By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird
At a recent birthday party, I had the joy of meeting a fellow UBC School of Social Work alumni whom I had not seen since our 1976 graduation. As we renewed our friendship, he gave me a Charles Dickens biography as a Christmas present. This sent me to our local library to get out numerous Dickens books, biographies and movies. Dickens was perhaps the first true celebrity in the modern sense. While many of us love the beauty of Shakespeare, Dickens remains more accessible to most English-speaking people.
Why have Dickens’ books continued to speak to us a hundred and fifty years later? Perhaps it is because of Dickens’ secret suffering in his painful childhood. His parents moved more than twenty times in eighteen years. Since Dickens’ father was sent to debtors’ prison and Charles Dickens to a blacking factory, he was able to tell compelling stories of degradation and abuse. The average Londoner in the 1840s died by age twenty seven, with almost half of the deaths being children under the age of ten. Dickens was deeply disturbed by the poverty, hunger, and ignorance, as well as by the indifference of the rich and powerful to the widespread suffering. George Bernard Shaw said that Dickens’ book Little Dorritt is more seditious than Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.
The ideals of family life and generosity to the poor in Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol continue to strike a chord today with countless millions. Dickens, like many of us, was at his best at Christmas, letting down his hair, resting from his frenetic writing, and enjoying the warmth of family and good food. Many people don’t realize that Dickens had a very deep faith in the Christ of Christmas. The last Dickens book The Life of Our Lord was published posthumously 85 years later, after the death of his last child. Written for his ten children, it shows both his love for both Jesus and one’s neighbours: “My dear children, I am very anxious that you should know something about the History of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about Him. No one ever lived, who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in anyway ill or miserable, as he was.”
Despite his high ideals, Dickens was often tempted to be a Scrooge. The financial pressure was enormous and unrelenting. With little initial profit from A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote: “I shall be ruined beyond all mortal hope of redemption.” Fortunately for Dickens, Americans turned A Christmas Carol into a bestseller. Dickens visited the United States twice, both times being treated like a Hollywood Superstar, even being chased by paparazzi.
Marrying on the rebound, Dickens chose a wife to whom he was not romantically attracted. Catherine Hogarth Dickens did not live up to his fictional ideals of women who were perpetually young, attractive, thin, and emotionally passionate. While she loved being at home looking after her large family, he always wanted to be on the go, particularly abroad. The more anxious Dickens became, the faster he went and the slower Catherine went. Before he developed painful gout, he would walk twelve miles every night. It was his way of both de-escalating and carefully observing his environment for new book material. Dickens commented: “If I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish.”
Sadly, after a marital conflict, Dickens had a partition built in their bedroom, cutting himself off from his wife. Rather than celebrate his wife’s very different personality, he resented her for not being just like himself: “…nothing on earth could make her understand me, or suit us for each other. Her temperament will not go with mine…no one can help me.” Because he had never forgiven his mother for trying to send him back to the blacking factory, it poisoned his relations with his wife: “I never afterward forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.” Bitterness betrays our highest ideals and turns us into Scrooges. Dickens, under pressure, portrayed himself as a victim, blaming others rather than owning his personal baggage. Remarkably his wife Catherine stayed loyal to her painful husband, going to productions of his work and keeping up with his publications even after the divorce. In the midst of his rejecting his wife, many friendships were cut off, publishers fired, theatricals ended, family vacations ceased, and his charitable work with heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts brought to an end. The breakup of Dickens’ marriage and the secret infatuation that he had with Nelly Ternan wore Dickens out. In the last part of his life, he was as sick as his secrets, exhausted by his coverups and workaholism. Despite Dickens’ tragic male/female relationships, his unforgettable vision for a better society still speaks to us in the early twenty-first century. My prayer for those reading this article is that we will learn to integrate our ideals and our reality in loving our neighbours as ourselves.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-an article previously published in the Light Magazine and the Deep Cove Crier/North Shore News
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 Jane Smiley, Charles Dickens, (Lipper/Viking Penguin Publishing, 2002), v.; Norrie Epstein, The Friendly Dickens, (Viking/Penguin, Toronto, Canada, 1998), xvi “The best-selling novelist in Russia is neither Tolstoy nor Dostoyevsky but Dickens.”; Smiley, 26, “…as close to a household name as any movie star today…the first person to become a ‘name brand’…”
 Smiley, v, “Among English writers, Dicken’s only peer, in terms of general fame, worldwide literary stature, and essential Englishness, is William Shakespeare.”; Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: a Life, (Viking/Penguin Books,Toronto, Ontario, 2011), Inside Front Cover, “Perhaps the greatest novelist in the English language…”
 Smiley, vi “…Dickens did not reveal the details of his painful childhood even to his children.”; Epstein, 15, “His entire life was a reaction against his parents and his childhood…as a man, he was compulsively controlling…In his novels, every abandoned waif was a version of himself; his negligent silly mothers were caricatures of Elizabeth; his wastrel selfish fathers were all John.”
 Epstein, 15.
 Smiley, 46.
 Tomalin, xlii.; Epstein, 207, “Daniel Webster said: ‘Dickens has done more to ameliorate the conditions of the English poor than all the statesmen Great Britain has sent into Parliament.’”; Epstein, 209 “Through his writings and what he meant to reader’s, he has probably influenced more people to do good than any other writer.”
 Epstein, 275; Tomalin, 229, “…(Dickens) wrote on many social issues –housing,sanitation, accidents in factories,workhouses,and in the defence of the poor to enjoy Sunday as they choose.”
