Cozy Christmas books

Dear Charlie,

Real life has a way of interfering with even the best intentions. Last Sunday was the last performance (a sing-along) in a week of rehearsals and concerts of Handel’s Messiah with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, which was awesome but exhausting. And my intentions to write to you at some point during the week last week were overshadowed when the company I work for underwent a massive restructuring, from which I’m still reeling. It’s only now that the dust has slowly begun to settle that I’ve been able to extract myself from my funk and, with the help of your Christmas books, remind myself of the important things that one should be focusing on this time of year.

The ghost of Christmas Present

This volume of books includes “A Christmas Carol,” “The Chimes,” The Cricket on the Hearth,” “The Battle of Life,” and “The Haunted Man.” In spite of your protests that short stories aren’t your medium of choice, I think you did a wonderful job fleshing out your characters and plots within the stories’ confines. Scrooge’s encounters with the spirits of Christmas was my favorite – there’s a reason why it’s the work people most often associate with you and the season. The action is lively and continuous, the writing sparkles, and Scrooge’s redemption is believable and welcome.

The other four stories are a bit of a mixed bag. “The Chimes” was probably my least favorite of the group, mostly because I couldn’t quite figure out what happened to Lillian (was the inference that she became a prostitute?), but more than that, I really felt that the person most in need of a strong moral kicking by the goblins of the bells wasn’t poor old Trotty, who was trying his best, but Alderman Cute, who was a pretentious and condescending asshole. “The Cricket on the Hearth,” on the other hand,was adorable, in a very Three’s Company sort of way – lots of comedic misunderstandings, with a final triumph of domestic harmony.

I was worried that “The Battle of Life” would be quite heavy-going, judging from the title and the opening scene of death and bloodshed, but we move quickly to another domestic scene. Unlike those encountered by Mr. Pickwick, the lawyers in this story are much more kind hearted, and couples are united at the end, albeit with an odd little twist. And, finally, “The Haunted Man,” which at first seemed a tale more suitable for Halloween, had me genuinely creeped out. The idea of a man who can remove another’s memories and in so doing change their whole personality was fascinating. And though all ends happily, it was a much quicker read than the middle stories.

One of the several beautiful illustrations that begin the stories.

So, why aren’t the others more widely known? Until I picked up this volume, I’d never even heard of any of the other Christmas books. What is it about A Christmas Carol that makes it so universally adored? Why is there no yearly production of “The Haunted Man?” Perhaps it’s that it is so obviously tied to Christmas, whereas the others just happen to be set at that time of year? The others have their share of admonitory spirits, men redeemed, harmony restored, lovers united, and moral message of love and generosity of spirit, but there’s something missing. I don’t know what it is, Charlie. Are they simply not as well written? The more I think about it the more it refuses to be pinned down.

I shall continue to ponder while I start the first of two volumes of your “Christmas Stories.” Perhaps I’ll find some answers in some of your later, shorter, work.

Until next time, Charlie, I remain,

Yours festively,

Melissa

Our Christmas journey begins

Dear Charlie,

I’m sorry to bother you again so soon, but I’ve started reading your Christmas books, which starts with your most famous, A Christmas Carol. And if we weren’t already fast friends, the second page of that story contains a sentence that made me laugh and which would have forced me to seek you out. It’s this:

If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in a easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot – say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance – literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

So Marley is dead, to begin with, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the stories. You’re awesome.
Affectionately,

Melissa

P.S. You probably won’t understand the reference, but I’m having a really tough time not visualizing Muppets as I read…

Leaving Barnaby

Dear Charlie,

My adventures with Barnaby Rudge have, sadly, come to an end. You had me worried there for a second! After what happened to poor old Nell, I was convinced that all three of our convicted rioters were done for. I rather suspect that after the anguish you suffered over offing Nell, you would have found it too difficult to do away with yet another main character (and I use ‘main’ with some reserve), but I, for one, was heartily glad to see him on the arm of Mr. Varden; one of the many happy threads tied up neatly at the end.

The Burning and Plundering of Newgate & Setting the Felons at Liberty by the Mob. © London Metropolitan Archives

But to return to the riots for a moment. The burning of Newgate prison and the freeing of the prisoners is a scene that will stay with me for a long time, I think. Not only are your descriptions so wonderfully evocative in themselves, but knowing that they’re based on real events makes them absolutely chilling. I was particularly horrified by your account of the people burned and /or asphyxiated by the pools of burning alcohol.

I can’t help but draw comparisons with both the recent protests in London and Occupy movements, and after seeing what an angry mob was capable of in 1780 with little provocation, I’m not as surprised by the chaos of the former as I am by the civility and order of the latter. And I’m not the only one to draw parallels.

And when the riots end, your characters jump straight back to center stage, and the many separate plots slowly start to contract. Reading about the prisoners’ experience the night before their hanging, I was struck by the similarity with Fagin’s fateful last night. The same bells tolling the hours, the same inexorable progress of time, the same feeling of claustrophobia – clearly this was something that preyed on you. But here you take us beyond the walls of the prison to the construction of the scaffold itself and the passing of time from the crowd’s point of view. Sure, they may not be looting and burning, but the mob assembled to watch men hang isn’t far removed.

But enough doom and gloom. The young people are happily united, their parents comfortably settled, and the ne’er do wells (who haven’t died horrible deaths) are dealt with by Fate in hilariously appropriate ways.

And now, since it’s December, I’m going to jump ahead just a little so I can read your Christmas books and two volumes of Christmas stories while it’s actually Christmas time, because if I had to read them in March I’d yell out a resounding ‘bah, humbug’ and bring the whole project to a screeching halt.

Thanks for the riots, Charlie.

Affectionately,

Melissa