Dickens’s Christmas Books: A Final Wrap-Up

Wherein we wrap-up the Dickens Chronological Reading Club’s discussions on the five Christmas books.

By the members of the #DickensClub, edited/compiled by Rach

Friends, tomorrow we embark one of Dickens’s greatest masterworks, David Copperfield! But although the Christmas books were some of those “extra” reads that not all of us discussed together, we have gems of insight here.

A few notes:

  • The summaries are more in the nature of “quick” summaries, so some of the minor/ensemble characters are not alluded to.
  • I have tried to balance organizing the discussion wrap-up by book and topic.
  • I have not been able to incorporate all of the wonderful comments, but I’ve tried to give a full “essay” space for each member’s special topic–e.g. Chris wrote at length about A Christmas Carol, as did Gaby and Daniel; the Stationmaster wrote at length about The Chimes and Cricket; Rob took on The Battle of Life; Chris and I both touched on memory in The Haunted Man. So, if you see that there are “selections” with a few complete “essays,” it is an effort to offer at least one complete essay per book/member, so as not to run on too long. Please let me know if I missed anyone! All the insights were marvelous and enriching.
  • I did not do a “Final Thematic Wrap-Up” as I do for our novels, partly due to quieter participation during the holidays, but also because we didn’t have weekly wrap-ups, so this final one tries to incorporate the main themes discussed.

Some quick links:

  1. General Mems
  2. The Christmas Books: Quick Summaries
  3. Discussion Wrap-Up
  4. A Look-Ahead to David Copperfield, Beginning 11 April 2023

General Mems

Friends, we had such interesting results from our poll last week! Please see below to the look-ahead for how we’re thinking of proceeding for David Copperfield before making any final alterations to the schedule…and please feel free to share any thoughts on this below.

If you’re counting, today is Day 462 (and week 67) in our #DickensClub! We’ve just finished Dombey and Son and the final Christmas book, The Haunted Man, our fifteenth and sixteenth reads of the group. Today we’re wrapping up the Christmas books before we begin David Copperfield.

No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us. Heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship, The Dickens Society, and the Charles Dickens Letters Project for retweets, and to all those liking, sharing, and encouraging our Club, including Gina Dalfonzo, Dr. Christian Lehmann and Dr. Pete Orford. Huge “thank you” also to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such a marvellous online resource for us.

If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter. And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here.

The Christmas Books: Quick Summaries

A Christmas Carol

“Marley was dead, to begin with.”

“Marley’s Ghost,” by John Leech. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham via Victorian Web.

Is there anyone who doesn’t know the immortal, perfect story of the old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, sitting in his cold counting house on Christmas Eve, so penny-pinching that he’ll only grudgingly give his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit, the next day off? Spurning appeals from charitable fundraisers to help the poor during “this festive season of the year” when “Want is keenly felt, and abundance rejoices,” Scrooge acknowledges himself a supporter of the union workhouses and prisons, and that any who would rather die than go there “had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge also spurns his nephew Fred’s invitation to a Christmas dinner with Fred and his wife (of whom Scrooge doesn’t approve) and calls Christmas a “humbug.”

Scrooge is well and truly alone. He has his solitary meal in a nearby tavern. He returns to his solitary home—only to find, in the door knocker, the image of the face of his former partner, Jacob Marley, who had died seven years ago that very night. Later, the sounds of chains and bells echo through the house, and Marley’s Ghost, laden with chains and shackles like a purgatorial spirit, enters his room. Scrooge, frightened but still skeptical, calls it all “humbug”—until Marley nearly frightens Scrooge out of his wits and forces his attention. Marley has come for a purpose: to induce Scrooge to change his selfish ways before it is too late, before the chain that Scrooge has been forging for so many years becomes unbearably long and heavy. To effect this, Scrooge is to be visited by three Spirits that night—the night of Christmas Eve into Christmas morning.

The first Spirit, the Spirit of Christmas Past, arrives as the bell tolls One. This Spirit takes Scrooge on a tour of his younger days: as a boy at school, reading tales of fantasy and adventure; of Scrooge’s sister, Fan, who loved and cared for him; of Scrooge’s old fiancée, Belle, who had finally had to leave him once the years passed and money became more precious to him than she was. Scrooge, tormented by these recollections, takes the Spirit’s candle-like extinguisher cap, and snuffs out the Spirit’s light.

