From our high school English classes we remember:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”
These words, written in 1859, describing Charles Dickens’ Victorian England could well describe modern-day America.
Charles Dickens, considered by many to be the grand master of Victorian English literature, walked the streets of London at night observing and listening and gathering scenes for his novels. His stories contained themes of social injustice and moral decline. He was an advocate for the poor and oppressed because he himself had experienced poverty and oppression.
When his father was sent to debtors’ prison,
young Charles was forced to work ten hours a day in a factory. Remembering this period of his life, he wrote: “I had the sense of being utterly neglected and hopeless. No counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no support from anyone that I can call to mind, so help me God.” This experience was perhaps the motivation for a prevailing theme of child abuse in Dickens’ novels.
The Victorian England of Dickens’ day had little sympathy for its needy children.
It was a society where wide spread ignorance and passive indifference flourished. The community’s actions were motivated by the belief that the child of a pauper was a thing to be used in the working economy. If the little chimney sweeper was starved properly, he would be small enough to fit into a chimney. In “Oliver Twist” Dickens describes the attitude of the day through the voice of a wise trader who expresses his requirements for a useful child worker: “I want a boy and he musn’t be a big un. If I’d got that young boy of Ned, the chimbley-sweeper. He kept him small on purpose, and let him out by the job.”
Another gentleman remarks, “Young boys have been smothered in chimneys before now. Boys is very obstinint, and lazy, and there’s nothing like a good hot blaze to make um come down with a run.”
In his introduction to “Great Expectations,” John Irving wrote:
“The intention of a novel by Charles Dickens is to move you emotionally, not intellectually; and it is by emotional means that Dickens intends to influence you socially… You cannot encounter the prisons in Dickens’ novels and ever again feel completely self-righteous about prisoners being where they belong.”
The influence of Dickens’ faith on his work is evident in his writings and there are numerous religious images and biblical references. Toward the end of his life he said,
“I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of our Savior—because I feel it.”
In “Dombey and Son,
”Dickens describes a scene after the shock of a great earthquake: “Houses were knocked down, streets were broken through and stopped… Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere… There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness..” In these words, we see an image of chaos without even a hint of order.
From “A Charles Dickens Devotional,” I take these words:
“From the foundation of time, we find God creating order from chaos. Look at the world today, and, like Dickens, you might see chaos. But keep in mind that Our Heavenly Father specializes in chaotic situations. He can bring harmony where disorder reigns. He always has a plan, and He works that plan into being.”