Monday, December 19, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“CHRISTMAS BOOKS” Charles Dickens (first published 1843-48)

It’s the Christmas season, so a question I asked myself a couple of years ago is relevant.

I knew that between 1843 and 1848, when he was in his thirties, Charles Dickens produced five “Christmas Books” in the following order: A Christmas Carol; The Chimes; The Cricket on the Hearth; The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man. Each is a novella – somewhere between fifty and eighty ordinary pages in length. Each was specifically written and published for the Christmas market. Collectively they help explain why Dickens’ hearty, family-celebration concept of Christmas has become the secular British and American template for what Christmas is.

I knew that A Christmas Carol was and is immensely popular – so much so that it has been filmed more than any other work by Dickens, with adaptations ranging from the best of them (Alistair Sim’s definitive turn in the 1951 version called Scrooge) to the musical starring Albert Finney and to parodies and variants starring everybody from The Muppets to Jim Carrey. I venture to suggest that, at Christmas, the miser reformed by ghostly visitations has sometimes loomed as large in Anglophone consciousness as the baby born in the manger.

In the light of all this, then, I formulated my question:- Given the huge impact of A Christmas Carol, how come Dickens’ other four  “Christmas Books” are scarcely known at all nowadays?

They were all dramatised for the stage and were reasonably popular in the Victorian age. Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens – A Life (Viking/Penguin 2011), the most recent biography of Dickens, tells me that The Chimes was the little book Dickens  is seen reading to an enraptured circle of friends in a famous drawing. But by the early 21st century, the four “Christmas Books” that are not A Christmas Carol (1843) have passed from public consciousness.

How curious.

Naturally, I proceeded to read all five “Christmas Books” to see why.

I will not insult you by doing a critique of the one you know, but here is my report on the other four.

The Chimes (1844), subtitled A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In, has a basic concept similar to A Christmas Carol. A redemptive dream makes a man change his whole attitude to life. In this case the good-hearted porter Toby (“Trotty”) Veck comes to believe, from reading dismal newspaper reports of crime and poverty, that some people are naturally bad. But in his dream, the “goblins” who control New Year bells show him that people’s “badness” is caused only by the absence of good people to provide support and charitable works to the needy and despairing. “Trotty” sees what would happen to his own daughter and to the niece of a friend if he were not there to guide them – one is tempted to suicide and the other becomes a prostitute. “Trotty” wakes from his dream resolved to continue his life of charity and to judge people less harshly.

“Trotty” is himself a good comic character (I remember once, as a kid, seeing a schoolboy in a speech competition doing a good comic turn with one of “Trotty’s” monologues). But his reform is neither as dramatic nor as necessary as Scrooge’s and his dream takes up less than a third of the narrative, which is loaded with rather time-specific social satire. As always, some of the things Dickens says are perennially true. I felt some modern resonance in his portraits of liberal social reformers who gratify themselves while blaming the poor for their poverty. The concept of people’s lives being ruined by the absence of good charitable people is a potent one too. Some film-critics have seen The Chimes as the ancestor of Frank Capra’s famous sentimental Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Maybe so, but it simply does not have the narrative coherence of A Christmas Carol.

I find it hard to be even that positive about the next two in the “Christmas Books” series, however. Both The Cricket on the Hearth (1845) subtitled A Fairy Tale of Home, and The Battle of Life (1846) subtitled A Love Story, are sentimental love stories without any supernatural or dream element.

In The Cricket on the Hearth, an honest workman is perturbed to see his innocent young wife apparently making up to a handsome young man. But it turns out that she is merely contriving to bring two lovers together in marriage. There is an arbitrarily-introduced Scrooge-like character who is arbitrarily reformed, and throughout the story there is the intrusive image of a cricket chirping on the hearth as a symbol of domestic bliss. I discover that the sentimental D.W.Griffith once filmed this in the days of silent cinema. It figures.

In The Battle of Life a young woman nobly gives up the young man to whom she is engaged because she can see that her sister really loves him and the feeling is mutual. The “battle” of the title is the unseen and unsuspected battle going on in her heart. Dickens reminds us that such emotional struggles are the stuff of everyday life.

Dickens never wrote anything devoid of some interest, and there are admirable moments in both these tales. The best of The Cricket on the Hearth is a sadly-comic detail in which a pauper describes his wretched hovel to his blind daughter in such terms that she imagines it’s a palace. If he were in another mood, Dickens could have developed this into a great piece of comic grotesquerie. The Battle of Life has a great set-piece description of a dance by the light of a winter fire, a pair of lawyers called Snitchley and Craggs and some comic proletarians, including one called Benjamin Britain (!). I love the jolly Daniel Maclise frontispiece (of the two sisters dancing) to the edition of The Battle of Life that I own. But the net effect of both stories is very lavender-and-lace, like a bad Christmas card. I detect Dickens straining for the Christmas market with something contrived and vapid.

Dickens returned to the essential structure of his first two “Christmas Books” in his last one, The Haunted Man (1848), which once again has redemption coming through a dream or supernatural intervention. The full title is The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain – A Fancy for Christmas Time. Much to my surprise, this proves to be the strongest of the series after A Christmas Carol, and I wonder if Dickens ended the “Christmas Books” here because he wanted to quit while he was ahead.

The teacher of chemistry Redlaw  has painful memories of bad things that have happened to him in the past. A ‘ghost’ (it is heavily implied that this is simply part of his own consciousness) gives him the gift not only of forgetting evils from the past, but of passing on this gift to others. When Redlaw does so, however, people who were once cheerful and charitable become nasty and misanthropic. It has a happy ending, of course, but the moral is that remembering even the negative things in life is a necessary part of maturing and finding forgiveness. We can sympathise with other people’s sorrows only when we know and recall sorrows of our own. The story’s repeated motto is “Lord, keep my memory green.”

Like “Trotty” Veck’s reformation in The Chimes, the reformation of Redlaw in The Haunted Man is neither as necessary nor as dramatic as the reformation of Scrooge. But this is still a powerful story. Dickens’ image of a feral, uncared-for child is quite terrifying and I think the Tetterby family he creates – impoverished but loving – is more convincing than Bob Cratchit’s family in A Christmas Carol. There are moments of that same demonic imagination that led Dickens to create Fagin and Quilp. One is the Tetterby baby, unsentimentally described as “Moloch” because she sacrifices the life of a child – her elder brother, who has to look after her. Of course there is the harmonious bustle of a loving family in the depiction of the Tetterbys, but the image of a baby trying everybody’s patience by crying and demanding attention is ferociously real.

In the end, how do I rate these stories? The Battle of Life and The Cricket on the Hearth are nowhere. The Chimes and The Haunted Man are very good but not as good as A Christmas Carol.

So what does this all mean? It means that, as so often, popular taste is correct. A Christmas Carol is the one of the “Christmas Books” that is still remembered and loved quite simply because it is the best. Now I know why it is endlessly revived and dramatised while the others are read only to specialists.

[Reid’s Reader will be taking a three-week holiday break. The next posting will be on Monday 16 January]

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