Category Archives: History

The Dangers of Pip’s “Great Expectations”

Charles Dickens - Portrait of the British novelist.

During this week of Dickens’ 209th birthday, we thought to do a short exposé of sorts into one of his most famous works. Great Expectations has captured the hearts and minds of millions since its publication in 1860 with its story of presumptions, manipulations, love and fear. The novel centers on young Pip as he follows dreams that seem outside his reach, and his actions once his dreams are made a reality. But what can we learn from this beloved story that may still be relevant today? More than you might think!

pip magwitchStarting with a short overview of the story (for the .000001% of you that have been living under a rock these past 160 years), we can come to look at the “expectations” housed within and see what we can decipher from the moral tale it holds. When young orphan Pip encounters an escaped criminal hiding in a churchyard one Christmas Eve, it gives him the fright of his life. The young boy is scared into thieving for the convict, and though the criminal is recaptured and clears Pip of suspicion, the incident colors Pip’s outlook on life. The young boy is sent to the house of the spinster and slightly mad Miss Havisham, to be used as entertainment for the lady and her adopted, aloof and haughty daughter Estella. Pip falls in love with Estella and visits them regularly until he is old enough to be taught a trade as an apprentice blacksmith. Four years into Pip’s apprenticeship, however, a lawyer arrives with news that Pip has anonymously been provided with enough money to become a gentleman. An astonished Pip heads to London to begin his new life, assuming Miss Havisham is to thank for his unexpected new windfall. Once in London the young Pip is introduced into some society, and makes new friends. His heart still belonging to Estella, he is ashamed of his previous life and expects his social advancement, new wealth and sudden social standing to sway her emotions towards him more favorably. It does not, Estella remains cold as ever, and Pip’s illusions are finally shattered when he realizes that his benefactor is not Miss Havisham at all, but the escaped convict Magwitch whom he helped in the churchyard all those years before. Through many mishaps and misfortunes, Pip and his friends attempt to help Magwitch escape England (which is ultimately unsuccessful), where he had returned to simply to make himself known to Pip. Pip learns valuable lessons throughout the story – interestingly not necessarily from those with money and social standing, but more often than not from those in his own class. The story has a kind ending, with Pip and an altered, warmer Estella walking hand in hand over a decade after her initial rejection of him (though Dickens originally planned a more likely, yet more disheartening end to the story and was convinced by Edward Bulwer-Lytton to change it).

So what qualities does Pip have that give the book its title? Pip’s expectations are common in most of us, whether living in Dickens time or the here 21st century… Pip wants social advancement and wealth. He wants to be taken seriously and not looked down upon. He has a lifelong ambition to be something he is not, and when he is finally able to be such (wealthy and more respected), he finds it is not at all everything he ever dreamed of. By the end of the story, Pip certainly realizes that the qualities of loyalty, kindness and compassion are far more important than wealth and social standing. With the shadows that come to light in the story, Dickens mocks the very hypocritical idea of the “gentleman” as every man you meet in the story is not exactly what you think he is. With this realization, Pip finds he has chased a phantom dream, not a concrete one.

How do we see these expectations still in use today? Though “society” is not necessarily the boon it once was (I find the people who truly care about society are the ones in “society”… and the bulk of the population of the world outside it could really give two figs), aspects of the circumstances they enjoyed are still very much at large within us. Wealth, for instance, matters to most – not only is the cost of living in certain areas astronomical, but our materialistic society makes it more difficult for any to be raised without the wishes of privilege. Oftentimes, the factor of wealth is seen today in desperate competitiveness or harsh attempts for a raise or a promotion, even when one is happy and competent at their current job. A desire for the finer things in life leads most of us to spend money we shouldn’t, or don’t even have, in order to feel a sense of gentility or even simple belonging, when in reality it isn’t necessary! (Keep in mind Travis Bradberry’s thoughts on the matter: “Sure, things can make life more fun and comfortable in the short run, but they can’t make you happy in the long run. Too many of us expect a future event ['I’ll be happy when I get that promotion'] to make us happy, instead of looking more deeply into the real causes of our unhappiness. If you don’t fix what’s going on inside, no external event or item is going to make you happy, no matter how much you want it to.”) Our desires for respect are more understandable and able to be grasped, as a focus on gaining people’s trust and respect is hardly a quality to look down upon. As long as it is gained through acts of loyalty, kindness and compassion, you can’t go wrong!

