Charity in the Novels of Charles Dickens

Frank Christianson, Brigham Young University

“What connexion [sic] can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together?”

Dickens spends several hundred thousand words addressing this question posed by the narrator in the opening chapters of Bleak House (1852).  Over the course of this darkly satiric novel, and over the course of his entire career, Dickens was deeply occupied with the problem of economic and social difference and the role of charity in shaping mid-Victorian sociality. In Bleak House Dickens employs a host of plot devices to connect characters across geographic and social spaces as he takes the measure of English social sympathies. To the extent that economic and class differences constitute the “great gulf” in Dickens’ social philosophy, the author ultimately finds a way to make philanthropy provide a means of bridging this divide.

Charles Dickens, 1812-1870

This bicentenary year of Charles Dickens’ birth inspires reflection on many aspects of his life and legacy. Charity was certainly central to his work, both as a subject and as a rationale for his particular notion of authorship. Dickens wrote about charity, but his novels were also philanthropic ventures (nowhere more overtly than the gift-wrapped A Christmas Carol). However, Dickens’ preoccupation with charity reflected a much broader cultural shift and should be understood in the context of a mid to late Victorian transformation in the nature and function of philanthropic practice. Writing in the period between the 1834 New Poor Law and the rise of the modern welfare state, Dickens’ witnessed both the economic promise and the privations caused by industrialism. He also saw the emergence of new forms of voluntarism, institutional charity, and state-sponsored solutions to the problem of poverty. His work reflects a ceaseless effort to identify and assess problems and solutions within a framework that promoted social reform while preserving the fundamentals of the Victorian economic order.

Thomas Malthus, 1766-1834

As early as 1843 with A Christmas Carol Dickens had explored issues surrounding the role of philanthropy (and the consequences of misanthropy). The novel’s plot begins with the encounter between Scrooge and the philanthropists on Christmas Eve. In refusing to give, Scrooge echoes the language of political economy: Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) in particular, by designating the poor as a social and economic surplus. Scrooge endorses Malthus’ harsh remedies to the population problem—at one point in the Essay Malthus observes that, when faced with starvation caused by excess population and inadequate food production “[t]he infant is, comparatively speaking, of little value to the society, as others will immediately supply its place”.

This perspective becomes the pretext for the haunting of Scrooge that follows, but it is in the initial encounter with the philanthropists that Dickens sets the stage for the rehabilitation of his unsympathetic (un-sympathizing) subject. Faced with the invitation to give of his surplus, Scrooge expresses his faith in “the Treadmill and the Poor Law.”  Poverty relief policy in the form of the 1834 New Poor Law, the stated purpose of which was the “dispauperizing” of the able-bodied, was widely criticized for its punitive treatment of able and disabled alike. The New Poor Law was also criticized for focusing exclusively on the able-to-work adult male while effectively ignoring women, children, and the elderly. Scrooge embodies this form of willful ignorance in his response to the philanthropist’s moral outrage. When told that many poor would rather die than turn to “indoor” relief in the form of the workhouse, Scrooge responds with the incredulous “I don’t know that.” Scrooge, like the poor law commissioner, equates the economic condition of poverty with the moral condition of pauperism and views the workhouse and the prison as interchangeable remedies.

1870s Tiny Tim illustration by Frederick Barnard

The appeal for charity forces Scrooge to take a position from which the remainder of the plot works to redeem him. Dickens deploys the Cratchits, and Tiny Tim in particular, to put a sentimental face on political economy’s “surplus”.  Dickens also challenges the world of Malthusian scarcity with images of abundance embodied in sumptuous descriptions of the poulterer and fruiterer shops, and in the oversized turkey Scrooge sends to the Cratchits. A raise in pay is the ultimate solution to the problem of meeting the needs of Bob Cratchit’s burgeoning family. Through the figure of Scrooge as philanthropist Dickens offers a portrait of benevolent capitalism.

That philanthropy might play this complementary role was far from self-evident at the time Dickens wrote Bleak House. As an increasingly institutionalized, even professionalized, practice the business of giving had come under attack on multiple fronts. Political economists decried the pauperizing consequences of indiscriminant charity and viewed it as a shadow economy which circulated millions in unregulated (by markets or the state) currency and resources, undermining the principles of laissez faire.  Indeed, philanthropy’s professional turn came in response to such criticisms as it developed a more scientific approach to classifying the needy and administering to their needs.

Thomas Carlyle, 1795-1881

Dickens’ novel both acknowledges and works against critiques of philanthropy such as Thomas Carlyle’s in Latter-Day Pamphlets published in 1850, two years before Bleak House began to appear serially. Carlyle condemns in no uncertain terms the Philanthropic movement’s “indiscriminate mashing-up of Right and Wrong into a patent treacle” which threatens to “drown human society as in deluges, and leave, instead an ‘edifice of society’ fit for the habitation of men, a continent of fetid ooze inhabitable only for mud-gods and creatures that walk upon their belly.” In Carlyle’s view, philanthropy diverts the “more humane and noble-minded” away from what he terms “real reform:” instead of a focus on the “wellheads [. . .] the chief fountains of these waters of bitterness” relief societies “puddle in the embouchures and drowned outskirts.” Palliative measures that randomly target the symptoms of social ills can only have a perpetuating effect. Carlyle’s criticisms were part of a rising chorus in the 1850s and ’60s that resulted in efforts to reform through systematization and bureaucratization, most notably in the form of Charity Organization Societies.

Carlyle’s view of “philanthropism,” as he terms it, is unequivocally condemnatory and this provides a useful counterpoint to Dickens’ novel, which appears to advance equally sharp criticisms but does so with a radically different end in mind. Like Carlyle, Dickens both questions the misplaced priorities of much philanthropy and attempts to prescribe the proper object of charity. He does this first, and most overtly, in his representations of Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle, the professional philanthropists. The problem, as embodied by these women, is that philanthropy is simultaneously programmatic and indiscriminate (indiscriminate because programmatic). Dickens uses both figures to introduce and offer dubious versions of a maxim that will become increasingly central to the novel: charity begins at home.

Philanthropy works as the chief category of social relation in Dickens’ writing in part because it is transmutable between the boundaries of professional and amateur, public and private. Unlike other institutions, such as Chancery, which Dickens criticizes as immutable and incorrigible, philanthropy, once its most egregious manifestations are exposed and critiqued, can take other forms. Dickens uses satire to differentiate and adjudicate between various practices; this eventually enables him to advance a model of social identity with less reservation or the taint of contingency. Dickens demonstrates this most notably in his portrait of the philanthropist, Mrs. Jellyby, who devotes all of her energies in an effort to “civilize” African natives while her own family languishes. Dickens contrasts this “telescopic philanthropy” with the person to person service of his heroine, Esther Summerson. Esther moves across social strata offering aid to those she comes to know. Her radiating “circle of duty” touches many lives as it “gradually and naturally expand[s] itself.”

Dickens can offer this idealized portrait of charitable action because he has made philanthropy a preliminary rather than primary object of satire. In other words, Dickens’ sardonic treatment of philanthropy is not an end in itself; rather, its intention is purgative, to rescue philanthropy from the instrumentalizing influence of other Victorian institutions such as the courts or parliament or the churches. His very purpose was the renovation of charity.

To cite this article, please use: Frank Christianson, ‘Charity in the Novels of Charles Dickens’, Voluntary Action History Society blog (1 October 2012). Available at http://www.vahs.org.uk/2012/10/dickens-christianson/
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