in prison and to offering them such consolation as he could. The iron burnt deep into his soul. Long after, in fact till the day when the district was rebuilt and changed out of knowledge, he owned that he could not bear to revisit the scene; so painful were his recollections, so vivid his sense of degradation. Twenty-five years later he narrated the facts to his friend and biographer John Forster in a private conversation; and he only recurred to the subject once more when under the disguise of a novel he told the story of the childhood of David Copperfield. By shifting the horror from the realm of fact to that of fiction, perhaps he lifted the weight of it from the secret recesses of his heart.

When his father’s debts were relieved, the child regained his freedom from servitude, but even then his schooling was desultory and ineffective. Well might the elder Dickens, in a burst of candor, say to a stranger who asked him about his son’s education, ‘Why indeed, sir, ha! ha! he may be said to have educated himself.’

At the age of fifteen Charles embarked again on his career as a wage earner. At first he was taken into a lawyer’s office, where he filled a position somewhat between that of office-boy and clerk, and two years later he was qualifying himself by the study of shorthand for the profession of a parliamentary reporter, which his father was then following. He entered ‘the Gallery’ in 1831, first representing the True Sun and later the well-known Morning Chronicle; and at intervals he enlarged his experiences by journeys into the provinces to report political meetings. Thus it was that he familiarized himself with the mail coaches, the wayside hostelries, and the rich variety of types that were to be found there; with London in most of its phases he was already at home. So, when in 1834 he made his first attempts at writing in periodical literature, although he was only twenty-two years old, he had a wealth of first-hand experiences quite outside the range of the man who is just finishing his leisurely passage through a public school and university: of schools and offices, of parliaments and prisons, of the street and of the high road, he had been a diligent and observant critic; for many years he had practiced the maxim of Pope: ‘The proper study of mankind is Man.’

Friends sprang up wherever he went. His open face, his sparkling eye, his humorous tongue, his ready sympathy, were a passport to the goodwill of those whom he met; few could resist the appeal. Many readers will be familiar with the early portrait by Maclise; but his friends tell us how little that did justice to the lively play of feature, ‘the spirited air and carriage’ which were indescribable. On the top of a mail coach, on a fresh morning, they must have won the favour of his fellow travelers more easily than Alfred Jingle won the hearts of the Pickwickians. And beneath the radiant cheerfulness of his manner, the quick flash of observation and of speech, there was in him an element of hard persistence and determination, which would carry him far. If the years of poverty and neglect had failed to chill his hopes and break his spirit, there was no fear that he would tire in the pursuit of his ambition when fortune began to smile upon him. He had touched life on many sides. He had kept his warmth of sympathy, his buoyancy, his capacity for rising superior to ill-fortune; and the years of adversity had only deepened his feeling for all that were oppressed. He had much to learn about the craft of letters; but he already had the first essential of an author-he had something to say.

The year 1836 is a definite landmark in the life of Dickens. In this year he married; in this year he gave up the practice of parliamentary reporting, published the Sketches by Boz, and began the writing of The Pickwick Papers. This immortal work achieved wide popularity at once. Criticism cannot hope to do justice to the greatness of Sam Weller, to the humours of Dingley Dell and Eatanswill, to the adventures of the hero in back gardens or in prison, on coaches or in wheelbarrows. Every one must read them in the original for himself. In this book Dickens reached at once the height of his success in making his fellow countrymen laugh with him at their own foibles. If in the art of constructing a story, in the depiction of character, in deepening the interest by the alternation of happiness and misfortune, he was to go far beyond his initial triumph,-still with many Dickensians, who love him chiefly for his liveliness of observation and broad humor, Pickwick remains the prime favorite.

The effect of this success on the fortunes of the author was immediate and lasting. Henceforth he could live in a comfortable house and look forward to a family life in which his children should be free from all risk of repeating his own experience. He could afford himself the pleasures and the society, which he needed, and he became the centre of a circle of friends who appreciated his talents and encouraged him in his career. His relations with his publishers, though not without incident, were generally of the most cordial kind. If Dickens had the self-confidence to estimate his own powers highly, and the shrewd instinct to know when he was getting less than his fair share in a bargain, yet in a difference of opinion he was capable of seeing the other side, and he was loyal in the observance of all agreements.

