“Let us in these next holidays, now going to begin, throw our thoughts into something educational for the grown-up people, hinting to them how things ought to be. Let us veil our meaning under a mask of romance; you, I, and Nettie…”
Since Rach wrote a marvellous essay last week extolling the glories of “Mr Tulrumble,” one of Dickens’s funniest and most overlooked stories, I wanted to continue the tradition with a look at “Holiday Romance”—an exquisitely charming bit of Dickens ephemera that I had never heard of until a few days ago when I saw it mentioned in passing in the Edith Nesbit chapter of Humphrey Carpenter’s book Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Literature. For “Holiday Romance” is, yes, a children’s story, but one laced with golden currents of Dickensian genius that elevate it above much of the fiction for children written in that era.
owards what would prove to be the end of his life, in 1867, Dickens began writing his first-ever pieces for American publications. The first of these, “George Silverman’s Explanation,” is a strangely melancholy story with some marked similarities to his earlier novel Great Expectations. The second is a jolly romp unlike perhaps anything else in Dickens’s oeuvre. He had promised Ticknor and Fields that he would write a series of children’s tales for their monthly Our Young Folks—easy money for the author of David Copperfield and Bleak House—and in early July he wrote to John Forster that he felt it “droll and very childlike,” and that he particularly enjoyed the pirate story of Captain Boldheart (a remark he would go on to repeat in several other letters, as the story evidently appealed to the still-boyish part of Dickens that loved plain tales of adventure). Ten days later he wrote the publishers to say that he envisioned the story being reprinted in a book with handsome illustrations, which were later supplied by famed illustrator John Gilbert and two other artists.
he book is written in the voices of four children, two boys and two girls, with a chapter allotted to each child. William Tinkling provides the framework narration, explaining how the children came to tell the three stories that follow. Robin Redforth presents the story of Captain Boldheart, which—as often with Dickens—involves savage cannibals, who in this instance are attempting to devour a Latin-grammar master. Despite Dickens’s enthusiasm for the tale, it is not one of his best (“An author,” as Maugham said, “is not always a good judge of his own work”). No, it’s in the stories told by the two girls, Miss Alice Rainbird and Miss Nettie Ashford, that the little book becomes something truly strange and transcendent.
Alice Rainbird’s story, written in the sort of voice Dickens imagines for a girl of about nine or ten, tells of a king—“King Watkins the First”—with nineteen children between the ages of seven months and seven years and a miserable, low-paying job in a government office that is forever denying him a promotion. One day he meets an old lady who reveals herself to be “the good Fairy Grandmarina,” and who warns him that when he returns home that night, his daughter Alicia will find a salmon fish-bone on her plate. “Tell the Princess Alicia, with my love,” says the fairy, “that the fish-bone is a magic present which can only be used once; but that it will bring her, that once, whatever she wishes for, provided she wishes for it at the right time.”
he story goes on with a mixture of fairy-tale logic and Dickensian digression: the Queen acquires a mysterious and incurable illness which requires Alicia to keep the numerous children entertained; there is a talking doll that is actually a duchess, but only Alicia knows this; a “dreadful little snapping pug-dog” rushes at one of the boys, who puts his hand through a pane of glass and “bleeds, bleeds, bleeds.” There are moments when Dickens approaches Lewis Carroll (whose first Alice book had lately become a sensation) in the specificity of his absurdist vision: when Princess Alicia tells the children that they will have to cook for themselves, “they jumped for joy … and began making themselves cooks’ caps out of old newspapers. So to one she gave the salt-box, and to one she gave the barley, and to one she gave the herbs, and to one she gave the turnips, and to one she gave the carrots, and to one she gave the onions, and to one she gave the spice-box, till they were all cooks, and all running about at work, she sitting in the middle, smothered in the great coarse apron, nursing baby.” At the end of the story, when the good fairy inevitably returns and the salmon fish-bone is used to cure the Queen’s illness, a kitchen dresser changes itself into a wardrobe and a feathered cap flies into the room “like a bird” and settles on the head of the delightfully named Prince Certainpersonio, who marries Alicia. (The snapping pug-dog fares less well; he chokes on the fish-bone and dies.)
The final story, “From the Pen of Miss Nettie Ashford,” depends for its humor on a similarly absurd conceit. In the world of this story, grown-ups are known as “children” and the real children run everything. “The children order them [the adults] to make jam and jelly and marmalade, and tarts and pies and puddings, and all manner of pastry. If they say they won’t, they are put in the corner till they do.” The grown-ups are here presented as sullen, stubborn, grumpy little miscreants with balding heads and beards who misbehave during parties and dislike dancing with members of the opposite sex and enjoy playing a game called “Parliament” where they stand together in a room and yell “Hear, hear, hear!” and “To our hostess!” They continue doing this until they are threatened with being sent home.
Critically, “Holiday Romance” has not numbered among Dickens’s best works. Claire Tomalin, speaking of the tales he produced in the summer of 1867—which also included a collaboration with Wilkie Collins, No Thoroughfare—says, “All these works show diminished power and poor judgment and are read today only because they are by Dickens: but they brought in money, and he kept going.” But I would argue that “Holiday Romance” deserves serious attention from any student of the development of the fairy-tale as a genre. It has flashes of weirdness that evoke Hans Christian Andersen, and in its layering of perspectives—child narrators presenting a wildly distorted view of the world in which they live—it anticipates the postmodern short stories of the great twentieth-century surrealist writer Leonora Carrington. When you place it alongside some of the better-known fairy-tales for children of that era, with their conventional plots, mawkish prose and heavy-handed morals, Dickens’s invention becomes all the more striking. He was writing purely for fun; and with a flair for whimsy and a genius for detail that was unrivaled.
Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield, with an afterword by W. Somerset Maugham. New York: Reader’s Digest, 1986.
Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens: The Illustrated Edition. New York: Sterling, 2011.
Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.
“The Original Illustrations for Dickens’s A Holiday Romance.” The Victorian Web, July 27, 2022, https://victorianweb.org/art/illustration/holiday/pva204.html
When I was a kid and before I became a major Dickens fan, I actually owned a picture book of The Magic Fishbone. Don’t know what happened to it.