A “GENERAL MEMS” POST: THIS WEEK (31 JAN – 6 FEB 2023), THE DICKENS CHRONOLOGICAL READING CLUB 2022-24 WILL READ DICKENS’S FOURTH CHRISTMAS BOOK, THE Battle of Life.
(Banner images by Richard Doyle.)
“‘I believe, Mr. Snitchey,’ said Alfred, ‘there are quiet victories and struggles, great sacrifices of self, and noble acts of heroism, in it – even in many of its apparent lightnesses and contradictions – not the less difficult to achieve, because they have no earthly chronicle or audience – done every day in nooks and corners, and in little households, and in men’s and women’s hearts – any one of which might reconcile the sternest man to such a world, and fill him with belief and hope in it.’”~ The Battle of Life
Friends, happy Day 393 of the Dickens Club! It has been a quiet time, and we’re about to have another “break” between reads before we resume the novels. Although it might seem a bit arbitrary to frame it this way, we might think of this time during our read-along (from early-December to late-February) as a bit of an extended break, not only between years One and Two of the Dickens Club, but between two different periods of Dickens’ longer works: from what we might call the “early period”–Pickwick to Martin Chuzzlewit–and the “middle period,” beginning with Dombey and Son. There is evidence, from Dombey and on, of Dickens’s more deliberate planning–almost, outlining–of his novels, and it shows. Truly, the best is yet to come. (Pickwick always an exception, right? It doesn’t get better!)
Some of our members are taking a break between these two novels (Chuzzlewit and Dombey) to catch up on other reading; one at least to catch up on Dickens Club reading, and is just beginning Pictures from Italy; one of our members is working on an audio recording of Pickwick (hooray!), and you can preview the first fifteen chapters here; one of our members has had a household disaster to deal with; some are in the midst of very busy post-holiday workloads since the beginning of January; another (yours truly) assisting with a family move in the midst of a schedule that was already booked 6 days of the week. Still, in the midst of the chaos, is there anything like reading Dickens together? For many of us he is an anchor in the midst of life’s unpredictable seas.
As always, no matter where you are in the reading or how much you’re reading with us, a huge “thank you” to all of our dear Dickens Club members!
And some exciting news from one of our members: Rob Goll’s audiobook with all of Dickens’s “Christmas books,” in addition to other stories, has arrived on Audible!
Due to the slower readership and participation during this time, we’ll postpone our next Zoom chat until the break after Dombey and Son. SAVE THE DATE: Dickens Club Online Chat #3 (Dombey and Son): Saturday, 25 March, 2023, 11am PT/2pm ET/6pm GMT.
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.
- THE BATTLE OF LIFE
- For The Battle of Life, feel free to comment below!
Please feel free to keep adding to all conversations, including that on Pictures from Italy!
Click here for Chris’s post on Peter Ackroyd’s Introduction to the Christmas books.
Notes on The Battle of Life (31 Jan to 6 Feb, 2023)
Dickens was still abroad in 1846, and had battles and revolution in his consciousness. He began to have images of a future character who would have been imprisoned for a great number of years (Dr. Manette, A Tale of Two Cities). He was staying in Geneva, where a 2-day revolution would take place that October, effecting a change in government. Dickens wrote in the midst of some anxiety and mental overwhelm, his mind consumed by a new novel (Dombey and Son) which he was beginning after a bit of a break; Martin Chuzzlewit‘s final number had been published over two years before. It was nothing new to him to be working on several stories at once, but now, in late-1846, Dickens was struggling, and was almost afraid he would have no Christmas book ready in time for the printers.
