Think of Charles Dickens and Christmastime and your mind will probably go instantly to A Christmas Carol. Dickens’s classic tale of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and his magical yuletide conversion proved an immediate success on its release about a week before Christmas 1843: The initial print run reportedly sold out in just five days, and the book continued to sell well even after Christmas and well into the following year.
Despite that success, A Christmas Carol wasn’t quite the money-spinner its author might have hoped. Charles Dickens had offered to cover the book’s printing costs himself to make up for the lukewarm reception his serialized novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, was receiving from readers and reviewers, but his expensive and exacting tastes meant that he initially only cleared a disappointing profit of £230 from 6000 copies sold. Still, A Christmas Carol proved popular enough with readers and reviewers alike for Dickens to attempt to repeat its success several more times in the mid-1840s, publishing a new Christmas story almost every year until 1848.
But such was the success of A Christmas Carol that the four festive stories he published in this time—some overlooked classics, others critical flops and missteps—have since largely become eclipsed by their better-known predecessor, and today remain among the least well-known of Dickens’s back catalogue.
In June 1844, six months after the publication of A Christmas Carol, Dickens signed a new publishing deal, part of the contract of which was a Christmas-themed tale set for publication that Christmas. The story he wrote was The Chimes.
Dickens spent much of 1844 staying in a villa in Genoa, Italy, but away from the clamor of London’s streets he struggled to find inspiration, and suffered a prolonged bout of writer’s block. “Never did I stagger so upon a threshold before,” he wrote to his friend and biographer John Forster. “I seem as if I had plucked myself out of my proper soil when I left Devonshire-terrace [his home, near Regent’s Park] and could take root no more until I return to it.” That was until one morning, while sitting on the terrace of his villa, Dickens lost himself in what Forster called the “tuneless, grating, discordant, jerking, hideous vibration” of the church bells below. A few days later, he again wrote to Forster enigmatically saying, “We have heard THE CHIMES at midnight.”
The Chimes tells the story of an elderly messenger (a “ticket-porter”) named Toby “Trotty” Veck. After a series of chance meetings with several other characters—from a poor orphaned girl to a money-grubbing politician—Trotty finds himself questioning the growing inequality he sees around him every day and, disillusioned, wanders off into the night after hearing the church bells call to him. Finding the local church open, Trotty climbs the bell tower and discovers that the spirits of the church bells have come to life, surrounded by their goblin attendants. There, they present him with a series of visions showing the future of his family and the characters he has encountered that night—culminating with a terrifying vision of his 21-year-old daughter, Meg, standing on a bridge contemplating suicide. Just as he reaches out to try to save her, Trotty wakes to hear the bells of New Year’s morning ringing; Dickens leaves it up to the reader to decide whether or not Trotty’s awakening was really a dream or not.
After the success of A Christmas Carol, there was much anticipation for Dickens’s follow-up story, and The Chimes ultimately proved a lucrative success: Some 20,000 copies were sold in the first three months alone. But the story’s harsh social commentary divided critics and in the shadow of its predecessor, A Christmas Carol, the popularity of The Chimes has failed to stand the test of time.
Want to check it out for yourself? Read it here.
Probably the best known of Dickens’s Christmas stories that isn’t A Christmas Carol, The Cricket on the Hearth tells the story of John Peerybingle and his young wife Dot. Informed by a miserly local toymaker, Tackleton, that his wife is having an affair, John consults the family’s guardian angel—in the form of a cricket chirruping away on the household hearth—for advice. It eventually transpires that there has been a grave misunderstanding, and in typically festive Dickensian fashion the hard-hearted Tackleton sees the error of his ways in a Scrooge-like revelation in the conclusion of the story.
Like its predecessor, The Cricket on the Hearth was a huge commercial success for Dickens—although its schmaltzy and sentimental storyline did not sit well with everyone. While Dickens’s frenemy and fellow author William Thackeray called it “a good Christmas book, illuminated with extra gas, crammed with extra bonbons, French plums and sweetnesses,” The Times went so far as to demand that “we owe it to literature to protest against this last production of Mr Dickens.” You can decide for yourself by reading it here.
Written while on holiday in Switzerland in 1846, Dickens’s fourth consecutive Christmas story was The Battle of Life. It told the story of two sisters, Grace and Marion Jeddler, Marion’s fiancé Alfred, and her apparent lover, a gentleman named Michael Warden. Through a series of machinations and misunderstandings, Marion vanishes from the village having supposedly abandoned Alfred and eloped with Michael, and in her absence Alfred grows closer to and eventually marries her sister, Grace. The years pass by and Marion eventually returns—whereupon the real reason behind her disappearance is revealed, and the sisters are reconciled.
The Battle of Life was not a critical success: Reviewers lambasted its unrealistic and underdeveloped plot and characters, and it has remained among the least admired and least remembered of Dickens’s works. Nevertheless, riding on the back of A Christmas Carol and The Cricket on the Hearth, the book sold a staggering 23,000 copies on its day of release in 1846—Dickens’s fans, if not the critics, were suitably won over. You can make up your own mind here.
After a year off from the Christmas market, Dickens returned in 1848 with The Haunted Man, a tale that brought him back to the supernatural theme that had proved so successful in A Christmas Carol. In the story, Mr. Redlaw, a reclusive and cynical scientist tormented by the death of his sister, is visited by his own döppelganger late on Christmas Eve night and given the gift of forgetting all the painful memories that have haunted him since his sister’s passing. The catch, however, is that anyone who comes into contact with Redlaw is also made to forget their memories—and as the story progresses, Redlaw’s influence goes on to ruin the lives of all those around him. You can find out what happens here.
The Haunted Man sold an impressive 18,000 copies on release in December 1848, but the critical reception to the story was mixed. Perhaps as a result—and perhaps in light of his longer novels becoming ever more serious and weighty in their political and social commentaries (Bleak House, Hard Times, and A Tale of Two Cities were all still works in progress at this point)—Dickens did not revisit the Christmas genre in book form again.
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.
Paul Anthony Jones