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Perhaps we ought to keep these moral tales from Great Expectations in mind as we (very) slowly move into a post-Covid world. We may have to get back into the swing of things, but we can choose to re-focus our energy on the important things, rather than the silly. After all, if we’ve learned anything this year, I believe it is that the most important things in life are family, friends, respect, kindness and health… none of Pip’s “great expectations” factor in whatsoever!

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See our holding of All the Year Round (1859-1868) containing the first appearances of both A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations here! It is certainly a sight to behold.

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Five Curious Things You Never Knew About Charles Dodgson

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You may know him better as Lewis Carroll.

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This author penned one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time… a story of a young girl thrust into an upside down world, where animals not only talk but judge, where obnoxious royals sign death warrants at the drop of a hat, and where so many characters talk nonsense that the young girl becomes quite adept at talking nonsense herself. The author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (or Alice’s Adventures Under Ground) was born on this day in 1832, and we thought we might be able to lighten your spirits with a few lesser known facts about this quiet, almost reclusive man.

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1. Dodgson was the third of eleven children, most of whom developed a painful stammer at a young age. The stammer would plague Dodgson for the rest of his life, making him wary of spending time amongst those his own age, and allowing him to feel the most comfortable with children.

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2. In 1891, Dodgson invented the nyctograph – a substitution cypher that he found useful for taking notes at night, without needing light to do so. He felt this could benefit those needing to jot down ideas in the dark, but also could be used as a form of shorthand writing for the blind. Even today, nyctography is still used by a select few!

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3. Despite being the famed children’s author that he is today, Dodgson was actually an extremely gifted mathematician – his chosen profession. One of his college (or high school age) teachers even remarked how he had yet to see a student as gifted as Dodgson… not to mention the fact that Dodgson would go on to publish 11 books in mathematics on a variety of topics from linear algebra to puzzle-making and geometry.

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4. Dodgson is on the list of potential suspects as Jack the Ripper. No joke! His aloof behavior, his perpetual bachelorhood, his curious preference for spending time with young children and his ability to decipher codes and confuse his public made at least one wary of the solitary scholar… and it landed him on a list of suspects. Obviously nothing came of it – despite those who believe Dodgson’s intentions with Alice Liddell (the young girl whom Alice’s Adventures is based upon) were not innocent, it hardly places him in the serial killer arena!

5. Dodgson wrote himself in as the Dodo in the Alice story, a characterization of himself both endearing and saddening – as it is thought that he did so because his stutter frequently made him introduce himself as “Do-do-Dodgson”. He was not the only real person written into the book, however, as all three of the sisters present at the first telling of the story find their way into the book (Lorina Liddell became the Lory, Edith Liddell became the Eaglet, and a Reverend colleague of Dodgson’s even became the duck!

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Want to learn more about this fascinating, yet peculiar man? Read our blog about his life here.

Happy Birthday, 189th Charles Dodgson!
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How a Dickensian Christmas Can Boost the Spirits of Those of Us Living in 2020

When you think of the word “Dickensian” what comes to mind? We would not be surprised if you mentioned soot-covered children working in factories, or angry adults beating each other down with vicious words and persnickety actions. Then again… what comes to mind if we say “Dickensian Christmas”? I’ll bet an entirely different view comes to mind. Perhaps you see a warm and cozy drawing room, children playing by a large fire, adults jolly and laughing over punch with a large tree in the corner and candles lit on its branches. Sound familiar? Well it isn’t an accident. There is an old story (a myth, if you will) that on the day Dickens died, as the news was ravaging through the streets of London, a small costermonger’s daughter said with dawning horror, “Mr. Dickens is dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?” Whether this story is based in reality or not, the feeling still remains… Dickens is a name commonly associated with the holidays the world over. We’d like to examine why that is and what we can learn from it this particular holiday season.

