So long, farewell ....

After quite a few years convening this online book club on behalf of the ALIA Retirees group, Faye Lawrence and John Kennedy have decided it is time for the club to finish.

We have been on a fascinating journey through a wide range of literary works from many countries and we hope you have enjoyed joining us on the journey.

The Christmas Books of Charles Dickens

The first of Dickens's Christmas books, 'A Christmas Carol', is one of its illustrious author's best known works, famous from the time of its first publication at Christmas time in 1843, and in dramatised form still today a staple of Christmas entertainment on  Australian television.  But it is one of five Christmas books that Dickens published for the Christmas market between 1843 and 1848.  All are novellas, each reaching to approximately seventy pages of small type in the 'Collins Classics' edition.  They have certain similarities - in all of them a major figure (though not always the main protagonist) undergoes a change of character which makes him a better man.  But perhaps the dissimilarities between them, in what they aim to do and their success in achieving it, are even greater.  They are not all set at Christmas time, and it is arguably only in 'A Christmas Carol' that Christmas itself is central.

The story of how Ebenezer Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, and by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, and changes as a result from being one of the meanest and most unsociable of men into a generous and gregarious enthusiast for the Christmas season, does not need to be summarised in detail.  It is of course a fantasy, hardly convincing in psychological terms, but to criticise it in such terms would be equivalent to finding fault with Santa Claus or with Christmas dinner.  The story has established itself as a part of  the celebration of Christmas, and despite elements of sentimentality, particularly associated with Tiny Tim the crippled boy, it is emotionally very satisfying.

Dickens hoped to repeat its success at Christmas 1844, and he apparently believed that 'The Chimes', published that year, was a finer work.  This was not the view of his contemporaries, and it would be hard not to share some of their probable misgivings.  In this story it is Toby Veck, a poor but warm hearted porter who undergoes a nightmarish vision, brought on by the church bells under whose shadow he waits for work (and by consuming part of a dish of tripe!).  The goblins of the bells sternly rebuke Toby, but the language in which they do so is highly convuluted, and the reason why Toby deserves their censure is very hard to discern.  It seems to be that he is too readily discouraged by the disparaging remarks of those who consider themselves his social superiors. The tale is melodramatic, the language somewhat prolix, and the plot emotionally rather unsatisfying.  Several  upper-middle-class characters suffer no hardships despite their appalling smugness and inhumanity, though it must be said that the satire directed at them by the author is biting, and aroused unease in some of Dickens's contemporaries. In one sense 'The Chimes' does balance 'A Christmas Carol': it is a story of New Year, though it does not mention Christmas.

The 1845 Christmas book 'The Cricket on the Hearth' was more successful in its time, and dramatised versions of it were popular throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Again a mean spirted miser is tranformed, though this is not the major theme.  The action takes place in late January.  Central to it is the dilemma faced by John Peerybingle, a poor but honest carrier, who comes mistakenly to believe that his wife Mary, actually a paragon of all humble female virtue, is being unfaithful to him.  Like all the Christmas books this does of course end happily.  The verbosity of the style, and the extreme element of melodrama, are likely to deter modern readers, but it is probably the unrelenting and utterly unrestrained sentimentality that they will find most off-putting.  The book may have something to tell us about early Victorian tastes, and about Dickens himself, but it is hard to imagine even the more uncritical readers of modern tabloids reading this with any pleasure.

'The Battle of Life', the 1846 book, is probably the least known of the Christmas books, but initially at least this reader found some relief in its cheerfulness after the relentless mawkishness of the previous story.  It also seems to be a promising mystery story, the only one of the five devoid of any supernatural element (though that element is minor in 'The Cricket on the Hearth').  Marion Jeddler, a seemingly happy and vivacious young women, disappears during a Christmas party held to welcome back the young doctor who loves her and whom she is expected to marry.  Her whereabouts are a mystery for several years, during which her older sister marries the doctor and becomes a mother. Marion  then reappears and all becomes clear: she has left the scene out of affection for her sister, and despite her love for the doctor, convinced that what in fact happened would take place. The reunion scene is played for all it is worth in terms of melodrama and sentimentality, but it is hard to imagine that the resolution of the mystery has ever seemed very satisfying

The final book, 'The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain', is a grim, slow-moving piece, set at Christmas time.  A lonely scholar, Mr Redlaw, who has suffered some vaguely explained misfortunes and disappointments, is visited by a spirit who gives him the 'gift' of forgetting the past, and the associated ability, or curse, of passing it on to almost all whom he encounters.  The result is that people become hard-hearted and cruel, sometimes somewhat comically so.  The curse is lifted by yet another Dickension paragon of humble female virtue, Molly Swidger, and the story ends with a happy Christmas celebration.  The element of melodrama is again striking.

Posterity has come to regard 'A Christmas Carol' as one of the finest novellas in English, and largely forgotten its four companion pieces.  This reader would have to conclude that he sees little injustice in this.  The four later books are of some interest as works from their time, though even then they were not resounding successes.  Their slow pace, extreme melodrama, and unrestrained sentimentality make them tough reading today.

