Always Christmas, Never Winter?

Christianity in the Writings of Charles Dickens


2020 marks the 150th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ death and the 250th anniversary of William Wordsworth’s birth. The coincidence of these anniversaries has reminded me that I wrote Finals papers on both Dickens and Wordsworth when I was an undergraduate at Oxford thirty years ago. I’ve recently dug both papers out of my files and I find them less embarrassing than I feared they might be. Today I make bold to publish the Dickens essay, which I have lightly edited for flow (as the journalists say of their interview transcripts); the Wordsworth essay I’ll publish on this site later in the year. Hopefully, there is something here that may interest and/or inform readers about Dickens and his faith as expressed in his writings. And even if that isn’t the case, perhaps the paper will serve as an example of an early effort that helped shape an eventual career. To that extent, perhaps it will also serve as an object lesson in the importance of choosing with care what you write about when a student, for it may set your trajectory in all sorts of unforeseeable ways. I could not have guessed, when I wrote this exploration of fiction and faith back in 1990, that thirty years later I would be teaching imaginative apologetics, but so it has turned out and I am grateful. All I ask readers is to remember that the following exercise in literary and theological criticism had its origin “in my salad days when I was green in judgement” (to quote Queen Elizabeth II). I’d put certain things rather differently now . . . 

This essay explores the extent to which the writings of Charles Dickens might fairly be called Christian. I am not asking, “Was Dickens himself a Christian?” No one can say authoritatively what the state of another person’s soul may be, still less when that person is known primarily through his works of fiction and has been dead for a hundred and fifty years. Indeed, the very fact of Dickens’ having been a writer of fiction may throw one off the scent of his real faith. An author, however devout, is not providing a map of his spiritual state or a directory to his deepest convictions when he produces a novel; he may rather be covering up certain of his personal beliefs for the sake of the story in hand. To an author such a D.H. Lawrence, for instance, this covering up was an essential part of the writer’s art: “A theosophist cannot be a novelist, as a trumpet cannot be a regimental band. A theosophist, or a Christian, or a Holy Roller, may be contained in a novelist. But a novelist cannot put up a fence.”[1] Examining the extent to which Dickens did “put up a fence” for the sake of Christianity in his writings (and in his writings alone) is the subject of this paper.

At first glance, there would appear to be no fences at all in the works of Charles Dickens (except Fagin!), for what writer since Shakespeare has had a more generous, expansive, inclusive grasp of men and mankind than the one who flowered out of a poor boy in a blacking-factory? Like his own Mrs Nickleby, he was interested in anybody and everybody, regardless of whether they were pukka Christians or not. Everything and everyone was overwhelmed by his weed-like imagination (as George Orwell described it[2]). His self-forgetful immersion in his characters’ lives (and deaths) was total. Dickens attempted to feel the part of other men and women completely and threw himself into it, body and soul; indeed, it may even have contributed to his own death, because of the extreme histrionics with which he publicly recited the account of Nancy’s murder by Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist. Dickens was not, by temperament, a man who observed personal or psychological boundaries with particular care, and the same is true of his approach to religion in his writings.

On the other hand, he identified as a Christian, and, according to D.H. Lawrence, a Christian writer puts up a fence. In one sense, Lawrence is mistaken, because a Christian would claim to be vitally concerned with every aspect of human experience, including those aspects he believes to be in error, since the all-encompassing doctrines of creation and redemption exclude nothing: “all things hold together” in Christ (Col. 1:17). But in another sense, Lawrence may be right. Is it not a tenet of Christianity to be philosophically circumscribed, so as not to be “carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4, v. 14), and to remain “unspotted by the world” (James 1:26f)? Lawrence’s novelistic prairies should be beautifully unenclosed and windswept; but how can a Christian believe in that sort of Keatsian “negative capability” when “all the promises of God in [Christ] are yea” (2 Cor. 1, v. 20)? If a writer is to express a Christian vision of the world, however artistically and undogmatically, he must put up a fence of at least some kind, must he not? And though there might be unwelcome consequences, such as being charged, like George Herbert, with “loss of rime”,[3] it must still be done.

What precisely is the ideal modus operandi for a Christian novelist is not the concern of this essay, but insofar as Lawrence’s idea of the “fence” is pertinent, Dickens seems to have tried to straddle it, subscribing to Christianity firmly but circumscribing it loosely. His faith is simultaneously definite and undefined. Though his religious convictions are undeniably coloured by the Christian culture in which he lived, the exact doctrinal content of those convictions is hard to discern. Fences keep things in as well as out, and Dickens’ theological garden seems to be rather at the mercy of John Jarndyce’s east wind, blowing the fruit off the trees. Let us now turn to examine what Dickens’ works have to say about such Christian topics as the Bible, theological doctrine, the Church, churchmen, church-goers, sacred rituals, and, finally, Christ himself.

