Lost spirit of Christmas past

No one has evoked the mood of the festive season better than Charles Di ckens. Sadly, despite his recently revived popularity, the Christmas stories ha ve been forgotten, says Jane Jakeman The amount of print he devoted to Christmas is staggering We can't digest Dickens, and must always have him pap-fed
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The Independent Online
You watched the televised Martin Chuzzlewit. You've got tickets for Oliver! But when did you last read a Dickens novel?

Complete sets of Dickens were once part of the standard furniture of the British home, at least where there were any pretensions to literacy. Huge runs of fat buckram volumes, in navy or tan or pinkish crimson, sat on the shelves of every self-respectingVictorian household, and publishers gave resounding names to their series: there was the 23-volume "Fireside Dickens"; the "Library Edition", 30 tomes strong. The "Gadshill" thumped in at 36 volumes, one better than the "Temple". The "Imperial", 1901-3,sounds grandiose, but at 16 volumes, is rather feeble beside the others.

These collected works of Dickens manifested, literally, an imperial bulk of great literature, the huge cultural inheritance to which our ancestors made claim, symbolised by the sheer physical extent and solidity of page and print on the shelves of mahogany-lined study and overcrowded parlour.

As comforting as suet pudding, sound-baffling, insulating in every sense of the word, the stolid rows, the faded gilt lettering in which it is still possible to make out the titles, evoke the high Victorian age and Edwardian confidence.

Most of the sets, like the extended family they extol, were broken up, or languish in the dingy back rooms of second-hand bookshops. Yet they constituted a publishing phenomenon that has completely vanished in the age of electronic publishing: the powerful presence of the materiality of the book.

But the sets of Dickens were not only part of the furniture of the British home: they were part of the furniture of the middle-class mind. For, amazing though it seems, our ancestors actually took down these books and opened them: Dickens was not only considered an incomparable genius of English letters, but his works were read.

The amount of print Dickens devoted to Christmas alone, in his role as iconographer of the traditional Christmas, is staggering: every year for more than 20 years, in his periodicals, Household Words and All the Year Round, he produced observations, histories and fantasies on the Christmas theme. These were collected to form one of those fat parlour tomes: "Christmas Stories".

An early editor's preface called Dickens "the Father Christmas of English literature", presaging Eleanor Farjeon's words in her 1954 introduction to the "Christmas Books": "Nothing is more Dickensian than the Dickensian Christmas. It is a Christmas in which hobgoblins are more apparent than the Holy Spirit, a Christmas which may seem to glorify the Altar less than the Hearth, and, since more households have hearths than they have altars, a Christmas which has dominated the home festival for well over a century."

A Christmas Carol, which Dickens wrote in such a state of excitement that he could not sleep, but walked 15 or 20 miles a night through the streets of London thinking about the story (he said that during this period he never went home before the owls were out). It is only one of the works included in the collected "Christmas Books". (The others are The Cricket on the Hearth, The Chimes, The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man.)

Strange though it may seem to us, The Cricket on the Hearth was far more popular than A Christmas Carol until the turn of the century. Eleanor Farjeon remembered that The Cricket was set to music and given as an opera. Rather than the social relevance, the passionate attacks on poverty and injustice, for which we should search today, she praised it for its qualities of simple humanity - for her, it was a merit in the story that "it grinds no social axe".

Its sales were double those of the Carol, and it was overwhelmingly popular in comparison with The Chimes (subtitled A Goblin Story), which deals with bitter social themes: one character represents the problems and sufferings of alcoholism, and another, the niece of a Chartist, is forced into prostitution. The unpopularity of these "serious" themes was graphically demonstrated: remaindered copies, in yellow boards, were purchased cheaply by Messrs WH Smith for resale on station bookstalls.

The Cricket on the Hearth is, by comparison, indeed a simple-minded story, but I will predict that it will enjoy a tremendous revival, will probably be the next Dickens work to be staged and televised, for it celebrates family values above all. Here is no disturbing expose of Pecksniffian hypocrisy, and only a sugary depiction of virtuous poverty. It is the story of the good but dumb (Oh God! How dumb!) carter, Peerybingle, who unjustly suspects his wife of an illicit relationship with another man, thus violating the sacred family hearth of the title.

The fairy spirit of the Cricket appears to Peerybingle in a vision, and counsels him to trust and forgive his wife. Interlocked with this plot is the story of the Peerybingle's neighbour Caleb Plummer and his blind daughter. Caleb has deceived his daughter into believing they are wealthy when in fact they live almost in beggary, and the denouements of the two stories are intertwined.

From this very basic tale, the Victorians created a whole industry of Christmas entertainment. A play of The Cricket was performed at the Lyceum, and an opera based on it was "nightly received at Covent Garden with the most enthusiastic applause", to quote the play-bill. So popular was the theme that it inspired the "Cricket Polka" and the "Cricket Quadrille", music for ballroom dancing or parties in the home.

Dickens still enters our homes, via television, and we have the theatre productions, the musicals, based on his stories. We take what we can from him, including the darker side of his social commentary, the Dickens for our age, a newly relevant scrutiny of a foully hypocritical society in which wretchedness and want have returned to the streets of London.

The Victorians liked the cheerful and uncomplicated side of Dickens better than the grim chronicles of poverty and despair, and so, I suspect, shall we. But the text of Dickens, above all other novelists, demands our time, demands to be read slowly, savouring the grotesque curlicues of character, the great tumultuous flow of language, the pernickety pursuit of obsessions and curiosities. And for this, we are simply in too much of a rush. We are too hurried and harried for the real Dickens: we cannot digest him, and must always have him processed and pap-fed.

Savour this taste of his prose, as rich as a plum pudding, for this description of presents from A Christmas Tree (1850) is probably as near as you'll get to actually reading any Dickens this Christmas: "There were rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves; and there were real watches (with movable hands, at least, and an endless capacity of being wound up) dangling from innumerable twigs; there were French-polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks, and various other articles of domestic furniture (wonderfully made, in tin, at Wolverhampton) perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy house-keeping; there were jolly, broad-faced little men, much more agreeable in appearance than many real men - and no wonder, for their heads took off and showed them to be full of sugar plums; there were fiddles and drums; there tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat boxes, peep-show boxes, and all kinds of boxes; there were trinkets for the e lder girls,far brighter than any grown-up gold and jewels; there were baskets and pincushions in all devices; there were guns, swords and banners; there were witches standing in enchanted rings of paste-board to tell fortunes; there were teetotums, humm ing-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling-salts, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders, real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears and walnuts, crammed with surprises; in short, as a pretty child before me delightedly whisperedto another pretty child, her bosom friend, `There was everything, and more'."

There is everything in Dickens, too, but we don't have time for it any more. Not even at Christmas.