Charles Dickens

Chimneys Dark & Spirits Bright

This post was originally published in 2012. 

On the eve of Christmas’s reemergence in England,Charles Dickens and Washington Irving began a correspondence. It’s no secret, especially at this time of year, that Dickens was the father of Victorian Christmas. English folk had all but forgotten the festivities once surrounding the advent season, thanks to a superstition-wary protestant reign. By means of one well-timed Christmas story – A Christmas Carol – the upper classes were reminded what “keeping Christmas” meant, and were ready to dance quadrilles, deck halls, sing carols, and wassail to their stomachs’ content in the name of the holiday. They were also reminded of their country’s less fortunate, the Tiny Tims and workhouse families that remained hard up and left out, particularly in this time of heightened merriment.

Over in America some thirty years earlier, Washington Irving had done much to revive Christmas sentiment, as well, with his sketches of traditional English celebrations and a reimagined St. Nicholas. Dickens later admitted he drew inspiration for his own festive scenes from Irving’s descriptions. And so when, in 1842, Irving wrote Dickens to express his admiration, Dickens responded immediately, overjoyed to receive acclaim from the man who had authored the satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which Dickens had “worn to death in [his] pocket.” It was only one year before Dickens would publish A Christmas Carol. These Victorian-era Fathers of Christmas, one British, one American, shared an appreciation of humorous satire, of keen social observation, and of England – particularly English Christmas tradition. Also, Charles Dickens and Washington Irving both had a thing for sending people up chimneys.

Dickens was against the practice, actually. He hated the tight climbing work that ruined – and often ended – the already miserable lives of London’s poorest child: the iconic Victorian chimney sweep. He knew about the physical dangers of bodies in small spaces, the carcinogenic effects of breathing soot, the after-hours life that usually involved no sort of family. And so the dark structures loom as a backdrop to many of his stories’ gloomier moments, grim monuments foreboding the death knell of many a hapless orphan. His more familiar characters like Oliver Twist barely escape such a fate. Alternately, the blazing chimney hearth shines in Dickens’s tales as a symbol of the warm potentiality of home. Dickens hoped for betterment in his economically fractured and morally broken city, and he put most of his eggs in the basket of home and family. In stories like the Christmas tale The Cricket on the Hearth, a bright fireside illuminates the family’s – and the reader’s – way.

Dickens himself never made a workplace of the chimney, but he was no stranger to child labor. The tale is familiar: his father found himself in debtor’s prison and a young Dickens found himself affixing labels to boot-blacking pots. Despite his early education, sharp mind, and vivid imagination, he was, for a time, a working boy, rubbing up against the lower classes. He never forgot it. In his young adult years, as his first fiction stories were just taking shape, Dickens served as a parliamentary journalist, actively reporting on proposed reform that had direct bearing on the suffering poor. And so the plight of the poor and the government’s response – or lack thereof – bled into his fiction. In 1843, at the age of 31, Dickens’s tendency toward keen observation of the human condition intersected with all he had seen and heard, andleft him with his most popular story to tell. Ebenezer Scrooge and the three Christmas Spirits formed themselves in his imagination, and he jumped on the idea like Santa to his sleigh. [1]

A mere three and a half decades before Dickens penned the landmark holiday tale, Washington Irving sent a different type of figure down a chimney for the first time: St. Nicholas. The “new” St. Nicholas Irving described in his 1809 Knickerbocker was neither the dignified bishop of Dutch wooden shoe-filling lore, nor the fat man in red we Americans now know best, popping a Coke top with a twinkle in his jolly, commercialized eye. There’s a rendering of St. Nick in Smithsonian Magazine’s December Art Museum feature, as interpreted by artist Robert Walter Weir. Irving’s version, like Weir’s painting, imagines a different type of Christmas spirit, darker and less trustworthy than the traditional Father Christmas, for all his glorious gift dispensing. As the article points out, it is a “mischievous St. Nick” about to disappear back up the chimney with his bag of toys, his finger to his nose, and, possibly, “the family silver.” It isn’t actually certain that Irving’s version descends and ascends chimneys in a like manner, but he certainly lights on rooftops and drops “magnificent presents down them [2]” throughout the Christmas season (which is an odd and rather creepy practice, if you pause to think about it). Here, in that very Knickerbocker’s History of New York that Dickens so loved, is a Santa who steals in like a thief reminiscent of those blackened London chimney boys. When it comes to the Irving’s jolly Christmas icon, there’s some strange, if unsettling, charm in the thought. In the matter of Dickens’s child sweeps, the idea is outright troubling.

