Notes on Dickens’ The Holly-Tree Inn (1855)


The Holly-Tree Inn (1855)

* Nominally, this is a story about a young man who throws a paddy because he believes his best friend and his finance are into one another. (“From our school-days I had freely admitted Edwin, in my own mind, to be far superior to myself; and, though I was grievously wounded at heart, I felt the preference to be natural, and tried to forgive them both.”) We must assume that his evidence for throwing said paddy was circumstantial, given that we later learn Edwin was actually gunning for the finance’s live-in cousin. The (nameless, I think) narrator has nonetheless decided, on the strength of this supposition, to abandon his life and make for America. He’s got time to kill before the ship sails, and so he decides to go north, where he gets snowed in at the titular inn. He spends a shitty Christmas alone, then seeks out stories from the inn’s other inhabitants and has a better time listening to these and bonding with the tale’s tellers before fortuitously running into the Happy Ending in the form of Edwin and Cousin, en route to Gretna Green. This final reversal isn’t hugely comic, but it’s pleasing.

* What we actually get is a bit of frame narrative, enlivened by a strong snowy coach sequence and a fun description of the vast fucking freezing room the narrator’s staying in, succeeded by an essay reminiscent of Dickens’ first two Christmas pieces for HW. This is followed by Dickens’ short story, and some other short stories by other writers, and then the whole is bookended by a tail bit of frame-narrative.

The ‘recollections of various inns’ are just Dickens. This (presumably) young male narrator is probably not possessed of a mysterious knowledge of everywhere Dickens himself has been. He’s a bit young to be such a world-traveller, and his description of American inns sits oddly with his final “I never went to America”. Yes, he could simply refer to the abandonment of his current scheme to emigrate, but I think it makes more sense to view this as ‘basically another essay’, tucked into a  kind of disposable frame narrative/scenario. (The cold room also feels rather Drawn From Life.) Dickens spends some pages giving us his more interesting Bill Bryson before he gets bored of it and moves on.

* The ‘reminiscences of inns’ section whirls you through various scenes and even various story-telling modes: there’s something of a folk tale/Christmas ghost story/true crime anecdote of a cock crowing out a murderer’s guilt.

There are also:

– a creepy druid

  great bitchy remarks on American mega-hotels that ring true as descriptions of conference hotel monstrosities today: “I put out to sea for the Inns of America, with their four hundred beds apiece, and their eight or nine hundred ladies and gentlemen at dinner every day. Again I stood in the bar-rooms thereof, taking my evening cobbler, julep, sling, or cocktail. Again I listened to my friend the General,–whom I had known for five minutes, in the course of which period he had made me intimate for life with two Majors, who again had made me intimate for life with three Colonels, who again had made me brother to twenty-two civilians,–again, I say, I listened to my friend the General, leisurely expounding the resources of the establishment, as to gentlemen’s morning-room, sir; ladies’ morning-room, sir; gentlemen’s evening-room, sir; ladies’ evening-room, sir; ladies’ and gentlemen’s evening reuniting-room, sir; music-room, sir; reading-room, sir; over four hundred sleeping-rooms, sir; and the entire planned and finited within twelve calendar months from the first clearing off of the old encumbrances on the plot, at a cost of five hundred thousand dollars, sir. Again I found, as to my individual way of thinking, that the greater, the more gorgeous, and the more dollarous the establishment was, the less desirable it was.”

He then pulls back and says something nice about Americans, because he’s gotten in hot water for this one before. Also I love that ‘dollarous’ coinage, which is so temptingly close to ‘dolorous’.

– Rhineland hotels where “where your going to bed, no matter at what hour, appears to be the tocsin for everybody else’s getting up”

(tocsin: alarm bell or signal)

– “I departed thence, as a matter of course, to other German Inns, where all the eatables are soddened down to the same flavour, and where the mind is disturbed by the apparition of hot puddings, and boiled cherries, sweet and slab, at awfully unexpected periods of the repast. “

I love ‘awfully unexpected’.

* We see a very interesting use of ‘bashful’ here that doesn’t entirely align with a current understanding of the term. It’s more like ‘social awkwardness’? The history of social awkwardness would be a great project for someone.

