Charles Dickens by Gary NeillOn Thursday 8 June 1870, Charles Dickens lay on the floor of his study, unable to move. From this position he uttered what he probably knew would be his final words: “Yes,” he said. “On the ground.” Sombre, simple, hauntingly acquiescent, they marked the demise of a figure who had seemed to an American friend “so full of life that it did not seem possible he could die”; who had invented characters that Tolstoy counted as his “personal friends”; and whose imagination, as John Carey once phrased it, transformed the world. This was a man who, always saying that he sought rest, spent most of his life exhausting himself, often for the benefit of others: in addition to the energy he expended in writing novels that would give pleasure to unprecedented numbers of readers, he worked tirelessly to set up homes for prostitutes, and to help and educate the homeless, the starving, the disabled – even the criminal – through his involvement in “Ragged Schools”.

Yet he could also be pitilessly cruel. On discovering that his son, Sydney, was in severe financial difficulty, Dickens wished “that he were honestly dead”; he thought black suffrage absurd; he ended his life a supporter of capital punishment; and his attitude to women was, at best, questionable: he once had a poor woman arrested for swearing, and his daughter remembered a father who terrified her mother (“She was never allowed to express an opinion”), who “did not care a damn what happened to any of us” and who was “a wicked man – very wicked”.

Dickens knew he could be this way, and Dostoevsky, who met him at Wellington Street in 1862, wrote a letter in which he recalled how Dickens had told him that “all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite.”

Dostoevsky’s account of his meeting with Dickens constitutes just one of the many fascinating moments to be found in Claire Tomalin’s new Life. It is a work that, unlike most previous biographies, strives to see Dickens whole. When I speak to her about her book (she is disarmingly sweet and accommodating, despite having just damaged the ligaments in her foot), I decide to ask about the fact that Dickens was writing in, and of, an age in which the dominance of the Church, and the religious world view, was facing the ascendance of the secular forms of narrative found (and popularised) in the 19th-century novel. Dickens’s books, deeply marked by a concern with the well-being of humans in this life, in the sublunary world, were part of this development. But they also bear the mark of religious belief (his is a world of conversion, of retribution, of angelic children and demonic villains). Was it the confluence of these concerns that attracted her to him as a subject for biography?

“I wasn’t drawn to him because of his attitude to religion at all. I was drawn to him because he’s a great writer, and I find him a fascinating figure. His attitude to religion is of course in itself interesting, in that he said he believed, he invoked Christ, he urged his sons to pray, he said he said his prayers regularly, he went to church very little, he disliked nonconformist religions – although he was for a time a Unitarian – and he in general disliked the established church. He passionately disliked Roman Catholicism. So he’s quite a typical English figure, with a distaste for established religion, a distaste for the more extreme nonconformist pieties.”

Dickens’s life and work are littered with this kind of attitude to belief. When he was a child his parents would make him attend nonconformist services in which a minister (who had a “big round face” that Dickens hated, and who had an infuriating habit of “looking up the inside of his outstretched coat-sleeve as if it were a telescope with a stopper on”) would sometimes preach for a full two hours, permanently souring his relationship with organised religion. Later in life he claimed to be “sick of the church”, and when religious (especially enthusiastically religious) types appear in his novels, they are nearly always unsympathetic.

In Little Dorrit, Arthur – the adoptive son of the pious Mrs Clennam (“stern of face and unrelenting of heart”) – is “scared out of his senses by a horrible tract which commenced business with the poor child by asking him in its title, why he was going to Perdition?”; and in Barnaby Rudge Mrs Varden is “most devout when most ill-tempered”. The Old Curiosity Shop impugns the minister of Little Bethel for the length at which he likes to dwell, noisily, on the difficulty of reaching paradise, and for the relish with which he likes to delineate the dangers of failing to take seriously the wrath of God. While in Bleak House the lay preacher Mr Chadband is described as a “large yellow man with a fat smile” who “never speaks without first putting up his great hand, as delivering to his hearers that he is going to edify them.”