The Spirit, or Ghost, of Christmas Present arrives as the bell tolls again. The cold adjoining room where the Spirit presides has been transformed into place of holiday cheer, good food, and a warm hearth. The Ghost shows Scrooge how Christmas is celebrated in the remotest places—where miners live, or lighthouse-keepers keep their watch—and in the hearts of men of good will. He shows Scrooge the home of his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit, where his family eagerly celebrates the season in spite of their poverty, raising a glass to Mr Scrooge. Scrooge seems rather touched by the smallest child: Tiny Tim, who is disabled and ailing, and asks the Spirit whether Tiny Tim will live. The Spirit responds: “If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.” The Spirit then shows Scrooge the festivities that he always misses at his nephew Fred’s home, and the truthfully good-humored jabs at Scrooge himself. Finally, the Spirit shows Scrooge the images of two ragged children, representing Ignorance and Want, who take shelter under the Spirit’s robe.

Finally, as the Ghost of Christmas Present’s time draws to an end, the third Spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, emerges in shadow and dread. We see scenes of various groups of people expressing satisfaction or callousness about the death of someone unnamed. Businessmen talking about a colleague…servants selling the dead man’s wares at a dingy pawnbroker’s shop. Scrooge wonders whether there is any sympathy or tenderness for the dead man they speak of, and is afraid to know the man’s identity. Finally, the Spirit brings Scrooge to the churchyard where he sees his own tombstone.

As Scrooge begs to be given another chance, promising to change his ways, he finds that he is clinging not to the robes of the Spirit, but to his own bedpost. It is Christmas morning. “The Spirits have done it all in one night,” and he still has time to live a new life. He buys an enormous turkey for his clerk and family; promises to raise Bob’s salary and help him; gives generously to the poor; reconciles with his nephew and joins in the festivities.

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew…and it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”

The Chimes

“A new heart for a New Year, always!”

by Clarkson Stanfield. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham via Victorian Web.

Should the poor be allowed to celebrate the New Year with hope? Such are Toby—“Trotty”—Veck’s musings as goes about his day as a poor ticket porter and messenger, with the wind whipping and the chimes ringing during the last day of the year.

Trotty’s daughter, Meg, brings him a basket of food (his favorite, tripes). Meg intends to marry her beloved Richard the next day, as they figure their poor lot will never improve and they might as well face it together than apart. However, their chat and his meal are both soured by three persons, including Mr Filer and Alderman Cute, who lecture them about their prodigality, about political economy, about how people are not really starving, and that the only times to think of are the “good old times,” the “great old times” when things were so different. All of this has the effect of casting a shadow over their spirits. Do they even have a right to exist? Trotty is made to feel guilty that he cannot yet afford to pay off all of his debts for the New Year.

A letter that Trotty is delivering from Alderman Cute (to an MP, Sir Joseph Bowley) includes the request for permission to arrest Will Fern, a country laborer in search of London work, for being a vagrant & a troublemaker. As it happens, Trotty sees Will on his return home; Will is hoping to clear up his affairs with Cute, but Trotty warns him of his danger. Trotty and Meg share their food with Will and his orphaned niece, Lilian. Meg is feeling dismal about her marriage. In the news, there seem to be nothing but tragedies.

Trotty goes up into the bell tower, filled with despair; feeling that the world is altogether too dismal a place, and he has no place in it. He swoons, only to awaken to the sight of the goblin spirits of the bells. Trotty, they say, has wronged the spirits by his despair. The Spirit of the Chimes, in the form of a child, shows Trotty his own body on the ground as if he were to have jumped from the tower—and the results of such an action years down the line: Will Fern in and out of prison for his advocacy for the workers and Lilian has been forced to sell herself; Richard falls into alcoholism and Meg marries him for pity, barely surviving and eventually evicted from her home when Richard dies. At last, the turning point comes when he sees Meg destitute of hope and ready to drown herself and her infant child in the river. Trotty begs the Spirit to stop her—that he has learned his lesson to hope, no matter what. He awakens to the morning of the New Year, and the marriage is going forward after all, and friends are gathering to celebrate.

“So may the New Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you!”

The Cricket on the Hearth

The kettle had had the last of its solo performance. It persevered with undiminished ardour; but the Cricket took first fiddle and kept it. Good Heaven, how it chirped! Its shrill, sharp, piercing voice resounded through the house, and seemed to twinkle in the outer darkness like a star.”

by Richard Doyle. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham via Victorian Web.

In the home of Dot and John Peerybingle, a cricket merrily chirps on the hearth, almost in a duet with the kettle. The cricket is, Dot believes, a token of good fortune.

The old humbug Tackleton, however, who employs Caleb Plummer in his toy shop, thinks the Peerybingles should get rid of the cricket. Old Tackleton intends to marry the young May Fielding. Tackleton starts to put doubts in John Peerybingle’s mind, by comparing his situation to John’s—both have, or will shortly have, wives with a great disparity in age in comparison to their much older husbands.

