Wednesday, June 06, 2012

I Read Books: Dickens' Christmas Stories

On with my surprisingly thorough read of Dickens' published works, and to celebrate the super long June Bank Holiday I've read his Christmas books. First, most famously, and best is A Christmas Carol. Spoilers ensue, although it's been published for 168 years, it's not long, you can find it online, and it's been made into films many times, so really you have no excuse.

Miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former partner[1], who warns him that three more ghosts will turn up. They proceed to do so, showing Scrooge the true meaning of Christmas, which it seems is to eat, drink, have fun and spend your money in the most flamboyant and conspicuous way possible. Scrooge finds this much more fun than being miserly and bitter, as his money isn't doing him much good anyway, so it's kind of a win-win. One interesting point is that Dickens goes out of his way to make us sure that Marley really is dead, and so really is a ghost; this is one of the starts of the modern ghost-as-speaking-character thing. Dickens is already co-credited with the modern detective novel. Is there no end to his influence[2]?

Next is The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In. In this story Trotty Veck, a courier, has to pass some messages around the worthies of the district. These people have a very low opinion of the poor[3], causing him to lose faith in people and the future. Then he hears the bells chime, climbs the tower and there is informed by the goblin attendants of the bells that his loss of faith caused him to fall, and show him the future results of this, which are universally bad. Trotty then wakes, the bells chime for New Years Day and his daughter gets married. This is not as successful story-wise as A Christmas Carol, probably because although Trotty's sin (despair) is much the same as Scrooge's, Scrooge's worst enemy is himself, whilst the establishment is all against Trotty and the hope he's given is less all encompassing. Scrooge saves his soul, and Trotty saves his, and probably a whole bunch of others as well, but it all feels on a much smaller scale. On Boxing Day Scrooge can spend money and make everyone happy; on 2 January Trotty and family will go back to work, slightly better people. All in all too realistic an ending[4].

The Cricket on the Hearth comes next. John Peerybingle lives with his wife, baby, clumsy comic-relief nurse and a cricket that acts as a guardian angel to the family. He is a carrier, and during the Christmas season delivers a bunch of stuff including an old deaf bloke and a wedding cake to a toymaker who will be marrying a young friend of Peerybingle's wife. The old deaf bloke turns out to be a young guy in disguise, and in a sit-com style misunderstanding, Peerybingle's wife appears to concealing this and is having some kind of affair. Up all night by the hearth, Peerybingle initially feels murderous, but under the influence of the cricket decides to be gracious and just turn her out[5]. Then it turns out the young guy is actually the fiancee of the wife's friend, thought dead in South America. They get married, and the toymaker initially somewhat nonplussed sends the cake, as he doesn't need it, then, thanks to the True Spirit of Christmas joins them and becomes much happier. This is good clean Dickens-lite fun - everyone redeemed, last minute weddings, people returned from the dead. I quite liked it.

I continue to be puzzled by The Battle of Life. The title refers to a great battle that took place where the events of the story take place and it has had an effect ever since[6]. There are two sisters, and one is due to be married, but then appears to elope. Six years go by and the other sister falls in love with and marries the fiance. Various other characters have moved on and generally improved their position, then the other sister returns to reveal that she actually went to her aunts to get out of the way of her sister. Then there's an ending, which is happy? Like the previous one, this kind of sit-com situation would be much more quickly and easily resolved if they talked to each other. Especially the sisters, who are supposed to be close.

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain, the last of these has the most interesting idea at it's heart[7]. Redlaw is visited by a phantom twin who offers him the chance to forget all the pain and suffering in his life, and this will be contagious. Following this Redlaw, and everyone he comes into contact with, becomes a giant arsehole, because they have forgotten how bad things feel, and also as part of it, how their family and friends helped them in those times. Fortunately Milly Swidger, Redlaw's servant, is so completely and absolutely perfect a woman that she is immune and everything goes back to normal thanks to the True Spirit of Christmas, although everyone is chastened and less of an arse. That losing your memory of bad things makes you act badly is pretty clever.

Read This: A Christmas Carol is a classic. The others less so; The Battle of Life and The Chimes in particular can be skipped by anyone except Dickens completeists. They're all pretty short so take a chance on them if you like the sound.
Don't Read This: If the True Spirit of Christmas is already in your heart. Plus all the other stuff I wrote on previous Dickens novels about the style and random plot events.
Read Online: Links arranged on this page, as I'm too lazy to track down five links.

[1] Business partner. It's not quite that progressive.
[2] Apparently not, as Scrooge saying "I am as merry as a school-boy. A merry Christmas to everybody!" helped popularise the phrase 'Merry Christmas'. Bah, humbug.
"Divide the amount of tripe before mentioned, Alderman," said Mr Filer, "by the estimated number of existing widows and orphans, and the result will be one pennyweight of tripe to each. Not a grain is left for that man. Consequently, he's a robber."
Trotty was so shocked , that it gave him no concern to see the Alderman finish the tripe himself.
This is very poor political economy, and not Dickens' subtlest work.
[4] For a magically-real allegory.
[5] For all my irony, the difficulty and problems of divorce in the 1840s mean he is being gracious.
[6] Based on what happens, I can only assume that it makes people choose the most roundabout way to solve matters of honour and discretion.
[7] If only because time travelling ghosts are much more familiar to us thanks to the popularity of A Christmas Carol.
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