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We have published several blogs before reviewing Dickens’ childhood experiences, and the traumas he endured as a youth. Being one of the unwashed and poor factory children we associate with the word “Dickensian” was what led him to spend his life working with social reform to aid the poor and undervalued members of society. How then did he become so widely associated with the holiday that a poor vegetable seller’s daughter thought his death might mean the end of Christmas forever? For Dickens, it was easy. His childhood made him never want to experience such a Christmas again. He gravitated towards positivity, light and joy – and made sure to share it with those around him. Christmas in the Dickens household (when Charles was a father himself) was legendary. He would perform magic tricks for his friends, the table would be set elaborately, his wife would make and/or supervise the making of all manner of foods, they would have a warm fire and sing/perform together… Dickens made for himself and his family the Christmas he wished for as a child.

 

dickensBefore Dickens published A Christmas Carol (written in only a six short weeks, and published the week before Christmas at considerable expense to Mr. Dickens), he and his wife Catherine were experiencing your average hardships. They were expecting their fifth child, and supplications of money from his aging father and family, with dwindling sales from his previous works had put him into a tough financial place. In the fall of 1843, a 31-year-old Dickens was asked to deliver a speech in Manchester, supporting adult education for manufacturing workers there. His extreme interest in the subject (one that hit a bit too close to home, I believe) and his resolve to aid the lowly pushed an idea to the forefront of his mind – a speech can only do so much… to get to the crux of the matter he would need to get into the hearts, minds and homes of his readership and country. As the idea for A Christmas Carol took shape and his writings began, Dickens himself became utterly obsessed with his own story. As his friend John Forster remarked, Dickens “wept and laughed, and wept again’ and that he ‘walked about the black streets of London fifteen or twenty miles many a night when all sober folks had gone to bed” while writing it. Dickens took the financial hit publishing it on his own, in a beautiful cloth bound book with gilt leaf edging, and colorful illustrations by John Leech.

 

The book became an instant sensation, and this book – celebrating the joy, kindness and positivity possible in humans, not to mention the ability to change for the better – did even better than Dickens could have imagined. It transformed into a handbook, of sorts – how to live a successful, kind life, both in the holiday season and beyond.

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So what can we here in 2020 take away from A Christmas Carol and Dickens’ obsessive love of the holiday? Well, the first thing might be to embrace the warmth of home. With all the griping about the hell that 2020 has put us through, and the harsh realities of staying home for months and months, staying away from friends, not being able to eat out or travel… perhaps one last push of 2020 can be for us all to embrace what we have right in front of us – a roof over our heads, a fire (or a heater), and good food. I realize that in past years (and in A Christmas Carol, of course) we might have not only embraced the love we could find in our own households, but invited others to experience it as well. Perhaps in 2020 the time has come to focus more of our attention on those in our immediate household. Shower them with as much love and kindness as we would use for all of those around us.

 

Similar to how Dickens and his family celebrated, decorate as festively and as cozily as you so choose – don’t let a lack of visitors deter you from putting together a beautiful tree, or hanging a wreath on your door. Pass the longer evenings with a great book and a hot drink, or perhaps do as Dickens did and allow your creativity to flourish. Finally take the time to write that story you’ve been meaning to, or put together a skit for your family to act out on Christmas morning. As Dickens probably did, send your letters off to far away family and friends with your love, and perhaps a gift or two… the real gift, of course, being that your thoughts are with them, even when you cannot be. For those that do not celebrate the holiday of Christmas, we say the same endearments hold true… enjoy the winter season with your immediate family, decorate however you choose, drink warm hot toddies and allow the candlelight to spark your creativity. Whatever you do… don’t allow yourself to forget the main take-away of A Christmas Carol. Be caring, giving, and loving to all of those around you, value their lives as you value your own. Only then will you truly find the spirit of Christmas inside of you!

