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What the Dickens?

Andrew Tate

Christmas without Charles Dickens seems almost unthinkable, but what
spiritual understanding did he bring to his work? On the eve of the great
novelist's bicentenary, Andrew Tate sorts the holy from the humbug.


The Victorian era began in 1837 but did not, as logic would suggest, end with the death of its great royal matriarch in 1901. Indeed, even now in the 21st century those earnest folk, with their frock coats and improbable whiskers, are like party guests failing to take the hint at yawns and polite offers of coffee.
In truth though, we don't seem particularly eager for our ancestors to leave.

Many aspects of contemporary life - Sarah Waters' novels of pastiche Victoriana; the plethora of Wuthering Jane Eyre's Great Bleak House style film adaptations; even the disputed revival of civic values mooted by David Cameron's Big Society - reveal our obsession with 19th-century culture. And no spectre in this long, loquacious Victorian afterlife is as vivid as that of Charles Dickens (1812-70).

2012 is the bicentenary of Dickens' birth, a literary landmark that will be marked by a vast number of critical volumes (Claire Tomalin's major biography has already been published), academic conferences, films and television series (the BBC will screen new versions of Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood).

Everybody has an opinion of this most eminent of English novelists. Like Jesus, Lady Gaga and Simon Cowell, people don't need a thorough knowledge of his oeuvre to know where they stand.

Dickens is variously viewed as a sentimental storyteller, reforming liberal, judgemental moralist, architect of Christmas custom and comic genius. More recently, biographical work focusing on the scandal of the writer's relationship, in late middle-age, with a young actress - coupled with shoddy treatment of his family - has encouraged the view that he is yet another skilled practitioner of 'Victorian virtue': a public preacher whose private life whiffs, with depressing inevitability, of hypocrisy.

But as disappointed (or pleased) as we might be to discover the personal failings of a crusading author, it is a mistake to dismiss his writing, Scrooge-like, as moral humbug. Dickens is a complex figure and his rich body of work bears witness to a creative life spent wrestling with angels. Novels including Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities depend on Christian concepts of sin and redemption.

Although Dickens despised ostentatious professions of piety, the writer was a quiet but determined man of faith. Dennis Walder, author of Dickens and Religion (1981), describes his subject as 'a liberal Protestant with radical, Romantic leanings'.1 This is a useful classification, though it perhaps tells us more about what Dickens did not believe than what he did. Dickens is, in the words of John Schad, a 'queer fish': an eccentric Christian, often at odds with the visible Church and, yet, quite in keeping with its disparate body of oddities, misfits and sinners (I believe they are called disciples).2

His religious upbringing was conventional and included some attendance at Anglican services but, unlike his near contemporaries George Eliot and John Ruskin, he was not exposed to rigorous, Evangelical Bible learning. In adult life, he expressed enthusiasm for Unitarian worship (a legacy of his trip to the United States in the early 1840s) but some biographers claim that he ultimately identified with the doctrines of the Church of England.

In early June 1870, in one of the last letters that he was to write, he made a clear connection between his work and Christian belief: 'I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of Our Saviour; because I feel it ... But I have never made proclamation of this from the house tops'.3  

In Dickens' fiction, religion is often either a comically theatrical or horribly vicious affair. The Pickwick Papers - the picaresque collection of illustrated stories that became his first novel - includes a pompous and hypocritical dissenting minister. The early sections of Great Expectations, by contrast, satirize the pseudo-Calvinist harrying of young children in the name of faith.

Authentic Christlike behaviour in the world according to Dickens is reflected in practical attitudes to the poor and destitute. In Bleak House (1852-3), for example, the (apparently) orphaned Esther Summerson's quiet, self-sacrificial life is represented as a holy alternative to the self-righteous behaviour and spiritual hogwash of those who punish and exploit her.

Dickens' antipathy for aspects of the ascendant Evangelical subculture - its perceived triumphalism, self-righteousness and showy devotion - exists in tension with a recurrent motif of conversion that structures many of his novels. In fact, the old Puritan narrative of the awakening conscience haunts one of his most famous narratives: A Christmas Carol, first published in December 1843.

In Dickens' various glowing accounts of seasonal festivities, Peter Ackroyd finds a suspicion that 'he is trying to revive the benevolence of his lost childhood'.4  Yet A Christmas Carol, the first and most popular of Dickens' five novella-length seasonal stories, also has traces of this pervasive Evangelical culture.

This fable, one that plays on materialist and supernatural understandings of poverty, draws very explicitly on a theology of penitence and conversion. Although Ebenezer Scrooge's radical transformation from miserly, misanthropic exploiter of the working poor to born-again patrician philanthropist is enacted without reference to the church or divine belief, it does echo the structure of the call to conversion at work in Evangelical culture.

