When Belief Falls Short of Practice: Charles Dickens: A Life

A Christmas Carol is mandatory viewing for our family around Christmas time. We love its many iterations, from the Muppets to Jim Carrey to several of the live-action versions. There’s something about Dicken’s classic story that fits with Christmas. It fits because A Christmas Carol is what Christmas is truly about: redemption. Scrooge is a miser. He is cold-hearted, mean, spiteful, and (in Christian terms) lost. He needs something that can fix what is broken in him. Ironically, this is where Dicken’s story diverges from biblical orthodoxy, but it is also where the story draws in the reader. In Dickens, redemption comes through remembering and looking forward. Brought face-to-face with who he has been, and where his current path will lead, Scrooge commits to living a more noble life. He pleads for a second chance. This chance is given, and Scrooge remembers Christmas in his heart more than anyone else. But Dickens misses something extremely important. What happened to Scrooge’s sin? Did it just disappear? Does he get to just “turn over a new leaf,” while his wrongs against others just fall by the wayside? This is where we are reminded that while A Christmas Carol is a powerful story of redemption, it falls far short of the redemption known to the Christian community. This could almost be the motto of Dicken’s life.

In an excellent work, author Claire Tomalin goes into great detail on the life of Dickens. Titled Charles Dickens: A Life, Tomalin chronicles the life of one of England’s greatest authors. Dickens was raised in poverty, with a father who constantly found himself in debt and fleeing the debt collectors. Dickens was not offered the exceptional educational opportunities of the higher class of British society. Instead, he worked hard, sharpening his writing craft by writing on just about anything and everything. He wrote for newspapers and magazines. And while doing this he walked. He walked for miles on the streets of London at times and through neighborhoods that were not usually recommended for “civilized” society. He saw poverty, prostitution, and abuse. He saw London in its rawness and brokenness. And he began to write about it. This fueled his writings and drove his imagination. 

As Dicken’s books took hold and his reputation grew, he appeared to be the epitome of what he wrote about. He married and professed undying devotion to his wife. They had ten children together. He cared for his mother and father, despite his father’s complete lack of scruples in spending his son’s money. He cared for siblings and relatives who found themselves in poverty. He provided for widows who were left with no income. While it is also true that Dicken’s enjoyed spending money, he was a true philanthropist, giving liberally of his finances and time. One shining example was a home he helped found with a wealthy matriarch for the recovery and reintegration into society of women who had fallen into prostitution and poverty. 

But despite his incredible generosity, Dickens had a sharp edge. When he viewed a publisher as having wronged him (this came up frequently as his popularity rose, but he was still bound to contracts that reflect a previous status), he declared them as vile enemies. He had a deep well of mercy, but once an individual surpassed that mercy, Dickens was ruthless in cutting him out of his life. Dicken’s greatest flaw though was his treatment of his wife. After ten children and years of marriage (accompanied by many letters indicating deep affection), Dickens left his wife and began to harshly criticize and verbally attack her. While he provided for her financially, she was completely shut out of his life. Over time, the evidence seems to indicate that Dickens began to pursue a young lady many years his junior and that they eventually had a child together who died in infancy. 

When you look at the life of Charles Dickens, he is almost the “anti-Scrooge.” He started so well. He had it all. He was a family man with a doting wife. He had an adoring public. By the end of his life, he had cut off the person closest to him while sinning against her in multiple ways and seemed to be utterly incapable of admitting to any fault within himself. 

I don’t believe that Dicken’s life diminishes his writings. Instead, the combination of the two gives us a window into a man who viewed the ideal amid brokenness while never being able to live up to that ideal. In short, Dickens could not connect what he innately believed to be the solution to society’s ills with his character. And this is where true redemption is missing from Dickens. The fact is that Scrooge can’t change, at least not truly and internally. Scrooge needed to BE changed. That is what A Christmas Carol missed. And unfortunately, that is what Dickens missed in his own life. We are all broken. We live in a broken world. Messiness is all around us. Jesus entered that mess to atone and save. He came to change us. He died that we might live, and not just survive, but have abundant life. This is the truth that I wish Dickens had grasped because it would have made his writing- and his life- far richer.