SPIRITUALLY SPEAKING: The unforgettable Charles Dickens

At a recent birthday party at Cates Park, I had the joy of meeting a fellow UBC alumni whom I had not seen since our 1976 graduation.

As we renewed our friendship, he gave me a Charles Dickens biography as a Christmas present. This sent me to Parkgate library to borrow numerous Dickens books, biographies and movies. Dickens was perhaps the first true celebrity in the modern sense. While many love the beauty of Shakespeare, Dickens remains more accessible to most English-speaking people.  

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Why have Dickens’ books continued to speak to us 150 later? Perhaps it is because of Dickens’ suffering in his painful childhood. His parents moved more than 20 times in 18 years.

Since his father was sent to debtors’ prison and Charles Dickens to a blacking factory, he was able to tell compelling stories of degradation and abuse. The average Londoner in the 1840s died by age 27, with almost half of the deaths being children under age 10. Dickens was deeply disturbed by the poverty, hunger, and ignorance, as well as by the indifference of the rich and powerful to the widespread suffering.

The ideals of family life and generosity to the poor in Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol continue to strike a chord today. Dickens, like many, was at his best at Christmas, resting from his frenetic writing, and enjoying the warmth of family and good food.

Dickens had a very deep faith in the Christ of Christmas. His last book The Life of Our Lord was published posthumously 85 years later, after the death of his last child. Written for his 10 children, it shows his love for both Jesus and one’s neighbours.

Despite his high ideals, Dickens was often tempted to be a Scrooge.

The financial pressure was enormous and unrelenting. With little initial profit from A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote: “I shall be ruined beyond all mortal hope of redemption.”

Fortunately for Dickens, Americans turned A Christmas Carol into a bestseller. Dickens visited the United States twice, both times being treated like a superstar. Marrying on the rebound, Dickens chose a wife to whom he was not romantically attracted.

Catherine Hogarth Dickens did not live up to his fictional ideals of women. While she loved being at home looking after her large family, he always wanted to be on the go, particularly abroad.

In the midst of his rejecting his wife, many friendships were cut off, publishers fired, theatricals ended, and family vacations ceased. In the last part of his life, Dickens was as sick as his secrets, exhausted by his coverups. But his unforgettable vision for a better society still speaks to us now. My prayer for the Seymour-Deep Cove community is that we will learn to integrate our ideals and our reality in loving our neighbours as ourselves.

Rev. Ed Hird is Rector at St. Simon’s Church, North Vancouver, Anglican Mission in Canada, stsimonschurch.ca.

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