The Catholic Thing
A Dickensian Close for 2013 Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Editor’s Note: Knowing the hard financial circumstances of many in this country at present, I will forgo any references to Scrooge, stinginess, or lack of charity. But today is your last day in 2013 to contribute to the work of The Catholic Thing. In the spirit of the season – and in the hope that we may spread the true, the good, and the beautiful even more widely – please consider doing what you can to help advance the work of this band of writers and the pleasure of our readers in the coming year. Donate to TCT today. – Robert Royal

Looking back on this year, I find that I’ve had much to rail against, and I fear that there will be even more to depress us in the year to come. Following the lead of Justice Kennedy, judges throughout the landscape have begun to strike down the laws on marriage in New Mexico, and of all places, Utah.  And that is only the beginning.  But if I follow this train to the end of the year, I’ll end up sounding like Brooks Atkinson, the famous critic for the New York Times, in one of his most memorable reviews: “I’ve knocked everything in this show except the chorus girls’ legs, and there nature anticipated me.” 

Time for something different.  On Christmas Eve, I thought I’d better have a preemptive workout in anticipation of the dinners to come.  I made my way to the basement of our building, apparently floating with the sensibility of Charles Dickens. For as I encountered one of the “regulars” in the gym, I said, “Are you the spirit whose coming has been foretold to me – the spirit of Christmas present?”  

Reading Dickens again I came across a passage in A Christmas Carol that seemed strikingly Catholic. Scrooge had turned away an appeal on behalf of the poor, and remarked on the utility of whittling away some of the “surplus population.”  But when he saw the condition of Tiny Tim, he pressed the Ghost of Christmas Present with his hope that the child would survive.  To which the Ghost said:

What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. . . .“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbid that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is.  Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die?  It may be that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.”

A papist tinge in Dickens?  Hardly, for it turned out that Dickens was a fierce anti-papist.  His recoil from the Church, on matters of doctrine as well as ritual, ran through his novels in precise commentaries and caricatures.  In September 1850, Pope Pius IX had the temerity to reinstate the Catholic hierarchy in England: he announced his intention to install an archbishop for Westminster and twelve territorial bishoprics.  Dickens joined the wide reviling of that move as the “Papal Aggression” – clearly, the beginning of the attempt to bring England again under papal control.  

          In his “tinsel and finery”: John Henry Newman by J.E. Millais, 1881

But before that, there had been the vilifying of the Oxford Movement, the movement led by John Henry Newman, John Keble, and Edward Bouverie Pusey (often known as “Newmanism” or “Puseyism”).  The trio were seen as forming a subversive papist school of divinity, with the fears confirmed by Newman’s later conversion.

Dickens wrote scathingly of the Puseyites, with their “tinsel and finery” and “all the saints of the Calendar, with every rag, and stick, and stone, sanctified and worshipped by the Romish elements.” And with it all came those vestments, with their colors.  For Dickens and others, there was a touch here of “dandyism,” of the foppish and the effeminate – all of it in contrast with the muscular Protestantism of the land, with its disdain for incense and costumes and glitter. 

Catholicism was the religion of those Irish immigrants, unwashed and ignorant, given to drink and violence.  As Benjamin Disraeli put it, the Irish were hostile to the English because of “our decorous liberty [and] our pure religion.”

The fuller story is recounted in a fine monograph done at the University of York in 2011 by Mr. Mark Eslick, who traces these themes through Dickens’s novels and other writings.  He records there this near-revelatory moment for Dickens:  In a dream he had a vision of his late, beloved sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, who had died in his arms.  He asks her, “What is the True Religion … [Would it be that] the Roman Catholic is the best?”  The spirit answers, “for you it is the best” – an answer that Eslick takes as not in accord with the Catholic position, for if the teaching is true, it is true for everyone.

Dickens would later discount the religious significance of dream.  He thought that it was more suggested by his surroundings. He had slept in a bedroom containing an altar where Masses had been performed.  And at a convent nearby, the bells had been ringing through the night.

On one of his visits to this country, Evelyn Waugh was asked what he thought of Will Rogers’s observation that the purpose of art was to entertain not instruct.  Waugh responded by asking whether “this Mr. Rogers was alive or dead.”  When told that he was dead, Waugh remarked that, in that case, “he knows better now.”  We can find hope in this Christmas season that, on several counts, Charles Dickens knows better now.   And there remains reason, even now, to hope that all will yet be well.

God bless us, one and all.

“The Catholic Thing is the kind of little miracle that ripples out to touch lives in powerful ways.” – Archbishop Charles Chaput 

Hadley Arkes
is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is
Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Grump, December 31, 2013
Good piece, professor. I've always thought Dickens a bit overrated and would put Thomas Hardy ahead of him as a novelist and maybe George Eliot and Thackeray. Somerset Maugham, in rating his skills as a writer, placed himself "in the very first row of the second-raters." Dickens ought to take a seat beside him.

As 2013 ends, I think more of Orwell than Dickens. The "telescreens" of 1984 have morphed into the NSA and the ubiquitous drones and inverted values -- "War is Peace" etc. -- are very much in evidence. Like Winston Smith, I'm trying to hold out against the tide of Group Think, insanity and depravity sweeping America.

