Harrison Middleton University

Telescopic Philanthropy

Telescopic Philanthropy

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


January 5, 2024

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Dickens’ incredible prose is a pleasure to read. The magic of fog and mud curls around the reader, until an intense cocoon settles over the whole as in a spell. Moving between Esther Summerson’s narration and the omniscient narrator helps to pull the reader in and create a sense of community with the book. I am ignorant of the slum of Tom-all-Alone’s, but I can feel it. I am distant from Bleak House, but I almost know the jingle of keys as Esther begins her daily activities. This is on purpose of course. Dickens invites the reader into the narrative as he explores societies’ depravities. More to the point, Dickens explores human nature’s tendency towards moral blindness. Perhaps my favorite chapter title from Dickens’ Bleak House is the heading for Chapter 4: Telescopic Philanthropy in which we meet Mrs. Jellyby.

Continuing to develop the idea of charity from last week’s blog, I want to compare Mrs. Jellyby to a character from Chapter 8: Covering a Multitude of Sins. First, we remember that Mrs. Jellyby has forsaken the care of her own family in favor of supporting distant African charities. All of her charitable work is done through long-distance communication, and while she has written a lot, she has no real access to or understanding of Africa. Dickens finds her ignorance of reality ridiculous.

In Chapter 8, Mrs. Pardiggle also lacks a connection to reality. She drags her children through the muddy streets sharing her philanthropic pursuits with them, but not allowing them to exercise their own ideas. Mrs. Pardiggle proudly compares her young family to Mrs. Jellyby’s, though the reader finds them no better off. Furthermore, she lacks empathy and connection with the people in Tom-all-Alone’s. At best, she is haughty and disconnected.

For a delightful twist, Mr. Skimpole opens the chapter. He readily accepts charity and acts as a foil to these two female philanthropists. Dickens writes:

“Among the ladies who were most distinguished for this rapacious benevolence (if I may use the expression) was a Mrs. Pardiggle, who seemed, as I judged from the number of her letters to Mr. Jarndyce, to be almost as powerful a correspondent as Mrs. Jellyby herself. We observed that the wind always changed when Mrs. Pardiggle became the subject of conversation and that it invariably interrupted Mr. Jarndyce and prevented his going any farther, when he had remarked that there were two classes of charitable people; one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all. We were therefore curious to see Mrs. Pardiggle, suspecting her to be a type of the former class, and were glad when she called one day with her five young sons.”

Throughout this section, Mrs. Pardiggle gives exacting accounts of the money that each child has donated to various causes. Meanwhile, the children wriggle and squirm, pinching and poking Esther for want of money. They obey their mother, but loathe their circumstances.

Dickens seems to want the reader to compare the two philanthropists (I almost wrote mothers here, but they dedicate more time to philanthropy than parenting, so it seems more appropriate to say philanthropists). Mrs. Jellyby attends only to letters and the abstract, while completely ignoring her children. Mrs. Pardiggle drags her children through muck and mud, disregarding their childish natures. Yet, Mrs. Pardiggle brags to Esther about her style of parenting. She compares herself to Mrs. Jellyby and finds herself to be far advanced:

“‘Mrs. Jellyby,’ pursued [Mrs. Pardiggle], always speaking in the same demonstrative, loud, hard tone, so that her voice impressed my fancy as if it had a sort of spectacles on it too – and I may take the opportunity of remarking that her spectacles were made the less engaging by her eyes being what Ada called ‘choking eyes,’ meaning very prominent – ‘Mrs. Jellyby is a benefactor to society and deserves a helping hand. My boys have contributed to the African project – Egbert, one and six, being the entire allowance of nine weeks; Oswald, one and a penny halfpenny, being the same; the rest, according to their little means. Nonetheless, I do not go with Mrs. Jellyby in all things. I do not go with Mrs. Jellyby in her treatment of her young family. It has been noticed. It has been observed that her young family are excluded from participation in the objects to which she is devoted. She may be right, she may be wrong; but, right or wrong, this is not my course with MY young family. I take them everywhere.’”

Dickens points out that Mrs. Jellyby refuses to notice, feed, or bathe her children. She also ignores order and cleanliness within the home. Further, she runs her husband into debt in the name of charity, which becomes the ruin of the entire family. Mrs. Pardiggle, on the other hand, tows her children behind her as if on a rope. She speaks about them, but not to them. She gives them money and then forces them to use their money for charity. Egbert Pardiggle, the oldest, complains to Esther: “What does she make a sham for, and pretend to give me money, and then take it away again?”

Mrs. Pardiggle brings Esther and Ada to visit a house in the slum of Tom-all-Alone’s. She preaches to the poor family. She leaves some religious material (which they can’t read). She lacks respect, empathy, and courtesy. She shuffles in and out, knocking over everything in doing so.

Dickens judges both Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle for missing the obvious: attention is due at home. Perhaps, Dickens might go so far as to suggest that if everyone took care of the home first, there would be less need for such telescopic philanthropists. In light of these characters, I propose the following questions for Chapter 8: Covering a Multitude of Sins.

1] If Dickens opens a discussion of charity, how does he define charity?

2] Do the “moral policeman” have any effect (positive or negative)?

3] Esther calls the attentions of people like Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle “rapacious benevolence.” What does this imply?

4] Esther notices an “iron barrier” between the people of Tom-all-Alone’s and people like Mrs. Pardiggle. What makes up this barrier?

5] Esther and Ada notice that, throughout their visit to the house in Tom-all-Alone’s, the woman has been holding a dead baby. Mrs. Pardiggle missed it or paid no heed, more focused on her morally-imbued lecture. After the Pardiggles exit, Esther and Ada attempt to console the mother and clean and wrap the dead child. Is this a charitable action?

6] What might constitute “telescopic philanthropy”?

7] Does Dickens present examples of worthwhile charitable actions, or does he find all charity outside of one’s own home to be less than effective?

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Christine Bird

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