The use of the supernatural, though deeply symbolic, indicates Dickens' sense of a world beyond the present darkness: each ghost becomes an advocate for transformation, a fragment of some greater spiritual truth. John Ruskin, the influential art critic and social reformer, was privately rather dismissive of Dickens' Christmas narratives: 'He knew nothing of the nobler power of superstition - was essentially a stage manager, and used everything for effect on the pit. His Christmas meant mistletoe and pudding - neither resurrection from dead, nor rising of new stars, nor teaching of wise men, nor shepherds'.5   
Yet the Christmas setting is vital: Dickens explores the way in which a festival intended to celebrate God made flesh has fallen in a world of commercial greed. The writer's attitude to the complacency of the wealthy, ruling classes as represented in the Carol and its successor, The Chimes, foreshadows the social critique developed more thoroughly in Hard Times and Bleak House.

Dickens deployed folkloric fascination with the supernatural to examine material problems. A Christmas Carol suggests that the absurd extremes of wealth and abject poverty prevalent in 1840s Britain were an index of the nation's spiritual malaise. The redemption of Scrooge - a kind of prodigal son narrative, in which the errant character must rediscover a child-like faith in God and man - foreshadows later plots of non-supernatural narratives including Pip's story in Great Expectations and the transformation of the titular misanthropist in Dombey and Son.

Almost a decade later, Dickens reflected on similar themes in 'A Christmas Tree', a short piece for Household Words: 'What images do I associate with the Christmas music as I see them set forth on the Christmas Tree? ... An angel, speaking to a group of shepherds in a field; some travellers, with eyes uplifted, following a star; a baby in a manger ... [the same] dying upon a Cross, watched by armed soldiers, a thick darkness coming on, the earth beginning to shake, and only one voice heard, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do''.'6 The explicit connection that Dickens makes between the nativity and crucifixion challenges the rather simplistic notion that the writer was big on festive cheer but lacked theological depth.

At a time when many of his peers were wrestling with the distinction between the 'Jesus of history' and the 'Christ of faith', Dickens seems to have been largely untroubled by such doctrinal minutiae. In the late 1840s, the author wrote a composite version of the gospel narratives for his own children: the volume, later titled The Life of Our Lord, was strictly limited to his immediate family. Indeed, the family would not allow publication of this intriguing volume until the last of Dickens' children had died. It was eventually published, in a deal with the Daily Mail, in 1934, more than 60 years after its author's death and close to a century after The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist established his reputation.

The narrative celebrates the goodness of Jesus (referred throughout as 'Jesus Christ') but it does not move towards a demythologized version of the gospels: The Life of Our Lord avoids questions of atonement but does not rationalize the miracles and strongly emphasises the hope of heaven. This is a tantalising insight into Dickens' domestic life but the novels, for all their outward hostility to much organized religion, tell us more of the author's spirituality.

In his homage to Dickens, 'The King of the Novel' (1986), the US novelist John Irving explores the way in which the writer helped to shape his own understanding of fiction. He offers a powerful defence of what, from Oscar Wilde to the present day, is regarded as Dickens' most habitual artistic failure. Sentimentality, suggests Irving, in the hands of the truly great artist, is a crucial element of storytelling: 'To the modern reader, too often when a writer risks being sentimental, the writer is already guilty. But as a writer it is cowardly to so fear sentimentality that one avoids it altogether'.7

In an earlier essay, 'In Defense of Sentimentality' (1979), Irving stated 'when we writers ... escape the slur of sentimentality, we should ask ourselves if what we are doing matters'.8 Thomas Hardy embraced tragedy in a way that the creator of Pickwick, Uriah Heep, and Micawber never really could. Dickens' fiction is full of sorrow - and sometimes it is embarrassingly lachrymose - but the universe is, ultimately, a place of justice and divine compensation.

For some sceptical readers, even Dickens' most vivid social critiques are regarded as politically suspect because they don't finally call for radical social change. The emphasis is always on the renovation of the human heart. And nostalgic appropriations of Dickens airbrush the uncomfortable truth that elements of his worldview were all too typical of his age: his novels can be punitive, hostile to difference and, on occasion, somewhat bigoted. These failings, however, are not the whole story. We might possess more sophisticated political perspectives now but can we truly say that Dickens' challenge is any less chastening in today's world of excess and desperate poverty than it was in the 'Hungry Forties'?

1  Dennis Walder, Dickens and Religion (London: George Allen, 1981), xiii.
2  See John Schad, Queer Fish: Christian unreason from Darwin to Derrida (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2004).
3  Dickens to John M. Makeham, 8 June 1870. The Letters of Charles Dickens, volume 12: 1868-1870 edited by Graham Storey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), pp. 547-8.
4  Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (London: QPD, 1990) p. 33.
5  Letter to Charles Eliot Norton, 19 June 1870. Letters of John Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton, quoted in Robert Newsome, 'Religion', Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens, edited by Paul Schlicke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp.493.
6  Charles Dickens, 'A Christmas Tree' Household Words, 21 December 1850.
7  John Irving, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (London: Black Swan, 1994), p. 197.
8  John Irving, 'In Defense of Sentimentality', New York Times, 25 November 1979.

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