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A Crisis in the Affairs of Mr. John Bull. As Related by Mrs. Bull to the Children

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Cross-genre i
Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Prose: Short Fiction i
Subjects Family Life; Families; Domestic Relations; Sibling Relations; Kinship; Home;
Great Britain—Politics and Government
National Characteristics; Nationalism
Religion; Religion and Culture
Religion—Christianity—Catholic Church
Other Details
Printed : 23/11/1850
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume II
Magazine : No. 35
Office Book Notes
Views : 909

On 29 September 1850 the Pope issued a formal declaration, commonly called a 'bull', restoring the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England, creating Nicholas Wiseman Archbishop of Westminster (Wiseman was also made a cardinal the following day) and establishing twelve bishoprics. On 7 October Wiseman issued his first pastoral letter, 'from out of the Flaminian Gate', to the Catholic clergy of England, the triumphalist tone of which further inflamed Protestant antagonism to what became known as the 'Papal Aggression'. The result was a wave of anti-Catholic hysteria as 'the latent and historic prejudices of the English people rose to the surface' (Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church, Part 1 [1966], p. 294). The Ritualist or Tractarian Movement in the Anglican Church, associated with Dr Pusey, was also fiercely assailed as having been a sort of fifth column within the Church of England consisting of clergymen who had, according to the Bishop of London, brought 'their flocks, step by step, to the very verge of the precipice' of Romanism.

      In the following ferociously partisan piece, Dickens's contribution to the anti-Papal outcry, 'Master C. J. London' is Charles James Blomfield, Bishop of London, who had seemed, in his 1842 charge to his diocesan clergy, to be supporting the Tractarians (who were closely associated with the 'Young England' movement in politics). In his insistence that priests should scrupulously obey all rubrics in the Prayer Book, in permitting candles to be placed on the altar, in requiring the wearing of surplices at morning service, and so on, Blomfield 'precipitated the first of the ritual controversies' (Chadwick, op. cit., p. 215). In 1849 he had officiated at the consecration of St Barnabas, Pimlico, the first full-blown Tractarian church, having 'previously approved its Popish foppery of decoration' (Household Narrative for November 1850, p. 244; the Narrative also notes the anti-Papal so-called 'surplice riots' that took place during a divine service at St Barnabas in November).
     The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, raised the temperature by writing, and allowing the publication of, a strongly anti-Catholic and anti-Tractarian letter to the Bishop of Durham in which he referred to 'unworthy sons of the Church of England' and 'the mummeries of superstition' (see Spencer Walpole, The Life of Lord John Russell, Vol. II [1889], pp. 120–1). Chadwick calls this 'the most foolish act of Russell's political career (p. 296), but it won him immense popularity in a country now thoroughly alarmed by the fear that Rome was about to take over the national church, and Dickens here adds his voice to the chorus of praise for Russell with whom he was friendly and generally in agreement. 
      The reference to the Bulls of Rome 'getting into difficulties' concerns the flight of Pius IX from Rome to Gaeta in November 1848, after the Roman uprising by Mazzini and others in February 1849, but was suppressed four months later by French troops sent by Louis Napoleon, President of the Second Republic, and the Pope was restored to his temporal power.
      'Miss Eringobragh' represents Catholic Ireland, of course, and Dickens's comments here both about Ireland and the juxtaposition of Catholic squalor and Protestant order in Switzerland recall his 1846 letter to Forster in which he describes a valley in the Simplon, where, at the border of two cantons,

you might separate two perfectly distinct and different conditions of humanity by drawing a line with your stick in the dust on the ground. On the Protestant side, neatness; cheerfulness; industry; education; continual aspiration, at least after better things. On the Catholic side, dirt, disease, ignorance, squalor, and misery. I have so consistently observed the like of this...that I have a sad misgiving that the religion of Ireland lies as deep at the root of all its sorrows, even as English misgovernment and Tory villainy. [Pilgrim, Vol. IV, p. 611]

      The reference to John Bull dancing about 'on the Platform in the Hall' is an allusion to Evangelical rallies at Exeter Hall, a frequent target of Dickens's satire. 
      The 'new plaything' about which the Americans ('Young Jonathan') are making such an uproar refers to the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, who was touring the States under the management of P. T. Barnum and creating a huge sensation wherever she went. Dickens's comment that 'Jonathan' will soon quarrel with his 'new toy' would have reminded his readers of his own embittering experience in this respect.

Literary allusions

  • 'a great gulf fixed': Luke 16:26

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume II: 'The Amusements of the People' and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews, 1834-51 (1996). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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