Happy 200th Birthday to Charles Dickens – writer & capitalist!

by Barry M-C on February 7, 2012

Charles Dickens #200

Today is Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday – and his bicentenary is rightfully to be celebrated the world over.

Dickens is certainly the greatest novelist of the 19th Century and perhaps of all time.  His tales still enchant us and capture our imaginations.  Many of them contain scenes or characters that still force us to confront the most important issues of the day; the workhouse may have been abolished but we still face the challenge of how we provide meaningful social welfare and tackling poverty.  And Dickens’ novels often exhort us to live better, more humane lives.

Every new entertainment medium that is created seems to adapt his stories afresh, to retell them for new generations in moving pictures, in grainy black and white, in vibrant colour, in cartoons, and now in 3D.  Dickens’ many tales are a staple of cinema and television; indeed, some of his most iconic characters – such as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol – have become part of our very language, colouring political and social discourse.  Google with its doodle, below, collects some great resources, here.

Google celebrates the 200th Anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth...

Some thirty years ago, I remember taking part in a musical version of Charles Dickens’ wonderful story, Oliver Twist,  produced by our local Cubs and Scouts.  Naturally, we all wanted to be Oliver or the Artful Dodger or Fagin or Bill Sykes or… but for those of us (like me) who couldn’t sing (or act!) it was the workhouse for us, quite literally!  I ended up one of the many boys in the workhouse chorus singing “Food, Glorious Food”.  (Lyrics here.)  Here’s a clip I found on Youtube of the workhouse boys singing of their dreams of food…

Whilst my stage ambitions were pretty much scuppered way back then, I did pick up a sense from being involved in that production, and from reading Oliver Twist and then A Christmas Carol, that Dickens somewhat railed against the emerging markets and wealth of Victorian England.  His condemnation of the terrible conditions of the workhouse seems almost a ready-made clarion call for the rise of the welfare state to tackle the iniquities and failures of the market to address the plight of the very poor, the sick and old.  Further, his depiction of Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, as a miserly old man destined for eternal damnation and torment, is too easily interpreted as an echo of Jesus’ description of it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.

Yet such an interpretation is neither fitting nor correct.  When Scrooge is shown the consequences of his extremely narrow fixation upon accumulating wealth he comes to realise that “wealth” is more than simply money; that money is a means to an end and that true wealth is one of spirit, of good character, of doing the right thing and having concern for others.  This is not the rejection of markets that many might claim but of seeing in markets that power to help advance our interests more effectively.

Indeed, Dickens himself was a great capitalist and intellectual entrepreneur.  As Paul A. Cantor explains in this fascinating lecture “The Serialised Novel in the Nineteenth Century“, drawn from a series on Commerce and Culture from the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Charles Dickens not only took advantage of new advances in publishing and communications but the success of his writings helped spur further technological and institutional innovations which, in turn, helped create the conditions that brought him even greater literary and commercial success.

I would also like to recommend a couple of useful articles.  The first is a blog posting by Peter Klein “Charles Dickens, Capitalist“, where I came across the link to Paul Cantor’s lecture, which has this great excerpt from Jennifer Hayward’s Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera (1997, p. 22) and available on Google Books, here:

Excerpt from Jennifer Hayward's Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera (1997, p. 22)

The second is an article by William E. Pike that appeared in The Freeman in December 2006, Volume 56,  Issue 10: “Was Dickens Really a Socialist?”  Pike writes:

A Christmas Carol exemplifies, on a personal level, what Dickens was really arguing for.  He was not calling for state intervention, nor for economic regulations. Instead, he argued on behalf of personal philanthropy.  In the end, Scrooge helps Tiny Tim not because of socialist ideals, but because his humanity is reawakened, causing him to care for this child.  Quite frankly, he does the right thing.

Pike comments that, “[i]n reality Dickens often criticized state-sponsored institutions. The Ghost of Christmas Present, for instance, chastises Scrooge for relying on such institutions rather than being philanthropic himself. Using Scrooge’s own words he mocks him: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?””Pike continues that:

Among Dickens’s most moving writings is a nonfiction article called “A Walk in a Workhouse.”  In a few short pages he describes the pathetic scene of a state-sponsored parish workhouse, Victorian England’s solution to almost every social burden—orphans, abandoned children, the sick, the aged, the infirm, the insane.  The problem of course was that the workhouse took away both a person’s liberty and dignity—not to mention his future.

Thus Pike quotes how Dickens describes:

In all these Long Walks of aged and infirm, some old people were bedridden, and had been for a long time; some were sitting on their beds half-naked; some dying in their beds; some out of bed, and sitting at a table near the fire. A sullen or lethargic indifference to what was asked, a blunted sensibility to everything but warmth and food, a moody absence of complaint as being of no use, a dogged silence and resentful desire to be left alone again, I thought were generally apparent.

Pike notes that “[s]uch was how Dickens viewed the state’s involvement in society’s welfare.  He took great pains to laud the nurses of the workhouse, who cared deeply about their wards.  But the place itself—the institution—was an abomination.”

In Pike’s view, “Charles Dickens was not a socialist at heart.  Far from being an early proponent of the welfare state, he was sounding alarms for all of us.  Let us finally heed his warning.”  And that warning is surely all the more urgent for us as we try to cope with a burgeoning and unsustainable welfare bill in the midst of a worldwide recession and economic crisis.

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