Did Charles Dickens create our idea of the Victorians?

16 December

I think so. Because he was so widely read and because he was so much attuned to the temper of the times, both in what he celebrated and what he deplored and attacked, for very many of us what we think of as Victorian Britain is Dickens’ Britain. Just as he writes novels that look at the real world imaginatively, so too we look back at the Victorian age through the filter of Dickens’ writing. The nineteenth century was an age of fundamental political, religious, judicial, scientific, and social reform – and much else – and Dickens lived through and wrote constantly about such change.

Dickens had a very large and diverse range of interests, and he was outspoken both about what he admired and about what he deplored. Both as a defender and as a critic of society, he was a pre-eminently representative Victorian. I think the starting place for any discussion of his values must begin with his conviction of the fundamental decency of most human beings (he did make exceptions, considering a few individuals, like the murderer Bill Sikes, fundamentally evil).

This meant that he was outspoken in his defence of ordinary people to lead their lives with respect and without oppression. He certainly did not reject the class system and was alert to the nuances of social respectability, but the core of his convictions was a belief in the New Testament doctrine to love one’s neighbour. As a reformer he was neither wholly consistent nor philosophically based, but in his sense of living in a dynamic, secular age, he was typical of his time. During his lifetime the population and the franchise in Britain expanded massively, and Dickens had his finger on the pulse of such development.

“Dickens had no time for High Church dogma, and held Parliament - and most politicians - in contempt.”

He deplored political and religious attempts to circumscribe the lives of working people, writing trenchantly throughout his life against evangelical arguments about human sinfulness, opposing Sabbatarian efforts to restrict innocent activities, and deploring Tory assumptions of inherent privilege. He had no time for High Church dogma and ritual, and he held Parliament - and most politicians - in contempt. He championed sanitation, education, tolerance, and believed in individual attitude and activity to promote such things.

He was interested in progress, in inventions, in geography, in geology and in the huge varieties of human activity at home and abroad. It is important to recognise that he was as active as a journalist throughout his life as he was a novelist, He wrote a great many articles in his journals about such things, and published very many more by contributors. The historian Walter Bagehot tellingly described Dickens as a “special correspondent for posterity”, an insightful description of his ability vividly and cogently to report on the world he lived in.

He worked tirelessly in practical ways to improve education for the poor, to promote slum clearance, to deal charitably with the evils of prostitution, and his association with the wealthy philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts over many years epitomised Victorian efforts to advance civilisation – what Ruskin meant when he referred to Dickens as a proponent of the “steam-whistle party.” He spoke often in aid of Mechanics’ Institutes; he was President of the Newsvendors Benevolent Society, and he was a founder and leading proponent of the Guild of Literature and Art. In such ways he embodied in his person, in his writings, and in his activities, central characteristics of what we think of as Victorianism.

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