Status, Virtue and Bestowing Charity Beyond the Sea

By April Oldford

April's ScanCharles Dickens’ Bleak House is social problem novel, regarding the terrible conditions for those living in Victorian England and a scathing critique of those among society who remained indifferent on the subject, particularly those whom Dickens’ felt concerned themselves with “telescopic philanthropy,” that is, charity with a narrowed focus on issues external to Britain, rather than issues closer to home (Dickens 52). One of the charitable targets of Dickens’ criticisms was Caroline Chisholm, the founder of the Family Colonization Loan Society, a foundation that “transferred Great Britain’s poor, unemployed and starving from the slums of London, Liverpool, Manchester, and other blighted urban areas to the ‘Bush’ and the new cities of Australia” (Allingham). There they could contribute their “energies” towards building a new empire and thus more “prosperous” futures for themselves (Allingham). Dickens satirizes her in the novel as the character Mrs. Jellyby, an irresponsible parent whose reformist labors are entirely mediated and textual. Mrs. Jellyby, while ignoring her unkept home and neglected spouse and children, spends her hours doing paperwork, writing letters and sending pamphlets for an essentially made-up Africa. On the other hand, in an edition of Punch, published in 1853, Chisholm is said the be the “second Moses in bonnet and in shawl.”

Punch, or The London Charivari, was a famous illustrated magazine known for its Victorian humour. Founded by Henry Mayhew, Joseph Stirling Coyne, and Mark Lennon in 1841, the magazine was closely associated with Dickens and was once radical and daring, but eventually “mellowed in outlook over the 1850’s” as it “began more to reflect the conservative views of that the growing portion of the British middle class” (Allingham “Punch”). A year after Bleak House’s release, an issue of Punch published a poem titled “A Carol on Caroline Chisholm.” The poem addresses the “British females of wealth and high degree, bestowing all [their] charity on lands beyond the sea”. At this time, middle and upper class English women were expected to devote themselves to charity work. An ideal Victorian woman was encouraged to invest themselves in the interests of the poor, raising money and creating societies to support those in need. Though the article has a definite air of mockery, it clearly holds a positive viewpoint in support of Mrs. Chisholm. The poet cleverly commends her for teaching the poor “self-reliance” in the place of “strikes, and mischief, and breaking of the law”. Chisholm ultimately saves the poor from their compelled debauchery and the remaining upper classes from witnessing it. Dickens’ openly supported Chisholm’s “scheme” when he published a number of British emigrants’ letters that earnestly support their dealings with Chisholm and her foundation. His support for the foundation remained on the side of the poor as he believed “in sending a steady succession of people of all laborious classes (not of any one particular pursuit) from places where they are not wanted, and are miserable, to places where they are wanted, and can be happy and independent” (Dickens qtd. in Allignham). Nevertheless, Chisholm was still the subject of Dickens’ satirical criticisms as Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, published nearly two years later.

He did so because he felt “the irresponsibility of religious bodies matches that of the law” and although he supported Chisholm’s legitimate cause, he recognized that “too often philanthropy was only incidentally occupied with its professed goals” (Johnson). Charity had become a tool for securing virtue and a fashionable means of gaining prestige and status among the upper and moneyed middle classes. Bleak House stars many characters that personify Dickens’ opinions of charity. He asserts through the voice of Mr. Jarndyce that “there are two classes of charitable people; one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all” (123). Mrs. Jellyby (Caroline Chisholm), a member of the former charitable peoples, clearly disregards the notion of charity beginning at home. Her home is unkept and her children uncared for as she “involves the devotion of all [her] energies” towards improving the lives of the “natives of Borrioboola-Gha” (Dickens 35). The unkept home is a symbol for Britain as a nation and her uncared for children are the poor, working and under classes. Mrs. Jellyby’s telescopic focus on Africa acts as a humorous statement on Chisholm’s work in Australia: shipping away Britain’s problems rather than dealing with them. Though Chisholm clearly did a lot of good, she has been made an example, highlighting the problem within upper and moneyed middle classes who ignore their responsibility towards their poor, suffering counterparts, and whose charitable efforts towards Africa are in vain, as they merely act as attempts to solidify virtue and elevate status.

Works Cited

“A Carol On Caroline Chisholm.” Punch, Or The London Charivari 15 Dec. 1853. Vol. 25: 71. London. Print.

Allingham, Phillip V. “Punch, or the London Charivari (1841-1992) – A British Institution.” The Victorian Web 21 Feb. 2011: n. pag. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

Allingham, Phillip V. “A Transcription of Charles Dickens’s ‘A Bundle of Emigrants’Letters’ (30 March 1850).” The Victorian Web 9 Mar. 2010: n. pag. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

Burnett, John. “Working-Class Attitudes: Stoicism and Acceptance.” The Victorian Web Dec 2011: n.pag. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

Cody, David. “Social Class.” The Victorian Web. 22 July 2002: n. pag. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1853. Print.

Johnson, E.D.H. “Two Social Background.” The Victorian Web 4 Nov. 2011: n. pag. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

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