None of Dickens’ five Christmas Books quite lived up to the first, A Christmas Carol. Dickens himself came to regard writing a Christmas-themed novella each year a bit of a chore, and, after the turkey that was The Battle of Life in 1846, it appeared that Dickens had given up on it: no Christmas novella appeared in 1847. But Christmas 1848 (a significant year for other historic reasons) saw the fifth and last of the Christmas Books, The Haunted Man; and even if, once again, it is not up to the standards of A Christmas Carol, it is certainly a vast improvement on The Battle of Life, and can easily stand comparison with earlier successes such as The Chimes or The Cricket on the Hearth.
But interestingly, it falls down on precisely the area where one might have expected Dickens to have excelled: when the story calls on Dickens to express joy – and this being a Christmas story, that’s the tone on which it ends – it seems as if Dickens could no longer summon up the enthusiasm, or even the belief that joy was possible. The writer who had previously depicted the warmest and most convivial of Christmases in the Dingley Dell chapters of Pickwick Papers; who had conveyed – though admittedly in his own idiosyncratic and whimsical manner – so convincing a sense of joy in A Cricket on the Hearth, or in the closing pages of A Christmas Carol; seems here unable see much to feel particularly cheerful about. In hindsight, we can see that this was the man who would soon go on to write such dark works as Bleak House and Little Dorrit.
Despite being a Christmas story, the overriding impression this book leaves on the mind is one of gloom. Of course, Christmas itself is set in the gloomiest time of the year, and near the start of this story, there is a bravura passage, some ten pages long, depicting the gloom of mid-winter. This seems to me clearly a fore-runner of the famous opening chapter of Bleak House, depicting the London fog. In both instances, Dickens does not describe anything concrete: he relies instead on what we may call a sort of impressionism, juxtaposing apparently disparate but carefully chosen impressions and details; and he relies also on the sounds and sonorities of the language. Has there ever been, I wonder, another writer with a finer year for the rhythms and cadences of English prose?
The plotline, such as it is, is meagre, but it’s the incidentals that really matter. That, and Dickens’ prose. This being a Christmas Book, the tone is a bit more whimsical than usual, and the action more stagey (Dickens loved the theatre of his day), but speaking personally, I find both these elements attractive. Above all, Dickens relished language, in words. Those who speak of him as being “long-winded” seem to me to be missing the point: the words are the point, and Dickens delighted in finding out new ways of combining them for expressive ends. Dickens’ prose style is as far removed from minimalism as can be imagined: the texture of his writing has about it a linguistic opulence, a Christmas-pudding richness, that we, over the last century or more, appear to have fallen out of love with. And, speaking as someone who loves exuberance and tends to find plainness a bit boring, I can’t help thinking that’s a bit of a shame.
The story, such as it is, concerns a kindly man who is tortured by painful memories of the past, and who is granted a supernatural gift: he will forget all past sorrows. Also, those he comes into touch with will also forget their past sorrows. He agrees to this, but realises something is wrong: with the removal of his memory of past sorrow and grief, his natural human compassion and fellow-feeling also disappear. When he goes on a charitable mission, it is only out of a cold sense of duty, not out of love. And worse, he infects all he meets with the same.
The one person he cannot touch is a street boy who has been neglected and brutalised since birth: this boy cannot be touched as the feelings of fellowship and of the compassion that springs from our sense of a shared humanity have not had a chance to develop in his breast.
A bundle of tatters, held together by a hand, in size and form almost an infant’s, but in its greedy, desperate little clutch, a bad old man’s. A face rounded and smoothed by some half-dozen years, but pinched and twisted by the experiences of a life. Bright eyes, but not youthful. Naked feet, beautiful in their childish delicacy, – ugly in the blood and dirt that cracked upon them. A baby savage, a young monster, a child who had never been a child, a creature who might live to take the outward form of man, but who, within, would live and perish a mere beast.
