Anne Stott is a historian, with interests in religious and women's history. She is the author of Hannah More: The First Victorian, which won the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize for literary biography in 2004. Her new book, Wilberforce: Family and Friends, will be published by Oxford University Press next month. Here Anne (who has contributed earlier posts in this series, on Jane Austen and Jane Eyre) writes about 'Dickens and religion'.
Anne Stott on Dickens and Religion
[This post is indebted to the two-volume edition of John Forster's Life of Charles Dickens (1873, 1874), Denis Walder's ground-breaking Dickens and Religion (George Allen & Unwin, 1981; reprinted Routledge, 2007), the discussion of Dickens's religious views on the Victorian web and Professor Andrew Sanders's talk, 'Charles Dickens: Christian', given to the winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society on 9 January 2011. The views below are my own.]
In September 1844, while Dickens was on holiday with his family in Genoa, he had a disturbingly vivid dream. A figure appeared to him, which he interpreted as the spirit of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, who had died suddenly at the age of seventeen, leaving him distraught. As his biographers have pointed out, his improbably virtuous heroines are modelled on his idealization of a girl who never grew old and who left him with a wistful memory of unsullied purity and goodness. In his dream, he asked Mary, 'What is the True religion?... You think, as I do, that the Form of religion does not so greatly matter if we try to do good? Or... perhaps that the Roman Catholic Church is the best? Perhaps it makes us think of God oftener and believe in him more steadily?' To this, Mary's spirit replies, 'For you it is the best.' Dickens then woke to find the tears running down his face.
The dream gives us a curious insight into Dickens's subconscious. Though he was to express sympathy for the persecuted Catholics in Barnaby Rudge, he did so from a humanitarian rather than a religious perspective. He never in his waking moments showed any sympathy for Roman Catholicism, and the robust Protestantism of his Pictures from Italy and A Child's History of England offended some Catholic reviewers. But his dream took place in a city surrounded with images of the Virgin, and Mary appeared to him wearing the blue robes of a Raphael Madonna. It rose out of the same place in his imagination that was to create the female redemptive figures of Florence Dombey, Agnes Wickfield, Amy Dorrit and Lucie Manette.
The Dickens of the waking, rather than the dream, world took a deep interest in the religious questions that dominated Victorian thought. On his visit to America he became attracted to Unitarianism and for two or three years when back in London he worshipped at a Unitarian church in Little Portland Street. In middle age, when he had returned to the Church of England, he welcomed the appearance of Essays and Reviews (1860), a series of essays by a group of Anglican churchmen who were attempting to reconcile Christianity with modern knowledge, and his bookshelves contained a copy of Darwin's Origin of Species. To use the terminology of his day, Dickens was a Broad Churchman.
Two years after the Mary Hogarth vision, Dickens began work on a book for his children that was not intended for publication. This was The Life of Our Lord, 'a little version of the New Testament', as he described it, which recounts the life of Christ in a vivid, unsophisticated fashion. The message is what any reader of his novels would expect: 'Never be proud or unkind, my dears, to any poor man, woman, or child... And when people speak ill of the Poor and Miserable, think how Jesus Christ went among them, and taught them, and thought them worthy of his care.' When his son Edward ('Plorn') emigrated to Australia in 1868, Dickens, deeply distressed at the separation (even though he had engineered it), handed him a letter: 'I put a New Testament among your books for the very same reasons, and with the very same hopes, that made me write an easy account of it for you when you were a little child. Because it is the best book that ever was or ever will be known in the world, and because it teaches you the best lessons by which any human creature who tries to be truthful and faithful to duty can possibly be guided.' The religious themes of his novels were no mere add-ons to gratify a pious readership but were integral to his view of life and his artistic imagination.
However, though there are many Christian references in his novels, and many biblical echoes that can be missed by modern readers, Dickens was not an explicitly religious writer in the style of his Tractarian contemporary, Charlotte M. Yonge. He disliked the tendency of the Ragged Schools to thrust religion down the throats of poor children and he took care to ensure that the prostitutes of his friend Angela Burdett-Coutts's philanthropic venture, Urania Cottage, were not subjected to religious indoctrination. His model was the unobtrusive Christianity shown by characters like Esther Summerson and Joe Gargery. Their quiet goodness stands in contrast to the harsh legalism of much institutional religion. When Jo the crossing-sweeper lies dying, it is the layman, Allan Woodcourt, not Mr Chadband, the unctuous Dissenting minister, who teaches him the Lord's Prayer [Bleak House, ch. xlvii]. Reflecting on the 'gloomy taint' of the Murdstones' child-hating Calvinism, David Copperfield reflects that 'there was a child once set in the midst of the Disciples' [ch. iv]. In the great dénouement scene of Little Dorrit [Bk II, ch. xxxi], Amy Dorrit begs Mrs Clenham, trapped in her prison of wrongdoing and vengefulness, to be guided by 'the patient Master who shed tears of compassion for our infirmities'. The alternative to bad religion is not secular morality, but the practice of the New Testament.
There was of course little Christian compassion in the self-righteous cruelty with which Dickens treated his unoffending wife once he became infatuated with the actress, Ellen Ternan. In his earlier novels he had engaged with the themes of conversion and redemption and shown how Scrooge, the two Martin Chuzzlewits, and Mr Dombey all experience painful changes of heart. With the breakup of his marriage, he dug deeper into the great questions of human existence and out of his own anguish created the disappointed, troubled heroes of his later novels. Arthur Clenham is saved by Little Dorrit's love. For Sydney Carton redemption comes through death, but also through offering words of Christian comfort to the little seamstress waiting her turn at the guillotine. For Pip, the change is more complex and problematic. When Miss Havisham asks his forgiveness, he replies, 'There have been sore mistakes; and my life has been a blind and thankless one; and I want forgiveness and direction far too much, to be bitter with you' [ch xlix]. It is well known that the so-called 'happy' ending in which Pip is reunited with Estella was written against Dickens's own better judgement. There is no easy way out for two such damaged people - nor for Dickens himself.
In the late, sombre novels he began to explore the human condition with the kind of depth found in other Christian writers, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Marilynne Robinson. But though his work darkened and gained in complexity, his fundamental belief that the New Testament contained the only necessary guide to living did not change, neither did his passionate sympathy for the poor and oppressed. It is for this reason that Dostoevsky saw him as a great Christian; though of course he was a more deeply flawed one than his Russian contemporary could have known.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]