Dickens asserted a great love of the New Testament. In a letter to a clergyman, he declared, “There cannot be many men, I believe, who have a more humble veneration for the New Testament, or a more profound conviction of its all-sufficiency, than I have.”[4] This is not exactly a formal declaration of belief in the doctrine of sola scriptura, but it comes close and helps explain his aversion to the Catholic Church, for he thought its emphasis upon tradition and priestly authority insufficiently scriptural. He wanted to be free to read the New Testament and interpret it for himself, unimpeded by priestcraft. In his splendid Child’s History of England (splendid because it must surely have been the model for 1066 And All That), he signifies his opinion of the importance of such freedom:

There now arose at Wittenburg, in Germany, the great leader of the mighty change in England which is called The Reformation, and which set the people free from their slavery to the priests. This was a learned Doctor, named MARTIN LUTHER, who knew all about them, for he had been a priest, and even a monk, himself . . . [F]inding one day to his great surprise, that there really was a book called the New Testament which the priests did not allow to be read, and which contained truths that they suppressed, [he] began to be very vigorous against the whole body, from the Pope downward.[5]

Like Luther, Dickens was no closet supporter of the New Testament; he would have everyone know it, and desired that ministers should preach that and nothing else. In ‘Two Views of a Cheap Theatre’ he charged preachers with just this duty: “In the New Testament there is the most beautiful and affecting history conceivable by man, and there are the terse models for all prayer and for all preaching. As to the models, imitate them, Sunday preachers – else why are they there, consider? As to the history, tell it . . . You will never preach so well.”[6] The Reverend Mr Chadband, in Bleak House, receives similar advice to “move his person out of the light”.[7]

Dickens tried to practise what he preached in this respect. In The Life of Our Lord he re-presents the “beautiful and affecting” Gospel in narrative form. In ‘A Christmas Tree’ he gives a concise summary of the life of Christ (unfortunately omitting the Resurrection).[8] And in Dombey and Son he presents the following panegyric to the New Testament: “Harriet . . . read the eternal book for all the weary and heavy-laden; for all the wretched, fallen and neglected of this earth . . . read the ministry of Him who, through the round of human life, and all its hopes and griefs, from birth to death, from infancy to age, had sweet compassion for, and interest in, its every scene and stage, its every suffering and sorrow.”[9]

His reverence for the New Testament, however, was accompanied by a profound distaste for the Old Testament. “Half the misery and hypocrisy of the Christian world,” he wrote in 1858, “arises . . . from a stubborn determination to refuse the New Testament as a sufficient guide in itself, and to force the Old Testament into alliance with it.”[10] Dickens did not want a God who could be addressed as “the Lord of Hosts”, who was “mighty in battle” (Ps. 24:8). He preferred – if you will excuse the pun – a Lord of Hostesses, mighty in comfort: hostesses like Mrs Meagles, Mrs Garland, Mrs Maylie. He could derive these from his reading of the New Testament, but the Old he viewed as censorious, thundering and vengeful.

Christ himself, of course, did not fence off the Old Testament: he claimed to be the fulfilment of it (Matt. 5:17; Luke 24:27). St Paul, likewise, did not see his Jewish roots and the Hebrew scriptures as incompatible with his new-found faith in Christ, even as he brought the Gospel to the Gentiles (1 Tim. 3:16). But Dickens, like a modern-day Marcion, felt he knew better. His thinking is rather sloppy in this area. He knows that “Boanerges” means “sons of thunder” and so he names two of his less attractive religious characters Honeythunder and Boanerges Boiler. But he apparently forgets that “Boanerges” was the nick-name of Christ’s “beloved disciple”, John, and his brother James, not a label for thundering Old Testament prophets.

The same loose logic is found in Dickens’ treatment of the Murdstones in David Copperfield. David, returning from abroad, meets Mr Chillip who tells him “that Mr Murdstone sets up an image of himself, and calls it the Divine Nature”. Chillip adds, “I don’t find authority for Mr and Miss Murdstone in the New Testament”,[11] with which David heartily agrees. But does Dickens mean to suggest that there is authority for such behaviour in the Old Testament? What could be further from the spirit of the Pentateuch than the condoning of graven images? In Little Dorrit we read that Arthur Clennam had “no more real knowledge of the beneficent history of the New Testament, than if he had been bred among idolaters”,[12] the implication being, it would appear, that he had acquired (from his sour, life-denying mother) a true knowledge of the history of the Old Testament.

I have spent time on this matter because I think it helps present part of the solution to the much-discussed problem of Dickens’ sentimentality. His moralising over moribund, poverty-stricken, sweet-faced infants seems milky-and-watery because it is backed up by virtually no scriptural grist. Dickens likes to gesture vaguely in the direction of the Bible, but in a manner that is largely content-less. For instance, when it comes to the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, we hear a great deal about “Heaven”, of Heaven’s goodness, Heaven’s kindness, and of much winging of flights, but solid Biblical imagery about either, say, the Promised Land or the New Jerusalem, is sorely lacking. Even worse is the situation with Paul Dombey, where we have to contend with the whispering waves and many a nimbussed head. Of the sea image in Dombey and Son, John Carey writes:

One trouble with this symbol is the disastrous effect it has on Dickens’ style. The religiosity, which can only survive in the absence of imaginative precision, encourages stilted archaisms like “as it was wont” and “withal”. The phrases are strung together in the hope of some approximation to transcendental effect, but whether the sea represents death or love or eternity or God is neither clear nor of much moment.[13]

I agree with Carey about the effect upon style, but not with the premise that religiosity can only survive in the absence of imaginative precision. Compare Dombey with the concreteness and precision of the Middle English poem, Pearl.  Obviously, the genres and periods are widely separated, but both deal with the death of an infant. Pearl achieves its effect successfully partly through maintaining the painful contrast between the grief-stricken narrator and the peaceful maiden, and partly through exploiting specific Biblical imagery such as “the pearl of great price” (Matt. 13:45-46), not to mention frequent references or allusions to the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard and to the Book of Revelation. Put beside the death of little Paul, Pearl looks assured, unembarrassed and intelligent, while Dickens’ attempt – as Carey indicates – seems unclear and consequently unimportant, leaving the reader cold. The surplus of authorial emotion chokes the fire and puts it out.

