Was Charles Dickens religious?
It’s a question that comes up now and then. Overt religious themes and characters seem to be rare in his novels and stories, while religious themes like redemption, salvation, and the wages of sin are common. Biographies generally give the subject short shrift, and it may be that the biographers themselves aren’t that interested.
Five years ago, academic Gary Colledge published God and Charles Dickens: Rediscovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author, and made the claim that Dickens was, indeed, a conventional Christian. He made a good case – certainly he promoted Christian themes and ideas in his novels, stories, articles, and letters. He had been raised a nominal Anglican, and for a time affiliated with the Unitarians. And there’s the question of the big scandal of his later life, when he pensioned off his wife of more than 20 years so he could be with his much younger mistress, actress Ellen Ternan.
Colledge and others have pointed to a manuscript that wasn’t published until 1934. When his children were young, and over a period covering the years 1846 to 1849, Dickens wrote a version of the gospel story. He meant it for his children alone; on his death, the manuscript went to his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, who had lived with Dickens and the children after he forced his wide out (and caused a break with her own family as a result). From Georgina, the manuscript passed from child to child until 1933, when Sir Henry Dickens, the last remaining child, died. The manuscript was published the next year under the title of The Life of Our Lord.
At first glance, the narrative seems straightforward enough, and is clearly based on the gospel story as told in the Bible. There are some differences, and they’re not insignificant. There is clearly an emphasis on good behavior (do good and you will go to heaven” and more of Jesus as a great and good man and less Jesus as the Son of God. The children were read this story when they were very young, so it’s a question how much heavy theological content they would have absorbed. Still, the account is not entirely orthodox.
Still, it’s a charming account, and it’s interesting to imagine a man like Dickens reading this story to his very young children.
I have a first American edition from 1934, and it contains an inscription on the flyleaf: “For Faithful & Prompt Attendance, Second Mile Class, Grace M.E. Church, January 1935 – July 1935. Sincerely, Mrs. C.B. Poston.” The book was obviously given as a Sunday School attendance reward or prize. The Grace United Methodist Church has been in the same location in the Central West End of St. Louis since 1892, and was located in downtown St. Louis before that.
His statements of faith can be seen as at odds with many of the things he did in life, including his treatment of his wife, Catherine. At the same time, the causes he fought for and infused in his novels and articles reflected his strong senses of justice and compassion. In the end, he was a man, with the strengths and frailties common to all of us.
A discussion of Dickens and religion at Rick Wilcox’s Literary Life blog.
Top photograph: Charles Dickens with two of his children, Katie and Mamie.