Friday, August 22, 2008

Dickens and a Digression

I love library book sales. You never know what you'll find. When our kids were young, we all looked forward to the annual book sale at the Santa Monica public library. To a certain extent, I always felt bad when I discovered great finds among the children's books which the library had discarded. I didn't hesitate to snap them up, but I was sorry that future borrowers would miss out on them. Ah, well! The library's loss was our gain. And of course, books donated to the library booksale by the community were guilt-free.

One year we found a complete set of an old edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia. We didn't need it ourselves, since my husband had bought a new set in the 1970s when he was still a bachelor with discretionary income to fling about. (He was also working at a bookstore in those days and was allowed an employee discount even on special orders. Hence, nearly all of our gorgeous art books were bought during that period.) But we bought this older set on the grounds that it needed a good home. And as it turned out, we were scheduled to attend a Catholic homeschooling event shortly afterwards where we found a family that was happy to adopt it. (The fact that it was an older edition was a plus in their eyes.)

At that same sale we found this copy of The Life of Our Lord by Charles Dickens. I'd been a Dickens fan ever since the sixth grade when I first read A Christmas Carol, but I'd never heard of this work before. That was not, perhaps, surprising. Dickens wrote this little book for his own children and refused to allow it to be published while he lived. The introduction to this edition quotes a letter written by Georgina Hogarth, his sister-in-law:

I am sorry to say it is never to be published . . . He wrote it years ago, when his elder children were quite little. It is about sixteen short chapters, chiefly adapted from St. Luke's Gospel, most beautiful, most touching, most simple as such a narrative should be. He never would have it printed, and I used to read it to the little boys in MS. before they were old enough to read writing themselves . . . I asked Charles if he did not think it would be well for him to have it printed, at all events for private circulation . . . . He said he would look over the MS. and take a week or two to consider. At the end of the time he gave it back to me and said he had decided never to publish it, or even to have it privately printed. He said I might make a copy of it for ... any one of his children, but for no one else, and he also begged that we would never even hand the MS., or a copy of it, to any one to take out of the house, so there is no doubt about his strong feeling on the subject, and we must obey it. . . .
The book remained a family secret for 85 years until the last of Dickens' children, Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, bequeathed permission for its publication should his family so desire. It was published, first serially and then in book form, in the mid 1930s. My copy has illustrations by Rachel Taft-Dixon.

There are plenty of copies to be found online these days including editions that have been published since I bought my used copy so many years ago. You can also read it online or download it as a PDF.

So how is it as a book? Believe it or not, I hadn't sat down and read all the way through it until quite recently. My kids were not the right age for it when I bought it, so I shelved it with the rest of Dickens, and it sat there until just the other day when I was between novels and needed something to read with my lunch.

Well, it was interesting to read such a private work. It has a familial charm which is endearing. "You never saw a locust," Dickens writes as an aside to his description of John the Baptist, "because they belong to that country near Jerusalem, which is a great way off. So do camels, but I think you have seen a camel. At all events, they are brought over here, sometimes; and if you would like to see one, I will show you one." (I like to imagine Dickens and his children watching camels together.)

Dickens' interest in social issues relating to the poor are apparent here in his reminders to his young readers that heaven was made for the poor as well for the rich, and that "God makes no difference between those who wear good clothes and those who go barefoot and in rags. . . Never be proud or unkind, my dears to any poor man, woman, or child."

The homeschoolers to whom we'd given the encyclopedia rather envied us our possession of The Life of Our Lord. They belonged to that class of homeschoolers who assume that an old book, published before the current moral rot had set in, is automatically a safer choice for their children's instruction. But every age has pockets of rot.

Personally, I would not have read this book to my children as part of their religious formation. It's not the Victorian language. Rather, it's Dickens' de-emphasis of the divinity of Christ.

Although he based his retelling mostly on the Gospel of Luke, Dickens skipped the Annunciation, and therefore the whole Son of God bit, along with the Virgin Birth and Joseph's position as foster father of Christ. Perhaps he simply felt a Victorian reticence towards bringing up birth and paternity with very young children. If so, I'll forgive him the omission. Sorta.

