A holiday message for philanthrocapitalists: read some Charles Dickens. The great Victorian’s novels were full of philanthropists, some inspiring, some useless, quite a few downright offensive. They repay careful study, especially for modern givers who wish to avoid repeating the mistakes of a past golden age of philanthropy.
Dickens understood the potential, and the pitfalls, of philanthropy, not least because he was himself a professional philanthropy advisor, when not writing novels, helping one of the wealthiest women of the day, Angela Burdett-Coutts, give more effectively. (If you want to know more, read “Victorian giving”, one of six bonus chapters on the history of philanthropy available on our website.)
Some of his characters play a positive role, such as Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist, the Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby, and Mr and Mrs Garland in The Old Curiosity Shop. But philanthropists also come in for some caustic ridicule in his later works. In a novel mainly attacking the legal system, Mrs Jellyby and Mrs Pardiggle in Bleak House are, respectively, guilty of ‘telescopic philanthropy’ and ‘rapacious benevolence’, neither of them helping to save the life of the child Jo, who dies of pneumonia. In his final, unfinished, novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood Dickens ridiculed a selfish, paternalist attitude to philanthropy that, even today, colours our perception of the Victorians.
Yet our favourite Dickens novel, of course, is “A Christmas Carol”, which for all its sentimental gushing never fails to inspire. If, after this miserable year of credit crunch and Ponzi schemes, you are tempted to unleash your inner Scrooge, take a deep breath, dust down a copy and ponder the Ghost of Christmas Future. On which note: we wish you a merry, and generous, Christmas.