Today marks 150 years since the death of Charles Dickens, and ever since his early demise, his life and work has been well and truly mauled by scholars, yet he shares with Shakespeare the distinction of being well-known but read little outside of academia. If one were asked to name a Dickens character, they might conjure up the names of David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Ebenezer Scrooge, though they might have difficulty placing them in their respective novels. I consider this quite a shame, as Dickens’ tales are some of the most democratic pieces of literature in the 19th century.
George Orwell wrote about Charles Dickens in his A Collection of Essays, and his main criticism of the author was that, while he vividly revealed the degradation of the lower class and the extreme exploitative nature of Victorian society, he never professed to be a socialist. In other words, he regrets that Dickens’ messages were moral rather than political, that his outlook on life is, “If men would behave decently, the world would be decent.”
However, Orwell, a visionary essayist but a subpar novelist, doesn’t appreciate that creative literature can lead to world change; that the destitute life of Oliver Twist can change the hearts of the common reader far more effectively than Orwell’s sociological investigation in The Road to Wigan Pier. By far Britain’s most popular novelist, Dickens understood his power to educate and influence people of every class with his prose, which is why he was always conscious of holding the attention of his ever growing audience.
This is why Dickens was a democratic author, for as he wrote in his address ‘To Working Men’ which was published in the magazine Household Words, his intention was “to turn fiction to the good account of showing the ‘preventable’ wretchedness and misery in which the mass of the people dwell.” He told stories not only as a way to captivate the masses, but to provide them with writings that would reflect the injustices in their world and hopefully change their hearts to motivate them to rectify those injustices.