Tag Archives: A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens as Social Commentator

Karl Marx deeply admired his contemporary Charles Dickens, which should surprise no one familiar with the works of the Inimitable. Dickens used his novels to address the social ills of Victorian society, from the poor conditions in factories to the deplorable treatment of orphans. Some of Dickens’ incredible popularity can certainly be attributed to his overt empathy for the common man, but that same popularity also gave him an unprecedented platform for promoting reform. Dickens took up social causes early in his career and, after the success of Oliver Twist, resolved to use the novel as a vehicle for social commentary.

Sunday Under Three Heads

Dickens_Sunday_Under_Three_HeadsBy 1836, England’s social classes were not only divided by economics; they also observed religion differently. For the middle and upper classes, the Sabbath remained a sacred day, free from feasting, visiting, and indulgences. But for members of the lower class, Sunday was usually the only day off and therefore the only day available to make merry. Thus the streets of London were often full of drunkards and revelers on Sundays. Sir Andrew Agnew despised the lower classes to such a degree that he went out of his way to end Sunday festivities with a Sabbath Observances bill. The bill would have put an end to the usual freedoms and entertainments that the lower class usually enjoyed on Sundays. Dickens found the bill draconian and discriminatory. In 1836, he published “Sunday Under Three Heads” under the pseudonym Timothy Sparks. The cartoon illustrates the fact that there could–and should–be some middle ground between reckless revelry and puritanical observance. Dickens would go on to criticize not only Agnew’s bill (which failed to pass in four different permutations, leading Agnew to resign from Parliament), but also his character.

Oliver Twist

Completed in 1839, Dickens_Oliver_TwistOliver Twist vaunted Dickens to celebrity status in England. The novel was Dickens’ first to carry over social commentary, and its success galvanized his resolve to use his fiction to address social injustice. Two years prior, in 1837, six members of Parliament and six working men had banded together to publish the People’s Charter (1838). Their aim was to empower working-class men with voting rights and the ability to be elected to the House of Commons. While these demands weren’t new, they were made at just the right time, and the People’s Charter is often regarded as the most famous political manifesto of the nineteenth century. The Chartist movement rapidly emerged, drawing attention to the plight of the working class. Thus Oliver Twist likely could not have been published to a more sympathetic audience. Dickens’ criticism of the Poor Law of 1834 and the horrible conditions of orphanages fell on eager ears.

A Christmas Carol

Dickens_Christmas_CarolRobert Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population pseudonymously in 1798. He argued that overpopulation would necessarily right itself through famine, disease, war or other means. The work was highly influential and immediately raised concerns about the population of Great Britain. In 1800, the Census Act was passed, enabling a census count every ten years. In ensuing decades, the population of cities, and of London in particular, grew astronomically. Malthus’ theory became an excuse to ignore the spread of contagious disease and the lack of proper care for orphans. Dickens personified Malthus in Ebenezer Scrooge, who says, “If they would rather die…they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” By this time, another concept dovetailed conveniently with Malthusianism: the “deserving poor.” Victorians commonly believed that people were poor because they deserved to be. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens refutes both ideas wholeheartedly.

Bleak House

Critic Terry Eagleton notesDickens_Bleak_House that by 1852, Dickens saw Victorian England as “rotting, unravelling, so freighted with meaningless matter that it [was] sinking back into primeval slime.” Bleak House, which Dickens completed in 1853, is widely regarded as England’s first contribution to the tradition of the modern detective novel. But the book still usually gets short shrift among readers and critics. Nevertheless, Bleak House is one of Dickens’ best–and one of his most ambitious in terms of social commentary. Dickens takes on issues of electoral corruption, class division, slum housing, overcrowded urban cemeteries, and the neglect of contagious diseases. More importantly, he draws attention to England’s faulty legal system, as exemplified in the Chancery Court. Prior to his career as an author, Dickens had been a court reporter. The post gave him an inside look at the inconsistencies, inefficiencies, and iniquities of the British court system, and he drew on this experience in Bleak House.

