Mrs. Clenham broods over Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit with her brutal Christless, graceless religion. Her heretical “Christianity” in the end is spurs the trouble which the Christianity of Amy Dorrit (“Little Dorrit”) resolves.
We are introduced to the religion through its effect upon her son Arthur. He has just returned from 20 years in China. It is Sunday morning and we hear the bells through his ears:
Mr Arthur Clennam sat in the window of the coffee-house on Ludgate Hill, counting one of the neighbouring bells, making sentences and burdens of songs out of it in spite of himself, and wondering how many sick people it might be the death of in the course of the year. As the hour approached, its changes of measure made it more and more exasperating. At the quarter, it went off into a condition of deadly-lively importunity, urging the populace in a voluble manner to Come to church, Come to church, Come to church! At the ten minutes, it became aware that the congregation would be scanty, and slowly hammered out in low spirits, They won’t come, they won’t come, they won’t come! At the five minutes, it abandoned hope, and shook every house in the neighbourhood for three hundred seconds, with one dismal swing per second, as a groan of despair.
‘Thank Heaven!’ said Clennam, when the hour struck, and the bell stopped. But its sound had revived a long train of miserable Sundays, and the procession would not stop with the bell, but continued to march on. ‘Heaven forgive me,’ said he, ‘and those who trained me. How I have hated this day!’
Arthur sees the paradox of his response: he thanks “heaven” that the call to church has ended; then he begs pardon that he hates the call.
The churches themselves abandon hope and continue in despair.
Dickens will later make plain that it is not Christ but this distortion which earns the rebuke.
But what is this distortion; how was Clenham “trained” so?
There was the dreary Sunday of his childhood, when he sat with his hands before him, 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?—a piece of curiosity that he really, in a frock and drawers, was not in a condition to satisfy—and which, for the further attraction of his infant mind, had a parenthesis in every other line with some such hiccupping reference as 2 Ep. Thess. c. iii, v. 6 & 7.
We see first it is a religion of judgment of condemnation without redemption; justice without mercy.
The Scripture tells us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Ephesians 4:32. But there is no forgiveness in Mrs. Clenham nor her religion.
There was the sleepy Sunday of his boyhood, when, like a military deserter, he was marched to chapel by a picquet of teachers three times a day, morally handcuffed to another boy; and when he would willingly have bartered two meals of indigestible sermon for another ounce or two of inferior mutton at his scanty dinner in the flesh.
There was the interminable Sunday of his nonage; when his mother, stern of face and unrelenting of heart, would sit all day behind a Bible—bound, like her own construction of it, in the hardest, barest, and straitest boards, with one dinted ornament on the cover like the drag of a chain, and a wrathful sprinkling of red upon the edges of the leaves—as if it, of all books! were a fortification against sweetness of temper, natural affection, and gentle intercourse.
There was the resentful Sunday of a little later, when he sat down glowering and glooming through the tardy length of the day, with a sullen sense of injury in his heart, and no more real knowledge of the beneficent history of the New Testament than if he had been bred among idolaters. There was a legion of Sundays, all days of unserviceable bitterness and mortification, slowly passing before him.
Dickens lays the charge upon “her own construction” of the Bible. He charges construction with being only legal demands which could not be met and could not be escaped.
Moreover, it was not judgment on sin but on happiness and love!
as if it, of all books! were a fortification against sweetness of temper, natural affection, and gentle intercourse
These are no sin – quite the contrary- but these are condemned by Mrs. Clenham’s religion.
Thus, Arthur had
no more real knowledge of the beneficent history of the New Testament than if he had been bred among idolaters
Her sin was condemned by Jesus in Luke 11:52:
“Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”
Not only did Mrs. Clenham not convey true knowledge; she used the Bible to prevent such knowledge.