When I think of Dickens, I think of him first as a novelist, but also as a reformer and a philanthropist. The first act of philanthropy I can find (outside of helping family members) is his effort to raise money to assist the family of his first publisher, John Macrone. After Macrone published Sketches by Boz, First Series in early 1836, Dickens signed an agreement and received £200 to produce a novel to be entitled Gabriel Varden, In his eagerness and naivete Dickens signed agreements with another publisher, Richard Bentley, that seemed to promise the same work. A legal entanglement developed and was resolved only when the publishers Chapman and Hall paid Macrone £2,500 for the copyright of Sketches, First Series, and Macrone’s relinquishment of any rights to the proposed novel.
John Macrone died suddenly on 9 September 1837, leaving his widow and three children with no resources. Dickens then rounded up contributors to a three-volume anthology he entitled The Pic Nic Papers, playing on the immense popularity of the recently published Pickwick Papers. Dickens edited this volume and also wrote an introduction and a tale entitled “The Lanplighter’s Story.” He got Hablot K. Browne (the famous “Phiz”) and George Cruikshank to provide illustrations. The project eventually netted £450 for Mrs. Macrone, enough for her to live on for many years. (Note that Robert Browning’s father was a well-paid clerk for the Bank of England, who had an income of £150 a year to support his family. On this salary he also amassed a library of 6,000 volumes, many of them rare).
I cite this as the first of many endeavors initiated by Dickens to help friends in need. There were dozens more. He also provided support for many Victorian philanthropic societies through speeches, public readings, subscriptions, and reform-minded journalism. The causes included mechanics’ institutes, adult education, soup kitchens, emigration projects, health and sanitation, model dwellings associations, prison reform, recreational societies, and thirteen separate hospitals and sanatoriums. He was an early friend of the Ragged Schools and was active in efforts to provide relief and pensions for disabled or retired actors, writers, artists, an their families, serving as trustee of the Royal General Theatrical Fund, as an officer of the Guild of Literature and Art, and as chairman at anniversary meetings of both the Artists’ Benevolent Fund and the Artists’ General Benevolent Fund. He was an officer of such diverse volunteer bodies as the Metropolitan Drapers’ Association, the Poor Man’s Guarding Society, the Birmingham and Midlands Institute, the Metropolitan Sanitary Association, the Orphan Working School, the Metropolitan Improvement Association, the Royal Hospital for Incurables, the Hospital for Sick Children, and the Newsvendors Provident and Benevolent Institution.
All of this can be overwhelming, so tonight I want to focus on three major causes in which he participated: the Royal Literary Fund, the Guild of Literature and Art, and Urania Cottage.
The Royal Literary Fund is a benevolent fund set up to help published British writers in financial difficulties. It was founded by Reverend David Williams in 1790 and has received bequests and donations, including royal patronage, ever since. Williams was inspired to set up the Fund by the death in debtor’s prison of a translator of Plato’s dialogues, Floyer Sydenham.
The Royal Literary Fund has given assistance to many distinguished writers over its history. Among them– up to and including Dickens’s time– were Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Samuel Rousseau, François-René de Chateaubriand, Thomas Love Peacock, James Hogg, Leigh Hunt, and Thomas Hood, all prominent writers in their time, and later Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce.
The stated purpose of the Royal Literary Fund was to give financial assistance to distressed authors and to their widows and orphans. It was incorporated in 1818 and received royal patronage in 1842. One significant point is that Dickens spoke at the Literary Fund Anniversary dinner on 3 May 1837, noteworthy because this was his first public speech, the first of hundreds of speeches he would eventually deliver. In December of the next year he chaired a dinner and was elected to the committee in 1839.
In time he became disillusioned with and critical of the organization, as he felt it to be dominated by aristocrats and men of wealth, who, he felt, diverted its money to pay for lavish entertainments and upkeep of offices. Consequently he resigned from the Council in 1854 In 1858, with the help of John Forster and C. W. Dilke, he wrote a pamphlet, The Case of the Reformers in the Literary Fund, in an unsuccessful attempt to correct the situation and revise the Fund’s charter.
Because of this disillusionment he was ready when the opportunity came to establish the kind of organization he felt was needed. So in 1850 it happened that when Dickens’s theatrical troupe was presenting Every Man in His Humour at Bulwer-Lytton’s country home, Knebworth, Bulwer made a remark that led to the setting up of a fund to help writers. Bulwer was so impressed with Dickens’s management of the troupe of amateur actors that he said, “this is a great power that has grown up about you, out of a winter night’s amusement, and do let us try to use it for the lasting service of our order,” by which he meant writers. Dickens caught up the idea immediately. Thus was born the Guild of Literature and Art.
