“The Cricket on the Hearth” by Charles Dickens

An elderly, kindly man is married to a much younger woman. Then, out of nowhere, a stranger appears, and it seems that he is a figure from the young wife’s past, and that she is in love with him. The older husband is stricken by jealousy, and even considers killing the stranger. But then, having considered the situation, comes to feel that it is he who is in the wrong – that it was wrong for him to have married a woman so much younger than himself, and possibly, in the process, have thwarted her own desires and aspirations. So, although he still loves her – indeed, because he still loves her – he offers her freedom.

I could be describing a play by Ibsen here. Indeed, this is, more or less, the central dramatic action of The Lady From the Sea. But no – I am describing here one of the strands of The Cricket on the Hearth, the third of Dickens’ Christmas Books, a series that had started with A Christmas Carol. Dickens never did recapture the genius of that masterpiece: The Chimes, that followed the year after, was a dark and angry work – very powerful in its way, but lacking much sense of festive cheer, or any of the whimsy or exuberance we associate with Dickens at Christmas. Here, in The Cricket on the Hearth, he seemed to go the other way: the darkness is effectively banished, and we get nothing but the whimsy and the good cheer: even John Peerybingle’s jealousy dissipates almost as soon as it starts, and, unlike the Ibsen play where the possibility of the young wife leaving her husband was all too real, there is little danger of that here: it is all a misunderstanding here, and is wiped out quite painlessly. There is little danger, indeed, of anything: and there, perhaps, is the problem. The sense of joy at the end of A Christmas Carol was convincing because it was hard-earned; here, it is hardly earned at all. In A Christmas Carol, on the way to all that joy and rejoicing, we had been allowed to glimpse into the abyss: here, the abyss doesn’t even exist. There are very few shadows in this work, dark or otherwise: even the Scrooge-like figure, Tackleton, doesn’t seem that monstrous, and is easily accommodated into the general rejoicing at the end. Of course, this is a fairy tale, and a very whimsical fairy tale at that, but fairy tales, no matter how whimsical, need more than their fair share of darkness, and Dickens’ refusal to supply any – possibly as a reaction to the excessive darkness of The Chimes – results in a sort of flatness, a lack of those contours that mould figures and give them shape.

And yet, the themes were there, and, as A Christmas Carol demonstrates, neither whimsicality nor a fairy tale format need inhibit serious treatment of serious themes. But in his depiction of the Peerybingles, there doesn’t seem to be much awareness at all of the potential thematic richness: it’s not that I was expecting an Ibsenite dissection of marriage; but I was entitled to expect, I think, something not quite so superficial as this. Even the night where John Peerybingle wrestles with his conscience – a passage that really should have been the climactic point of the work – is dispatched in a quick couple of pages or so.

And then, there is the motif of the blind girl. The very motif of a young blind girl who imagines her world to be something grander than it actually is may appear sentimental to modern taste, but once again, there is potential here – as Chaplin demonstrated so triumphantly in City Lights. But Dickens makes surprisingly little of it. Even the scene where the blind girl is told how shabby everything really is around her does not make much of an impact. The problem is not that it is “stagey”, or “sentimental”, or “melodramatic”, or any of those other epithets that are regularly aimed at Dickens by his many detractors: it is, rather, that neither the staginess, nor the sentimentality, nor the melodrama, seems particularly well handled. It’s almost as if Dickens’ heart wasn’t in it. I frequently got the impression reading this that he was merely going through the motions; that, indeed, he was producing another Christmas Book for no better reason than that the public expected it of him. Perhaps.

And yet, The Cricket on the Hearth was immensely popular in Dickens’ own lifetime. Since I do not subscribe to the idea that public taste necessarily improves over time, I couldn’t help wondering whether I had approached this work in the wrong frame of mind – whether I had not been ideally responsive to this because I had failed to make the leap of the imagination that any fiction requires from the reader. That, too, is possible.

The next in the Christmas Books series was The Battle of Life – a real Christmas turkey that I’d prefer not to re-read: there’s nothing quite so depressing as a favourite writer writing badly – in this case, very badly. The year after that he gave it a rest, but then returned the next year with The Haunted Man, a splendid piece that was excessively florid even by the standards of Dickensian prose, and which was, like The Chimes, almost unrelievedly dark. It seems that the man who had given us Christmas at Dingley Dell could now see little in the world worth celebrating, or rejoicing over.