But in his account, when the angels appear to the shepherds, they say, "There is a child born to-day in the city of Bethlehem near here, who will grow up to be so good that God will love Him as His own Son; [Emphasis mine.] and He will teach men to love one another, and not to quarrel and hurt one another; and His name will be Jesus Christ; and people will put that name in their prayers, because they will know God loves it, and will know that they should love it too."

Eeek! Isn't this Adoptionism, the heresy teaching that Jesus was born a mere human being and only became divine later in life after being adopted as God's son as a sort of reward for his goodness and niceness? Beep! Beep! Danger, Will Robinson!

I was also a bit concerned that when the wise men show up, they are not seeking "a newborn king of the Jews," as in Matthew's gospel, but "a child . . . who will live to be a man whom all people will love." Eeeuuuw! This is a Jesus who sounds too much like a Hallmark greeting card to me. And I think a sure way to kill any young child's interest in the story of Christ is to wimpify it -- pulling out all of the mythic elements or the hard, weird, and edgy bits. (Oddly enough, Dickens does retain the slaughter of the Innocents, though it is unclear why Herod would have perceived this sort of Jesus as a threat.)

However, the book becomes less iffy as it gos on, and I will give Dickens points for including the Crucifixion -- unlike the DRE* at one of our former parishes who chose "The Metamorphosis of Caterpillars into Butterflies" as the Palm Sunday lesson for the children who were attending her religious ed class while their parents were at the 9:00 Mass.

Why, butterflies, you might ask? Her theory was that someday, somewhere, these children would hear the story of Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection.** And then, a light bulb would go off in their heads, and they'd remember the story of the butterfly! And it would be such a meaningful experience. (This was also the woman who, in a staff meeting, spoke glowingly about the profound religious experience to be had while peeling the paper off crayons. Where do parishes find these people?)

All I could say was, "Not with my kid, lady! They're attending the Palm Sunday liturgy with me, and assimilating the story of Christ's Passion up close and personal."
*Director of Religious Education

**On the History Channel perhaps?


Sherwood said...

I wonder if he declined publication precisrly because he was modifying what the Anglican Church taught, and knew he'd get beans for it, as Bertie Wooster says.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I don't know how fussy the Anglican church was about its teachings back then.

But people did seem to have strong feelings of privacy regarding their personal papers. I have always regretted the fact that Louisa May Alcott burned all of her mother's journals. I would love to have been able to read those; Abba May Alcott was an unusual woman.

paarsurrey said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
TS said...

A poem...

The World Is A Book

Now welcome, summer. With thy sonne softe
Upon my head, the possibilities
Of pure escape again begin to haunt me--
Like June, say, in the higher Pyrenees.
I would depart for Zanzibar tomorrow,
Save for a qualm or two. There is, of course,
Always the thought that, if an ass goes traveling,
Proverbially he'll not come back a horse.
There is the man who journeyed to Beersheba
And cried out, "'Tis all barren!" So when I
Notice the look of flowering around me
And feel this qualm about a change of sky,

Then I remember. There are other tourists,
More like Thoreau who laughed at Zanzibar
As somewhere full of cats, yet chose to travel
Farther to Walden where the cattails are.
Or like that global Mr. White of Selborne
Who wrote a guidebook, journeys out of June,
Full of such planetary shine and wonder
As hoot owls hooting in B-flat, in tune;
A swallow in the air; a flight of lapwings;
The hayricks of July; the August field
Where harvest bugs walk up and bite the ladies.
And there it is, the perfect trip revealed--

A tour of world affairs with summer in it,
Priced modestly, in my own dooryard, Oh,
Even the vision of that prophet Daniel,
Who dreamed that 'Many shall run to and fro
And knowledge shall be increased!' yields to my vision!
For what some find in Tanganyika some
Find in a book--and stay at home to read it,
Maintaining thus an equilibrium.
I plan to travel, therefore, in this region
Among the lilies, like a bibliophil,
Though neither book, nor swallow, makes a summer,
The poet says. No doubt a dozen will...

-Helen Bevington, from "When Found, Make a Verse Of"