Charles Dickens, England’s greatest novelist, was born just two centuries ago. England’s greatest dramatist, William Shakespeare - or so some writers are now plausibly claiming - may well have been a Catholic. It is harder to make such a claim for Dickens. G K Chesterton, however, did in effect claim that Dickens was at heart a Catholic: and this is a claim by no means as outlandish as it might at first seem, writes William Oddie in The Catholic Herald.
It is, of course, true that Dickens rarely departed from the anti-popery of the average Victorian Protestant Englishman.
Travelling through Switzerland in 1845 he crossed a river, from a Catholic Canton into a Protestant one, and noted the contrast between “on the Protestant side, neatness; cheerfulness; industry; education; continual aspiration, at least, after better things” and “on the Catholic side, dirt, disease, ignorance, squalor, and misery”.
He went on to say that he had “so constantly observed the like of this… that [he had] a sad misgiving that the religion of Ireland lies as deep at the root of all its sorrows… as English misgovernment and Tory villainy”.
It was, however, one of Chesterton’s principal claims in his great book on Dickens that It was upon him that “the real tradition of ‘Merry England’ had descended”:
"The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day. Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle Ages… It was he who had the things of Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England…
"In fighting for Christmas he was fighting for… the holy day which is really a holiday … He cared as little for mediævalism as the mediævals did… He had no pleasure in looking on the dying Middle Ages. But he looked on the living Middle Ages… and he hailed it like a new religion."
Dickens was, of course, as Chesterton recognised, intellectually hostile to the Catholic Middle Ages, lacking as he did both self-knowledge and understanding of the past.
FULL STORY The night Dickens had a Marian vision (Catholic Herald)