Charles Dickens: Virtuous Decisions in Life and Story

[November 6, 2021, lay keynote talk for the Doxacon Conference]

I was very honored to be invited to speak at this conference. But I was also perplexed, because I don’t really know much about the world of sci fi and fantasy. So I talked with Mr. Daniel, and we came up with a plan. I’m going tell you about a famous author, and how some of his non-virtuous decisions affected his writing, and indeed his whole life.

But what you’re here to talk about is fantasy and sci fi, so after my talk my son, Fr Steve Mathewes, is going to say a bit along that line. Then I’ll wrap up with some thoughts about bees, and we’ll open the floor for Q & A.

My talk is about a well-known 19th century author, whose works were noted for depictions of virtues such as loyalty, courage, and self-sacrifice, and warm family life. In his prime he practiced what he preached, with a wife and ten children. If you are the first to guess his name, I will send you a shiny new quarter.

His best friend was the writer John Forster, a steadying influence on this intense and lively author. Forster would tell him, when he complained about his wife, that he was himself a difficult person to live with, volatile and testy, and would urge him to remain faithful and loving.

Yes, John Forster was our author’s great good friend. But then he made a new friend.

And here we must pause to ponder St. Paul’s words, in 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Bad company ruins good morals.”

The new friend was the novelist Wilkie Collins. You would know Collins as the author of The Moonstone and The Woman in White.  Collins was much younger than our author and, we might say, full of the dickens.

Wilkie Collins was not much encumbered by Victorian morality. He was an odd-looking figure, with a petite body and a huge head, like a light bulb. But as he increased in wealth and fame, his personal attractions became irrelevant. He established two homes in London, with two mistresses and their children. In his novels he often portrays marriage as bad thing, and he avoided it all his life.

Once our author took up with Wilkie Collins, he had less use for his friend John Forster. Collins took him to the bawdy houses of Paris, where previously-unimaginable fun was going on. Coming home again to his stout wife and expanding brood began to feel intolerable.

Charles Dickens had been growing more irritated with his wife for some time. Catherine was never a match for his energy, and as the number of children increased, she became more passive and withdrawn. Nobody said “post-partum depression” back then.

And then Dickens met a young actress, Ellen Ternan. She was barely 18, and Dickens was 45. Two of his children were older than she was. Nelly was delicate and fairy-like, and Dickens was hooked.

A few months later he sent Nelly a bracelet, with a loving note. But the package was accidentally delivered to his house, and Catherine opened it. This resulted in a permanent rupture; Catherine departed from the family home, and Dickens retained custody of the children, as British law provided. Only their eldest, Charley Jr, went with her.

After that, Dickens forbade the children to have any contact with their mother. When the daughters were grown, he insisted that they not invite her to their weddings. When her 4-year-old son died, he didn’t tell her. He never saw her again.

Gossip arose, so he began telling people that Catherine was not a good mother, that she didn’t love the children, and that she had long begged him to let her leave the family home. He even asked a doctor to certify her as insane, so he could have her institutionalized.

But Catherine remained loyal to him to the end. On her deathbed, she gave a parcel of old love letters to her daughter, saying, “That the world may know that he loved me once.”

Charles Dickens cleaved unto Nelly Ternan for the rest of his life, but that was only about a dozen years. Those years may not have been happy ones. At the end he fell into a kind of desperation, driving himself beyond his physical limits, to die at 58. But that comes later in the story.

 

How did this series of non-virtuous decisions influence Dickens’s writing? From the beginning, Charles Dickens was a shooting star. He rose to fame while still in his twenties, as the beloved author of The Pickwick Papers. He was cheerful, gregarious, and animated, and a man of boundless energy. He commonly walked twelve miles a day—on occasion, 20 or 30. He said, “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”

Dickens was extremely prolific. While editing magazines and putting on amateur theatricals, he wrote A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and many more. And surprisingly, for someone who thrived on praise, he was not jealous of other writers. On the contrary, he was generous and encouraging, giving them prime space in his magazines. He called himself “the Inimitable,” and I think he believed it. He had no fear of competition, because he knew he was one of a kind.

