- Grammar of Choice:Charles Dickens's Authentic Religion
When Robert Butterworth claims in Dickens, Religion, and Society (2016) that "Dickens's religion is absolutely central to his work" and further identifies five aspects in which "Dickens's religion goes to the very core" of his novels, he rests his argument on half a century of recent studies of Dickens's religion.1 While Butterworth's premise (that religion is all-important) grasps the essence, his conclusion that Christianity is the solution to all the social problems depicted in Dickens's fiction remains unsettling. Butterworth's careful examination of Bleak House and Little Dorrit, for example, gives the impression that religion is a remedy against a particular evil, as if religion is something ready-made for us to understand and to utilize, something outside of human existence itself. I contend, on the contrary, that religion for Dickens is, to use George Eliot's idea of the role of art in "The Natural History of German Life," something that "surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment" (110). I would suggest, therefore, that religion is something Dickens wishes his characters and his readers to be informed by, to participate in, something I would call [End Page 127] authentic. I would further argue that the authentic religion hinges on the central idea of choice-making.
The "Inauthentic" in Religion
In most of Dickens's fiction, genuine religious experience is seldom found in churches, nor do clergymen usually exemplify religious principles. Religious institutions are often a target for criticism. Examples abound in his works. Sometimes Dickens simply cannot help making throwaway remarks – in Little Dorrit, for instance – when Mr. Meagles explains the name of the child he and his wife adopted "'to be a little maid'" to their daughter, Pet. Accepting the arbitrary name of Harriet Beadle, given to her by the Institution from which she was adopted,2 Mr. and Mrs. Meagles changed "'Harriet into Hattey, and then into Tatty,'" while as for "Beadle," they altered that to "Coram," adding, "'If there is anything that is not be tolerated on any terms, anything that is a type of Jack-in-office insolence and absurdity, anything that represents in coats, waistcoats, and big sticks, our English holding-on by nonsense, after every one has found it out, it is a beadle (33; bk. 1, ch. 2). Another example occurs in "Sunday under Three Heads" (1836), where Dickens attacks the bill against recreation on Sundays. He describes two kinds of church services and shows both of them inadequate. There is a "fashionable church," – presumably an orthodox Anglican church, where only members of the privileged class worship and whose clergyman attends to the "style" of his preaching without regard for the content: "Mark the soft voice in which he reads, and the impressive manner in which he applies his white hand, studded with brilliants, to his perfumed hair" (7). In contrast to the "lax" atmosphere found in "a less orthodox place of religious worship," the clergyman torments his audience with a "drawling tone," and "frantic gesture" (8), invoking eternal punishment upon the congregation, as if to echo the preacher in Jonathan Edwards's "Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God." According to Michael Slater, strict observance of the Sabbath is for Dickens a "perversion of Christian teaching" (71). Reactions to Sabbatarianism can be found elsewhere. In The Old Curiosity Shop, for example, Kit Nubbles counters his mother's hesitation about taking his brother to a play on Sunday with the objection: "'Can you suppose there's any harm in looking as cheerful and being as cheerful as our poor circumstances will permit?" (231; ch. 22).
Dickens is not against the material church per se as a place for worship or edification. Whether or not a church can be the "right place" for "amen," argues Natalie Bell Cole, depends if "human good will and general practices of faith" make up in strong feeling "what they lack in shallow form." [End Page 128] Otherwise "religious forms risk losing their spiritual significance to become merely staged events...