Saturday, December 3, 2011

"The best friend poor children ever had"

Last year at Christmastime we were invited to read A Christmas Carol with a bunch of friends. I'd never heard of doing this before and wondered how long it would take, and if the kids would enjoy it, and... if I would enjoy it. It turned out I enjoyed it a LOT and the kids had a lot of fun. But other than A Christmas Carol (which I've read several times) I think the only Dickens book I've read has been Oliver Twist. They're truly Great Books and I've got more on my reading list but they're not exactly cheerful reading (the ending is happy, of course). In fact, I wondered if Dickens hadn't exaggerated the conditions of the poor a bit. Surely people in such wretched poverty were an exception rather than the rule during the Victorian Age.

Charles Dickens is the most well-known English writer of the 19th century. His books are still assigned reading in schools, and A Christmas Carol is performed in countless theaters each year, not to mention the numerous movie versions that exist. He has become such a part of our culture that you know what is meant if someone is called a "Scrooge" and Dickens' name sometimes replaces that of the Queen when referring to Victorian times. And he was such an effective agent of social change that his ("Dickensian") depictions of the poor seem too extreme anymore to be real. But Dickens had a secret he kept even from his wife and children until after his death: he was once one of those poor and hungry working children and saw their struggles first hand.

Charles Dickens and the Street Children of LondonSocial class in 19th century Britain was the accepted custom and the poor were seen as justly deserving their lot in life and frequently even unworthy of charity. But through his own experience, Dickens came to know them as real and sympathetic human beings with hopes and dreams, and deserving of pity and help. He was especially concerned for the children, who toiled long hours in unhealthy and dangerous jobs to avoid starvation and suffered neglect and abuse while spending their nights huddled together on the cold streets. And Dickens used his growing popularity as a writer to draw attention to their plight, to make others see them as human and even likable. His writing is sometimes criticized as "commercial," but he knew how to reach his audiences and soften their hearts.

Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London by Andrea Warren is a children's book. It is not written as a serious biography for an adult audience and the writing is probably aimed at a 9 to 13 year old reading level. It can be a little repetitious and a bit blunt in its depiction of the conditions many of the poor endured. But as an adult reader of history and literature I found it an enlightening and engaging read, finishing it in just a couple of evenings. It's loaded with photos and illustrations and explains the motivating issues behind many of Dickens’ most well-known stories. And while Dickens is the focus of the book, it also profiles many others whose contributions were so influential in changing the way the poor were treated. I hope we'll be invited again this year to read A Christmas Carol and I'll definitely bring this book along. (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)


  1. Great Post :D
    Thought you might like my alternative machinima version of A Christmas Carol