Sunday, 4 October 2015

Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens (consisting of A Christmas Carol, 1843; The Chimes, 1844; The Cricket on the Hearth, 1845; The Battle of Life, 1846; The Haunted Man, 1848)

Originally Written in 2008

In late 1843 Charles Dickens was needing to pay off some debt and so he conjured up A Christmas Carol very speedily in the hope that it might provide him with some much-required funds. It enjoyed great success, and so the publishers repeated a "Christmas story" every year, with a break in 1847.

A Christmas Carol is, of course, extremely fondly remembered, and is one of the most adapted and retold stories in the entire Western canon. It is deservedly remembered, too, and probably the best of these five short stories. Its successes lies with the fact that it progresses very naturally from its regular Dickensian Victoriana to a fully-blooded supernatural tone. The story is charming and heartwarming; it's not all hunky-dory and Muppet-y as we might remember from our Christmas Day viewings, of course. There are some truly heartrending sequences and taken as a whole it works very well. And it sets the absolute gold standard for any story conveying the "message of Christmas", however ambivalent we might feel towards such a concept in our secular age.

The Chimes, the second Christmas story, is good but not great. This story also mixes the supernatural and the realistic together throughout, but it's a mix that never really manages to fully satisfy the reader. The later 'standard' bits with cast-off Dickens grotesques don't read well and are only slightly redeemed by the excellent conclusion. There are definitely some good bits; the story begins and ends well, and the characterisation of Trotty Veck is enjoyable. The bizarre supernatural scenes involving the chimes influencing people's lives and the "Goblin of the Bell" make this a somewhat darker and creepier tale than it would otherwise have been.

The next story, The Cricket on the Hearth, was allegedly very popular on initial publication - but I can't for the life of me see why. It reads like a poor early draft of The Chimes but with none of the supernatural flair. Its central characters are dull and one-dimensional, the "God bless us, every one" themes this time round are far too sickly and over-sentimental, like that one Christmas where you eat far too many sweets. Leave this in the confectionery box unwrapped.

The Battle of Life is better - not the best, but still reasonably interesting. It starts well and features some great descriptive passages, and is mostly delightful simply because it feels so relaxed and laid-back, with no cramming in of supernatural elements. It squarely hits its goal of being "full of heart and warmth" where The Cricket on the Hearth never managed it; and its characters are fun, especially the excellent partnership of Snitchey and Craggs.

Dickens really seemed to be back on form, however, when he returned to Christmas stories with The Haunted Man, two years later. This story is much, much darker and more supernatural than almost everything he ever wrote, beating even A Christmas Carol in that regard. The disturbed mind of Mr Redlaw the chemist, and the phantom which frequently visits him, are perfectly captured in this chilling ghost story; the characters are excellent, from the pleasant Mr and Mrs William to the unhinged old Philip and his oft-repeated refrain of "I am eighty-seven!" Overall, it's one of the most enjoyable of the bunch, and a fitting end to this series of Christmas tales.

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