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

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

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

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