In 1843, a frazzled but fertile literary genius battled a succession of giants and was sorely losing on several fronts. His recent novel was unsuccessful, and his wife was pregnant again (they would have 10 children soon). But the dark giants of poverty and child abuse were the worst of the lot. Compelled to fight them his entire life, he felt alone. They towered and leered – pervasive, meekly accepted, and by turns exploited or ignored by the British class system.
Charles Dickens came to know these issues intimately when his father was sent to debtor’s prison, and much of his childhood was spent in forced child-labor and hardship. Overcoming his past was a major coup, as almost all 19th-century writers were strictly upper class with no insight and little interest in lives of the poor. But with a victim’s secret knowledge and his native brilliance, Dickens was better equipped to battle the scourges of England than anyone before – or perhaps, since.
Dickens wove issues of injustice and poverty into everything he wrote like a dark thread, from his beginnings as a journalist who frequently covered Parliamentary meetings. Human trafficking and child prostitution existed even under Queen Victoria’s watch, although no one dared speak of it directly.
Reacting to an appalling 1843 government report on child labor, Dickens intended to write an emotional pamphlet on the issue for Christmas. Something, maybe business savvy – or perhaps it was God – stopped him from writing “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” He gave this explanation to a friend: “You will certainly feel that a sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force – twenty thousand times the force – I could exert by following out my first idea.” His prophecy proved true.
Anticipating waves of generosity and kindness that Christmas, Dickens hit on a joint venture of great brilliance. His “sledgehammer” was a fictional book, a children’s story and a ghost story rolled into one. It incorporated themes of love, greed, injustice, child abuse, ignorance, cruelty, the Golden Rule, death, marriage, restitution, family, social strata and other serious issues into one charming and wildly imaginative, short book. Much like Shakespeare, Dicken’s universal themes make it translatable and delightful, even for people who don’t celebrate Christmas or have never seen Britain.
Jesus’ name isn’t mentioned, and neither is the story of His birth (directly); yet it’s manifestly present in dozens of details, such as the packed churches with their bells rejoicing. Themes of repentance, new life, and the value of generosity, love and compassion are Biblical to the core. And the entirety of Christian faith and culture is raised up in the characters of the protagonists. Bob Cratchit is kind, humble and constantly forgiving. Scrooge is a type of us all: self-consumed in darkness before we find salvation and light. Or as his creator painted him: “A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”
But the miser’s nephew, Fred, is perennially jolly and refuses to be ruled by mammon. He speaks here of Christmas: “I have always thought of Christmas … apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time … men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.”
Although Dickens was confident his book would sell, no one had any idea how well his appeal to peace and goodwill would fly – nor how long. Desperate for money, he furiously roughed out the plot, characters and dialogue in six short weeks. Apparently even Victorians opened their pockets deeper for the season, but it was also the perfect time and place to make this important stand.
“A Christmas Carol” is still renowned and treasured, translated into many tongues, and annually adapted, filmed, danced, recited, staged and sung. But did it make a dent in the real world where seven-year-old boys died working in mines?
It’s hard to prove, but after the 1843 publication of “A Christmas Carol,” a group of workers’ and children’s rights legislation passed, including:
- 1844 Factory Act, limited the work hours of all women and boys under under 18 to 12 on weekdays and nine on Saturdays
- 1847 The Ten-Hour Act, which cut the hours of the above further to 10 hours a day and 58 hours per week
Underground and domestic abuse was tougher to legislate or patrol. It wasn’t until 1889 that British Parliament passed their first law to protect neglected and abused children. MPs secretly sent Dickens their stories on child abuse, who worked some of them into his novels.
Did “A Christmas Carol” inspire any type of spiritual awakening? Not likely, although Dickens was a confessed Christian, who even wrote a children’s book on the Bible. I own one of these, entitled “The Life of our Lord.” But the spectacular success of “A Christmas Carol” (along with encouragement from Queen Victoria) revived the popularity of Christmas events, decorations and so forth. All these were ebbing in Britain before Dickens’ epiphanal tale.
Read about the odious history and current aggression of gay militants, as well as how to defend yourself from them, in Marisa Martin’s eBook, “Bitter Rainbows: Pederasts, Politics, and Hate Speech” on Amazon. Print version coming soon.
Victorians recognized the latent gospel in many of Dickens’ work, and some called the best-seller a “new gospel.” (I assume they meant a new revelation of the Gospel, not a competing one.) Although he had issues with religious elitism, he claimed to be a Christian at heart. Dickens explains his faith: “I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of Our Saviour.” And in a letter, he insisted his major illustrations are “derived from the New Testament [and] all my social abuses are shown as departures from its Spirit.”
At six years old, Dickens’ great-great grandson (Gerald Roderick Charles Dickens) realized his ancestor must have done something marvelous when the Queen Mother showed up at a family memorial. Gerald now presents a traveling one-man-show based on Dickens’ novels, including “A Christmas Carol.”
Charles Dickens used his influence to campaign against exploitation of the poor and the weak. But he was only part of the Christian “spirit” of his time, which seized Britain and almost forcibly touched the conscience of that great nation. Evangelical titans, such as George Müller, physically rescued hundreds of thousands of street children and orphans over the same period. Having shared interests, Dickens investigated one of Müller’s orphanages and was so impressed he sent a journalist to write about “Brother Müller and his Orphan-Work” in November of 1857. Dickens was not enthralled with most of the established Church of England at the time, so his praise was despite Müller’s religious profession, not because of it.
In a sense, Müller and Dickens were collaborators, though not intentionally. This may happen more often than we know, as God can use anyone who uses their talents. But Scrooge did not. Dickens described him (pre-reformation) as “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster” – a man who refused to share, create or procreate.
Scrooge resurrects at the end though, and his gifts and talents brighten the world around him – like a little star in a dark city.
- “A Christmas Carol”: Charles Dickens, edited by: Richard Kelly. Mar 12, 2003
- Victorian Child Labor and the Conditions They Worked In
- Charles Dickens and ‘A Christmas Carol’