Dickens’ tendency toward dreamy, unsubstantiated transcendentalism occurs in many of the novels. When Bucket turns the light upon the infant in Tom-All-Alone’s, Mr Snagsby “is strangely reminded of another infant, encircled with light, that he has seen in pictures”.[14] “So what?” we may think. The link with Christ’s Nativity comes from nowhere and leads to nothing; it is simply a precious thought. To David Copperfield, the face of Agnes shines like “a Heavenly light” and moves him to exclaim, “Oh Agnes, oh my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward.”[15] These words are meant to be taken as moving spiritual reflections on the part of the adult David, but they do not differ substantially from the thoughts of the young Paul Dombey, who “had much to think of, in association with a print that hung up in another place, where, in the centre of a wondering group, one figure that he knew, a figure with a light about it head – benignant, mild and merciful – stood pointing upward.”[16] The only difference is that, in the one, the person “pointing upward” is a desirable young woman and, in the other, it is the incarnate Son of God. That the language appropriate for Agnes Wickfield – “the real legless angel of Victorian romance”[17] – should be felt appropriate also for the Agnus Dei suggests a confusion of categories on Dickens’ part.

The lack of imaginative precision results from the fact that Dickens does not want, or is not able, to provide spiritual specificity – which is odd, considering his almost manic eye for detail in everything else. It is enough to cover Tom Pinch in “thees” and “thous” for him to be satisfied with an evocation of saintliness.[18] He hated Millais’ painting of Christ in the carpenter’s shop because it did not sufficiently etherealise its subject.[19] Vague is the preferred Dickensian vogue for anything religious. Though hyper-realistic to the point of surrealism in his other depictions, Dickens resorts to amateurish Impressionism when it comes to portraying Christian spiritual experience. Stephen Gill, in his article, ‘Allusion in Bleak House: A Narrative Device’ has investigated Dickens’ scriptural allusions in that novel.[20]  Some of them are merely imitations of the syntax of the King James Version and some trade off the use of “Verily”. Only four, in my opinion, are intended as specific Biblical references. Three of these are to things that any Englishman of Dickens’ time would have known about (the 23rd Psalm, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the Lord’s Prayer), and the fourth, as Gill himself admits, is a burlesque. On every side, Dickens, though presenting Christian experience as something terribly valuable, cannot convincingly communicate that value.

Admittedly, deep spiritual experience is very hard to express; hence the apophatic tradition in theology. But there is also the cataphatic tradition, which we see exploited successfully by religious writers as diverse as Donne, Bunyan, and Hopkins. Dickens, however, falling between the two stools of the via negativa and the via positiva, resorts too quickly to “soft focus” in the hope that this will cover his inadequacy. He trusts that the dry ice from his smoke machine will pass for holy incense.

The difficulty of writing well about sacred subjects perhaps explains why Dickens takes that tack relatively rarely. He is readier with a joke. Perhaps intuiting his own inability to express ‘serious’ things in an imaginatively effective fashion, he more often turns to humour and satire. A born crowd-pleaser, Dickens will crack a joke wherever he can find one, even if it pokes fun at his own concerns such as class grievances[21] or his characters’ silly names.[22] And the rule holds good when it comes to matters religious. He is equally prepared to make comic mileage out of central New Testament doctrine. In Pickwick he has Mr Weller complain of the effect which the third chapter of John’s Gospel is having upon his wife: “She’s got hold o’ some inwention for grown up people being born again, Sammy; the new birth, I think they calls it. I should wery much like to see that system in haction, Sammy. I should wery much like to see your mother-in-law born again.”[23]

Such levity outraged sombre-minded churchmen of Dickens’ day. The Record complained: “His writings are of the most questionable tendency in point of morals, and when he touches on religion, he is often profane.”[24] The Eclectic Review warned Dickens against ridiculing “doctrines and expressions which do not originate with the extravagancies of enthusiasts, but are part and parcel of sacred Scripture.”[25] Dickens countered the criticism by claiming there was, in real life, no division between the enthusiast and the sacrosanct: the one purveyed the other. What he was really attacking via Mr Weller was not the doctrine of the new birth itself, but “Methodistical” parrotings about that doctrine. “I discountenance all obtrusive professions of and tradings in religion,” he wrote, “as one of the main causes why real Christianity has been retarded in this world.”[26]

Dickens had had a detestation of non-conformist preachers since childhood,[27] and, in preachers of the type epitomised by Stiggins, Chadband, and the Brothers Hawkyard and Gimblet, he had some of the softest targets he ever attacked. In order to pre-empt criticism from the faithful he tries to associate himself with Good Authority in his satire – for example, he says that Melchisedech Howler’s chapel is a “neat whitewashed edifice”[28] – but his outrage is delighted, not sorrowful like Christ’s animadversions on the Pharisees as “whited sepulchres” (Matt. 23:27). In an early sketch he undisguisedly enjoys labelling the Revd. Mortimer O’Sullivan as “Mr Somebody O’Something, a celebrated Catholic renegade and Protestant bigot”[29]; he relishes his simile when he complains about the Bible being slapped “like a slow lot at a sale”[30]; and he savours associating the Pope’s benediction with damp rain.[31] Christ’s criticism of the Pharisees was acerbic, but solemn (see the “Woes” in Luke 11:42ff), whereas Dickens uses his contemporary equivalents mostly as butts for broad humour.