Yet it seems clear that Dickens did believe in the edifying power of Christianity. He was desperate for his children to say their prayers, and follow the example of Jesus. So desperate, in fact, that he wrote them an account of his life and teachings, entitled The Life of Our Lord, which he would read aloud to them every Christmas and which he insisted remain unpublished. One wonders why, if the teachings of Christ really were so important, a figure with the social conscience of Dickens would have made this stipulation. “I think for him,” says Tomalin, “all of these things, to do with belief, were absolutely private. And the writing of The Life of Our Lord was a private act. I can’t think of any public religious pronouncements that Dickens made at all.”

This reticence makes determining the nature of Dickens’s beliefs a difficult, delicate, inductive process. “I’m not a Christian myself,” says Tomalin when I ask how she researched this aspect of her subject, “but I felt I had to be very careful with Dickens, and try to see where he was using Christian concepts. In The Pickwick Papers Christmas is largely a matter of dancing and skating and eating and drinking too much – but they do actually dash off to morning church. It’s such a tiny mention, and I think Dickens just threw it in to show that he was sound in his views, because there’s very little mention of Dickens himself going to church. I don’t think any mention of Dickens himself going to church on Christmas Day. A Christmas Carol does actually contain a Christian message, which is that it is never too late to repent, that however bad you are you can repent. And that is a Christian message, isn’t it? But Dickens is also saying a lot of other things: there is a social message. When he talks about the two wolfish children, the Spirit of Christmas Present says that this one is Want, this one is Ignorance, and Ignorance is the one that will bring down society.”

Dickens’s work, like his life, is full of this kind of social concern, but it is difficult to determine where that concern came from, and how it relates to his religious belief. Was it Christianity that provided him with a sense that he had to engage in social reform? “The moral stance, the simple teachings of Christ – love your neighbour – were what he subscribed to, and he had a very strong sense himself that he wished to help. But the foundations he was involved with were not strictly religious foundations at all. In fact one of the things that Dickens said when he visited the Ragged School was ‘a bit less religion and a bit more provision for washing’. And when he set up the Homes for Homeless Women (i.e. prostitutes) he was very strongly of the view that they should not be preached at: how you helped people was not by reminding people of their sins or by preaching to them, but by showing them that they could have a happy life, that they could, by their own efforts, change their lives. So constantly you get this sort of conflict, between his distaste for formal religion, and his very, very strong wish to do good in a straightforward way.

“I don’t think it was something he found in Christianity. I think it was something he found in himself. He had been a child who had, at one point, felt neglected and cast on the rubbish heap. When he was a little boy at school in Chatham he had a school master who believed in him up to the age of 10, and he had huge aspirations for himself, felt in himself the capacity to become something, and then when he went to London and there was no more school, and he was put in the Blacking Factory, and his father was in prison, and he felt a sort of despair – that he’d been dropped completely. But he found in himself the strength to combat that, and to rise. And his rise is absolutely extraordinary, and he did that out of his own efforts, from terrific effort.”

Tomalin’s emphasis on human effort, on Dickens’s response to a practical experience of the world, paints a picture of a man who behaved with a sense of social responsibility for its own sake, and would have done so without the imperatives, threats, and supposed rewards of Christianity. “Yes. In his last finished novel, Our Mutual Friend, he does have quite a tender picture of a Church of England clergyman who is working with the poor in London. And just at that point, he has a good word for them. But in Little Dorrit, there is a savage portrait of a worldly bishop going to dinner with the Merdles (the millionaire couple). So Dickens had a broad enough scope to be able to see both sides. He definitely had this respect for the message of Jesus Christ, but beyond that . . . he wished to have no public funeral, to have no memorial. He didn’t want to be buried in Westminster Abbey, he just wanted to be buried in a country churchyard. And his statement that he left his work as his memorial, and his own self to the remembrance of his friends – that’s a very humanist statement, I think. And very admirable.”

Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life is published by Viking

Dickens Illustration by Gary Neill