The Works of Charles Dickens/Volume 18
The Works of Charles Dickens
In Thirty-two Volumes.
With Introductions, General Essay, and Notes
by Andrew Lang.
Printed from the Edition that was carefully corrected by the Author in 1867 and 1868.
Dickens's "Christmas Books" had their efficient cause in financial disappointment. It has been stated, in the Introduction to Martin Chuzzlewit (1843), that the novel fell far below the pecuniary success of the earlier works, and that the publishers talked of putting in force a certain clause in their agreement of 1841. By the action of that clause the author's profits would be considerably reduced. Dickens projected a residence abroad, in the interests of economy, and in October and November, 1843, he composed the Christmas Carol, a severe addition to his work on Chuzzlewit. His brain worked at unusually high pressure; "he wept, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner"—so he says. The book, published just before Christmas, 1843, had a success which was then considered great, though far below what now falls to the lot of authors who, like Dickens, have really caught the popular fancy. Many sorts of books, it seems probable, were more freely purchased by our grandfathers than by ourselves, but the successful author of modern fiction would smile at the "thousands" of the Christmas Carol. Only fifteen thousand copies were disposed of in the course of a year, at the price of five shillings. But, for the first six thousand, he received what he regarded as the disappointing reward of £230. "And the last four [thousand] will yield as much more. I had set my heart and soul upon a thousand, clear." Sir Walter Scott regarded twopence in the shilling as a fair ratio of an author's profits on a book. On this plan Dickens would have received £300, not £230, for 6000 copies of a five-shilling book. He finally got £726 for 15,000, which comes pretty near to Scott's idea of what is right, but the wonderful result "of such a great success" was "intolerable anxiety and disappointment." "My year's bills, unpaid, are terrific." He had, it seems, spent money on the strength of expectations which were defeated by the sudden, and inexplicable, fall in his popularity. Mr. Forster thinks that "want of judgment had been shown in not adjusting the expenses of production with a more equable regard to the selling price." Coloured woodcuts by John Leech are expensive luxuries, and probably did not add, in due proportion, to the success of the work. Dickens changed his publishers, as has been already seen, and went abroad.
If not financially, the book was indeed a success of appreciation. It founded "the Carol philosophy," and was warmly praised by Mr. Michael Angelo Titmarsh. "The last two people I heard speak of it were women," says Thackeray; "neither knew the other, or the author, and both said, by way of criticism, 'God bless him'" The book was pirated, and Dickens suffered much, in the Court of Chancery, during his efforts to stop the robbers. He complains of "expense, anxiety, and horrible injustice."
The Carol was the first of five Christmas Books. The traditions of Christmas, the explosion of good will, the ancient survivals which give ghosts a kind of holiday at the winter solstice, were combined. The old-fashioned phenomena of clanking chains, derived from classical superstition, might, at Christmas, be blamelessly revived. The result is an allegory. Mr. Scrooge vainly pleads the popular theory of the origin of hallucinations: "You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato;" but Marley's ghost is that rare phantasm, a ghost with a purpose and a moral: "The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business." Mr. Scrooge's eyes were opened to the invisible myriads of spectres of the unconsoled, and the result is his conversion to—"Carol philosophy"—Christianity illuminated by the flames of punch. He beholds the Christmas of his boyhood, before he was a maker of money for the mere love of the game. He sees the end predestined for a man who has lived his life. Above all, he sees the Christmas of the clerk whom he bullies, and underpays, and knows nothing of; and his heart is wrung, like Thackeray's, by Tiny Tim, who is to die. In vain Mr. Scrooge talks of "decreasing the surplus population;" and now "Carol philosophy" dashes itself against the iron laws of the universe. It is not inconceivable that earth may come to hold more people than it can support, though it is probable that these laws will never allow this destitution to become an actual fact. But the processes by which it will be prevented are inconsistent with aught but wide-sweeping misery, famine, plague, revolution, and war. For this wretchedness "Carol philosophy" may offer a sympathetic palliative, but not a cure. The past and the future show black, and merriment is not the end of the great humorist's Christmas stories. You cannot escape the realities of things by "loving your love with all the letters of the alphabet." However, Scrooge, personally, was a better and happier man for his visions, and made other people happier. The universal practice of "Carol philosophy " has never yet been tried, and is not likely to be put into such a form as will solve the riddle of the painful earth. The minute inquirer will ask whether "Carol philosophy" had not something to do with the "terrific" nature of Dickens's Christmas bills. As literature, the sketches of jovial life, and of the miserable end of the selfish man, and his robbed death bed, are brilliant and effective.
