Friday, 26 August 2011

Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton and Catholicism

In his preface to Barnaby Rudge, Dickens wrote: "However imperfectly those disturbances [the 1780 No Popery riots] 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."

An obvious question for any Catholic English teacher, therefore, is which side of Dickens won out: the 19th Century Protestant who had "no sympathy with the Romish Church" or the sympathetic friend who was perfectly capable of seeing Catholics as people like any others? I'll come back to Barnaby Rudge in a later post but for now I'd like to look at what G.K. Chesterton had to say on the matter. 

In one of his books, he commented that, "When [Dickens] found a thing in Europe which he did not understand, such as the Roman Catholic Church, he simply called it an old-world superstition, and sat looking at it like a moonlit ruin."

More damningly still, in his introduction to Barnaby Rudge he argued that, "Undoubtedly [Dickens] knew no history; and he may or may not have been conscious of the fact. But the consciousness did not prevent him from writing a History of England. Nor did it prevent him from interlarding all or any of his works with tales of the pictorial past, such as the tale of the broken swords in Master Humphrey's Clock, or the indefensibly delightful nightmare of the lady in the stage-coach, which helps to soften the amiable end of Pickwick. Neither, worst of all, did it prevent him from dogmatising anywhere and everywhere about the past, of which he knew nothing; it did not prevent him from telling the bells to tell Trotty Veck that the Middle Ages were a failure, nor from solemnly declaring that the best thing that the mediæval monks ever did was to create the mean and snobbish quietude of a modern cathedral city. No, it was not historical reverence that held him back from dealing with the remote past; but rather something much better -- a living interest in the living century in which he was born. He would have thought himself quite intellectually capable of writing a novel about the Council of Trent or the First Crusade. He would have thought himself quite equal to analysing the psychology of Abelard or giving a bright, satiric sketch of St. Augustine. It must frankly be confessed that it was not a sense of his own unworthiness that held him back; I fear it was rather a sense of St. Augustine's unworthiness."

In other words, Chesterton was not blind to Dickens' self-confessed anti-Catholic prejudices but that did not stop him writing, in what Ian Ker calls "probably [his] greatest work", an appreciation of Dickens as a novelist which has been scarcely equalled since.

One of Chesterton's great strengths was that he was able to see Dickens' novels in their broad historical context. In one of those marvellous, free-flowing passages of his, he argued that "for a few years our corner of Western Europe has had a fancy for this thing we call fiction; that is, for writing down our own lives or similar lives in order to look at them. But though we call it fiction, it differs from older literatures chiefly in being less fictitious." 

According to Chesterton, Dickens stood outside this tradition because he retained a link with the literature that came before the Realist revolution: "Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist; he was the last of the mythologists, and perhaps the greatest." 

Dickens stood in a line of descent, through Shakespeare, with Chaucer and other great Catholic writers and so, Chesterton argued, whatever his own personal prejudices, his art drew upon all that was best in the pre-Reformation world: "He could only see all that was bad in mediaevalism. But he fought for all that was good in it."

As we approach the bicentenary of Dickens' birth next year, we do not need to be overly concerned by Dickens' lack of "sympathy with the Romish Church". As GKC puts it in his final paragraph: "The hour of absinthe is over. We shall not be much further troubled with the little artists who found Dickens too sane for their sorrows and too clean for their delights. But we have a long way to travel before we get back to what Dickens meant, and the passage is along a rambling English road, a twisting road such as Mr Pickwick travelled. But this at least is part of what he meant: that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters; and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world."

Or if that's not punchy enough, we could look at the sign that hangs at the entrance to all Dickens' novels, according to Chesterton, the sign that could equally well hang at the entrance to Chesterton's own book: "Abandon hopelessness, all ye who enter here."


  1. After reading this post I was able to find a copy of Chesterton's book at our college library. I really enjoyed Chesterton's style and his insights into Dickens. I hope reading Dickens is as good as reading Chesterton talk about Dickens. I plan on find out. Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Patrick. I'm delighted that your college library had a copy. I also hope that you really enjoy Dickens too. I first read 'Pickwick Papers' when I was in the Sixth Form and was bowled over by it. 'Great Expectations' is one of my favourite books. 'A Tale of Two Cities' is wonderful. But the list could go on: there are so many amazing books by Dickens out there.