Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Marley may have been dead, but he still returned to haunt Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve, warning the old skinflint that his miserly ways would doom him to eternal damnation.
A Christmas Carol was published by Charles Dickens in 1843, and is still a holiday favorite. Every year, we rediscover the miserable grinch, hissing at his well-wishing nephew, angry that an employee might want Christmas Day off, and earlier in his life, coming to love money above all else. That would be why his fiancée dumps him.
You’ll find various versions of A Christmas Carol on Lennoxville Library shelves (in the Noel section, and at C-222). The complete version is available online, for free, at www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/46. It’s so much fun that you’ll want to read it aloud in various spooky voices, whether you’re alone or not.
Dickens, of course, wrote a collection of novels that still entertain and astound. They are filled with humour (“External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him”), pointed portraiture (“Rosebud’s guardian was a Mr. Grewgious, an arid, sandy man who looked as if he might be put in a grinding-mill and turned out first-class snuff”), and a keen eye for the evils of poverty, violence and hypocrisy (“At heart he hated the cathedral and the singing, and wished often that he could find relief, like some old monk, in carving demons out of the desks and seats. He had a soul that was without fear or conscience”).
All of Dickens was written so long ago that copyright has long expired; as such thee works can all be found online at, for example, Gutenberg.org.
The Lennoxville Library also has some of his works in print form – Great Expectations is in Adult Fiction. But we also have Dickens Audio Books (Great Expectations again , and The Pickwick Papers [2010, on 21 CDs clocking in at 31 hours, read by multiple award-winning actor Simon Prebble].) Are you too busy for his long, long, loooong novels? There’s always the Easy Reads section of the library.
Dickens is also famous for leaving his readers hanging. He died in 1870, halfway through a whodunnit, The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. Young Drood disappears, and we’ll never know whether his nasty uncle has murdered him, or if the lad will return in triumph.
Quite a few writers have offered solutions to the mystery, however. Matthew Pearl’s attempt is one of the more recent; his novel The Last Dickens was published in 2009 (and is filed in Adult Fiction at the Lennoxville Library), with the action set on three continents, during the years 1867 and 1870.
Pearl’s gallant young man is a Boston book publisher, trying to make a living as the exclusive agent of Dickens at a time when the industry was run by pirates who lived to print quick, cheap ripoffs without fear of legal retribution.
Our hero, however, is a bit of a liberal sort, and comes under fire for it: “ ‘Why, an office in which the men are mixed together with unmarried woman – it is bound to corrupt young boys! Could awaken certain uncontrolled physical urges in the females, too, I dare fancy, that should make any gentleman color.’ Though he himself did not.”
This is literally a literary thriller. The rock star Dickens is recreated during his last tour of the United States; so are his hysterical fans. Then there’s England’s officially sanctioned opium trade (intended to make loads of dough from and to politically destabilize China), smugglers, corrupt officials and shameless book trade operatives. It’s heaps of fun (and well researched: “A ryot looked up from his hoe and suddenly dropped it and ran. [Charles’s son Frank] Dickens found the patch of land he’d been working and saw that the crop here was in fact rice. He frowned. The opium was mandated, the rice illegal.”)
The Last Dickens also makes brief mention of Nelly Turnan, the younger woman for whom Dickens left his wife (after eight children).
You can pick up on that part of the story in Girl In The Blue Dress, by Gaynor Arnold (2008, in Adult Fiction). The names have been changed: Alfred Gibson dies halfway through writing a mystery novel. His wife, Dorothea Gibson, was banished from their home a decade ago, and uses the death to recall their relationship. The writing is almost Victorian, at times a bit overwrought (as were both the women and, refreshingly, the men, of the time).
Dorothea was never able to recover from Alfred. It’s clear that Catherine Dickens never did, either. As Arnold writes, “I have tried to give voice to the largely voiceless Catherine Dickens, who once requested that the letters from her husband be preserved so that ‘the world may know he loved me once.’”
WHAT THE — ?
On the day he was born, the poor wee guy didn’t know who, or what, he was. He took a name for himself: What-The-Dickens.
Young Master What then tries to find a home for himself, a place to fit in. He is, it must be said, strangely attracted to teeth.
And so begins the tale of What-The-Dickens: The Story Of A Rogue Tooth Fairy (2007, filed in C-250). It’s written by Gregory Maguire, famous for his adult reimaginings of The Wizard Of Oz from various perspectives (beginning with 1995’s Wicked: The Life And Times Of The Wicked Witch Of The West, filed in the Lennoxville Library’s Adult Fiction section).
It turns out buddy is a skibbereen. (“Don’t touch me. Skibbereen rarely touch each other.” All these rules, he thought. I’ll never learn.)
The tale of the lost skibbereen is told by a babysitter to three children, trapped in a house with little food during a natural disaster. The sitter is desperate to keep the kids occupied, and the book switches from skibbereen to distraught children, then back again.
Readers should know that Maguire seems not to be a fan of religion, and there’s a human granny with a penchant for gin.
Certainly the tale shows signs of Dickensian wit and uncomfortable social circumstances: “She armed herself with two thorns shaped into knitting needles. A wodge of curlicued metallic scrubbing pad supplied the thread. ‘I knit handcuffs as a hobby,” explained Old Flossie happily, and set to work. “Idle hands get up to no good, and I like to be prepared in case I meet up with any idle hands.’ ”
The expression “What the Dickens” turns out to have nothing to do with the venerable author, however. It was used at least as far back as the 1500s, far before Dickens’ birth. It might refer to the Devil, or it might refer to a woodworker who never managed to make a profit of selling his bowls: “No more is to be got by that than William Dickins got by his wooden dishes,” wrote one wag back in 1599.
(A tip of the hat to the Guardian newspaper for the history lesson.)
In the meantime, What-The-Dickens continues to learn about his heritage: “Dozens of tooth fairies work in any given sector during any given season of tooth decay.… they get up, they brush and gargle, they get back to work.”
— Eleanor Brown, December 18, 2015