Notes on Dickens’ “A Christmas Tree” (1850)


* You can really feel the immanence of the market in Dickens’ “A Christmas Tree”. This was the first of the annual Christmas stories that ran in Dickens’ then brand-new magazine, Household Words (a draw for the Christmas edition). Dickens is filling the market/public connection gap created by his five previous almost-annual Christmas books. People wanted to read him, so he’s presenting himself in a format suitable for public consumption. Dickens is always at once self-contained and stubborn and eminently flexible and available, demonstrating the opposite of Bob Dylan’s ire at being introduced thus: You know him, he’s yours: Bob Dylan.” That’s exactly the relationship Dickens wants with his audience, and what he needs them to give him, even as he’s never prepared to budge on his social justice stances to make himself more lovable. How do you even go about making a kind of radical populism popular? What a delicate balance of contradictions!

* I love the description (bottom page 4/top page 5 in my volume) of his toys as both scary/grotesque and delightful/charming. They’re such close feelings (as my thesis explores at length).

All toys at first, I find. Up yonder, among the green holly and red berries, is the Tumbler with his hands in his pockets, who wouldn’t lie down, but whenever he was put upon the floor, persisted in rolling his fat body about, until he rolled himself still, and brought those lobster eyes of his to bear upon me–when I affected to laugh very much, but in my heart of hearts was extremely doubtful of him. Close beside him is that infernal snuff-box, out of which there sprang a demoniacal Counsellor in a black gown, with an obnoxious head of hair, and a red cloth mouth, wide open, who was not to be endured on any terms, but could not be put away either; for he used suddenly, in a highly magnified state, to fly out of Mammoth Snuff-boxes in dreams, when least expected. Nor is the frog with cobbler’s wax on his tail, far off; for there was no knowing where he wouldn’t jump; and when he flew over the candle, and came upon one’s hand with that spotted back–red on a green ground–he was horrible. The cardboard lady in a blue-silk skirt, who was stood up against the candlestick to dance, and whom I see on the same branch, was milder, and was beautiful; but I can’t say as much for the larger cardboard man, who used to be hung against the wall and pulled by a string; there was a sinister expression in that nose of his; and when he got his legs round his neck (which he very often did), he was ghastly, and not a creature to be alone with.

When did that dreadful Mask first look at me? Who put it on, and why was I so frightened that the sight of it is an era in my life? It is not a hideous visage in itself; it is even meant to be droll, why then were its stolid features so intolerable? Surely not because it hid the wearer’s face. An apron would have done as much; and though I should have preferred even the apron away, it would not have been absolutely insupportable, like the mask. Was it the immovability of the mask? The doll’s face was immovable, but I was not afraid of HER. Perhaps that fixed and set change coming over a real face, infused into my quickened heart some remote suggestion and dread of the universal change that is to come on every face, and make it still? Nothing reconciled me to it. No drummers, from whom proceeded a melancholy chirping on the turning of a handle; no regiment of soldiers, with a mute band, taken out of a box, and fitted, one by one, upon a stiff and lazy little set of lazy-tongs; no old woman, made of wires and a brown-paper composition, cutting up a pie for two small children; could give me a permanent comfort, for a long time. Nor was it any satisfaction to be shown the Mask, and see that it was made of paper, or to have it locked up and be assured that no one wore it. The mere recollection of that fixed face, the mere knowledge of its existence anywhere, was sufficient to awake me in the night all perspiration and horror, with, “O I know it’s coming! O the mask!””

* I often see a fragment from this piece in which Dickens asserts his first love was Little Red Riding-Hood (“She was my first love. I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding-Hood, I should have known perfect bliss.”) quoted as straight up autobiographical. The irresponsibility of this framing frankly surprises me for several reasons.

1. As stated above, this is Dickens packaging himself. He is and isn’t engaged in autobiography, acting a part, and salesmanship. He’s definitely ‘playing it up’: the Saleable Dickens.

2. The over-arching image of this piece is a Christmas tree, which Dickens supposedly remembers from his own childhood. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s absolutely no way that could be autobiographical? He’s just cannily using the image as a structuring device. Dickens is a child in the 1810s and 20s, and Queen Victoria popularised the Christmas tree in the 1840s. Ergo we are, in a way that is clearly flagged up, not in a diaristic mode (and even that is an act of self-presentation).

Being now at home again, and alone, the only person in the house awake, my thoughts are drawn back, by a fascination which I do not care to resist, to my own childhood. I begin to consider, what do we all remember best upon the branches of the Christmas Tree of our own young Christmas days, by which we climbed to real life.

