A “GENERAL MEMS” POST: THIS WEEK (3-9 JAN 2023), THE DICKENS CHRONOLOGICAL READING CLUB 2022-24 WILL READ DICKENS’S THIRD CHRISTMAS BOOK, THE CRICKET ON THE HEARTH.
(BANNER IMAGES BY RICHARD DOYLE)
Happy New Year, fellow Dickensians, and Happy Day 364 of the #DickensClub! Can you believe we are only 2 days away from our first anniversary? What a year! And arguably, the best Dickensian content is yet to come. (But does it honestly get better than Pickwick or Carol?) Be on the lookout this Wednesday, our 1-year anniversary, for a little retrospective post.
A reminder: in order to give everyone ample time to comment on all the Christmas books (which, chronologically, are interrupted by Pictures from Italy and Dombey and Son), we’ll do one wrap up for all five books once the final one–The Haunted Man–is complete: 10 April, 2023. This will have the added benefit of comparing/contrasting the themes running through each one individually, and all together.
Running list of links for the Christmas book discussions:
- A CHRISTMAS CAROL.
- Click here for Boze’s Introduction to the Christmas books and Pictures from Italy and for the conversation on A Christmas Carol.
- THE CHIMES.
- THE CRICKET ON THE HEARTH.
- For The Cricket on the Hearth, feel free to comment below!
Please feel free to keep adding to all conversations!
Click here for Chris’s post on Peter Ackroyd’s Introduction to the Christmas books.
Notes on The Cricket on the Hearth (3-9 January, 2023)
This week we’ll be reading Dickens’s third Christmas book, The Cricket on the Hearth. This is our twelfth read as a group.
For December 1845, Dickens, aged 33 and fresh from Italian travels, decided to take a respite from the intense social satire and criticism of his previous Christmas books (A Christmas Carol and The Chimes), and focused on a quiet domestic drama about fidelity, trust, and those ill-intended or cynical words that undermine them.
Dickens, the previous month, had just became a co-founder and editor of the morning paper, The Daily News; previously, over the summer, he had contemplated a domestic periodical (Cricket) which never materialized. Clearly, domestic issues had been on his mind. He began writing The Cricket on the Hearth in October; as with the Carol, he completed it in about six weeks. See below for Dr. Christian’s marvelous twitter threads on Cricket.
Divided into “Chirps” rather than Staves or Quarters, the Cricket had five illustrators (even more than The Chimes) for their wood engravings: Daniel Maclise, Richard Doyle, Clarkson Stanfield, John Leech, and Edwin Henry Landseer. See the Victorian Web or the Charles Dickens Page for more information. If you recall from Dickens’s earlier ventures into the weekly periodical (e.g. The Old Curiosity Shop), the change from steel to wood engravings allowed the illustrations to be dropped right into the text, rather than onto a facing page. This allowed for a more dynamic dialogue between the text and the illustrations.
For the group discussion, feel free to comment below for thoughts regarding The Cricket on the Hearth, or use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
If you’d like to read The Cricket online, you can read the full text with its gorgeous illustrations at Gutenberg.
There are several audio versions available, with narrators including Jim Dale, Gerald Dickens, and Simon Prebble. Or check out this “duet” performance from our amazingly talented member Rob Goll (with Amanda Friday). Here is a preview:
A Thread from Dr. Christian…
Dr. Christian Lehmann, who has been so supportive of our reading and has shared his videos with us, has a marvelous twitter thread on The Cricket on the Hearth that he did a few years back. If you click on each link and scroll down to his replies on twitter, you can see it in full:
Friends, in case you read this post within the first few hours of its going up, I’ve added a section to it, with Dr. Christian Lehmann’s wonderful thread about Chirp One of Cricket. I’ll post the other “Chirp” links as he finds and shares them…they are from a few years ago, so it might take a bit. They’re so informative!!!
Looking forward to these “chirps”!
I just finished “The Chimes,” read expertly by Richard Aldridge.
While not as transcendently perfect as “Carol,” it is a powerful tale–learning to be compassionate, rather than judgmental, for example.
The principle of “proximity”–really getting close to another person, especially one who is suffering–comes through with all of Dickens’ vivid and heart-rending description.
On to “Cricket”!
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You could argue that The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth represent the two halves of A Christmas Carol. The Chimes has all the creepy and cautionary elements. Cricket on the Hearth has all the warmth and joy. This is probably why neither of them is as great as A Christmas Carol. The Chimes risks coming off as simply unpleasant and The Cricket as sugary and phony. (“Humbug,” as Scrooge might say.) The closest Dickens would only come close to recapturing the perfect balance between the merry and the scary in his last “Christmas book,” The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, which we sadly won’t get to for a long time. Theoretically, that’s my second favorite with A Christmas Carol being the first.