* In with this good coach journey, Dickens expresses some nice wryness about how contemporary people lament the lost stage coaches, but they dreaded stage journeys enough at the time. Dickens is always a little more subtle than a reductive view of him as sentimental and nostalgic would lead you to believe. He has these surprising self-reflexive turns, and is both unabashedly sentimental and capable of steely analysis. He’s at odds with his own indulgences.

* Dickens talks a lot about the stabling and the inns involved, but I still think of stage coaches as more like ‘arrangements’ than the railroads’ infrastructure, and thus have some trouble parsing them as technology and a transportation network. I think this might generally be a late-capitalist viewpoint: things like Uber are transportation networks, but they’re somehow illegitimate, flexible and transient. We have trouble quite mentally accounting for non ‘official’ industry, perhaps.

* Good prose bit:


I had been snowed up a whole week. The time had hung so lightly on my hands, that I should have been in great doubt of the fact but for a piece of documentary evidence that lay upon my table.”

* It’s somewhat hard to get a good sense of the bashful narrator’s increasing comfort with the other people at the inn without hearing their stories and seeing them told to him. This rewrite isn’t quite so smooth as it might be.

* Dickens’ story-within-a-story is about man working at the hotel who, when younger, knew a couple of seven and eight years old who tried to elope together. Simon Callow rolls his eyes at this short story in his biography, finding it mawkish, so I came in girded. But actually I thought it was quite funny, and that Dickens is aware of the several forms of ridiculousness herein, and that that was kind of the point? (Dickens’ defenders are often in the position of defending him from half-true popular opinions and of apologising for their own strong emotional reactions to him: elaborately excusing his faults real or imagined, or building the case for him as literary and thus their reactions to him as valorous. Thus you get a lot of kind of OTT desperate apologies for problems Dickens doesn’t quite have. I’d like to spend a lot more time on charges like ‘psychologically unrealistic’, because I think what’s going on is a lot more complex than that, and that we need to talk about how we’re coming to that assessment and whether what we’re asking for is even always valuable.) The story’s almost, with its undercurrent of unkindness towards the girl, who isn’t as invested in or faithful to the project as her eight year old swain, and its notes of pessimism about couples going to be married in general, a bit of an old-fashioned chivalric or cavalier ‘bitches, eh?’ It’s much gentler than those, but there are some generic echoes.

I don’t feel this amusement about women’s reactions (which is another layer of ridiculousness re: the elopement) is particularly harsh, and it’s some of the best-written stuff in the story:

The way in which the women of that house–without exception–every one of ’em–married _and_ single–took to that boy when they heard the story, Boots considers surprising. It was as much as he could do to keep ’em from dashing into the room and kissing him. They climbed up all sorts of places, at the risk of their lives, to look at him through a pane of glass. They was seven deep at the keyhole. They was out of their minds about him and his bold spirit.”

“There the father lifts the child up to the pillow, and he lays his little face down for an instant by the little warm face of poor unconscious little Mrs. Harry Walmers, Junior, and gently draws it to him,–a sight so touching to the chambermaids who are peeping through the door, that one of them calls out, “It’s a shame to part ’em!” But this chambermaid was always, as Boots informs me, a soft-hearted one. Not that there was any harm in that girl. Far from it.”

That feels affectionate and even approving. Which, come to think of it, is such a rare attitude to women’s pleasure? Think of the ‘hysterical fan’ characterisations that are common as muck. This enters into their squee, into the very pleasure of over-reaction, and seems to find a moral and aesthetic justice there.

The whole thing is more fun than twee, though there’s definitely a twee component? I don’t know, it’s not The Story I’d pick for over-preciousness. Also, when talking about it, we really have to remember it’s a Christmas number for the whole family, and that some of the other stories might have hit a darker note Dickens had to balance or reign back (authors failed to hit his brief all the damn time, I feel fairly sorry for him as an editor). It feels unfair to discuss this very situationally located work just as some shit Dickens thinks.

* The young boy is a sort of precocious Artemis Fowl type. The sub-narrator’s restlessness is convincingly described.

(0 charm words)


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