The first step was to begin raising funds for an endowment to build homes at Stevenage, just north of London. For this effort Bulwer, who was as popular as a playwright as he was as a novelist, wrote a full-length, five-act comedy, Not So Bad as We Seem, for the Amateurs to perform. All of the money was to go toward setting up an institution to help not only writers but also artists. Buildings were to be erected on land donated by Bulwer for either temporary or long-term accommodation of writers and artists who found themselves penniless because of misfortune, illness, or old age. Its stated aim was “To encourage life assurance, and other provident habits among authors and artists, to render such assistance to both as shall never compromise their independence, and to form a new institution where honourable rest from arduous labour shall still be associated with the discharge of congenial duties.” The residents would receive a salary. Their “congenial duties” were to include lecturing and otherwise helping out at such places as Mechanics Institutes. Slater notes that the Guild was not a charity, but “more like a hardship or pension fund.” It was a concept of self-help. The beneficiaries would contribute to the Guild’s chosen life insurance company as they were able. Dickens insisted that genuine literary or artistic achievement was to be a criterion for one to receive benefits, so it would “bear the character of a tribute to merit, not of an alms to destitution.”
Dickens applied to the Duke of Devonshire for permission to use his house in Piccadilly for opening night. (You know the Duke of Devonshire as he owner of Chatsworth, the magnificent country home in Derbyshire). The Duke readily agreed, for he was a fan of Dickens’s work: “I never missed reading a number of his beginning with Pickwick, and told him I could pass examination on all his histories.” Thus he placed his London mansion at Dickens’s command. On opening night, May 16, 1851, the play was presented before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Tickets were £5 each. The Queen was so impressed that she gave £150 in addition to paying £50 for her ticket. The performance and the second one on May 27 raised £2,500. By the end of the year additional London performances and a tour of the provinces had boosted the total to £3,615.
In spite of the brilliant beginning the Guild had too many problems to overcome. Fellow authors, including Thackeray and Macaulay, criticized the plan. Slater notes that there was virtually no interest in it within the literary community. Dickens was exasperated when he learned that the bill of incorporation restricted activities of the Guild, ruling that no pensions could be awarded until the Guild had been in operation for seven years. A committee member, John R. Robinson, noted that the Guild was “all ready” by 1854, but it was, he said, “standing still.” There were no applications for the insurance plan. After pensions were allowed to be granted, the only applicants were relatives of deceased authors. Some residences were finally built in Stevenage (north of London) in 1865, but no author or artist ever moved in. The houses were eventually sold although the Guild continued on in a dormant state until it was dissolved by an act of Parliament in1897. The remaining funds were divided between the Royal Literary Fund and the Artists’ General Benevolent Fund. It is ironic that part of the money Dickens had worked so diligently for went to the Royal Literary Fund because he felt that the Fund was mismanaged. Dickens had, however, supported the Artists’ Benevolent Fund.
For the next philanthropic venture I must first introduce you to Miss Angela Burdett Coutts (1814-1906). The daughter of Sir Francis Burdett, a baronet and member of Parliament. In 1837 she unexpectedly inherited half of Coutts Bank, which had been founded by her maternal grandfather, whose surname she then adopted. The inheritance of £3,000,000 made her the second richest woman in England, only behind Queen Victoria. (By way of comparison, note that Dickens was considered a very rich man when he left an estate of £93,000. Living splendidly in a Piccadilly mansion, she was also the century’s most munificent philanthropist. It has often been noted that she entertained a remarkable range of notable people, to one of whom, the Duke of Wellington, she proposed marriage in 1847; he turned her down. Although shy and unattractive, she had many suitors, all of whom she rejected and remained single until 1881 when at the age of 67 she made what Victoria and others termed a “mad marriage” to a 29-year-old American. Deeply pious, she had a strong sense of duty; she said, “What is the use of my means but to try to do some good with them?” She gave enormous amounts to a wide range of charities. King Edward VII described her as “After my mother [Queen Victoria] the most remarkable woman in the Kingdom.”
She met Dickens in 1839. Later she recalled this first impression of him, remarking on “his restlessness, vivacity, impetuosity, generous impulses, earnestness, and frank sincerity” and “rather overpowering energetic” personality. They soon became close friends, as became evident when in 1844 he dedicated Martin Chuzzlewit to her. Sarah Gamp was inspired by a nurse employed in her household. Dickens often sent advance proofs of his serials and even invited her to pre-publication readings of his latest writings. She, in turn, took an interest in his eldest son, Charley, sending him splendid birthday cakes and paying for his tuition at Eton, the expensive prep school at Windsor. She also presented his second son, Walter, with an East India Company Cadetship.
