“Bartholomew Fair” by Ben Jonson

A friend of mine, who has been an avid theatre-goer for more years than I think he cares to remember (he knows who he is!) tells me that he has seen a few productions of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, and that it works very well indeed on stage. Which frankly surprised me: I did enjoy reading it, but it seemed to me that there was so much play on language that is likely to be lost on modern audiences; that there were so many contemporary references; that there was so much use of stock comic characters and situations that were then easily recognised, but have now fallen by the wayside; that any modern production would have to work very hard indeed to make an impact. Even as I was reading it, I had to consult the annotations frequently, and, alas, even the best of jokes lose something when they have to be explained through scholarly exegesis.

It’s a teeming, bustling play, with a vast array of characters – rogues, fools, eccentrics, madmen, conmen, bawds and whores – all thrown together in Smithfield market in London on Bartholomew Fair. It is a play that delights in colour and exuberance; and, true to the tradition of British humour from Chaucer to Dad’s Army or even the Carry On films, it delights in human eccentricity. Eccentricity is inevitably, to a lesser or greater extent, subversive in nature, since it cannot do other than disrupt a well-ordered society: the greater the divergence from the norm, the more dangerous the challenge to the authority whose purpose it is to maintain order. It is perhaps for this reason that eccentricity is so potent a force in comic tradition: order is no doubt important if we are to maintain the stability of society; but equally, cocking a snook at the guardians of order is important if we are to maintain the sanity of individuals. This, I think, has been long recognised, even by those in authority: the very day after the first performance of this play in Hope Theatre, Bankside, in 1614, it was performed at Court, without any controversy at all. Authority seemed more than happy to have a snook cocked in its direction – whatever that may literally mean.

I suppose it could be argued that this lack of controversy even when performed in court argues a lack of bite in the pay itself, but I’m not sure Jonson intended the comedy to have any “bite” as such. Sure, neither of the two figures of authority in this play – the Justice of the Peace Adam Overdo, and the Puritan humbug Zeal-of-the-Land Busy – come out well: Overdo follows the time-honoured ruse of walking amongst the commonality in disguise to observe their ways, but here, meets only with receiving a good thrashing (Jonson’s age, like Fielding’s being remarkably less squeamish than ours in these matters), put into the stocks, and, finally, humiliated when the prostitute he thinks he is unmasking ends up being his wife; meanwhile the splendidly named Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, surely a forerunner to Dickens’ Chadband, has the piss ripped out of him something rotten. But Jonson’s mood in this play is one of geniality rather than anger: at the end, the entire cast, bawds and whores and even Puritans, are all invited to dinner. Authority has been suitably mocked, but now that’s over, Jonson, rather than rub it is, is more concerned with celebrating a sense of community, however difficult it may be to believe that such a rag-bag of strange and weird characters could possibly cohere together to form one.

The plot is minimal, and Jonson doesn’t seem too interested in it anyway. Once the exposition in Act One is over, and we find ourselves in Smithfeld market, Jonson’s interest is not in the plot at all, but in his remarkable cast of characters: those scenes that advance he plot seem almost to be dropped in here and there casually. Some of the comic characters are, it must be conceded, tiresome: one doubts, for instance, whether Whit’s provincial accent represents any great height of comic inspiration – although, I suppose, his talk of “shitting” when he means “sitting” could raise a laugh or two. But there are many others who are presented with such tremendous exuberance and comic gusto that it perhaps doesn’t matter too much that one needs to consult the notes to fully get their jokes: good comic actors can, I suppose, get laughs out of just about everything.

After all, there’s more to comedy than mere joke-count. This is not of course to denigrate the importance of the joke-count: I’m sure Jonson himself didn’t. But at least as important as the joke-count is the creation of a comic environment, an enticing fictional milieu that can accommodate the author’s comic vision. Without the creation of such a milieu, all we’d end up with is the equivalent of a joke-book: pleasant to dip into perhaps, but tedious to read from cover to cover. And Jonson’s comic milieu is one full of colour and vigour and vitality, peopled with strange and mad characters who all share so much their creator’s love of words that none of them can bear to stop talking. Not even to get the plot moving.

