Friday, 4 November 2011

Philanthropy in early English literature

Philanthropy is a recurring theme in English literature of the Victorian era that spanned a large part of the 19th century and an early bit of 20th century, a period that also saw the novel establish itself with a new force.

For example, Thomas Hardy shows his charitable side in Jude the Obscure when the stonemason, Jude Fawley, struggling to overcome the difficulties in his adolescent years, dreams of making it big when he grows up. He dreams of becoming even a bishop by leading a pure life. “…and what an example he would set! If his income were £5,000 a year, he would give away £4,500 in one form and another, and live sumptuously (for him) on the remainder,” Hardy conveys through his young working-class hero.

When every aspect of early literature has been dissected and analysed by literary historians, can the noble deed of charity be left out? In his first book titled Philanthropy in British and American Fiction: Dickens, Hawthorne, Eliot and Howells, Frank Christianson, an Assistant Professor at Brigham Young University, a private university in Utah, USA, examines how each of the acclaimed writers used “the figure of philanthropy both to redefine the sentiments that informed social identity and to refashion their own aesthetic practices.”

How was philanthropy practiced and represented in a period marked by self-interest and rational calculation? Christianson asks and answers in his book, which I must admit I haven’t read yet.

Charles Dickens combined his writing skill with his charitable disposition. For one who pronounced, “Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts,” Dickens certainly knew his way around philanthropy. Among his many acts of charity, Dickens helped a hospital overcome its financial crisis, went to the aid of abused children, and founded a home for “fallen” women – some of the people he encountered along the way became part of his novels and stories.

Going back to Hardy, stonemason Jude Fawley yearns to get out of the southern region of Wessex and migrate to Christminster where he dreams of becoming a scholar. As a young boy in Wessex, Fawley becomes the willing recipient of his school teacher’s kindness before Mr. Phillotson leaves for Christminster to pursue a higher academic career – a move that fuels Fawley’s own dream.

In her first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie brings Hercule Poirot from Belgium to Britain as a refugee during WWI and finds refuge for him and some fellow Belgians at Styles, through the generous patronage of Emily Inglethorp, the wealthy mistress of Styles Court. In one of life’s ironies, Poirot repays Emily’s kindness by bringing her murderer to justice.

While these are but a few instances of philanthropy in classic English literature, British and American fiction is replete with acts of charity and kindness that people can imbibe while they read the books.

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