I have just been listening to the festival of carols and readings from Kings College, Cambridge, performed and broadcast every Christmas Eve. It is a long time since I lived in England and even longer since I thought of myself as a Christian, but whether it is just sentiment or something more, I do find the service deeply moving — especially at the beginning, when a solitary choirboy sings the opening verse of “Once in Royal David’s City.” I have absolutely no more religious belief than Richard Dawkins (and frankly I think my nonbelief is based on a much deeper and more thoughtful foundation than his), but I could never be a New Atheist. I owe so much to my Christian childhood that I may have left the religion but I will never hate it — although I confess that its American evangelical practitioners, anti-gay, anti-women, anti-so much else, do push me at times.
More even than the King’s College service, Christmas for me means Charles Dickens. I am not now talking about holly and ivy, or ghosts and misers and goose and plum pudding — although one of the books I am about to mention does contain all of these — but of what are for me the big four: Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend. I really love the other novels too — I was reading Great Expectations in the fall, and had forgotten what a dark story that is, with the frustrated bride, Miss Havisham, out of spite ruining the lives of two young people, Pip and Estella. (She really does, despite the forced happy ending Dickens provided as an alternative. Don’t be misled by the David Lean film version, brilliant though it is.)
But somehow these four have become my Christmas reading, one each year. I am now in the middle of the Pickwick Papers — which does indeed have a great Christmas episode — and simply marvel how something could have come from the brain of not overly well-educated young man in his mid-twenties. The great characters are of course Pickwick himself, his servant Sam Weller, and Sam’s father Toby Weller. But as always with Dickens, it is the minor characters that make the whole. In this novel, they include the two drunken medical students, Ben Allen and Bob Sawyer, the hypocritical preacher The Reverend Mr. Stiggins, the shady actor and conman Alfred Jingle and his ever-tearful servant Job Trotter, and the crooked lawyers Dodson and Fogg. Even those who appear on one page and then no more — the attorney Serjeant Buzfuz and the stock broker Wilkins Flasher Esquire — are memorable.
Every time I read the Pickwick Papers I am amazed at just how funny it is, and also how much booze is consumed. Even I am impressed. Shrub, wine (hot and cold), gin (Hollands), porter, wassail, punch (including milk punch), whiskey, Negus, port, sherry, rum (including pineapple rum, with four lumps of sugar, and hot water), brandy (neat, with cold water and with hot water) — and I am sure I have missed others.
Pickwick Papers simply chooses itself. Why the others? Dickens spoke of David Copperfield as being his favorite child, and I think that is true for all real Dickens’ lovers. People often say that it is the childhood scenes that are the real genius in that novel and that after David grows to young manhood the novel falls away. I am not sure of this at all. David’s difficult and misconceived marriage to Dora (clearly mirroring his own unhappy union) is brilliant as is the quite explicit homo-erotic relationship that David has with his childhood friend Steerforth. The Victorians were not as unknowing as we often assume. In any case, who would give up for one moment time spent with Mr. Micawber or that creepy villain of villains Uriah Heep?
Bleak House is probably Dickens’ greatest novel, especially the way in which he makes the grinding oppression of the legal system the central theme. And then there is the late novel Our Mutual Friend, about money and its importance and how, like the law and for many of the same reasons, it is needed but corrupts and grinds people down. I think it was the critic Humphrey House who said that in Pickwick a bad smell is a bad smell whereas in Our Mutual Friend it is a problem. That is about right and an answer to those who simply dismiss Dickens as a writer of genius with respect to characters and totally shallow when it comes to the real issues in life — the issues that informed the works of people like George Eliot (in England) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (in Russia).
But I am not now defending Dickens. Simply telling you that there are certain great thinkers and artists who have so deeply enriched my life — Plato and Aristotle, Vermeer and Rembrandt (not to mention Renoir), Bach and Mozart, and above all Charles Dickens. Merry Christmas!Return to Top