The five years which followed were so crowded with various activities that it is difficult to date the events exactly, especially when he was producing novels in monthly or weekly numbers. Generally he had more than one story on the stocks. Thus in 1837, before Pickwick was finished, Oliver Twist was begun, and it was not itself complete before the earlier numbers of Nicholas Nickleby were appearing. In the same way The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, which may be dated 1840 and 1841, overlapped one another in the planning of the stories, if not in the execution of the weekly parts. There is no period of Dickens’s life, which enables us better to observe his intense mental activity, and at the same time the variety of his creations. Here we have the luxuriant humor of Mrs. Nickleby and the Crummles family side by side with the tragedy of Bill Sikes and the pathos of Little Nell. Here also we can see the gradual development of constructive power in the handling of the story. But for our purpose it is more significant to notice that we here find Dickens’s pen enlisted in the service of the noblest cause for which he fought, the redemption from misery and slavery of the children of his native land. Lord Shaftesbury’s life has told us what their sufferings were and how the machinery of Government was slowly forced to do its part; and Dickens would be the last to detract from the fame of that great philanthropist, whose efforts on many occasions he supported and praised. But there were wide circles which no philanthropist could reach, hearts which no arguments or statistics could rouse; men and women who attended no meetings and read no pamphlets but who eagerly devoured anything that was written by the author of The Pickwick Papers. To them Smike and Little Nell made a personal and irresistible appeal; they could not remain insensible to the cruelty of Dotheboys Hall and to the depravity of Fagin’s school; and if these books did not themselves recruit active workers to improve the conditions of child life, at least society became permeated with a temper which was favorable to the efforts of the reformers.

As far back as the days of his childhood at Rochester Dickens had been indignant at what he had casually heard of the Yorkshire schools; and his year of drudgery in London had made him realize, in other cases beside his own, the degradation that followed from the neglect of children. On undertaking to handle this subject in Nicholas Nickleby, he journeyed to Yorkshire to gather evidence at first hand for his picture of Dotheboys Hall. And for many years afterwards he continued to correspond with active workers on the subject of Ragged Schools and on the means of uplifting children out of the conditions, which were so fruitful a source of crime. He discovered for himself how easily miscreants like Fagin could find recruits in the slums of London, and how impossible it was to bring up aright boys who were bred in these neglected homes. Even where efforts had been begun, the machinery was quite inadequate, the teachers few, the schoolrooms cheerless and ill equipped. Mr. Crotch has preserved a letter of 1843 in which Dickens makes the practical offer of providing funds for a washing-place in one school where the children seemed to be suffering from inattention to the elementary needs. His heart warmed towards individual cases and he faced them in practical fashion; he was not one of those reformers who utter benevolent sentiments on the platform and go no further.

Critics have had much to say about Dickens’s treatment of child characters in his novels; the words ‘sentimental’ and ‘mawkish’ have been hurled at scenes like the death of Paul Dombey and Little Nell and at the more lurid episodes in Oliver Twist. But Dickens was a pioneer in his treatment of children in fiction; and if he did smite resounding blows, which jar upon critical ears, at least he opened a rich vein of literature where many have followed him. He wrote not for the critics but for the great popular audience whom he had created, comprising all ages and classes, and worldwide in extent. The best answer to such criticism is to be found in the poem which Bret Harte dedicated to his memory in 1870, which beautifully describes how the pathos of his child-heroine could move the hearts of rough working men far away in the Sierras of the West. Nor did this same character of Little Nell fail to win special praise from literary critics so fastidious as Landor and Francis Jeffrey.

In 1842 he embarked on his first voyage to America. Till then he had travelled little outside his native land, and this expedition was definitely intended to bear fruit. Before starting he made a bargain with his publishers to produce a book on his return. The American Notes thus published, dealing largely with institutions and with the notable ‘sights’ of the country, have not retained a prominent place among his works; with Martin Chuzzlewit and its picture of American manners it is different. This stands alone among his writings in having left a permanent heritage of ill will. Reasons in abundance can be found for the bitterness caused. He portrayed the conceit, the self-interest, the disregard for the feelings of others, which the less-educated American showed to foreigners in a visible and often offensive guise; and the portraits were so life-like that no arrow fails to hit the mark. The American people were young; they had made great strides in material prosperity, they had not been taught to submit to the lash by satirists like Swift or more kindly mentors like Addison. Their own Oliver Wendell Holmes had not yet begun to chastise them with gentle irony. So they were aghast at Dickens’s audacity, and indignant at what seemed an outrage on their hospitality, and few stopped to ask what elements of truth were to be found in the offending book. No doubt it was one-sided and unfair; Dickens, like most tourists, had been confronted by the louder and more aggressive members of the community and had not time to judge the whole. In large measure he recanted in subsequent writings; and on his second visit the more generous Americans showed how little rancor they bore. But the portraits of Jefferson Brick and Elijah Pogram will live; with Pecksniff, ‘Sairey’ Gamp, and other immortals they bear the hallmark of Dickens’s creative genius.

