I'm plagiarizing wholesale here:
Wikipedia's entry on Fagin told a story I was not familiar with. Fagin is Jewish; this is unstated but obvious in the movie, and stated outright in the book, which calls him "the Jew" far more often than it calls him by name. According to the Wikipedia entry:
Dickens claimed that he had made Fagin Jewish because "that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew. He also claimed that by calling Fagin a Jew he had meant no imputation against the Jewish faith, saying in a letter, "I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfect good faith in such transactions as I have ever had with them..."
Fagin is a fence, and part of the criminal underworld of Victorian London. It may in fact be true that fences were generally Jewish. However, Fagin was the only Jewish character who had appeared in Dickens's work up till that point. In fact, he's one of the only Jewish characters in the English literature of the period. And while he is portrayed somewhat sympathetically in the movie (he's a criminal, and occasionally violent, but he's also much kinder than the law-abiding Mr. Bumble), in the book he is an evil man who embodies every single nasty anti-Semitic stereotype that existed at the time, from hunched shoulders to a nasal voice.
In other words, Dickens may have said that he was not anti-Semitic, but any modern person who reads the character, and Dickens's defense, is going to roll their eyes. If Dickens were on LJ and making this case for himself, people would mock him and his pantsless self all over the Internet. Even if we go all alt-universe and try to imagine an LJ with Victorian sensibility (where some degree of anti-Semitism is socially acceptable)...no one would buy his claim that he harbors no prejudice and it's just a coincidence that the only Jewish character he's ever written is a viciously stereotyped villain.
Here is where the story gets interesting. In 1860, Dickens sold his London home to a Jewish banker, James Davis, and became acquainted with him and friendly with his wife Eliza. In 1863, Eliza wrote to Dickens to call him out for the portrayal of Fagin, saying that Jews considered the character "a great wrong" to them.
Dickens responded (eventually -- I would be interested to know if he attempted first to justify his portrayal of Fagin to his Jewish friend) by trying to repair what he'd done. He started revising Oliver Twist, working backwards, and removed all mention of Fagin's Jewishness from the last 15 chapters. In one of his final public readings, he had removed all the aspects of Fagin's description that were anti-Semitic stereotypes. And, in 1865, in the book Our Mutual Friend, he apparently put in a number of Jewish characters, all sympathetic.
So, to recap: Dickens was, at times, defensive. (It's not anti-Semitism! My fence character is Jewish because all fences are Jewish! It's pure coincidence that there has never been another Jewish character in any of my books!) But when taken to task by someone who said, in so many words, that this character had wronged her and her people, he took the criticism to heart and took steps to try to do better.
I stumbled across this story a few weeks after RaceFail started and was frankly kind of boggled to find a discussion of controversy surrounding cultural appropriation and Writing The Other from well over a hundred years ago. Damn, these discussions have been going on for a long time. But -- I think it's worth noting that
(a) You can be a really good writer, good enough that people are still reading you a hundred years later, and you can be generally a decent human being with progressive political views, and you can still fail at this stuff.
(b) Being a good (or even a great) writer and a good person and all the rest doesn't excuse you from trying to do better.
(c) This conversation has happened before. This conversation will happen again. The bad news is that the supply of clueless people seems to be endless, and this conversation is exhausting and disruptive and draining for the people who repeatedly find themselves drafted as educators. The good news is that these conversations do accomplish stuff. With each iteration, there are people who learn, do better, and speak out. And while the supply of clueless people seems to be endless, some of them will Get It, and be there to speak out the next time around.
Anyway. I am sharing this mostly because I found the historical perspective fascinating.
ETA: It is clear even from the Wikipedia entry that Our Mutual Friend fails in its own set of ways. Writing overly romanticized, saintly, sentimental depictions of The Other is its own variety of Fail. But I will cut Dickens some slack for being a Victorian, and credit for making a sincere effort, as I imagine his friend Eliza did.
So interesting. I grew up with Oliver (the musical version), and always thought Fagin was an Irish name (...).
This makes my feelings about Dickens even more confused than they were after I read Parallel Lives.