eading the obscure novella entitled The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang An Old Year Out and a New Year In, the second of Charles Dickens's Christmas Books, one might well wonder what all the fuss was about a hundred and sixty years ago. Like its older sibling, A Christmas Carol, The Chimes is a seasonal text (New Year's Eve and Day rather than Christmas Eve and Day being the temporal setting) that focuses upon the pressing necessity for a middle-class change of heart and the development of a social consciousness as correctives for the "Condition of England." The Carol had four "staves," and this musical analogy is continued by the four "quarters" of The Chimes. Once again, we are in the Hungry Forties of A Christmas Carol, and once again the central character is converted to the doctrine of brotherly love through the operation of a sometimes touching and sometimes terrifying dream-vision. But unlike the wealthy middle-class capitalist Ebenezer Scrooge of the former Christmas Book, Trotty Veck is not an emotionally arrested social isolate who defends the state charity of workhouses and prisons. Rather, good-natured, optimistic Tobias (a.k.a. "Toby" or "Trotty") Veck is a sympathetic, working-class character who has learned his misanthropy from the daily newspapers, the only reading-matter he can afford. A poorly-paid ticket-porter who delivers messages and parcels, Trotty works London's mean streets, but takes solace from the chiming of the bells in the steeple of the church opposite his hovel. As a widower, Trotty has had to raise his daughter Margaret (usually called "Meg" or "Meggy") by himself. His misanthropy then is purely cognitive, and not deeply felt.
But Dickens, building on the irony that Trotty Veck is more human than he himself knows, treats his hero sympathetically, even joyfully. (Welsh, 8)
Prior to the dream vision, on New Year's Eve, during the course of his deliveries Trotty meets a number of social leaders: London alderman Cute, political economist Mr. Filer, aristocratic land-owner and Member of Parliament Sir Joseph Bowley, an red-faced gentleman in a white waistcoat. These authorities reinforce the establishmentarian views of the poor that Trotty has imbibed from the newspapers, namely that the working class in general is born bad and destined to go wrong. More obvious antecedents for the characters and situations in The Chimes include
1. Contemporary "model" prisons such as Pentonville (just opened year previous near London and covered in The Illustrated London News) and Philadelphia's Eastern Penitentiary, which Dickens visited during his 1842 tour of the eastern United States;
2. A new financial exchange in London, lavishly depicted in The Illustrated London News;
3. Rick-burnings in rural counties such as Dorsetshire;
4. A Middlesex magistrate's cant about "putting down" suicide among the working poor;
5. The rise of Chartism in England's industrial cities; and
6. The miseries endured by the working poor throughout the United Kingdom, but especially in Ireland, during The Hungry Forties.
From Italy in late November Dickens hastened across Europe to London in order to supervise the publication of the novella and read it to a select group of friends at John Forster's chambers. Depicted in a sketch reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" in the positioning of the figures (and the halo about Dickens's head!), Dickens read The Chimes at 58 Lincoln's Inn Fields on the evening of 3 December 1844. The party that Dickens had drama critic John Forster assemble in his rooms were reform-minded Liberals, artistic and humanitarian personalities: William Macready, actor-manager; Douglas Jerrold, dramatist and journalist whose working-class sympathies are evident in the melodrama Black-eyed Susan; or, All in the Downs (1829); Daniel Maclise and Clarkson Stanfield, artists; Reverend William J. Fox, journalist and lecturer; Thomas Carlyle, crusty philosopher and prophesier of social doom and revolution in Past and Present (1843), which influenced Dickens's focus on the indigent in A Christmas Carol. Maclise's sketch of the reading catches the spirituality of the occasion:
". . . the grave attention of Carlyle, the eager interest of Stanfield and Maclise, the keen look of poor Laman Blanchard, Fox's rapt solemnity, Jerrold's skyward gaze, and the tears of [Rev.] Harness and Dyce. . . ."--John Forster, "Italian Travel," The Life of Charles Dickens, Volume the First (1812-1847).
