Notes on Dickens’ “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older” (1851)


  • This has a bit of a slow start, but I eventually got into the affective rhythm of it and found it fairly moving: Dickens is really, really good at eliciting response. (Not a very original statement, but.)
  • I was listening to Michael Slater’s lecture on Dickens and Christmas today, and he pointed out that all the Christmas books involve memory–not incidentally, but as a theme they’re working with. They’re also the run-up to David Copperfield, which is a complicated working-through of Dickens’ personal memory, especially the grimmer portions thereof (written right after Haunted Man dramatised the futility of refusing that aspect of life). “What Is Christmas As We Grow Older” convincingly stages the loss of the child’s entire, consuming Christmas as actually fairly beneficial: an intellectual and moral development. This essay gives us a subtle and mature way of looking at failure and abandoned plans. I tend to obsessively hate myself over this, but Dickens, who had too many plans for some of them not to come to nothing (or fall apart more spectacularly than that), has a rather appealing and sensible-seeming way of thinking about failure itself as useful, enlarging and part of one’s personality. This is especially interesting as Dickens also writes (in “Poor Relation’s Story” and elsewhere) about the immense granular psychological strain on people eroded by time and misfortune. There’s a lot in the Christmas works about good and bad ways to interact with failure, and about good and bad failure, as well as the oppressive social relations and forces that engender The Bad Failure.
  • There’s an allusion (probably?) to Maria Beadnell, and another (probably?) to Dickens’ deceased sister in law (“There was a dear girl–almost a woman–never to be one–who made a mourning Christmas in a house of joy, and went her trackless way to the silent City”). The Probably Maria Beadnell section is funny, in a slightly but very forgivably mean way.
  • Strangely ‘“Pause,” says a low voice. “Nothing? Think!”’ strikes me as how Dickens’ relatively analytical mind must turn over logistical questions. Part of this essay’s in a staged, familiar dialogical mode (that doesn’t quite announce itself as such), but this also feels very like How Dickens Must Think to arrive where he does on social questions.
  • Everything about the City of the Dead gets me because I’m so weak for this civic religiosity shit. “Oh shall they not, from sand and sea and forest, be brought home at such a time?” “Would his love have so excluded us?” SHUT UP DICKENS. Anyway it’s a nice building of a trans-temporal Christmas, doing almost eschatological work.  

Read it here.



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