The Real Dickens

I remember seeing the movie, Saving Mr. Banks. The skinny of it is that P.L. Travers, the woman who wrote the book, was a terrible person to work with. She was exacting; said cutting things to people; and their was no logic to her demands. Why not include the color red in the picture, for instance? And why “no cartoons” (though they got slipped in anyhow)? Or “no love interests in the story”? Yet Disney had to make the movie as a promise to his children. He must have had to remind himself at times, “The real Mary Poppins is in the books; this importune woman has nothing to do with her.”

Years ago I started reading Charles Dickens. Ironically, I started by reading his worst books, Hard Times and Our Mutual Friend. Yet as I read through book after book I fell in love. Of course, I had been a little smitten as a kid watching Disney’s version of A Christmas Carol. I have met people I loved and people I detested since who have mirrored my love of Dickens back at me. There is something so universal in his books that it demands love. Of the people who got him canonized as “Great Literature,” George Bernard Shaw was a Communist and G.K. Chesterton a devout Catholic. Dickens was the writer of “the common man,” writing about the tragedies and triumphs of “the little people” in society.

That said, I recall in high school being disappointed by the Dickens’ biography I was given, ironically, for Christmas. It was written by Fred Kaplan, and even the titles of Chapters like “Charlie is My Darling” seemed tinged with sarcasm. At the time I was heart broken, because I felt that Dickens was my idol, not just because I wanted to grow up to be a writer, but because with his expansive view of humanity he seemed to portray a world in which love and kindness defeated greed and cruelty. Though Quilp might destroy Nell (in the unusually sad The Old Curiosity Shoppe) he could not get away with it… and Nell’s gentle ghost would never truly leave the world, either. Yet to Fred Kaplan, Charles Dickens himself was more of a Quilp than a Nell.

Since then I have run across other descriptions of Dickens which have shown as little faith in the goodness of the author. Whether they judged the “Fezziwig Morality” as being to limited to have substance (that is, of the private owners of business to do good for their employees) or claimed his views on heroism dwarfed mortal human beings (the Nobel Prize winning Out Stealing Horses claimed the insightful reader of David Copperfield knows that none of us are the heroes of our own lives). It doesn’t matter that David in the book by his name is a man who is less than heroic, whose sentiments drive him into mistakes with results bad for him and for those he loves. Just as his poor mother marries Mr. Murdstone, his love for Steerforth leads to the fall of Little Em’ly and in his loving Dora he acts in ways which imprison them both in a miserable marriage. It is true that the pitiful Dora wins our sympathy more than David himself, despite Dickens’ best intentions. Yet for Dickens this is purging: he knows he can never make it up to his real wife Katherine Hogarth (whom Dora is based on) that they are unhappy together.

In this age when “the personal is political” all to much attention is placed on Dickens’ private life. It is ironic that this age with its large numbers of divorces and one-parent families discovered Ellen Ternan, who previous generations chose to leave in the shadows, or who found it embarrassing, as if one’s grandfather in senile old age walked of the house partially dressed. To me it is even hypocritical. I refuse to care whether the real Fred Kaplan is happily married and has healthy children: the truth is that with the modern upswing of crimes and sexual mores, one man’s private tragedies and inability to live up to an unrelenting standard appear like window dressing for the Modern Age.

I am not saying that I automatically oppose divorce itself. My own parents were divorced, and I am convinced that it was for both my own and my mother’s good that such was the case. What I am saying is that to make a spectacle of it: this one person did wrong, this one person’s whole life was a waste because of it. This is wrong. I am not convinced that at the end of the Dickens’ marriage, he and Katherine did not part friends. And for the record, Dickens’ friend Forster (in Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph) did tell him that he believed Dickens was wronging Kate. He was not the shameless suck up that Kaplan wants to believe. The point is, we live in an age where social standards have slackened considerably, and I think Kaplan might as well admit that he is the panegyric for every businessman who wants to leave his wife for a younger women. If Dickens did, he says to himself, so can I.

Now, I said by implication, “The real Dickens is in his books” just as Walt Disney, for all his flaws, saw that “the real Marry Poppins is in the book” and made into a masterpiece of children’s filmography. So is my proof merely in reading the words of Dickens?
Actually, I have more. I worked at a mental health club for years. I helped patients–and I know this is bragging, but I have to tell it to make my point–learn to read and write and do rudimentary math. I have a picture of my first patient, Larry, because though he died a few years back, our work with Kelly Kincaid’s (now defunct) workbooks got him to where he had been intellectually before a car wreck late at night when a drunk smashed into his car. I was moral support to a woman who taught herself to type, so she could get a job. I helped one woman do a collage so she could get her high school degree (though it turned out she had to work with a different teacher to get the bulk of her homework turned into diploma itself). I worked with other students, I can’t remember them all. Most of them were success stories; a few were not.

When I got burnt out teaching–and I am afraid I did–I did smaller jobs involving Jewish Holidays: making horseradish and charoset for the Passover Seder; latkes to serve with jelly donuts for Hanukkah; and Honey Cake to serve with whipped cream and coffee for the day before Yom Kippur. I wrote speeches on the value of forgiveness or the History of the Maccabees. I never dwelt on God per se, lest they be uncomfortable. Yet I felt I was sharing Chesed, kindness Jewish style. I celebrated one secular holiday no longer deemed “religious” by the Church: St. Valentine’s Day. I made mini-chocolate cupcakes and decorated them using a book, Hello Cupcake!

All of this seems like “small stuff.” And some of it was. Yet I firmly believe that it had a lasting effect on the members’ lives. Why? Because many of them get sad and lonely. They are all mental patients, and they mostly live below the poverty line. The unfortunate fact is, they don’t all have a lot to live for. Yet if I can make one day happy–well, that is one happy memory. And when they are sad, they will remember that happy day and say, “My life isn’t so bad after all.” I know there are people who think I “spoil” them, but this isn’t so: the grind of their every day lives is so unspoiled that they need a little happiness to lighten their load.

I think Charles Dickens would approve. He did charitable work himself, and I believe the charity his books teach is remarkably close to Jewish Chesed. The idea that little Tiny Tim needs a Turkey once a year so he will grow up to be big and strong–that is what Dickens would say the poor and down-and-out need, too. For all of his flaws, I believe Dickens practiced Charity all of his life; I am not convinced, having read Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, that he was not even a good father. It was only his wife and he who had the problems.

So when I have worked with members of Breakthrough–people worse off than me–I practice that love I know Dickens believed was based in Popular Christianity but which for me is based in Judaism. That is the real Dickens, for me.

Published by hadassahalderson

I am a professional author who lives in Wichita, KS. I went to Friends University and spent one year at Claremont Graduate University. My published work includes: The Bible According to Eve I-IV and Faust in Love.

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