But he ended up coming through, writing in a frenzy. Interestingly, however, the “battle” in The Battle of Life is, as in The Cricket on the Hearth, domestic in nature. Its themes of fidelity, personal misunderstandings, and self-sacrifice would come more prominently into his later works, particularly in A Tale of Two Cities. Peter Ackroyd writes that it is “an odd book,” turning on its head (by its domesticity) what was a familiar phrase to contemporaries:
“The Battle of Life was a phrase which meant a great deal to mid-Victorian Englishmen: it was even something of a truism in a world for which struggle and domination were the twin commandments, where the worship of energy and the pursuit of power were the two single most important activities, where there was a constant belief in will, in collision, in progress. Darwin and Malthus both described ‘the great battle of life’ and ‘the great battle for life’, the significant confusion between the two phrases materially assisting the evolutionist’s case; Gladstone was to talk of life as one ‘perpetual conflict’; Browning wrote, ‘I was ever a fighter, so–one fight more…’; and Samuel Smiles, that wonderful exponent of what we have now come to call Victorian values, noted that ‘all life is a struggle’.”
~ Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, pgs 514-515
The story revolves around two sisters, Grace and Marion, who are quietly in love with the same man, Alfred. The younger, Marion, is betrothed to him, though she intuits that her sister is in love with Alfred too. One day, she mysteriously disappears; she is believed to have eloped with Michael Warden. This leaves the door open for Alfred and Grace to fall in love, while keeping faithful to the memory of their beloved Marion. What really happened to Marion, and will she return?
Unlike Dickens’s other Christmas books, there is no overtly supernatural element in The Battle of Life, and its plot and sensibility, with its self-sacrifice, sisterly affection, forgiveness, mysterious disappearances and misunderstandings, perhaps owes more to Victorian romantic stage melodrama than anything else. It was not particularly well critiqued at the time, though it was almost immediately adapted for the stage.
As with The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life had four illustrators providing the wood engravings: Richard Doyle, Daniel Maclise, John Leech, and Clarkson Stanfield.
It’s such a bummer that more people aren’t commenting right now. It used to be there were lots of comments and I’m afraid I haven’t been doing much to pick up the slack since I haven’t even looked at Dickens’s Pictures from Italy. (I got a lot of books for Christmas and my birthday to read.) Nor will I be doing much in the near future, I’m afraid.
I’ve never been able to The Battle of Life, though I’m going to give it a real try this week. Dombey and Son is a book with which I have a weird relationship. In theory, I consider it a great book. Great story, great themes, great characters, etc. But whenever I read the whole thing, I end up finding it a bit of a drag.
BTW, I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve concluded that Dickens wrote more of my favorite books of his during the first half of his career (Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, A Christmas Carol) than in the second but he also wrote more of my least favorite books during that period. (I won’t name them since it would invite controversy. If you’ve been keeping track of comments, you can probably guess what they are.) Of his later works, my only favorites are David Copperfield and Great Expectations. That’s not to say I think his talent devolved as he grew older. (Great Expectations was like his third last book.) I’d actually describe Bleak House, Hard Times and Little Dorrit as being more interesting than his earlier novels if I may make a distinction between interesting and successful. They just have too many drawbacks for me to consider them his best on the whole.
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I love your thoughts here, Stationmaster!!! It is interesting that most of your favorites are from the early period — and I certainly have two–now potentially three– of my favorites from this period…Pickwick and Nickleby for sure; even Barnaby, though, I was utterly surprised by, and it is far higher in the ranking for me now than before.
Yes, I’m sad about the quiet time here too, but not totally surprised…a couple members are having a rough time now, and these are all shorter or “extra” works–& I didn’t think we’d have more than a few reading Pictures from Italy. But even for the Sketches we had such a wealth of comments…I think I am feeling nostalgic for the Sketches! 😂 Boze and I have gone back to it lately, reading one Sketch a week while also doing the chronological reading…I think we’re about to read the fifth one. I hope things will have settled down for everyone by the time we resume the novels…I just love DOMBEY and can’t wait to talk about it!
As to THE BATTLE OF LIFE, I have mixed feelings…I think I really like it better than most (thr basic premise even influenced part of a legend about the town in the backstory of my novel), but perhaps I just find it really fascinating about these kind of prototypes of what Dickens would later make *perfect* (in my opinion) with A TALE OF TWO CITIES. The self-sacrificial love, etc. I get really excited about any hints of earlier (however faint) incarnations of Dr Manette or Lorry or Sydney–I even see *hints* of him in the trajectory of goofy Dick Swiveller or Lord Verisopht. So, I find the BoL very intriguing and lovely–just not as emotionally affecting as Dickens would later make this kind of story.
