No English author is more associated with Christmas than Charles Dickens. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the most familiar works of English literature, even if many people have not read the text but rather seen one of its stage or film adaptations, from The Muppet Christmas Carol to the masterful 1951 adaptation Scrooge, with Alastair Sim in the title role.
But A Christmas Carol was only the first of Dickens’ five Christmas novellas. And, while we think of A Christmas Carol as Dickens’ masterpiece, Dickens himself far preferred his second Christmas novella, The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In. After Dickens completed The Chimes, he wrote, “I believe that I have written a tremendous book, and knocked the ‘Carol’ out of the field.” In fact, The Chimes was an immediate success, selling 20,000 copies.
The Chimes’ central character is an elderly ticket-porter, Trotty Veck, who is much taken with questions about time, questions that are suggested to him by how time is measured by the chiming of church bells. In a witty mood, Trotty observes:
There’s nothing … more regular in its coming round than dinner-time, and nothing less regular in its coming round than dinner.
More seriously, Trotty debates who is worthy of time—that is, who is worthy of life. On a New Year’s Eve, he considers himself and his working-class fellows and muses that they are perhaps unworthy:
We seem to give a deal of trouble; we are always being complained of and guarded against … supposing it should really be that we have no right to a New Year…
In this frame of mind, Trotty echoes the opinions of the wealthy and the aristocrats who use Malthusian political economy to argue that the working class are troublesome and perhaps far too numerous.
As New Year’s Eve advances toward midnight, Trotty is confronted by the Spirits of the Bells, who take him on a journey to witness what will become of those dear to him if they are infected by his opinion that they are unworthy of a New Year. In a final crisis, Trotty declares:
I know that our inheritance is held in store for us by Time. I know there is a sea of Time to rise one day, before which all who wrong us or oppress us will be swept away like leaves. … I know that we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the good in one another. … O Spirits, merciful and good, I am grateful!
Dickens’ view that the working poor like Trotty Veck must be inoculated against utilitarian and Malthusian views was inspired by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who was a leading critic of the Malthusian and economic theories that blamed the poor for economic scarcity.
Carlyle was so important an influence on Dickens at this period that Dickens arranged for a private reading of The Chimes as it was being prepared for publication, with Carlyle as the most distinguished guest. Dickens went so far as to have artist Daniel Maclise, who drew some of the illustrations for The Chimes, record the occasion in a sketch, above. Dickens—surrounded by the glow of a halo—has Carlyle at his right hand, with other writers and artists in the assembled group.
The presentation of Dickens as a Christ-like figure, and the arrangement of these leading intellectual figures of the day as though they were members of a holy order, testifies to how powerful these men understood ideas to be. No wonder they thought it so important to protect the Trotty Vecks of the world from harmful ideas.
The final words of The Chimes seem fitting:
So may the New Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you! So may each year be happier than the last, and not the meanest of our brethren or sisterhood debarred their rightful share, in what our Great Creator formed them to enjoy.
Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.