Looking at Dickens’ Christmas Stories, Part 2
The first snow falls and I am slapped with the urge to watch holiday movies and read holiday books. There’s no filter here: put classic by cheesy, predictable next to startling, current with outmoded–I don’t care. if it’s a holiday story, I’m in.
But the line-up has to include Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in print and on the screen. And after attending Gerald Dickens’ one man show of his great-great-grandfather’s Christmas classic recently, I’m adding ‘on stage’ to the list of possibilities.
I have A Charles Dickens Christmas, a three-story volume of the author’s Christmas tales. Published by the Oxford University Press in 1976, it boasts scarlet headers and print for special emphasis, and sepia-tinted pen-and-ink style illustrations by Warren Chappell. It’s a likable book; it’s nice to hold and easy on the eyes, bringing an old-friend feel to its classic stories.
A Charles Dickens Christmas contains A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, and The Cricket on the Hearth. Every year when the furnace goes on and the mad urge to bake shortbread cutout cookies seizes me, I pull the book from the shelf and read about Ebenezer Scrooge and the good luck of Tiny Tim.
This year, I decided to read a Dickens story about which I’d never much thought, and about which I knew very little: The Chimes. Although it’s billed as a Christmas story, it’s set at New Year’s, and it tells the story of Trotty–Mr. Toby Veck, who is a ‘ticket-porter’. That means Toby stands in the lee of an old, old church, waiting for anyone who might need him to run an errand. The church’s chimes are company for him; they toll the hours, mark the highlights of the day. Trotty hears messages in the peals of those bells.
He’s not the swiftest messenger, our Trotty, although he makes a great show of hurrying–which is how he earned his nickname. But he’s sincere and honest, hardworking and reliable. So he doesn’t deserve the high-handed sarcasm lowered at him by the likes of Alderman Cute, who is, indeed, too cute by half.
But Trotty does deserve the love of his beautiful young daughter, Meg, a girl as virtuous as she is lovely. The story begins with Meg bringing her old dad a rare fine lunch treat, wrapped up nicely and securely, on a cold New Year’s Eve. She treats him to a steaming dish of tripe,and talks to him about her wedding plans.
And along come Cute and company; they make everything that was so delicious taste like cardboard.
Unlike Scrooge, Trotty has, to start with, a warm heart and a generous soul; he welcomes poor Will Fern and Fern’s beguiling little niece Lillian into his home for the holiday. Meg is kind and gentle with the timid little Lillian; Trotty insists that the exhausted Will Fern take his own bed. It must be the change of mattress that roils Trotty’s sleep; he is woken by the insistent urge to visit the church steeple, to commune with the chimes. And therein lies the tale: the bells morph into goblins, and they show Trotty the future.
Like Scrooge, Trotty gets a chance to see what might have happened. And just as in A Christmas Carol, the potential future is not pretty. The people Trotty loves encounter devastating poverty, broken love affairs, alcoholism, cruelty, and prostitution. Ouch! But Trotty is not required to transform himself; all he has to do is wake up and keep on being the kind and decent father, friend, and colleague he’s been all along. And when he does, the picture rights itself, and the goblins within the bells recede, leaving only the beauty of the music.
The possible outcome here is much grittier and more street-wise than the visions the spirits share in A Christmas Carol, and the resolution is a little more mundane and a little less magic. But still, these are clearly the visions of a loving, kind, and honorable man. Reading The Chimes and seeing Gerald Dickens inspire me to find out more about Charles Dickens, the man.
I borrow a slim biography from the local library, The Best of Times, by Peggy Caravantes. And I read about Dickens, who was born in the early 1800’s to a father who was in and out of debtors’ prison, a father who could not stretch his money–although he was not reluctant to work–to cover his dreams for his family. So he borrowed and fled, borrowed and fled. His son was contemptuous but dedicated; he went to work (his year as a boy-worker in an Industrial Revolution era factory informed a great deal of his writing) and continued to contribute to his family’s well-being all his life.
But there were other things, more disturbing things, that struck me about the author’s life. Dickens seems to have had an eye for very young, very lovely girls. His own wife, Catherine, bore him ten children and grew, reporters noted, grossly fat, and then he banished her, giving her adequate, but not generous, financial support and keeping most of her children from her. She was not invited, for instance, to her own daughter’s wedding. Charles had a much younger lover by then, and he set the girl and her mother up in a nearby household.
Meanwhile, his unmarried sister-in-law kept his house and participated in Catherine’s exclusion from the children’s lives. When Dickens died, his housekeeper received many times more the bequest than her hapless, lonely sister did.
Dickens admitted that, after the children grew out of amusing, cute babyhood, he lost interest. He was tight-fisted with his money, even after his popularity grew along with his earnings. When Henry, the most successful of the children (and Gerald Dickens’ great-grandfather) won a substantial scholarship and thought he could now be comfortable in his law studies, Dickens senior subtracted the amount of the scholarship from his support of Henry’s education. Henry finished his law studies in penury, just eking by; his father could have made his life much more comfortable.
(And Tiny Tim, in real life, by the way, DID die; Dickens modeled the character after his sister’s son. His sister died young; the following year, her little boy joined her.)
A bundle of contradictions, that Dickens, who funded a charity for poor women, single mothers, and reformed prostitutes, but was often cold and stingy in his dealings with those closest to him.
When I was in undergraduate school, I disagreed with a lit professor who was adamant in this: the author’s life and the author’s works should always be kept separate. I felt strongly that the times, the people, and the challenges that shape a person also shape his or her creations, and that the two could not be separated. But now I see what he meant–although I’m still not convinced he’s entirely right.
Knowing that Dickens was not a man known for ‘keeping Christmas in his heart’ changes the way I read his holiday stories–amid the joy and new resolve of the satisfying endings, I feel a seeping-in, too, of sadness, a little clunk of a false note.
It’s a sadness that seeps even closer, from our own times, this month. My son Jim discovered The Cosby Show not too long ago, and he really enjoyed the 1980’s ensemble sitcom. We had been watching episodes together,–watching Bill Cosby’s portrayal of the lovable, witty, admirable Heathcliff Huxtable. And then the accusations about Cosby hit the media, with cries of rapist and horrible stories of sexual imposition. (For Jim, to whom the world is in sharp focus, right and wrong and black and white having no shaded areas, that was the end of his Cosby Show enjoyment.)
Think of the good that Cosby the man has done, encouraging reading in children across the country, bringing to mainstream entertainment a portrayal of a Black family whose members were smart, successful, funny—and honorable. Weigh that, if the accusations are true, against his crimes.
Think of the good that Dickens did, challenging his government to consider its treatment of the poor, encouraging individuals to be kinder and more loving. Weigh that against his treatment of his family.
Does knowing the life of the creator taint the creation? Even as I borrow the Patrick Stewart version of A Christmas Carol from the library–a bit of family viewing for the day of the first real snowfall–the question unsettles me.