To America he did not go again for twenty-five years; but, as he grew older, he seemed to feel increasing need for change and variety in his mode of life. In 1844 he went for nearly twelve months to Italy, making his head-quarters at Genoa; and in 1846 he repeated the experiment at Lausanne on the lake of Geneva. Later, between 1853 and 1856, he spent a large part of three summers in a villa near Boulogne. Though he desired the change for reasons connected with his work, and though in each case he formed friendly conations with his neighbors, it cannot be said that his books show the influence of either country. His genius was British to the core and he remained an Englishman wherever he went. He complained when abroad that he missed the stimulus of London, where the lighted streets, through which he walked at night, caused his imagination to work with intensified force. But even in Genoa he proved capable of writing The Chimes, which is as markedly English in temper as anything, which he wrote.

The same spirit of restlessness comes out in his ventures into other fields of activity at home. At one time he assumed the editorship of a London newspaper; but a few weeks showed that he was incapable of editorial drudgery and he resigned. His taste for acting played a larger part in his life; and in 1851 and other years he put an enormous amount of energy into organizing public theatrical performances with his friends in London. He always loved the theatre. Macready was one of his innermost circle, and he had other friends on the stage. Indeed there were moments in his life when it seemed that the genius of the novelist might be lost to the world, which would have found but a sorry equivalent in one more actor of talent on the stage, however brilliant that talent was. But the main current of his life went on in London with diligent application to the book or books in hand; or at Broadstairs, where Dickens made holiday in true English fashion with his children by the sea.

In the years following the American voyage the chief landmarks were the production of Dombey and Son (begun in 1846) and David Copperfield (begun in 1849). From many points of view they may be regarded as his masterpieces, where his art is best seen in depicting character and constructing a story, though the infectious gaiety of the earlier novels may at times be missed. Dickens’s insight into human nature had ripened, and he had learnt to group his lesser figures and episodes more skillfully round the central plot. And David Copperfield has the peculiar interest, which attaches to those works where we seem to read the story of the author’s own life. Evidently we have memories here of his childhood, of his school days and his apprenticeship to work, and of the first gleams of success which met him in life. It is generally assumed that the book throws light on his own family relations; but it would be rash to argue confidently about this, as the inventive impulse was so strong in him. At least we may say that it is the book most necessary for a student who wishes to understand Dickens himself and his outlook on the world.

Also David Copperfield may be regarded as the central point and the culmination of Dickens’s career as a novelist. Before it, and again after it, he had a spell of about fifteen years’ steady work at novel writing, and no one would question that the first spell was productive of the better work. Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend all show evidence of greater effort and are less happy in their effect. No man could live the life that Dickens had lived for fifteen years and not show some signs of exhaustion; the wonder is that his creative power continued at all. He was capable of brilliant successes yet. The Tale of Two Cities is among the most thrilling of his stories, while Edwin Drood and parts of Great Expectations show as fine imagination and character drawing as anything which he wrote before 1850; but there is no injustice in drawing a broad distinction between the two parts of his career.

His home during the most fertile period of his activity was in Devonshire Terrace, near Regent’s Park, a house with a garden of considerable size. Here he was within reach of his best friends, who were drawn from all the liberal professions represented in London. First among them stands John Forster, lawyer, journalist, and author, his adviser and subsequently his biographer, the friend of Robert Browning, a man with a genius for friendship, unselfish, loyal, discreet and wise in counsel. Next came the artists Maclise and Clarkson Stanfield, the actor Macready, Talfourd, lawyer and poet, Douglas Jerrold and Mark Lemon, the two famous contributors to Punch, and some fellow novelists, of whom Harrison Ainsworth was conspicuous in the earlier group and Wilkie Collins in later years. Less frequent visitors were Carlyle, Thackeray, and Bulwer Lytton, but they too were proud to welcome Dickens among their friends. With some of these he would walk, ride, or dine, go to the theatre or travel in the provinces and in foreign countries. His biographer loves to recall the Dickens Dinners, organized to celebrate the issue of a new book, when songs and speeches were added to good cheer and when ‘we all in the greatest good-humor glorified each other’. Dickens always retained the English taste for a good dinner and was frankly fond of applause, and there was no element of exclusive priggishness about the cordial admiration, which these friends felt for one another and their peculiar enthusiasm for Dickens and his books. Around him the enthusiasm gathered, and few men have better deserved it.