Only occasionally does he level his barbs in a straightforward and sober manner. An example is his relatively temperate criticism of American evangelicalism: “Whenever religion is resorted to, as a strong drink, and as an escape from the dull monotonous round of home, those of its ministers who pepper the highest will be surest to please . . . It is so at home, and it is so abroad.”[32] The tone here is almost world-weary, not a mood often struck by Dickens.

More characteristic – and actually more effective as a critique – is the sparkling fun he has at the expense of the proponents of religious “Terewth!” (as Chadband pronounces it). For, truth to tell, Dickens is much more readable when he is being immoderate than when he is being realistic; his religious monsters are far more memorable than are his admirable pastors. Indeed, his ideal preachers and ministers are rather flat creations, partakers of that equable and benign temper which, being “immune from changing moods”, as Humphry House puts it, is devoid of that “which makes human beings interesting in themselves.”[33] They are usually intelligent, however. According to Norris Pope in his study Dickens and Charity, Dickens “decidedly resented being preached to by those whom he took to be his intellectual and cultural inferiors . . . [and] his social inclinations . . . drew him toward the Establishment.”[34] This perhaps accounts for the fact that the clergymen he paints favourably in his novels (Horace Crewler, Frank Milvey, Septimus Crisparkle) are all of the Established Church and presumably better-educated than their non-conformist counterparts. It also explains the rather amused, if not snobbish, attitude he strikes towards the preacher at the Little Bethel chapel in The Old Curiosity Shop who was “by trade a shoe-maker, and by calling a Divine”[35] – rather outside the spirit, one might say, of the carpenter, by calling Divine.

Dickens’ ideal minister is described for us in The Uncommercial Traveller.  Surprisingly, for once, he is not of the Church of England, but,

in respect of the large Christianity of his general tone; of his renunciation of all priestly authority; of his earnest and reiterated assurance to the people that the commonest among them could work out their own salvation if they would, by simply, lovingly and dutifully following Our Saviour . . . in these particulars, this gentlemen deserved all praise.[36]

This passage is very revealing. Notice Dickens’ approval of “large Christianity”. It was because his faith was “large” that he felt able to crack that joke about Sam Weller’s mother-in-law being born again. “That every man who seeks heaven must be born again in the good thoughts of his Maker, I sincerely believe,” Dickens once explained to an upset evangelical. “That it is expedient for every hound to say so in a certain snuffling form of words, to which he attaches no good meaning, I do not believe.”[37] Moreover, this passage from The Uncommercial Traveller reveals his dislike of sacerdotalism – no doubt  a spin-off from his anti-Romish attitudes, but somewhat inconvenient when it comes to the priesthood of Anglican ministers like Frank Milvey.[38] However, Dickens simply ignores the fact that Milvey is a clerk in holy orders, and the attributes which he commends in him (conscientiousness and usefulness) are merely what one would hope to find in any professional man and have no specific bearing upon an ordained, ecclesiastical vocation.

In The Uncommercial Traveller he describes another two worthy ministers (again with just a touch of condescension) whom he had met in real life. Their perfections consist largely in their neatly arranged papers and in their cheerful attitude at the prospect of burying scores of shipwrecked people.[39] The ideal Dickensian minister is a special creation, as is the ideal Dickensian Bible. Again, his approach to religious teachers and teaching is not fenced round in quite the way that one would expect of a Christian novelist.

But then, Dickens’ whole attitude to “the Church” is hardly what one would call orthodox. His view could more accurately be characterised as suspicious and faintly amused, and is well summed up in Wemmick’s words: “Hollo! Here’s a church! . . . Let’s have a wedding.”[40] His aversion to Catholicism has already been touched upon, and, to be sure, it was intense. He believed that the Roman Church was “hand in glove with tyranny and oppression”[41]; and, as might be expected from such a restless man with an eye for humbug and the ridiculous, he had no patience with its elaborate and solemn ceremony.[42] He paints Catholics sympathetically in Barnaby Rudge when his concern for the under-dog leads him to side against the persecuting Protestants of the Gordon Riots. But Barnaby Rudge is not a book about religious bigotry – it might just as well have been written about the Luddite Riots. Dickens makes no attempt to get inside the mind of Geoffrey Haredale, and the one Catholic metaphor in the book (“the long rosary of regrets”[43]) is the clumsiest thing I have seen in all his novels, unassisted as it is by any other understanding of Catholicism.