The Chimes was written in Genoa, and the title was suggested by a burst of the bells in that isle sonnante. The Christmas story was a social manifesto. Dickens wrote "in a regular ferocious excitement," "wrathful and red-hot," and "fierce to finish in a spirit bearing some affinity to those of truth and mercy." Ferocity of mercy is, indeed, a common result of meditation on poverty and oppression. A sketch of the tale was sent to Mr. Forster. The parts of Fern and Lilian do not occur in the first draught. "The book has made my face white in a foreign land," he says, so heartfelt was his protest against the idea of a surplus population, and the notion that the poor have no business to live. Apparently it is the rich who have no business to live. The egregious Sir Peter Laurie, who meant to "put down " everything, including "all sick persons and young children, 11 appears in Alderman Cute. The friend of "the good old times" is the Young England Party, probably. The scene with the tripe—caricatured, of course—represents the abstract science of Political Economy in concrete action. If we ask Dickens what remedy he proposes, we get no more answer than from Mr. Carlyle. A better and more humane spirit is recommended—that is all. The infinite grievances are forcibly presented, but the speculative imagination looks in vain for a system which will introduce peace, plenty, and universal good will among immense industrial populations. This is not joyful matter for Christinas, and is not to be made roseate by vague optimism.
The book was finished on November 3, 1844, the author ending, he says, with "a good cry." Dickens came to London in the end of the month, and read his story in Mr. Forsters rooms, to several friends, including Carlyle. The sales of the book were twice as great as those of the Carol. But Mr. Charles Dickens thinks that possibly "for the general public the powder was found to bear a rather undue proportion to the jam, and they did not, altogether care about having so intensely earnest and serious a protest presented to them in such a form." This is, indeed, the normal objection to novels with a purpose—novels on topics which, to some minds, seem to demand the most impartial handling. But it was for such work that Dickens "hoped to be longest remembered," says Mr. Forster. "So may each year be happier than the last, and not the meanest of our brethren or sisterhood debarred their rightful share in what our great Creator formed them to enjoy." It is the old Aristotelian crux of "distributive justice."
The Cricket on the Hearth was originally intended for the title of a serial, something in the nature of Household Words, a plan long caressed by Dickens. He meant to chirp away "until I chirped it up to—well, you"—Mr. Forster—"shall say how many hundred thousand." But the foundation of the Daily News interfered with this plan, and, in summer, 1845, Dickens determined to use the title for a Christmas book. It is curious to contrast his Christmas Books with Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring, and Dr. Birch, and The Kickleburys. These are not stories with a purpose, though not devoid of satire on Thackeray's favourite themes. The Cricket was, what it was styled, "a fairy tale of home," and was written without the storm and stress of its predecessors. Than these the Cricket was more popular, which is difficult to explain. The plot lacks probability; the pathos of the blind doll-dresser perhaps reconciled the general taste to this, and to the exalted language of the characters. The piece has been dramatised several times, and is better adapted to the stage than to the study. Tilly Slowboy is almost the only character in the fantasy who recalls Dickens at his best, for the "fairies " are not more successful than modern fairies in general, and the humour of animating the kettle, and, in fact, of all the introductory matter, has ceased to please, being worn threadbare by imitators. The doll's dressmaker has been credited with suggesting Desirée, in M. Daudet's Fromont Jeune et Risler Alné though the resemblance may be a mere coincidence.
The Battle of Life, as has been already said, was begun in the stress of writing Dombey(July, 1846). Dickens was "a little used up," and sick. At the end of September, in Genoa, the state of his health, and the double labour of two books, made Dickens think of abandoning the Christmas tale. He finished it, however, while complaining of limitations of space. Leech, who illustrated the story, was confused as to the plot, and introduced Michael Warden where he had no business to be, in the scene of the elopement. Though this "made havoc of one of the most delicate scenes," Mr. Forster says that nobody noticed it. Dickens did not interfere, at the last moment, out of consideration for Leech.
