Faculty Focus: The Dickens Factor
As the holiday season approaches, with it comes Charles Dickens’ iconic A Christmas Carol. Katherine Charles, an English professor who teaches 18th and 19th century literature, offers new insights into the Victorian work that still resonates today.
We pull A Christmas Carol from the bookshelves for its annual reading, watch any number of filmed versions of the story, or pile into the local community theater for staged productions of Dickens’ classic. But what we may not recognize, says Assistant Professor of English Katherine Charles, is the ferocious social critique that Dickens sought to communicate to 19th century Londoners with this work. Instead of writing a scathing political pamphlet taking industrialists to task for brutal child labor practices, instead of overtly pushing the government for economic reform during what was known as the Hungry Forties, Dickens wrote a sentimental and heartwarming Christmas story.
“Dickens first considered writing a pamphlet, “An appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child,” but then he had an epiphany: that the most compelling case he could make to fight poverty would be through his fiction,” Charles says. “He is in some ways a social activist. He saw his literature as intervening in politics and on behalf of disadvantaged and marginalized groups. For a lot of us Americans today, we feel that we’ve lost the thread of that narrative. Dickens helped supply that narrative for the British identity. He was himself not a politically radical person, but George Bernard Shaw said that, in his writings about the sufferings of the poor, he was more radical than Marx. Dickens would have been horrified by that comparison on one hand. On the other hand he felt deeply invested in attempting to address the social ills of the moment. And with A Christmas Carol, he helped bring about the first regulation of child labor.”
In 1844, in fact, six months after A Christmas Carol was published, the British Parliament passed a Factories Act to impose regulations in industrial employers. Under these new restrictions, Charles recalls, children aged 9 to 13 had a legally mandated maximum workday capped at nine hours, and a work week capped at six days. That was an improvement, shocking as it may seem.
Another thing about Dickens that speaks to contemporary society, Charles says, is his interest in systems and the way that things work—the infrastructure of a modern city, communications, mass transit, water and sewer systems. As Londoners in 1858 grappled with what became known as the Great Stink, that summer when the stench of human waste dumped into the River Thames overwhelmed the city, Dickens was one of those who rallied the government to take action and build a modern sanitation system.
And as a writer, “Dickens still really connects with students,” says Charles, who this year is overseeing two senior capstone papers on Dickens’ work. “The reasons for that can be generational, but his blend of broad comedy, social satire, and the detachment of his irony is a combination that our students find really exciting. He builds these complex mimetic worlds and it’s easy for them to immerse themselves in that space. And also, Dickens was really a tortured person. He was an idealist, especially about romance and the family. The idealization and sentimentality of his domestic plots in his novels are his way of attempting to right or align what was actually a painful subject matter for him in his personal life.”
Of course Dickens is not the only writer on Charles’s syllabi. This semester, she taught the Rise of the Novel, a Brit Lit survey course, and a First Year Seminar on Jane Austen and fandom.
I love working with our majors, but also helping a biology student rediscover her love of poetry,” says Charles, who is now in her second year of teaching at WC. “I knew I was coming into an English department that was really exciting, with a thriving community and programming anchored at Lit House. But what has been a surprise to me is how gratifying it is to work with the students who don’t self-identify as book worms on day one. The liberal arts tradition means that everyone takes two English courses before they graduate from Washington College, so I always have a mix of chemists and sociologists and business majors in my classes and it has been really fun to be the first person to discuss James Baldwin with students who didn’t know they would have that kind of encounter.”