On a happier note, here's hoping all TCT writers and readers enjoy a better 2014. I'll cross my fingers after typing this last sentence: Thank you, Hadley Arkes, Brad Miner, Bob Royal, Austin Ruse and all others for keeping this backslidden Catholic interested in returning to the fold.
written by Dan Deeny, December 31, 2013
An excellent essay. I will try to read Mark Eslick's monograph. And didn't G.K. Chesterton like Dickens' work? Why was that?
written by Nancy de Flon, December 31, 2013
Two points: (1) The 19th-c. Anglicans had their Ritualist Priests, notably John Mason Neale and others, who dressed in the "tinsel and finery" for services because they realized that the poor London slum-dwellers to whom they ministered needed that brightness and beauty in their lives. (Would that many Catholic parishes thought that way now about Catholics in general!) (2) My son once observed (and I agree) that the "Christmas Carol" film starring Alistair Sim is one of the finest conversion stories ever -- the way the darkness of the early part gives way to the bright daylight of Christmas morning once Scrooge "sees the light" after the Spirits' visits.
written by Seanachie, December 31, 2013
Surprised that Dickens found the "tinsel and finery" of Catholicism repugnant given the well polished symbols of “dandyism," "foppishness," and "effeminism" of the monarchy under which he lived (and extant even today).
written by John Jamison, December 31, 2013
A Christmas Carol bears remarkable resemblance to old Irish folktales which predate it.
written by Tony Esolen, December 31, 2013
I teach British literature for a living, and I'm Catholic, so I've developed a thick skin for the occasional anti-Papists spritzes from Dickens and others.

I'm going to disagree with my friend Grump above. Dickens' flaws are the flaws of extravagance in the midst of sheer genius. I used to believe that he was the second greatest English novelist, after George Eliot. I've since come round to the more ordinary opinion, which was Chesterton's (who said that you could find everything about a boy in Eliot's novels, except the boy himself). For the sheer breadth and moral power and human observation of his work, and for its unforgettable characters, nobody in English rivals the Victorian madman. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy both believed he was the great genius in the novel, and were influenced by him, even though they detested one another's work.

I'm fond of what a good and wise friend of mine said to me about the man: "Dickens was in love with goodness." You can't read Dickens without the Gospels -- he is thoroughly steeped in them, won't take two steps without them. Key passages in A Christmas Carol: "And he took a child and set him in their midst." That's what Peter Cratchit is reading when Scrooge shows up with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Another: "I don't know anything at all! I am quite a baby." One of the first things Scrooge says upon waking up. The one that doesn't get much play in the films: Scrooge goes to church; then shows up, hat in hand, at his nephew Fred's house.

People who teach Renaissance English literature are often attracted to Victorian novels -- I see this all the time. There's a reason for it. Those big novels are organized along the same lines as Renaissance romances and epics. When you're reading Bleak House, you see that five simultaneous lines of plot all have to do with one another, thematically -- everything has to do with everything else, and very little is included for the sake of getting a rise out of the reader -- just as in Shakespeare.

A short list of Dickensian greats: Mr. Micawber, Mr. Dick, Uriah Heep, Sairy Gamp, Sam Weller, Harold Skimpole, Signor Mantolini, Josiah Bounderby, The Old Girl (Mrs. Bagnet), Miss Havisham, Abel Magwitch, Fagin, The Artful, Ebenezer Scrooge, Sydney Carton, Madame Lafarge, Silas Wegg, Mr. Pecksniff, Sleary the Circus Man, Betsey Trotwood, Mrs. Jellyby, Cap'n Cuttle ... Nobody this side of Shakespeare has given the world so many memorables ...
written by Grump, December 31, 2013
To my friend, Tony: Indeed, Dickens created some of the most memorable characters in all of literature and some of the most convoluted plots. I did not mean to disparage Dickens by heaping higher praise on Hardy. Certainly, both belong in the pantheon of great English novelists. Bleak House and Oliver Twist are hard to beat as page-turners.

Hardy had a poet's heart and his prose sparkles at every turn while Dickens give us mundane passages such as this from 'Our Mutual Friend': “Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, and in a state of high varnish and polish. And what was observable in the furniture, was observable in the Veneerings – the surface smelled a little too much of the workshop and was a trifle sticky.”

Oscar Wilde famously snickered that one would need a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop without bursting into laughter.

Although I cut my teeth on Dickens in high school with Tale of Two Cities, I could not get through David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby without yawning.

Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge" is one of the greatest novels ever written in the English language.

written by Hadley Arkes, December 31, 2013
I'd meant to write earlier in the vein of Tony Esolen, but as ever he has done much of my work. I was going to say that we still read Dickens with pleasure because of his powers of observation on ordinary life in all of it layers, and those remarkable characters he sketched with such vividness. But there were also the asides, the throw-away lines, revealing a writer comfortable in his craft. And so, for example, this minor observation in "Martin Chuzzlewit":

"He tried to drop a tear upon his patron's hands, but couldn't find one in his dry distillery."

But we could all busy ourselves finding things even more memorable in the novels. There was that characterization of Mr Turveydrop in Bleak House, a man so tightly formed and arranged that when he bowed his eyes creased.

If we love the English language and the craft of writing, we'll still read this man. His blindspots on the Church we can discount while the Christian perspective comes through so persistently.
written by Tony Esolen, January 01, 2014
Thanks, Hadley!

I think too that Dickens is the great author of "economy" as understood in its proper Aristotelian sense: the management of a household. This isn't sentimentality for him. It's economy that allows households to be homes for children and inns of refuge and assistance for neighbors in trouble and for the poor. Dickens, after the partial exception of Mr. Micawber, is notably harsh with people who waste their substance and make other people suffer for it, or with people who ignore their business near at hand and pursue distant projects....

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