"The Road to Wigan Pier" by George Orwell

George Orwell wrote this work in 1936 following an investigative tour of several Lancashire and Yorkshire mining centres - villages and towns - still suffering unemployment, dire poverty and   the effects of the Great  Depression.  He set out to research the living conditions of these places following a specific commissioning from Victor Gollancz , the left wing publisher of the day.  What we have got as a result of this journey and research is a strong work in Orwell's  brilliant clear prose of the conditions of the working coal mine along with aching portrayals of the  living conditions of the workers and their families and a personal, clear polemic  essay to support this research. The book, then  is in two main parts  1) portrayal in brilliant clarity of the lives of real people from observation , involvement and interview  backed up by actual data on wages, cost of living etc from the mine records and other records in the local library and 2) a strong and  intellectual essay on the state of social and political  England -   with the first part informing the personal  opinion essay of the second part.

The  style of the first section is investigative journalism at its very best  - the blueprint in fact. Orwell visited miners homes and talked with the families, he went down the coal mines and observed the workers at first hand and presented us with unforgettable descriptions of the way these mines were worked at that time  - conditions which I am sure were similar in Australia. He noted the deprivations of the unemployed and the underemployed in those hard time and recorded it clearly and with no nonsense humanity. A most startling fact of the mining occupation was that the miners worked  on their knees doing their picking and "filling" because of the low height of the mine roofs . A man could not stand up there. Orwell doesn't dwell sentimentally on this fact - on the contrary his description of the physical strength and ability of the mine worker is  discussed with admiration. We learn that these miners were usually of small stature because a taller person such a Orwell himself just could not manage to do the work. He is admiring of the miners lean , strong physiques and their  resilience.

Along with this description of working miners Orwell spends time observing the unemployed such as when competing for waste coal  called "scrambling for the coal" . He thought this so amazing that he wondered why it had never been filmed.  This scrambling involved people going through the slag coming  from the mine for any coal left in the delivery train trucks and with others  at the bottom of  slag heap (including women and children)  scrambling again for any left overs after the higher scamblers ,who had first leapt on to the moving trucks as they arrived, had done their sifting.  This way the unemployed got their fuel supplies for free.

The system provided  unemployment benefits enough to just barely feed  a family  - in fact families as an unemployed group were better off   than single unemployed persons who were the very poorest of all .  It is clearly shown however that the families with work were better off in every way than those where the breadwinner, ie male miner , was out of work.  All housing was rented -  mostly  public housing owned by the local authorities . Orwell sets out costs of living from his checking of records including rent and reporting from individual householders on their purchases for the weeks food etc.

Orwells compelling account of these social and working conditions  along with the photographs in my complete edition (Secker & Warburg, 1980) presented a strong case of the plight of the mining working class in those very hard times - a classic, absorbingly interesting,  journalistic work.

Then you come to the second part of the book  - which is a brilliantly argued  essay .  The honesty of this part reaches out to one . This partly because of the autobiographical approach of the essay which in turn adds to its gravity and some of its prophetic tone.

Orwell uses his own life experiences as "test case pieces " (my comment) to stringently examine the English class system .  He applies pithy , economical, descriptive terms like "shabby genteel" and "shadowy cast system"  with biting  yet empathetic  effect in this analysis. For instance,  Orwell labels his class as "Upper Middle Class" and shows  why this is so by  autobiographical reference and  detail  in order to  be able to point out what the other classes are.  He is concerned about this  separation of the classes but realistic that it has a strong  systematic  hold on people . He is proposing that people of the different English classes should be striving  towards a "Good" socialism in order to deliver a fairer society.

 Along with the research of the first part of the book this all underpins his analysis and investigation of the political system and the range of "Isms" occupying the minds of the the political intelligentsia  of the time   - Socialism, Capitalism, Communism and Fascism . Interestingly he doesn't mention "Democratic Socialism"  - too historically early for that term I think.  However it is possible to posit that in his overall argument  outlining  the need for "good socialism "   - he is in effect describing  a type of "democratic socialism".

In arguing this way I get the message that Orwell is working hard to show his fellow countrymen that they need to face up to the dangers of fascism in its guises  -  "National" and"Communist"  by striving for the fairer society which good, real  socialism can bring.  Fascism then is the real demon which horrified him.

Interestingly, Victor Gollancz , was uncertain about the essay because he thought Orwell was too hard on the middle class , socialists of his day - Keatings "Basketweavers" and that it might anger the  regular  Left Book Club readers but printed it as is nevertheless.  The rest is literary history. And on that note I should mention the social history inbuilt throughout  this 100 page essay is stunning.

I haven't done this brilliant essay justice but I recommend it highly for the joy of its intellectual strength  and the pleasure of reading one of the best essayists in the English cannon at his finest.

Two final comments -  there apparently was no "Wigan Pier as such at that time  - it was a local joke. (Orwell himself even tried to find the "Pier"at one time).

Second  - the final long paragraph  is a neat Orwellian  summary and witty predictive 1936 comment  which I will  quote a little of  in the hope you will be tempted to read the whole thing.
 "In the next few years we shall either get that effective Socialistic party that we need, …. if not Fascism is coming  …..
And when the widely separate classes who, necessarily, would form any real Socialist party have fought side by side … perhaps the misery of class-prejudice will fade away …. and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but out aitches."

Faye Lawrence