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That’s really interesting about how it gave you an idea for the backstory of your novel. Maybe someday I’ll get to read it.
I had no idea that Dickens had started to imagine Dr. Manette that early!
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Same, Gina!!! Though I’m not sure how clear his vision was of the character yet, but at least the *idea* of someone undergoing a long imprisonment was there. I could also REALLY see that his American travels influenced it…the haunting way about how he writes of those in solitary confinement is *exactly* the way he describes Dr Manette later: the long pauses before responding, as though he’d grown unaccustomed to speech, the needing to have one’s work, etc. So haunting!
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This is the 1st time I’ve been on this site since before Christmas – I’m the one with the household disaster (our house flooded for 5 days over Christmas when we were not at home). I’ve missed you all SO much – and haven’t had time to pick up any book. Things are beginning to settle down and so I hope to read BoL. At the very least, I’ll be reading Dombey because it is one of my top 5 CD novels.
Anyway – the knowledge that this Dickens Club is here has kept me moving thru the clean-up – I really WANT and NEED to get back to reading, and thinking critically, and engaging with like-minded Dickens people.
Cheers to all!
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Ugh! Floods are such a pain. My sympathies.
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Chris, we miss you!!!!!!!! But gosh, I can’t even imagine the chaos right now!!! So, so glad things are beginning to settle down. I’m SO looking forward to DOMBEY too…it really has a special place in my heart. I love that it’s in your top 5 Dickens!!! I’m going to try and tackle a bit of preparatory “extra” reading on it during the break…
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Reading The Battle of Life, I wondered why I originally found the beginning unengaging. The violent battle Dickens describes is certainly dramatic. Maybe it’s because the opening sentence sets the story so firmly in the past. (“Once upon a time, it matters little when, and in stalwart England, it matters little where, a fierce battle was fought.”) It lacks the energy and immediacy of the openings of the other “Christmas Books.”
There are some interesting parallels and contrasts between the first scenes of A Christmas Carol and The Battle of Life. In the former book, we were given the contrasting characters and philsophies of the cynical Scrooge and his idealistic nephew. The Battle of Life is similar but more complex. Not only do we have Dr. Jeddler vs. Alfred, Grace and Marion, we have the philosophy of Snitchey and Craggs. If you factor in the differences of opinion between Snitchey and Craggs, that makes four different worldviews!
Mrs. Craggs is fun with her “your Snitcheys.” I wish there could have been more of her. This passage arguably foreshadows Bleak House.
“Snitchey and Craggs had a snug little office on the old Battle Ground, where they drove a snug little business, and fought a great many small pitched battles for a great many contending parties. Though it could hardly be said of these conflicts that they were running fights—for in truth they generally proceeded at a snail’s pace—the part the Firm had in them came so far within the general denomination, that now they took a shot at this Plaintiff, and now aimed a chop at that Defendant, now made a heavy charge at an estate in Chancery, and now had some light skirmishing among an irregular body of small debtors, just as the occasion served, and the enemy happened to present himself. The Gazette was an important and profitable feature in some of their fields, as in fields of greater renown; and in most of the Actions wherein they showed their generalship, it was afterwards observed by the combatants that they had had great difficulty in making each other out, or in knowing with any degree of distinctness what they were about, in consequence of the vast amount of smoke by which they were surrounded.”