The author suffered from insomnia, while driving the long and the short story together from the first—a feat which he had never attempted before. "I dreamed all last night that The Battle of Life was a series of chambers impossible to get to rights or get out of." Mr. James Payn remarks that he never knew a novelist who dreamed of his characters; but Dickens appeal's to have been an exception to a rule which, if really general, is a curious fact in psychology. Some novelists, like Mr. Stevenson, have owed their characters to their dreams. Criticism must remember the physical condition of the author, overworked and not in a congenial environment, when it estimates both Dombey and The Battle of Life. The excessively complex solution of the sisters' problem does not secure our belief, and could only be made plausible by devoting to their characters, and to that of the useful aunt, the space bestowed on the unessential humours of Dr. Jeddler, and of Messrs. Snitchey and Craggs and their wives. Clemency is a repetition of the Peggotty motive, and, in vulgar modem phrase, the story might by some be called a not very successful "pot-boiler." To discuss that opinion would be to plunge deep in the ethics of literary production. Dickens, we may say, was not consumed by a desire to tell the story of the self-sacrificing sisters. None of the characters had acquired possession of his genius, and haunted him till he gave them literary existence. The remote date, in the last century, was chosen merely for the costume, and there is not a shadow of an effort to reproduce the tone and manners of 1740, or whatever the date may be. The book was written merely because Dickens wanted to make more money. So far it was a genuine "pot-boiler." Yet he threw himself into it with a will. "I know that by what it cost me," he says; and he asked Mr. Forster to keep an eye on his involuntary blank verse "I cannot help it when I am very much in earnest."
It has been already remarked that Dickens's unconscious blank verse is probably a token of intellectual fatigue. The whole subject of unconscious blank verse is curious, and a study of it might reward an inquirer. I have not observed it in Scott, nor in Thackeray, who writes it printed as prose, for amusement merely. But one should examine several authors carefully in search of this automatic form of poetical expression. I have noticed it in the work of excited lady novelists, and an American translation of the Odyssey nominally in prose, is largely in blank verse. Observing this, I examined a prose version of the Odyssey in which I had a hand, and found more blank verse than I liked, or expected. However, this is probably natural in translating poetry. We may attribute Dickens's "dropping into poetry" to earnestness or to fatigue, or to both. He was, at all events, sensible of his tendency. His earnestness, which was unfeigned, relieves him from much of the reproach conveyed in the undignified term which has been cited. But he was working against time, and invita Minerva. In letters to Bulwer Lytton, who admired the piece, he recognised his need of more space, and more time, if he was to do justice to his conception. That conception is somewhat "stagey," and the story has been adapted for the stage both in France and England.
"The very ghostly and wild idea" of The Haunted Man occurred to Dickens in 1846, dimly conceived; but the book, postponed in 1847, was composed in 1848. Dombey interfered, and 1847 was without a Christmas book. The idea of The Haunted Man is one that might have occurred to Hawthorne, but even he could scarcely have made it plausible in the exposition. Dickens does not seem to have rated Hawthorne high. "The psychological part of the Scarlet Letter is very much overdone," he says; and Hawthorne might have replied that the psychological part of The Haunted Man is very much underdone. "The child out of nature altogether," Dickens says of Pearl, that charmed fantasy. But the Haunted one is "out of nature" also. Fantasy is a perilous field, and psychology was not the forte of Dickens. To lose our memories of wrong done to us would not, it may be argued, destroy sympathy with grief; and Mr. and Mrs. Tetterby, under the ghostly influence, do not lose memory of wrong, but suddenly become conscious of it, even where it did not really exist. Thus the allegory fails, but the virtues and humours of the Tetterbys remain eternally delightful. For all his moral Christmas ghosts, and his interest in the ghostly, Dickens never, I think, wrote a good ghost story au naturel. He brought in the fantastically grotesque: he had not the success in this province, because he had not the seriousness, of De Foe, Scott, and Bulwer Lytton. He could not but bow to the philosophy of Scrooge and indigestion. The Haunted Man was his last Christmas book; in his Christmas numbers he was aided by other hands.
The narrow space within which it was necessary to confine these Christmas Stones when they were originally published, rendered their construction a matter of some difficulty, and almost necessitated what is peculiar in their machinery. I could not attempt great elaboration of detail, in the working out of character within such limits. My chief purpose was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good humour of the season justified, to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land.