It is a major national commemoration: Charles Dickens, England’s greatest novelist, was born just two centuries ago. England’s greatest dramatist, William Shakespeare – or so some writers are now plausibly claiming – may well have been a Catholic. It is harder to make such a claim for Dickens: G K Chesterton, however, (who certainly understood Dickens better than Dickens understood himself) did in effect claim that Dickens was at heart a Catholic: and, as I shall argue, this is a claim by no means as outlandish as it might at first seem.
It is, of course, true that Dickens rarely departed from the anti-popery of the average Victorian Protestant Englishman. Travelling through Switzerland in 1845 he crossed a river, from a Catholic Canton into a Protestant one, and noted the contrast between “on the Protestant side, neatness; cheerfulness; industry; education; continual aspiration, at least, after better things” and “on the Catholic side, dirt, disease, ignorance, squalor, and misery”. He went on to say that he had “so constantly observed the like of this… that [he had] a sad misgiving that the religion of Ireland lies as deep at the root of all its sorrows… as English misgovernment and Tory villainy”.
It was, however, one of Chesterton’s principal claims in his great book on Dickens that It was upon him that “the real tradition of ‘Merry England’ had descended”:
The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day. Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle Ages… It was he who had the things of Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England…
In fighting for Christmas he was fighting for… the holy day which is really a holiday … He cared as little for mediævalism as the mediævals did… He had no pleasure in looking on the dying Middle Ages. But he looked on the living Middle Ages… and he hailed it like a new religion.
Dickens was, of course, as Chesterton recognised, intellectually hostile to the Catholic Middle Ages, lacking as he did both self-knowledge and understanding of the past: “[H]e supposed,” said Chesterton, “the Middle Ages to have consisted of tournaments and torture-chambers, he supposed himself to be a brisk man of the manufacturing age, almost a Utilitarian. But for all that he defended the mediæval feast which was going out against the Utilitarianism which was coming in. He could only see all that was bad in mediævalism. But he fought for all that was good in it.”
Though Dickens hated all displays of religious feeling, he had a distinct and sincerely held religion of his own, possibly influenced by the Unitarianism of his friend and biographer John Forster. In 1868 he gave a New Testament to a son setting out for Australia, “because it is the best book that ever was, or will be, known in the world”; and he wrote to him in order “most solemnly [to] impress upon [him] the truth and beauty of the Christian Religion, as it came from Christ Himself”. “Never,” he went on, “abandon the wholesome practice of saying your own private prayers, night and morning. I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it.”
This was the Dickens who in 1844 underwent a religious experience (rarely written about), which he described vividly in a letter to Forster. “Let me tell you,” he wrote from Venice, “of a curious dream I had, last Monday night; and of the fragments of reality I can collect; which helped to make it up … In an indistinct place, which was quite sublime in its indistinctness, I was visited by a Spirit. I could not make out the face, nor do I recollect that I desired to do so. It wore a blue drapery, as the Madonna might in a picture by Raphael; and bore no resemblance to any one I have known except in stature … It was so full of compassion and sorrow for me… that it cut me to the heart; and I said, sobbing, ‘Oh! give me some token that you have really visited me!… Answer me one… question!’ I said, in an agony of entreaty lest it should leave me. ‘What is the True religion?’ As it paused a moment without replying, I said – Good God in such an agony of haste, lest it should go away! – ’You think, as I do, that the Form of religion does not so greatly matter, if we try to do good? or,’ I said, observing that it still hesitated, and was moved with the greatest compassion for me, ‘perhaps the Roman Catholic is the best? perhaps it makes one think of God oftener, and believe in him more steadily?’
“‘For you,’ said the Spirit, full of such heavenly tenderness for me, that I felt as if my heart would break; ‘for you it is the best!’ Then I awoke, with the tears running down my face, and myself in exactly the condition of the dream. It was just dawn.”
Was this a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as many Catholics will naturally assume? During the course of the dream, Dickens made the assumption that he was speaking to his wife’s sister, Mary Hogarth, who had died in 1837, and whom he had dearly loved (though he also perceived that the spirit “bore no resemblance to any one I have known”). But he also explained the dream afterwards in explicitly Catholic terms, pointing out that there was “a great altar in our bed-room” where Mass had once regularly been said, and that he had been “listening to the convent bells (which ring at intervals in the night), and so had thought, no doubt, of Roman Catholic services”.
“Put the case,” he wrote to Forster, “of that wish” [the ambition he had expressed in an earlier letter, to leave in his writings his “hand upon the time … with one tender touch for the mass of toiling people that nothing could obliterate”] “being fulfilled by any agency in which I had no hand; and I wonder whether I should regard it as a dream, or an actual Vision!”
A vision of the Blessed Virgin, strengthening what was to become Dickens’s lifelong vocation of fighting in his writings for “the mass of toiling people”? It is worth repeating that Dickens himself certainly wondered whether this was indeed “an actual Vision”: and if a vision,
of whom else?
William Oddie is the author of Dickens and Carlyle: The Question of Influence (Centenary Press, 1972)