Boyd Tonkin: Banker-bashing from Mr Dickens

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In its dash and daring, the early-Victorian publishing business put today's to shame. Charles Dickens conceived the idea for A Christmas Carol in October 1843. During November he composed the story on epic tramps of 15 or 20 miles through "the black streets" of London, "weeping and laughing and weeping again". To his publisher, Chapman & Hall, he insisted on high-quality binding and a low price. It appeared on 19 December and by Christmas – in a country without modern communications – had sold out the whole first printing of 6000 copies (much multiplied soon after, of course). As Claire Tomalin writes in her magnificent new biography (Charles Dickens: a Life; Viking), "The book went straight to the heart of the public and has remained lodged there ever since". For velocity, flexibility and impact, those Victorian values take some beating.

Everyone still knows Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. But how many readers have made the acquaintance of Trotty Veck? The instant popularity of A Christmas Carol spun off four further Christmas Books, with The Chimes as its immediate successor at the end of 1844. More sharply satirical, more political even, than the tale of Scrooge's redemption, it was (as Tomalin says) "written with red-hot feeling and meant to shame the cruel and canting rich of the 1840s". Dickens, by the way, lived in a rented palazzo in Genoa at the time. Champagne radicalism? That never bothered the child of the blacking-factory and the Marshalsea.

Stagey, stylised, utterly melodramatic The Chimes may be, but you could hardly find a more topical text for the close of 2011. A casually employed "ticket porter" (messenger), the aged Trotty suffers the torments of the winter weather – superbly evoked. He fears for the future of his daughter Meg and her sweetheart Richard as he shivers outside a church awaiting odd jobs. Both hallucinatory and starkly realistic, Dickens's snapshots of London street life on the edge of starvation never fade. For a fine photographic record of the seething city behind them, see Alex Werner and Tony Williams's book Dickens's Victorian London, with almost painfully evocative images taken from the Museum of London archives (Ebury, £25).

Dickens then introduces three splendid caricatures of smug, wealthy busybodies who in their different ways seek to control and humiliate the poor. Mr Filer is the bloodless facts-and-figures "political economist"; Alderman Cute the draconian lock-'em-up magistrate who rushes to "put down" any stirrings of underclass discontent ("There's a great deal of nonsense talked about Want - hard up, you know; that's the phrase, isn't it? Ha! Ha! Ha! And I intend to Put It Down"); and Sir Joseph Bowley the paternalistic "Big Society" philanthropist. He deigns to extend a helping hand to docile dependants who vow to "be respectful, exercise your self-denial, bring up your family on next to nothing". We still hear from all three every day.

In a dream sequence (clearly modelled on Scrooge's apparitions), the Goblins of the Bells bring Trotty scary visions of the misery and degradation that his dear ones face should "the Putters Down of crushed and broken natures" prevail. If anything, Dickens's key phrase rings out even more boldly now than in 1844. For the "putting down" of vulnerable people in The Chimes involves the patronising sneers of the mighty and privileged as much as any material repression.

The nightmare chimes fall silent, and Trotty wakes to a joyful wedding and a happy new year. But not before he has come to believe that "There is a Sea of Time to rise one day, before which all who wrong us or oppress us will be swept away like leaves".

Dickens's mockery of the flint-hearted rich in The Chimes also takes in a snippet of conversation about a crooked banker, Deedles, who has committed suicide – surely a foretaste of Mr Merdle's fate in Little Dorrit, more than a decade later. "'Shot himself!' 'Good God!' 'Put a double-barrelled pistol to his mouth, in his own counting-house,' said Mr Fish, 'and blew his brains out.'" Deedles, we assume, has dodged all those he ruined: no state bail-outs funded by the taxes of the poor – the shivering, anxious Trotty Vecks – for him. Victorian values, indeed.

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