Hard Times

Dickens_Hard_TimesThe Anti-Corn Law League was founded in 1836 with the sole purpose of abolishing the Corn Laws, which levied taxes on imported wheat and inflated the price of food at a time when factory owners were attempting to cut wages. After a decade, the movement was successful, and the league disbanded. The movement (known as Manchester capitalism or Manchester liberalism)  was based on the principles of laissez-faire capitalism as promoted by Adam Smith, and its members believed that free trade would ultimately lead to a more equitable society. Although Dickens would likely have agreed with the school on other issues like slavery, he vehemently disagreed with laissez-faire capitalism. In Hard Times, we encounter characters whose personal relationships have been tainted by economics and face the cruel living conditions of the urban working class. Dickens also paints a picture of the greedy excesses enabled by unregulated capitalism. Meanwhile, he also addresses contemporary reforms to divorce law, the lack of education for the poor, and the working class’ right to amusement.

Dickens is often criticized for failing to offer any solutions to Victorian England’s social issues. Criticism also sways with political trends; in the 1960’s and 1970’s, for instance, Dickens was simply “not Marxist enough.” But ultimately Dickens renders an important service by bringing attention to such a wide range of social concerns, and one must ask whether we should really expect solutions to social problems in our literature.

Related Posts:
Charles Dickens and Capital Punishment
Andersen’s Visit with Dickens Less than a Fairy Tale
Charles Dickens the Copyright Confederate
Why Did Charles Dickens Write Ghost Stories for Christmas?
Jane Bigelow, the First Celebrity Stalker? 


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Charles Dickens Does Boston


Charles Dickens at a public reading in 1867

We’re ready for a cross-country voyage to Boston for the 36th Annual Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair this weekend! Boston is a city steeped in literary tradition, and it was the first city in the New World to emerge as an enclave of authors and publishers. It’s no wonder that Charles Dickens chose it as an important destination when he came to America in 1842 and again in 1867. The confluence of advancements in steam and rail travel, along with new photography technology, contributed to elevating Dickens to celebrity status. The Inimitable was indeed the one of the first in the nineteenth century to achieve such a vaunted position.

Dickens’ First Visit and American Notes

Proclaimed the “first American edition” of Dickens’ ‘American Notes,’ this Brother Jonathan edition actually missed that distinction by mere hours.

On January 3, 1842, Charles Dickens boarded the steamship Britannia and started his first voyage to America. Though he wasn’t yet even thirty years old, Dickens had already attained incredible popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. He planned to take a year off from writing and explore the United States. Dickens, his wife, Kate, and maid Anne Brown faced unusually rough seas on their journey but arrived in Boston relatively unscathed on January 22, 1842.

He’d arrived in Boston only to be mobbed by adoring fans. Noted painter Frances Alexander rescued Dickens and his wife from the melee. Dickens was received in Boston by a number of prominent Bostonians, including Harvard professor Cornelius Felton, abolitionist and Anglophile Richard Henry Dana (himself the bestselling author of 1840 Ten Years Before the Mast), Daniel Webster, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and barrister Charles Sumner. Dickens soon found himself praised in the press as “Boz, the gay personification of youthful genius on a glorious holiday.”

Dickens stayed in Boston a whole month and fell in love with the city. “Boston,” he said, “is what I would like the whole United States to be.” Dickens had a relatively ambitious travel agenda; he planned to start in Boston, then head west and explore the country. He also had another ambitious goal: to introduce the idea of an international copyright law. Dickens’ works were regularly pirated in America, costing Dickens untold sums each year. He reasoned that American authors–whose works were frequently pirated in Europe–would also benefit from international copyright law and would support the idea.


Despite Dickens’ gaffe of introducing the unpopular topic of international copyright law that evening, Dickens enjoyed his dinner with the “Young Men of Boston,” writing to John Forster that “It was a most superb affair and the speaking admirable.”

But such would not be the case. Dickens broached the subject at a “Young Men of Boston” dinner on February 1, 1842. He met resistance from both his fellow authors and the popular press. It would be another fifty years until an international copyright law was implemented. Dickens would, however, eventually manage to forge a relationship with American publisher James T Fields, who held absolute volume rights to Dickens’ novels in America. Not that this mattered to some US publishers, but nevertheless, this provision offered Dickens some modest remuneration for his popularity in the States.

Meanwhile, thanks to tireless introductions from Sumner and Dickens’ own international celebrity, Dickens enjoyed quite the full and varied itinerary. Dickens sat in on sessions of Congress and met President Tyler. He also indulged his fascination with the odd, touring prisons, asylums, reform schools, and schools for deaf and blind children. Dickens also wished to witness slavery firsthand He had planned a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, but due to complications found himself in Richmond, Virginia instead. Dickens was rightfully horrified by the institution of slavery. He would write to William Macready, “This is not the republic I came to see; this is not the republic of my imagination.”

