Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Skinny on the Charles Dickens Christmas Books

Ever wonder why "A Christmas Carol" is the only one of Charles Dickens's Christmas stories to get a lot of attention? He wrote five of them after all.

The answer to this is that overwhelmingly, that story is his best. But if your Dickens holiday fix isn't filled by that wonderful story, here's my ranking of all five so you can decide if you want to pick them up this season. All except the last have a supernatural element which is satisfyingly mysterious.

1. A Christmas Carol. Hands down the winner of all the books. If you can read nothing else this season, this would be your book. It is more wonderful than any movie adaptation could ever be. One of my favorite lines is from the description of a grocery store during Scrooge's visit with Christmas Present. "There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe." No time to read it? I just discovered a new audio adaptation of the book. I haven't been able to listen to all of it but the beginning is marvelous. 

2. Cricket on the Hearth--A Fairy Tale of Home. Easily the winner of the cheesiest movie adaptations. This is sad because it's a very good story. But I guess if you give a filmmaker a lovely blind girl who makes dolls and a poor father who creates a rich, imaginary world for her, said filmmaker can't resist the maudlin. But the center of the story is not Bertha and her father Caleb. The central characters, John and Dot Peerybingle, are mismatched in age and John begins to doubt Dot's love for him. A beautifully written story, all is happily tied up at the end but not before several of the characters have gone through depths of human despair. Ignore any sappy movies you've seen and read it. It's so worth it.

3. The Chimes. This story paints the bleakest picture of the poor in all the Christmas books. Instead of a miser, Dickens uses a man named Trotty for his main character. In a very "It's a Wonderful Life" way, he learns what the consequences of his actions might be. His daughter is in love, but he doesn't believe that the marriage should go forth because of their poverty. I find this story distressing. The main character is such a nice little man and the visions he receives so horrible, that at the happy end, I find my heart still broken.

4. The Haunted Man. In this story, a bitter professor named Redlaw is haunted by past grievances and hurt. When a ghost offers him the opportunity to forget all his wrongs, he accepts. But something unexpected happens. He is still angry but doesn't know why and he spreads his bitterness to others. It has a satisfying happy ending and there are some memorable characters to make the story go along. The book is very atmospheric but doesn't have the appeal of the top three.

5. The Battle of Life. No supernatural beings in this one. Just interesting folks who seem to be in love with the wrong people.   Dr. Jedlar and his two daughters, Grace and Marion, live on a former battlefield. Dickens suggests that the memories of the battle haunt those who live on it.The character of Clemency Newcome, who is Dr. Jedlar's servant, is delightful and she gets her happy ending too. This one to me is the least Christmas-y and perhaps that's why I like it least.

All these stories are in the public domain. But if you want a hard copy, the Oxford Illustrated Classics version has all the original illustrations! And it's small enough to stick in a tote bag or backpack for some reading while waiting in line at the dentist's office or grocery store.

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