Which may be why that particular purveyor of Christmas cheer – Dutch, impish, Coca-Cola-imbibing, or otherwise – doesn’t figure in Dickens’s versions of Christmas, though they are full of fireplaces and chimneys. Dickens knew what a nasty place, both literally and figuratively, the chimney was. He easily passed many a chimney sweep on the London streets, possibly as young as four years old – weary, sooted boys earning a dangerous, miserable, and likely short living, and reaping the contempt of London’s more civilized citizens. The wealthy of Victorian London looked upon the chimney sweeps and saw villains in the making. They depended on those blackened boys for household cleanliness and warmth and, above all, safety, but wouldn’t trust them farther than they could throw their stockings.

You could argue Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Present bears some resemblance to the older, original Dutch Father Christmas, surrounded by gifts and food and imbued with a deeper concern for the important things in life – compassion and generosity, to start. Scrooge even discovers the “jolly Giant” before a flaming hearth in his home, suggestive of this invader’s good intentions, but it is fairly certain that this particular spirit never descended or ascended a chimney with a bag of presents to pay his Advent visits. He is a different sort of Christmas spirit. He is more interested in morality than in stocking filling. And it’s safe to assume he cares more about the welfare of chimney sweeps than about being Jolly ol’ Saint Nick. As the ghost preceding him declared, he is in Ebenezer’s house for the wretched man’s reclamation.

Not that cultural reclamation wasn’t an interest of Irving’s, too, especially by means of political satire. Nor did he leave chimney sweeps or their destitute like entirely out of his own tales. But the young sweeps Irving observed during his England travels are rendered as romantically as his Christmas-decked Bracebridge Hall, charming sidenotes to city life. Dickens, on the other hand, made his home in the same city as these destitute boys. He saw them out far too early and too late on the unfriendly city streets. There were no cheery-faced singing and scampering Dick Van Dykes in the bunch. Admittedly, Dickens could sometimes use the chimney sweep to comic effect. He also made use of the sweep’s perceived villainous side, as in Oliver Twist’s sweepmaster Gamfield, who represented the dangers into which a young boy without family or support might fall, circumstances that struck at the heart of Dickens’s concern for his city.Who knows?Perhaps Irving’s mildly disturbing St. Nicholas indicated Irving knew Christmas was not all full stomachs and bright, scrubbed faces. Either way, Dickens took the influence of Irving’s earlier, romanticized depictions of English Christmastide and did as he always does: he added in the urban neediness of the London poor, and also the pervasive neediness of the human spirit, whatever the financial circumstances.

There is no Santa Claus herein. There are only the chimneys themselves, bright symbols of the cheery, loving home and dark images the deepest filth the city – or the human soul – can scratch up. It might be said that Dickens’s fiction – holiday and otherwise – plumbs the blackened, sooty depths of human depravity to ultimately offer hope in visions bright as a blazing hearth.

A different type of Christmas spirit, indeed.

[1] In the new biography Charles Dickens: A Life (Penguin Press 2011), Claire Tomalin details this moment (p.148-9), as well as the many circumstances that developed Dickens’s deep concern for the lower classes.

[2] Irving, Washington. Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Complete. Kindle edition.


Same Old Story

Photo: Moriza

The third or fourth time he spoke to me, my husband laughed aloud at the mild exasperation that must have shown in my eyes. “You really want to read that book you’ve read a hundred times, don’t you?” I had Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban open across my lap, and his conversation, albeit welcome, was interrupting the flow of the story. He laughed again, knowing the answer before I gave it to him, and he let me go back to my reading.