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Safe and Happy Holidays to All

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Honoring our Literary Heroes this Halloween

Long ago, before the days of commercialized holidays and plastic trick or treating pumpkins, many of our pagan ancestors celebrated a time of year that honored the thinning of a veil between the worlds of the living and the dead. At a time of year when the Northern Hemisphere is getting ready for a winter slumber, it was thought that this liminal time was an ideal moment for reverence and adoration of ancestors, of spirits, and of those not necessarily dwelling in the realm of the living. Some celebrated the Gaelic festival of Samhain (pronounced “Sow-en”), marking the end of the harvest season, and enjoyed calling on their deceased loved ones and predecessors to enjoy a feast with them, or even to walk amongst the living for a period of time. Today, the spirit of Halloween is often absorbed in candy and nylon costumes. This year, we would like to honor the true spirit of the holiday by saluting some of our favorite authors who have passed on.

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Who would we wish to “see” crossing the veil and walking around amongst us on this All Souls Day? Well, literarily speaking….

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Charles Dickens

This obvious choice is our #1 pick of which author we’d like to see amongst the living on Halloween night. Who wouldn’t? We would wonder if he had any inkling how his fame and popularity would persist for years to come…

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Henry James

Considered one of the greatest novelists in the English-speaking world, James was also an interesting character. He was frequently known to abruptly change the subject, or ask for a dance when no one else was dancing. James once wrote to fellow writer Hugh Walpole “We must know, as much as possible, in our beautiful art . . . what we are talking about – &  the only way to know it is to have lived & loved & cursed & floundered & enjoyed & suffered – I don’t think I regret a single “excess” of my responsive youth – I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions & possibilities I didn’t embrace.” If we came upon James, we would love to ask what possibilities he did not embrace… perhaps so we should not live to regret not taking those chances either!

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Robert Heinlein

A favorite Heinlein quote of ours is this: “An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.” To which we say – yes! In the modern world we wonder if we have lost a bit of our good manners. We don’t wish to re-enter a time when negative actions were brushed under the rug with politeness, no. We just wonder if we might ever again feel like the pride in our actions match the pride in our words. I wonder what Heinlein would have to say about our current political climate…

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Agatha Christie

Now here is a choice that would be truly selfish, as Christie was an enormously private person. But in a perfect world, we might be able to pick Agatha Christie’s brain, see how a seemingly “normal” woman came up with such amazing mysteries and tales. And perhaps, we would see if she’d be willing to set the stage for a 21st century murder!

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Oscar Wilde

Did you know that Wilde’s last words were “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do?” Not only was he a renegade of the “Gilded Age” but his sense of humor puts him a cut above so many. So in terms of having a good laugh on Halloween night? We have to go with Wilde.

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Mary Shelley

We know what you’re thinking… right, because she wrote Frankenstein. Wrong! Mary Shelley was accomplished for a variety of reasons – but mostly for going against the grain. True to her blood (being the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft), Shelley did not accept a life of mediocrity. She sacrificed much for the love of her life, she believed that women should have equal power to a man (including having some sexual freedom – relatively unheard of for her time), and she was a gifted writer and storyteller. Once again, we wonder what she would think about Frankenstein being such a phenomenon today!

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Edgar Allen Poe

*Sigh* Yes, we had to go here. Would it even be Halloween if we didn’t include someone a bit spooky in the mix?

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What authors, out of those that have passed on to another realm, would you invite to walk amongst you this Halloween? Let us know!

In the meantime… Happy Halloween, bibliophiles!

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A 100 Year Old Victory

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In the grand scheme of things, what is 100 years? In terms of your lifespan, it may seem like a lot. In terms of history, on the other hand? Well, in terms of history it is a mere slip in time. Now what would you say if you were to realize that American women have only had certain rights – specifically the right to vote – for this amount of time? 100 years ago today, Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment… stating that American citizens could not be denied the right to vote based on their sex – effectively giving women the chance to make their voices heard. It was not an easy battle! In fact, in the US, support for the suffrage movement began as early as the 1840s! It would take over 80 years for their demands to be instituted. Let’s take a look back at this time in history and see how lives were changed for the better, 100 years ago today.

