Charles Dickens, though deeply aware of the flaws of his own age, rejected the idealized medievalism of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and the associated Gothic Revival in architecture. The novelist's famous — or infamous — attack on John Everett Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents arose in large part because he mistakenly believed that the Pre-Raphaelites, who considered themselves progressive "art-revolutionaries," advocated conservative, backward-looking, antidemocratic political views. In fact, the Hunt and millais consistently took anti-aristocratic positions in their early works, such as Lorenzo and Isabella, The Woodsman's Daughter, The Awakening Conscience, and Rienzi, and Dickens eventually became friends with the artists.
Unlike Augustus Welby Pugin, Carlyle, Ruskin, and others who favorably compared the middle ages to modern times, Dickens saw them as periods of superstition, poverty, and oppression. Readers of Walter Scott saw the middle ages as romantic. Pugin, a convert to Roman Catholicism, believed that only a uniformly Catholic society could produce peace and justice: he wanted to return to the middle ages, and his architecture and design attempted to create authentic settings for his desired return to the past. Carlyle compared what he took to be the healthy, just relationships between upper and lower classes in the mediæval period to his own age's inhumane, irresponsible treatment of workers. Ruskin believed that medæval gothic cathedrals embodied a truly humane attitude towards work in the creative freedom of workers who created it. William Morris, who took a very different tack, had little interest in feudalism, and he found his ideal past age in the democratic world of mediæval Nordic and Germanic tribes.
Dickens, in contrast, emphasized only the darker qualities of the middle ages, and in this passage from Dombey and Son, he places the praise of feudal times in the mouths of two of his most egregious hypocrites:
'Oh!' cried Mrs. Skewton, with a faded little scream of rapture, 'the Castle is charming!—associations of the Middle Ages—and all that—which is so truly exquisite. Don't you dote upon the Middle Ages, Mr Carker?'
'Very much, indeed,' said Mr Carker.
'Such charming times!' cried Cleopatra [Mrs. Skewton]. 'So full of faith! So vigorous and forcible! So picturesque! So perfectly removed from commonplace! Oh dear! If they would only leave us a little more of the poetry of existence in these terrible days!' . . .
'Those darling byegone times, Mr Carker,' said Cleopatra, 'with their delicious fortresses, and their dear old dungeons, and their delightful places of torture, and their romantic vengeances, and their picturesque assaults and sieges, and everything that makes life truly charming! How dreadfully we have degenerated!'
'Yes, we have fallen off deplorably,' said Mr Carker.
The peculiarity of their conversation was, that Mrs. Skewton, in spite of her ecstasies, and Mr Carker, in spite of his urbanity, were both intent on watching Mr Dombey and Edith. With all their conversational endowments, they spoke somewhat distractedly, and at random, in consequence.
'We have no Faith left, positively,' said Mrs. Skewton, advancing her shrivelled ear; for Mr Dombey was saying something to Edith. 'We have no Faith in the dear old Barons, who were the most delightful creatures—or in the dear old Priests, who were the most warlike of men—or even in the days of that inestimable Queen Bess, upon the wall there, which were so extremely golden. Dear creature! She was all Heart And that charming father of hers! I hope you dote on Harry the Eighth!'
The dreadful Mrs. Skewton at first praises the supposed charm of the old castles and then moves on to praise not just the charm but also the vigor and faith of the ages in which they were built. Thus far, the novelist simply makes fun of those with aesthetic pretensions. But then, laying it on with a heavy hand, he has her speak of "their dear old dungeons, and their delightful places of torture," the jarring catachresis of juxtaposing "delightful" and "torture" immediately distancing her from the reader. Dickens finishes by having Mrs. Skewton connect these dreadful times to the religion of the middle ages: "We have no Faith in the dear old Barons, who were the most delightful creatures — or in the dear old Priests, who were the most warlike of men." This last point functions as specific response to Pugin, for Dickens offers a counter-vision to the architect-designer's idealized middle ages.
Last modified 30 August 2009