So much happiness

Charles Dickens reads Stave I of A Christmas Carol to enthralled listeners at the Green Man Inn. The Dickens Fair, San Francisco, December 2003

Charles Dickens reads A Christmas Carol to listeners at the Green Man Inn.
The Dickens Fair, San Francisco, December 2003

“He went to the church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted the children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of homes, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk, that anything, could give him so much happiness.”  — Charles Dickens

And speaking (day before yesterday) of the Ghost of Christmas Past, I give you Mr. Dickens, the founder of one of the most sumptuous literary feasts of all time.  In a school essay, Drew once aptly described the love of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as “a family heirloom.” I cannot remember a time when my siblings and I weren’t familiar with the tale and its characters, read aloud to us at Christmas and referred to often through the year.  We watch every movie version and critique the casting, the adherence to the “canon” of Dickens’ text, and the overall success (or lack thereof) in capturing the spirit of the story.  It’s almost a hobby with us.

If you are a Dickens enthusiast, and/or you’ve ever wanted to travel back in time, you probably would love the Dickens Christmas Fair held yearly in San Francisco.  The enormous Cow Palace is transformed into a Victorian village, complete with your favorite literary and historical characters from that era. They’re a garrulous lot, scarcely seeming to notice your 21st century attire as they chat with you in their often archaic language.  In fact, aside from Fezziwig’s festive warehouse party, talking with various players in the fair’s resident company is my favorite pastime there.  Let others peruse the antique books and stylish millinery and sweet-smelling confections for sale. I’d rather listen to Mr. Dickens read at the Green Man Inn.

Since he’s tied with Jane Austen as my second-favorite author, I was quite eager to talk with him personally.  I asked him a typically lame fan question: which of his books was his favorite?

“Well, that’s rather like asking which of my children is my favorite, isn’t it?” he answered cheerily. “I suppose my favorite is whatever I happen to be working on at the time.  Which is your favorite?”

I consider A Christmas Carol to be so far out in front as to be out of the running, so I answered with the title of my second-favorite, “A Tale of Two Cities.

“Ah, an interesting choice – a bit of an exception for me, as a historical novel.  Most of my stories are written in our own time, you know.”

Oh, yeah, “our own time.”  I had already slipped back into the 21st century; it took me a minute to follow him on that one. Even when I re-adjusted my mental clock to the early 1800’s, I had to admit I had never thought of it that way.  That old Charles Dickens always has something interesting to say.

No small part of the magic of Christmas is what readers and writers refer to as the “willing suspension of disbelief.”  I think adults who are adept at this particular skill — when appropriate, of course — are most able to enjoy the holidays, or for that matter, literature, art, drama and music in general.  If you don’t know the immense pleasure of make-believe, it is never too late to learn.  As Mr. Rogers knew, it’s not only a fun way to pass the time; it teaches us valuable lessons that our logical minds might dismiss as unnecessary or foolish.

I hope sometime during this season, you will be able to lose yourself in a wonderful story, a beautiful piece of music, or in appreciation of the dazzling and original artistry seen in decorations at this time of year.  You’ll return from your quick escape with a refreshed spirit, happy to be back in your real life.

One year ago today

The books themselves


  1. It is so fitting that one year ago, on this date, was a tribute to “the books themselves”. I would have enjoyed it if today’s blog included a description of the old, red-bound book, with the wonderful water-color illustrations. Perhaps you didn’t mention it because it disappeared so many years ago. One othder observation: Dickens, speaking in character, said “a historical novel” instead of using the article, “an”. I have always thought the later to be the more archaic form?

    • Eric, he probably said “an” – I am quoting him from my memory and I am sure I’m not getting every detail right. Uh, that old book did NOT disappear. Someone absconded with it years ago. Actually, I didn’t abscond with it. I was telling Mom and Dad one night that the only thing I wanted to be sure to inherit from them was that old copy of A Christmas Carol that Dad had since his youth. They both immediately said “Go ahead and take it now.” Daddy added, “Anything you want, you better take it while it’s still around.” After that remark, I DID abscond with the gorgeous volume of reproductions of famous paintings from the British Museum that Al and I used to look at for hours. Both books are on our shelves in York County.

