here’s the thing about charles dickens. [discussion of his antisemitism, misogyny, and racism ahead.]

his last, unfinished novel, the mystery of edwin drood, features helena and neville landless, heroic and sympathetic south asian (sri lankan, specifically) characters, and the racism they endure in an english town is relevant to the plot to the point where neville ends up falsely accused of murder. in the wake of the indian rebellion of 1857, dickens applauded the english brutality against “that oriental race,” and called for genocide.

fagin is called “the jew” 274 times in the first half of oliver twist. an article in the jewish chronicle asked why “jews alone should be excluded from the ‘sympathizing heart’ of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed.” at first, dickens dismissed this, and claimed he was just being accurate about london’s criminal makeup. but he was moved enough by eliza davis’s letters to him on the matter that he halted the printing of the latter half of oliver twist so he could change the text and remove the antisemitic language therein.

dickens was an abolitionist who despised chattel slavery in the united states, and called emancipation a “moral duty.” dickens didn’t think black americans were intelligent enough to vote, and he wrote an entire character in bleak house who is a joke to be disliked and mocked because she’d rather oversee charity missions to help children in africa than be a proper mother and tend to her own family at home in england.

speaking of one’s own family at home in england, dickens smeared his wife, catherine hogarth, publicly so he could justify separating from her and taking up with a younger woman. catherine hogarth was likely mentally ill, likely living with postpartum depression. she was also an author in her own right and loved her family dearly. her reputation never recovered in her lifetime from the claims he made about her. in dickens’s novels, time and time again, from nicholas nickleby to david copperfield to our mutual friend to the mystery of edwin drood, men who menace and take advantage of vulnerable women are portrayed as the worst kind of villains, deserving of whatever grisly ends come to them.

charles dickens was both privately and publicly a raging asshole in many ways and the world would be worse off without him, because he wrote for bourgeois, comfortable victorians, the very people who so often failed to “think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” in the same breath that he calls agnes fleming, who opens oliver twist as an unwed mother dying in a workhouse, “weak and erring,” he dares to add that “i do believe that the shade of that poor girl often hovers about that solemn nook-ay, though it is a church.” he calculated jo’s death to the page in bleak house for maximum effect. but when he wrote of the orphaned crossing-sweeper, “dead, your majesty. dead, my lords and gentlemen. dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. and dying thus around us every day,” people listened.

i dedicated years of my life to reading him and studying him and thinking about him and writing about him and his novels. now, i turn to condemn him; now, i turn to justify him. i wish i had a time machine so i could shake his hand. i wish i had a time machine so i could publicly debate him. i wish i had a time machine so i could break his nose.

charles dickens gives me courage and hope. charles dickens makes me want to tear my goddamn hair out. he is everything i despise and everything i love about the victorian age in one; the term “a man of his time” ought to have been invented for him. the leaps and bounds the victorians made for progress in the public good are only matched in greatness by the extremity of their atrocities against their “fellow-passengers” on this earth. the way we think about nearly every modern social ill can be traced back to the 19th century; the way we think about nearly every modern idea of social justice can be traced back to the 19th century. every last one is writ large and small in dickens’s novels. he and his age are the greatest contradictions in human history and that’s why i can’t shut up about them, ever, even when i am exhausted by them, even when i am inspired by them, even when it was two centuries ago and it shouldn’t matter anymore, but it does. it always will.

He was the best of men, he was the worst of men.