When he was writing he needed quiet and worked with complete concentration; and when he had earned some leisure he loved to spend it in violent physical exercise. He would suddenly call on Forster to come out for a long ride on horseback to occupy the middle of the day; and his diligent friend, unable to resist the lure of such company, would throw his own work to the winds and come. Till near the end of his life Dickens clung to these habits, thinking nothing of a walk of from twenty to thirty miles; and there seems reason to believe that by constant over-exertion he sapped his strength and shortened his life. But lameness in one foot, the result of an illness early in 1865, handicapped him severely at times; and in the same year he sustained a rude shock in a railway accident where his nerves were upset by what he witnessed in helping the injured. He ought to have acquired the wisdom of the middle-aged man, and to have taken things more easily, but with him it was impossible to be doing nothing; physical and mental activity succeeded one another and often went together with a high state of nervous tension.

This love of excitement sometimes took forms which modern taste would call excessive and unwholesome. His attendance at the public execution of the Mannings in 1849, his going so often to the Morgue in Paris, his visit to America to ‘the exact site where Professor Webster did that amazing murder’, may seem legitimate for one who had to study crime among the other departments of life; but at times he revels in gruesome details in a way which jars on our feeling, and betrays too theatrical a love of sensation. However, no one could say that Dickens is generally morbid, in view of the sound and hearty appreciation which he had for all that is wholesome and genial in life.

In many ways the latter part of his life shows a less even tenor, a less steady development. Though he was so domestic in his tastes and devoted to his children, his relations with his wife became more and more difficult owing to incompatibility of temperament; and from 1858 they found it desirable to live apart. This no doubt added to his restlessness and the craving for excitement, which showed itself in the ardor with which he took up the idea of public readings. These readings are only less famous than his writings; so prodigious was their success. His great dramatic gifts, enlisted in the service of his own creations, made an irresistible appeal to the public, and till the day of his collapse, ten years later, their popularity showed no sign of waning. The amount of money which he earned thereby was amazing; the American tour alone gave him a net profit of £20,000; and he expected to make as much more in two seasons in England. But he paid dearly for these triumphs, being often in trouble with his voice, suffering from fits of sleeplessness, aggravating the pain in his foot, and affecting his heart. In spite, then, of the success of the readings, his faithful friends like Forster would gladly have seen him abandon a practice, which could add little to his future fame, while it threatened to shorten his life. But, however arduous the task which he set himself, when the moment came Dickens could brace himself to meet the demands and satisfy the high expectations of his audience. His nerves seemed to harden, his voice to gain strength; his spirit flashed out undimmed, and he won triumph after triumph, in quiet cathedral cities, in great industrial towns, in the more fatiguing climate of America and before the huge audiences of Philadelphia and New York. He began his program with a few chosen pieces from Pickwick and the Christmas Books, and with selected characters like Paul Dombey and Mrs. Gamp; he added Dotheboys Hall and the story of David Copperfield in brief; in his last series, against the advice of Forster, he worked up the more sensational passages from Oliver Twist. His object, he says, was ‘to leave behind me the recollection of something very passionate and dramatic, done with simple means, if the act would justify the theme’. It was because the art of reading was unduly strained that Forster protested, and his judgment is confirmed by Dickens’s boast (perhaps humorously exaggerated) that ‘at Clifton we had a contagion of fainting, and yet the place was not hot-a dozen to twenty ladies taken out stiff and rigid at various times’. The physical effects of this fresh strain soon appeared. After a month his doctor ordered him to cease reading; and, though he resumed it after a few days’ rest, in April 1869 he had a worse attack of giddiness and was obliged to abandon it permanently. The history of these readings illustrates the character of Dickens perhaps better than any other episode in his later life.

