‘Like a bad lobster in a dark cellar’ – The Christmas Books by Charles Dickens

Up front you should know I am something of a Dickens buff. Not quite an aficionado, more than just a fan. I’ve read all of the novels (some of them more than once) and can remember having had quite a time of it (the best of Dickens reading, to me, like the novelistic equivalent of holding your hands in front of a raging fire having recently plunged them elbow deep into makeshift piles of snow) with the likes of Dombey & Son, Little Dorrit, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. I’ve also read Ackroyd’s mammoth, masterful (but okay occasionally irritating) biography and Claire Tomalin’s sumptuous reboot. But, to my shame, I had not read any of The Christmas Books until now, thinking (quite quite wrongly) that I was too familiar with ‘A Christmas Carol’ (thanks to a childhood during which Alistair Sims’ Scrooge seemed to stare out of the TV gauntly each Christmas and to a wife who counts A Muppets’ Christmas Carol – a film I now realise is bizarrely faithful to the original – among her favourite films) to get any real enjoyment out of it.

Any review of The Christmas Books has to start with ‘A Christmas Carol’. It is by a long chalk the most famous of these stories (and, as regular appearances in stupid lists of the best 100 books of all time will demonstrate, it’s genuinely thought of as among the one or two Dickens books you should definitely read if you bother to read any at all) – although both ‘The Chimes’ and ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ were also successful in Dickens’ life-time and have managed to sustain interest in the intervening period as stories in their own right (distinct from the collection in which they most seldom appear). It is also – and I say this with genuine surprise, surprised because I am as I’ve said a follower and shouldn’t be surprised by how good Dickens is and surprised because the story couldn’t be more familiar – an absolutely riveting, thrilling, page-turning read. Listen to this. Scrooge is returning home after a hard day at the coal face and his doorknocker transforms into the face of his long dead partner Marley:

‘Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other subjects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.’

Like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. I’m sorry but that qualifies as the funniest sentence I have read this year. In the year 2010 Charles Dickens was responsible for the funniest sentence I’ve read. That alone is a tall measure of the man. But the thing – or perhaps that should be one of the things – I like about Dickens is how he is just as quick to utter a thought that resounds (through the centuries) with vaulting truth. Here he is writing about Scrooge’s first manager, Mr Fezziwig:

‘He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add or count em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.’

If you’ve ever had to work for a good or a bad manager, you’ll keenly feel the truth of this. But we sidetrack ourselves. All you need to know is: even though you’ll more than likely know every twist and turn of ‘A Christmas Carol’ it still reads like a journey into the unknown. It’s uncanny.

Unfortunately however it is – at least as far as this reader is concerned – by far the best story in the book. The remaining tales – ‘The Chimes’, ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’, ‘The Battle of Life’ and ‘The Haunted Man’ – demonstrate that Dickens was not particularly a master of the shorter form. Three of the four share a supernatural element with ‘A Christmas Carol’ and the echo of Scrooge’s transformation from terrible curmudgeon to good-hearted soul who ‘knew how to keep Christmas well’ reverberates through Toby Veck’s goblin misadventure in ‘The Chimes’ and Mr Redlaw’s comeuppance at the hands of a phantom who appears to wear his face in ‘The Haunted Man’ as if Dickens wanted the public to love each of his Christmas stories as well as his first. Everything that there is to love in Dickens – from his radical, reforming zeal (‘The Chimes’ is about as radical a story as Dickens wrote and yet, given the haste with which the story proceeds, it isn’t always clear either what is happening or why) to his love of a certain type of idealised character (see Milly in ‘The Haunted Man’). Perhaps the best story after ‘A Christmas Carol’ is ‘The Battle of Life’ which sees a relationship forged on a childhood promise founder and propel a young man into a marriage with the sister of his sweetheart. If the mystery at its heart is somewhat preposterous – hell, it’s a Christmas story, cut it some slack – it is also worth adding that, even if a story doesn’t entirely crack along as it should (the main problem with these remaining Christmas tales being that you sense Dickens wants to stretch out, give his narrative room to manoeuvre, even as the stories themselves run full tilt towards their climaxes), there are characters deserving of their place within the pantheon of greats. Dot and John Peeryingle in ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ are the best evidence of this in the book.

All told, then, The Christmas Books have primarily obtained classic status as a result of the majestic ‘A Christmas Carol’. The remaining stories are not without interest but they aren’t a patch on old Scrooge. Saying that…

Any Cop?: ‘A Christmas Carol’ is so good that, if you haven’t read it you should read it, now, as a matter of urgency, in time for Christmas.


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