 

Let’s look the novels Dickens wrote after he took up with Nelly. There are only three. The first is A Tale of Two Cities, a magnificent novel of the French Revolution. But I doubt anyone would call A Tale of Two Cities their favorite Dickens novel. It lacks the brightness and humor of his previous works; it is solemn and occasionally horrifying.

Something else typical of Dickens is missing from A Tale of Two Cities, something that had become almost a signature item: a lovely and innocent young girl. Characters like Dora in David Copperfield and Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop appear on the page like untouched lilies.

After Nelly joins Charles’s life, they’re gone. Instead, we have depictions of women who reject a man’s love.

In A Tale of Two Cities, three men court Lucie Manette, and she rejects two (not unreasonably). But in Dickens’s subsequent novel, Great Expectations, rejection is laced with cruelty.

It’s one of the most memorable scenes in all of Dickens. A poor boy named Pip has come to the grand manor house, to be a playmate for little Estella. Pip is led through the decaying mansion to meet elderly Miss Havisham. She is wearing an old and tattered wedding dress. While she was dressing for her wedding, decades ago, she received a note from her fiancé breaking the engagement.

Miss Havisham has locked her whole life to that moment. The clocks were stopped, and no detail of the house has ever changed. In the center of the dining table Pip sees a huge rotten mound; it is Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.

If you’ve never read any Dickens, I hope that will hook you. Many people call Great Expectations their favorite Dickens novel.

What’s relevant, though, is that Miss Havisham hates the male sex, and she is raising beautiful Estella to hate men, too. She has brought Pip in specifically to see Estella break his heart.

Pip’s heart is broken almost immediately; he can’t get over how beautiful she is. But Estella treats him with contempt, demeaning and insulting him.

In earlier Dickens novels, you would expect to find an innocent, trusting young woman. This Estella is a tantalizing fiend. And note how her name echoes “Ellen.”

 

Dickens’s last complete novel is Our Mutual Friend. The rejecting female appears here, as in Great Expectations, but now there are also flaws in the story itself. Dickens is no longer at the top of his game.

And now I have to give you a spoiler, so if you plan to read Our Mutual Friend, put your fingers in your ears.

The lead female character, Bella, resents her family’s poverty, and she’s determined to climb out of her class. She knows that a wealthy man, aware of her greedy, selfish nature, has written his will such that his son John can only receive his inheritance if he marries her.

Bella believes that John was drowned at sea, and she complains about losing all that money. But John has actually become an assistant to her kindly adoptive father, Mr Boffin, to study her character before revealing himself.

In time, the two of them fall in love, but how can John be sure she has overcome her fixation on money?

And this is where things go wrong. Dear Mr. Boffin begins to act strangely, becoming ever more miserly and selfish. These scenes are hard reading, because Dickens has previously made Boffin such an adorable character. It looks like he is having a mental breakdown, and that’s heartbreaking.

Well, it turns out to be all an act, and Bella passed the test, and now she gets to enjoy both John and money. But when all the pieces are fitted together, they don’t fit very well. All of that stagecraft, just to test Bella? Isn’t there an element of cruelty here? Why does Mr. Boffin continue his cruel persona even when Bella is not around? Isn’t the whole idea kind of clumsy?

There is much to love in Our Mutual Friend, but just note that, in Dickens’s last novel, the story is about finding out whether a young woman is only interested in a man’s money.

You can unplug your ears now.

And another thing. In Dickens novels, there is often a cherubic male character. In Our Mutual Friend, there are two.

There is often a disabled character. In Our Mutual Friend, there are two.

There is often a noble daughter who is taking care of her father, as if he were her child. In Our Mutual Friend, there are three.

I began to wonder if Dickens had some stalled projects on hand, and was just cramming bits of them into the story.

And another thing. Dickens had a gift for complex plots with a satisfying denouement. In Our Mutual Friend, the subtlety is gone. The bad guy is entirely bad, with no good side. At the end someone dumps him in a garbage cart. His fate seems less like justice and more like vindictiveness.

