A Victorian Christmas
By MAUREEN DOWD
Published: December 24, 2011
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Books of The Times: Two-Sided Man Gets Two New Biographies (October 25, 2011)
AT the end of his life, Charles Dickens did not have great expectations for Christmas.
He had separated from his wife, describing his marriage as “blighted and wasted.” His mistress was not around. He was disappointed that his sons lacked his ambition. His final Christmas, he wrote a colleague, was painful and miserable.
“The Inimitable,” as he had christened himself when he was young and celebrated, was drained from traveling to give paid readings and suffering from such severe gout that he could not write clearly or walk well. He was confined to bed all Christmas Day and through dinner, bleak in his house.
Literature’s answer to Santa Claus, as Robert Douglas-Fairhurst writes in “Becoming Dickens,” had always gravitated to the holiday.
“Christmas was always a time which in our home was looked forward to with eagerness and delight,” his daughter Mamie said.
Dickens would dance and play the conjurer. “My father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything,” recalled his son Henry.
Douglas-Fairhurst wonders if this “inventor of Christmas” might have developed his “ruthless” determination to enjoy the day because of the traumatic year he spent as a child working in a rat-infested shoe-polish warehouse in London after his father went to prison for debts. Did England’s most famous novelist need “to recreate his childhood as it should have been rather than as it was?”
The biographer notes that Dickens, in his fiction, “rarely describes a family Christmas without showing how vulnerable it is to being broken apart by a more miserable alternative. In ‘Great Expectations’ it is the soldiers who burst into Pip’s home on Christmas Day, saving him from a dinner in which the only highlight is Joe slopping extra spoonfuls of gravy onto his plate. In ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood,’ the young hero goes missing on Christmas Eve, leaving behind several clues that he had been murdered by his uncle. Saddest of all, in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Scrooge is forced by the Ghost of Christmas Past to observe his boyhood self left behind at school, and weeps ‘to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.’ ”
Douglas-Fairhurst points out that Dickens’s fiction teems with ifs, just-supposes and alternative scenarios, “what might have been and what was not.” He even wrote two different endings for “Great Expectations,” one where Estella and Pip don’t end up together and one where they seem to.
“Pause you,” Pip says, “and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
Dickens was rescued from the warehouse and sent back to school when his father got out of prison and wangled a Navy pension. But that year drove home to him how frighteningly random fate can be.
“I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond,” he once said.
His need to control his fate may have led to a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He routinely rearranged the furniture in hotel rooms, acknowledging that his “love of order” was “almost a disorder.”
Dickens — whose bicentenary will be celebrated on Feb. 7 — worked himself to death at 58, but he always feared obscurity was lurking.
In October 1843, he had the idea for “A Christmas Carol.” As Claire Tomalin writes in another new book, “Charles Dickens: A Life,” he told a friend “he had composed it in his head, weeping and laughing and weeping again” as he walked around London at night.
He had visited one of the “ragged schools,” set up in poor parts of London by volunteer teachers to educate homeless, starving and disabled pupils, and the novella, published that December, was his screed about the indifference of the rich toward those less fortunate.
Scrooge gets redeemed from an alternate life as a misanthrope, and Tiny Tim is saved from death. But two “wolfish” children, a boy named Ignorance and a girl named Want, are not rescued, but rather left to haunt readers’ consciences.
In his 1851 short story “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older,” Dickens makes the case that the holiday is the time to “bear witness” to our parallel lives, our “old aspirations,” “old projects” and “old loves.”
“Welcome, alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly,” he wrote.
Maybe, he suggests, you end up better off without that “priceless pearl” who does not return your love. Maybe you don’t have to suppress the memory of deceased loved ones.
“Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you!” he wrote. “You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!”