Some tend to trace the modern suffrage movement (knowing and understanding that women should have always had equal rights as men) back to a specific publication that we all know – Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 UK publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Wollstonecraft was known for being revolutionary in her ideas, and a stalwart for women’s intelligence and respect. It is said by some that her work helped inspire Sarah Grimké’s 1838 The Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women – the work which made abolitionist Grimké to be considered the “mother of the women’s suffrage movement”. Her work, widely circulated from Boston throughout the early United States, helped inspire many hundreds (if not thousands) to begin the quest for women’s rights. The main hurdle that women had to jump before these rights could be established, however, was the idea of the pure, innocent woman – one who did not belong in the public sphere. Long considered roles for men only, women becoming part of the public and even political spheres was shocking and highly looked down upon in the early 1800s. In the 1830s and 40s, the abolition of slavery and women’s rights seemed to partner well together, as most women speaking publicly were speaking out condemning slavery… and the act of doing so was automatically a boon for the rights of women. The radical wing (both men and women) of the abolitionist movement were well-known for their support of women’s rights. Unfortunately, towards the beginning, that radical wing consisted of very little of the general population. 

opposedThe opposition of female public speaking wasn’t simply a hurdle. Much of the opposition was so strong that it led to violence. Many female conventions and rallies were disrupted with extreme forcefulness and cruelty, inciting suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony to state this: “No advanced step taken by women has been so bitterly contested as that of speaking in public. For nothing which they have attempted, not even to secure the suffrage, have they been so abused, condemned and antagonized.” Her statement cemented the fact that it was not so much the idea of women voting that bothered their contemporaries, but rather it was women breaking out of the cages they had for so long been held and standing up for themselves publicly that was the problem. 

The Seneca Falls Convention in New York in 1848 marked a specific shift in women’s suffrage. Abolitionist activists, both men and women, gathered to discuss women’s civil rights. Almost all of the delegates agreed… women were autonomous beings, independent of their husbands, and ought to share the same rights as their brothers and husbands. Adopting the Declaration of Independence to their beliefs, the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments proclaimed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Amen to that!

Though the women’s movement lost a bit of momentum and support during the Civil War (rightly so), almost as soon as it ended the issues of suffrage and equality reared up again, what with the 14th and 15th Amendment changes for the rights of men of color. Over the next few years, several associations formed to highlight women’s rights, suffrage being only a part of the demands of their followers. Shockingly, equal pay for equal jobs was a large demand of the women in this period. Throughout the Civil War, women picked up the slack needed as men were away fighting. They performed men’s tasks and men’s jobs (all while keeping house and raising children), and some kept this work up even after the war. Their significantly lower pay for the same work highlighted an extreme disparity with how men and women were treated at the time. Associations like the Women’s Loyal National League, the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), and the New England Woman Suffrage Association (NEWSA) all held strong beliefs and fought for similar rights (though even they were sometimes on opposing sides of the same team).  

Elizabeth Cady StantonIn 1869, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (two of the main “heavy hitters” in the suffrage movement) joined forces to create the National Woman Suffrage Association, and began the fight for a “universal suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution” (History.com). It was Stanton’s belief early on that the only way to change the way women were treated was through government political reform. While some believed that though women deserved rights, support, protection (from domestic abuse) and equal pay – they did not necessarily require the right to vote, Stanton believed the right to vote was integral to all the other matters listed. And she was not wrong. The same year, Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe and Henry Blackwell formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). These two leagues were enmeshed in a bitter feud that would last decades, their participants disagreeing on the Fifteenth Amendment – allowing African American men the right to vote. Some, like Stanton and Anthony, rejected the Amendment, believing that woman’s suffrage was more important, and mistakenly believing that African American men opposed women’s suffrage and would fight against their cause. Stone and other members of AERA, on the other hand, supported their previously oppressed fellow citizens and supported their victories, in hopes they would help support the women’s movement in return. This is not to say that racial bias did not exist in both organizations, as it most definitely did, despite both groups being strongly associated with the abolitionist movement. Their rivalry would last until 1890.

