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A Dickens of an Idea

By Karen Andreola
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #4, 1993.

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Karen Andreola


What do you think of when you hear these names:

  • Milton
  • Shakespeare
  • Sir Walter Scott
  • Charles Dickens?

Romance? Excitement? Great writing? Moral values? That's how our ancestors thought of them!

Sadly, many of the greatest books that have strengthened and shaped Western civilization are drifting out of our life and thought. But it doesn't have to be this way. We can responsibly keep the literary lights burning brightly for the benefit of our children and future generations.

Let's start with the most approachable of the authors above: Charles Dickens. It is time to rescue Dickens from the attic and let him stir the hearts of our children. Dickens will challenge, motivate, and entertain in ways the Hardy Boys never could.

Learning to Judge Good and Evil

Dickens became famous writing stories that highlighted the difference between right and wrong in his own time. His stories invite us to form an opinion and make decisions about a character's right or wrong actions. This practice enables us to more naturally make a moral judgment in our daily lives.

As only an artist could, Dickens paints a moral picture of life. To paint the moral for children is more effective than to "point" it. Here lies the help our children need to develop a "moral imagination."

When we read episodes from Dickens's stories aloud to the children we get to know his characters more intimately than our own neighbors. We experience life along with his characters. We feel for them as they struggle in difficult situations.

To have sympathy for another human being, even one found in the pages of a realistic novel, is a virtue. We are happy when a child of ours identifies with a story character. Our eldest may say something like, "Mom, you tell the truth like Betsey Trotwood does," or "Nigel is as silly as Mr. Dick."

When characters of whatever disposition are painted well, children can be caught acting them out. At our house we witnessed what seemed to be "The Further Adventures of Tiny Tim" -- except with all the limping figures balancing on hand-made crutches maybe it should have been called "Will The Real Tiny Tim Please Stand Up?"

Every time a child makes a right decision, he strengthens his will and develops a deeper habit of doing right. In contrast, the traditional Puritan and Victorian method of learning moral values was a matter of memorizing lists of dos and don'ts and keeping the child's day so ordered that he never had time to be bad. After all, "Idle hands are the devil's workshop!" But it's not enough just to stay busy and memorize rules. Using these methods alone will put your children in a weaker state, because it is not enough to only instruct the conscience. The will must be strengthened.

In Terry W. Glaspey's Great Books of the Christian Tradition he says, "Dickens could sometimes be faulted for being overlong and sentimental, but his novels seem to lodge in the memory long after they are read. His ability to create a multitude of memorable characters gave us the adjective 'Dickensian.' His staunch Victorian morality is a pleasant contrast to our modern sense of moral drift." And what wonderful characters they are! His heroes are people of everyday life who supply our children with a vision of goodness.

Dickens Loved Children

Home schoolers may be interested to learn Dickens took special interest in exposing the faults of the often tyrannical and regimented schools of his day. Some of Dickens' biggest villains are cruel schoolmasters. An old Parents' Review article said, "It may be that little Charlie Dickens, as a schoolboy, suffered many things at the hands of his teachers; if so, he certainly had the satisfaction, in after life, of what schoolboys called, 'getting his own back.'" Certain teachers today can still learn what not to do be reading Dickens!

Dickens loved children. He had ten of his own. And to sin against children was a thing Dickens could not forgive. In Old Curiosity Shop Dickens speaks through a character, "I love these little people, and it is not a slight thing when they who are so fresh from God love us."

It has been said that Dickens' description of the plight of the poor children of England was overdrawn in Paul Dombey and in Oliver Twist, but he speaks from experience. While still a child, young Charles was forced to work in a warehouse, described as the establishment of Murdstone & Grinby in David Copperfield. Actually David Copperfield is nothing less than a pathetic and intensely human autobiography of Dickens himself, with certain fictitious additions. David Copperfield is Charles Dickens, notice the reversed initials. But aside from that, Dickens was a newspaper reporter of the debates in Parliament and if you read the facts history has brought to light about children in coal mines and children in factories, you can't help feeling that the facts of history are more imprecating than the pictures of fiction.

Another plus for bringing Dickens into the home school: his characters had a strong regard for home. "There's romance (adventure) enough at home, without going half-a-mile for it; only people never think of it." -- Pickwick Papers. "It is right to begin with the obligations of home, and, while these are overlooked and neglected, no other duties can possibly be substituted for them." -- Bleak House.