But the same restless energy is visible even in his life at Gadshill, which was his home from 1860 to 1870. The house lies on the London road a few miles west of Rochester, and can easily be seen today, almost unaltered, by the passer-by. It had caught his fancy in his childhood before the age of ten when he was walking with his father, and his father had promised that, if he would only work hard enough, he might one day live in it. The associations of the place with the Falstaff scenes in Henry IV had also endeared it to him; and so, when in 1855 he heard that it was for sale, he jumped at the opportunity. For some years after purchasing it he let it to tenants, but from 1860 he made it his permanent abode. It has no architectural features to charm the eye; with its many changes and additions made for comfort, its bow windows and the plantations in the garden, it is a typical Victorian home. Here Dickens could live at ease, surrounded by his children, his dogs, his books, his souvenirs of his friends, and the Kentish scenery, which he loved. To the north lay the flat marshlands of the lower Thames, to the south and west lay rolling hills crowned with woodlands, with hop gardens on the lower slopes; to the east lay the valley of the Medway with the quaint old streets of Rochester and the bustling dockyard of Chatham. All that makes the familiar beauty and richness of English landscape was here, above all the charm of associations. So many names preserved memories of his books. To Rochester the Pickwickians had driven on their first search for knowledge; to Cobham Mr. Winkle had fled, and at the ‘Leather Bottle’ his friends had found him; in the marshlands Joe Gargery and Pip had watched for the escaped convict; in the old gateway by the cathedral Jasper had entertained Edwin Drood on the eve of his disappearance; along that very high-road over which Dickens’s windows looked the child David Copperfield had tramped in his journey from London to Dover.

Meanwhile, though his creative vein may have been less fertile than of old, his efforts for the good of his fellow men were no less continuous and sincere. His first books had aimed at killing by ridicule certain social institutions, which had sunk into abuses. The pictures of parliamentary elections, of schools, of workhouses, had not only created a hearty laugh, but they had disposed the public to listen to the reformers and to realize the need for reform. As he grew older he went deeper into the evil, and he also blended his reforming purpose better with his story. The characters of Mr. Dombey and the Chuzzlewits are not mere incidents in the tale, nor are they monstrosities that call forth immediate astonishment and horror. But in each case the ingrained selfishness which spreads misery through a family is the very mainspring of the story; and the dramatic power by which Dickens makes it reveal itself in action has something Shakespearian in it. Here there is still a balance between the different elements, the human interest and the moral lesson, and as works of art they are on a higher plane than Hard Times, where the purpose is too clearly shown. Still if we wish to understand this side of Dickens’s work, it is just such a book as Hard Times that we must study.

It deals with the relation of classes to one another in an industrial district, and especially with the faults of the class that rose to power with the development of manufacturing. Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby, the well-meaning pedant and the offensive parvenu, preach the same gospel. Political economy, as they understand it, is to rule life, and this dismal science is not concerned with human well being and happiness, but only with the profit and loss on commercial undertakings. Hard facts then are to be the staple of education; memory and accurate calculation are to be cultivated; the imagination is to be driven out. In depicting the manner of this education Dickens rather overshoots the mark. The visit of Mr. Gradgrind to Mr. M’Choakumchild’s school (when the sharp-witted Bitzer defines the horse according to the scientific handbook, while poor Cissy, who has only an affection for horses, indulges in fancies and collapses in disgrace) is too evident a caricature. But the effects of this kind of teaching are painted with a powerful hand, and we see the faculty for joy blighted almost in the cradle. And the lesson is enforced not only by the workingman and his family but by Gradgrind’s own daughter, who pitilessly convicts her father of having stifled every generous impulse in her and of having sacrificed her on the altar of fancied self-interest.

Side by side with the dismal Mr. Gradgrind is the poor master of the strolling circus, Mr. Sleary, with his truer philosophy of life. He can see the real need that men have for amusement and for brightness in their lives; and, though he lives under the shadow of bankruptcy, he can hold his head up and preach the gospel of happiness. This was a cause, which never failed to win the enthusiastic advocacy of Dickens. He fought, as men still have to fight to-day, against those Pharisees who prescribe for the working classes how they should spend their weekly day of freedom; he supported the opening on Sunday of parks, museums, and galleries; whole-heartedly he loved the theatre and the circus, and he wished as many as possible to share those delights. In defiance of ‘Mrs. Grundy’ he ventured to maintain that the words ‘music-hall’ and ‘public-house’, rightly understood, should be held in honor. It is one thing to hate drunkenness and indecency; it is quite another to assume that these must be found in the poor man’s place of recreation, and this roused him to anger. To him ‘public-house’ meant a place of fellowship, and ‘music-hall’ a place of song and mirth; and if some critics complain of an excess of material good-cheer in his picture of life, Dickens is certainly here in sympathy with the bulk of his fellow-countrymen.