All my life I have been a re-reader. My worn old Little House on the Prairie series sits directly below my equally battered Chronicles of Narnia on one of the living-room shelves. I remember reading Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians again and again, consecutively; from there I progressed to Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls and then Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, and those books were the primary objects of my sixth-grade study hall periods. Nowadays, other material has formed similar rotations: Jane Austen’s novels and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the works of J.K. Rowling, Orson Scott Card, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and others.

In case it isn’t obvious, I’m not just talking about the occasional re-perusal. I’m talking about five cover-to-cover trips through Rowling’s 759-page Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows within fourteen months of its publication, two trips through Card’s Speaker for the Dead in one month, Pride and Prejudice at least once a year. And whole reads are only half the fun; I’ve spent weeks going over the same few chapters of Austen’s Emma, dwelt in various sections of Elizabeth Goudge’s Little White Horse, and even for the superordinate class to which belong Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, That Hideous Strength, etc., partial re-reads are more common than cover-to-cover.

It’s a very idiosyncratic thing, this compulsion to revisit a story so often in close succession. It isn’t systematic, it’s the impelling of magnetic force – a desire, almost a need, to imprint the very words into my mind, absorbing their content into heart and being. And it seems inconsistent. I love and admire both Austen and Dickens, but Jane gets many more re-reads than Charles. It might be comprehensible to most that Spyri’s Heidi would still draw me back occasionally after all these years, but then, so does everybody’s favorite book to hate: Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter.

And it’s hard to isolate a cause. Part of it comes from being a writer myself; getting saturated with an author’s flow of thought and word is crucial in training myself to write well and in shaping my own style. Another part comes from the fact that many stories, especially suspenseful ones or ones utilizing older or different forms of English, are much better the second time around. Almost all good stories improve with multiple readings, anyway.

Yet another part draws from the power of certain stories to speak to me at certain times. Despite (or perhaps because of) J.K. Rowling’s admitted struggles with doubt, her stories spoke into my struggle with agnosticism and belief, and separated light from darkness, good from evil in my mind. As clichéd as it might sound, they helped me find courage to trust in the power of self-sacrificial love over death.

Austen’s Emma – and Emma’s Mr. Knightley – give me real delight through reinforcing my appreciation of being loved and chosen by a man of character. My husband is not unlike Mr. Knightley. I never fully understood why Emma loved Mr. Knightley instead of Frank Churchill until I met my husband, and at the end of the book, her joy is mine.

My favorite stories will show me compassion without leading me to despair, foster belief through imagination, and even when I disagree with an idea, give me something real to think about.

A good book is a transformational experience. A bad book may be too, which is why it is important both to read good material and to be a good reader. Reading can satisfy the soul with truth. But truths, especially important ones, are easy to forget, so I rarely resist the urge to re-read.

I do look for new material, now and again. A trip to a library or bookstore carries a sense of perilous adventure – I never know exactly where an unread book will take me. When luck hits, I will probably travel through the new book at least twice before looking elsewhere. A book like that almost always becomes part of the rotation.

But whatever the thrills or disappointments of a new book, the regulars continually reach out from the grand old shelves, ready to bring me back to the known that never seems to grow too familiar. I hear their rustlings now, even with a bookmark in Dante and one each in two non-fiction works. Austen’s Persuasion wants a turn, and even Pride and Prejudice thinks itself about due. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet wants to remind me of its alchemical backstory to Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Dickens’ Christmas Carol keeps hinting about the time of year, and Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy vies with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for attention.

One at a time, I have to say; but they’ll probably all get their chance. I don’t see re-reading as obsession or time-wasting. It’s restful, therapeutic, exhortative, inspiring, encouraging, anything but a loss. And I’ve learned that I’m not alone: re-reading appears to be at least somewhat commonplace among the writing sort. Lewis and Rowling have both admitted to it. If it helps me write half as well as either of them, someday, re-reading will have been one of my greatest investments.