  2. Rene

    I just got a copy of “Two Cities” at a Christmas book exchange last weekend. I had intended to never read it, after seeing the Masterpiece Theater version a few years ago (on second thought, it’s probably been over 20 years) and being alternately horrified and heartbroken. I’m interested that it’s your second-favorite Dickens, Julia. Tell me more!

    Thanks for your prayers, my sister is doing better. She came home from the hospital last Saturday night. She is having various “digestive” issues, but feels that each episode is evidence that she is healing; she seems in very good spirits, and her voice sounds better each time I talk to her.

    • Rene, thanks for updating us on your sister. We have been praying for her and we’re happy to know she is doing better. I would think the body would take awhile to adjust after a surgery like that.

      I find the entire French Revolution fascinating– Charlotte Corday was an early hero of mine — so that’s partly why I love the book. But, I must confess I find Sidney Carton to be the most romantic character in fiction, far more appealing to me than Darcy (although P&P is my favorite novel). He’s my favorite fictional hero, hands down. If you’d like to read a less horrifying and heartbreaking but still romantic story set in the same time period, I highly recommend The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. It’s a bit flowery in some of its language and scenes, but a wonderful adventure with another very romantic hero. Given my interest in that time period, it’s a bit amazing that I have STILL never seen Les Miserable, in either the movie or stage version!

  3. Michael

    Recently we went to a local rendition of Oliver at the Fifth avenue theatre in which my wife’s nephew Tyler played one of Fagin’s gang. My wife’s comment was that she had missed the level of domestic abuse in the original story. I think having to read Dickens in high school kind of dimmed my enthusiasm for the writing, which is sad. So a Christmas Carol might be a good place to get back into his body of work. As someone was took his own time and formed timeless and relevant stories I can’t think of anyone better. And as for someone who lifted up the suffering of a permanent underclass- I am not sure we have an equal in our time-nor might we want the reminder.
    Has there been a modern version of Oliver? Maybe Slum Dog Millionaire?
    Who is the favorite writer?

    • Mike, I think A Christmas Carol is an excellent place to start. It can be read easily in one evening, and supports the assertion by some literary types that the writing of a good novella is the true test of literary genius. I wouldn’t compare Slum Dog Millionaire to Oliver except in its liberal use of coincidence. Slum Dog Millionaire is a wonderful feel-good story, mostly lighthearted despite being set amid squalor in some scenes. The story lines in Oliver are quite different. They touch on a lot of heavy topics; crime, murder, abuse, the treatment of orphans by society, and their exploitation by criminals, and the frequently difficult circumstances of women in both upper and lower classes. I don’t know of a contemporary equal to Dickens. Many write about the seamy sides of life, but all the ones I can think of do so in a dark and almost sordid way. Dickens managed to love his characters and persuade the readers to love them too. Redemption seems to be a theme that appealed to him. Even the less exciting novels (dare I say boring?) that I have read, such as David Copperfield and Great Expectations, still gave us some unforgettable characters. I haven’t read any of his lesser known words such as Pickwick Papers or Nicholas Nickleby, but one day I intend to tackle them, though I doubt I’ll like them as much as the ones I’ve mentioned.

      My favorite writer is C. S. Lewis, and has been for as far back in my adulthood as I can remember. The more I read of him and about him, the better I like him. I’m currently about halfway through the compilation of all the extant letters he wrote from youth onward (compiled and annotated by his brother Warren), and reading them brings him to life in a much more personal level.

  4. I know what some readers may be saying: “What the Dickens is he talking about!”

    • Did you realize that phrase came to us from…SHAKESPEARE?!! Talk about prescient.

  5. Sheila

    Julia and Eric, you give new meaning to SNL! 🙂

    • Just don’t get me started on Tyrone Green or Mel’s Char Palace. I do a pretty mean imitation of Mrs. Mel.

    • Julia and I “discovered” Eddie Murphy (it did happen to be his debut on SNL.) I was commuting to Memphis to fly the left seat of the CV-580, and Jeff was in Dental School. Eddie? He had just won a literary award, in prison, for his poem, “Cill my Lanlord”.