 

But what’s pertinent today is a subplot in Our Mutual Friend, one that hints at some private suffering. There’s a good working girl named Lizzie, who catches the eye of a dour and rigid schoolteacher named Bradley Headstone. (Perhaps Dickens’s celebrated talent for character names was also running dry.)

Headstone has an overwhelming desire for Lizzie, and as they walk in a churchyard, he spills his heart to her:

‘[Y]ou are the ruin of me. … I have no resources in myself, I have no confidence in myself, I have no government of myself when you are near me or in my thoughts. And you are always in my thoughts now.’

…‘You draw me to you. If I were shut up in a strong prison, you would draw me out. I should break through the wall to come to you. If I were lying on a sick bed, you would draw me up—to stagger to your feet and fall there.’

The wild energy of the man, now quite let loose, was absolutely terrible. He stopped and laid his hand upon a piece of the coping of the burial-ground enclosure, as if he would have dislodged the stone.

‘No man knows till the time comes, what depths are within him. To some men it never comes; let them rest and be thankful! To me, you brought it; on me, you forced it; and the bottom of this raging sea…has been heaved up ever since.’

[At this point Lizzie says, ‘I have heard enough. Let us stop here.’ But Headstone begs her to walk once more around the churchyard.]

He said no more until they had regained the spot. There, he again stood still, and again grasped the stone. In saying what he said then, he never looked at her; but looked at [the stone] and wrenched at it.

‘…You could draw me to fire, you could draw me to water, you could draw me to the gallows, you could draw me to any death, you could draw me to anything I have most avoided, you could draw me to any exposure and disgrace. This… is what I mean by your being the ruin of me.’

…[He brought] his clenched hand down upon the stone with a force that laid the knuckles raw and bleeding.

Our Mutual Friend, Book 2, Ch 15. “The Whole Case So Far”

This is all about the raging of thwarted desire. Perhaps Dickens had spoken such words himself. A great author may well feel desire for a delicate teenaged beauty—but why would a teenaged beauty desire a moody, restless, middle-aged man? In a photo taken in the months after they met, Dickens is balding, with two great muffins of hair extending over his ears. There are deep creases in his face, and he looks weary and sad.

 

Lastly, I’ll mention the first chapter of Our Mutual Friend, which is one of the darkest things I’ve ever read.

It’s sunset on the Thames, and we see two figures in a rowboat. You can tell they are father and daughter. But for some reason, it’s the daughter who’s at the oars, while the father sits in the stern, looking around.

You can’t figure out what’s going on, but over the course of four-and-a-half pages, a horrified realization grows. When I first read it I thought, “Where the heck did that come from?”

Perhaps Charles Dickens was having darker thoughts those days. Sometime after meeting Nelly he joined the London Ghost Club, and John Forster said he had “something of a hankering” after ghosts. He attended seances and was intrigued by the supernatural.

I believe that there can be great danger in such things. They can open a door in your mind through which images and ideas may come, whether you want them or not. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to get them out again.

Wilkie Collins had some troubles himself, in his latter years. He said he was sometimes accompanied by a double, which he called “ghost Wilkie.” When he climbed the stairs at night, he said, ghosts would gather and try to push him down. And sometimes, when he got to the top, he was met by a green woman with tusks.

 

In 1865, Death began its march toward Charles Dickens.

On June 9, 1865, a train carrying Dickens and Nelly suddenly plunged off a bridge. Cars crashed down into the river, and Dickens’s compartment was left hanging at an angle.

He was instantly out and among the injured and dying, helping however he could. Then he remembered he’d left behind the manuscript for Our Mutual Friend, and climbed back into the dangling train car to get it.

Dickens was gallant at the time of the crash, but the screaming, the mangled bodies, the spectacle of death marked him deeply. For two weeks he couldn’t speak. Travel by any means, and particularly by train, became terrifying. Years later he wrote, “To this hour I have sudden vague rushes of terror…which are perfectly unreasonable but quite insurmountable.”

Five years later, to the day, he would die.

Dickens forced himself to resume train travel, even though he was terrified. He was used to having command over his body, and forcing it to do as it was told. But he could not stop himself from shaking.

