Saturday, January 9, 2010

Book Review: "The Chimes" - a novella by Charles Dickens

It was 1843, and Charles Dickens' latest novel, Martin Chuzzlewait, was not selling well--at least not by Dickens' standards. So for another project to make some money, Britain's most popular author wrote A Christmas Carol and got it to the market fast. It didn't sell wildly, but made its author a little. More importantly, it established an important tradition: the Dickensian Christmas, and over twenty years of Christmas books and stories.

The next year Dickens wrote The Chimes, as he had A Christmas Carol, seemingly in off moments between his regular novels being written chapter by chapter just in time to be serialized, and rushed it to print. It is the story of Toby "Trotty" Veck, a day laborer/porter, aged into his sixties. He spends every day on the streets, in the shadow of a church, waiting on someone to have him deliver a letter or small package for six pence, or maybe a shilling.

From the church the chimes peal, keeping Toby company and speaking to him according to his mood. Toby Veck is poor, and almost alone. His young adult daughter, Meg, is the only one close to him. She brings him a hot lunch of tripe and potatoes, and they sit on the doorstep of Alderman Cute for Toby to eat. The gentleman passes out his door with two equally corpulent friends. They upbraid Toby for eating tripe--"the least economical, the most wastefull...consumption"--and finish what's left on Toby's plate. The, as Richard comes, the man Meg has just said she it to marry on new Years Day, the alderman advises Richard he can do better and not to marry Toby's daughter. He does, however, engage Toby to deliver a letter to the local Member of Parliament.

The book then follows Toby's actions that day and a dream he has that night. Toby delivers the letter to the MP, learns it contains orders to incarcerate a certain Will Fern who is down on his luck, meets and encourages that man and befriends him. He makes a midnight visit to his beloved chimes, and while among them falls into a trance, or perhaps a dream. He see things in Meg's future, in Richards' future, and his new friend's future, and even his own future. The book ends with "all's well", as Meg and Richard marry on New Years Day, Toby's new friends--Will Fern and his adopted daughter--come to live with him.

Although counted as a Christmas book, Christmas is never mentioned. All events look forward to New Years Day, which is close at hand. After reading A Christmas Carol many times, and seeing umpteen dramatic presentations of it, plus the many modern adaptions, almost anything else Dickens wrote about Christmas will be a let-down. And this one was. I found it difficult to follow Toby's dream/trance, and all that was happening. Perhaps I didn't read it as closely as I needed to. The language is slightly archaic, and the physical and social circumstances unfamiliar to a 21st Century American. None of these badly so, but perhaps they added up to hinder understanding.

The characters are not as well developed as in other Dickens books. The alderman and the MP are bad guys. Everything they do works against the poor, yet they call themselves the friends of the poor and justifying various anti-poor actions as being in favor of the poor. Each one makes a single appearance in the novella, so perhaps Dickens did not have enough space to fully develop them. This book is much more social commentary than A Christmas Carol, something Dickens put in many of his books. The rich and powerful are bad, the poor and downtrodden are good. No in between, no mixtures, no offsetting qualities. I haven't read much Dickens (that is reserved for retirement), so I don't know if his novels have better developed heroes and villains than this one.

Should you read this? Probably, if you can find it without plunking down a bunch of money. It should be in any collection of Dickens' Christmas writings, and is probably available on-line. It's good to branch out from his best known Christmas story. Next Christmas: The Cricket on the Hearth.


Gary said...

A problem, maybe the problem, with Dickens for modern readers is that he's boring. As you point out, the archaic language and unfamiliar circumstances don't have much appeal and the lack of real action or drama coupled with the wordiness of his prose just wear out a typical reader. At least that's my lasting impression from reading David Copperfield forty years ago and not ever wanting to read any more Dickens.

David A. Todd said...

Thanks for the comment, Gary. In this story I wouldn't say boredom was the problem for me. Lack of understanding was. I didn't give specific examples (probably should have), but various terms were a mystery to me. I had the choice to take time and try to understand them through the context, or look them up in some site among the vast resources of the Internet. I did neither, choosing to plow ahead. I think an annotated edition of this book would be useful for American readers in the current century.

Yes, Dickens is wordy. In this book the drama was muted, but it was there. The archaic language was not awful, but when combined wiht other problems it became a problem.

I want to read more Dickens. He was one of the greats, and I shunned him for years (as I did with so many of the greats). Hopefully, before I assume room temperature, I will at least get through all his major works.