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.