Dickens at Christmas! The Battle of Life

How they did dance!

It’s been a roller-coaster ride so far with Dickens’ Christmas books – The Chimes, while good, was thoroughly depressing, and The Cricket on the Hearth, while delightfully uplifting, forgot to mention Christmas! So what’s in store for us, I wonder, in this week’s…

* * * * *

The Battle of Life
by Charles Dickens

Once upon a time, it matters little when, and in stalwart England, it matters little where, a fierce battle was fought. It was fought upon a long summer day when the waving grass was green. Many a wild flower formed by the Almighty Hand to be a perfumed goblet for the dew, felt its enamelled cup filled high with blood that day, and shrinking dropped. Many an insect deriving its delicate colour from harmless leaves and herbs, was stained anew that day by dying men, and marked its frightened way with an unnatural track.

Well, that’s a jolly start! Still, good to get the depressing bit out of the way early!

The Battle
by Richard Doyle

On the site of this ancient battle now stand pretty villages and prosperous farms, and over the centuries the old horrors have mostly been forgotten. Our story concerns two sisters, Grace and Marion, and when we first meet them, they are in their father’s orchard, dancing for the sheer joy of life and the entertainment of the apple-pickers…

They were very glad to please them, but they danced to please themselves (or at least you would have supposed so); and you could no more help admiring, than they could help dancing. How they did dance!

Frontispiece
by Daniel Maclise

This is Marion’s birthday and coincidentally also the birthday of Alfred, who has been the ward of their father but who today comes of age. He is to go off to study for three years, but it is understood by all that on his return, he and Marion will marry. But Grace, to whose care he entrusts Marion, is not to be forgotten…

“…when I come back and reclaim you, dearest, and the bright prospect of our married life lies stretched before us, it shall be one of our chief pleasures to consult how we can make Grace happy; how we can anticipate her wishes; how we can show our gratitude and love to her; how we can return her something of the debt she will have heaped upon us.”

But the course of true love never does run smooth – fortunately for us, since stories would be incredibly boring if it did. When Alfred returns three years later, it is to find the house in uproar and poor Grace having fainted away…

….‘What is it!’ cried Alfred, grasping his hair with his hands, and looking in an agony from face to face, as he bent upon his knee beside the insensible girl. ‘Will no one look at me? Will no one speak to me? Does no one know me? Is there no voice among you all, to tell me what it is!’
….There was a murmur among them. ‘She is gone.’
….‘Gone!’ he echoed.


Gone!
by Richard Doyle

* * * * *

I enjoyed several things about this, but it is a rather strange tale, not at all festive, and the central story left me totally unconvinced. The two sisters are the sort of drooping, too perfect girls in which Dickens specialises, and Alfred is the male equivalent. The mystery is, why has Marion gone? Has she run off with another man? Or is there some deeply moral and self-sacrificing reason behind her strange actions? Go on, guess!

Fortunately, there are several characters who are much more fun. Clemency Newcome, the maid, and her strange courtship by/of her husband-to-be provide most of the humour and the warmth that the central story lacks. The girls’ father, Doctor Jeddler, believes all human life is farce, though the events of the story will make him a wiser man (but less happy, which seems a pity). There are a couple of lawyers, Snitchey and Craggs, who are a good double-act and allow Dickens to make some pointed remarks about one of his favourite subjects, the law. Their wives, while only having small parts to play, add considerably to the entertainment value of the whole thing by their rivalry with each other. And the mysterious man who may or may not have seduced our sweet little Marion away from her loving family has enough moral ambiguity to make him a significantly more attractive hero than the good but insipid Alfred.

The Secret Interview
by Daniel Maclise

Why is it called The Battle of Life? Why all the battlefield and buried corpse references, some of which are quite revolting…?

On this ground where we now sit, where I saw my two girls dance this morning, where the fruit has just been gathered for our eating from these trees, the roots of which are struck in Men, not earth…

No idea! Possibly just so Dickens could make a point about war being a Bad Thing.

