Wednesday, December 12, 2012

I should be truly thankful if they were all mankind, but such is not so - some Dickens Christmas stuff

Almost every December from 1843 to 1868 Charles Dickens published a Christmas story.  The first one, A Christmas Carol, was the archetype of the genre and Dickens never equaled it again – or I assume he did not; I have to assume since I have not read the last four.  They vary enormously in length, subject, purpose, and Christmasness.  Christmasosity.  Some do not obviously have much to do with Christmas is what I mean, except that they are all scripture for the Religion of Christmas, as Humphry House cleverly, cruelly and accurately named the simpler side of the ethics of Dickens World.*

Reading the Christmas stories is sometimes like rummaging around in the Dickens attic, but the two examples I recently read, “Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings” (1863) and “Mrs. Lirriper’s Legacy” (1864) are both quite good.  Mrs. Lirriper tales in lodgers, including, at one point, a couple who, through death and dishonor, leave behind a newborn child.  Mrs. Lirriper and another lodger, Major Jackman, adopt and raise the boy.  Everything works out fine.  There is even a vacation in France, in Sens, home of a great medieval cathedral.  This is not much of a story.

The voice, though, that’s the good stuff.  This is the first sentence of “Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings”:

Whoever would begin to be worried with letting Lodgings that wasn't a lone woman with a living to get is a thing inconceivable to me, my dear; excuse the familiarity, but it comes natural to me in my own little room, when wishing to open my mind to those that I can trust, and I should be truly thankful if they were all mankind, but such is not so, for have but a Furnished bill in the window and your watch on the mantelpiece, and farewell to it if you turn your back for but a second, however gentlemanly the manners; nor is being of your own sex any safeguard, as I have reason, in the form of sugar-tongs to know, for that lady (and a fine woman she was) got me to run for a glass of water, on the plea of going to be confined, which certainly turned out true, but it was in the Station-house.

Top that, Thomas Bernhard!  Up your game, László Krasznahorkai!  Javier Marías would get out a kick out of Mrs. Lirriper.  Dickens spills out information here – who is speaking (a lone woman letting lodgings), where she is (her own room), her problems (theft, with some examples), and her surprising use of a pun (“confined”) which turns out to be foreshadowing, since a pregnancy later features in the plot.

Is the entire thirty page story written like this?  No, I am sad to say no, Dickens relaxes the conceit a bit after the initial shock of contact.  Not every sentence skirts so close to gibberish.  He is careful, though, to slide one in every page or so to give me something to chew on.  I would quote another, but they are so long.  Here is a short one that I like for entirely different reasons:

The military character went in front and he stopped at a pork-shop with a little statue of a pig sitting up, in the window, and a private door that a donkey was looking out of. (from “Legacy”)

I believe I have seen that pig in France, and also that donkey, but he was in Morocco.

Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat and Postcards from Asia are hosting a Dickens in December event.  This can count for that, if it does them any good.

*  Humphry House, The Dickens World, 1941, Oxford University Press; recommended to everyone even vaguely interested in Dickens.


  1. Mrs. Lirriper sounds like a hoot. I don't know any of Dickens's Christmas stories aside from Carol and The Magic Fish Bone (which was first published in "Holiday Romances" and, as it has nothing to do with Christmas, I have no idea how it's a "holiday" story). TMFB is a great story. The writing is absolutely top drawer.

  2. "The Magic Fishbone" is not even in my 758 page Christmas Stories (1871) collection! But it is a book with its own odd history.

    I see that has the story with original illustrations and everything. And it is suitable for 7 year-olds, which ought to exactly fit my level of concentration at some point this weekend.

    Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. I know it from Hearn's The Victorian Fairy Tale Book, which should be on everyone's bedside table. Ruskin! Wilde! Dickens! Browning! Thackery! Grahme! Rossetti! and more!

  4. i haven't yet read the Lirriper stuff: that's something to look forward to. Like yourself, I love those endlessly long Dickensian sentences: the man just loved words so much, that he couldn't bear to leave any out! And yet, he had such a good ear for rhythms and cadences of prose, that rarely do you come across a sentence that is awkwardly phrased. Marvellous stuff!

  5. "rhythms and cadence" - that is just the appeal of the Lirriper voice. Her speech is strange but consistent and convincingly her own, and distinct from anyone else in Dickens.

  6. Your post brought at least one copy of Humphry House's book out of a library storage facility. Thank you for the recommendation - I'm enjoying it!

  7. Oh good! That book is full of treasures - I said more than once "Oh!" or some variation.