Saturday, December 31, 2016

Dickens in the End

I began this blog after I’d been sick in bed for over a week, eating and drinking nothing but Vitamin Water. I write this last post about my second Ten-Year Reading Plan while in bed, having been sick for over a week, eating and drinking not much more than Powerade. Does having a body several degrees less healthy than that of Myron’s Discus Thrower contribute to one’s being a reader? I think it did in my case. One way or another, here I lie; I can do no other.

Of course, I ended the Plan with Charles Dickens. He’s so good, he’s even good when he’s bad, and The Battle of Life provides the perfect example. Anyone who reads this Christmas novella hoping for anything like the effect of A Christmas Carol will be sorely disappointed. But even the reader generously allowing the story its own space will have to deal with a main plot in which an engaged girl conspires with her aunt and a game wayfarer, leaves her fiancé during their betrothal party, and separates from her immediate family under a cloud of scandalous shame, all because she sees that her sister loves said fiancé. Did nineteenth-century girls actually ever make such sacrifices? OK, nineteenth-century money counters didn’t actually ever get visited by Ghosts of Christmas, either. So let me ask a different question: Were nineteenth-century people actually inspired by the narration of such an outlandish sacrifice? The story is ludicrous!

And yet everything about the way Dickens tells the improbable tale is beautiful. He establishes the scene with the story of an unspecified battle from an unspecified time. Over some untold number of generations, a farming community has risen above the blood and unmarked graves. Various characters construct different philosophies in this context: Dr. Jeddler, for instance, decides all of life is a joke, while Little Britain (so-named to distinguish him from the country!) decides, for a while at least, that morose despondency is the only proper response to such a life. But young Alfred tells us that “there are quiet victories and struggles. great sacrifices of self, and noble acts of heroism . . . done everyday in nooks and corners, and in little households, and in men’s and women’s hearts – any one of which might reconcile the sternest man to such a world.” And there’s Dickens in a nutshell. Yes, the life and culture of mankind have been broken on an anvil of bloodshed and misery, but quiet acts of individual heroism and sacrifice show us a greater reality of love and joy that can make us whole again.

Later in the story, Dickens personifies a fire in the hearth. It laughs, it winks, it makes music. Its benevolent spirit makes a sacrament of every hearth fire in our world: after reading Dickens, the fire in my hearth spreads the warmth and light of Heaven on our home. Little Britain, softened by the influence of a happy woman, becomes a happy man and buys an inn whose every outward feature beckons travelers with promises of comfort. “It’s just the sort of house,” its proprietor says while admiring it, “I should wish to stop at, if I didn’t keep it.” The inviting charm of the inn is strong enough to enchant the public houses of our world, too. After reading Dickens, any private business offering true service becomes an expression of love – a Christmas miracle indeed!

“It is a world,” says a reformed Dr. Jeddler near the end of The Battle of Life,
on which the sun never rises, but it looks upon a thousand bloodless battles that are some set-off against the miseries and wickedness of Battle-Fields, and it is a world we need be careful how we libel, Heaven forgive us, for it is a world of sacred mysteries, and its Creator only knows what lies beneath the surface of His lightest image!
So also should I be careful of criticizing Dickens’s plot too much. For the Dickensian world is one of sacred mysteries, as well, and one of its mysteries is its power to flow from the pages and sacralize our world. And so I close by paraphrasing Scrooge’s nephew in saying:
Though Dickens has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that he has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless him!

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