Some of the comedy in Bartholomew Fair is old and time-honoured, but it’s funny nonetheless; the servant being smarter than the master is always good for a laugh (as Wodehouse well knew), and if in this instance the master, Bartholomew Cokes, is merely the traditional silly arse, his servant, the wonderfully short-tempered, irascible and waspish Humphrey Wasp, continually taking offence at everything, is a delight. Then there’s Ursula, the “Pig Woman” and keeper of the jordans for those who need to relieve themselves – a  vast, Falstaffian character dripping sweat and constantly deflating the pompous and the pretentious with her no-nonsense earthiness; there are crooked and roguish ballad-sellers, tapsters, hobby-horse-sellers, cutpurses; there’s a character named Trouble-All, wandering in and out of the action demanding that there be legal warrants for everything, and that nothing must on any account be done without one; and there’s a Punk Alice, described in the Dramatis Personae as “Mistress of the Game”. And so on. And no matter how roguish or how foolish or how plain mad they are, Jonson seems to love them: the only character he appears to dislike is the killjoy Puritan Zeal-of-the-land Busy, but even he isn’t excluded from the dinner invitation at the end. Whether he will accept or not, and how he could possibly fit into the communal celebrations even if he does, Jonson prefers not to address. The existence of those who will not, can not, fit into a general harmony causes problems for the comic writer: the likes of Malvolio or Beckmesser create uncomfortable dissonances that disturb the harmony. In Twelfth Night, the dissonance deepens the shadows in the play, without, by some miracle, distracting from the comedy; the dissonance at the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg remains, on the other hand, for me at any rate, somewhat uncomfortable. But jonson allows no such dissonance at the end of this play: whatever we may feel about Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, it is swept away by the general air of geniality and good humour. After the mocking of authority, all is forgotten and forgiven: what remains is celebration.

This play is, in essence, Jonson’s love-letter to London, and to the people of London. It is not, I’d imagine, a very easy play to put on in modern times, but given that it can still hold the stage, I’d love to see it performed. I imagine, though, that the jokes would be delivered in performance somewhat more quickly than I managed to read them.

“The Spanish Tragedy” by Thomas Kyd

Revenge has been central feature of many a drama, right from the earliest times to now, encompassing everything between the highest of brows and the lowest – from the Orestia of Aeschylus to the Death Wish films of Michael Winner; from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus; from westerns and gangster films of varying quality to the blood-drenched “video nasties” that so exercised our moral sensibilities some thirty or so years ago.

The reason for its appeal across so vast a range is not difficult to discern. At the basest end, it provides violence that titillates us, but which we can nonetheless enjoy in good conscience because some of the violence we know will be punished, while the rest of it we know is perpetrated in a just cause (both Titus Andronicus and Death Weekend occupy this end of the spectrum). Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the theme allows us to ponder such important matters as justice and morality. It encourages us to consider the ultimate futility of meting out injury for injury, and, simultaneously, the moral decadence of not meting out injury for injury. The dilemma is with us still: those who fight dragons become dragons themselves, Nietzsche had warned us; and yet, those who don’t fight dragons allow the dragons to become stronger. It is a horrible moral bind to be in, and it is hardly surprising that those writers who think long and hard about the human condition find themselves fascinated by this seemingly insoluble moral impasse. And neither is it surprising that those who don’t think so long or so hard relish the opportunity of the violent titillation this theme affords. Either way, it makes – if not necessarily for good drama, then, at least, for drama that holds the attention of its intended audience.

The “revenge tragedy” was an important genre of its own in Shakespeare’s days, and one of the seminal works of that genre is Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, written in the 1580s when Shakespeare was still a young man, and popular enough to be revived in 1602 (with additional scenes possibly by Ben Jonson, no less) when Shakespeare was at his height of his career. It is not, to be honest (and to anticipate somewhat the conclusion of this post), a particularly major work of literature. But then again, one shouldn’t spend all one’s reading time exploring the great peaks: one should know also something of the plains from which the peaks rise. Masterpiece this isn’t, but it’s a diverting enough work. Kyd isn’t interested in the psychology of revenge; neither is he interested in the morality. What he is interested in is pacing the story in such a way as to keep the audience interested in what happens next, in creating tension, and in providing shocks and sensational stage effects. We have a sensational stage effect in the very first scene, as the ghost of the recently deceased Don Andrea enters with the Spirit of Revenge. And together, they sit and watch the events unfold, much as we, the audience, do. In the course of the action, we have villainy, treachery, murder, false imprisonment, attempted forced marriage, suicide, and, of course, madness. Hieronimo goes mad after his son is brutally murdered: there are some splendid scenes of his mad ranting. And if one person going mad makes for good theatre, two people going mad makes for theatre twice as good: Hieronimo’s wife is introduced for no other purpose than for her to go mad also. And then there’s the splendid finale – a play-within-a-play (an idea Shakespeare was more than happy to recycle), but here, the stage-within-the-stage violence is real. Which, of course, can take us into Borgesian labyrinths should we be that way minded (if the violence within the play-within-the-play is real, then might not… etc.) but I doubt any of that was in Kyd’s mind: he saw it for what it was –a sensationally good stage effect. And should we be tempted to think that all this excessive violence is a bit tongue-in-cheek, Hieronimo caps it all by biting his tongue off and spitting it out of his cheek, to ensure that torture doesn’t make him talk. Splendid stuff.