Straight, in the middle of the room, cramped in the freedom of its growth by no encircling walls or soon-reached ceiling, a shadowy tree arises; and, looking up into the dreamy brightness of its top– for I observe in this tree the singular property that it appears to grow downward towards the earth–I look into my youngest Christmas recollections!”

3. The school-days Dickens describes, featuring certain classical authors and a boarding school-style ‘coming home for Christmas’, are markedly not his own. Dickens only ‘boarded’ in any fashion for a short time while his parents moved to London, and not, I think, during a lead up to Christmas. He had three years of schooling total, and his ‘high school’ education consisted of two years (post-blacking factory) at a decent but not excellent local day school. I’m really not sure he could have had the rigorous classical education he alludes to here (except as the autodidact he was), and he certainly never ‘came home’ from school for Christmas. This, again, is Dickens giving the public the childhood they expect he had, or that he wants them to believe he had: a few class-rungs above his actual origins.

School-books shut up; Ovid and Virgil silenced; the Rule of Three, with its cool impertinent inquiries, long disposed of; Terence and Plautus acted no more, in an arena of huddled desks and forms, all chipped, and notched, and inked; cricket-bats, stumps, and balls, left higher up, with the smell of trodden grass and the softened noise of shouts in the evening air; the tree is still fresh, still gay. If I no more come home at Christmas-time, there will be boys and girls (thank Heaven! ) while the World lasts; and they do! Yonder they dance and play upon the branches of my Tree, God bless them, merrily, and my heart dances and plays too!”

4. If anything, what it sounds more like is David Copperfield’s school-years at what must be the King’s School in Canterbury (strange side-note: this means some centuries later, Gareth Thomas, who among other things once played Mudstone, attended the same school as David’s supposed to have done). Dickens is actually writing David Copperfield when this little number is coming out, and Dickens once, maybe only part-jokingly, said he was performing a theatrical role as Vincent Crummles playing the part. My point is that Dickens is already engaged in a sophisticated first-person game where he’s writing as both himself and as a younger, ‘better-bred’ version of himself (who nonetheless shares his own childhood trauma, or some of it). So Dickens could easily be writing this in a first-person me-and-not-me mode, or even writing it as David Copperfield, wittingly or un. Taking this Little Red Riding-Hood business, as some psychoanalytic critics have, as a genuine disclosure of the writer’s recollections or feelings seems to miss the mark, and to not give Dickens due authorial credit for crafting and shaping his experience and biographical presentation in the knowing fashion we have absolute proof he does in David Copperfield.

We know “Monk” Lewis was a big fixture on the London literary scene in his slightly-antecedent day (the title conflates the author with his work, which Lewis actively encouraged), and we know, as Molly Katz reminded me, that Tristam Shandy was a big influence on David Copperfield. Laurence Sterne often appeared/spoke of/and was referred to as Tristram and Yorick.” I think we assume complex, self-aware interactions of person and performance are relatively post-modern, which, I’m sorry, is self-indulgent bullshit that frames earlier creators as simpler, less artistically competent and less media-savvy than us. Trust Butler-Lytton’s annoyed grousing on the subject: Dickens was incredibly media-savvy. Media just had a different shape and substance at the time.

* None of that’s to say I don’t think we should panhandle for psychoanalytic gold in this rich stream! Just, framing is vital. Handle Dickens’ multi-layered claims about himself with care.

* Gold nuggets from the stream:

1. Simon Cowell doesn’t go out and say it, but when, in his popular biography of Dickens, he discusses Dickens’ “The Life of Our Lord” and flags up Dickens’ desire to heal, and to exert benevolent power hands-on via mesmerism, public readings, fiction and social reform (Siobhan Harper is also doing academic work on this), he strongly implies Dickens has a (possibly-unacknowledged?) Jesus complex. Here’s a fragment that makes me raise my eyebrow and think, yep.

a baby in a manger; a child in a spacious temple, talking with grave men; a solemn figure, with a mild and beautiful face, raising a dead girl by the hand; again, near a city gate, calling back the son of a widow, on his bier, to life; a crowd of people looking through the opened roof of a chamber where he sits, and letting down a sick person on a bed, with ropes; the same, in a tempest, walking on the water to a ship; again, on a sea-shore, teaching a great multitude; again, with a child upon his knee, and other children round; again, restoring sight to the blind, speech to the dumb, hearing to the deaf, health to the sick, strength to the lame, knowledge to the ignorant; again, dying upon a Cross, watched by armed soldiers, a thick darkness coming on, the earth beginning to shake, and only one voice heard, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.””

I could go into how that feels really Implicating to me, but no one’s publishing this, so idc to.

