Last week, I compared Charles Dickens to Angelina Jolie and George Clooney, as his life was filled with philanthropic pursuits. Then, I retracted my statement, and commented that he probably wouldn’t have approved of their efforts, and is better compared to Michael Moore. This opinion was formed through my reading of Bleak House and my consideration of Dickens’ own charities, which are recounted in Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life. Judging by his satirical characterization of philanthropists in Bleak House, it seems to me that Dickens thought charity should be focused towards the many problems at home and not towards problems abroad.

Bleak House by Charles DickensIn Bleak House:

Readers are introduced to a variety of do-gooders, some shown to be very effective, while others are simply over-the-top ridiculous. Two such ridiculous philanthropists in Bleak House are Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle.

Mrs. Jellyby is introduced early on in the novel, as Esther and the two Jarndyce and Jarndyce wards, Richard and Ada, stay at the Jellyby house prior to their move into Jarndyce’s Bleak House. Mrs. Jellyby is terribly interested in African affairs.

The African project at present employs my whole time. It involves me in correspondence with public bodies, and with private individuals anxious for the welfare of their species all over the country. I am happy to say it is advancing. We hope by this time next year to have from a hundred and fifty to two hundred healthy families cultivating coffee and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha […].(45)

While Mrs. Jellyby’s intentions are very honorable, she lives in a microcosm of her charitable endeavors, ignoring the needs of her family as they live in squalor: the house is a mess, the children are running wild, and her husband is ignored and driven to bankruptcy, all while she holes up in a room writing letters to potential donors for her African cause. In short, she is blind to the fact that her life and her family’s life is a mess, all due to her obsession with saving Africa. Dickens calls this “telescopic philanthropy,” (41).

Another thoughtless philanthropist in Dickens’ work is Mrs. Pardiggle, who is a good friend of Jellyby, but misuses her family in a different way. While Jellyby ignores her family, Pardiggle forces her children, all young boys, to join in her philanthropic efforts:

Egbert, my eldest (twelve) is the boy who sent out his pocket-money, to the amount of five-and-threepence, to the Tockahoopo Indians. Oswald, my second (ten-and-a-half), is the child who contributed two-and-ninepence to the Great National Smithers Testimonial. Francis, my third (nine), one-and-sixpence-halfpenny; Felix, my fourth (seven), eightpence to the Superannuated Widows; Alfred, my youngest (five), has voluntarily enrolled himself in the Infant Bonds of Joy, and is pledged never, through life, to use tobacco in any form. (123)

Again, Pardiggle’s efforts in charity, and in teaching her sons the value of charitable acts, seem very honorable on the surface. However, she and Jellyby, and all of the other philanthropic figures in Bleak House, can be surmised by Mr. Jarndyce’s observation: “there were 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,” (122). Mrs. Jellyby and Pardiggle fall into the former category, while Jarndyce falls into the latter category.

Jarndyce is truly the best kind of do-gooder. Throughout Bleak House, readers bear witness to many poor souls damaged by the poisoned society of England: Jo, the street-sweeper; Charley and her siblings (orphans); Jenny, the impoverished woman whose infant dies in her arms and is married to an abusive drunk; and more. Then, there is, of course, Esther, Ada, and Richard, all orphans whom Jarndyce takes into his home as wards. Jarndyce is the type who hears about a person in need, and does all that he can to help them. For example, he explains how Esther came to live with him: “I hear of a good little orphan girl without a protector, and I take it into my head to be that protector. She grows up and more than justifies my good opinion, and I remain her guardian and friend,” (145).

Through the contrast of these two types of charitable people, Dickens shows his true feelings on effective philanthropy.

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire TomalinDickens’ Charities

In his own life, Dickens mirrored Jarndyce in his philanthropic ventures. Like Jarndyce, Dickens often came to the aid of orphans. For example, in 1843, “he was engaged in one of his most admirable charitable endeavors, raising funds for the children of Edward Elton [(six daughters and an eight-year-old son)]. Dickens steamed into action, forming a committee, arranging a benefit, visiting the children, and arranging for the eldest girl, Esther, to be given a place in training college,” (Tomalin, 146). I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this girl’s name was the same as one of the primary characters and orphans in Bleak House.

Dickens also came to the aid of the homeless, starving, and disabled, types like Jo, via his involvement in “Ragged Schools”. These were schools set up in the poorest parts of London (like Tom-all-Alones) by volunteer teachers who were “prepared to teach anyone who came” (Tomalin, 147). He gave advice on the curriculum provided at the schools, particularly regarding the religious training: “‘To impress them, even with the idea of a God, when their own condition is so desolate, becomes a monstrous task,’ and teaching such things as Catechism was beside the point to children whose lives are ‘one continued punishment,'” (Tomalin, 147). This opinion reminded me of Pardiggle who delivers Bibles and Bible-readings to the very poor and scolds them on their house-keeping, blind to the causes of these supposed defects. One man defends his home by growling:

Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she is a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That’s wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin instead! An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty–it’s nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat’rally onwholesome; and we’ve had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it. (Dickens, 130)

Pardiggle pays no mind, and goes on with her reading, planning to return the following day, though she makes no difference in their lives.

The biggest charitable act that Dickens engaged in was his “Home” for lowly young women. In this building, he offered room and board, education, and housekeeping practice to specially selected women. He geared this program towards two types of women: “those who were already known to be prostitutes, and those likely to drift into it because they lacked family support, had fallen into bad company, could not get work, become thieves or pickpockets, or were simply starving and in some cases suicidal,” (Tomalin, 205).

Dickens’ goal with the Home was to prepare these women for new, better lives. He didn’t save all of them, and

Dickens knew very well that he was only touching a huge social problem which had its roots in society’s neglect of the housing and education of the poor, its tolerance of the grim conditions in which workhouse children were raised, its acceptance of the double standard and the miserable pay and treatment of the lowest grades of female domestic servants- and also perhaps in something eradicable in the natures of men and women. (Tomalin, 208).

Bringing It All Together:

So, it seems to me that Dickens was very much concerned that more needed to be done by his society for his society, rather than for distant societies abroad. This is driven home in Bleak House with Dickens’ narration concerning poor Jo. In one scene, Jo

sits down to breakfast on the door-step of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, and gives it a brush when he has finished, as an acknowledgement of the accomodation. He admires the size of the edifice and wonders what it’s all about. He has no idea, poor wretch, of the spiritual destitution of a coral reef in the Pacific, or what it costs to look up the precious souls among the cocoa-nuts and bread-fruit,” (Dickens, 268).

Here these do-gooders have a charity case on their front step, and they are oblivious to it!

Hopefully, Dickens’ message got across to his readers and more was done to cure “the physical sickness of London” (Tomalin, 240).


Dickens, Charles. Bleak House: Part One. Geneva: Heron, no date given (1853).

Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2011.