Presumably, this was the sort of thing the audiences of the time wanted, but I must confess myself a bit puzzled by this: these were cruel times, when torture was commonplace, floggings, beheadings, and hanging, drawing and quartering were all public spectacles. Why were audiences so keen to see simulated violence when the real thing was happening just outside the theatre? In all the accounts I have read of Tudor and Jacobean theatre, I have never seen this question addressed. But whatever the reason behind this, simulated stage violence was undoubtedly popular, and the genre of the revenge tragedy seemed a perfect vehicle for giving the audience what it craved.

In the introduction to my Oxford edition, editor Katharine Eisaman Maus spends much time discussing the social distinctions underpinning the drama. The victim of the crime, Horatio, and his avenging father Hieronimo, are, she points out, effectively top ranking civil servants in the court, and are thus somewhat below the aristocratic villains in terms of social ranking. Interesting though this is, I am not convinced that Kyd had any interest in social hierarchies of the court other than as a means to enable the plot. For, obviously, there can be no need for revenge at all if the law may be relied upon to redress the wrong; thus, in any tale of revenge, there must be a good reason why the law cannot be relied upon – either because the law is inefficient, or corrupt, or because, as in the earlier parts of The Oresteia, such a law doesn’t even exist. At the end of The Oresteia the drama is resolved with the establishment of a legal institution capable of redressing wrongs, thus making redundant individual acts of vengeance. But The Oresteia was set in mythical times: The Spanish Tragedy on the other hand, is set in roughly the same time in which the play was written, so some explanation must be provided on this score to make the revenge plot intelligible. And the explanation here seems to be that the villains, occupying a higher social rank than Hieronimo, can block his access to the king. The element of social ranking thus seems to me a plot device more than anything else: certainly, Kyd shows no particular interest in exploring this theme for its own end, and to focus on this element is perhaps to give the play a greater significance than it possesses.

Kyd went on to write a play based on the Hamlet story. This play has not survived, so it is impossible to judge how much Shakespeare took from it; but if Shakespeare did indeed take anything significant from this play, one can only surmise that it was, artistically, a far greater achievement than The Spanish Tragedy. For, in trying to discern what influence if any The Spanish Tragedy may have had on the works of Shakespeare, the answer seems to be – apart from the plot device of the play-within-the-play – “very little”. Amongst other things, Shakespeare doesn’t even seem very interested in the theme of revenge. Apart from the early play Titus Andronicus – in which I cannot see any glimmerings at all of artistic ambition – Hamlet is the only play in the Shakespearean canon in which revenge plays a major role. After that, despite the immense potential of this theme in tragic drama, it appears in Shakespeare’s tragedies only on the periphery of the action rather than at the centre: it is, for instance, Macduff who is motivated by revenge, not Macbeth. Even in Hamlet, Shakespeare seems  uninterested in some of the major aspects of the theme, such as, say, the morality of revenge: once Hamlet is satisfied that the ghost is really the spirit of his father, and that Claudius really is his father’s murderer, this most persistent of questioners never even questions whether or not revenge is morally justified. This issue that so exercised the imaginations of the great Athenian tragedians appears not to have concerned Shsakespeare at all. If Shakespeare’s audiences really did crave revenge tragedy – and the existence of so many plays by his contemporaries in this genre indicates that they did – then Shakespeare seems on the whole to have been swimming against the popular tide in refusing to satisfy them. And if The Spanish Tragedy is indeed representative of the plain from which the peak of Hamlet rises, then, for all the undoubted entertainment value of Kyd’s work, it must be conceded that the height of the peak from the level of the plain is immeasurably great.

