Dickens and his “Marian” vision

My wife and I tonight watched the excellent new BBC production of Great Expectations on the ABC (see this piece on the “youthful” Miss Havisham). It reminded me of a program on Dickens on Rachek Kohn’s Spirit of Things a few weeks ago. In this program I heard for the first time about Dickens’ “Marian vision”. The story is quite remarkable, as is appears that Dickens – whose religion was more Unitarian than orthodox Christian – may have been attracted to Catholicism at some point in his life. Here is the story from the Catholic Herald:

“Let me tell you,” he wrote from Venice, “of a curious dream I had, last Monday night; and of the fragments of reality I can collect; which helped to make it up … In an indistinct place, which was quite sublime in its indistinctness, I was visited by a Spirit. I could not make out the face, nor do I recollect that I desired to do so. It wore a blue drapery, as the Madonna might in a picture by Raphael; and bore no resemblance to any one I have known except in stature … It was so full of compassion and sorrow for me… that it cut me to the heart; and I said, sobbing, ‘Oh! give me some token that you have really visited me!… Answer me one… question!’ I said, in an agony of entreaty lest it should leave me. ‘What is the True religion?’ As it paused a moment without replying, I said – Good God in such an agony of haste, lest it should go away! – ’You think, as I do, that the Form of religion does not so greatly matter, if we try to do good? or,’ I said, observing that it still hesitated, and was moved with the greatest compassion for me, ‘perhaps the Roman Catholic is the best? perhaps it makes one think of God oftener, and believe in him more steadily?’

“‘For you,’ said the Spirit, full of such heavenly tenderness for me, that I felt as if my heart would break; ‘for you it is the best!’ Then I awoke, with the tears running down my face, and myself in exactly the condition of the dream. It was just dawn.”

Quite remarkable, when you think on it. And a great pity that he withstood the “temptation”, for had he accepted this as a true vision of Mary rather than of his deceased sister (according to some accounts), he may well have been not only the greatest novelist in the English language, but indeed the greatest Catholic novelist of all time.

I had a Lutheran pastor friend who used to argue that he would believe in Marian apparitions if in fact Mary would appear to non-Catholics from time to time. Who knows? Perhaps she has and has not been properly recognised?

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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7 Responses to Dickens and his “Marian” vision

  1. Alexander says:

    Even better than Cervantes?

    • Stephen K says:

      Well, certainly, Alexander, if we are talking about the English-speaking world and the breadth of publication and positive appreciation in it. No contest here, I’d say.

      But your question highlights the relativity of any comparisons, which must be made necessarily across eras, cultures, language and subject to so many factors. I am sure there are amongst SCE readers those who have a wide reading experience across many writers and whose favourite choices will be very informed and more culturally and linguistically nuanced than mine would be, but “greatness”, in the artistic sense, seems to me to be mainly measured by the approval by both specialists and the general public, not by scholars alone.

      I don’t want to get embroiled in an aesthetics debate but the other aspect to this sort of question is what makes a novelist a Catholic one? Is it the mere fact they identify as one, or is it because of the content of their works? Or a bit of both? Do we think of G K Chesterton as a Catholic writer because of his polemical works or his Father Brown’s etc. or both, even though he was a later convert? What about Graham Greene, or Evelyn Waugh (just to speak of English writers)? Very different, all of them.

  2. Stephen K says:

    David, your article contained some interesting ideas and links. But let me take just one of them: the idea that had Dickens interpreted his dream as a Marian apparition and taken on the Catholic religion, he would have been the greatest “Catholic” novelist.

    I wonder how accurate a characterisation that would in fact be. No doubt his subsequent novels might have reflected something of the form of religious ideas and values that seep through the exposure to and practice of Catholic piety and theology, but how true would it have been to think his writing greatness a product of his latter day religion, any more than it was of his earliest Anglicanism or even of his attraction to Unitarianism. He would indeed have been a Catholic and would indeed have remained a great novelist, but a causal nexus would not be easily demonstrable. For alternatively, it might just as well be thought that Dickens WAS great and his novels SO powerful, because he believed in the Social Gospel Christianity he thought exemplified by the Unitarian reformers, and that, in the hypothetical universe prompted by his Venetian vision, his writing may well have suffered from the different influences of the 19th century Catholicism to which he would have actually been exposed.

    I say this, not wishing to make a huge issue of it, only because I think one should be wary of appropriating, even merely wishfully, or inadvertently, people to one’s own cause. This happens across-the-board, of course: we hear, variously, for example, that so-and-so was homosexual, or this or that, and one gets the impression that it’s all in the name of “proving” how good or right one’s own position or situation is. You know the sort of thing: “we’ve got more heroes (more talent) than you, ya!”

    Just some thoughts prompted by your article. I also enjoyed the first part of “Great Expectations”, despite being attached to the 1946 version and its impressive images when young.

  3. matthias says:

    I thought this was an excellent series and could not help thinking that as Dicken wrote from the perspective of his observations of society ,what a cold place emotionally Victorian England was . Not to mention the poverty and the heavy handedness of the law despite the Wesleyan revival ,Wilberforce’s camapigning and the influence of the Quakers.

  4. PM says:

    Chesterton went so far in his essay ‘Dickens in America’ as to suggest that Dickens was a kind of unconscious Catholic in spite of himself – or rather, in spite of his upbringing in a country where ‘no popery’ was the national religion. He based this observation in large part on Hard Times, that wonderful work in which Dickens takes on the bleak teachings of the economists, sophisters and calculators and looks beyond their iron laws to wonder, delight and, at the end, faith, hope and charity.

    • Stephen K says:

      Yes, well, PM, I’ll look up his essay and see what GK has to say, but I have to say, as a general observation, surely believing in faith, hope and charity isn’t the exclusive preserve of Catholics!

      • PM says:

        I think what GK was getting at was the urge to celebrate – hence the role of the fairground in the story – in contrast to the pinched utilitarian moralism of the Victorian bourgeoisie. Remember James McAuley’s line about his father’s disapproval of the Irish and their ‘drinking praying fecklessness’.

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