Yet not a hundred people in that battle knew for what they fought, or why; not a hundred of the inconsiderate rejoicers in the victory, why they rejoiced. Not half a hundred people were the better for the gain or loss. Not half-a-dozen men agree to this hour on the cause or merits; and nobody, in short, ever knew anything distinct about it, but the mourners of the slain.

But I really couldn’t see the relevance of this to the actual story. Oh well, not to worry – I enjoyed it anyway, and of course it has a happy ending! But I am hoping next week’s might have something to do with Christmas…

The Sisters
by Daniel Maclise

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀

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35 thoughts on “Dickens at Christmas! The Battle of Life

  1. I know just what you mean about Dickens’ female characters, FictionFan! And you’re right; not much Christmas in this one. Still, it sounds as though some of the characters are interesting; Dickens could create some enjoyable characters, couldn’t he? Hmm….I think I’ll wait on this one, and see which Dickens comes next…

    • Yes, it’s a pity his heroines are so often insipid, but his secondary characters always more than make up for it. I’ve been surprised that these books don’t seem to have anything to do with Christmas. They’re still enjoyable, but no wonder A Christmas Carol is the one that has become a real classic. I’m intrigued to see if the next one manages to increase the overall festive joy rating…

  2. This one sounds intriguing! Though–sigh–Dickens seemed to like to populate his stories with angelic women. I can’t help thinking of Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.

    • So many of his heroines are insipid, but thankfully all his quirky secondary characters make up for it. I wish more of them had been like Kate Nickleby – she’s almost feisty in comparison to the rest!

    • Thank you! 😀 I’ve been really surprised at the lack of a Christmas theme in them so far – no wonder A Christmas Carol is the one that became a classic! Maybe next week…

      • I recently bought a book that made me think of you, Miss Marley, a prequel to A Christmas Carol. I had to buy it from the UK and have it shipped so I could read it in time for Christmas because it’s not available here yet. Have you heard about it or read it?

  3. Well, I haven’t read this one, but I’m disappointed for you that it wasn’t really much of a Christmas tale. I’m glad you found it interesting though. Perhaps you’ll find something more holiday-ish next time?!

    • I’ve been really surprised that they’ve had so little to do with Christmas, but I’m enjoying them anyway. Not sure what the next one will be like – it’s another of the ones that doesn’t seem to be very well-known…

  4. I suppose ‘Christmas’ mentions are overrated, I’ve hardly had any in my advent calendar so far. And that quote about the roots taking hold in men! Ughhh that’s going to stick with me for awhile I think

    • Well, I think books that are known as “the Christmas books” should at least mention Christmas! If Dickens was still alive, I’d write a letter of complaint… 😉 Isn’t it horrible? And it wasn’t the only bit like that – he must have been feeling particularly anti-war when he wrote it, I think!

  5. My guess is that Marion was taken by a UFO. Either that or she ran off with the mysterious other man… Or, she was convicted of a crime and was sent to Australia, where once she served her sentence she opened a cake shop that did very well.

  6. Not at all what I thought a Christmas story would entail, ha ha… but I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’ve not yet read any of the stories in my Dickens collection but they’re different from the ones you’ve featured so far. Must get to it!

    • Haha, I know – I was really expecting all these books to have a Christmas theme and so far none of them have had! I believe he write Christmas short stories as well as these novellas so maybe that’s what’s in your collection. I might try to read them next year (and hope Christmas appears in them!)

    • Haha – I’m definitely feeling that Dickens has played a trick on me with these! However, I’ve started the next one and there’s been talk of holly already, so I have high hopes… 😀

  7. This sounds pretty weird! What a strange inclusion in a Christmas collection too. I thought Dickens invented Christmas – did he manage it just through A Christmas Carol? I’m hoping the next story is a bit more Christmassy for you!

    • I’ve been so surprised that there’s so little Christmas in most of the stories. The next one is more Christmassy, but none of them come close to A Christmas Carol, either for entertainment or Christmas spirit! Bah, humbug!

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