      • Few people know that during my years at UT medical school (working first as an all-around flunkie in the Neurosurgery department, and then as a budget assistant) I attained a degree of local fame for my recitations of that stellar work. I still say Garrett Morris, who was almost as talented as Eddie Murphy but never as famous, laid the groundwork for Tyrone with his unforgettable musical skills showcased here. BTW I found another Father Guido classic as well. This clip’s fractured explanation of the afterlife is not too far off from what some people seem to believe. Having worked at a Catholic high school with some unforgettably unique nuns, I found his very last line (about nuns) hilarious. SNL was often too profane and vulgar for my taste, and certainly politically incorrect most of the time, but they came up with some of the funniest comedy of all time.

  6. Michael

    Yes what in the Dickens is he talking about? Thanks to you, I watched last night the beginning section of Masterpiece Theatre’s ” Great Expecations.” I drew parallels between the prisoner Margot(sp?) and beginning scenes of Les Miserable. It was interesting to note that according to Wickipedia, Dickens wrote the novel as a way to keep his newspaper afloat- it was sinking at the time. He serialized the story, sold many papers and made a little money. Dickens also kept a notebook with names of possible characters- including Pumblechook and Orlick and Garley. So I wonder if he came up with the characters in his mind first and then somehow wove them together. Great storyteller. So as per your comments on “Slum Dog” is our generation more amenable to lighter fair and do we tend to eschew the darker themes of child slavery, abuse, class differences and such? Would a modern Dickens find an audience?

    • Dickens was fortunate to enjoy popularity in his own lifetime; Melville, for example, died thinking that Moby Dick, his magnum opus, was an abject failure. But even with Dickens’ following, he did have trouble making ends meet. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I have heard that he wrote A Christmas Carol to get himself out of a similar financial bind. No shame in that; necessity has always been the mother of invention.

      I’m not sure a modern Dickens would find an audience, but Steinbeck did – although we also could ask if Steinbeck would be as popular today as he was in his own time. Of course, there’s a difference between popularity and critical acclaim. Perhaps the more interesting question is whether Dickens could find a publisher today. He might hear some variation of this all too familiar theme, which I myself have heard: “This is very well-written and has merit, but from the standpoint of current commercial trends, I’m not sure it would sell well enough to justify the financial risk.” I think if Dickens were around today, he’d have a website and self-publish — and be enormously successful. That’s my theory 🙂 . As to your question of whether our generation is more amenable to lighter fare – “R U Serious? LOL!”

  7. Michael

    Also since you like Lewis did you see on SNL -Andy Samberg- video, “Chronics of Narnia.”?

    • No Mike, I actually quit watching SNL almost 20 years ago; it just got too crude and nasty for me, and didn’t seem as funny as it was in the early years. I know it’s been off and on, and I’ve seen clips of funny stuff from SNL, but also stuff that I found offensive. I will probably go to YouTube now and see “Chronics of Narnia” since it does sound funny. Lewis himself might like it, as he was a great believer in the value of humor, and was not easily offended.

  8. Michael

    I have similar feelings about SNL so I will second the motion. And since we dropped cable maybe U tube is the way to go. Since I am a drummer I always liked the more cowbell skit on SNL with Christoper Walken. But the present stuff just does not seem as funny to me.Let me know about about “Chronics of Narnia.” I actually did not watch it, but just saw a blip on it. Also I noticed Nicholas Nickleby is on Netflix. I think I have seen the father Guido sketch before, but it is pretty awesome on second view.
    Steinbeck touched on some profound issues.
    So is it a sign of the end times our cultural preference for lighter fare-” give them bread and circuses?”

    • I did see the cowbell clip on YouTube and thought it was funny. Re: end times – I am not a premillennialist so I’m always skeptical of arguments that “the end is near” in terms of where the earth is, but I think the parallels between the USA right now and ancient Rome near the end of its glory days are pretty striking, from what little I have read. I read one of Taylor Caldwell’s fiction books written back in the 60’s or 70’s that was set in ancient Rome, and it floored me how many facets of society (as described by the author) sounded so familiar. Caldwell was a popular author, but I don’t know how credible her research was. However, the “bread and circuses” reference does remind me of Brave New World by Huxley, which also seems eerily prophetic in some ways.

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