Monday, December 13, 2010

Beyond A Christmas Carol: Dickens' Other Holiday Treats

By Nancy Mattoon

Scrooge's third visitor, from
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
Illustrations by John Leech.
London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition.
(All Images Courtesy Of Wikipedia Commons.)

Does the thought of another Christmas with Bob Cratchit make you want to fill the kid's stockings with charcoal briquettes? Do you find yourself speed reading past the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come, in a mad dash to reach that final, "God Bless Us, every one!"? In other words, does the very idea of seeing the name Ebenezer Scrooge in print make you want to shout, "Bah! Humbug!"? Then instead of secretly feeding the family's paperback copy of A Christmas Carol through the paper shredder, why not pick up one of the four holiday novellas by Charles Dickens that you can't read with your eyes closed?

First Edition Frontispiece and Title Page
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. (1843)

According to a new exhibit at the University of Leicester Library, Charles Dickens and his fellow Victorians literally invented Christmas as we celebrate it today. Dickens wrote five novellas with holiday themes, and published one each December between 1843 and 1848. He followed these with "more than a dozen short stories and collaborations about Christmas between 1850 and his death in 1870. The festive season features in several of his other novels too, from The Pickwick Papers right through to The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Dickens wrote about Christmas almost obsessively, famously finding it "a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem, by one consent, to open their shut-up hearts freely."

Title Page Of The First Edition of
Charles Dickens' The Chimes. (1844)
Engraving By F.P. Becker.

A Christmas Carol was Dickens' first holiday novella, debuting in 1843. His 1844 follow-up was a much darker tale in tone, The Chimes. It was written during Dickens year-long stay in Genoa, Italy. Though reinvigorated by his time on the continent, Dickens missed the spark of London street life, and found the incessant ringing of the Italian church bells an annoyance and distraction. But once more proving a writer through and through, he transformed an irritation into an inspiration, penning the tale of an impoverished messenger, Trotty Veck, who spends his days in the shadow of a London bell tower seeking employment.

In a moment of utter despair, Trotty is overwhelmed by the clanging of the tower's chimes, and finds himself in the presence of the goblins who secretly inhabit them. These spirits inform him that he has plunged to his death from the tower, and in a Victorian version of It's A Wonderful Life (1946), proceed to show him how his family fares in the aftermath of his death. A woeful litany of alcoholism, prostitution, suicide, and even murder is the order of the day. But never fear, like George Bailey in the 20th century, Victorian Trotty Veck learns that hope and faith can magically restore him to life.

Frontispiece And Title Page Of The Second Edition Of
The Cricket On The Hearth. (1846)
Illustration By Daniel Maclise.

The Chimes was a popular success, but received more than a little criticism for being too bleak, too harshly satirical, and too full of radical social comment to make for pleasant holiday reading. This may be why Dickens followed it with the lightest of his five Christmas novellas, The Cricket On The Hearth. Here again it is up to a spirit, this time the cheerful sprite who resides within the household's lucky cricket, to put the hero's wrongheadedness to rest. John Peerybingle incorrectly fears his much younger wife, Dot, may be having an affair with a mysterious lodger.

In this sweet and sentimental fairytale, the magical cricket assures John that all is well in his marriage, and the exposure of the true identity of the lodger ends all misunderstandings and restores serenity to a newly extended Perrybingle family. The Cricket On The Hearth was Dickens' second
most popular Christmas book, behind A Christmas Carol. Seventeen stage productions based on the tale opened in December 1845 alone, including one authorized by Dickens, which raised the curtain the same day as the book's release. No less a personage than Vladimir Ilyich Lenin publicly walked out of a Russian production of the play, finding its old fashioned homilies too saccharine to stomach.

A Full Page Illustration By John Leech.
From Dickens' The Battle of Life.

December 1846 saw the publication of the only one of Dickens' Christmas novellas without a spiritual entity guiding the earthly characters. The Battle of Life, perhaps because it lacked that magical spark, was the least successful of the quintet, and is regarded today as little more than an oddity. Like The Cricket On The Hearth, it is the tale of a troubled family, without much in the way of social comment. Here a romantic misunderstanding is also at the heart of the matter, and only a change of heart by a cynical father allows for his daughters to find their Victorian happy endings in proper marriages.

But the ending seems rushed and abrupt, perhaps because it relies only on a rather inexplicable, total transformation of the main character, without the previous books' supernatural prodding. The book received some of the worst reviews of Dickens' entire career, with The Times of London tarring it as "intrinsically puerile and stupid," a "twaddling manifestation of silliness," and "simply ridiculous." Dickens' longtime friend , writer Wilkie Collins, called The Battle of Life the book "which everybody abused and which, nevertheless, everybody read."

Frontispiece And Title Page By John Tenniel,
From The First Edition Of
The Haunted Man and The Ghosts' Bargain
. (1848)

The last of Dickens' Christmas quintet was The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain. Dickens seems to be coming full circle with this one, as it shares many similarities with A Christmas Carol in themes, characters, structure, and tone. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, chemistry professor Redlaw, his lack of a Christian name perhaps reflecting his ivory tower isolation, is a cynical recluse haunted by the untimely death of his beloved sister. In his lonely sorrow he is visited on Christmas eve by a shadow self, a dark doppelganger, who offers to erase all memory of his past sorrows. Not only that, this spiritual slate cleaning is the gift that keeps on giving: anyone Redlaw touches will find his harsh remembrances eradicated.

But the calm of a mind devoid of past tragedies and sadness is the tranquility of shallowness. Redlaw and his circle become angry, bitter, and petty. Philip Swidger, an elderly University caretaker whose happiness is based on remembrances of things past, becomes a senile basket case at Redlaw's hands. And a once cheery, Cratchit-like family, the Tetterby's, are turned quarrelsome, cold, and uncaring. It is left to an incorruptible serving woman, Milly, to state the moral of the story, placing the memories of Redlaw and the others into their proper psychological context. "It is important to remember past sorrows and wrongs," she says. "So that you can then forgive those responsible and, in doing so, unburden your soul and mature as a human being." This revelation leaves Redlaw and the others deeper and more compassionate human beings. It is echoed by the prayer of the no-long-senile Swidger, "Lord, keep my memory green."

A Printer's Block From The 1950's Bearing An
Engraving Of Dickens' Country Home At Gad's Hill.

It is far more than just Scrooge and Tiny Tim that link Charles Dickens forever with the true meaning of Christmas. What he called his "Carol philosophy," to use the true spirit of Christmas as a spark for compassion and charity throughout the year, was stated and restated in novels and stories again and again, from the beginning to the end of his writing career. In fact according to a splendid website, David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page, "Dickens' name had become so synonymous with Christmas that on hearing of his death in 1870 a little costermonger's girl in London asked, 'Mr. Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?'" The answer, of course, is they will both live on in our hearts as long as we take the time to enjoy our favorite books of the season, and to discover some new ones. Happy Holiday Reading from Booktryst.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy:

Morgan Library's Christmas Gift.
Victorian Advertisements in Charles Dickens' Serial Novels.
A Read Letter Day For Dickens.
Slumming With Charles Dickens.

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