On New Year resolutions, and a few other matters

After the festivities, the austerity. Several of my friends have committed themselves to going through the first month of the New Year without alcohol, penitent, it seems, for the sin of having enjoyed themselves earlier. Others have come up with New Year resolutions that seem designed to make life as unpleasant as possible: give up fried food, exercise more, go to the gym, and the like. (It never ceases to astonish me, incidentally, that those paying vast amounts for the privilege of exercising in a gym appear not to have figured out that taking a run round the park is free.) If Christmas was designed to brighten up the gloom of a bleak mid-winter, we seem intent upon returning to all that gloom and bleakness with a fanatic relish afterwards. As for myself, I must confess that, ageing sybarite that I am, all this mortifying the flesh to purify the spirit leaves me feeling distressingly alienated. For, in the words of Falstaff, he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; and who in their right senses would consider a life purged of all its pleasures, and laden with various self-imposed vicissitudes, to be a life worth having – even for the single penitential month of January? Give me life, says I! If I can have it, so; if not, the gym comes unlooked for, and there an end.

Not that I haven’t made a few New Year resolutions myself, of course. Not perhaps New Year resolutions, since they had been formulated log before the New Year, but, all the same, resolutions for this coming year. I want to devote myself to the arts and literatures of Shakespeare’s times. To this end, I have lined up for myself the Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse – a large and forbidding tome with which I am determined to familiarise myself; the Longman edition (which is the most heavily annotated version I could find) of the poems of Donne, along with the Cambridge Companion to Donne, which, hopefully, will give me some critical insights that I could then pass off here as my own; various plays by contemporaries of Shakespeare – Kyd, Marlowe, Webster, Jonson, Ford, Middleton, Tourneur, Dekker, Heywood, and the like; and the collected essays of Bacon and of Montaigne. (The latter died when Shakespeare was still a teenager, but Montaigne seems so important an intellectual influence on Shakespeare, that it seems ludicrous for any self-respecting Bardolator not to know his works well.) And I want to read Don Quixote in a modern translation: my preferred translation till now has been the one by Tobias Smollett, who was, of course, a fine novelist in his own right, but, lively and ebullient thought that version was and still is, the more recent translations are, I am told, more accurate; and since we already have John Rutherford’s highly rated Penguin translation on our shelves (it is a favourite book of my wife’s), there seemed little point getting another one. On top of all this, I would like to familiarise myself with the art and music of that period: the last few weeks have been spent listening to some of the choral music of William Byrd, including the three magnificent masses (which, in those days in Protestant England, had to be performed discreetly behind closed doors), and also to some of the songs of John Dowland. I really am not at all familiar with music of this era, but I suppose repeated listening is the best way to familiarise myself.

My resolution to immerse myself in all this has, admittedly, been put on hold for a while by a couple of books presented to me for Christmas by my brother: Think by Simon Blackburn, an introduction to laymen such as myself to some of the major concepts and arguments of Western philosophy; and The Soul of the World by philosopher Roger Scruton, in which the author (and I am merely paraphrasing the blurb here on the jacket) argues for the importance in our lives of a sense of the sacred (a term, I presume, the author will define somewhere along the line), and, to anticipate somewhat, concludes that “despite the shrinking place for the sacred in today’s world … the paths to transcendence remain open”. My brother presented this book to me with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment that he thought I would like it because I was “into all that mumbo-jumbo”. He was referring to my fascination with Dostoyevsky, a writer for whose irrationality and religious fervour my brother has little patience: and he is right: I am, indeed, into all that “mumbo-jumbo” – at least, up to a point. The idea that I am more than the sum of my constituent physical parts is one to which I do find myself emotionally attached, despite all the arguments and the lack of scientific evidence that may be ranged against it. So I would be very interested indeed to know what a philosopher such as Scruton has to say in defence of this idea, irrational though it may well be. Well, let’s not pre-judge: I’ll write about all that once I have read the book.

But the first two weeks of the January I have spent reading Blackburn’s book. I am still debating whether or not to write a blog post on it: of what value, after all, can the thoughts be worth of a not-very-knowledgeable layman regarding a book written by an expert on very profound and complex matters? Should I not merely restrict myself to saying that I found it illuminating and fascinating (and a few similar words looked up in the thesaurus) and leave it there? Anything more and I would merely be making a fool of myself! But this blog is as much a personal diary as it is a public platform, so perhaps a jotting down few words describing my own reactions to the book rather than presuming the critique the book may not be entirely amiss. I’ll see how confident I feel about it. And some time not too much later, I most certainly want to read Scruton’s book. And write something about that too, if I can pluck up the courage to do so.

But for now, I am going to immerse myself in Donne. By the end of the year, I want to count myself as one knowledgeable about this poet, of whose work I am currently aware only in a very haphazard manner. And may I wish everyone out there that your New Year resolutions – even if it is spending more time in the gym – brings you as much joy as mine promise to bring to me!