Well, we needn’t repine: The Cricket on the Hearth may be a bit of a flop, and The Battle of Life even worse; but The Chimes and The Haunted Man, dark though they both are, are wonderful works, and A Christmas Carol is a work beyond compare – a work one can return to year after year without ever feeling it has become stale. And anyone who says otherwise gets a punch on the nose from me – season of goodwill or no!

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Very interesting! I will have to check these out. Great write!

    Reply

  2. The premise is like what would’ve been had John Jarndyce actually married Esther Summerville!

    Agreed on A Christmas Carol: a truly great piece of work.

    Reply

  3. I like what Scott said. Also what you said, Himadri. In these shorter works, it is somehow easier to see Dickens reacting to his own books, working on his own problems.

    I rank them exactly as you do. The Haunted Man is murky and even incoherent, but has some wonderful passages. The Battle of Life is not worthy of the author.

    Reply

    • The Haunted Man and The Chimes really are dark, aren’t they? Dickens seemed to have forgotten that he was writing festive works, and, as a consequence, produced two of hi smost powerful (if not necessarily his most coherent) works.

      Reply

  4. I am currently conducting a six-week discussion of David Copperfield, and I am struck by how connected it seems to The Haunted Man, written a few months before he started work on David Copperfield, and at about the time that he must have written the “autobiographical fragment” that makes its way partly into that novel. “Lord, keep my memory green,” the tag line for the Haunted Man, is also what Dickens is mining in his own life, and the older narrator David is doing when looking back on his younger self. The power of memory, always a potent force for Dickens, can’t be understated as a learning tool for reflection on the present. I’m reading David Copperfield this time (probably my seventh or eighth read) as a man looking back on my own life, and the novel is richer this time for that effort. Agnes still challenges, but David Copperfield contains some of Dickens’s most glorious characters (Aunt Betsey, Mrs. Steerforth) and some of his most symphonic prose (the climactic storm is only one of many beautiful set pieces).

    Reply

    • Hello, and welcome to this bog.

      I wrote a post on The Haunted Man about a couple of years ago. As with The Chimes, it is, I think, the darkest of the Christmas Books. And yes, Dickens seemed much engaged with the theme of memory, and of how our memory of the past creates what we are at present. According to Michael Slater’s biography, Dickens was, at the time, immersed in Wordsworth’s The Prelude, which, of course, deals with similar themes.
      When I was about ten or eleven, I used to read and re-read the first third or so of David Copperfield. I never could get too interested in those days in the novel once David had grown up: I used just to read the childhood chapters, and the scene where Betsey Trotwood sees off the Murdstones (as I say, I never really got further than that in those days!) used to be to me quite cathartic! I have, if course, read the full thing since, and, while I do love the rest of the novel now, it never quite, perhaps, lives up to the brilliance of the childhood chapters. I really cannot think of any other author – possibly not even Mark Twain – who has captured so vividly a child’s mind,

      But of course, the rest of the novel is wonderful too. Agnes is certainly dull – as indeed is the adult David: Dickens never could work out how to handle young romantic lovers, given the conventions of the day. As for Dora, she would have been splendid as an incidental comic character (rather like Madeleine Bassett in the Jeeves and Wooster stories), but such a character cannot really bear the dramatic weight placed on her by being David’s romantic interest. (I think the idea is that David is attracted to Dora because she so resembles his mother.) But there is so much in recompense! As you say, there is a wealth of magnificent characters – Micawber, Betsey Trotwood, Uriah Heep, Steerforth, the Peggottys, etc. etc. Betsey Trotwood has always seemed to me a sort of early version of Miss Havisham – a woman embittered by her life’s experience into a sort of misanthropic eccentricity. But of course, she is nowhere near as extreme as Miss Havisham, and her upbringing of David humanises her. And Little Em’ly, with her desire to be a lady, certainly foreshadows Pip. I think Rosa Dartle is also a superb character, although, given the mores of the time, Dickens couldn’t perhaps delve too deeply into her sexual jealousy. Whathe does give us is, I think, quite wonderful.

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

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