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After tireless years of working to promote ideas of women’s suffrage, the two associations put aside their differences (which by then were somewhat moot points, anyway) to join forces and create the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the massive organization’s first president. “By then, the suffragists’ approach had changed. Instead of arguing that women deserved the same rights and responsibilities as men because women and men were ‘created equal,’ the new generation of activists argued that women deserved the vote because they were different from men. They could make their domesticity into a political virtue, using the franchise to create a purer, more moral ‘maternal commonwealth.’” (History.com) This argument gained them new followers from multiple arenas. Advocates of the temperance movement wanted women to have the vote because they believed it would create a cleaner, purer, more chaste country. The middle class enjoyed the idea of introducing homeliness and kindliness into larger, wealthy political parties.

NYC parade 1917In 1910, some of the Western states slowly began extending the vote to their female citizens. State by state, women were gaining rights (though there was still a significant ways to go). States in the South and the Northeast resisted. WWI once again slowed the momentum of the party, but women’s work in the war effort helped to engender support for their intelligence and abilities in the long run. Their aid proved their patriotism and that they were as deserving of rights as men were. A parade for women’s rights in 1917 in New York City consisted of hundreds of women, carrying placards with over 1 million female signatures on them… a far cry from where they started out, with less than 1% of the population’s support. 

Finally, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee (the last of the 36 states needed to adopt the law) narrowly ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, making voting legal irregardless of sex throughout the United States. A few days later, on August 26th, 1920, 100 years ago today, the Nineteenth Amendment was certified, bringing to culmination an almost 100 year battle by women and men throughout the country. The passing of this amendment enfranchised 26 million American women in time for the 1920 U.S. presidential election. The Amendment states, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” 

We are a far cry away from a perfectly equal country – in terms of race, sex and economy. We still have a mighty hill (or a few) to climb in order to reach Utopia. But one thing we do know… 100 years ago, women had fought tooth and nail for the right to vote. The right to make their voices heard, and the right to assist with change on a national level. They wanted to be seen for who they were, not who they were expected to be, and they wanted more than anything to be taken seriously. In celebrating their great victory, let us not forget what they fought for. An election is upon us, and let’s do them proud. Get out there and VOTE!!!!

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What is Patriotism?

And how should we show it?

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This July 4th, it might feel hard to get in the mood for our typical Independence Day celebrations. And to that we say… excellent. So much has happened this year, and we are still only halfway through! These recent serious, life-changing events have taught us how to band together, but it has also taught us how easy it is for the cracks to split us apart. This July 4th, here at Tavistock Books it felt strange to promote an all-American item or highlight an American author, when there is so much we need to do to be the nation we want to be… the nation we can be. Change isn’t always radical – occasionally it is a one-step-at-a-time kind of deal. But let’s take that first step… let’s discuss what we think it might mean to be 100% proud of your country. 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of patriotism is “love for or devotion to one’s country”. The Cambridge Dictionary describes it as “the feeling of loving your country more than any others and being proud of it”. There are a thousand different ways of saying just this… patriotism is the feeling of love and pride for one’s country. Perhaps Independence Day this year is subdued because of the well-placed restrictions on groups, or because of social distancing, or because we are scared. Perhaps some feel a current lack of pride in how our government has handled a global pandemic and addressed systemic racism in our nation. Whichever it is… again, here at Tavistock Books we think we can do better. 

How can we feel patriotism more strongly as a nation? What would cause us to feel more pride for our country? Effective and strong, intelligent yet compassionate leadership, a feeling of togetherness… of facing battles side-by-side, rather than on opposite sides of the fence. Being better allies to all people of color, especially those that have been forsaken by the system again, and again. Taking the entire nation’s health into consideration when we go about our days, not just focusing on how small or trivial (yet essential) changes affect us as individuals. Perhaps in order to be proud of ourselves as a country, we need to first understand that it is a big world… and we are lucky to be a part of it. We should be working toward looking out for each other and looking out for our planet, not simply focusing on ourselves as independent units. If we fail or look ridiculous, if we hurt others or our environment – we do it as a unit. This Independence Day, we – as booksellers, as Americans, as humans – urge all of our fellow bibliophiles, families and friends, to read. Be informed, educate yourselves. Then think about how we can be better as individuals.

