“I hold my imaginative capacity,” Charles Dickens once wrote, “on the stern condition that it must master my own life, often have complete possession of me, make its own demands upon me, and, sometimes for months together, put everything else away from me.”
And yet, such isolation always made him uneasy. Privately and publicly, Dickens extolled the vita activa and warned of the dangers and vices that often overwhelm those who withdraw morosely from society, or who hold themselves above the common run of humanity. Dickens’s novels repeatedly make snobs, solipsists, and self-absorbed spongers the targets of satirical scorn. In Bleak House Harold Skimpole appears contemptible when he boasts of his egocentric and conniving ways—his brazen habit of cadging money and sympathy from susceptible friends.
Of course, in the same novel, the kind and generous Esther Summerson behaves quite otherwise. Fittingly, she marries Alan Woodcourt, a young physician who works among the poor and reaps goodwill rather than wealth. “We are not rich in the bank,” Esther explains, “but we have always prospered, and we have quite enough. I never lie down at night, but I know that in the course of the day he has alleviated pain and soothed some fellow-creature in the time of need. I know that from the beds of those who were past recovery, thanks have often, often gone up, in the last hour, for his patient ministration. Is not this to be rich?”
Dickens practiced what he preached. Surely no other great writer, before or since, ever spent so much time and energy supporting charitable organizations and benevolent funds. Dickens worked conspicuously for better sewers and for decent schools and houses for the poor; he supported the Royal Academy, the Railway Benevolent Society, the Warehousemen and Clerks’ Schools, the Hospital for Sick Children, and the Metropolitan Rowing Clubs. And between 1846 and 1858 he devoted considerable effort to rescuing prostitutes, as Jenny Hartley reveals in her engaging new book Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women.
It was not a hidden problem. By 1850 Britain’s capital was notorious for its many prostitutes—more than 50,000 according to estimates of the time. London, said its detractors, was “the whoreshop of the world.” William Gladstone, for one, tried to address the problem; in fact, Gladstone and his wife offered food and spiritual guidance to many of the streetwalkers they encountered near the Houses of Parliament or in places like Covent Garden, where pandering had flourished for many years.
Dickens’ own charitable activities also derived directly from his understanding of the social gospel. Critics and biographers tend to ignore the centrality of Dickens’ Christianity, perhaps because he was so famous for mocking religious hypocrites in his books. Dickens, it is true, was a latitudinarian through and through. But he had never abjured the Anglicanism in which he had been nominally reared. “One of my most constant and earnest endeavors,” he once wrote, “has been to exhibit in all my good people some faint reflections of the teachings of our Great Master. . . . All my illustrations are derived from the New Testament; all my social abuses are shown to be departures from its spirit.” In his will he wrote, “I commit my soul to the mercy of God through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
Dickens also believed in the logic of emigration. Thus, when he began plans for Urania, he emphasized that its larger aim was to enhance the pool of British emigrants bound for Australia and elsewhere. At Urania Cottage—“A Home for Homeless Women” as Dickens called it in his magazine Household Words—prostitutes seeking help would be cleaned up, bucked up, and given every chance to polish their manners and skills. They would then begin new lives in British Columbia, say, or New South Wales. “A clean slate is what Dickens was after,” Hartley writes, “the past must be a closed book.”
Dickens’ partner in the project was Angela Burdett Coutts, a banking heiress and evangelical Christian who helped back many charitable ventures, including what became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The shy Coutts thought Dickens “rather overpoweringly energetic” and a bit too flashy: She never quite approved of his growing need to take starring parts in the elaborate melodramas and farces he staged with his loyal troupe of fellow-writers and friends. But Dickens and Coutts were both earnest, idealistic, and convinced that professing Christians must do good in the world. They collaborated for more than a decade on Urania Cottage—a discreet, “high-end,” and rather “radical” philanthropic effort that, as Hartley shows, was “in the vanguard in treating fallenness as a reversible process.”
Coutts, for the most part, funded the project and Dickens supplied the direction. Dickens, idiosyncratic in so many ways, was both a creative genius and a tireless commandant. Dickens secured the building—in Shepherd’s Bush—and supervised every detail of its refurbishment and decoration. “Everything for the new Home went through Dickens’ hands,” Hartley writes, including “builders’ alterations, furniture, bedsteads, bookcases, and the books to go in them.” He even picked out fabric for the girls’ dresses, insisting on bright, pleasing patterns, For Dickens, color was crucial. He did not want Urania’s residents going about in drab, penitential garb. “In these cast-iron and mechanical days,” he wrote Coutts, “I think even such a garnish to the dish of their monotonous and hard lives, of unspeakable importance.”