Although the subject, the suffering of the poor and lack of social consciousness among the more affluent classes, was reflected in the newspapers daily, in The Chimes this suffering is transformed from objective, detached reportage distributed across pages of newsprint, into a subjective, pathetic narrative about people with whom we can identify our own humanity:
Lilian's prostitution, Richard's drunken degradation, and Meg's near infanticide are fictional versions of what Dickens' contemporaries read about in the daily newspapers." (Kurata, 26)
Alexander Welsh contends that the perspective in The Chimes is external as opposed to the internal perspective of A Christmas Carol: in the first Christmas Book, we as members of the comfortable middle class, with sufficient income to purchase a nicely bound and lavishly illustrated commodity text, read about the experiences and relationships of one of our own, the businessman Ebenezer Scrooge. Trotty Veck, his daughter Meg, her fiancé Richard, the guests Will Fern and his niece Lilian are members of that class glimpsed only briefly in the Carol: the working poor. We cannot wholly comprehend their world, except in relation to ours, the social stratum of Alderman Cute, Mr. Filer, and the Young England gentleman. Walsh contends that we never really enter Trotty's thoughts, even though we sympathize with him:
The alienated individual in this story is of a different social class from that of the author and the readers. He is seen from the outside; his thoughts, especially his exaggerated class-consciousness — submissive to the general opinion that the poor must be born bad — are mostly bestowed upon him for the purposes of satire." (8)
Trotty, a self-employed carrier as it were, his friend Mrs. Chickenstalker, the groceress, and his future son-in-law, Richard, are slightly more than proletarian; like Joe Gargery in Great Expectations, they are on the lower edge of the lower middle class, unlike the revolutionary labourer Will Fern, a Hodge from Dorset. And yet Dickens so extends his sympathy to all of them, so situates the narrative, that we identify with them and against the story's more affluent members of the middle class. As Marilyn J. Kurata points out,
The spontaneous benevolence of Toby Veck and Mrs. Chickenstalker finds no parallel among the middle or upper classes. As far as the reader knows, Sir Joseph Bowley and Alderman Cute continue their complacent and illusionary careers as Friends of the People. For them, there are not the miraculous revelations and sudden conversions to humanitarianism which Scrooge and Tackleton [the exploitative toy-manufacturer in The Cricket on the Hearth, 1845] undergo. . . ." (Kurata, 20)
Much of the point of Dickens's social critique and political; satire is probably lost on the modern reader because for its effectiveness satire relies upon an intimate knowledge of the people and conditions satirized; although he or she may recall that 1847 was the height of the Irish Potato Famine, which drove so many Irish to North America in search of a better life, the modern reader is likely unacquainted with the dire distress of the working poor in The Hungry Forties, the revolutionary movement called Chartism, the riots by laborers in the industrial towns such as Manchester, the rick-burnings by agricultural labourers in such rural counties as Dorset, the rampant prostitution of the metropolis, and the nostalgic mediaevalism of Benjamin Disraeli's Young England Movement. Alderman Cute's cant about "Putting Down" working-class suicide and infanticide, Mr. Filer's quibbling about the wanton expense of tripe (a dish few if any North Americans today have tasted) and his advising Richard on economic grounds not to marry young today all fall wide of Dickens's mark. Filer is a direct allusion to the Utilitarian Movement and the political economy of the Reverend Thomas Malthus, whose perspective in Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) Filer espouses and whose statistical methodology and Social Darwinism he has adopted. Cute's reiterating his determination to "Put Down" working class-suicide, street-walking, and other social ills reflects similar utterances by Middlesex magistrate Sir Peter Laurie. Nevertheless, these authorities, as Kurata points out, are neither melodramatic villains nor "deliberate evildoers. All of them are unimaginative and stupid, but each firmly believes that his actions are dictated by the best of intentions" (22): their unkindness or lack of humanity is simply the result of their lack of sympathy and their egocentricity, failings, implies Dickens, of their class.
Dickens directs readers' sympathies by making the working-class characters three-dimensional and central to the narrative whereas the middle- and upper-class characters remsin flat or undeveloped. His characterization is perfectly consistent with his intention to use the second Christmas Book to strike a blow for the poor. Then, too, the little "gift" book, based on the mixed-media format and intimate style of A Christmas Carol, reflects Dickens's intention to recoup his financial losses after the disastrous piracy suit with Peter Parley's Illustrated Library over that publisher's violation of Dickens's copyright. On 8 May 1844, Dickens officially broke with his former publishers Chapman and Hall over the less-than-stellar Carol profits, and signed with the printing firm of Bradbury and Evans.
Dickens made Italy (the northern state of Piedmont) as his family's destination in July 1844 because he admired Joey Grimaldi's pantomime and Conte di Camillo Benso Cavour's Liberalism, choosing, as Paul Schlicke notes, to settle in Genoa, "the birthplace of Mazzini" (1805-72, founder in exile of the "Young Italy" movement in 1833) and "the most progressive and nationalistic region of a country whose most pressing concern was liberation from tyranny" (299). In doing so, Dickens fled the financial demands of his blood petitioners for one of the least expensive parts of the Continent in order to reduce domestic expenses.
Finishing the second Christmas Book on November 3 after two months of sustained effort, Dickens resolved to make a flying, one-week visit to London to oversee the publication of The Chimes and read it to a select group of Liberal, artistic, and humanitarian friends. The book brought Dickens precisely what he had hoped: initial sales of 20,000 copies, a substantial profit (1,065 pounds 8 shillings and tuppence), and a widespread public debate about the issues that The Chimes had raised. No book was more hotly disputed in the press at the time since in it "Dickens is clearly placing the blame for the frequency of behaviour such as prostitution, infanticide, and suicide by the poor on society's failure to help those who desperately need help" (Thomas 43). In eschewing Pickwickian comedy in favour of pathos, melodrama, and social criticism, The Chimes anticipates the later, big novels of the next decade, Bleak House and Little Dorrit, of whose thematic unity, somber mood, well-integrated symbolism, and tighter narrative construction The Chimes is the harbinger.
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Last Modified 16 January 2007