 Epstein, 174, “ Christmas Carol is a phenomenon, an industry, and a ritual… Carol touches our deep desire for a second chance at life.”; Gary L. Colledge, God and Dickens, (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, MI), 52 “Wes Standiford, borwwing from Byron Rogers, refers to Dickens as the man who invented Christmas.”
 Epstein, 186, “As his son Charley commented, ‘My father was always at his best at Christmas.’ That season brought out all of Dickens’ most endearing qualities – his hospitality, graciousness, generosity, sense of fun, and genius for entertaining.”
P.187 Chesteron: “The mystery of Christmas is in a manner identical with the mystery of Dickens.”
 Smiley, 162 “Love, kindness, forgiveness, benevolence, celebration, mercy, joy, charity, and innocence all had their source, for Dickens, in Christ and Christmas.”; Smiley, 42, Charles Dickens said: “Looking on Niagara Falls: then when I felt how near to my Creator I was standing, the first effect and the enduring one –instant and lasting–of the tremendous spectacle was Peace. Peace of mind,tranquility, recollection of the dead, great thoughts of eternal rest and happiness…”
 Charles Dickens, The Life of Our Lord, (Simon and Schuster, New York, NY, 1934), 11, 27 “…God makes no difference between those who wear good clothes and those who go barefoot and in rags.”
 Tomalin, Front Inside Cover: “After his death, his own daughter wrote to Bernard Shaw, ‘If you could make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me.’”
 Smiley, 60.; Tomalin, 150 “The accounts for the Carol showed that almost all the profits were absorbed in the expenses of binding, special paper, coloured plates, and advertising.”; Epstein, 185, paraphrase: The Carol’s failure drove Dickens to Italy. His dramatic readings of it earned him more money than any of his books.
 Tomalin, 150. “In America, it became his biggest seller, clocking up two million copies in a hundred years.”
 Tomalin, P.127 “He was seen as ‘the English writer who was on their side, who believed in liberty and democracy, and who showed in his books that he cared about ordinary people and thought the poor more worthy of attention than the rich.'(…) At the time of his arrival, the New York Herald wrote: ‘His mind is American–his soul is republican –his heart is democratic.’”; Tomalin, 130, “Dickens commented: ‘There was never a King or Emperor upon the earth so cheered l, and followed by crowds…and waited upon by public bodies and deputations of all kinds.”
 Epstein, 38. “Maria Beadnell’s capriciousness and his subsequent humiliation influenced him to choose the placid and compliant Catherine Hogarth for a wife.”; Epstein, 45, “…Catherine was so unlike Maria that she never would remind Charles of what he had lost.”
 Smiley, 61. “Catherine’s pregnancy with Francis, the fifth child of the family in seven years, seem to have marked a running point in Dicken’s attitude towards his wife. The agitation he betrayed in his money worries and his eagerness to go abroad met with great reluctance and depression on her part. He seems to have held against her both the inconvenience of the pregnancy and her inability to rally quickly after the birth.”
 Tomalin, 66. “She (Catherine) had no experience of anything but family life when he met her, and showed little evidence of being interested in anything outside the domestic world.”
 Tomalin, 238.
 Tomalin, 183 “His need to walk through the streets at night was a tormenting mental phenomenon.”
 Smiley, 61 “Catherine’s pregnancy with Francis, the fifth child of the family in seven years, seem to have marked a running point in Dicken’s attitude towards his wife. The agitation he betrayed in his money worries and his eagerness to go abroad met with great reluctance and depression on her part. He seems to have held against her both the inconvenience of the pregnancy and her inability to rally quickly after the birth.”
 Smiley, 140, Writing to his good friend Forster, “She (Catherine) is exactly what you know, in the way of being amiable and complying; but we are strangely ill-assorted for the bond there is between us…and if I were sick or disabled tomorrow, I know how sorry she would beans how deeply grieved myself, to think how we had lost each other.”‘ “Her temperament will not go with mine.”; Smiley, 285.; Tomalin, 66. 118, “Kind looks and gentle manner she doubtless had, and a will to please –what she lacked was the strength of character needed to hold her own against her husband’s powerful will.”
 Epstein, 26 “…John suddenly wanted his son (Charles) be sent to school; Elizabeth however wanted him to return to the warehouse. With great bitterness, Dickens recalled, “I never afterward forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.”
 Smiley, 148.
 Smiley, 150.
 Smiley, 18, 289; Tomalin, 210 re Miss Coutts, Dickens, and Urania House: If there was a providence in the fall of a sparrow, these girls were his sparrows, and he wanted them to fly, not fall.”
 Nelly ends up marrying an Anglican clergyman, after Dickens’ death, while pretending to be fourteen years younger than she was.
 Smiley, 75 “…Dicken’s secretiveness and shame at his origins was a realistic response to the closed, judgemental nature of English society.”; Smiley, 206 “it (his frenetic schedule) left him exhausted…but the habits of industry and restlessness could not be broken.”; Tomalin, Front inside cover, “…the very qualities that made him great –his indomitable energy, boldness, imagination, showmanship, and enjoyment of fame–finally destroyed him.”; Tomalin, 259 “Dickens kept going by taking on too much. He knew no other way to live, and no day went by in which he did not stretch himself, physically, socially, and emotionally.”; Epstein, 53 “Dicken’s nervous energy was perfect for the serial form which required two weeks of concentrated feverish work… On the other hand, the process, continued uninterrupted for almost forty years, was his undoing….at forty three, Dickens looked almost elderly.”