Dickens and Beerbohm on Christmas: ghosts, sentiment, send-ups

December 19, 1993|By Michael Seidel | Michael Seidel,Newsday

Title: "A Christmas Carol"

Author: Charles Dickens

Publisher: Yale University

Length, price: 139 pages, $30

Title: "Charles Dickens' Christmas Ghost Stories"

Editor: Selected and introduced by Peter Haining

Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Length, price: 256 pages, $19.95

Title: "A Christmas Garland"

Author: Max Beerbohm

Publisher: Yale University

Length, price: 197 pages, $25

The spirit of Christmas Present offers up three visions for the season: a facsimile manuscript of "A Christmas Carol" in Charles Dickens' own hand; a collection of all of Dickens' Christmas ghost stories; and a reissue of "A Christmas Garland," 17 parodies by Max Beerbohm of famous and not-so-famous Edwardian writers on the subject of Christmas, more or less.

Near the end of "A Christmas Garland," Mr. Beerbohm zeros in on Christmas as we know it. He parodies a George Moore essay on Charles Dickens, intoning, "Christmas -- I see it now -- is the only moment in which men and women are really alive, are really worth writing about . . . I spit on all seasons except Christmas."

Mr. Beerbohm may be playing the Scrooge of sentimentalists, but he is right in his way. Dickens invented the secular, domestic Christmas of modern times.

Beginning with the fatuous Dingley Dell episode of "Pickwick Papers" (1836) and continuing with the winter Christmas stories, nearly every good feeling we have about Christmas derives from Dickens' pages: the sentimental good cheer; the white landscape; the carolers; the hearth fire; the holly, mistletoe and ivy; the potbellied baskets of chestnuts; all the smells and tastes of the table, where, as Scrooge's nephew puts it in "A Christmas Carol," "a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time" is had by all.

Dickens unabashedly relished the memories of Christmas at his own home in rural Chatham before his father's financial embarrassment ended much that was celebratory in his life. Most of all, he relished the weird tales he recalled from family gatherings around the hearth fire at Christmas time related by his nurse, Mary Weller, who delighted in supernatural hauntings -- the more wrenching and horrific the better.

The St. Martin's Press edition of Dickens' "Christmas Ghost Stories" collects Dickens' own efforts in the ghost-story genre, published intermittently from the early 1840s to the late 1860s.

For Dickens, ghost stories were powerfully connected to the Christmas season because the comforts of home and family protected young listeners from the frightful fantasies the stories portray. Or maybe it's the reverse: A listener to such stories wants to be frightened only when the recourse from fear is at hand -- relatives, friends, warmth, familiar places, familiar sights.

Ghost stories at Christmas allowed Dickens to take a kind of yearly domestic stock of the human soul. He cared less for the actual workings of the supernatural than for the way ghosts were products of what he called "excited imaginations," where, as he writes in the story "The Mother's Eyes," "disembodied spirits linger upon past emotions and by-gone times." Surely, this is the case as well for the most well-known Christmas ghost story he or anyone ever wrote, "A Christmas Carol," in which Scrooge's ghostly visions haunt him because they are him.

Without the new deluxe facsimile edition of "A Christmas Carol" issued by Yale University Press commemorating the 150th anniversary of the book's publication, the casual reader would -- have no idea just how hard Dickens worked to produce the effects of the story. Be warned: The facsimile pages in Dickens' handwriting are pretty much a mess. It would be easier on the eye and much simpler to find out what Dickens originally wrote if he hadn't taken to his own manuscript like a deranged graffiti artist. He obliterated and blotted with a vengeance.

At least Dickens' script for the unrevised prose and for his new insertions is easy enough to decipher, and Yale has intelligently produced a facing page of clean print for each manuscript page. Although it's a struggle to read the eradicated passages, we can see Dickens revising relentlessly until he captures just the right register of spoken-voiced tones for the story's humane narrator.

The revisions offer tangible evidence of Dickens' method of composition -- his sharpening of verbal action, varying of locutions, excising of unnecessary baggage from the dialogue. There are thousands of revisions, none of them stunning in themselves but all adding up to the wonderfully paced and told tale the world has come to love so well.

In one of the pieces in Max Beerbohm's "A Christmas Garland," Dickens' ghost stories are blamed for transforming genuine human sentiment into rampant seasonal sentimentality. A satirist such as Mr. Beerbohm sees the sentimental as the hypocritical. He cannot endure it.

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