The Church of England was more amenable to his temperament in respect of ritual and ceremony, but even this he has difficulty in taking seriously. His piece in The Uncommercial Traveller entitled “City of London Churches” is an interesting insight into his thoughts about church-going. Again, he cannot resist a joke, this time against the Anglican art of campanology: “So many bells are ringing, when I stand undecided at a street corner, that every sheep in the ecclesiastical fold might be a bell-wether.”[44] In another writer this would be nothing more than a good pun. In Dickens, it is expressive of the spirit – part jocose, part jaundiced – in which he viewed the whole institution of Church and church-attendance. At one church he day-dreams about the names he finds written inside his prayer-book. At another, he is so bored that his mind reverts to an occasion many years before:

. . . when I, turned of eighteen, went with my Angelica to a City Church on account of a shower (by this special co-incidence that it was in Huggin-lane), and when I said to my Angelica, “Let the blessed event, Angelica, occur at no altar but this!” and when my Angelica consented that it should occur at no other – which it certainly never did, for it never occurred anywhere. And O, Angelica, what has become of you, this present Sunday morning when I can’t attend to the sermon; and, more difficult question than that, what has become of Me as I was when I sat by your side?[45]

Pure Betjeman – the church-setting, the nostalgia, and the love-sorrow! And his closing lament for the empty churches of London has more in common with Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ and its wondering description of the “accoutred frowsty barn”[46] than one would expect from a novelist purportedly concerned with the moral and spiritual health of the nation.

As with church-going, so with church occasions: sacred ceremonies are rarely treated with much respect by Dickens. The marriage of Florence Dombey to Wal’r is as casual and as comic as Wemmick’s to Miss Skiffins. The funeral of Tulkinghorn is an opportunity for plangent satire upon high society, not a moment of reflection upon the nature of mortality. Communion is never mentioned, if I mistake not, and baptism receives little serious comment. At Paul Dombey’s baptism, the clergyman appears like a ghost and Miss Tox keeps open her prayer-book at the Gunpowder Plot. Elsewhere, Dickens writes both of a curate who “got out of bed at half-past twelve o’clock one winter’s night, to half-baptise a washerwoman’s child in a slop-basin”[47] and of a certain Mr Nicodemus Dumps (another reference to John chapter 3) who hates children and becomes a god-father. But he does not seem especially scandalised when he mentions such indecencies or desecrations of holy ceremony. Indeed, he seems to be of the opinion that these rites are no longer sacred at all. When he asked Landor to be his second son’s god-father, he remarked that, even if the “realities had gone out of the ceremony”, it was still a way of bringing old friends together.[48] The only time when we find baptism seriously treated is as a running symbol in Our Mutual Friend. But here, as John Carey disposes of with a Podsnappish sweep of the pen, the idea is “muddled as well as vague.”[49] Dickens’ Christianity includes little respect for sacramental rites.

Perhaps one explanation for this lack of respect is to be found in Dickens’ generally unsympathetic view of church-goers. Christian congregations tend to come in for as much ridicule as their much-prized ceremonies. In George Silverman’s Explanation we learn how

The service closed with a hymn, in which the brothers unanimously roared, and the sisters unanimously shrieked at me, That I by wiles of worldly gain was mocked, and they on water of sweet love were rocked; that I with mammon struggled in the dark, while they were floating in a second ark.[50]

And in Sketches by Boz we discover that the baptising curate (mentioned above) drew the crowds to his church like a magician: “Pews in the immediate vicinity were at a premium”[51] etc, etc. Dickens does not have much regard for the ordinary church-goer and did not himself attend church regularly. He treats “church people” as curiosities: odd-balls like Mrs Sprodgkin, or like Miss Miff – “such a pew of a woman”[52], or like the church-wardens to whose “tender mercies” Oliver Twist was left.[53] Dedicated flocks he viewed with suspicion, and positive perspectives upon corporate worship and public fellowship are entirely lacking from his writings. Dickens’ Christianity includes little respect for “the Church Militant here on earth”.

It is to be expected, therefore, that his view of people who dedicate their lives to sacred matters should be similarly sceptical. On his American trip he saw the communal grave of some Trappist monks who had founded a convent in a lonely place and then all fallen victims to the climate: “in which lamentable fatality,” he cruelly adds, “few rational people will suppose, perhaps, that society experienced any very severe deprivation.”[54] But this disdain for monasticism – which aims to help society through prayer – is hardly consistent when one recalls how he will laud to the skies a character like Betty Higden, whose only solace is in prayer, or when contrasted with his views of Ruth Pinch whom he exalts for pouring out her pure heart “before that Being from whom such hearts and such affections come.”[55] He himself advised his youngest son in a letter: “Never abandon the wholesome practice of saying your . . . prayers, night and morning.  I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it.”[56] The monks’ error, it would seem, was not their devotion to a life of prayer but the fact that they were monks.

His attitude to the Trappists was part of his general mistrust of formalised, strict and committed religion, which, he believed, threatened the freedom of the individual. Just as he hated the sort of schools typified by Dr. Blimber’s Academy, where boys were “forced” like plants, he hated all kinds of religious co-ordination or compulsion. In the same letter to his son, he wrote:

You will remember that you have never at home been harassed about religious observances, or mere formalities. I have always been anxious not to weary my children with such things, before they are old enough to form opinions respecting them.[57]

As a good liberal, Dickens was a great respecter of personal liberty of conscience. It was on this basis that he could justify his singular distaste for the Old Testament, the Church, church officials, church rites and fellow Christians, without throwing over Christianity altogether. It was what he believed in his own heart that mattered, nothing else and, as he made clear in “A Fly Leaf in a Life”, he had little patience with those who thought they had better become vicariously religious at his expense

