The Forgotten Dickens Christmas Books
In a strange way, popularity was the worst thing that could have happened to ‘A Christmas Carol’. After performances by Charles Dickens himself, a long history of bowdlerised versions, parodies, satires and remakes eventually led to the Muppets, by which time the story’s fierce sense of social injustice had vanished.
We tend to forget now that 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 in the same way. Does this mean they were 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 ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’, 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. ‘The Battle of Life’ has no supernatural element and a truncated ending that disappointed readers. It concerns the romantic sacrifices made by two daughters, and fails to convince.
‘The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain’ 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 and unburden your soul, and mature as a human being. The story was staged with the creation of a technique called ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, a theatrical illusion using angled plate 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, ghosts, a dead child, a bullied employee with low self esteem (and wages), phantoms and a joyful Christmas reformation work more satisfyingly as a human London story, even though Dickens’ intention was to sugar-coat a very bitter pill about the injustices of British society.