Meanwhile, Caleb’s blind daughter, Bertha, has a mistaken “view” of Tackleton, whom her father describes as kind and good—he is her “eyes,” and colors everything around Bertha, including their poor lodgings and his shabby clothes, with loving deception, as though everything were far richer and more beautiful than they really are. Caleb begins to regret his deception, however, when he sees that his daughter is breaking her heart over the selfish old Tackleton, whom he has described untruthfully, causing Bertha to think him far better than he is.

A mysterious stranger has also entered our scene, and one who is in some way intimately connected with Dot. Tackleton shows John, in hiding, that Dot has secretly met with this stranger & has embraced him. John sees the stranger remove his aged disguise to reveal that he is actually a handsome young man. John begins to doubt his wife’s fidelity. John ponders it over the hearth, the cheering influence of the cricket softening his views, and he begins to think he was selfish to take such a young wife, and intends to let her go quietly.

However, the stranger, it is revealed, was only helped by Dot because he is a friend: Edward, the son of Caleb Plummer, who was thought dead. He has returned, has secretly married May, and all is revealed. Caleb confesses his deception to his daughter about Tackleton–and life in general–who comes to see that it was meant lovingly, even if she has been hurt by it. Dot and John renew their vows.

The Battle of Life

by Richard Doyle. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham via Victorian Web.

Two sisters, Grace and Marion, both reside in a place that was once a battlefield whose conflict has long been forgotten. Their father, Dr Jeddler, merrily considers life a great joke. His ward, young Alfred, is coming of age and going abroad, and it is understood that he and Marion are a couple. Marion is especially attentive to her calm sister, Grace, whose emotions, Marion feels, are not as calm as they appear. Marion believes that Grace too secretly loves Alfred.

Years pass, and Michael Warden, who was a spendthrift who intends to set his life right, is in love with Marion, and dreading the day when Alfred is supposed to return from abroad. Michael’s lawyers advise him to go abroad for a time and live frugally. Upon Alfred’s return, all find that Marion has gone—it appears that she has eloped with Michael Warden. Six years pass, during which time Alfred has fallen in love with Grace, and they have been married and have children, one of whom is named Marion–never forgotten by them.

Marion’s birthday (the anniversary of the battle) is here, and Michael Warden returns from abroad—and there is news that Marion will be revealing all. She returns to her family saying that she had not gone with Michael, as was suspected, but had gone to live with her aunt, knowing that Grace loved Alfred and that her disappearance would enable them to focus on one another, and for him to fall in love with her. Marion marries Michael, and the doctor, their father, no longer considers life to be a great joke, but one full of battles great and small.

The Haunted Man

by John Leech. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham via Victorian Web.

It is Christmas Eve, and Redlaw, a chemistry teacher, broods over his past, and the wrongs that have been done him. He has lost a sister, he has experienced the betrayal of a trusted friend. A phantom appears to him, a doppleganger, like his own worst self, who offers him the “gift” of forgetfulness—forgetfulness of the painful memories in his life. Not only that, but the power to bestow the “gift” upon others. After some time, Redlaw accepts.

We meet the keeper of the college, William Swidger, and his wife Milly who has been caring for a sick student (Edmund Denham, who resides with the Tetterbys) and a ragged child. Redlaw comes to visit the student, who turns out to be the son of the woman he had loved, who had chosen his friend instead. Redlaw’s influence in the house turns the loving banter of the Tetterbys into bitter arguing. Denham, too, is more hostile to Milly after Redlaw leaves, suspecting her reasons for caring for him. Others, too, show signs of the contagion that Redlaw now realizes his “gift” to be. Painful memories are not to be shunned; they are softening and chastening, and deeply intertwined with the memories of love and care. The ragged child who has known only poverty and has no softening memories, doesn’t seem to be affected by Redlaw’s influence—on the contrary, they seem already to be doubles, their vacant expressions the same.

Redlaw prays that his gift be taken away—or if not entirely taken away, at least that he might no more be the cause of this influence over others. Milly is the one he is guided towards as an antidote, a way to reverse the curse. Her very presence at the Tetterbys appears to set everything right, as it does with everyone in the book. Redlaw becomes restored to himself and reconciled to his old friend who had betrayed him, and his old friend to his sick son. The prayer of a college founder in the hall where everyone celebrates together, reads:

“Lord, keep my memory green.”