This figure harks back, of course, to that still horrifying scene in A Christmas Carol in which the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two children, Ignorance and Want, who have been made ugly by their miserable earthly experience. Dickens here repeats his apocalyptic warning: on the brows of such children is written the doom of mankind. (Bleak House, which he wrote soon after this, is full of brutalised children: indeed, the brutalisation of children, of children forced to be adults, is one of his major themes. And, as a stroke of genius, he added another character who is an adult, but who pretends to be a child.)
As the story progresses, it’s the incidental details that often make the greatest impression. Here, for instance, is another figure who clearly fascinated Dickens – the young woman forced by material circumstances into prostitution:
There was a woman sitting on the stairs, either asleep or forlorn, whose head was bent down on her hands and knees. As it was not easy to pass without treading on her, and as she was perfectly regardless of his near approach, he stopped, and touched her on the shoulder. Looking up, she showed him quite a young face, but one whose bloom and promise were all swept away, as if the haggard winter should unnaturally kill the spring.
With little or no show of concern on his account, she moved nearer to the wall to leave him a wider passage.
“What are you?” said Redlaw, pausing, with his hand upon the broken stair-rail.
“What do you think I am?” she answered, showing him her face again.
He looked upon the ruined Temple of God, so lately made, so soon disfigured; and something, which was not compassion – for the springs in which a true compassion for such miseries has its rise, were dried up in his breast – but which was nearer to it, for the moment, than any feeling that had lately struggled into the darkening, but not yet wholly darkened, night of his mind – mingled a touch of softness with his next words.
“I am come here to give relief, if I can,” he said. “Are you thinking of any wrong?”
She frowned at him, and then laughed; and then her laugh prolonged itself into a shivering sigh, as she dropped her head again, and hid her fingers in her hair.
“Are you thinking of a wrong?” he asked once more.
“I am thinking of my life,” she said, with a monetary look at him.
He had a perception that she was one of many, and that he saw the type of thousands, when he saw her, drooping at his feet.
“What are your parents?” he demanded.
“I had a good home once. My father was a gardener, far away, in the country.”
“Is he dead?”
“He’s dead to me. All such things are dead to me. You a gentleman, and not know that!” She raised her eyes again, and laughed at him.
“Girl!” said Redlaw, sternly, “before this death, of all such things, was brought about, was there no wrong done to you? In spite of all that you can do, does no remembrance of wrong cleave to you? Are there not times upon times when it is misery to you?”
So little of what was womanly was left in her appearance, that now, when she burst into tears, he stood amazed. But he was more amazed, and much disquieted, to note that in her awakened recollection of this wrong, the first trace of her old humanity and frozen tenderness appeared to show itself.
He drew a little off, and in doing so, observed that her arms were black, her face cut, and her bosom bruised.
This abused, badly beaten woman does not appear again in the story, but one suspects that it was figures such as she, or the feral child, who now occupied the greater part if not the whole of Dickens’ imagination, leaving no space for the delight in life and the joy that he expressed so convincingly only a few years earlier. The ending here seems forced.
So what went wrong? It’s easy to come up with pat formulae – e.g. “it is too stagey”, or “it is too sentimental”, but that won’t do. The ending of A Christmas Carol is also stagey, but it works fine. As for sentimentality … well, it’s virtually impossible to define criteria that determine what is sentimental, and what isn’t. (I have previously written on this topic here.) But when an author attempts to communicate profound emotion, and falls short, then the result almost invariably appears sentimental, and giving Dickens the benefit of the doubt, this is what I think happens here. Dickens never shied away from attempting to depict emotion: indeed, that is one of the reasons I value him so highly. When he succeeds, the results are superb; but when he falls short – well, we have this.
Nonetheless, the weakness of the endings should not detract from the gloomy power of the rest of the story, or from the flashes of Dickens’ idiosyncratic humour – as are apparent in the pages depicting the marvellously eccentric Tetterby family. The impression the story leaves behind, however, is that it is the work of a man who is optimistic by nature, but who can no longer see much to feel optimistic about.