Another cause in which Dickens was always ready to lead a crusade was the amendment of the Poor Law. This will remind us of the early days of Oliver Twist, of such a friendless outcast as Jo in Bleak House, of the struggle of Betty Higden in Our Mutual Friend and her determination never to be given up to ‘the Parish’. But, even more than the famous novels, the casual writings of Dickens in his own magazines and elsewhere throw light on his activities in this cause and on the researches, which he made into the working of the system. Mr. Crotch describes visits which he paid to the workhouses in Wapping and Whitechapel, quoting his comments on the ‘Foul Ward’ in one, on the old men’s ward in the other, and on the torpor of despair which settled down on these poor wrecks of humanity. Could such a system, he asked himself, be wise which robbed men not of liberty alone but of all hope for the future, which left them no single point of interest except the statistics of their fellows who had gone before them and who had been finally liberated by death? A still more striking passage, just because Dickens here shows unusual restraint and moderation in his language, tells us of the five women whom he saw sleeping all night outside the workhouse through no fault of any official, but simply because there was no room for them inside and because society had nothing to offer, no form of ‘relief’ which could touch these unfortunates. Many will be familiar with passages in Ruskin, where he denounces similar tragedies due to our inhuman disregard of what is happening at our doors.

Though the most valuable part of his work was the effective appeal to the hearts of his brother men, Dickens had the practical wisdom to suggest definite remedies in some cases. He saw that the districts in the East End of London, even with a heavy poor rate, failed to supply adequate relief for their waifs and strays, while the wealthy inhabitants of the West End, having few paupers, paid on their riches a rate that was negligible, and he boldly suggested the equalization of rates. All London should jointly share the burden of maintaining those for whose welfare they were responsible and should pay shares proportioned to their wealth. This wise reform was not carried into effect till some thirty or forty years later; but the principle is now generally accepted. Though in this case, as in his famous attack on the Court of Chancery in Bleak House, Dickens failed in obtaining any immediate effect, it is unquestionable that he influenced the minds of thousands and changed the temper in which they looked at the problem of the poor. In this nothing that he wrote was more powerful than the series of Christmas Books, in which his imagination, with the power of a Rembrandt, threw on to a smaller canvas the lights and shades of London life, the grim background of mean streets, and the cheerful virtues which throw a glamour over their humble homes. His advocacy of these social causes came to be known far and wide and contributed a second element to the popularity won by his novels; long before his death Dickens stood on a pinnacle alone, loved by the vast reading public among those who toil in our towns and villages, and wherever English is read and understood. He was not only their entertainer, but their friend and brother; he had been through his days of sorrow and suffering and he had kept that vast fund of cheerfulness which overflowed into his books and gladdened the lives of so many thousands. When he died in 1870 after a year of intermittent illness, following on his breakdown over the public readings, there was naturally a widespread desire that he should be buried in Westminster Abbey, as a great Englishman and a true representative of his age. During life he had expressed his desire for a private funeral, unheralded in the press, and he had thought of two or three quiet churches in the neighbourhood of Rochester and Gadshill. These particular graveyards were found to be already closed, and the family consented to a compromise by which their father should be buried in the Abbey at an early hour when no strangers would be aware of it. After his body was laid to rest, the people were admitted to pay their homage; the universality and the sincerity of their feelings was shown in a wonderful way. Among men of letters he had reigned in the hearts of the people, as Queen Victoria reigned among our sovereigns. In the annals of her reign his name will outlive those of soldiers, of prelates, and of politicians.

The causes for which he fought have not all been won yet. Officialdom still dawdles over the work of the State, hearts are still broken by the law’s delays, the path of crime still lies too easily open to the young. Vast progress has been made; a humane spirit is to be found in the working of our Government, and a truer knowledge of social problems is spreading among all classes. But the world cannot afford to relegate Charles Dickens to oblivion, and shows no desire to do so; his books are and will be a wellspring of cheerfulness, of faith in human nature, and of true Christian charity from which all will do well to drink.



MLA Source Citation:

Blore, George Henry. Victorian Worthies, Sixteen Biographies. Oxford University Press, England. 1920. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 21 December 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/genealogy/biography-of-charles-dickens.htm - Last updated on Feb 10th, 2013


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