When one has a hobby they love and yet lives in a world in which, realistically speaking, that hobby cannot be thoroughly enjoyed on a daily basis, when said person is given ample time to indulge in his or her hobby, a restlessness is created. The time that was not there just weeks before is now in contrast nearly unlimited, and when that hobby is reading, concentrating can be quite difficult. For instance, if for five months one has been able to read for fun only at very rare occasions, then is thrust into a scenario in which he is able to read for hours upon hours at a time, he feels in some small degree a bit guilty. As if he is stealing time. And that predicament is exactly where I discovered myself these last couple of weeks. And while attempting to read a great series of stories, I constantly felt I must be doing something, anything, but reading for the pleasure of it.
This unfortunate scene I found myself placed in has occurred these last two weeks as I attempted to read Charles Dickens’s Christmas Books, a series of five Christmas stories written between 1843-1848, the halfway point of his career. At this point in his life, Dickens had earned an established literary career, completing six popular novels before taking a “break” from novels in writing five shorter Christmas stories. Before I begin this merry little post about the five stories, I must confess that, as was early described, concentration was highly lacking, and while there will certainly be inconsistencies to follow, Dickens himself had the same problem, so I merely follow suite.
To say that these are strictly “Christmas” stories might be a bit deceiving. The only story that actually revolves around Christmas at all is the popular A Christmas Carol, which is undoubtedly the best of the five. Because of its popularity and easily being head and shoulders above the rest, I will comment on it briefly. A Christmas Carol, written in 1843, has the most tightly wound plot of the five stories documenting three visits of Christmas ghosts on Ebenezer Scrooge. Those familiar with the story, recall what each of the three ghosts represent: Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future. While they were originally supposed to present themselves on three separate nights, Scrooge wakes up after the third vision to find out that only one evening of specters has occurred and resolves to change his ways from a boorish old man to a generous advocate of the season. Though one of the most popular and most widely read of all of Dickens’s tales, this was actually my first time with the story. The central theme or moral I received was actually discovered fairly quickly. Scrooge’s first apparition shows him his past Christmases, which were full of good cheer and hope, but the present Scrooge had no merriness within him. I feel in my own life, as I am sure with many, that as the years go by, I lose much of that giddiness I may have once had as a child come Christmas time. Though it is surely immature to get riled up for the materialistic nature of the holiday, no one should ever grow out of the natural love they have for those around them, love which a child gives without hesitation, but adults often keep bottled up. “For it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.”
The next four stories do not retain the same structural significance that A Christmas Carol does, and therefore, their appeal is not as great as strictly Christmas books. They function better as holiday stories as two of them center around the New Year’s holiday. The next book in the series is The Chimes followed by The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man. Due to my unusual ability to concentrate as I read, and probably because I read these stories too quickly, I will simply state what I liked and disliked about them as a whole, commenting on only two.
The most satisfying of these stories was certainly The Cricket on the Hearth. This story is of an old man who has a beautiful young wife. After bringing home a stranger one day who is supposedly deaf, the old man, John Peerybingle, begins to suspect that he is being cuckolded by the stranger, a common plot device used in English literature. Mr. Peerybingle resolves to violently put an end to this stranger’s ways and as he contemplates doing so, he is warned in a vision of the Cricket on the Hearth not to do so. He instead begins to feel greatly ashamed that he put his young wife, Dot, through such a marriage, and believes she deserves a young man. His love for her is so great, that he confesses his plan of “taking the fall” for Dot and allowing her to divorce him for a younger man. Dot overhears this conversation, and the end is resolved as the stranger happens to be a family friend who has returned for another love altogether. While this plot and resolution is shaky compared to A Christmas Carol, the way in which it was told was absolutely delightful, what with characters such as Miss Slowboy, the house servant, who doesn’t speak much but makes the best use of her words — often saying what everyone else is only thinking. This story had a very Shakespearean feel to it. While in many of Shakespeare’s plays a few wardrobe changes create mass chaos (with comedic or tragic outcomes), so the stranger’s disguise is merely used to further a theme. And the theme is good and well told, so it suffices for me.
