ON THIS DAY: 4 MARCH 1865: Telescopic Philantrophy political art published in London

Illustration for Charles Dickens Bleak House which shows the characters Mrs. Jelleby and Caddy

The noted Victorian author Charles Dickens used his writings to highlight social issues that were of importance to him.

One cause he reserved particularly harsh criticism was for individuals who styled themselves as philanthropists but whose charitable motives were more to serve their own vanity.

In one of his early journalistic pieces Dickens poked fun at the missionary zeal of charity workers in, the sketch The Ladies’ Societies published in 1835.

Nearly 20 years later he revealed his harshest criticism with the publication of the novel Bleak House. In this book he satirized the growing numbers of middle classes who spent much time, effort and money on raising funs for people that were ‘far away’, when there were people right next to them living in dire poverty with all the social problems that poverty brings. It was Dickens belief that they should concentrate on the problems of the poor at home. This behaviour, coined telescopic philanthropy by Dickens, was epitomized by Mrs Jellyby who spent much of her time, to the detriment to her own family, in the vain pursuit of causes notably those in countries far away.

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. (Quote from Jarndyce character from Bleak House, chapter 8).

Jarndyce, who is indirectly attacking the efforts of the character Mrs Pardiggle, takes the view that there is an inverse correlation between those who brag about how much charitable efforts they are doing (what we might call virtue-signalling today) and the actual work they achieve. Dickens used his story and writing to describe such behaviour.


On 4th March 1865, artist John Tenniel produced this artwork in Punch or the London Charivari, and it showed such a woman represented by Britannia who is so preoccupied with the distant horizon that she fails to notice the three children at her feet who, like Dickens’ Jo, represent the estimated 30,000 homeless children living on the streets of London at that time. From Punch, or the London Charivari, March 4, 1865.

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