Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is one the best-loved novelists in the English language and arguably the greatest. Like Shakespeare, he created a host of memorable characters from all stations of life, entertained a wide public, and was equally adept as a writer of both tragedy and comedy. Whereas Shakespeare exploited his gifts as a poet and actor in his plays, Dickens, a novelist, deployed his extensive skills and experience as a journalist. He described vividly the plight of the poor, the injustices wrought by the Industrial Revolution, malfunctioning institutions, and widespread indifference. This led Dostoevsky to call him “the great Christian.”
In this interview, Prof. Dwight Lindley discusses some of the best of Dickens’s novels and of the studies on them.
Dwight Lindley is the Barbara Longway Briggs Chair in English Literature at Hillsdale College. He has published essays and articles on Jane Austen, George Eliot, John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Virginia Woolf, and others. He lives in southern Michigan with his wife Emily and their nine children. His free course Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carolis available online.
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Dickens was so active and productive that his life cannot be summed up in a few lines. You have recommended a biography, A.N. Wilson’s The Mystery of Charles Dickens. We shall discuss it at the end. However, to kick things off, are there any aspects of Dicken’s biography that we should keep in mind to understand his novels properly? Well, he was the most popular novelist of the Victorian period in England. Famously, he rose from poverty to considerable wealth just through the publication of his novels. He was very successful, beginning in his mid-twenties. By the time he died, he was one of the most famous people in England. He toured the country, America as well, giving public readings of his works. Thousands of people would come to see him. He was popular; his stories and characters were powerful.
While most literary critics acclaim Dickens, there have been periods when many have dismissed him as a low-brow writer. Has this ebb and wane in his standing among literary critics ceased? His star has risen somewhat over the course of the twentieth century.
He is not the most intellectual of the nineteenth-century novelists. George Eliot, for example, was better educated and, in general, a more philosophical writer. So, theoretical readers of English novels have often liked her more.
By contrast, Dickens is an everyman's novelist and not an intellectual in the sense that George Eliot was. For that reason, he did not necessarily open all the normal theoretical doors that literary critics are interested in.
Gradually, his different kind of intelligence has been better appreciated.
At the same time, his star has not risen completely, and he has not become massively popular. He still bothers some readers. However, people do not hold his relative lack of education against him as they used to.
"Dickens felt very strongly that we need to have a faith that is worked out actively in love and in taking care of the people who are in our lives. "
Dickens was an Anglican and professed Christianity. He wrote a private manuscript, The Life of the Lord, that he read to his children to instruct them about Jesus. His writings are informed by Christ’s command to care for the poor. Moreover, Dickens practiced what he preached. He supported his own needy relatives and worked hard to promote charitable organizations and social causes. However, it is not entirely clear how orthodox his beliefs were. During the 1840s he was interested in Unitarianism which, along with the rise of liberal Protestantism, tended to reduce Christianity to morality. His Christmas stories are moralistic rather than mystagogical. His Christianity was somewhat secularist, naturalist, or, as some might say, Victorian. In that case, why should Catholics read Dickens? The story you just gave of his religious beliefs is the typical one. It is helpful and true up to a point. However, a slightly broader context is helpful.
Dickens’s version of Christianity defines itself against the Calvinistic-leaning evangelicalism that we might associate with the great religious revivals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in America. They were called the Great Awakenings. There were versions of them in the United Kingdom as well.
This kind of Evangelicalism emphasised the development of faith to the exclusion of works, and Dickens felt very strongly that we need to have a faith that is worked out actively in love and in taking care of the people who are in our lives. He also had a sort of sacramental desire. He thought that we encounter God most deeply and imitate Christ in the lived reality of working out our faith. He found the practice of the faith around him wanting and was trying to complete it.
There are some things that we do not find in his writings that we would want of religion. However, in my experience, oftentimes Catholic readers find him more congenial than ‘faith alone’ (sola fide) Protestants do because he dramatizes our encounter with Christ “in the least of these”: our encounter with God in service to the poor.
Dickens produced a long list of classics. Have you followed any criteria in selecting the ones included in this list? Yes, the books that I have selected are, by common consent, some of his greatest novels.
Many have said that David Copperfield is the greatest Dickens novel. It is the one that he liked best.
Bleak House is a runner-up.
So is A Tale of Two Cities. It is commonly assigned in schools, partly because it is shorter than those first two big ones.
I also listed Little Dorrit because, even though it gets less attention, it is very apropos for our day in several ways.
On my extended list, I have included Hard Times. It too is assigned frequently in schools.
I chose a combination of those that are my favourites, most relevant for our day, and generally held in high regard.
They also happen to be the five novels that Dickens published between 1849 and 1859. Is there a reason why you have settled on this period? I admit that I have a preference for the works of the second half of his career.
He was writing novels from 1837 until he died in 1870, and left his last work unfinished. The ones I have chosen are from the middle ten years of his writing career. They are the works of his maturity.
Earlier novels, such as The Pickwick Papers (1837) and Dombey and Son (1846) have wonderful things going on. However, they are not as mature as novels: arguably, the characters are not as fully realised and integrated into the plot.
"One of the remarkable things about Dickens is that he used his novels as a way of investigating his own life."
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