The Magazine

The Ghost of Christmas Past

From the December 24, 2001 issue: Charles Dickens's triumph.

Dec 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 15 • By J. BOTTUM
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Social criticism, in its turn, tried to claim Dickens as merely the unsystematic brother of Marx and Engels, and "A Christmas Carol" as simply the more popular version of "The Condition of the Working Classes in England in 1844." Even more sensible critics did little better, consistently preferring to think about authors like William Makepeace Thackeray and George Eliot instead. Louis Cazamian found little in Dickens besides a philosophie de Noël. Orwell knew in his bones that Dickens was an author "worth fighting for," and yet he finally had to argue against Scrooge's conversion, on the grounds that Dickens never grasped the social--as opposed to the personal--structure of evil. F.R. and Q.D. Leavis painted themselves into such a corner that they ended up insisting "Hard Times" was Dickens's most important work. Even critics as good as Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling didn't really succeed: They were too honest to deny that Dickens was, like Shakespeare, the great writer of his age, and then they went back to reading authors on whom they could actually use their gifts.

Curiously, postmodernism managed better, not in its multicultural aspect of race, class, and gender, but in its fascination with language--for one of the things that makes Dickens run is language. Think of the names in his fiction: Scrooge and Jarndyce and Betsy Trotwood and Oliver Twist. And think of his propensity for describing inanimate objects with the adjectives of life. It is the "higher form" of nursery stories, for Dickens needn't bother with brooms and wardrobes magically come alive. The life and the magic are in the words. In the Cratchits' kitchen, the "potatoes, bubbling up, knocked loudly at the saucepan-lid to be let out and peeled." Scrooge has "a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again."

The most Dickensian moment early in "A Christmas Carol" comes when Scrooge arrives home in the evening to see Marley's face in his door-knocker: "He did pause, with a moment's irresolution, before he shut the door; and he did look cautiously behind it first, as if he half expected to be terrified with the sight of Marley's pigtail sticking out into the hall." English literature has had perhaps a dozen authors who could or would have done the door-knocker. Only Dickens is capable of the pigtail.

At the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Dickens squanders five hundred words (out of twenty-eight thousand in the story as a whole) describing the shops of a fruiter and a grocer:

There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were . . . Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.

That phrase "the great compactness of their juicy persons" could be imitated if one tried. Most parodies of Dickens get no further than the Dickensian sentimentality and philosophie de Noël. But it was this sort of odd, wordy construction that James Joyce, with his infallible eye, seized upon when he reached Dickens in the historical parodies of English prose that make up the maternity chapter of "Ulysses." And the truth is that Dickens's language could be peculiar; this is the man who gave English the phrase "our mutual friend," when what he meant was a shared or common friend.

WHAT CAN'T BE IMITATED is the energy. The Edwardians were right about Dickens's Victorianism--except that he was a hyper-Victorian, with all the virtues and vices of his age raised to something like the platonic ideal by the enormous power of his stamina. The biographer Edgar Johnson seems mistaken when he says that Christmas has for Dickens only "the very smallest connection with Christian theology or dogma." There's plenty of Christianity in the Christmas books, from the preface, in which Dickens claims his purpose was to write "a whimsical kind of masque" that might "awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land," to the most sentimental moment in "A Christmas Carol," in which Tiny Tim "hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."

But Johnson is at least correct that the secularizing impulse has begun its implacable work. Even G.K. Chesterton, normally Dickens's most consistent defender, complained that Dickens, faced with the single event around which the world has developed the most mythology, decided to invent his own Christmas mythology. But that's because traditional Christmas images actually involve the Christ who will become the Savior with his death and resurrection, and Dickens always wanted to avoid the hard cosmological edges of Christian theology. To read "The Life of Our Lord" that Dickens wrote for his own children is to think the key moment in Christian history is Christmas, not Easter, and the key teaching of Jesus is "Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven." This is a massive diminishment of what St. Paul knew was the scandal of Christianity, but it's very Victorian--a reflection of all that was advanced, generous, liberal, high-minded, and doomed in the Gladstonian vision of a modern Christian state. "English flatheads" and "little moralistic females à la George Eliot," Nietzsche called them, who thought they could preserve Christian morality without much Christian religion.

IN THE MONTHS before "A Christmas Carol" was written in 1843, the serial publication of "Martin Chuzzlewit" had not been going well, the first of Dickens's full novels to receive less than universal acclaim. His sending of his characters Martin Chuzzlewit and Mark Tapley off to America helped, and, as he later noted, the book gradually "forced itself up in people's opinion." But Dickens lived on his popularity; he needed esteem, and the tepid response to "Martin Chuzzlewit" brought home to him just how tired he was. He was supporting a huge household beyond his income, he had to act as his own promoter and copyright protector, and he had written six major novels in seven years. "It is impossible to go on working the brain to that extent for ever," he told Forster. "The very spirit of the thing, in doing it, leaves a horrible despondency behind."

So he decided, in cold, commercial calculation, that he would write a Christmas story and make the 1,000 he needed to take his family away to Italy for a long vacation. Of course, being Dickens, he couldn't leave it alone. He began "A Christmas Carol" early in October and completed it before the end of November--while, as he described it, he "wept and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner in the composition; and thinking whereof he walked about the black streets of London fifteen and twenty miles many a night when all sober folk had gone to bed." Demanding to oversee every aspect of publication, he forced upon his publisher expensive plates and bindings, and although the book's first printing sold out in a single day, the initial quarter's profits brought him less than a third of the money for which he had hoped.

That, too, was Dickens. As prolific an author as there has ever been, he was always living not on what he had done, but on money received for the promise of his next book. When "A Christmas Carol" was finished, he and Forster "broke out" like madmen, with "such dinings, such dancings, such conjurings, such blind-man's-bluffings, such theatre-goings, such kissings-out of old years and kissings-in of new ones [as] never took place in these parts before. . . . And if you could have seen me at the children's party at Macready's the other night . . . "

Jane Carlyle did see him at that party for the actor William Charles Macready's children. She hadn't slept well for weeks--hadn't slept at all for two nights--and she was quarreling again with her husband, Thomas Carlyle. But once there, she found herself, like everyone else, caught up in the Dickensian world. "Dickens and Forster, above all, exerted themselves till the perspiration was pouring down and they seemed drunk with their efforts," she described it in a letter.

Only think of that excellent Dickens playing the conjuror for one whole hour--the best conjuror I ever saw. . . . Then the dancing . . . the gigantic Thackeray &c &c all capering like Maenades!! . . . After supper when we were all madder than ever with the pulling of crackers, the drinking of champagne, and the making of speeches; a universal country dance was proposed--and Forster seizing me round the waist whirled me into the thick of it, and made me dance!! like a person in the treadmill who must move forward or be crushed to death. Once I cried out, "Oh for the love of Heaven let me go! you are going to dash my brains out against the folding doors!" "Your brains!!" he answered, "who cares about their brains here? Let them go!"

The party rose "to something not unlike the rape of the Sabines!" and then Dickens carried Forster and Thackeray off to his house "'to finish the night there' and a royal night they would have of it I fancy!" But Jane Carlyle went home and slept--and slept and slept, her first healthy sleep in what felt to her like years. There's some deep reflection in that scene, an image for the age: The mad Victorian extrovert Charles Dickens, his most popular story just finished, gathering up everyone around him and infusing them like puppets with his own Christmas energy. And in it, the mad Victorian introvert Jane Carlyle at last finding peace.

J. Bottum is Books and Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.