KEITH HOOPER’s new biography of Charles Dickens concentrates on the writer’s understanding of his Christian faith. Acknowledging that he was not “a religious writer”, Hooper none the less shows that, through his works, Dickens not only expressed his own Christian ideals, but forced his readers to confront their own complicity in the widespread notion that the poor had only themselves to blame.
Although Dickens had freed himself from a world of poverty, debt, and death, his writings, both in journals and books, exhibited an authenticity that challenged the social consciousness of his middle-class readers; for Dickens showed that the poor could not, by their own endeavour, escape their fate, but depended on the pursuit of social justice and compassionate intervention. Indeed, by challenging so much that was wrong in Victorian society, he was able to effect political change.
For Dickens, Christianity was not primarily about doctrine, dogma, and religious observance, but the demonstration of Christ’s injunction to love your neighbour as yourself: his first novel, Oliver Twist, was based on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
In his books, Dickens created “charitable angels”: characters such as Mr Brownlow, who, while not “overtly spiritual people”, by their actions transformed the lives of others. His readers were encouraged to do likewise. Similarly, there were Dickens’s female angels, such as Rose Maylie, who “embodied the Christlike qualities of self-sacrifice, atonement, love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness”. Unashamedly, he saw that the best way of communicating religious truth was to appeal to the hearts of his readers.
Early in his life, Dickens acquired a deep religious sensibility. Hooper shows, though, that, while remaining a lifelong member of the Established Church, Dickens was much influenced by Unitarianism, with its “liberal, non-dogmatic, rational, humanitarian approach, and rejection of eternal punishment”, as well as the doctrine of Original Sin.
As a Broad Churchman, he abhorred the separation of religion from social concern. He prayed twice daily, and the New Testament was central to his beliefs. The themes of resurrection and redemption pervade his novels. His exercise of charitable giving was prodigious.
Dickens was particularly incensed by what he termed “telescopic philanthropy”: the overriding concern for overseas missionary activity to the neglect of the poor at home. For him, the physical and educational needs of the poor were, in the immediate, more important than their spiritual regeneration and moral teaching.
Although courted by the Establishment, he was never, Hooper shows, seduced by his fame, but continued to fight for social justice. As Dean Stanley said in his memorial sermon, “No one could now feign ignorance of the appalling plight of the poor.”
But how much has changed? The obscene divide between rich and poor remains, and the ignorance of the lives of the latter is all too clear, as the introduction of Universal Credit or the Grenfell Tower disaster show. Dickens’s theology of Christian action, and his challenge to the middle classes remains as relevant today as when he first penned Oliver Twist.
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.
Charles Dickens: Faith, angels and the poor
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