Charles Dickens and Race

You may know that I was extremely honored earlier this year to be asked to write a blog post for the prestigious Dickens Society in London. It was well-received and there is a standing invitation to write more for them in the future.

The Dickens Society is an academic group dedicated to exploring all facets of Charles Dickens’s* life and work, but it is not an exclusive club at all. In fact I was surprised to learn how easy it is to join: by subscribing to their journal The Dickens Quarterly, you are automatically enrolled as a member.

It is The Dickens Quarterly that I would like to write about. I’ve been a member for a year now, and I am by no means either a Dickens completist, or an academic of any kind. Some of the material is a little over my head, but I’m comfortable with that. What is great is the breadth of subject matter, and how it makes you think differently not only about Dickens but also about nineteenth-century fiction, Victorian England, and much more.

Some of the subject matter recently has been: Dickens’s International Copyright Advocacy; The Morality of Fiction Making in “Our Mutual Friend”; The Rise of Celebrity Culture in the Nineteenth Century; Fungi and the City: Charles Dickens’s Poetics of Urban Decay; “Bleak House” as a Layperson’s Guide to Officialdom…the list goes on and I’ve only gotten four issues so far!

You probably are aware of Dickens’s advocacy for international copyright vis-a-vis the constant pirating of his work in the U.S. It was a huge loss to him and of course to other established, mostly British authors, whose works were easy to steal and were guaranteed money-makers in the states.

The surprising takeaway in this article was that, because American publishers could make more money stealing British works, it made it more difficult for American authors to get published because their work would have to be paid for, and they weren’t established or famous. In the absence of international copyright laws, all authors suffered, not just the famous ones.

Not long ago, in the wake of a stream horrendous racial injustices such as what were perpetrated upon George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, sadly among many others, the Dickens Society published a general statement condemning any and all such events and restating the organization’s policy of inclusivity. It seems, though, that once these ideas were clearly stated, more was called for. 

Which brings me to the current issue. A call went out to any and all potential contributors that a special issue would be published on the theme “Dickens and Race” and that is the issue I have in my hands. I haven’t read the whole issue yet, but I have to say it is splitting my mind open to where I have a changed understanding of Dickens’s world, and world-view.

The “whitening” of crowded street scenes in the ever-present illustrations is one theme. Another is the depiction of chimney sweeps in blackface, but always with carefully indicated tools of the trade so the reader would not think it was an actual black person. Some characters are deliberately “othered”, or drawn in some subservient posture. 

There are certainly lots of indications in Dickens’s  private writings and letter that prove only that he was a man of his times. He was a humanist and a christian but derided clergymen constantly, and a firm believer in the British Empire while being uneasy with the necessary mixing with colonized, mostly swarthy, “lower” races. You know, like that.

The Dickens Quarterly has given me new insights into one of the great authors in the English language and I enjoy it greatly, but it’s not perfect! A few problems: It is a beautifully perfect-bound journal, printed on heavy paper and solid as a Mack truck, so it. will. not. ever. lay. flat. You have to be really motivated to hold it open with both hands. So it’s archival, but a lot of work to read.

Another thing is, for some reason the identical art is used for every cover, a handwritten manuscript page from “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”. Just my opinion as an artist, but with Dickens so strongly identified with so many great images and illustrations, some variety might be nice if only so you can tell issues apart. However, I remind myself that this is not a magazine, but an academic journal. I have a general impression that most of the folks in this group, while knowing volumes about Dickens’s various illustrators, don’t mix much with actual artists.

All in all I highly recommend this nifty little journal to anyone who wants to learn more about this great author. Subscriptions are $35/year and are available from Johns Hopkins University Press at

You can write me on this or any other of my posts at

*British spelling throughout, just because!

Author: mooney2021

I am a commercial artist and illustrator from New York and now retired. I'm also a longtime Charles Dickens fan and I've embarked on a project to illustrate his great BLEAK HOUSE.

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