Given Dickens’ range of beliefs and sympathies, it is surprising to find Chesterton saying that, “If ever there came among men what they call the Christianity of Christ, it was in the message of Dickens.”[58] I think Chesterton may have arrived at this verdict by over-enthusing about the Common Grace of Dickens’ humanitarianism. Dickens did indeed have an unswerving fascination for human life and natural lights, but was less actuated by “the Life that was life of men” (John 1:4). His attitude is akin to that of the men who fish Rogue Riderhood out of the river and who find that “the spark of life within him is curiously separable from himself now, and they have a deep interest in it, probably because it is life, and they are living and must die.”[59]

One would never find Dickens bewailing the fact that “all is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2), for he has no Swiftian disgust for human nature. To him, ordinary human nature is a trustworthy thing: “my faith in the People governed is, on the whole, illimitable.”[60]  His message in this regard is not the Christianity of Christ, but a suprisingly Smilesian self-help programme. “We can all do some good,” said David Copperfield, “if we will.”[61] He has no belief in a Fall that brings about a second nature of concupiscence, and little awareness that good intentions can lead to other destinations than Heaven. After his acrimonious separation from his wife, he happily suggested that the title for his new-planned magazine should be Household Harmony and did not perceive the incongruity until a flabbergasted Forster pointed it out. Again, he did not charge himself with any hypocrisy in baptising his son an Anglican while he himself was in his Unitarian phase. In many respects, he had the innocence of a child.

But, according to the New Testament, it is not enough to be simply innocent: we are to be “as wise as serpents” at the same time as being “as harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16). For Dickens, only the second half of that verse had meaning, and it is this which accounts for the brainlessness of most of his benevolent characters, such as Mr Pickwick, Mr Brownlow, Abel Garland, and the Cheeryble brothers. The philanthropy of Mrs Jellyby and Mrs Pardiggle may, in contrast, be malign and interfering, but it shows more activity of the mind than the naive good nature of these genial old men. Of all Dickens’ cheery do-gooders, only John Jarndyce seems to have any respectable moral policy (or even any stated motivation), and we see that merely in his vague mouthing of “Forasmuch as she did it not unto the least of these . . .” (Matt. 25:40).[62] This policy, of course, he finds perfectly easy to act upon. There is no hint of any battle against a worse nature being fought. It falls to Edith Dombey, an otherwise flawed piece of characterisation, to voice awareness of the struggle involved in doing good. (George Silverman voices it too, to a certain extent, but he is not a major figure in the canon.) In general, Dickens’ mind does not enquire (as Trollope’s does) into the interior details of a person’s moral conflicts, let alone the possibility of perpetual moral paralysis. Anyone could do good, in principle,  and all the more easily if they had a reasonable standard of living.

In this sense, Dickens’ morality is emphatically this-worldly. When Forster sent extracts from the Life of Arnold, Dickens replied, “I respect and reverence his memory beyond all expression. I must have that book. Every sentence that you quote from it is the text-book of my faith”[63] – which somewhat undercuts his statements about the New Testament. Nothing symbolises the this-worldliness of that faith better than the noise issuing from Gabriel Varden’s workshop in Barnaby Rudge:

No man who hammered on at a dull monotonous duty could have brought forth such cheerful notes from the steel and iron; none but a chirping . . . fellow, who made the best of everything, and felt kindly towards everyone, could have done it . . . Tink, tink, tink – clear as a silver bell . . . It was the perfect embodiment of the still small voice.[64]

The divine voice that Elijah heard in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:9-18) is now audible in the tinkling anvil of the Protestant work ethic. And the way that Varden chirps as he tinks (“such cheerful notes”) puts one in mind of the cricket on the hearth and of Dickens’ inveterate love of Christmas. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is probably now his best-known work, which is apt, since his ideal world is a place where, even if it is not always Christmas, the best folk are always Christmassy in spirit. Always Christmassy and never wintry, to rephrase C.S. Lewis.[65] And I do not think it is going too far to say that the reason he loved Christmas so much was because he could use it to celebrate the notion of God the Father as Giver – a Divine Santa Claus, – who would make all His children feel warm and snug and cosy. He was less interested in God the Son as Gift, as his omission of the Resurrection from his summary of the Gospel (mentioned above) somewhat confirms.

From this perspective, the account of Christianity presented in his writings must be regarded as partial and incomplete. It is a “love thy neighbour” creed, with barely any reference to the first and greatest commandment: “love the Lord thy God” (Matt. 22:35-40). This is why Dickens seizes on the Good Samaritan so often (Luke 10:30-37). The Good Samaritan is the Biblical version of Father Christmas: he arrives out of the blue, sprinkles money, and solves all problems. Dickens was keen to defend him as a paragon of generosity and unselfishness. He first takes a bow in Hard Times:

Mr Gradgrind sat writing in the room with the deadly statistical clock, proving something no doubt – probably, in the main, that the Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist.[66]

He shows up again in Our Mutual Friend:

It is a remarkable Christian improvement, to have made a pursuing fury out of the Good Samaritan; but it was so in [Betty Higden’s] case, and it is a type of many, many, many.[67]

Between those two appearances, he is to be found in the pages of Martin Chuzzlewit:

She had a lean lank body, Mrs Todgers, but a well-conditioned soul within. Perhaps the Good Samaritan was lean and lank and found it hard to live. Who knows![68]

Who knows indeed! Not Dickens. The Parable tells us nothing about the Samaritan finding it hard to live, only that he had enough money to help a needy man by paying an innkeeper to look after him. If Dickens wanted to make such a point from the Bible, he would have done better to cite Christ himself, who had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). But Dickens repeatedly shies away from specific reference to Christ himself, Christ’s Person, because that would take him onto dangerously theological ground.