Perhaps, once we are able to elevate ourselves as a whole, in both thought and deed, Independence Day will again have a deeper, more wholesome meaning. With that belief in mind, here are a few reading lists we recommend, with books on several of the topics mentioned in this blog. Let’s put them to good use this 4th of July, shall we?

The World Economic Forum on 5 Books to Read for Context on the Coronavirus Outbreak https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/coronavirus-books-pandemic-reading-covid19/

EarthDay.org’s 13 Must-Read Books on the Environment and Climate Change https://www.earthday.org/13-must-read-books-on-the-environment-and-climate-change/

Arielle Gray’s Reading List on Race for Allies Who Want to do Better https://www.wbur.org/artery/2020/06/17/reading-list-on-race-for-allies

Wishing everyone a pleasant Independence Day, stay safe.

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AN AGENT OF CHANGE

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On this auspicious occasion – the 150th Anniversary of Dickens’ death – there is no shortage of notional blog topics. We could discuss the strange diet he had on days when he did his public readings (a raw egg beaten in a glass of sherry was part of it), the curious nicknames he had for his children (“Skittles” was probably a joy – who knows what went wrong with “Lucifer’s Box”), or perhaps the ivory toothpick he once used that sold at auction for $9,000.

Given everything going on in the world at the moment, we decided to give whimsy a pass and focus on a single, defining aspect of Dickens. Relevance.

As an author – arguably the most famous in the world during his lifetime – Dickens was well-known and widely read. But that can be said of many authors in many times. Part of what continues to make Dickens fascinating was how he leveraged both his literary gifts and the attention they commanded. Despite his many faults, Dickens was a force for positive social reform and change. One might even argue that for his time, he was a radical agent for social change. It seems a good time to talk about how one man used his pen to give voice to those without one, to infuse entertainment with informing empathy, and to leverage personal fame to help others less fortunate than himself.

It is impossible to look at Dickens’ interest in the poverty-stricken, down-trodden members of society without a brief introduction to his early life. Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on the 7th of February, 1812 into a modest Portsmouth household that boasted his mother, father, and an older sister. Dickens’ father was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, and for a time the family enjoyed a modest but happy life – a lifestyle some have referred to as “gentile poverty”. At just three years old, the young Charles and his family relocated to bustling London, where his father was transferred after the end of the Napoleonic War. London proved to be a difficult life for the constantly growing family, and the charismatic John Dickens began to fall into serious debt.

At the age of twelve, young Charles was packed off to Warren’s Blacking – a boot polish manufacturer. For a time, the young boy would work from early morning until late into the night. However, soon after Charles began work his father was arrested and the entire family moved into debtor’s prison. It was only after John Dickens’ mother died, leaving behind a small inheritance for the family to pay their debts and survive on, that they were able to leave Marshalsea Prison. This period would have an immense impact on Charles Dickens’ view of the world and on his writing. He would never forget the way being so unspeakably poor had opened his eyes to the world. In short, Charles Dickens lived a truly “Dickensian” childhood, surviving in extremely poor social conditions. Though the term may have been coined based on the living conditions of characters in his books, we can see that Charles did not invent the lifestyle – nor did he have to imagine it.

Skipping ahead, after Dickens achieved success with his writing (after all, the point of this blog is to bring attention to his efforts in social reform, not to his literary successes), we see Dickens becoming an advocate for many of the less fortunate. The Victorian period in England saw many advances in industry and technology – creating a rising tide of urbanization. Industrialism was at its height, but the division of wealth between the wealthy aristocracy and the poor was beyond considerable. The working class was on the rise, true, but the poverty stricken lower class life experience would be considered untenable today in the western world. The extortion of child labor, abuse of labor practices in general, homelessness and/or a lack of sanitation in housing, prostitution and general squalor were only some of the problems facing the lower classes in Victorian England. Though many upper class citizens remained ignorant of these many difficult subjects, Dickens chose to write about them. And because he did so with compelling craft and deeply engaging stories, he was able to command attention that no conventional soapbox could rival.

