Delivered by Daniel Grummer aka Brian Buckman at the Union League Club of Philadelphia on the occasion of the 200th Anniversary of Charles Dickens Birth
April 28th 2012
Dickens was perhaps Victorian Britain’s most popular novelist. His life was a long journey that took him from the nostalgic pre industrial Britain in the comic Pickwick Papers to the Britain of an immensely wealthy upper class and the desperate poverty of Oliver Twist and Bleak House. A wealthy man, he never forgot the poverty of his youth and his father’s sentence to debtors’ prison . His life was journey of growth that characterized many of the great figures through history. He had developed the “Social Conscience” before it had a name.. He succeeded in making Victorian public opinion aware of the plight of the poor. He joined with other philanthropists such as Angela Burdett-Coutts, one of Britain’s wealthiest women in establishing Urinia Cottage a shelter for “wayward women” or as I prefer the term “soiled doves “ as they were known in the American West. He had earlier convinced Coutts to fund the Field Lane Ragged School, which provided evening classes for the poor. Dickens's friend Countess Russell was among other Unitarians who shared his interest in the Ragged School experiment.
He help found Newstraid for the desperately poor street newsboys. By the time he wrote Hard Times he ignited a debate over whether he was a socialist. Lord Thomas Macaulay dismissed his work as “sullen socialism.” Socialist Harold Laski counted him as one of their own. He was in many ways the Barak Obama of his time, a closet socialist in the eyes of many.
His causes favored children. When the Hospital for sick children failed to catch the public’s attention. He devoted himself to publicizing it in an article, “Drooping Buds.”he described infant mortality that reached 1/3 in the first year of life among the poor. .
He accepted Darwin’s new theory of Evolution hundreds of years before the present American Republican Party. Obviously no nomination for him. .
Dickens was baptized and reared in the Church of England and was a nominal Anglican for most of his life. He turned to Unitarianism in the 1840s as a Broad Church alternative. He associated with Unitarians until the end of his life. There is no truth to the rumor that he participated in the burning of a “Question Mark” on the lawn of a prominent Anglican cleric. His. religious beliefs were those of most 19th century British Unitarians. In his will he urged his children to adopt a liberal, tolerant, and non-sectarian interpretation of Christianity, "the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit." He recommended they "put no faith in any man's narrow construction" of isolated passages. In The Life of Our Lord, written for his children and not published until 1934, Dickens summarized his faith as "to do good always." He believed humanity, created in the image of the divine, retained a seed of good. He preached the gospel of the second chance. The world would be a better place if, with a change of heart, people were to treat others with kindness and generosity. Early experience with Dissenters gave him a lifelong aversion to evangelical zeal, doctrinal disputation and sectarianism. Equally unsympathetic with High Church Anglicanism, he feared that the Oxford Movement might lead the English back to Roman Catholicism. Dickens, however, favored civil rights for Catholics and even once hoped his daughter would marry the Catholic Percy Fitzgerald, one of his literary protégés . His journey toward tolerance culminated In 1863 when an friend Eliza Davis complained about the Oliver Twist character Fagin, he then wrote “Our Mutual Friend” that turned the Jewish stereotype upside down. A generous community of Jews shelters the heroine Lizzie Hexam. Mrs. Davis gave Dickens a Hebrew and English Bible inscribed, "Presented to Charles Dickens, in grateful and admiring recognition of his having exercised the noblest quality men can possess-that of atoning for an injury as soon as conscious of having inflicted it."
With all his social conscience he remained keenly aware of the value of his work and defended his copyrights through two continents through the courts. Unlike the vision of the starving writer, he was and died a rich man.
Let us not view the man as a saint. There were widespread rumors of adultery with his sister in law Mary who lived off and on with Dickens and his wife Catherine. Finally after 20 years of marriage and 10 children which incidentally, Dickens blamed his wife Catherine for. A number that caused him to labor more than he wanted. He seemed oblivious in a Pickwickian way to the part he played in their conceptions. Finally he left his wife for a teen aged actress, Ellen(Nelly) Ternan . This relationship would only end with his death. After much research I can find no truth to the vile rumor that he rented a tux for her senior prom. As to Catherine On her deathbed in 1879 Catherine gave the collection of letters she had received from Dickens to her daughter Kate, telling her to "Give these to the British Museum, that the world may know he loved me once”
There honored guests and companions, now you have been introduced to the part of our meeting referred “the immortal memory.” Contrary to the popularly held misconception, most Pickwickians are not unrepentant reprobates shamelessly drinking and eating three times a year.