The Battle of Life, a love story was the second best of the stories in my opinion. Much like The Cricket on the Hearth, the story line seemed sketchy at times. (I’m still left wondering which love story was actually supposed to be a love story; though, I vote for Britain and Clemency). The story seemed to take quite a twist at the end when the reader finds out that the real intended love story was actually Marion’s sacrificial love for Grace. Marion, who is proposed to marry Alfred Heathfield decides that she will run away with another man, Michael Warden, instead. Marion, is actually not in love with Alfred, and she (somehow) knows that Alfred and her sister Grace would be great for each other. So for six years she has left her home, and in the meantime, Grace and Alfred do indeed fall in love and get married, having a small child. After six years, Marion returns to explain that she never actually ran away with Mr. Warden but merely used him as a cover-up. She had instead been staying at her aunt’s house. After her return she explains that her deep love for her sister Grace kept her from marrying a man she was not interested in, allowing for Grace to marry that very man who she loved. As you can probably see, the story makes very little sense happening as such. In the end, Marion does marry Michael Warden, and a happy ending is achieved. The best love story in the tale, however, is the marriage between the servants Britain and Clemency. Britain is by far the most humorous of the characters, and in my opinion, the greatest love stories that take place in Dickens’s works (and perhaps any author’s) occur between the unlikely relationships of the servants or working class. The relationships of the poor always feel far more real to me because Dickens’s has such a way of creating a diverse set of poor, all with select personalities. No two poor people can marry for money or social status or avarice. Dickens seemed to understand this, and the best romances are those of the poor.
The other two stories, I must confess, are the two I failed to concentrate much on while I was reading. The Chimes did not captivate me in the least, and in The Haunted Man, I felt that I only truly felt myself drawn in when I was reading about the Tetterby’s, perhaps the most delightful family in the all five of the stories. Due to this minor catastrophe, I will not comment on these two stories so as not to misrepresent Dickens or present myself as a purely ignorant. Hindsight has taught me a few things in this which I will proceed to comment on concerning reading.
1. Do not bite off more than you can chew. This seems simple enough, but I believe that I proceeded to give myself a deadline when reading these stories (i.e. Christmas, naturally) that was far too rushed. Had I chosen this Christmas to read only two or three of the stories, I would have been far better off in the end. This leads to my second point.
2. Read slow, Read slow. Context is certainly important here. When reading something such as a math textbook, newspapers, phone books, Twighlight, The Hunger Games, or even this blog, the idea is to read as quickly as possible (for the five former because you highly desire to finish and be done, for the latter because you are surely inspired). However, when reading certain authors who actually take the time to write slowly and purposefully (Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, etc.) it is highly important to read these men as slow as you possibly can. The slower you attempt to read these stories, the better they become because you don’t miss everything like I did this time through. Instead, you begin to pick up on little things here and there, and every inane description becomes such an incredible joke by the end of the paragraph that you almost forget you are even reading at all, and the pleasure of reading becomes the pleasure of a conversation with a very witty individual.
In all of this, I learned some valuable lessons. Now to recap and conclude this Yuletide reading by the Christmas tree (as I am sure you are doing even now). In the end, I discovered that I strongly prefer the longer novels of Dickens to his novellas, primarily because he can better flesh out his characters. Nevertheless, some themes that stuck out to me throughout these five stories included the one I already spoke of: not losing that childish fervor you once had in the season. It is so easy to feel a bit of a let down on such holidays as we grow older. I believe it is because as we grow, time speeds up, and the holiday season flashes by. Christmas is actually just another “day” if you think about it. Twenty-four hours that otherwise would mean nothing, but though I do believe in the meaning of the season that is not directly where I am headed for the purposes of this post because Dickens wasn’t headed there. His stories consisted of the underlying theme of love for humanity and those we hold dear. As one scholar puts it, he “sought to associate moral goodness… with communal sharing, making the best of what we have, and seeking to affirm life while recognizing that we are all travelers to the grave.” Scrooge lost that perspective long ago, and he took out his pain on everyone he met, conceding to a life of pity and self-centeredness, eventually reclaiming his youth. The other characters redeem themselves as well. Marion is no longer perceived as a selfish runaway, but one who gave up a lover and a fortune for her sister. Dot is willing to stick with John even after he would allow her to be with a younger man. Often we simply forget our past giddiness, and as the old Philip Swidger says, “Lord, keep my memory Green!”