Charles Dickens vs. Leigh Hunt: Charity, Social Reform, and the Problem of Hell

My sister and I have two very important holiday traditions: 1) we always go to a haunted corn maze before Halloween, and 2) we always watch The Muppet Christmas Carol before Christmas. We don’t often admit to the second tradition (and when we do, we kind of pretend that we only enjoy the Muppets “ironically”), but it’s something we’ve done for as long as I can remember. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas until Katie and I are sitting on the couch, singing along to the song “Marley and Marley” while two enchained muppet ghosts rattle around the TV screen, bemoaning their eternal punishment.


This year – maybe because I’m in the early stages of preparing for comps or maybe because I’ve been procrastinating work on other writing projects – I suddenly realized that I’ve never actually read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (which seems absurd given my obsession with the Muppet interpretation). So last week, I downloaded the audio book via Librivox and started listening to it during my daily jog. The man who reads the Librivox version is hilarious – he has a British accent and does different voices for all the ghosts. So, maybe it’s not surprising that I’ve been thinking a lot about how ghosts and the threat of eternal torment get harnessed in Dickens’ narrative as pedagogical tools in the service of a liberal rhetoric of social reform.

After all, at its core, A Christmas Carol is about the importance of individual charity; it’s the story of how a miserly bachelor transforms into a loving and generous patron via supernatural intervention (yay Christmas!). Notably then, it is seemingly uninterested in state reform and institutional intervention, even though Dickens was not necessarily opposed to these kinds of projects (he did, after all, spend a decade overseeing “Urania Cottage,” a reform house for fallen women). In Victorian Literature and the Victorian State, Lauren Goodlad explains this rift as the inevitable result of the uneven development of Britain’s “liberal” society, which (she suggests) fostered philosophical contradictions. She states:

“Although many Victorians did not regard themselves as political liberals, most were responsive to the overall projects of liberating individuals from illegitimate authority while simultaneously ensuring their moral and spiritual growth” (viii).

Yet, this begs the question: how does one ensure the moral and spiritual growth of an individual without imposing authoritative structures?

One solution at hand: scare them with the threat of eternal torment. Indeed, this theme seems to “haunt” (puns!) many social problem novels of the “hungry forties” – especially the work of Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell (one can’t help thinking of John Barton’s morbid fascination with the parable of Lazarus and the rich man).

While this theme of eternal punishment may not seem particularly new or exciting, it stands in stark contrast to Dickens’ predecessor Leigh Hunt, who took a very different stance on social reform during the Regency era. Rather than thinking of the ideology of hell as a motivating force, Hunt saw it as the most significant barrier to social reform. Thus, the rhetorical divide between the reformist rhetoric of Dickens and Hunt seems to hinge (at least in part) on how each man considered the “problem” of hell. And this (for me) is where things get interesting. However, before we get to Hunt’s ideology, I have to start with a bit of context: the trials of Richard Carlile.

Richard Carlile was a bookseller in Fleet-street who, in 1817, had joined with William Sherwin to publish a radical journal known as Sherwin’s Political Register. On Saturday, April 24, 1819, a London grand jury officially indicted Carlile on charges of libel and blasphemy. However, these charges were not the result of his radical journalism, but rather the consequence of his republishing “Diderot’s, Paine’s, Palmer’s and other argumentative works in opposition to the Christian faith.” Carlile’s predicament elicited special sympathy from fellow radicals like Leigh Hunt, and throughout 1819 The Examiner devoted five front page columns to defending him. In August, Carlile was one of the speakers invited to the reform meeting in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, but the crowds were attacked before he had a turn to speak. Upon returning to London, he published one of the first full eyewitness reports of the attack in Sherwin’s Weekly Political Register, and was eventually arrested on further charges of seditious libel for publishing similar accounts. While Carlile’s connection to the reporting of the Peterloo Massacre is enough to assert his cultural importance to the reformist rhetoric of 1819, the arguments that arose around the trials for his earlier crimes – publishing anti-Christian texts – are, arguably, of even greater significance because they highlight the importance of religious dogma to the debates about social reform.

In The Examiner’s initial account of Carlile’s indictment, Hunt noted that Carlile had also published a book by “Bishop Watson, entitled an Apology for the Bible,” which, for Hunt, suggested that rather than discrediting Christianity, Carlile just wanted to promote free debate. However, the stakes of this argument are not readily apparent.  It’s only after Carlile loses his trials in the late fall of 1819, that Hunt seems able to articulate why the trials mattered in the first place.

On October 24, 1819, Hunt published a column titled “The Late Trials of Mr. Carlile” in which he directly indicted the Christian rhetoric of heaven and hell for having blocked reform efforts. He argues that a believer’s consent to the eternal torment of others leads directly to their social malaise regarding human suffering on Earth. Hunt concludes:

“The idea of fifty millions of heavens would be no heavenly idea to us, if we thought that one single fellow-creature were to suffer eternal punishment. Without these and other intolerant dogmas the faith of Christianity would come to nothing; and then, and then only, charity would come indeed to something. May the dawn of that day touch our dying eyes.”

With this column, Hunt outlines the stakes of Carlile’s “libel” as a reformist concern, and suggests that, rather than being an ancillary issue, Christian dogma was central to the politics of human suffering.  For Hunt, then, “hell” seems to be a central ideological concern barring the progress of “charity,” and, by extension, if society can’t debate hell, then reform is doomed to fail.

Now, I’m obviously presenting a pared down, somewhat simplified version of these debates.  There’s no Foucauldian analysis here.  I’m not charting the rise of Bentham.  And I’m resisting these critical lenses partly because this is a blog post and partly because I can’t help feeling a little delighted and a little awestruck by the way Hunt so eloquently frames the ideology of hell as a barrier to human sympathy.  I’ve grown up thinking of Dickens’ Christmas Carol as the story of human charity. So I can’t help feeling fascinated by Hunt’s rhetoric – just wanting to ponder it.

And I also can’t help comparing these debates to our current political climate (even as I’m ever vigilant against presentist genealogy). The tendency to buttress liberal individualism with religious dogma seems to be a pairing that still haunts modern neoliberal discourse; one need only look at the current debate around the institutional reform of gun laws:




So what do you guys think? Is the “problem of hell” inherently political? Is there a reason that we continue to defend liberal individualism with religious dogma? Would “tiny Tim” die in a world without the ghost of Marley?  I look forward to pondering these questions further over hot cocoa…and The Muppet Christmas Carol.