Monday, December 08, 2008

'Twas the Night Before Dickens

The world of Charles Dickens, in the popular imagination of our day, is little more than a Victorian Christmas card; plump ladies in funny caps, fat gentlemen in side-whiskers, all gathered 'round the Christmas table, chubby tykes gamboling about, and a toast in punch about to be drunk to the joys of the Season, perhaps to be followed by another to the dear little Queen. And then, what? Carols perhaps? How jolly. But look again at the card reproduced above. It is the very first commercially produced Christmas card, from 1843. There's more to it, isn't there?

Nowadays, there are whole collections for sale on EBay of just such happy scenes in miniature; whole happy villages reproduced in neat plastic, snow white plastic on tidy plastic streets full of clean little plastic Victorians and everybody, again, seems to be forever on the verge of singing. And this cheery vulgarity, for whom is it named? Why, Charles Dickens, of course.

It is entirely understandable that some might find this vision of the sanitized,
sentimentalized past more than a little noisome. Dickens would.

And there's worse. In Kent, England there's now an amusement park, brazenly called "Dickens' World," where costumed characters parade around the tidy reproduction of London, including, if you can believe it, the quaint slums, and drop off the little ones for daycare in "Fagin's Den."

Because what's missing in the miniatures and the amusement park -- other than taste -- and present, at least peripherally, in the actual Victorian scene on the card, are the poor. The model Victoriana is all about nostalgia, a phenomenon Charles Dickens found ridiculous and distasteful, if not infuriating, because nostalgia precludes even the possibility of progress. If they were in fact, such "good old times," then what was all that fuss about the Poor Laws, about child labor, about exploitation, and poverty, "ignorance and want?"

Dickens was no killjoy. Don't think that. As the title of Les Standiford's new book points out, Dickens is, after all, The Man Who Invented Christmas. But Christmas, as Dickens understood it, was as much or more about what we do to one another the rest of the year, as it is about what we do for one another, or at least intend to do, come December 25th.

So, enjoy the Festive Season, as those jolly folks in the middle of the first Christmas card seem to be doing. Dickens would heartily approve. He'd join in the fun, if he still could. (And maybe he does, depending on one's point of view.) But note what's just to either side of the good time. And remember, as Charles Dickens, in his "generous anger," wrote, and spoke, and read aloud and fought to remind us: that the spirit of Christmas need not come but once a year.

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