Combining his skills of humor and satire with a keen observation of society at large, Dickens brought attention to the many injustices against the downtrodden in Victorian England. He did not just write about them fictionally, however. When he could, he donated his own money. When he couldn’t, or wanted to do more than simply contribute cash, he pushed the wealthy to donate their time and resources. Most often, however, he used his fame and celebrity, but most of all talent to aid charitable institutions. Dickens was no stranger to giving speeches, performing readings, or writing articles for causes he believed in. Over his lifetime, he in some way supported at least 43 charitable institutions. Some of these included the Poor Man’s Guardian Society, the Birmingham and Midland Institute, the Metropolitan Sanitary Association, The Orphan Working School, the Royal Hospital for the Incurables, and the Hospital for Sick Children.

 

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One of Dickens’ most well-known and sustained philanthropic efforts was his work with the notable (and extremely wealthy) Miss Angela Burdett Coutts. The two met and became close friends in 1839, and were in contact for many years before Dickens approached her with an idea – a home for homeless and “fallen” women. Dickens wanted to get these women off the streets – many of whom had turned to a life of prostitution to survive – and teach them skills to make a living or marry and have a family. Dickens oversaw every part of this project – from finding the home to helping pick out candidates. Urania Cottage, as it was called, provided safety, a home and support to homeless and fallen girls and turned out dozens of recharged women over a ten year period. Until a rift with Coutts developed in 1859, Dickens worked tirelessly on behalf of his charity for women.

Now, Urania Cottage is just a single example of Dickens’ generosity. He gave to organizations, institutions, and even to families and individuals as often as he could. We have already mentioned how he was able to use his talents in both writing and readings to bring attention and awareness to difficult subjects. He also put forth tireless efforts into the Field Lane Ragged School – a school for destitute children, run by Evangelicals. Though Dickens had reservations about the religious leader of the school, he enthusiastically gave his time, money and resources into creating a safe space for these children to learn “religious instruction, elementary education, training in trades and food” (J. Don Vann) through volunteers in evening classes. He believed in free education, and thought that through equal (and therefore free) tuition throughout England, crime and destitution would decrease. He was not wrong.

The take away from these stories is this… here was arguably the most famous writer in the world since Shakespeare, scouting homes and schools himself for the poor and the homeless, using his time and influence to gain money and support, and keeping involved in the running of the charities even after they were set up. Dickens was not simply an armchair philanthropist. He put himself in the thick of it and wanted desperately to make a difference. Though scholars have occasionally thought it impossible to legitimately trace any direct reform legislation to Dickens’ work, there can be no doubt that he opened up discussions and used intelligence and humor to bring attention to social abuses and system deficiencies. Charles Dickens showed us one path that could be used to direct change – not the only path.

Though as Dickens scholars and purveyors of his work we adore the satire and intelligence of his literature, we realize this does not absolve him of any wrong doings in his personal life and sphere. We are not, under any circumstances, promoting Dickens as the perfect humanitarian. As we stated earlier, he certainly had his faults. But what we can learn from Mr. Dickens, especially in a time such as this – a time of radical positive change, but also of confusion and pain – is that nothing at all will happen if we don’t first put forth the effort.

As actor and Dickens scholar Simon Callow once said: “The reason I love him so deeply is that, having experienced the lower depths, he never ceased, till the day he died, to commit himself, both in his work and in his life, to trying to right the wrongs inflicted by society, above all, perhaps by giving the dispossessed a voice… From the moment he started to write, he spoke for the people, and the people loved him for it, as do I.”

 

Further Dickens reading & information:

Dickens in a Crisis 150th Anniversary YouTube video

Bleecker Street Media

Denton Dickens Fellowship

 

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