Invisible ink no 255: The Forgotten Dickens Christmas books


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Popularity was the worst thing that could have happened to A Christmas Carol.

After performances by Dickens himself, a long history of bowdlerisation eventually led to the Muppets, by which time the story’s fierce sense of social injustice had vanished. There were other Dickens Christmas books, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, The Chimes, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, which failed to ignite the public imagination. Were they simply not as good?

Like Scrooge’s transformation, the stories usually feature a character who has a change of heart. In The Chimes, Toby is a ticket porter (a delivery man) whose low self esteem, placed there by the selfish rich, is restored to respect by midnight bells on New Year’s Eve. In Cricket, a married couple with a wide age difference are brought from suspicion to happiness by their guardian angel, a cricket, and the plot features subterfuge, disguise, a miserly toymaker and a blind girl. Battle has no supernatural element and a truncated ending that disappointed readers. It concerns the romantic sacrifices made by two daughters, and fails to convince. Haunted is far more interesting; a story about memory and humility, and the healing power of the Christmas season. Redlaw is a chemistry teacher visited by a phantom double who bestows on him the gift of forgetting painful memories. But it comes with a catch; anyone else who comes into contact with him will also lose their memories. When the gift is inevitably passed on it has tragic consequences, and must be reversed by someone whose pained remembrance proves the source of their goodness. The lesson here is that it’s important to remember past sorrows and wrongs, so you can forgive those responsible unburden, and mature. The story was staged with the creation of a technique called “Pepper’s Ghost”, which used angled glass to make a person appear, become transparent, and vanish.

It’s clear that in A Christmas Carol, all of the elements which were to feature in the other tales are present in the right order and proportion. An embittered miser, a dead child, an employee with low self esteem, phantoms, and a joyful Christmas reformation work more satisfyingly as a human story, even though Dickens’s intention was to sugar-coat a very bitter pill about the injustices of British society.