One of the few occasions when he did touch upon such dangerous territory is in the closing exhortation to The Life of Our Lord, which runs:

REMEMBER!  It is Christianity TO DO GOOD always – even to those who do evil to us . . . If we do this and remember the life and lessons of our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act up to them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in Peace.[69]

Importantly, this was written for children, before whom, no doubt, he thought a respectful nod to the Lord would serve as an inspiriting example. But this passage is typical of Dickens’ religious outlook; like Mr Crimple’s leg, it is representative of the whole.[70] Theology has been displaced by morality. Dickens is promoting (no doubt unwittingly) Pelagianism or at least semi-Pelagianism all over again: there is no Original Sin to be atoned for by a redeemer; no heart of man deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). Christianity is essentially do-goodery. We hear in this passage an echo of the chirpy self-satisfaction of Mark Tapley: “Virtue’s its own reward. So’s jollity.”[71]

That being said, Dickens’ advocacy of altruism, coupled with his genius for demotic polemic, has probably done more to further the humanitarian aspect of Christianity than the efforts of many a more conformist proponent of the Christian gospel. His depiction of selfless women such as Esther, Lizzie, and Amy, is, in my opinion, successful. They may bear a strong family likeness – as do the three Wise Men in the picture seen by Martin Chuzzlewit[72] – but at least they do not partake of the unbelievable purity of Rose Maylie and Dora Spenlow and Pet Meagles.

However, the delineation of attractive goodness is one of the most difficult tasks for a novelist; and Dickens is usually more successful when attacking selfishness than in promoting selflessness. For instance, in Martin Chuzzlewit, though he over-eulogises the Pinches and over-jollifies Mark, the book as a whole remains a powerful attack on “self, self, self”[73] through the more effective satire upon the egotism of Cherry, Merry, and, of course, Pecksniff.

Let us conclude with what I regard as the two strongest claims that can be put forward from Dickens’ writings that his Christianity did indeed have genuine, orthodox, theological content.

The first claim is minor, but telling. It comes from the mouth of Sleary in Hard Times, and it is paradoxically appropriate that it should be voiced by a loquacious character with impeded speech:

there ith a love in the world, not all thelf-intereth after all, but thomething very different . . . it hath a way of ith own of calculating or not calculating, whith thomehow . . . ith . . . hard to give a name to.[74]

Sleary’s lisp allows Dickens to say something serious without appearing to be too earnest, an important psychological move for many an Englishman, both then and now.

The second claim comes from the mouth of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Here, in the character of Carton, Dickens finally overcomes his self-consciousness and straightforwardly depicts something of the genuine heart of the Christian faith. Carton willingly goes to the scaffold both to demonstrate his love for Lucie Manette and to save the life of her husband. In this he both lives out the teaching of Christ – “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) – and imitates Christ’s own sacrificial example. Nowhere else in Dickens’ corpus is Christianity so openly invoked and enacted.

The girl who travels in the tumbril with Carton says to him: “But for you, dear stranger, I should not be so composed . . . nor should I have been able to raise my thoughts to Him who was put to death, that we might have hope and comfort here today.”[75] Thus, unobtrusively, Dickens has managed to contrive a distant echo of the words of the dying thief at the Crucifixion. And Carton’s association with Christ is continued by explicit reference to dominical utterance at the very moment of execution:

She goes next before him – is gone; the knitting-women count twenty-two.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”

The murmuring of many voices, the upturning of many faces, the pressing on of many footsteps in the outskirts of the crowd, so that it swells forward in a mass, like one great heave of water, all flashes away. Twenty-three.”[76]

Once, and once only, Dickens joins to his Christian love of fellow men the Christian command to love God and believe in His Son, Jesus Christ. All his other paeans to human nature look ludicrous when placed against the bloody backdrop of the French Revolution, the greatest testimony to man’s inhumanity that he would have known. But within it he has created one of the most memorable embodiments of Christian love ever written, one which elevates A Tale of Two Cities above all his other works.

But it is an exception. The rule is less exalted. As a rule, his is but a semi- or quasi-Christian morality, though delivered with a brilliance that puts much Christian writing to shame. He is like the exorcist of the Gospels whom the disciples rebuked, but of whom Christ said: “Forbid him not: for there is no one which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me” (Mark 9:39). The Eclectic Review admitted in 1857 that

Though we deeply regret his want of earnest homage for righteousness as distinct from mere good-nature, and think that from first to last he has been flagrantly unjust to religious people and religious institutions . . . our remembrance of [his early novels] is too clear and too bright to permit us to speak of their author’s genius as anything less than marvellous.[77]

This is about right, if a bit po-faced. And though Dickens’ Christ is too rosy-cheeked for the New Testament, he is not then Swinburne’s pale Galilean whose breath makes the world grow grey.[78] Dickens’ Christian imagination – or should we say his Christmassy imagination? – is at least a growing weed, not a festering lily. And in Sydney Carton it was better than a growing weed. It was like the flora of Nickleby’s Tim Linkinwater, “blossoming in old blacking-bottles.”[79]


[1]  D.H. Lawrence, ‘The Novel’ (1925), in Life With a Capital L: Essays chosen and introduced by Geoff Dyer (Penguin, 2019) 249-50.

