I was given this rather beautiful book several years ago and while I’ve dabbled in it before, Blogmas was the first time that I gave it any sustained attention. It’s often said that Dickens invented Christmas so it’s seems strange that it took so long for all of his Christmas writing to be drawn together in one place. Yet when one digs in deeper, it becomes less surprising. This is a beautiful book to behold with a stunning cover design and pretty illustrations at the start of each story. But what lies within is not the expected light festive fare.
The book starts off with a short story ‘The Goblins Who Stole A Sexton’ which first originated in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and more or less prefigures the basic plot of A Christmas Carol. Then we have Dickens’ five ‘Christmas Books’, namely ACC itself then The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man or the Ghost’s Bargain. It then finishes off with various pieces of Dickens’ short writing on the subject of Christmas. Aside from the scattering of nice images, the book feels hastily put together. Even adding a paragraph of background to accompany each story would have given some welcome context. As it is, it seems more like a clever marketing idea from someone at Vintage to take a stack of Dickens’ lesser-known writing (out of copyright), add in Christmas Carol for recognisability and then package it up with a ribbon on top as a festive gimmick.
Reading this over Christmas 2020 was a peculiar experience. First of all, it became immediately obvious why A Christmas Carol is the only one of Dickens’ five Christmas books that anyone reads any more. It has a compelling ‘villain’ who goes through a powerful redemption arc and the central dilemma – remember to be nice to people – is one that we can all basically relate to. There are the catchphrases and the colourful supporting cast. It just works. The other books were … less gripping.
The Chimes puts another character through a kind of ‘What-if’ spiritual experience but the protagonist in question is having a crisis because he is poor, his daughter is poor and so is the man she wishes to marry. A rich man tells them that their prospects will be destroyed if they wed, leading to a kind of It’s A Wonderful Life sequence where the father sees how awful their lives will be if the young couple do not at least gain that small happiness in their youth. But it’s strange because the father isn’t a wicked man and doesn’t need to be ‘redeemed’. It would just be nice if they all had a bit more money. The Cricket on the Hearth is nice enough but is another example of Dickens being weird about women while The Battle of Life is flat-out bizarre. And The Haunted Man was a serious insomnia cure. This is not ‘Dickens-lite’. This is full-on Mr Charles Dickens pontificating about morality and the injustices heaped upon the poor and the destitute.
All this did prompt a lot of thoughts though, particularly after ten years of living under Conservative austerity policies. Scrooge in A Christmas Carol comments that if the poor are going to die then they had better do it and thus decrease the surplus population. This has serious echoes of Dominic Cummings rumoured remarks that the country should pursue herd immunity policies around COVID-19 and ‘if some pensioners die, too bad’. Or when Jacob Rees-Mogg said that those who died in Grenfell tower ‘lacked common sense’ because they followed the agreed fire policies. Or when Rees-Mogg said that the increased use of food banks was ‘rather uplifting’. Or when Matt Hancock expressed disapproval for people who go to work when they have illness symptoms – really Mr Hancock, you’ve no idea why they might feel that they need to do this? The Tory government have certainly embraced a Dickensian aesthetic in their approach to societal infrastructure. But none of these musings are particularly festive.
Maybe that’s because Dickens was using Christmas as a fig-leaf to cover his moral indignation at the plight of the down-trodden. He had experienced poverty as a youngster and the trauma was behind much of his many issues. I respect that he tried to give a voice to the poor. But I still wish he wasn’t so utterly useless at writing women.
I was speed-reading to get to the end when I reached the pieces of short writing. From that point, things picked up. The chapters ‘A Christmas Tree’, ‘A Christmas Dinner’ and ‘What Christmas Is, As We Grow Older’ are all beautiful. Dickens was always good at writing scenes of food and conviviality. Reaching this point, we finally have the festive frolics that this book seemed to promise. It’s just that it had taken 477 pages to get there.
There are lots of lovely things about Dickens at Christmas – it’s a pretty book, it’s a piece of literary history and Dickens is a fantastic writer. It’s probably best enjoyed as something to dip in and out of so trying to tackle the whole thing at once was shooting high. It’s just that I was interested enough to do some independent Search Engining to find out more about the background of the Christmas books and extra context did help me understand what was going on. This book is not a light read, not something that I would gift to anyone other than a literature enthusiast. So it seems seriously strange to serve everything up with not so much as an introduction.
Dickens at Christmas will be returned to my bookshelf to sit in state with my other ‘posh books’ – namely the posh copies of Jane Austen books that I inherited from my Grandma and my mother’s old friend’s vintage copy of Wuthering Heights. I got to feel pleasantly smug when I was listening to Radio 4’s Books and Authors: The Joy of Dickens and an academic said in exasperation that nobody ever read Dickens’ other Christmas stories – I know all about them now. I will dig this out again next year now I know which bits are easier-going – Dickens is one of the great kings of Christmas and it was good to find out how he built his throne.
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Published by Vintage Classics on November 1st 2012
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