A Dickens of a Tale

A lady writes, “My husband, Michael, and I were at a restaurant with his boss, a rather stern older man. When Michael began a tale, which I was sure he had told before, I gave him a kick under the table.  There was no response, so I gave him another poke. Still the story went on.  Suddenly he stopped, grinned and said, ‘Oh, but I’ve told you this one before, haven’t I?’  We all chuckled and changed the subject. Later, on the dance floor, I asked my husband why it had taken him so long to get my message.  ‘What do you mean?’ he replied. ‘I cut the story off as soon as you kicked me.’ ‘But I kicked you twice and it still took you awhile to stop!’  Suddenly we realized what had happened. Sheepishly we returned to our table.  The boss smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry. After the second one I figured it wasn’t for me, so I passed it along!’”

I want to tell you a tale, a true one.  Charles Dickens was a rags-to-riches story.  The famous author rose from being the poor child of a family in debtors prison (where he worked, starting as a twelve-year-old, for twelve hours a day making black boot polish to help pay off his family’s creditors) to becoming one of England’s wealthiest men (at his death, the fifty-eight year old had amassed an estate of $7,000,000 dollars, equal to $100,000,000 today).  So, there was Dickens, sitting in his English mansion, enjoying the good life that his imaginary literary characters (Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge, David Copperfield and the like) had brought him, with his wife, and their ten children.

Then one day a letter came in the mail concerning the plight of a young woman named Caroline Thompson.  It was written by her younger brother Frederick and told of a pretty, gentle, caring mother in her early thirties, who had been abandoned by her common-law businessman husband and had turned to a life of prostitution to provide for her two-year old daughter.  Dickens was so moved by the account that it snapped him out of his writer’s block (which he had been experiencing for ten years) and produced his next masterpiece, Little Dorrit (whose heroine, Amy, is based on the cleaned-up version of the gentle, pretty, caring Caroline).  But more than that, it got Dickens to thinking that it wasn’t enough for him to just write about these women, he needed to do something as well.  And so began Dicken’s school for girls. The literary giant purchased a piece of property that contained a huge mansion.  He then hired staff to run his home for fallen women, where they’d both supervise and train these rescued young ladies to become professional domestic servants.  (It would also include a chaplain to give daily Bible study).  But because the “socially soiled” girls would never be accepted by English nobility for work in their own households, the females agreed to all be emigrated out to the English colonies, especially Australia (where their past was not such an employment stigma).  And Dickens himself went to the prisons and workhouses to interview those whom he believed could be reclaimed.  The criminals were released in his own care and he took personal responsibility for them while they were on English soil.  The program took a year to be completed, after which one group set sail and another group were brought in.  All this is told in the new book, Charles Dickens And The House Of Fallen Women by author Jenny Hartley.

The bottom line?  I have always been a great fan of Charles Dicken’s brilliant story-telling ability; but this home for wayward girls may be his greatest work of all.