In 1867, Dickens came to American for a speaking tour—76 readings in five months, from Boston to Washington to Niagara Falls.

He called his appearances a “reading,” but it was more like a one-man show. Dickens originally wanted to be an actor, and he acted out his best scenes from memory, declaiming, laughing, or shouting as necessary.

But he was becoming dangerously exhausted. He limped along on a swollen foot; he couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and was mired in a miserable cold. His doctor had warned him that his heart was not beating properly. But he would not give up the stage.

In 1868, Dickens took ship to return home, and spent the journey planning a speaking tour of the British Isles. He also added a significant burden to the physical demands of these readings. He decided to perform the scene in Oliver Twist when cruel Bill Sikes bludgeons to death the prostitute Nancy. As usual, he would play both parts.

Dickens began rehearsing it in the back garden of his home, greatly alarming his son Charley, who dashed from the house to stop a bully from murdering his wife. Dickens asked his son what he thought of the scene, and Charley replied, “The finest thing I’ve ever heard, but don’t do it.” It was superlatively good writing and terrific theater, but he knew it would kill his father.

Dickens launched into the new series of readings, doing one every other day, traveling throughout Scotland, Ireland, and England. The murder scene was a sensation, and women screamed and fainted in the audience. But it took a heavy toll. Dickens was dizzy now, and unsteady on his feet. A performance left him nauseous, even till the next day. His digestive symptoms now included hemorrhage. His left leg and arm felt weak; he felt “disinclined” to raise his arms above his head. He couldn’t touch something without fixing his eyes on it.  Out on a walk with his old friend John Forster, Dickens mentioned that he could only see the right half of shop signs. He was on the brink of a stroke or paralysis.

Dickens gave 74 readings in six months, but was at last persuaded to cancel the remaining events. While he rested, he planned a dozen more readings, all to be in London. At least there would be no more train travel.

In 1870, Dickens dove into the last 12 readings. He was clearly broken. He could no longer say the name of his first book, “Pickwick,” and looked surprised when “Picksnick” and “Peckwicks” came out instead. At intermission, his pulse was up to 124. Before a performance he whispered to a friend, “I shall tear myself to pieces.”

Dickens at last agreed to stop the readings. But that doesn’t mean he rested. He made the rounds of banquets and theaters, meeting dozens of his era’s celebrities, and even putting on a play with friends. By day he was working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his last, unfinished, novel.

On June 4, 1870, his daughter Kate visited him, and she was troubled by his conversation; he was dwelling on the past. He told her that he wished he’d been “a better father—a better man.” He looked, she said, “as though his life was over and there were nothing left.”

On June 8, 1870, Dickens sat at the dinner table, clearly in pain, with tears in his eyes. Then he suddenly rose and said he had to go to London immediately, then fell to the floor. He never regained consciousness. He died the next day, June 9, 1870, the 5th anniversary of the Staplehurst rail crash.

 

Why did Dickens drive himself so hard? He had always been an exuberant person, bursting with energy. When his body started failing, he simply commanded it to do as it was told; that had always worked before. But his body was becoming too weak to obey his demands. He was truly tearing himself to pieces.

I think there is another reason, though. For writers it’s gratifying to be praised for their work, but that praise arrives slowly and in small batches. When Dickens was on stage, he could see his audience—hundreds, even thousands of people who loved him, who were captivated by his performance, and who showed it in cascading applause.

Perhaps that is why he kept doing it, even when he knew he was dying. In his determination to stand before his audience, to see firsthand that it loved him, Charles Dickens broke his own heart.

 

As I wrote this talk, I was praying that I would not misrepresent Charles Dickens. What he did to Catherine was heinous, but he was a model of many other virtues that we today might not have—courage, perseverance, generosity, and without a doubt, hard work. But sexual temptation took him down like a whirlpool.

The devil found the perfect combination of factors to overwhelm Dickens’s conscience, and defeat it. Here we must pause to ponder St. Paul’s words, in 1 Corinthians 10:12, “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”

And let us pray for the repose of the soul of Charles Dickens, whose works have given so much joy, and even moral resolve, to readers around the world for 150 years.