Big Words? Big Deal!

"But what about all his big words and long sentences?" another might ask. Anyone who reads Dickens should not be overly concerned with his "big words." Sooner or later the word will pop up again. Each time you will understand it better.

About those long sentences -- many of the best books ever written have long sentences. Why not dip into these great books, with their long sentences, beginning with Dickens? To read his long sentences aloud may leave you out of breath. Inhale more deeply at commas, then you can amaze yourself with your new ability to read aloud in true 19th century fashion.

You only need to start by reading aloud a single episode, not a whole chapter. A ten-year-old who is in the habit of narrating will find plenty to "tell back" in his own words. Remember, a child need not comprehend every jot and tittle. He will pick out and narrate the parts that appeal to him.

Who was it that dictated the law that a child, or grown-up, must comprehend everything he reads? The best books deserve a second or even third reading. "For, in reading a great book once," Charlotte Mason said, "we have only breakfasted." l hope this encourages you not to rob your child or yourself of the richness of Dickens's stories by feeling you should resort to simplified watered-down editions or only seeing the motion-picture version.

There was a time when Dickens was more widely read, when his wonderful characters would come up in lively conversation, spoken of as if they were people everybody knew. By contrast, in today's less cultured society, we often chance to over-hear idle gossip that focuses attention on idolatrous and adulterous "real people" from popular tabloids. How much more valuable and edifying it would be if we could still hear people talk about Dickens's "real people"!

How To Get Started with Dickens

An easy, popular, and readily available story to begin with is A Christmas Carol. Every library in the country should have a copy, and if not, you can get one through interlibrary loan. The average ten-year-old should not have too difficult a time reading A Christmas Carol. When we finished reading aloud the first chapter, with its detailed description of Scrooge, our ten-year-old was drawn into the story enough to continue reading silently on her own.

"But isn't it wrong to have our children read about characters such as 'The Ghost of Christmas Past'?" Only if it's wrong to have them read John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the most famous Christian book ever written. Dickens' "ghosts" are from the same mold as Bunyan's "Interpreter" and "Evangelist." They are allegorical figures sent to teach the main character some needed lessons. Just as Bunyan knew his readers wouldn't expect Matthew, Mark, Luke or John to pop up and confront them when they were in danger of falling into legalism, Dickens trusts we have sense enough to understand that Scrooge's "ghosts" are his conscience and memories, girded with the Ten Commandments and threatening him with the imminent judgment of his sins.

We strongly recommend Dickens to any homeschooling family. His stories:

  • help raise the conscience through developing a "moral imagination,"
  • provide a host of descriptive characters, everyday heroes and villains,
  • increase our moral will-power,
  • expand our vocabulary,
  • broaden cultural literacy,
  • display an historically accurate picture of his times,
  • and, as the English say, "tell a ripping good yarn" to entertain us.

Have more than a nodding acquaintance with this author. You will pick up his enthusiasm for life and hope for mankind.

A Warning

In story after story Dickens's characters seek to either drown their cares or enhance their joy with alcohol. The "merry punch-bowl" is present on many occasions. But Dickens doesn't mean to focus our attention on the drinks but the predicament of the characters. And because of the overwhelming reasons we have for loving him we can overlook this offense.

An Invaluable Resource

If you are interested in enlisting the aid of great writers of the past in your home school, consider getting a copy of Terry W. Glaspey's Great Books of the Christian Tradition. This is a list over 50 pages long. Hundreds of books are mentioned, with thumbnail summaries. In the words of Mr. Glaspey, who holds three degrees in pastoral study and history, "These are books which, in one way or another, repay reading and rereading. They demonstrate the variety of theology, spirituality, and artistic craftsmanship that make up our Christian heritage. Interspersed with these books is a list of other books (not written by Christians) that are important for understanding the root of modern thought and attitudes. The list is not something to tackle all at once, but a resource for a lifetime of reading and study. Some of the books can be read by a child, others are most definitely for adults. But they share in common the quality of having a permanent value." The list is $7 plus $2 postage from Terry W. Glaspey, 2040 Devos St., Eugene, OR 97402.


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