Charles Dickens’ Past: Humble

Charles Dickens had an incredibly humble upbringing. That’s probably why we love him so much. We can identify with him or we have a sense of empathy for him. However, if we can’t identify with true poverty he gives us, through his writing, the opportunity to see all facets of society. Dickens helps us explore how Victorian Society was so challenged during the Industrial Revolution with the affluence of the few in contrast with the poverty of the masses.

As a child, he worked in a blacking factory under horrendous conditions before the laws of child labor were enacted in England in 1833. His father, mother, and younger siblings were sent to debtor’s prison. He was too old to go with them, however, and was healthy enough to work so he was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory making shoe polish.

Charles Dickens’ childhood had such an impact on him it became a regular theme throughout many of his books and short stories. His captivating stories allow readers from all classes to see what Victorian life was like for others.

Charles Dickens’ Present: Family, Privilege, and Power

Like every adult with a young family, Charles Dickens was in need of an income to support his growing household. He was becoming an accomplished writer. He had a dedicated following for his weekly short stories (later chapters of some of his most famous works). This was his opportunity to use his creativity to explore the current issues of the day in Victorian England.

The Industrial Revolution was at the height of progress. Industrial magnates were inventing all kinds of things from steam engines, to cotton gins. Every effort was being made to make England a powerhouse of commerce.  In the midst of it all, there was an expanding gap between the classes in Victorian Society. There was a growing population that had the luxury to spend money on books and magazines and ‘the finer things of life’. However, these were the people that were out of touch with the life of the common citizen of Britain – the factory worker, the shipyard laborer, or the country farm tenant.

As Dickens grew in popularity so did his connections in high Victorian society. He had many friends with noble upbringings, yet he never forgot his humble beginnings. He was the perfect person to help bridge the class gap and create awareness of the reality of every-day, common life in Victorian England.

Dickens’ Future: Hope

It’s easy to see how Dickens was becoming a person to help create change in society. With his stories in written form, they were accessible to many. However, by going on the road and performing excerpts of his most loved works he was able to reach people in other countries and increase awareness through the stories of his quirky, oddly, but always perfectly named, characters.

His travels allowed for even more creative genius as he traveled.  Exploring abroad was a perfect way to become familiar with the culture and customs of other regions of the world. His popularity grew as he toured the USA and Europe. His tours allowed him to see how others were handling the positive and negative effects of the Industrial Revolution. Creating a path of hope was his greatest and most powerful writing endeavor.

History in Context

When you recognize the individuals that were the contemporaries of Charles Dickens, it’s astounding. As he grew in fame, he likely had multiple opportunities to mingle with many well-known people. His opportunity to influence them and be impacted by their life stories no doubt became his inspiration for so many of his literary works. Look at this shortlist of other famous people that were living at the same time as Charles Dickens.

Scientists – Inventors – Businessmen

  • Charles Darwin
  • Louis Pasteur
  • John D. Rockefeller
  • Andrew Carnegie
  • Thomas Edison

We could stop there but let’s continue with recognizing other famous authors of the Victorian era. Imagine Dickens, among these famous writers, sharing their thoughts and ideas over a game of charades or chess at a dinner party.

Authors

  • Karl Marx
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • Henry David Thoreau

As a world traveler, Dickens had the opportunity to ‘rub shoulders’ with so many famous people in both Europe & the United States of America.  His circle of influence was ever-expanding; creating opportunities to invent the timeless masterpieces for which he is known. Imagine being at a gala event with even just a handful of these world leaders!

Statesmen

  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Queen Victoria
  • Kaiser Wilhelm II
  • Theodore Roosevelt

While he may have not met all of these people personally, he had more than ample access to the news of the day. His journals show that he was greatly impacted by his trips to the United States.

Of course, art and music was an important part of ‘high society’ life as well.  But these artists also had a way of creating greatness out of the simple aspects of life using a variety of different creative mediums.  Can you imagine the inspirational conversation that would come over an evening together with these world-renowned artists & musicians?

Artists

  • Vincent Van Gogh
  • James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Like most in the Victorian era, Dickens was considered a very religious person. He was benevolent and had a familiar sense of the impact generosity – or the lack of it – can have on a person. Imagine him sitting at a table discussing the human condition with any of these famous humanitarians, theologians, missionaries, and activists.

Activists

  • George Mueller
  • Florence Nightingale
  • George Spurgeon
  • Susan B Anthony
  • Harriet Tubman
  • David Livingstone

Surely, each of us lives ‘for such a time as this’!

Dickens lived during an era of massive change in every aspect of life in the modern world. Did his past haunt him? Definitely.

Were his present circumstances challenging? Indeed.

Did he have hope for the future? Absolutely!

And, he was committed to using his talent of masterful writing and character creation to help change thoughts and ideas about the challenges of life in the Victorian era.

His timeless classics offer an opportunity for us to examine our own era and decide how we can be people of strong moral character with our own God-given skills and creativity.

 

Find Out More

Want to know more about the man who invented Christmas and the Victorian world in which he lived? Check out our spring class, Dinner with Dickens, taught by Shannan Swindler, this spring for students in grades 8-12.