Discussion Wrap-Up

What We Loved–and Didn’t

The Stationmaster compares A Christmas Carol with The Chimes, and writes of the latter’s strengths and weaknesses, and challenges what Dickens seems to be implying thematically in The Chimes:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

On The Battle of Life, I expressed my own “mixed feelings”–though Rob made me appreciate it more and more after his essay, below–and found that I preferred thinking about the kind of stories that it foreshadowed more than the story itself:

Rach M. comment

The Stationmaster finds the plot to The Battle of Life “dumb,” by comparison to Dickens’s other works, and Marion’s act of self sacrifice “rather crazy and selfish”:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

I respond:

Rach M. comment

On The Haunted Man, the Stationmaster compares the Tetterbys to the Cratchits, considering whether Dickens’s willingness to grapple with both the light and dark shadings of our sympathetic characters in his last Christmas book (as compared with the earlier books) points to a change that will be carried on into David Copperfield and beyond:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

Dickens as “The Man Who Invented Christmas”; A Christmas Carol as a Modern Fairy-Story

Daniel began our discussion of A Christmas Carol (after Boze’s marvelous intro) with several notes, including that it is one of those stories where “the message transcends the writer,” as if Dickens were almost “the ‘transcriber’ of revelation. Dickens’ story, to my mind, is truly and forever revelatory”:

Daniel M. comment

Boze had mentioned in his intro that, in our discussions, I had expressed the sense that A Christmas Carol is a story that seems always to have been; we can’t imagine a world where it doesn’t exist. The Stationmaster responds:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

Gabriela considers the social implications of Dickens’s tale, its “humanitarian” message, and its inspiration to the reader. She also feels that “A Christmas Carol is a story that has been with us forever in our lives”:

Gaby L. comment

Daniel’s comment makes for a wonderful conclusion to this discussion on Dickens as the teller of a modern fairy-tale, and “novice master in the holy order of Christmas Rightly Observed”:

Daniel M. comment

Dickens and “The Dynamics of Conversion”: A Christmas Carol

Chris analyzes the word “change” and the concept of “time” in A Christmas Carol so richly, inspired by the essay from Robert Patten’s articles on “Dickens, Time and Again”:

Chris M. comment

And here is the file that Chris shared (Robert Patten’s essay):

Daniel responds to Chris’s rich essay:

Daniel M. comment

The Chimes and It’s a Wonderful Life

Chris takes on The Chimes, and its likeness to a modern classic Christmas tale, It’s a Wonderful Life:

Chris M. comment

Rob agrees with and is fascinated by Chris’s comparison, and continues the journey, looking into the origins of the film for reference:

Rob G. comment

The Chimes and Cricket: The “Two Halves of A Christmas Carol“?

Stationmaster considers that the two Christmas books after A Christmas Carol (The Chimes and The Cricket) were like the light and shadow elements of the original story:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

I also want to note once again Dr. Christian’s marvelous thread on The Cricket on the Hearth:

The Battle of Life as Fairy-Tale, or Extended Interpolated Tale from Pickwick

Rob beautifully discusses why The Battle of Life is his favorite Christmas book:

Rob G. comment

Dickens and Memory: The Haunted Man

Daniel begins this discussion on memory in The Haunted Man:

Daniel M. comment

The Stationmaster finds the resolution of The Haunted Man “rather disappointing,” especially the way Milly is written, but that “if the book’s final section were as great as the rest of it, maybe it really would be my second favorite [Christmas book].” He questions about the mysterious child:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

In response to the Stationmaster’s comment on the mysterious “child” as a kind of mirror to Ryelaw, Chris responds:

Chris M. comment

The Stationmaster responds that it is less the child than Redlaw himself that bothers him in The Haunted Man, and he is not sure that the negative results from his partial memory loss were effectively portrayed:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

Chris considers The Haunted Man in light of the novel that we are just about to begin, and considers it thematically. “Memory, while often negative and hurtful, can be (should be) a positive and healing force” and that Milly serves as one who can put memories “in perspective for him and allows him to see their healing powers” Just as David, in our next book, “is surrounded by characters who keep him grounded”:

Chris M. comment

The theme of “memory” in Dickens has haunted me from the beginning of our Dickensian journey:

Rach M. comment

Rob shares thoughts on Milly–“yet another iteration” of Mary Hogarth:

Rob G. comment

A Look-Ahead to David Copperfield, Beginning 11 April, 2023

Friends, tomorrow (11 April, 2023) we will begin our journey with David Copperfield. Based on our recent poll, we will extend this over the course of six weeks rather than four. Most of us have voted for the Option 1 extension, but there were quite a range of preferences. Option 1 is something of a middle-ground between keeping the current schedule and extending the club at a greater length; however, we will hold off on making any final decision or altering the entire schedule until we’ve had a chance to try the six-week journey with Copperfield, and take the pulse of the group.

Look out tomorrow morning for Boze’s introduction to David Copperfield! See you in the discussion!

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