Dickens at Christmas! The Cricket on the Hearth

But where’s Christmas??

After last week’s surprisingly dark and unfestive The Chimes, I didn’t know what to expect from the next of Dickens’ Christmas books. But I was hoping for something a bit more cheerful for this week’s…

* * * * *

The Cricket on the Hearth
by Charles Dickens

The kettle began it! Don’t tell me what Mrs. Peerybingle said. I know better. Mrs. Peerybingle may leave it on record to the end of time that she couldn’t say which of them began it; but I say the kettle did. I ought to know, I hope? The kettle began it, full five minutes by the little waxy-faced Dutch clock in the corner, before the Cricket uttered a chirp.

Title page
by Daniel Maclise

We meet little Mrs. Peerybingle, Dot as she is known affectionately to her husband John, as she waits for said husband to return home from his work as a carrier. Dot is a young thing, very young indeed, and John is well into middle-age, but despite this disparity they seem an idyllically happy couple, especially now they have their own little Baby to make their lives complete. It is a scene of saccharin-sweet domestic bliss…

It was pleasant to see Dot, with her little figure and her baby in her arms: a very doll of a baby: glancing with a coquettish thoughtfulness at the fire, and inclining her delicate little head just enough on one side to let it rest in an odd, half-natural, half-affected, wholly nestling and agreeable manner, on the great rugged figure of the Carrier. It was pleasant to see him, with his tender awkwardness, endeavouring to adapt his rude support to her slight need, and make his burly middle age a leaning-staff not inappropriate to her blooming youth.

Domestic Bliss
by John Leech

The little house is blessed by having a resident Cricket which lives on the hearth and chirps merrily when all is well.

“The first time I heard its cheerful little note, John, was on that night when you brought me home—when you brought me to my new home here; its little mistress. Nearly a year ago. You recollect, John?”

Oh, yes! John remembered. I should think so!

“Its chirp was such a welcome to me! It seemed so full of promise and encouragement. It seemed to say, you would be kind and gentle with me, and would not expect (I had a fear of that, John, then) to find an old head on the shoulders of your foolish little wife.”

Caleb and Blind Bertha
by John Leech

But this contented little household is about to be shaken to its core. A stranger arrives who seems to disturb Dot’s usually cheerful state of mind.

It was a loud cry from the Carrier’s wife: a loud, sharp, sudden cry, that made the room ring like a glass vessel. She had risen from her seat, and stood like one transfixed by terror and surprise. The Stranger had advanced towards the fire to warm himself, and stood within a short stride of her chair. But quite still.

The stranger’s arrival disrupts the happy home and the lives not only of John and Dot but of several of their friends and neighbours. Will the Household Spirit in the form of the Cricket on the Hearth be able to restore harmony and joy to all?

* * * * *

First off, Christmas doesn’t feature at all in this one! Instead the day of celebration we’re heading towards is the first anniversary of the wedding of John and Dot, and the story focuses on marriages between older men and young girls. John loves Dot with all his heart and has done ever since she was a child. (I know, creepy, but it seems to have been relatively normal back in those times – look at Knightley and Emma.) The question that John belatedly is forced to consider is, can little Dot possibly love him in the same way, or has he been unintentionally cruel in persuading her to devote her youth to him? It has never before occurred to him that her heart may have prompted her towards a man nearer her own age. The stranger is the catalyst for this dark night of the soul for poor, kind, honest John, but to take the point further and show another side to it, Dickens includes another couple about to be wed where the age difference is even greater and the bride is being more or less forced into the marriage by her mother because the bridegroom is wealthy.

Boxer
by Edwin Landseer
(Rubbish illustration, Landseer! Boxer is a sweetie-pie,
not a reincarnation of the Hound of the Baskervilles!)

The story takes an age to start. It’s about three pages before that kettle mentioned in the first paragraph finally comes to the boil, and then we have to fight through pages of sugar-sweet descriptions of the happy little home before things take off. But once it gets going, it has all Dickens usual mix of humour and pathos, and some typically quirky and enjoyable Dickensian characters. John is lovely, and Dot grew on me after a shaky start. Mr Tackleton is the villain of the piece – the older man who is about to marry a young girl he knows doesn’t care for him in the least, he’s also the mean and nasty employer of the other two main characters, dear old Caleb the toymaker and his blind daughter Bertha. Plus there’s a lovely dog called Boxer who’s a great character in his own right, adding much fun to the proceedings!

