Few men carry the weight of Christmas fame like Charles Dickens. From the publication of his wildly popular story A Christmas Carol the name of Dickens has been sacred in the world of Christmas. But like many popular figures of the past Charles Dickens is now being called out as racist.
In late June the Dickens House Museum was tagged with graffiti declaring “Dickens racist” by a former politician named Ian Driver.
Campaigning against what he says is “institutionalised racism” amid the Black Lives Matter protests, Driver says he sprayed “Dickens racist” on the wall outside The Dickens House Museum.
“Charles Dickens is celebrated in Broadstairs like a local hero and money maker just because he wrote a few books here. In reality, he was a notorious genocidal racist and should be depicted as such. That’s the real Dickens.” Driver said.
The Dickens Museum is located in the building that inspired the author’s portrayal of Betsey Trotwood’s home in the David Copperfield novel. Dickens also visited the town frequently.
Some of Dickens’s work has attracted controversy over claims that it is racist. These facts have long been known and some biographers in the past have tried to highlight it.
“In modern terminology, Dickens was a ‘racist’ of the most egregious kind, a fact that ought to give pause to those who persist in believing that he was necessarily the epitome of all that was decent and benign in the previous century,” wrote Peter Ackroyd in his 1990 biography of the Victorian author.
Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist has also been accused of using anti-semitic tropes for its portrayal of Fagin who is repeatedly referred to as “the Jew” while there is no mention of other characters’ race or religion.
For Christmas fans, there are no charges of racism yet levied against Dickens in his creation, A Christmas Carol.
In fact, the social justice themes of A Christmas Carol would seemingly defend Dickens in the extremist environment of today’s debates.
Dickens felt strongly that Victorian society ignored the poverty of its underclass. On the one hand were the rich who enjoyed comfort and feasting at Christmas, and on the other were children forced to live in dreadful conditions in workhouses.
The children that hide under the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present are ‘pinched’ and ‘twisted’ rather than being happy and joyous as we would like children to be. The Ghost tells Scrooge that the children are the responsibility of all mankind.
These themes would suggest that Dickens was promoting social change.
But Dickens was a complicated political thinker and looking back more than a century and a half later it is impossible to fully understand the nuances of both the time and the person.
Politically and socially, Dickens could be considered a mixture of a liberal and a conservative. He railed against the Tories – ‘people whom, politically, I despise and abhor’.
In some regards, Dickens was a liberal, calling for slaves to be freed and for slavery to be abolished. No doubt today he would be a keen public supporter of Black Lives Matter.
Privately, it was another matter. In letters to his friends, he railed against Indians as ‘low, murderous, treacherous, tigerous villains’, called for their extermination and cheered on the consequences of the Indian mutiny, applauding the ‘Hindoo’ being ‘blown from English guns’.
As for the blacks he so publicly supported, he privately questioned the wisdom of their ever being given suffrage, writing as late as 1868 that the ‘melancholy absurdity’ of their being allowed to vote ‘would glare out of every roll of their eyes, chuckle in their mouths, and bump in their heads.’
Complicating matters is the continual re-interpretation of A Christmas Carol. A recent BBC adaptation reads like a script from a left-wing activist. Scrooge was characterized as a victim of sexual abuse by his housemaster at school, causing him to be the bitter and miserly old man he became. Scrooge was also re-cast as a #MeToo type character by suggesting to Mrs. Cratchitt that he would give money for Tiny Tim’s medical bills for sexual favors from her.
None of these things – and many other departures – were part of how Dickens created the Scrooge character or the story of A Christmas Carol.
Dickens is a UK author. While he is appreciated in the United States he is a national hero in the UK. He is, after all, buried in Westminster Abbey in Poets Corner, which contains the graves of some of the biggest star in British literary history.
But like many of the people buried in Westminster Abbey and memorialized in sundry places with statues and monuments Charles Dickens was not perfect. His life, like the lives of many others, is a story of contradiction and imperfection.
Will this result in further debate about Dickens and will it result in the diminishing value of his works, such as A Christmas Carol?
That remains to be seen. We hope not.
We are not here to defend Dickens. But we do uphold the work he gave us in A Christmas Carol and we believe it deserves the rightful spot it now holds as a treasure of Christmas observance.