Victorian culture warrior

"Victorian culture warrior" Continued...

Issue: "2012 Books Issue," July 14, 2012

Dickens was frustrated with Christians who argued about theological minutiae while children around them died. He lambasted the established Anglican church, to which he belonged, for supporting the social establishment and neglecting the poor. Dickens was frustrated with those who tried to terrify abandoned children with hellfire, rather than introducing these rejected, suffering souls to a Heavenly Father who loved them.

Dickens was a master of skewering hypocrites, such as Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House who was so preoccupied with helping children in Africa that she neglected her own children. Then there is Mrs. Clennam in Little Dorrit with her harsh and venomous religiosity.

Dickens was impatient with theology, seeing the essence of Christianity in imitating Jesus. But that is a standard no one can meet, including Dickens. He tried to live out his social gospel, using his wealth for a wide range of philanthropies-a hospital for the poor, a home to rehabilitate prostitutes, the "Ragged Schools" that gave street children an education-and he personally helped many needy individuals. But his personal life did not always measure up to his own ideals.

Though he popularized the ideal of the Victorian family and was a devoted father to his 10 children, he and his wife Catherine had an unhappy marriage. When he took up with an 18-year-old actress, Catherine left him. Dickens drew his characters from his own life, whether they were abandoned children or sinners and hypocrites.

But he did awaken Victorian Christians to their social responsibilities. Evangelicals, many of whom were inspired by Dickens' novels, led the way in closing workhouses and debtor's prisons, improving working conditions, and addressing the plight of neglected children. By the end of the 19th century, most of the reforms Dickens called for had been enacted.

Twentieth-century novelists reacted against Dickens' moralizing narrative voice, melodrama, and sentimentality. Writers turned inward. They sought their material not so much in society but in psychology and their own self-expression. But as Tom Wolfe points out in his "Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel," the interior preoccupation impoverishes both fiction and the culture. Wolfe says that today's wildly tumultuous society begs for writers like Dickens.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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