Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Why Would a Catholic Care About Dickens?

Charles Dickens, whose 200th birthday we celebrate today, disliked America. Not because we Yanks are any worse than the Brits but because our publishers stole his money. In 1842 when Dickens arrived for his first visit, copyright laws did not protect offshore authors, so American publishers pirated his work.

Still, he returned to the United States in 1867 near the end of his life and made an astounding £38,000 by reading his work publicly 76 times. Over 150 years later, we still adore him.

Why is that? And should a Catholic care?

Charles Dickens was not Catholic, nor even particularly religious. He was about what I was thirty years ago, when I went tearing through his novels: a non-practicing “cultural Anglican.” (I’ve been told that there are religious Jews and cultural Jews; why shouldn’t the same apply to WASPs?) Still, I am pretty sure that Dickens helped feed the thing in my heart that finally brought me to the Church in 2008.

Dickens’s father was struck suddenly with financial embarrassment when Charles was 12 years old, and the family was consigned to a debtor’s prison. Charles was allowed to board with a family so that he could support his family by toiling in desperate conditions in a blacking factory. He later became wealthy by the standards of his day, but he never stopped identifying with the poor, the lame, the rejected. He is known for creating characters that verge on caricature—men and women who repeat the same phrase or quirk over and again—but the poorer the character the richer and more complex his characterization.

For example, in the Dickens novel I am reading presently, Our Mutual Friend, some of the wealthier characters are the least nuanced, like the titanically self-assured marine insurance baron Podsnap and the toadying up-and-comer Hamilton Veneering. When rich, disagreeable characters contradict themselves in Dickens, it is so that Dickens can show us how superficial they are. Whereas, an impoverished character like Jenny Wren, a young crippled woman who works as a dressmaker for dolls, can be surprisingly complex. This distances us from the rich and their tinny scale of values while making us feel closer to the poor and their needs. Blessed are the poor. They are human too.

Yet Dickens clearly loved all of his characters, the good, bad, and (seldom) indifferent. He used to imitate them, pacing about his study and talking to himself in the mirror in his character’s voices. It is not stretching a point too much to say that one feels in Dickens the presence of a loving creator—one who holds out the possibility of redemption for even the most evil. Bill Sikes (Oliver Twist) was not redeemed, nor Ralph Nickleby (Nicholas Nickleby). Each ended hanging from a rope. But Ebenezer Scrooge met a different fate, as most of us know. A recent British poll named the miser from A Christmas Carol favorite Dickens character.

Still, Dickens held up his best characters as models of Christian virtue. As I noted in a previous post, he wrote the following to an Anglican clergyman: 

With a deep sense of my great responsibility always upon me when I exercise my art, one of my most constant and most earnest endeavours has been to exhibit in all my good people some faint reflections of our great Master, and unostentatiously to lead the reader up to those teachings as the great source of all moral goodness. All my strongest illustrations are drawn from the New Testament; all my social abuses are shown as departures from its spirit; all my good people are humble, charitable, faithful, and forgiving. Over and over again, I claim them in express words as disciples of the Founder of our religion; but I must admit that to a man (or a woman) they all arise and wash their faces, and do not appear unto men to fast.

On any list of these “disciples of the Founder of our religion” you would certainly have to include Samuel Pickwick, Esq. of The Pickwick Papers, Mr. Brownlow and Nancy of Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and the Cheeryble Brothers of Nicholas Nickleby—and so on all the way to Sydney Carton of A Tale of Two Cities, Joe Gargery and Abel Magwich of Great Expectations, and Lizzie Hexam and Noddy Boffin (alias “The Golden Dustman”) of Our Mutual Friend. 

If a Christian cannot find role models in that list, he isn’t searching hard enough. I’m sure the “Founder of our religion” would have been pleased to draw his disciples from the streets of Dickens’s London as readily as the shores of the Sea of Galilee. 

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