He had business elsewhere; going down all the turnings, looking into all the wells, bolting in and out of all the cottages, dashing into the midst of all the Dame Schools, fluttering all the pigeons, magnifying the tails of all the cats, and trotting into the public-houses like a regular customer. Wherever he went, somebody or other might have been heard to cry, “Halloa! here’s Boxer!”

It’s novella length, with plenty of room for jealousy, self-doubt, sorrow, generosity of spirit, joy and, of course, redemption. I enjoyed it very much and was left feeling pleasantly uplifted. So despite it not mentioning Christmas, I reckon it still counts as appropriately seasonal, being full of goodwill and joy to all men (and women) (and dogs).

Happy ending
by John Leech

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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32 thoughts on “Dickens at Christmas! The Cricket on the Hearth

    • Thank you – I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’ve loved Dickens all my life and can’t imagine a world that hadn’t had him in it. And he’s an essential part of the Christmas season for me… 😀

    • I really think they try to make kids read Dickens too young, especially the heavier ones like Great Expectations. I was put off that one too at University, but fortunately I already knew I loved reading Dickens for pleasure rather than to study, so they didn’t manage to destroy him altogether for me! I still don’t enjoy Great Expectations as much as the other books though. These short novellas would be a great way to try his style again… especially A Christmas Carol! 😀

  1. I love the way Dickens held up a mirror to his society, FictionFan. And this sounds as though it’s one of those stories, once it gets going. I do wonder about that marriage, but, as you say, it was done. Hmm….I ought to do a blog post on that some time…

    • I do too, and although he often shows the poverty, he doesn’t get entirely bogged down in it. These characters are by no means rich – just ordinary – and it was an interesting subject for him to tackle, I thought, given his own rather excessive fondness for young heroines. And I was glad he showed both sides – love match/money match. I’m behind at the moment but am looking forward to reading your post! 😀

  2. At least the dog doesn’t die, right? Somehow I managed to miss this one, but your review makes it sound as if I should remedy that. Well done, FF (yet isn’t it funny how times have changed and we think young women shouldn’t tie themselves to old men anymore?!)

    • Absolutely not! Nothing bad happens to the dog at all – he’s exactly the kind of dog softies like you and I would want in a story! 😀 It always reminds me that the things we decide are “wrong” are just that – decisions. The Victorians would be as horrified by lots of the things we think are “right” as we are about them. I was glad Dickens showed both sides – a love match against a forced marriage.

    • I’ve been really surprised that the other Christmas books haven’t actually been about Christmas so far! This could explain why the one they keep adapting is A Christmas Carol! Woohoo – I do hope you enjoy them – I find them the perfect length to read over a weekend… 😀

  3. Well even with the absence of ho ho hoing this sounds like good Dickinson fare… interesting subject matter too good that someone was considering all those or young girls forced into marriage with old blokes!
    I had a proper chuckle when I read the caption about Lanseer’s illustration 😊

    • Yes, this was much more what I was expecting even if it didn’t mention Christmas – nicely uplifting! I liked that Dickens looked at both sides of these marriages – ones where there actually was love and then the others where the girls were forced into it. Given his own liking for young heroines, I thought it was an interesting subject for him to tackle! Haha – I don’t know what Landseer was thinking – that picture is enough to make you scared of dogs for life! Poor lovely Boxer… 😀

    • I noticed one of the illustrators obviously felt the same and put in a cat curled up in front of the fire! Not at all sure how Boxer would have reacted to that though… 😉

  4. Yay! I just checked my shelves and The Cricket is there, buried (unread) in a collection. I look forward to reading some Christmas spirit. Warm thoughts to you and your family member in their illness.

    • Thanks, Christine. Hopefully things will stabilise a bit over the holidays. The Cricket is well worth reading! So is The Chimes, though it’s not exactly uplifting, unlike this one. I’m intrigued now to know what the other two are like…

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