Dickens’ impressions would be published in American Notes, which Dickens completed in only four months. The work painted an unflattering picture of America: Dickens attacks slavery and descries Americans’ general lack of social awareness. He blamed the latter on the press. Dickens further explored the shortcomings of the new republic in Martin Chuzzlewit, when young Martin goes to America. Dickens’ scathing representation of the country temporarily crushed his popularity, but he soon recovered.

An Amended View of America


A banquet with “upwards of one hundred celebrities” was held in Dickens’ honor before he departed London in 1867. This pamphlet records speeches made by Dickens, Lytton, Russell, Trollope, and others.

In 1867, Dickens finally succumbed to the temptation of another lucrative book tour (and who can blame him, what with so many mouths to feed at home?). By this time, the Civil War had resulted in the abolition of slavery, and Dickens found America much changed. On April 18, 1868 at a dinner in his honor, Dickens alluded to his previous negative impressions of the country and admitted that both he and the United States had evolved. He promised to make appendices to both Martin Chuzzlewitt and American Notes to mitigate his prior views.

That dinner was one of seemingly countless appearances and events that Dickens attended during his second trip to America. He’d considered bringing his mistress, Ellen Ternan, with him for the tour. But tour manager George Dolby, who’d arrived in Boston early, learned that bringing Ternan would be a serious faux pas. Dickens would travel, then, only with his staff. By this time his health was failing; he’d spent many previous weeks unable to walk without assistance. But he’d been guaranteed £10,000 from a consortium of Boston dignitaries, with his publisher Fields leading the initiative.

Boston had little else to occupy itself during Dickens’ visit; the lack of crisis or election left them plenty of time to indulge in Dickens mania. Dickens did his best to avoid the throngs of adoring fans, passing his down time in his rooms at the Parker House. He still managed to meet members of Boston’s intelligentsia, such as illustrators Sol Entinge, Jr and Thomas Nast, scholar Charles Eliot Norton, and science writer Louis Aggasiz.

Christmas Carol-Charles Dickens

This first US edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is, in our experience, offered much less frequently than the first UK edition.

Dickens pushed himself through a grueling schedule of readings and other events during this visit. He found that ticket scalpers had become terribly aggressive; for example, when Dickens read at Harvard on December 2, 1867, not a single student was able to obtain a ticket. That day, Dickens read from A Christmas Carol, much to the pleasure of his adoring audience.

On November 30, 1868, the Saturday Club met at the Parker House to hear Dickens read. The author was noted for his elaborate dress and stage set-up, and this event was no exception. In front of a massive maroon backdrop, and atop a maroon carpet, sat a custom designed reading desk. The desk held a variety of gas pipes designed to provide proper lighting for different moments in the reading. Dickens delivered a 2.5-hour program with only a ten-minute intermission.

Dickens was himself a member of the Saturday Club, which also included colleagues like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Though Dickens generally dined with Fields at the Parker House, he joined Longfellow for a traditional Thanksgiving meal. The meal was surely a sober affair. Longfellow had recently been made a widower. His second wife, Frances Appleton, had been immolated in an accidental fire. Longfellow wore a beard to cover the disfiguring scars he’d incurred trying to save her. Then in New York from December 25, 1867 to January 4, 1868, Dickens enjoyed a traditional Christmas holiday with Fields.

Afterward he continued to push himself past his own limits–both professionally and personally. On February 29, 1868, Dickens participated in what he jokingly called the “Great International Walking Match,” a competition more suitable for a man used to walking up to twelve miles a day, rather than a man of Dickens’ careworn constitution. The weather that day was terrible, but Dickens and his friendly competitors persisted. In a letter to his daughter, Dickens called himself the “Gads Hill Gasper” and said, “As the subtitle of the famous broadside said, ‘the origin of this highly exciting and important event cannot be better state than in the articles of agreement subscribed by the parties.” Following this athletic exertion, Dickens required a full rubdown before he could attend dinner–and he fell into his own bathtub, fully clothed, later that same evening.

Dickens would depart from Boston on April 10, 1868. He quietly traveled to Westminster, New York, where he stayed until sailing back to England on April 22, 1868. Thanks to the adulation of Dickens’ American readers, the author became one of the first modern celebrities.