***

Something about Bees

The mission statement of Doxacon draws on this passage from St. Basil the Great:

“Now then, altogether after the manner of bees must we use these writings [works of the great philosophers], for the bees do not visit all the flowers [but select what they only what they need]…So we, if wise, shall take from heathen books whatever benefits us and is allied to the truth, and shall pass over the rest.”

St. Basil the Great, Address to young men on the right use of Greek literature, IV

I was a beekeeper for a few years. And somewhere along the way I heard this line: The difference between a bee and a human is, a bee will never bring anything into the hive that could damage it.

You probably know that in each colony there is one queen bee, a number of male drones, and all the many thousands of other bees are female workers.

And they work without ceasing, continually seeking out nectar for the hive. A bee dies when her fragile wings get worn out and can no longer support her.  She falls to the ground and cannot raise herself, and dies there. A worker bee never stops working, and she dies in flight.

A bee can work continually without diversions or amusements, but we’re not like that; our minds would break if we didn’t give them rest. But, as St Basil said, we must choose carefully. Everything we bring into our homes, into our hives, changes the hive. Everything we allow into our attentive mind, our nous, changes it.

Stories that are very exciting make ordinary life boring. Actors who are very sexy make ordinary spouses boring. Stories that glamorize revenge cultivate self-righteousness, and make humility and forgiveness look weak. We can take in these messages without even noticing it.

What’s more, these stories affect everyone in the hive. We are more porous than we suppose. We live in a matrix of spiritual powers, visible and invisible, and our choices have reverberations that we cannot predict.

St. Basil urges us to be careful and watchful in our choices. He was talking about the Greek philosophers, but we today aren’t worried about whether it’s safe to read Plato. We are trying to manage the endless parade of entertainment, in all forms of media, which is marketed to us in ways that utilize psychological warfare.

St. Basil could not have imagined our situation. And if we’re honest, we know he would be horrified by some of the things we enjoy. He stated the guideline that we must select only that which is “of benefit and allies with the truth,” but some of what we consume may not meet that standard. We think it’s doing us no harm, but how do we know that? What faculty can we use to make that self-evaluation, except our own damaged minds?

Even if we’re making healthier choices, we may still be giving entertainment more time than is healthy. Jim Kushner, editor of Touchstone magazine, wrote something that hit me hard. He said, “[D]oes watching hours and hours of well-acted and fascinating [TV] dramas in some way bring me closer to Christ? Maybe, but maybe not.”

Picture this alternative. Fr. Roman Braga was an Orthodox priest who was imprisoned by the soviet regime in Romania. He spent four years in solitary confinement. No books, no human contact, nothing even to look at.  He said, “You had to go somewhere; you had to find an inner perspective.” And there he discovered the “inner universe,” where he came into the presence of God.

All of us have within us that same inner universe. All of us could find the way to constant prayer, as he did. But we would have to practice, sometimes, the very challenging form of ascesis known as boredom.

If we didn’t look at screens, we would get bored. But what would happen next, after being bored? After we stopped feeling restless and resentful, what might we start to notice? How might our nous be healed, if we gave it a rest and a healthy diet? Each of us has this “inner universe” to discover, where we may meet Christ, and begin to live for the first time.

Lastly, I want to say that bees do not attack—they don’t go around looking for someone to beat up. No, bees defend. If someone disturbs the hive, they instinctively rush out to defend it. Each bee can sting only once, and then she dies.

Let us be just as diligent to defend what has been placed in our care—our own souls, and those of the children in our homes. And may we die in flight, working for the good of the hive.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

5 comments:

  1. What a wonderful, in-depth commentary, bringing light and understanding in so many ways. Thank you for your obvious study and thought, gleaning-for the rest of us, the nuggets needed in this confusing hour. Dee Dee Squires

    1. Thank you, dear cousin Dee Dee. We both had Miss Keith as our high school English Lit teacher, and I expect that’s where we both first read Dickens’s novels. Didn’t know then about “the rest of the story.”

  2. Hi, Frederica, Thank you for your wonderful insights into and commentary on Charles Dickens. There is much food for thought. May God continue to bless you and your work.

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