Charles Dickens knew poverty and child labor. He knew these things.
Raised in a middle-class home, he was educated, not merely schooled, because his early schooling was mediocre, like most of the limited formal education available in the early 19th century. He owed much to the learning that comes by osmosis in a literate household. Above all, he read voraciously.
And then, disaster.
Charles' father, a spendthrift clerk, was shut up in the Marshalsea, London's infamous debtors' prison. Young Charles was sent out to work in a soul-destroying job, pasting labels and paper lids onto jars of shoe polish.
He was only 12 years old.
But Charles Dickens was old enough to understand the implications of this turn of events: His future was destroyed. His life of joyful learning had given way to ten hours a day in a crumbling, rat-infested warehouse, doing work that was precise enough to demand his full attention, and mind-numbing enough to prevent imaginative thought. There was no hope of escape.
And yet, escape he did. Was he liberated from the boot-blacking factory because of his superior intelligence? No. Because of his superior education? No. Because powerful Victorians saw the light, and freed children from exploitation and misery? No. Because he worked hard at his humble job? Emphatically, no.
Charles was made free because his family was middle class: His father came into a large inheritance from Charles' great-grandmother. He was released from prison, and young Charles was saved.
But the adult Charles Dickens knew that he was both fortunate and privileged. He knew that most people were not. His anger at selfishness, greed, and callousness shines through his novels: What more bitter a statement than Scrooge's vicious response to those who solicit a charitable donation from him: Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? When the Christmas spirits educate Scrooge by showing him historical context--past, present,future-- nobody is made more happy than the enlightened Ebenezer Scrooge himself.
Charles Dickens needed no such liberation. His concern and compassion for others came through in his lifetime, not only in his fiction, but also in his cogent criticisms of mid-Victorian society, attacking soulless factory-like teaching methods as well as the heartless attitudes of the day evinced in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which forced the poor to choose between destitution, and prison-like workhouses. Dickens supported the efforts of working men to pursue a life of the mind, but he offered fewer prescriptions for good education than he did criticisms, perhaps sensing (as do those of us who follow in his footsteps today) that good teaching is really about caring and sharing one's own life of the literate mind.
In every way, Charles Dickens rose above his lower middle-class circumstances to embrace a generous vision of life, precisely because he had stared into the void of a miserable, meaningless existence at a vulnerable age. Perhaps because, even after the family's windfall came, his own mother pondered leaving him in the factory. A miserable youth and successful adulthood do not necessarily lead to empathy, but a good education should. Dickens believed in education because he did not want others to suffer as he had. Above all, as he knew, education ought to mean saving oneself and others from learning the hard way.
There is a reason his voice is still relevant today. Indeed, it is growing more relevant than at any time in the past century. Confronting Scrooge (and us) with ignorance and want in the guise of two wretched children, Dickens does not offer as a solution prisons and workhouses, joyless instruction and punishment by bureaucracy. He offers aid and education, not for the few, but for all. His message is both simple and complex, and it is urgent.
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Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com