Charles Dickens: Victorian king of Christmas stories

After publishing “Carol” in 1843, success and public popularity inspired his four other short novels for the holiday season
Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

People who know Charles Dickens know Ebenezer Scrooge.

The miserly, miserable Scrooge is the central character of Dickens’ celebrated holiday story, “A Christmas Carol.” The old cheapskate entertains three ghosts on Christmas Eve, endures an evening full of shock treatment and achieves spirited redemption in the final stave.

Readers may not be as familiar with Toby “Trotty” Veck, John Peerybingle and Professor Redlaw — principals in Dickens’ other Christmas stories. After Charles published “Carol” in 1843, success and public popularity inspired him to write four other short novels for the holiday season.

While the “Carol” has survived and prospered, the other tales have mostly remained out of the yule limelight.

*  “The Chimes” was Dickens’ second Christmas yarn, published in 1844. Toby Veck, a poor working man who loses his faith in human nature, is Dickens’ chief subject.

* “The Cricket on the Hearth” came next, in 1845. Honest John Peerybingle hosts the titular cricket by the fireside, a guardian angel for the Peerybingle family.

* “The Battle for Life: A Love Story” attracted more Dickens readers in 1846, some for the twist romantic ending.

* “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain,” in which chemistry professor Redlaw broods over wrongs and grief from his past, was the 1848 project.

There are reasons Scrooge has become a Christmas icon and John Peerybingle has not, according to college literary professors. And still more reasons why Dickens’ works endure 149 years after the Englander’s death in 1870.

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Joel Brattin, professor of literature at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., and former president of the U.S.-based Dickens Society, said quality is the key. While Dickens’ other four Christmas novellas were popular with candlelight crowds of the 1840s, modern readers have never warmed up to the tales.

Brattin puts it simply: “They’re not as good as ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ” he said, during an interview conducted in 2009.

All the Christmas books were side projects.

“He was a very busy writer,” Brattin said. “ ‘A Christmas Carol’ was something he conceived of and wrote while he was in the middle of writing another long novel. ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ was well under way before he ever considered writing ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and he had to keep writing installments of ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ while he did ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and that’s the case for the other Christmas books, too.

“All those were while in the midst of other novels, too,” Brattin added. “All the Dickens novels were not only published serially, they were written serially. So he’s often busy working on two and three projects at the same time.”

Brattin won’t even choose a favorite among the four lesser-known books. But he will recommend the Christmas piece in Dickens’ first novel, 1837’s “The Pickwick Papers,” as a companion to the famous “Carol.”

“It’s the story of Gabriel Grubb,” Brattin said. “It’s really an ancestor rather than a descendant of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ It’s a Christmas story about a misanthropic sexton, a gravedigger who sees spirits after having drunk a great deal of spirits, and changes his attitude. It’s a brilliant little piece. It’s only one chapter in ‘The Pickwick Papers,’ but it really has a lot of the seeds Dickens develops into Scrooge and his conversion in ‘A Christmas Carol.’ ”

Brattin believes “Carol” endures because it was a well-written story. And because Scrooge is such a colorful character.

“The figure of Scrooge is easy to remember as a horrible, miserly person, but he is more than that, and that’s part of what makes the story interesting,” Brattin said. “I think he’s in many ways an appealing and interesting central character. His doubts when he sees Marley’s ghost are like our doubts would be if we met a ghost. I think it makes it easy for the reader to identify with Scrooge and that means the reader can celebrate with Scrooge at the end of the story. … If Scrooge can change, maybe we can to. We could maybe be a little better.”

Here’s a Dickens sampler — passages from all the Christmas works.

* From “A Christmas Carol”

“The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

It was shrouded in a deep, black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. …

He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.

“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?” said Scrooge.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.

* From “The Chimes”

A blast of air – how cold and shrill – came moaning through the tower. As it died away, the great Bell, or the Goblin of the Great Bell, spoke.

“What visitor is this!” it said. The voice was low and deep, and Trotty fancied that it sounded in the other figures as well.

“I thought my name was called by the Chimes!” said Trotty, raising his hands in an attitude of supplication. “I hardly know why I am here, or how I came. I have listened to the Chimes these many years. They have cheered me often.”

“And you have thanked them?” said the Bell.

“A thousand times!” said Trotty.

* From “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. There was an indescribable little trill and tremble in it, at its loudest, which suggested its being carried off its legs, and made to leap again, by its own intense enthusiasm. Yet they went very well together, the Cricket and the Kettle.”

* From “The Haunted Man”

“Here again!” he said.

“Here again! replied the Phantom.

“I see you in the fire,” said the haunted man; “I hear you in the music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night.”

The Phantom moved its head, assenting.

“Why do you come, to haunt me thus?”

“I come as I am called,” replied the Ghost.

“No. Unbidden,” exclaimed the Chemist.

“Unbidden be it,” said the Spectre. “It is enough. I am here.”

* From “The Battle of Life: A Love Story”

“At last, the younger of the dancing sisters, out of breath, and laughing gaily, threw herself upon a bench to rest. The other leaned against a tree hard by. The music, a wandering harp and fiddle, left off with a flourish … The apple-pickers on the ladders raised a hum and murmur of applause, and then, in keeping with the sound, bestirred themselves to work again like bees.

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The more actively, perhaps, because an elderly gentleman, who was no other than Doctor Jeddler himself – it was Doctor Jeddler’s house and orchard, you should know, and these were Doctor Jeddler’s daughters – came bustling out to see what was the matter, and who the deuce played music on his property, before breakfast. …

“Music and dancing TO-DAY!” said the Doctor, stopping short, and speaking to himself. “I thought they dreaded to-day. But it’s a world of contradictions. Why, Grace, why, Marion!” he added, aloud, “is the world more mad than usual this morning?”

Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]


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