Dickens defined Victorian England. Racist or not, we need to hear his voice
If there is one figure in the whole of English literature who epitomises the writer with a social conscience, it is Charles Dickens. Yet according to a local Green activist in Kent, the novelist was a “genocidal racist” who deserves the pillory rather than the pantheon. Ian Driver, a former councillor in Thanet, was pictured daubing graffiti on the Dickens House Museum in Broadstairs — the building on which the home of the much-loved character of Betsey Trotwood was modelled in David Copperfield.
Mr Driver, who openly admits his act of vandalism, has yet to be charged by the police, but is in any case unrepentant. He told the Times: “I don’t think [Dickens’s] opposition to slavery wipes the slate clean. He was an evil racist character.” Evidently the tidal wave of disapproval that has overwhelmed dead white male celebrities of every kind in recent times is now flooding into the Dickensian landscapes that are etched into our collective memory. If the likes of Mr Driver have their way, perhaps the most eminent Victorian of them all — the man to whom the world owes much of the mental furniture that the word “Victorian” implies — will be excised from the record, his stories banished from our libraries and our screens.
The truth is that Dickens did not merely oppose slavery: he actively campaigned against this “accursed and detestable system”, at some cost to his own book sales. He toured the antebellum United States as the English-speaking world’s most celebrated living novelist. Appalled by what he saw in Virginia on his book tour, Dickens boycotted the rest of the slave states.
His first-hand observations of slavery found expression in the travelogue American Notes (1842) and the novel Martin Chuzzlewit. In the latter, Mr Tapley introduces the title character to Cicero, an elderly slave who has bought his own freedom and is saving up for “one small purchase — it’s nothing to speak of. Only his own daughter; that’s all!”
In his magazine Household Words, Dickens was full of praise for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel of 1852. He was confident that the opposition to slavery was growing in strength and would ultimately prevail, if only for economic reasons, supposing moral ones did not suffice. But he could not overcome his disillusionment with “the republic of my imagination”. In his eyes, Americans who participated or tolerated slavery were hypocrites, whether or not they admired his novels. He was unimpressed even by the motives of the North in the Civil War. Yet the impact of a writer of such fame and prestige throwing his weight behind emancipation should not be underestimated. During his second tour of America in 1867-68, he was received as a hero, not least by President Andrew Johnson, and every public reading sold out. Though he did not live to depict the era of Reconstruction in his fiction, he was sympathetic to the challenges that Americans faced in the aftermath of their terrible conflict.
It is true that Dickens was by no means insulated from the attitudes and prejudices of his day. His essay on The Noble Savage uses language about other races that strikes us today as condescending. His depiction of Fagin in Oliver Twist was implicitly anti-Semitic, as he himself acknowledged and for which he later sought to atone. His battles were primarily about class rather than race. But in public, at least, he eschewed the expressions of racism in which some of his literary contemporaries, such as Thomas Carlyle, indulged.
In private it was another matter. His notorious comments in a letter to Lady Burdett-Coutts about Indians during the rebellion (or Mutiny) in 1857, where he fantasised about “doing my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested”, seem to have prompted Mr Driver’s decision to daub the words “DICKENS RACIST” on the Broadstairs museum. These words, and the sentiments behind them, are vile. But Dickens was worried about the safety of his son, a teenage cadet then serving in India, and in the heat of the moment he was influenced by the lurid depiction in the press of atrocities committed during the uprising — images that drew on old racist stereotypes going back to the “Black Hole of Calcutta” a century earlier. Contextualising this letter does not excuse Dickens, but it goes some way to explaining an outburst that can only be seen as an aberration in his vast body of work.
In his private life, Dickens could be a monster, as the highly critical new biography by A.N. Wilson, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, amply demonstrates. But even Wilson concedes that this most heartless of husbands also deployed the redemptive power of his prose to redeem an entire nation — and, ultimately, humanity. More than any writer before or since, Dickens humanised those who had been deprived of their humanity. For Dickens was above all a humanitarian, among the most influential the world has ever seen. There can be no doubt about his commitment to justice: it shines through almost everything he wrote. His voice was heard from Moscow to Madras; it still resonates today. We must not allow that voice to be drowned out in the name of a misplaced sense of superiority, policed by moralising academics and self-appointed iconoclasts. Dickens defined Victorian England. For better or for worse, he is part of our identity. He must not fall victim to identity politics.