The Short Version: A collection of Dickens’ most well-known Christmas tales, including the piece d’resistance – A Christmas Carol. Two novellas as well as several short stories and essays, all about the holiday season and the spirit of generosity that suffuses this time of year.
The Review: And so we come to the end of the year – the end of the admittedly ambitious (for me, anyway) attempt to read the “Great Works of Charles Dickens” (as proscribed by Penguin and their hardcover classics, jacketed by Coralie Bickford-Smith). It was timed this way, of course. How else could one end a year of Dickens? And, interestingly enough, it leaves a reader on an ambivalent note.
Ambivalent, you say? How could that be? A Christmas Carol is the greatest of all holiday literature, you say! And Dickens the greatest of novelists! How could you be ambivalent about this collection – but I am not a Scrooge, I promise you. Instead, I have to say (quite honestly) that some of the stories are less engaging than his other works. A Christmas Carol is, of course, as wondrous as you remember it – or as you ‘remember’ it from every film version you’ve seen. Or by ‘every film version’, I mean A Muppet Christmas Carol. But I digress.
Dickens allows himself much more whimsy at this time of year, it seems: nearly all of the stories involve ghosts, goblins, spirits in general. We take it for granted when we think of the stories but it’s interesting to see, in reflection, that Dickens’ other works are so firmly grounded in reality while these indulge flights of relative fancy. Even The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain, which is a bit more Gothic and mysterious in its haunting than A Christmas Carol, is much more fantastic than any of the other Dickens novels I’ve read. But as a result, I find myself unable to take them… well, seriously. They are full of Christmas cheer and give you a warm feeling of the spirit of the season – but they fade almost as quickly as it takes to read them.
The essays / short stories (I can’t really peg them into either category, not properly) are perhaps the most interesting and engaging pieces of the book, if you’ll believe it. “What Christmas Is, As We Grow Older” and “Christmas Festivities” are my favorites – they show the master of the English language at the top of his game, descriptively. They are simple and passionate, capturing the experience of Christmas and the reflection that comes from the end of the year. It is no surprise, then, that the British continue to celebrate the end of the year in a way that others don’t quite get. Look at the tradition of the “Christmas Special” – Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, all the Ricky Gervais shows, etc. Where the Americans have Thanksgiving as our big warm reflective moment, the Christmas / New Years holiday is that equivalent for the Brits – and the tradition stretches back to the days of Old Fezziwig! And so, in the spirit of the great Christmas story of our time: “God bless us! Every One!”
Rating: 4 out of 5. Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays, dear reader.