[2] Orwell, George. ‘Charles Dickens’, Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays (Penguin, 1984) 130. Hereafter, Orwell.

[3] “I envie no mans nightingale or spring; / Nor let them punish me with losse of rime, / Who plainly say, My God, My King.” Herbert, George. The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. C.A. Patrides (Everyman, 1988) 75.

[4] Cited in House, Humphry. The Dickens World (Oxford, 1941) 46. Hereafter, House.

[5] Dickens, Charles. Master Humphrey’s Clock and A Child’s History of England (Oxford, 1987) 375.

[6] Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller and Reprinted Pieces (Oxford, 1987) 38-9. Hereafter, UT.

[7] Dickens, Charles. Bleak House (Collins, 1981) 335. Hereafter, BH.

[8] Dickens, Charles. Christmas Stories (Oxford, 1987) 11. Hereafter, CS.

[9] Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son (Collins, 1987) 780. Hereafter, D&S.

[10] The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. His Sister-in-law and His Eldest Daughter (Chapman and Hall, 1880) Vol. II, 82. Cf. Johnson, 332.

[11] Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield (Collins, 1981) 785. Hereafter, DC.

[12] Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit (Collins, 1977) 41.

[13] Carey, John. The Violent Effigy (Faber, 1979) 106. Hereafter, Carey.

[14] BH, 291.

[15] DC, 825.

[16] D&S, 202.

[17] Orwell, 139.

[18] E.g. MC, 386.

[19] See Carey, 58.

[20] Gill, Stephen C. ‘Allusion in Bleak House: A Narrative Device’, Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 22, 1967-8.

[21] E.g., BH, 87. The joke is about a turkey in a poultry-yard having a class grievance – “(probably Christmas)”.

[22] Ibid, 613. “My name’s Bucket. Ain’t that a funny name?”

[23] Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers (Collins, 1981) 295.

[24] The Record, 3 June 1844, 4.

[25]The Eclectic Review, April 1837, 340f.

[26] Quoted in House, 131.

[27] See Johnson, 23.

[28] D&S, 807.

[29] Quoted in Pope, Norris. Dickens and Charity (Macmillan, 1978) 24. Hereafter, Pope.

[30] UT, 36.

[31] Dickens, Charles. American Notes & Pictures from Italy (Oxford, 1987) 405.

[32] Ibid, 56.

[33] House, 46.

[34] Pope, 41.

[35] Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop (Collins, 1980) 285.

[36] UT, 37.

[37] Pope, 22.

[38] Chesterton has an interesting insight into Dickens’ narrow view of the priesthood, in connection with the latter’s account of the life of St. Dunstan. See Chesterton, G.K. Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens (Dent, London, 1911) 164. Hereafter, Chesterton.

[39] UT, 6f.

[40] Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations (Collins, 1982) 413.

[41] Johnson, 297.

[42] See Johnson, 293.

[43] Dickens, Charles. Barnaby Rudge (Collins, 1985) 428. Hereafter, BR.

[44] UT, 85.

[45] Ibid, 89.

[46] Larkin, Philip. The Less Deceived (Marvell Press, London, 1985).

[47] Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz (Oxford, 1987) 8. Hereafter, SBB.

[48] Carey, 57.

[49] Ibid, 109.

[50] UT, 745.

[51] SBB, 7.

[52] D&S, 760.

[53] Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist (Collins, 1981) 21.

[54] See Carey, 57. The same attitude can be seen in the above-quoted reference to Luther, who “had been a priest, and even a monk”!

[55] MC, 783.

[56] Quoted in Orwell, 138.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Chesterton, 240.

[59] Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend (Collins, 1984), 424. Hereafter, OMF.

[60] Johnson, 567.

[61] See House, 111.

[62] BH, 201.

[63] House, 93.

[64] BR, 287.

[65] “Always winter and never Christmas”. Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Fount, 1982) 23.

[66] Quoted by Grant. Grant, Allan. A Preface to Dickens (Longman, 1986) 62.

[67] OMF, 481.

[68] MC, 788.

[69] Dickens, Charles. The Life of Our Lord (Morrison & Gibb, 1934) 127.

[70] Dickens, Charles. Martin Chuzzlewit (Collins, 1989) 423. Hereafter, MC.

[71] MC, 250.

[72] MC, 219: “Then he looked at the highly coloured scripture pieces on the walls, in little black frames like common shaving-glasses, and saw how the Wise Men (with a strong family likeness between them) worshipped at a pink manger; and how the Prodigal Son came home in red rags to a purple father, and already feasted his imagination on a sea-green calf.”

[73] MC, 506.

[74] Dickens, Charles. Hard Times (Collins, 1984) 280.

[75] Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities (Collins, 1980) 411.

[76] Ibid, 412f.

[77] The Electic Review, March 1857, 331-32.

[78] Swinburne, Algernon Charles. ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, Swinburne’s Collected Poetical Works (Heinemann, London, 1927) Vol. I, 69.

[79] Dickens, Charles. Nicholas Nickleby (Collins, 1979) 484.

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