I hate to say this after reading how The Battle of Life’s plot fascinates Rachel, but I feel like it’s kind of…dumb. (Though it’s important to read this comment in the context of my earlier ones about Dickens’s stories being like classic myths and fairy tales; some of them may not make dramatic sense or sense in general, but they feel “real” somehow like that’s just how the story goes whether we like it or not.) Marion’s act of self-sacrifice strikes me as rather crazy and selfish. Sure, she paved the way for her sister and Alfred to end up together, but she also let her family believe she did something terrible and even that she might be dead. Didn’t it occur to her that that would make them miserable? I know we learn that she revealed the truth to her father and Alfred before she did so to Grace…but why did she wait so long to explain things to her beloved sister anyway if she was telling everyone else? I would have respected the character more if she had just broken off her engagement with Alfred and been honest with him even though that probably wouldn’t have led to him bonding with Grace.
Dr. Jeddler and his character, how his cynical philosophy is debunked by his children’s actions, are the most intriguing parts of the book for me.
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Great comments, Stationmaster!!! For me, the fascination is not so much in this plot itself, bc yes, it is very problematic, but in how it foreshadows what Dickens would do *much better* later with A TALE OF TWO CITIES. It feels like a “writing lab,” to use Lenny’s term–trying out something bc he so loves the idea, but he hasn’t gotten it into a really effective (and affecting) form yet, with just the right combination of characters and dramatic circumstances to make it *work*. I’m endeared to this story for that reason, but it’s not even *close* to the masterpiece that the CAROL is, and I think I like even THE HAUNTED MAN better in terms of writing & storytelling. Still, I do love seeing the writer’s brain at work…it’s like, he’s onto something, but he hasn’t quite been able to make it really effective yet. Maybe it took seeing & acting in the play THE FROZEN DEEP to get him the rest of the way…
LOVE your reference to the foreshadowing of BLEAK HOUSE! It is almost as though the **smoke** (not to know what it was they were about “in consequence of the vast amount of smoke by which they were surrounded”) is here in place of the **fog** of Chancery. Again, it is like a trial run or a writer’s experiment with something that he would make **perfect** later.
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You mentioned “The Frozen Deep,” and it’s another good example of this. We’re told the germ of the idea for Sydney Carton came from there, but the character that he’s based on isn’t very likable at all. Thank goodness Dickens was eventually able to develop him into someone far more sympathetic!
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There are many reasons why I love The Battle of Life – Too numerous to mention without slipping into my habit of rambling. Indeed, I think it is my favourite of all the Christmas Books It is a simple tale, simply told… rather like a fairy-tale (indeed it opens exactly like a fairy tale). And the sentiments and events, though not set at Christmas time, accord with the feelings of the season in common with the other 4 books.
From a wonderful and moving description of a large battle, of which the cause – if it were ever known – has been forgotten, down to those personal battles and emotional skirmishes which abound in every life – in a world viewed from a variety of different perspectives.
I agree with Rach about its charm, despite imperfections of plot and how it is almost a teaser trailer for ideas yet in development.
In the description of Grace, I see the beginnings of Agnes Wickfield – there is that too in Marion which for different reasons point to Agnes! Clemency is a wonderful character and very much like Clara Peggotty. A suspected elopement again points to David Copperfield. Coming back to Marion and her silence at the end of Part 1, I am reminded of Louisa Gradgrind watching the sparks in the fire.
But as well as looking forward, I think it also looks back through much of what has come before and what Dickens does so well through his writings. In itself, the story is like one of the tales told in The Pickwick Papers (in an extended form). And Grace and Marion and Doctor Jeddlar, together with a maiden Aunt very much look back to Old Wardle, Emily and Isabella and their Aunt Rachel.
I delight in these connections forwards and backwards through the works (this one being very close to half-way through if we count the Christmas books and completed novels together) Amazing to think that Dickens was composing it alongside Dombey and Son
Oh dear! This is developing into one of my nice long comments! Ay me! Oh well…
Dickens, it cannot be doubted, excelled in creating characters – major and minor – who rise off the page in all their theatricality and quirkiness. The description of Clemency in this work is a great example of how efficiently and with what whimsy he does this! But aside from those characters who stand alone and hold their own in our memories and recollections, Dickens also, in the earlier part of his writings, create memorable ‘double-acts’ It is something that I am not as aware of in the later works. So here in The Battle of Life, Snitchey and Craggs seem to be the last that I am aware of. There are pairings of partners in David Copperfield: Spenlow and Jorkins; Wickfield and Heep; Omer and Joram. But in these cases one or other of the characters exists in a capacity separate from their partner.
