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.