Others must know Dickens better than I do and must be better able to channel him, but I wouldn’t mind being called “Dickensian.” The term evokes, for me, a great and amassing gravitas akin to amber gathering antiquity in a golden orb and turning it crystal. Putting aside the man (because I’ve written about that before), his style entices, seduces, and embraces. It makes another sort of time and place entirely imaginary.
This time of year, I often reread A Christmas Carol and watch the words roll like loose cannon balls on the deck of a storm-beset ship. They head somewhere according to shifts of direction and pitch just the sea knows:
The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowing sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice.
Dicken’s prose takes its time, rolling in and out of personification—the “gruff” bell, the tower “peeping,” its “teeth chattering in its frozen head” inside clouds—and then tumbling toward some other detail of the vast scene—those laborers who are “winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture.” The vision of the narration roves, staring at each detail with equal intensity, bringing all of it into intimate focus. The “sullenly congealed” ice is “misanthropic,” caught unawares. With Dickens, everything seems caught in a beam of peculiar light, revealing itself as if never seen.
Of course I know the story of A Christmas Carol well—seemingly everyone does—and, even if they didn’t, they might know its skeleton, the tale of a lost man, the heavy-handed turn toward sentimentality as, from the dark, some barely lit candle gutters. I imagine that’s what some writers despise about Dickens, his insistence on resolution, the sort that rescues hope from deep, really too interesting, cynicism. Those writers must sense Dickens at the wheel, gripping against the wind and turning his ship too deftly aright.
Last summer, I reread A Tale of Two Cities and felt what many unsympathetic readers must, that Dickens gets his characters into trouble only to get them out. He makes few, if any, truly, truly dangerous moves and only ones that later will seem as poised on promise as disaster.
I rejoice at the end of A Christmas Carol, but I also hear desperate self-assurance in it, Dickens consoling himself as much as us:
Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
Did Dickens hear ridicule as he wrote? Did he recognize the incredible reform and alteration in Scrooge stretching beyond the bounds of his creation? Did he sense laughter licking at him? Did he see what others might, the character’s turn is too complete, an evolution that must be anticipated to be actualized? Dickens says skeptics would “wrinkle up their eyes in grins” at Scrooge but that someone might like that as much as “the malady in other forms.” What forms? What malady? What did Dickens himself consider and experience? How did he wrinkle his own eyes, before setting them aright? Was this fabricated redemption actually “quite enough for him”?
And maybe that’s the answer to his elliptical prose. He is always approaching and retreating, trying to stay true and trying to satisfy. I love that in him, the friction under his movement—the dragging and the soaring, the hard stare and the light laugh.
When I was a ninth grader, my teacher assigned Great Expectations and I read it in a weekend, the longest book I’d devoured up until then. I remember putting it down Sunday night and regretting I’d never be able to read it again for the first time. I’ve reread Dickens—especially A Christmas Carol—many times since, but I’ve come no closer to the secret he’s keeping, whether he transcended the melancholy he hints and made more than fiction from redemption.