The Gospel in Dickens, Charles Dickens (edited by Gina Dalfonzo, foreword by Karen Swallow Prior). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2020.
Summary: A collection of excerpts from the works of Charles Dickens showing the Christian gospel themes evident throughout these works.
Many who have read or are familiar the stories and life of Dickens might think him hostile to religious faith. His personal life was not always exemplary, particular his relations with his wife, with whom he separated to pursue his affair with actress Ellen Ternan. Often his portrayals of religious figures are sharply barbed as with Mr. Bumble the beadle in Oliver Twist. In this book, Gina Dalfonzo proposes that what Dickens despised was not Christian faith, but the hypocrisy of some of its leading figures.
Like other books in Plough’s “The Gospel in…” series, this consists of excerpts of a number of his major works organized around three main themes: Sin and Its Victims, Repentance and Grace, and The Righteous Life. Dalfonzo offers an introduction to the work of Dickens seen from a Christian perspective, and concludes with two letters that evidence his personal warm sentiments toward a morally Christian life, one to his son, “Plorn” and the other, written on the next to the last day of his life.
In “Sin and Its Victims” we have the familiar scene from Oliver Twist “I Want Some More” and one I had not read before from Bleak House that was quite striking under the title “He Who is Without Sin” in which a godmother raising an illegitimate child bore a grudge against the mother until struck down with a stroke on hearing the story read from the gospels of the woman caught in adultery and Jesus response to her accusers: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ So many of these are warnings against the ways we may be blind to our own sin.
“Repentance and Grace” consists of excerpts that reflect the theme of awakening to one’s sin, the harms one has caused and in some cases finding grace to begin again. One of the most famous is the awakening of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations to the deleterious effects of training Estella not to love, when she sees the hurt Estella inflicts upon Pip. Her cry, “What have I done?” reveals her remorse, and leads to a new resolve to help Pip. A short passage from Little Dorrit between Mrs Clennam who set herself to combat evil in all its forms mercilessly, and Little Dorrit, contrasts wrathful lawkeeping and the gospel of grace. Little Dorrit replies:
“O Mrs Clennam, Mrs. Clennam. . . angry feelings and unforgiving deeds are no comfort and no guide to you and me. My life has been passed in this poor prison, and my teaching has been very defective; but let me implore you to remember later and better days. Be guided by the healer of the sick, the raiser of the dead, the friend of all who were afflicted and forlorn, the patient Master who shed tears of compassion for our infirmities. We cannot but be right if we put all the rest away, and do everything in remembrance of Him. There is no vengeance and no infliction of suffering in his life, I am sure. There can be no confusion in following Him, and seeking for no other footsteps, I am certain.
The third part portrays “The Righteous Life.” Sometimes we see the beauty of a life lived under grace as in “Little Mother” from Little Dorrit in the ways Amy Dorrit cares for and advocates for Maggy, a brain-damaged young woman. There is the attractive character of Septimus Crisparkle in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, at one a proponent of “muscular Christianity” and yet solicitous toward his mother and kind toward all he meets. This section concludes with the speech of Sydney Carton at the end of A Tale of Two Cities and the transformed Ebenezer Scrooge of A Christmas Carol.
Short introductions set each excerpt (and there are many more than mentioned here) in context, although at times with works of Dickens I had not read, I felt I did not have enough context. Still, Dalfonzo’s exploration reminded me of the times of delight in reading him and whet my appetite for “more.” I read this in conjunction with a book “weed out” and set aside several volumes of Dickens I’d not read. It’s been a half dozen years or more since my last Dickens. Dalfonzo persuaded me that for reasons of both delight and spiritual edification, it was time to return to “our mutual friend.”
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.