Changing the World – Charles Dickens



Happy 200th Birthday, Mr Dickens.

Dickens’s reach is amazing: there would be few people alive who have not read a Dickens novel or seen an adaptation for film or stage of one of his stories. The characters of Oliver Twist (‘Please, sir, I want some more’) and A Christmas Carol, Scrooge and Tiny Tim have become part of the language.

Charles Dickens was a social reformer. He believed that he could use his fiction to bring change. I was surprised when I re-read Oliver Twist recently by the anger Dickens expresses, not so much at the poverty that children (and others) experience, but by the two facts that some middle class people couldn’t care less about poverty and that others actively exploit the poor. Dickens describes the parish system with its beadles and work-houses in the most negative terms.

Dickens did not restrict his social reforming to fiction and journalism. As he became rich, he was generous to individuals, not only giving them money, but also providing ongoing personal support for them. With the fabulously wealthy Miss Coutts he founded a Home for Fallen Women to rehabilitate prostitutes and equip them for a good life in Canada or Australia.

I’m really enjoying Claire Tomalin’s new Charles Dickens: a life, which you can borrow through the public library system.

Dickens had a conventional belief in God. He probably attended church only for weddings and funerals. It would be wrong for us Christians to claim Dickens as some kind of saint: the 19th Century did produce saints who were inspired by their Christian faith to battle poverty and injustice. Charles Kingsley and Elizabeth Fry come to mind; as does Florence Nightingale, who though a highly unconventional Christian, was deeply inspired by John’s Gospel.

However, I believe as Christians we are called to work with not only other Christians in the fight against injustice, but also to work alongside others engaged in similar work. In this light, we can celebrate Charles Dickens, social reformer, as one who translated his outrage at the treatment of the vulnerable into real change. Dickens made the world a better place, and if we hear his anger now as we read his novels, his influence can continue.

Advertisements