The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 9. Christmas Books
Dickens himself, in the brief later preface to the collected Christmas Books, describes them as “a whimsical kind of masque intended to awaken loving and forbearing thoughts.” In later days, ignorant and hasty writers have, sometimes, credited him with creating the popular notion of Christmas as a season of enlarged heart, and, also, waistcoat. Scores and hundreds of passages from all ages of our literature refute this folly; and the simple fact that Washington Irving wrote Bracebridge Hall when Dickens was at the blacking manufactory is enough to expose its gross ignorance. But the idea of Christmas as a season of good feeding and good feeling was congenial to all Dickens’s best characteristics, though it may have slightly encouraged some of his weaknesses. The fanciful supernatural, too, for which influences (chiefly, though not wholly, German) had already created a great taste, was thoroughly in his line, and he had used it in some of the inset stories of Pickwick and elsewhere not without effect. Of the five actual books, only one, The Battle of Life, can be called a positive failure; it is, indeed, probably the worst thing that Dickens, after he came to his own, ever did in fiction except George Silverman’s Explanation. Some have found his true quality in Britain, the gloomy footman, and it may, atleast, be conceded to them that it is difficult to find it anywhere else. The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth have been great favourites, though, to some tastes, the first is almost fatally injured by dull stock social satire—lacking all real sting of individuality in Sir Joseph Bowley and alderman Cute and others; while The Cricket, with some refreshing chirps in Tilly Slowboy and elsewhere, does not, to some tastes, seem quite “to come off.” The first “book,” A Christmas Carol, and the last, The Haunted Man, are, by far, the best and the Carol, is delightful. We must, of course, grant—as we must grant to Mrs. Barbauld in the case of The Ancient Mariner—that its story is “improbable”; there is scarcely another objection that can be sustained against it except in the eyes of those to whom all sentiment and all fairy tales are red rags. The Haunted Man is more unequal and sometimes commits the old fault of “forcing the note.” But the Tetterbys are of the first water; they are, indeed, better than the Cratchits, their parallels in the Carol; the good angel Milly is managed with an unusual freedom from exaggeration or mawkishness; and, in the serious parts, unequal as they are, there are touches and flashes of a true romantic quality which Dickens often attempted but less often attained.