I’m not sure if what I am trying to explain is too complicated, or it might be obvious from my distinctions. Perhaps if I list, as fully as I can, the earlier pairings (who are very much regarded as a unit which functions in the story as both of them, rather than just one of them) I may not have them all, but such double-acts that spring to mind are:
Dodson and Fogg – The Pickwick Papers
Namby and Smouch – The Pickwick Papers
Blathers and Duff – Oliver Twist
Pluck and Pike – Nicholas Nickleby
Scaley and Tix – Nicholas Nickleby
Perhaps also The Old Curiosity Shop could offer, List and Jowl and possibly Codlin and Short.
But anyway, I hope you get my drift.
Some beautiuful writing too in The Battle of Life. I particularly love this quote:
The opening of The Battle of Life I find quite an amazing passage. The way a violent event is juxtaposed with the serenity and majesty of the natural world creates a very moving effect. Perhaps there is a literary term for this sort of thing, but in any case it ticks the right boxes for me.
There is a similar effect employed in Nicholas Nickleby which it recalls:
Before the event there is this:
Fields, trees, gardens, hedges, everything looked very beautiful; the young man scarcely seemed to have noticed them before, though he had passed the same objects a thousand times. There was a peace and serenity upon them all, strangely at variance with the bewilderment and confusion of his own half-sobered thoughts, and yet impressive and welcome. He had no fear upon his mind; but, as he looked about him, he had less anger; and though all old delusions, relative to his worthless late companion, were now cleared away, he rather wished he had never known him than thought of its having come to this.
Then a little later is this:
The sun came proudly up in all his majesty, the noble river ran its winding course, the leaves quivered and rustled in the air, the birds poured their cheerful songs from every tree, the short-lived butterfly fluttered its little wings; all the light and life of day came on; and, amidst it all, and pressing down the grass whose every blade bore twenty tiny lives, lay the dead man, with his stark and rigid face turned upwards to the sky.
A similar effect is used in my favourite poem by the First World War poet, Wilfred Owen. One need only read the first couple of paragraphs to see the same mechanisms at work. And it is with this poem I shall round off my ‘short’ post.
Spring Offensive – by Wilfred Owen
Halted against the shade of a last hill,
They fed, and, lying easy, were at ease
And, finding comfortable chests and knees
But many there stood still
To face the stark, blank sky beyond the ridge,
Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world.
Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled
By the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge,
For though the summer oozed into their veins
Like the injected drug for their bones’ pains,
Sharp on their souls hung the imminent line of grass,
Fearfully flashed the sky’s mysterious glass.
Hour after hour they ponder the warm field—
And the far valley behind, where the buttercups
Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up,
Where even the little brambles would not yield,
But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands;
They breathe like trees unstirred.
Till like a cold gust thrilled the little word
At which each body and its soul begird
And tighten them for battle. No alarms
Of bugles, no high flags, no clamorous haste—
Only a lift and flare of eyes that faced
The sun, like a friend with whom their love is done.
O larger shone that smile against the sun,—
Mightier than his whose bounty these have spurned.
So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?
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Rob, I want to reply more fully, but I just wanted to say how much I LOVE your thoughts on BATTLE. It makes me appreciate it even more. Just a quick note for now, bc Wilfred Owen is my favorite war poet too – did you ever see that lovely film BEHIND THE LINES, with Jonathan Pryce and James Wilby (as Sassoon)?
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No need to rush in replying… I just wanted to make sure I had popped some thoughts down before it all got forgotten in the mists of time!
I have not seen that film, no – I shall try to find it out
I do recall having seen a version of the play Not About Heroes which is about Sassoon/Owen too 😀
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Don’t feel bad about doing a long comment. You said it was this book was your favorite of the novellas and most of the other comments have been short-ish.