Charles Dickens died 150 years ago this month, on June 9, 1870. A few months before, he told his friend and future biographer John Forster that the Catholic Church was a “curse upon the world”.
Dickens was certainly a Christian: brought up an Anglican, he flirted with Unitarianism for a time, but seems never to have abandoned his belief in the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, and the immortality of the soul. In 1868 he wrote to Edward, his youngest son, of “the truth and beauty of the Christian Religion, as it came from Christ Himself, and the impossibility of your going far wrong if you humbly but heartily respect it …”. What he disliked was any kind of religion which seemed to him too extreme: as well as his longstanding antipathy to Catholicism, he especially disliked Sabbatarianism and Evangelicalism.
Yet despite his view of the Catholic Church as backward, superstitious and reactionary, there are few, if any, negative portrayals of Catholicism in his novels. Barnaby Rudge, which deals most with religion – or at least an aspect of it – shows Catholics as victims of prejudice, persecution and violence unleashed by the Gordon Riots of 1780. (This was when Lord George Gordon attempted to oppose the Papists Act of 1778, which relaxed some of the penal laws against Catholics.)
By contrast, Dickens’s novels satirised Sabbatarianism and Evangelicalism. He lambasted the sponging evangelist Rev Stiggins in The Pickwick Papers; the greedy, unctuous, self-regarding Anglican clergyman Mr Chadband in Bleak House; the harsh, Calvinistic Mrs Clenham in Little Dorrit; and the ranting evangelical clergyman Rev Melchisedech Howler in Dombey and Son.
Having said that, his preface to Barnaby Rudge showed no softening of his anti-Catholicism: “However imperfectly those disturbances are set forth in the following pages, they are impartially painted by one who has no sympathy with the Romish Church, though he acknowledges as most men do, some esteemed friends among the followers of its creed.”
Dickens’s anti-Catholicism was something he shared with many fellow English Protestants. The “Five Sisters of York”, in Nicholas Nickleby, is early warning against the alleged life-denying practices of the Church, here epitomised by the religious life. In Dickens’s A Child’s History of England, the Reformation sets “people free from their slavery to priests”, although its author abhors the destruction of the monasteries and the punishment of “good monks with the bad”.
But his most fervent denunciations of the faith come in his non-fictional Pictures from Italy, based on the year he spent in that country with his family in 1844-5. Holy Week in Rome, for Dickens, was “unmitigated humbug”; the papal High Mass “droll and tawdry”; and the country “priest-ridden”; while the Jesuits of Genova “go slinking about … like black cats”. There are references to the Inquisition, and the book is riddled with caustic comments. The Trappists, whom he encountered in America, were “gloomy fanatics”. His illustrator Clarkson Stanfield, about to be received into the Church, withdrew from his commission on seeing what Dickens was writing.
GK Chesterton, a Catholic often credited with the early 20th–century revival of Dickens’s popularity, appeared fairly undisturbed about the extreme animus that Dickens directs towards the Church. “When [Dickens] found a thing in Europe which he did not understand,” Chesterton wrote, “such as the Roman Catholic Church, he simply called it an old-world superstition, and sat looking at it like a moonlit ruin.”
But there was one extraordinary event in Dickens’s life which suggests that there were other currents beneath his abhorrence of Catholicism. During his Italian sojourn he had a dream. He told Forster that Mary Hogarth, his sister-in-law, who died in his arms aged 17, and for whom he had a deep affection, appeared to him “wearing blue drapery, as the Madonna might in a picture by Raphael”. He begged her for a sign that the dream was real, asking her: “What is the true religion? … You think, as I do, that the Form of religion does not greatly matter, if we try to do good? – or … perhaps the Roman Catholic is the best? Perhaps it makes one think of God oftener, and believe in him more steadily.”
Mary (who had not been a Catholic) told him, with “heavenly tenderness”, that “for you it is the best”. The sign for which he asked was that his mother-in-law should escape from some distressing circumstances, which, in time, she did. He asked Forster whether “I should regard it as a dream or as an actual Visitation.”
The dream did not overcome Dickens’s detestation of Catholicism, and yet it suggests that his feelings about the Church were more contradictory than they seemed. A “curse upon the world”? Those may be Dickens’s last recorded words about Catholicism, but they cannot be said to be the last word.
Terry Philpot’s latest book is Over Here, Over There: The People and Places that Made the Story of London and America