Beginning in 1843 Dickens solicited her influence or financial help for various individuals and good causes. The first sustained effort involved the new Field Lane Ragged School, an Evangelical venture. This provided evening classes taught by volunteers for the most destitute of the poor, providing them with religious instruction, elementary education, training in trades, and food. He investigated the enterprise, largely on her behalf, and after a visit and further investigation, he sent her what he described to Forster as a “sledge hammer account,” saying he was “sure she will do whatever I ask her in this matter. She is a most excellent creature . . . and I have a most perfect affection and respect for her.” She subsequently laid out a great deal of money to the charity.
Dickens’s most sustained philanthropic effort was Urania Cottege. In a very long letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts dated 26 May 1846 Dickens outlined a plan for a Home for Homeless Women. The purpose was to rescue fallen women by offering them an escape from prostitution or from a life of crime. This was to be done within a home rather than a prison-like environment. “Urania” is one of the terms for Venus, the goddess of love, but Urania refers to celestial rather than sexual love. The home would give the residents a place separate from their former associates while providing education in household management and religion. It would help them to develop self-discipline and then assist them to emigrate to the colonies. Throughout, Dickens said, they would be “tempted to virtue,” particularly with the prospect of eventual marriage in the colonies, Australia or South Africa, where wives were in short supply, rather than being punished, humiliated, or simply preached at, as was the case in institutions like the Magdalen Hospital, founded in 1758, or The British Penitent Female Refuge..
Once Miss Coutts agreed to finance the project, Dickens jumped in. He gathered knowledgeable advisors, selected the house at Shepherd’s Grove in West London, arranged the lease, oversaw its preparation–including selecting appropriate reading materials, wall inscriptions, linens, and even “cheerful” dresses for the residents. He hired the superintendents and teachers and wrote a pamphlet, An Appeal to Fallen Women (1850) for distribution to potential inmates, then visited prisons and other reformatory institutions to help find and recruit eligible candidates. Once the house was going, he formed and served on an administrative committee. He also dealt on his own with a wide range of problems, from discharging troublesome inmates to coping with unhelpful superintendents. He also continued to visit prisons, workhouses, and Ragged Schools to interview and recruit new residents.
As you can see from this last statement, the scope of the home eventually extended to include homeless and destitute women, and to women in prison for crimes other than prostitution. Dickens wrote an essay entitled “Home for Homeless Women” for the 23 April 1853 Household Words. He said that the original goal was to achieve success with one-third to one-half of the cases–a goal that had been exceeded. By this date 57 or 58 women had passed through the home. Thirty of these were thought to have done well in Australia or elsewhere. Of the remainder, seven left the home during the probationary period, seven had run away, ten had been expelled, and three had relapsed on the voyage out to Australia. Slater notes that of the eight specific cases Dickens cites in his article, only two had actually–in Slater’s words–“gone wrong.” Slater continues, “One wonders just how many women there were, in fact, among those in the home who were truly representative of the hundreds of thousands of contemporary prostitutes whose plight Dickens had already presented in his fiction–Nancy in Oliver, sexually exploited from childhood, or Lilian in The Chimes, driven by sheer grinding poverty to yield to what she calls ‘the dreadful thoughts that tempt me in my youth.’”
Dickens worked tirelessly on behalf of Urania Cottage until a rift developed with Miss Coutts in 1858 at the time of the separation from Catherine. It is interesting to note that Slater gives considerable space to Dickens’s association with Miss Coutts. Forster was said to have been jealous of this close friendship that pre-dated his own meeting of Dickens. Forster dismissed this relationship in one sentence and does not refer to any of his 500 letters to her. In defense of Forster, it should be noted that he felt that the time and energy Dickens expended during the 1850s on her philanthropic enterprises, particularly Unrania Cottage, took him away from his proper profession.
I cannot end this presentation without mentioning the Hospital for Sick Children at Great Ormand Street, which opened in 1852. In April of that year he published an article on the hospital, entitled “Drooping Buds.” Slater says that the passage beginning “Baby’s dead, and will be never, never, never be seen among us any more!” alludes to the recent death of his daughter Dora. The hospital struggled through its early years and received a boost from Dickens appeal on its behalf in 1858 in a speech in which he called for assistance “in the sacred names of Pity and Compassion.” I bring in the Great Ormand Street Children’s Hospital because the London Dickens Fellowship, inspired by Dickens’s efforts, sponsors a fund-raising drive each year on its behalf.
Reading Slater’s biography gave me more new insights than I can enumerate, but certainly one of the most prominent is Dickens’s philanthropy. The bulk of it would be extraordinary in any human being, but ventures into the amazing realm when we see it in the context of his everyday life, crammed with the vast amount of fiction and journalism he was producing while struggling with the demons, admittedly of his own creation, demons dogging him and ultimately leading to his destruction. When I remember this great artist, I am always troubled by the shocking way he treated some of those he had loved, particularly Catherine, but I try to temper this with how much he cared for and tried to better humanity.