A Dickensian Christmas tale that chimes with our times
Forget Scrooge and Tiny Tim. The author’s lesser-known story is the one we need now, argues Tim Smith-Laing
When Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol on Dec 19 1843, the book did not have much time to work its magic on British readers before the festive season ended. Just as well, too, wrote William Thackeray. A Christmas Carol filled people with such goodwill that, “had the book appeared a fortnight earlier, all the prize cattle would have been gobbled up in pure love and friendship, Epping denuded of sausages, and not a turkey left in Norfolk”. Despite relatively modest sales – only 6,000 copies by Christmas Eve – Dickens’s redemptive ghost story was a sensation. Everyone who read it, Thackeray wrote, took it as a “personal kindness” and “a national benefit”.
Dickens’ proclaimed aim was to “raise the Ghost of an Idea which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me”. He succeeded wildly. In the 175 years since its first Christmas, that ghost has never been laid to rest. Not a December passes without adaptations old and new flooding stages, radios, televisions and cinemas across the world. Though it is hard to imagine anyone could top 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol for appeal (or, strangely enough, fidelity to the text), there have been three big-screen versions since 2001 alone, with a fourth – by Tom Stoppard – currently in production. If proof were needed of its universal reach, look no further than the existence of A Klingon Christmas Carol, written and performed entirely in Star Trek’s Klingon tongue.
As charities and vicars know, everyone is more susceptible to a little ethical prodding around Christmas, but A Christmas Carol remains extraordinary. No book combines brazen moral didacticism with mass appeal in anything like the same way. The message is simple enough, and stern: think of those less fortunate than you, be kind and generous; remember that life, unlike money, cannot be hoarded. But it is steeped in sugar-plum syrup: help others to be happy, Scrooge’s conversion shows, and you will be happy too. It is a cosy philosophy but Dickens did not pull his punches. Privately, he referred to the book as a “sledge hammer”. Despite all the Christmas cheer, it was there to remind readers that, as one character puts it, “Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts”, and that – whatever the unreformed Scrooge thinks – prisons and workhouses are no solution.
For reasons both moral and commercial, Dickens wrote four more Christmas books: The Chimes, in 1844; The Cricket on the Hearth, in 1845; followed, in 1846, by The Battle of Life; and, after a Christmas taken up with the demands of writing Dombey and Son, The Haunted Man, in 1848. Though he would go on to write many more Christmas stories through the years, The Haunted Man was the final one that occupied an entire book. Dickens no longer had the time or the energy to produce one a year – or to confront the critics when he did.
While The Chimes escaped the reviewers’ hatchets, its successors were uniformly for the chop. Faced with The Cricket on the Hearth’s tale of the Peerybingle family’s interactions with toymaker Caleb Plummer, his saintly blind daughter Bertha, and miserly employer Mr Tackleton, most critics blenched. The Times called it “a twaddling manifestation of silliness… the babblings of genius in its premature dotage”. “All this,” said Macphail’s Edinburgh Ecclesiastic Journal, “is truly wretched.”
The Battle of Life – a love story featuring a reformed libertine, a young doctor, and yet more saintly daughters – went down even worse. “Our pen refuses the task of analysis,” wrote the critic of the North British Review. The Times, with more directness, announced that “of all the bad Christmas books” it was “the worst… the very worst”. By the time of The Haunted Man – in which a brooding chemistry professor undergoes his own Scroogean conversion with the help of, yes, another saintly young woman – most critics had had enough. “A few more returns of Christmas,” suggested Macphail’s, “and Mr Dickens will have destroyed his reputation.”
It is possibly just as well that A Christmas Carol has eclipsed Dickens’s last three Christmas books. But the same cannot be said for The Chimes: a book that has, if anything, even more to say to readers today than A Christmas Carol. Despite Dickens’s sledgehammer hopes, A Christmas Carol is a comforting book. It suggests, as one contemporary noted, that “all social evils are to be redressed by kindness and money given to the poor by the rich”. Scrooge might become a sort of fairy godfather to the Cratchits, but nothing changes in the wider world. What, some readers asked, about the other immiserated poor?
The Chimes is Dickens’ answer. It is an awkward answer because, unlike A Christmas Carol, it is
The hero’s son-in-law becomes an alcoholic; his daughter decides to drown herself