2. “of doting on the little Fairy, with the wand like a celestial Barber’s Pole, and pining for a Fairy immortality along with her. Ah, she comes back, in many shapes, as my eye wanders down the branches of my Christmas Tree, and goes as often, and has never yet stayed by me!”

That’s… an awkwardly revealing thing to say about your love-life, thanks.

3. “When I wake in bed, at daybreak, on the cold, dark, winter mornings, the white snow dimly beheld, outside, through the frost on the window-pane, I hear Dinarzade. “Sister, sister, if you are yet awake, I pray you finish the history of the Young King of the Black Islands.” Scheherazade replies, “If my lord the Sultan will suffer me to live another day, sister, I will not only finish that, but tell you a more wonderful story yet.” Then, the gracious Sultan goes out, giving no orders for the execution, and we all three breathe again.”

I guess it makes sense because they’re both desperate story-tellers who need the act to live, but it’s interesting that Arabian Nights is one of the most important books to Dickens (Cowell calls it his bible), and that Dickens is firmly identifying w Scheherazade here (he could almost be her, in the ST:TMP novelisation K/S footnote level grammatical tangle of this paragraph). He’s also left with the women when the threatening male presence goes.

‘Gracious’ is also odd as (as Samira recently reminded me) this king is a mass-murdering fuck. (This is Esther territory, too.) But then the fictive&material relationship with audience Dickens is constructing can only have sublimated violence: he relies on their love.

As far as identification goes, people are eager to retroactively butch this writer. Cowell was just going on about how his playing more with girls than other boys as kid is sexual—not, as I’d suggest, indicative of identification or greater comfort with women. I wonder how much of relative importance of Dickens’ male and female friendships is biographical tradition, though? Do we want Collins and not Angela Burdett-Coutts? It’s fairly common to say Dickens wrote bad women, had bad relationships with women, etc. But he had equal reason to be mad at his dad, and so many more close female friendships than most men have, and his sort of last blessing, as it were, goes to Katey, the child he sits up all night talking to shortly before his death. I don’t think Katey was the Jacob, stealing a blessing intended for Esau. Cowell contends she was the child most like her father, and if that’s true, this feels like an acknowledgement of that (as does Dickens’ crying over Katey’s wedding dress, convinced that she married not for love, but because her big personality clashed with his big personality and she wanted to get out of the house, away from him).

So If we’re talking about poorly-written women, we’re excluding Betsey, Jenny Wren, Bella Wilfer, Pleasance Riderhood—a lot of women from that category. (And is Dickens more interested in Walter from Dombey than he is in Agnes? Goodness and prettiness are never really his bag: he cuts many male and female Stock Characters from panto and melodrama for his romantic leads and doesn’t love them as much as he loves the vibrant casts of ridiculous people around them.) If we’re saying ‘bad with women in life’, again, we’re rendering Burdett-Coutts, Katey, and a lot of other women with whom he had ambivalent, close, rich relationships invisible. If what we mean is ‘bad with a certain type of woman’, in fiction or in life, we need to clarify how that’s working in relation to male characters and people, and possibly to think about how our own moment of heteronormativity and its associated narratives are interacting with the itself-evolving Georgian/Victorian span of Dickens’ life. I’m also not sure that the end of Dickens’ marriage to Catherine can serve as a sort of template for his relationship with the entire gender, in our thinking. Maybe that ‘we’ is arrogant to say, and it’s work scholars are doing all over the place, but in the admittedly popular biography I just read, which was very good, assumptions about the relative closeness and importance of Dickens’ friends were stated rather than proved.

* This description of toys is a little like the one in Cricket on the Hearth (the Noah’s arc, the doll house), and this description of coming home from school a little like the one in Carol.

* I wish he’d stay in the ghost stories a little more, lingering in them. He’s willing to do it in Nickleby!

* Robinson Crusoe is crap, Victorians are all confused.

* panniers: baskets, especially a pair carried by a beast of burden.

* This has only partly clarified what the hell ‘lazy-tongs’ are for me.

* The ‘waits’: The tradition of caroling from door to door originated with the “waits,” an ancient English custom of going from house to house and singing in exchange for food. Singing carols outdoors on the front porches of houses became popular in both England and the United States as early as the late 19th Century and continued into the 20th. The English carol “Here We Come a-Wassailing” best describes the tradition of the waits.”

* “Philip Quarll among the monkeys, Sandford and Merton with Mr. Barlow, Mother Bunch”, “not Valentine, not the Yellow Dwarf (I have passed him and all Mother Bunch’s wonders, without mention)”, lots of stuff from plays: no idea

* I feel like I’m going to have to read Arabian Nights, and I’m a little annoyed about it.

Read it here.


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