Hurt sentiments: a postscript

I don’t know if this happens to other bloggers, but it happens to me. I write a blog post; I go through it, polishing the sentences as best I can, and correcting all the typing errors and grammatical solecisms that I can find (I am not very good at this latter bit); and then I hit the “Post” button. And only then do I think of something else I should have said, but didn’t. And it’s too late now: I can’t put up a new post just to include a few sentences I had omitted from the last one.

Or can’t I? It’s my blog after all – I can write what I like! So here are a few sentences that I had neglected to include in my previous post on the subject of “hurt sentiments”:

People who are intimidated into silence will have very little respect, if any, for the sentiments, hurt or otherwise, of those who have silenced them. Quite the contrary: they are quite likely regard those sentiments with disdain. Do those who silence others through fear not realise this? Or do they realise it, and not care? Are their sentiments hurt only by overt mockery rather than by covert contempt?

And that’s all really. I feel much better after that! Thank you for indulging me.

Hurt sentiments

What a strange thing human nature is! One may quite easily sit motionless in a corner for hours without any bother at all, but if one is told that one has to stay in that corner, then it becomes intolerable even for a few minutes. It’s much the same, I fear, with all this palaver about “hurting sentiments”, a topic that has been much in the world news of late.

Generally, I am, as regular readers of this blog will know, a quiet, gentle person, kind and considerate to all, who wouldn’t normally dream of hurting anyone’s sentiments. But as soon as I’m told “Don’t you dare hurt my sentiments if you know what’s good for you!” I immediately feel an overwhelming urge to go on a gratuitous sentiment-hurting spree, if only to prove that I have the freedom to do so should I choose. (I don’t, of course, but that’s only because I’m a coward, and for no other reason.) Also, quite apart from this, banning or withdrawing books hurts my sentiments, and I don’t understand why my sentiments should be worth so much less than those of others. Being kind and considerate to all and respecting their sentiments, whether I happen to share them or not, is undoubtedly a fine thing in theory, but in practice, it becomes very difficult, I admit, to respect the sentiments of those who clearly don’t respect mine.

I don’t want to go too deeply here into the rights and wrongs of all this – on what the limits of freedom of expression should be, on whether such limits should exist at all, on whether the right to offend is as sacred as the right to revere, and so on. This is partly because, as I said, I am a coward: there are a great many inflamed and potentially violent passions out there that I have no desire to inflame further. And it is also because all that needs to be said, and also much that needn’t, or, indeed, shouldn’t, is already out there: my own frail voice is hardly required to add to the existing cacophony. Further, this is primarily a literary blog, and, for reasons given elsewhere, I try generally to steer clear of political matters. However, as a blog dealing primarily with literary matters, it is not possible to steer clear of certain issues. And when an author, as a consequence of a campaign against him, withdraws all his books, and retires from his literary career, then that is a matter that should be of very deep concern to anyone who values literature, and the freedom of the writer.

The 18-day protests over controversial Tamil novel, Madhorubhagan, on Monday ended with its author Perumal Murugan tendering an unconditional apology for “hurting the sentiments of the people of Tiruchengode”. He also decided to withdraw all his novels, short stories, essays and poems published so far. He said he would compensate the publishers. He told Express that he made the decision fearing protests in the future against his published work.

I had not, to my shame, previously heard of Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan, but that is a reflection not on his stature as an author, but on my ignorance of contemporary Indian literature. I do, however, think it important to draw attention to this story as it seems to have been somewhat sidelined in the international press.

Doing a Google search on the author’s name, I find, as ever, a diversity of opinions. And once again, I do not wish to comment. The author was described in the news report linked to above as “visibly upset”: I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether Mr Murugan’s decision to withdraw his life’s work, and promise not to pursue his literary career further, was due to a genuine respect for the hurt sentiments of the protestors, or, perhaps, to some other consideration. Mr Murugan did put up a message on his Facebook page for a few days regarding this matter, and a translation of it may be found here.

Should anyone like to offer a modicum of support to Mr Murugan (since that is all that can be offered now) please consider purchasing the Kindle edition of one his novels. It is available here.

I don’t know that there’s anything more for me to say, except that my sentiments have been very deeply hurt.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year

Well, that year whizzed by quickly, didn’t it?

As usual at this time of year, this blog will be taking a break for a while. may I wish you all a peaceful and convivial Christmas, and a very Happy New Year.

"The Adoration of the Magi" by Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy of Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp

“The Adoration of the Magi” by Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy of Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp

Your very good health!


photo (1)

“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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