Charity and charitable enterprises were at the very heart of Victorian life and constituted the main way in which those unable to take care of themselves were taken care of by society. Very few social services as we know them were provided by the government—rather, churches and privately supported charitable institutions, upholding a wide variety of theories and methods, provided education, sustenance, sometimes employment, and care for those in need. Dickens did not uniformly support all of these institutions, especially not those sponsored by Evangelical groups. The combination of puritanical narrowness and crabbed strictness opposed Dickens's instinctive sense that true charity was an outgrowth of kindly benevolence and good cheer. He had his own theories about the failures of his society and their proper alleviation, and he was frequently in sympathy with radical political ideas. At the same time, he deeply distrusted social unrest, including incipient revolutionary movements, labor strikes, or any potential violent confrontation between classes. Social order was his highest goal, a social order that recognized the responsibility of all to all and made plenty of room for the pleasures of life—entertainment, good fellowship, good food and drink, congenial surroundings, familial affection. While he feared social unrest, he deplored any means by which the moneyed classes might shirk their social responsibilities: harsh poor laws, legal obfuscation, bureaucratic incompetence and red tape, failure to attend to public works and public sanitation, or simple personal selfishness and profligacy. It can be fairly argued, in this context, that Dickens never shirked his. His mode of life demonstrated that he lived by play as well as work, believed equally in the value of each, and promoted the value of both for all members of Victorian society. In 1839, Dickens met Angela Burdett-Coutts, the heiress to the Coutts banking fortune, the wealthiest woman in England other than the queen. Two years younger than Dickens, Miss Coutts remained single until eleven years after Dickens's death and devoted herself to a wide range of charitable projects, in many of which Dickens was her partner and agent, especially a project for retraining and rehabilitating fallen women, called Urania Cottage.
From his earliest writings, Dickens frequently expressed the opinion that ignorance and want go hand in hand and together cause many social ills, from disease to crime to social unrest. Over and over, his depictions of children included critiques of cruel, ineffectual, and neglectful educational institutions, and he relentlessly made the point that the child is father to the man. In his third novel, Nicholas Nickleby (which began to appear at the end of March 1838), he succeeded in bringing together several of his concerns and several of his customary styles, and he produced what may be seen as his first wide-ranging "Dickensian" novel. Depiction of an educational institution—one of the "Yorkshire schools," where illegitimate and otherwise inconvenient children were warehoused at low cost by their families—was his avenue into the novel, but as yet he was not quite ready to form the entire narrative around a single overarching theme, as he was later to do with Bleak House and Little Dorrit. He took as his protagonist a young man not unlike himself or, perhaps, a young man who was a combination of himself and the standard hero of a melodrama. Nicholas's father dies of grief over losing his property, and Nicholas, his sister, Kate, and their mother go to London and seek the aid of their uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Ralph is a moneylender, a greedy, heartless rich man who has no family feeling other than a long-standing contemptuous envy for his more humane but less successful brother. Ralph and Nicholas are soon bitter enemies. Ralph consents to help Mrs. Nickleby and Kate on the condition that Nicholas accept employment with Squeers, the proprietor of one of the Yorkshire schools.
Reprinted from Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley, copyright © 2002, with the permission of Penguin Books