onsdag 2 december 2015

Dickens's other Christmas books

Hey ho. I confess I've felt more alert and blog-ready in my life, but at least once during this Year of Work that is 2015 I should try to piece together a post on a Dickensian subject. And as Christmas is approaching, the other Christmas books Dickens wrote, apart from A Christmas Carol, could make a nice theme.

I've already revealed my Carol fatigue, but there are reasons why this is Dickens's most famous Christmas book. Its great past-present-future premise, and the powerful drama of a bad man turned good and redeemed (instead of despairing and dying which is usually the case in Dickens), go some way to mitigate the faults all the Dickens Christmas books share to a degree: the characters are far less complex than in Dickens's full-length novels, there are sometimes levels of soppiness even I object to, and then there's the preaching. Oh dear me, the preaching. If you are already a little fed up with road-to-redemption plot lines - like I happen to be at the moment - the Christmas books are not ideal reading.

Nevertheless, Dickens is Dickens. Even the beginning of one of the weaker Christmas books, The Cricket on the Hearth, manages to draw you in immediately ("The kettle began it"). There is heartwarming whimsy to be had, and funny phrases, and even the odd memorable character. And not all of the Moral Messages are total rubbish.

Here, then, is my ratings list of Dickens's Christmas books excepting the Carol, starting with the best and ending with the most irritating:

The Haunted Man: I would almost rate this as high as the Carol. The message of this tale is that the bad things that happen in our lives, and the remembrance of them, make us better as people and kinder to our fellow human beings. I'm not sure I agree, but the point is worth arguing, and it's argued powerfully here, and in a grown-up manner. The supernatural element is properly scary and does not become ridiculous. Also, the haunted man himself, Mr Redlaw, is an engaging protagonist. He may be a gloomy soul, but he remains sensitive to the sufferings of others. When he spreads the "gift" of losing all your bad memories to the people around him, they become cold, selfish and discontented. Redlaw, on the other hand, although he has lost his own memories of suffering without becoming happier as a result, retains his decency and willingness to help. One could of course wonder why a man like that needs to be put through the whole ghostly visitation thing - more of that anon.

The Battle of Life: I wish someone could have explained a quite simple fact to Dickens. Two women in love with the same man do not, as a rule, become best friends. And I'm prepared to wager they never enter into a "you have him, dear" - "no, you have him" scenario. This is wishful thinking of an (I suspect) specifically male nature. In Dickens's world, only bad girls like Rosa Dartle are allowed to be jealous, whereas there's nothing to stop the hero from being as jealous as he likes. For instance, David Copperfield hates the man with red whiskers who courts Dora, but Dora and Agnes become bezzie mates. Honestly, t'ain't right, t'ain't fair, t'ain't proper.

What makes the "you have him, dear"-plot in The Battle of Life a little easier to swallow is that the two women in love with the same man are sisters. Blood is thicker etc., so of course they're not going to end up hating each other (not being the Grantham girls). But accepting with good grace that the man you've set your heart on prefers your sister is one thing: actively promoting the match at every turn is another. This story contains insane amounts of self-sacrifice that not only hurt the self-sacrificing women but their nearest and dearest, too. On the plus side - and this is why it ends second on my list - The Battle of Life is a good, honest relationship drama, without any supernatural funny business, which makes a touching point about the importance of everyday heroism. And it contains two nice lawyers (not the villain kind, the well-meaning but prone to thinking the worst kind).

The Cricket of the Hearth: If you think the story of a blind girl and her devoted father, who keeps their wretched surroundings a secret from her and conjures up a bright fantasy world for her benefit, sounds hopelessly sentimental, then The Cricket on The Hearth is decidedly not for you. Because this is the best part of it (in fact, it unfailingly makes me blub). That and the acerbic, child-hating toy merchant Tackleton in a secondary part.

The main plot in Cricket is a variation of the Doctor Strong subplot in David Copperfield. The young, pretty wife of a good but unglamorous older man comes under suspicion of adultery. The husband, after struggling with his feelings, declines to think that she's guilty, but still comes to the conclusion that she does not love him. However, everything ends happily. I was fond of the Strong storyline, but here it is ruined by far too much domestic syrup and, yes, self-sacrifice again. You think I exaggerate? This story contains household fairies. Masses of them. And they're a right soupy lot - Puck wouldn't have anything to say to them. Everything is overegged, including the conversion of the sort-of-villain Tackleton - at one point in the story, he could have bowed out with his dignity intact, and things would have been quite satisfactory. But he has to go the whole Scrooge, and turn up for the concluding knees-up as genial as anything. The eponymous cricket is supposed to be the good spirit of the house. There's a dog, too. Enough!

The Chimes: Anyone of the opinion that Dickens is a deep political thinker should read The Chimes as a penance. It contains such clumsy caricatures of the promoters of social and political ideas Dickens does not approve of that it makes Hard Times seem well-reasoned and nuanced in comparison. Especially threadbare is the depiction of a gentleman who praises the "good old times". I haven't forgotten his name - he doesn't have one. He is an idea barely written up at all. Another reprehensible establishment figure, Alderman Cute, sadly does not live up to his name ("cute" meaning "shrewd" in a 19th-century English context). Out of these caricatures, only the statistician Mr Filer shows signs of life, when he gets het up about tripe ("'Who eats tripe?' said Mr Filer, warmly.") or has the guts to contradict one of his chums on the basis of statistical facts. (He is scathing about Henry VIII - a favourite of Cute's, but not of Dickens's - who had "considerably more than the average number of wives, bye the bye"). But that isn't really enough to make a proper character of him rather than a mouthpiece.

To be fair, neither of these gentlemen is the subject of the main plot. The protagonist, Toby "Trotty" Veck the ticket porter, is well-realised and a perfect sweetie. But this becomes the story's main problem. All the other Christmas books suffer in comparison with the Carol in one respect: Ebenezer Scrooge truly needs redemption. The characters who are taught painful lessons in the other Christmas books, on the other hand, are at heart good men, though they are stuck with some misconception (Redlaw thinks we would be better off without painful memories; Doctor Jeddler in The Battle of Life thinks life is a farce and not to be taken seriously; John Peerybingle in The Cricket on The Hearth thinks he is unworthy of being loved by his wife). In the other tales, the insights the good men gain are - arguably - great enough to balance what they've been through and make the whole exercise worthwhile. But what has poor Trotty Veck done to be put through the wringer by the goblins of the church bells? He is a kind man who, though poor, gives houseroom to a stranger and his niece and gives up his own evening meal for them. But because he reacts with indignation when he reads in the paper about a woman who's drowned herself and her child, he has to witness a version of the future where his own daughter is reduced to the same fate. Granted that Trotty has to get rid of the idea that the poor are "born bad", but given that he is himself an example of the contrary, this could surely have been done in a far kinder way. Quite simply, he does not need the Dickensian Christmas story treatment - he's already as decent as they come. Dickens becomes guilty of exactly the same thing that he criticises Alderman Cute and Co. for - of reading a lecture to an honest poor man and telling him what to think.