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Inimitable, but also a contradiction

by
09 April 2021

Rod Garner examines the dichotomy that was Charles Dickens

Hi-Story/Alamy

Charles Dickens (1812-70)

Charles Dickens (1812-70)

DEATH did not become Charles Dickens. When it came, it was an affront to the 58 years of his frenetic life in which he had entertained the masses, undertaken charitable works, championed great causes, and conducted a secret and passionate affair with the actress Nelly Ternan, 27 years his junior. Shortly after their last meeting, he collapsed, and died the next day, 9 June 1870.

Physically, he was a spent force, still capable of mesmerising his public audiences, but only with the assistance of opium and alcohol. A hurried funeral service was arranged for a few mourners, and took place — against his wishes — in Westminster Abbey. Dickens’s will stipulated that there should be no pomp of any kind, and no public announcement of the time and place of his burial. The great bell was tolled; there was no singing or eulogy, just quiet organ music and the solemn reading of the burial service.

Later, the grave was left open, and thousands filed past to see his coffin and leave notes and flowers. Along with the legacy of his novels, the tears of mourners represented Dickens’s best hope of immortality.

His religion, including a belief in a hereafter, was as complex as his life. For good reasons, we incline to see him in a Christian light: The festive season is unthinkable without A Christmas Carol and its message of hope and redemption. Tiny Tim does not die, Scrooge becomes a reformed character, and Bob Cratchit gets a long-overdue pay rise. The story ends with a benediction, “God bless us, every one.”

As a father, Dickens wrote the Life of our Lord principally for his children, as an encouragement that they should be merciful, kind, and forgiving. Apart from writing the great novels, and accepting the endless invitations to campaign against social evils or enjoy the conviviality of lunches, receptions, and the theatre, he was unstintingly generous to individuals and organisations. For 12 years, he poured himself into establishing a refuge known as Urania Cottage, that helped young women to turn their lives around, and he attended personally to every detail. By his own estimation, he was incapable of rest: “Much better to die doing.” The doing — in part, at least — represented the working out of his Christian principles.

 

IF THE example of Jesus inspired Dickens’s philanthropy, churches frequently drew the savagery of his pen. For four years — possibly as a measure of his exasperation — he joined the Unitarians, who deny the divinity of Christ. He satirised the absurdities and hypocrisy of organised religion. Doctrinal divisions bored him, as did ecclesiastical history with its accounts of superstition and cruelties. Anglo-Catholic priests parading in fancy dress held no appeal. His main targets were ranting chapel preachers, and Evangelicals pressurising Parliament to preserve the Lord’s Day, thereby denying the wretched poor the few pleasures that they had.

Dickens espoused a practical Christianity. The historical truth of the Gospels, the saving power of the Cross, and the hope of the resurrection mattered much less to him than the need to make life better for those who, through no fault of their own, had fallen short of the Victorian creed of respectability and self-improvement.

There was something indescribable about Dickens as he set about this work. The fusion of his genius and personal magnetism with his passion for social reform proved irresistible. His recent biographer, A. N. Wilson, notes: “It was only with partial irony that the New York Herald referred to his return to America to do the reading tour as the Second Coming.” The ascription was exaggerated, but, more importantly, it was misplaced.

For all the laudable aspects of Dickens’s gospel, in his private and family life he was frequently neither benign nor loving, and lacked the milk of human kindness which he commended to others. As he grew older, he became less liberal in his attitude towards penal reform and poverty, and failed to acknowledge the exemplary work done among the poor by the chapels and clergy whom he held in disdain.

His longstanding affair with Ternan was possible only through meticulous subterfuge. His deplorable treatment of his wife, Kate, who had raised their ten children, included her public humiliation by Dickens, his obsessive control of her domestic duties and expenditure, his disrespectful remarks to others concerning her character and appearance, and his attempt to have her removed to an asylum when there was no evidence of her being insane.

All this caused incalculable pain and misery to their children. On one occasion, Dickens confessed his failures as a father to his daughter, Katey. Much later, she recorded that she knew things about her father’s character which no one else knew: “He was not a good man, but he was not a fast man; he was wonderful!”

 

OUTSIDE the unhappy and vindictive atmosphere of the household, Dickens was, indeed, wonderful: wherever he went, “a sort of brilliance entered the room.” This leaves unexplained his callousness and indifference towards those closest to him, or, for that matter, his lack of self-awareness that such behaviour was quite inimical to the precepts of Jesus that he commended to his children.

We are left with a mystery: the bad, unfaithful husband and inattentive father, who noticed the small, inconsequential lives on the streets of London, and immortalised them in his books; the “inimitable” Dickens, whose energy and drives contributed so much to Christianity and the common good, yet in the end destroyed him.


Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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