Charles Dickens’ First Drafts

We are reading Dickens’ first drafts.

That is the thought that struck me after reading The Old Curiosity Shop. This novel begins with a peculiarity: an unnamed observer who narrates the story while making no contribution to it and, after three short chapters, completely disappears. He has the decency to say good-bye: “I shall for the convenience of the narrative detach myself from its further course, and leave those who have prominent and necessary parts in it to speak and act for themselves.” That is, perhaps, sufficient explanation for his going, but not for his appearing in the first place.

Another character disappears more subtly, and yet rather more notably—Fred Trent, the older brother and moral opposite of Little Nell. Introduced by the vanishing narrator, Trent persisted in the story for perhaps 150 pages longer. He intended, evidently, to be a principal villain. He plotted to get his grandfather’s money, plotted to marry off his sister to his stooge of a friend, plotted to hunt down both relatives when they fled the city. He is attributed with some past entanglement with the young wife of the jealous, malignant Quilp. And it all comes to nothing, and Trent slips off the pages. Dickens remembers him only at the close of the novel, and only to give him a bad, thoroughly unconnected end.

Beyond the characters who disappear are the characters who transform. Dick Swiveller begins the story as nothing more than a fool; he ends as little less than a hero. Kit Nubbles walks into the narrative with “the most comical expression of face;” he “would have amused one anywhere,” and his weekly writing lesson is little more than an occasion to “wallow in blots, and to daub himself with ink up to the very roots of his hair.” From this comical dolt, Kit becomes a well-spoken, upstanding young man who secures a bright future.

Like these two characters, The Old Curiosity Shop developed from inauspicious beginnings to something quite creditable. The first chapter of the story was originally the fourth entry of another series. Titled Master Humphrey’s Clock, the series was a collection of miscellaneous stories and sketches, published in a weekly paper. But Dickens discovered that a miscellany was far less popular, and thus far less profitable, than a novel. He aborted Master Humphrey’s Clock early in its course, and that collection “became one of the lost books of the earth” (as Dickens wrote, with regret that seeps through the ink, in his preface to the 1848 edition of The Old Curiosity Shop). Leaving behind Master Humphrey, Dickens devoted himself to the story of Little Nell, and The Old Curiosity Shop transformed from one item in a collection to a bona fide novel. As Dickens noted—again, in the 1848 preface—the novel “was written and published from week to week, in weekly parts.”

I had known before that Dickens wrote and published weekly; I had even noticed its effects (Pickwick is likewise ennobled over the course of his serial). But The Old Curiosity Shop brought home to me the reality of what Dickens did. The unevenness of the novel is the unevenness of a first draft, when ideas and characters are still nebulous, and would have been smoothed out in a final draft. But there was no final draft. Dickens published as he wrote, and never had the opportunity to revise the parts in view of the whole.

So we read Dickens’ first drafts, and when you realize that, they are all that more impressive.

Keeping Christmas

Of all the Christmas stories ever told since St. Luke penned the first and true one – of all the books and shows and movies themed to the season, all the Christmas specials – the greatest is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a tour de force for the ages. The story’s greatness is made up of many different parts – the immortal Scrooge, the chillingly evocative Marley, the color that breathes through every written line, the brilliant dialogue, witty and profound by turns. Not least among the sources of greatness is Dickens’ wholehearted embrace of joy and his endless delight in material pleasures. The Ghosts of Christmas taught Scrooge to keep Christmas with charity, which is a lesson to the stingy; they also taught him to keep it with joy, which is a lesson to the rest of us.

One of the glories of A Christmas Carol is how seamlessly it weaves together joy and pleasure. Scrooge proves this rule in the inverse. He takes “his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern;” he lives in “a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard.” Christmas Eve finds him eating gruel by a low fire in a dark, empty house. Certainly Ebenezer Scrooge, the old miser, had grown as cold as the gold he loved, and this is seen in his hardness toward all human beings, those he met and those he only heard about. But it is also seen in the unremitting bleakness of his life; he never enjoyed himself.

If Scrooge’s cold heart found manifestation in the severity of his life, the warmth and generosity of others found expression in fun and the most universal of physical pleasures. Old Fezziwig gives a party, full of dancing and cake and roast meat and mince-pies; Fred gives a party, with plentiful games and excellent food and lots of laughter; the Cratchits have their own party, the children rejoicing over pudding and stuffed goose. When the Ghost of Christmas Present brings Scrooge out of his gloomy rooms to see Christmas, he takes him first to the shops, and the descriptions provided of the wares – Norfolk apples and Spanish onions, chestnuts and candied fruit – are truly lyrical.

Through all of this, Dickens finds his way to a vital truth: Joy, even the most spiritual, needs material expression. The joy of the LORD is your strength, Nehemiah once told the people, and then sent them off to feast. This is itself a defense of Christmas – if not to the Scrooges of the world, then to the Puritans. The material pleasures of Christmas are empty without the spiritual meaning, but with it, they are not superfluous. Joy naturally overflows into pleasure. We celebrate the coming of Christ with food and presents because this is how humans celebrate everything. There is no point in demanding purely spiritual observances from those who are not purely spiritual beings.

Especially at Christmas, when we remember how God, becoming incarnate, took on our physical nature, not to destroy it but to resurrect it anew. So keep Christmas with charity, and keep it with joy, and keep it with pleasure – for this, too, can be done to the glory of God.