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Victorian culture warrior

Nearly 200 years later, how Charles Dickens changed the literary landscape

Victorian culture warrior

(Charles Dickens (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images))

Charles Dickens, whose bicentennial is celebrated this year, was both a literary giant and a Christian activist. Like William Wilberforce a generation earlier, Dickens took on the overwhelming social and moral problems of his day. Motivated by his Christian faith, Dickens used the power of his pen to awaken compassion, change public opinion, and inspire social reform. Christians 200 years later could learn from his example.

Although "Victorian" has become a synonym for moral rectitude and middle class propriety, 19th-century England also had rampant prostitution, sickness, and starvation. Those lucky enough to find work labored as much as 16 hours a day in toxic factories, earning just enough to stay alive. Thirty people sometimes crowded into a single room in disease-ridden tenements.

Unwanted children-orphans, the offspring of prostitutes, and those whose parents simply abandoned them-roamed the city in packs. Boys as young as 5 earned a few coins cleaning chimneys or working in factories, but others made their living picking pockets. Little girls might also find work, but many eventually entered the sex trade with "Victorian" gentlemen as their customers.

Many Victorians of the higher classes averted their eyes from the vulgar masses, who were mostly uneducated, uncivilized, and unchurched. But even middle-class families could sink into poverty. This is what happened to John Dickens, the father of Charles and his seven siblings. A clerk at the Navy pay-office, Mr. Dickens lived above his means, until he and his whole family were sent to debtors' prison. Charles was 12, considered old enough to work, so he spent 10 hours a day pasting labels on bottles at a shoe-polish factory.

Then, in a twist critics might call unrealistic if it happened in a novel, a wealthy aunt died, leaving Mr. Dickens a small fortune. He paid his debts, restarted his household, and sent Charles to school.

It was not a good school (though it gave him material for his later satires of bad teachers, such as the schoolmaster Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times who insisted on teaching "just the facts"). But Charles learned to read and write. Afterwards, he became a clerk (like Bob Cratchett in A Christmas Carol) for a law firm (like the red tape generators in Bleak House). After Charles taught himself shorthand, a London newspaper hired him to transcribe speeches in parliament. He became a journalist, specializing in "sketches," humorous descriptions and character studies, some of which were published as a book. He then wrote The Pickwick Papers about the humorous travels of an eccentric gentleman, accompanied by his faithful servant Sam Weller (who became the model for J.R.R. Tolkien's Sam Gamgee). Dickens had become a novelist.

His next book, Oliver Twist, explored the plight of abandoned children and attacked the government's anti-poverty program. Influenced by the new utilitarian ethics, the Poor Law of 1834 established "workhouses"-prisons for the poor. The destitute, orphans, unwed mothers, and the elderly could receive relief only if they voluntarily committed themselves to miserable lodgings. Dickens exposed the inhumane conditions, with readers cut to the heart with his description of little Oliver in the gruel line asking for "more."

Dickens became a publishing sensation. He wrote 16 novels in all, from the autobiographical David Copperfield to the holiday classic A Christmas Carol. His books came out in eagerly awaited installments. In ornate English parlors and in American log cabins, families read them aloud. They loved the novels' vivid (if exaggerated) characters, gripping plots, warm humor, and moral impact.

Dickens wrote about social problems by giving them a human face. He awakened his readers' sympathies with moralistic but humorous and entertaining stories that conveyed an infectious love of ordinary people and of everyday life.

The Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton considered Dickens one of his favorite writers. Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky called Dickens "that great Christian writer." And yet, since some of his harshest satire is directed against Christians, many scholars have assumed that Dickens rejected religion.

A new book by Gary L. Colledge, God and Charles Dickens: Recovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012), shows that a specifically Christian worldview animates all of Dickens' works. As Colledge demonstrates, Dickens believed in the divinity of Christ, His sacrifice for our sins, His resurrection, and the other tenets of Christianity-but Dickens was writing for readers who professed Christ yet were complacent and indifferent about the social evils around them. Dickens' purpose in his religious caricatures was to awaken the church and inspire Christians to live out the implications of their faith.

Dickens was frustrated with Christians who argued about theological minutiae while children around them died. He lambasted the established Anglican church, to which he belonged, for supporting the social establishment and neglecting the poor. Dickens was frustrated with those who tried to terrify abandoned children with hellfire, rather than introducing these rejected, suffering souls to a Heavenly Father who loved them.

Dickens was a master of skewering hypocrites, such as Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House who was so preoccupied with helping children in Africa that she neglected her own children. Then there is Mrs. Clennam in Little Dorrit with her harsh and venomous religiosity.

Dickens was impatient with theology, seeing the essence of Christianity in imitating Jesus. But that is a standard no one can meet, including Dickens. He tried to live out his social gospel, using his wealth for a wide range of philanthropies-a hospital for the poor, a home to rehabilitate prostitutes, the "Ragged Schools" that gave street children an education-and he personally helped many needy individuals. But his personal life did not always measure up to his own ideals.

Though he popularized the ideal of the Victorian family and was a devoted father to his 10 children, he and his wife Catherine had an unhappy marriage. When he took up with an 18-year-old actress, Catherine left him. Dickens drew his characters from his own life, whether they were abandoned children or sinners and hypocrites.

But he did awaken Victorian Christians to their social responsibilities. Evangelicals, many of whom were inspired by Dickens' novels, led the way in closing workhouses and debtor's prisons, improving working conditions, and addressing the plight of neglected children. By the end of the 19th century, most of the reforms Dickens called for had been enacted.

Twentieth-century novelists reacted against Dickens' moralizing narrative voice, melodrama, and sentimentality. Writers turned inward. They sought their material not so much in society but in psychology and their own self-expression. But as Tom Wolfe points out in his "Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel," the interior preoccupation impoverishes both fiction and the culture. Wolfe says that today's wildly tumultuous society begs for writers like Dickens.

Gene Edward Veith

Gene Edward Veith

Gene is a former WORLD culture editor.