Charles Dickens and Changing Culture
By Mark Earley
-- In the work we do at Prison Fellowship, we’re indebted to many brave and inspired workers who have come before us. One famous name you’ll recognize, if you’re a regular listener, is that of William Wilberforce, the great British crusader against slavery. And then there’s another name that you’ll recognize, though you might not expect to hear it in this context: Charles Dickens.
A fascinating new book by Jenny Hartley, Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women, explores a little-known project conceived and carried out by Dickens in the mid-1800s. Better known as one of the world’s great novelists, Dickens was also an active philanthropist who supported a number of worthy causes.
The concern for the poor that appears in so many of his books was a real-life concern of Dickens. As one reviewer put it, that concern helped him shape “the moral imagination of his countrymen.”
Hartley writes of Dickens, “While he never had much faith in governments, he did have faith in the power of the individual to change for good.”
In 1846, Dickens wrote to a wealthy friend, Angela Burdett Coutts, about his idea for a home for “fallen women.” At the time, such “fallen women” had few resources available to them: As Hartley tells us, there were “no hostels or half-way houses, no job centres or training, and no employment” for a woman who had lost her character.
The prisons and workhouses were full of such women, who often ended up back on the streets after they served their time. And few people believed they could be redeemed. Sound familiar?
Dickens thought they could. With financial backing from Coutts, he launched Urania Cottage, a home where these women could find food, shelter, and vocational training. Dickens’ friends and associates were recruited to help find women in prisons and other institutions who wanted the opportunity for a fresh start. The ultimate goal was to send them to Australia to find good jobs and eventually start their own families.
The project was small-scale; Hartley estimates that perhaps a hundred “flourishing emigrants” successfully started new lives after their time at Urania. But those were a hundred lives that would probably have ended in poverty and ruin without it. “A drop in the ocean of course,” Hartley concludes, “but worthwhile nevertheless.”
Although Hartley tends to downplay it, religion played an important part in this venture. Angela Burdett Coutts was a devout Christian. And although Dickens himself was unorthodox in some of his views, his views on poverty and human rights came directly from the Bible. In the letter that he sent to candidates for Urania, he appealed to the young women in the name of “Almighty God, who knows the secrets of our [hearts], and Christ, who died upon the cross, to save us.”
Dickens’s belief in human dignity and the power of change sprang from his faith. Well over a hundred years later, these are the same faith-based principles that we hold as we minister to prisoners and their families in the United States and around the world.
As our fellow worker from another era believed and demonstrated, no class of human beings, no matter how degraded and despised by society, is beyond the reach of the redeeming love of Jesus Christ.
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