Theoretically…. but in practice, The Cricket on the Hearth is my second favorite. Maybe because I enjoy the characterizations more. Boxer is a lot of fun to read about and so is Tilly Slowboy (if you don’t find it offensive for a poor orphan who seems to have Down Syndrome to be played for laughs.) And I have a weird fondness for old Tackleton. This line from Chirp the Second, “when they laughed, and he couldn’t, he took it into his head, immediately, that they must be laughing at him,” is one of the most psychologically astute things Dickens ever wrote IMO. (I mostly think that because I can relate to it. I’m kind of anti-social.)
I believe the general critical consensus is that The Chimes is superior to The Cricket, though neither is as well regarded as A Christmas Carol. I suppose it’s because critics like their Dickens books dark (though Cricket on the Hearth does have a really dark bit near the beginning of Chirp the Third) and to have important social messages. (Well, it kind of has a social message, urging old husbands to go easy on young wives.) Not sharing these biases (though I don’t think Dickens books shouldn’t be dark or have important social messages), I find The Cricket on the Hearth to be infinitely more engaging. The opening passage with its description of the duet between the kettle and the cricket is honestly one of my favorite things Dickens ever wrote.
The book’s biggest weakness IMO is Bertha Plummer. While Dickens’s Christmas books generally feature theatrical, artificial dialogue-deliciously artificial dialogue-hers comes across as more artificial than everybody else’s in this particular book or maybe it’s just artificial in a different way. It’s hard to take her seriously as a character. And she gets over the revelation that her father has been lying to her her whole life so ridiculously quick that I wonder why Dickens bothered with that subplot at all. I watched a theatrical adaptation on YouTube where she responded to her father’s confession with, “Dad! I knew you were joking the whole time. I was just playing along.” (Not an exact quote.) I’m tempted to say Dickens should have done that instead. Incidentally, it didn’t actually occur to me that she was in love with her imaginary Tackleton until I read Dr. Lehmann’s Twitter thread! Having reread the book with this in mind, some of her scenes make a lot more sense but the abrupt end of her character arc becomes even less satisfying. Dickens, like Caleb Plummer, seems to have trapped himself with his imagination there.
Here’s a question. Do we interpret the fairies in Chirp the Third as metaphorical or literal? They work perfectly well as a metaphor, but since most of the other Christmas books feature supernatural characters who minister to the protagonists, I don’t think we can discount the interpretation that they are literal fairies.
Here’s another question. Just how free could John Peerybingle render his wife after she’d had a baby? Did Dickens just forget about the baby when he was writing that part?
If the portrayal of happy families in The Cricket on the Hearth can come across as fake, knowing how unhappy Dickens’s own family life was, it’s worth noting that he kind of acknowledges that with the book’s melancholy last lines. “But what is this! Even as I listen to them, blithely, and turn towards Dot, for one last glimpse of a little figure very pleasant to me, she and the rest have vanished into air, and I am left alone. A Cricket sings upon the Hearth; a broken child’s-toy lies upon the ground; and nothing else remains.” (I don’t think it comes across as particularly fake for the record.)
Has anyone noticed that Dickens’s first three “Christmas books” take place in chronological order? The main body of A Christmas Carol in Prose happens over Christmas. The Chimes covers New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The Cricket on the Hearth takes place sometime in January. I wonder if this was deliberate.
Here’s a link to a blog post I wrote recently about an entertainingly nutty adaptation of this book. I’m sorry if it comes across as obnoxious of me to keep pressing it on this group, like I’m begging you to read it, but I feel like you’d enjoy it more now after just reading The Cricket on the Hearth. This is the one where half the images won’t appear on Microsoft Edge, not on my laptop at least. They seem to appear on Google Chrome, so I advise people to use that if they can. https://theadaptationstation.com/2022/11/when-ebenezer-scrooge-met-frosty-the-snowman/
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I made a note of this some time ago, and can’t quite remember where I found it… I think it is G K Chesterton who said it. Whoever it was, I kinda like it:
The Cricket on the Hearth, though popular, I think, with many sections of the great army of Dickensians, cannot be spoken of in any such abstract or serious terms. It is a brief domestic glimpse; it is an interior. It must be remembered that Dickens was fond of interiors as such; he was like a romantic tramp who should go from window to window looking in at the parlours. He had that solid, indescribable delight in the mere solidity and neatness of funny little humanity in its funny little houses, like doll’s houses. To him every house was a box, a Christmas box, in which a dancing human doll was tied up in bricks and slates instead of string and brown paper. He went from one gleaming window to another, looking in at the lamp-lit parlours. Thus he stood for a little while looking in at this cosy if commonplace interior of the carrier and his wife; but he did not stand there very long. He was on his way to quainter towns and villages. Already the plants were sprouting upon the balcony of Miss Tox; and the great wind was rising that flung Mr. Pecksniff against his own front door.
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Ah, that’s marvelous! It definitely sounds Chestertonian! 🙂 I love that: “he was a romantic tramp…” (I’ve always thought, btw, that Charlie Chaplin and his huge-hearted, quixotic Tramp was carrying on a Dickensian tradition, with entirely his own spin.)
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