Why read Dickens? Sure he was popular in his day – the most popular author of the Victorian era, it is often said – but that was well over a hundred years ago now. Why, in the 21st century, should we still care about what this moralising freelance reporter has to say? Long gone are the workhouses, the gallows, the guillotine, the chimney sweeps, and the convict transports bearing their helpless human cargo into exile.
Long gone they may be, but the human condition remains, and it was to the human condition that Dickens (and, arguably, all the great authors) addressed himself. What is right? What is wrong? What is just? How ought a person to live in the face of hardship? In injustice? Are the poor solely to blame for their circumstances? What duty, if any, do the more fortunate have towards the less fortunate?
It was questions like these that Dickens endeavoured to address through his work, with a realism that some readers found shocking.
It appeared to me that to draw a knot of such associates in crime as really do exist; to paint them in all their deformity, in all their wretchedness, in all the squalid poverty of their lives; to show them as they really are, for ever skulking uneasily through the dirtiest paths of life, with the great, black, ghastly gallows closing upon their prospect, turn them where they may; it appeared to me that to do this, would be to attempt a something which was greatly needed, and which would be a service to society. And therefore I did it as I best could.
Charles Dickens, preface to ‘Oliver Twist’
Dickens had reason to empathise with the less-fortunate. Throughout his childhood his father, John, led the family from one financial crisis to another, culminating in his landing in Debtor’s Prison when Charles was just twelve. As a result, his son had little formal education although he was a prolific reader. This did not prevent Dickens from finding success as a journalist and subsequently, of course, as a novelist.
Remembered today as a devout Christian, there is little doubt that Dickens had strong personal beliefs and remained loyal to the Anglican church (in its ‘low church’ expression) throughout his life, but he was often impatient with a religiosity which seemed more intent on forcing people into conformity than improving their lot.
Sometimes criticised for his distasteful realism, Dickens is also, paradoxically, sometimes criticised for his determination to provide his heroes with what I like to think of as a ‘satisfactory’ or ‘fair’ ending. Thus honest little orphans receive a loving family, arrogant braggarts are taken down a peg or two and learn the value of hard work… and criminals, in keeping with the Victorian ideal of justice, face death either on the gallows or in some more gruesome manner.
Why care about Dickens? Because in his concern for social justice, Dickens is in many ways a profoundly modern writer.
Starting-points with Dickens: ‘The Pickwick Papers’, originally published in serial form 1836-37, was his breakthrough work. ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘Oliver Twist’, and ‘Great Expectations’ are probably the best-known of Dickens’ works today, while ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ captures the violence and social upheaval of the French Revolution from an intensely human perspective.
Have you read any works by Charles Dickens? What did you think?