Dickens also found time to keep track of the account books and supervise all aspects of hiring, discipline and hygiene. At least once, Hartley reports, he ordered the shearing of a scalp-infected girl who, left bald, resembled “something between the knob on the top of a pair of tongs,” as Dickens put it, and “a scraped Dutch cheese.”
But Urania Cottage was not, in any way, Dotheboys Hall. It was a well-funded, carefully staffed operation that, despite its rigorous enforcement of tough house rules, tried to create a family-like environment where mutual support was encouraged and kindness was the key. Dickens and his staff demanded “firmness” of will from the girls and strictly enforced all curfews. But they showed empathy too. Dickens devised a rewards system designed to provide positive reinforcement and to bolster self-respect. From the start, the goal was to avoid gloom and to cultivate hope. Moreover, Dickens had “built in a generous array of second chances. He had foreseen mood-swings and jitters. and legislated accordingly.”
Something of the flavor of the place can be found in the letter Dickens wrote for prospective residents: “I address it to a woman—a very young woman still—who was born to be happy, and has lived miserably; who has no prospect before her but sorrow, or behind her but a wasted youth.” “If you have ever wished,” he continues, “for a chance of rising out of your sad life, and having friends, a quiet home, and means of being useful to yourself and others . . . please read it attentively, and reflect upon it afterwards. I am going to offer you, not the chance but the certainty of all these blessings, if you will exert yourself to deserve them. And do not think that I write to you as I felt myself very much above you, or wished to hurt your feelings by reminding you of the situation in which you are placed. GOD forbid! I mean nothing but kindness to you, and I write as if you were my sister.”
Still, Urania was not, Hartley argues, an entirely selfless enterprise. Dickens was clearly fascinated by these women. Some had been orphaned, and most were, for whatever reason, desperately poor. Some were uniquely loquacious, audacious, and prone to dramatic displays that, Dickens’ letters suggest, he quite enjoyed for their unselfconscious theatricality. Others were quiet, reflective, and not very streetwise-—sensitive souls left as exposed as Oliver Twist.
Hartley points to a range of young female characters—including Susan Nipper in Dombey and Son, Martha Endell in David Copperfield, and “Tattycoram” in Little Dorrit —who were almost certainly inspired by the young women Dickens sheltered at Urania Cottage. In fact, as Dickens interviewed these young residents and recorded the details of their jumbled lives, he found himself thinking more deliberately of his own chaotic childhood, and the painful sense of abandonment he felt when his father was jailed for debt. Apparently, Urania Cottage also helped prompt David Copperfield.
Thus Urania Cottage was, writes Hartley, a “positive goldmine” for Dickens’ art. But did it benefit the “fallen women”? According to prevailing Victorian attitudes, women who resorted to prostitution were on a one-way road to utter ruin. Hartley cites an 1850 article in the Westminster Review: “The career of these women is a brief one, their downward path a marked and inevitable one; and they know this well. They are almost never rescued, escape themselves they cannot.”
As Hartley notes, hard evidence of the project’s success is not easy to come by. Dickens’ Case Book, where he scrupulously detailed names and histories, has never come to light. Other bits of the record, including Dickens’ correspondence with Angela Coutts, suggest that some women left quickly, unable to abide house rules; at least one robbed the place and fled, and several others disappeared without a trace. But a good number—“about a hundred,” Hartley estimates—did secure new posts in the colonies, mostly in “domestic service in trustworthy families.” In one letter to Coutts, Dickens suggested that even a single success story would have made their ambitious project worthwhile.
By the end of the century, many other organizations, including the Ladies’ Associations for the Care of Friendless Girls, made well-publicized efforts to rescue and reform young women drifting into lives of self-destruction or crime. In a real way, Dickens inspired these efforts, not only through the example of Urania Cottage, but through the inspiration of his art.
He was the writer whose depiction of cruelty, poverty, and urban suffering most directly shaped the moral imagination of his countrymen. In so doing, he played a direct part in cultivating the charitable impulse that remains such a conspicuous and attractive part of English culture. Hartley notes that, on the spot where Urania Cottage once stood, one now finds “a hostel for the homeless” run by the St. Christopher’s Fellowship, which “began life as Homes for Working Boys in 1870, the year of Dickens’ death.” Surely Dickens would be pleased; it is “the perfect endpoint,” Hartley writes, “for the Urania Story.”
Brian Murray is author of The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Dickens.