The following review appeared in The Spectator magazine on Saturday, 21 December 1844.
THE chief use of the “Chimes” in this Christmas tale is to furnish some descriptions of church-towers; and the Goblin part of the story is a dream, in which every thing is of course abandoned to the freaks of fancy,—though we do not think the supernatural part of the vision very happily conceived. The spirits, especially, of the bells, are too grotesque, too forced, too theatrical—rather panto- mimic than poetical.
The theme of the Chimes, a Goblin Story, is the present agitated question of the state of the poor, and the conduct of the rich towards them. The persons Mr. DICKENS has selected to represent the poor are a ticket-porter and his handsome amiable daughter, betrothed to a young blacksmith, and Will Fern, an agricultural labourer, with his little niece Lilian. On the side of the rich, there is Alderman Cute, a City Magistrate, jocularly oppressive to the humble and pleasantly servile to the rich, Mr. Filer, a statist and political economist of the Malthus school, and Sir Joseph Bowley, the Poor Man’s Friend, who pays his own debts regularly, patronizes schools and societies, mingles with his patronage a dash of Young Englandism, and even encourages music for such proper lines as
“Oh, let us love our occupations,
Bless the squire and his relations,
Live upon our daily rations,
And always know our proper stations.”
The broad incidents of daily life in The Chimes are those which police-reports and letters to the editor have made the world well acquainted with in the columns of the daily press,—the scanty means of the agricultural labourer; the persecution to which he is subjected if he exhibits an independent spirit and an inquiring mind, till he is at last ruined by successive imprisonments and driven to rick-burning; the fearful labours and privations of sempstresses in London, urging them upon prostitution and premature death or suicide: the possible evils of a match postponed, by prudential Motives and the persuasion of gentlemen holding Malthusian doctrines, are also brought in; but that part is the invention of Mr. DICKENS.
The book is quaintly arranged into four quarters. The first describes the old church-tower, and the wintry wind blowing about it, with a picture of the ticket-porter plying at the tower-foot —common, but lifelike. The chapter also serves to introduce some of the characters, and to indicate their disposition and bearing upon the story; Alderman Cute and Mr. Filer endeavouring to disuade the young folks from marriage. The next quarter carries ‘Toby Veck, the ticket-porter, with a letter to Sir Joseph Bowley; and serves to exhibit the Poor Man’s Friend painted by himself. In this chapter, too, we have Fern and his niece brought in to be persecuted by the rich men Cute and Bowley, and relieved by the poor man Toby Veck. The third and part of the fourth quarters bring us to the dream; the idea of which is taken from some melodramas of the Adelphi, where a tempted heroine was saved by a vision,—which, being played, was just as good as a real action, if not better, as the audience had two plots and denoue- ments for the price of one. Toby Veck falls asleep; fancies he walks up the church-tower, sees all sorts of sprites about the bells, and lastly the spirits of the Chimes themselves; deems he has fallen down the tower and broken his neck, and that his spirit is walking about to see the doings upon earth. In this state many things are presented to him,—a grand landlord’s party at Sir Joseph Bowley’s; the fate of Fern, who is left going to set ricks on fire ; the fate of Lilian, who is driven to prostitution and dies of a broken heart; and the fate of his daughter, who marries late, loses her husband, and is driven by distress to throw herself and infant into the river: but the old man is roused from misery by the Chimes ringing in the New Year, and wakes up to a wedding.
There are cleverness and fancy in the design of the book; but rather the cleverness and fancy of a pattern-drawer or room- decorator than of an artist. The machinery and imagery are curious, but not natural; and there is in parts something of the spoiled author making free with his readers. The description is per- haps the perfection of DICKENS—the very poetry of literalness. The images of an old London church—the picture of the old porter in a gust of wind, his apron blowing over his face and himself almost blown away, though rather a March than a New Year picture—to- gether with other similar scenes—are things familiar to every Cockney; but being presented with enough of animation to avoid the mere inventorial style, they form that juste milieu between the purely literal and the imaginative that constitutes the very ” popular.’ The social pictures and moral points are as telling in their way ; but to a critical eye the artifice is somewhat more obvious, and the merit perhaps less. The first principle in the art of ” taking ” claptrap is, to make the rich always wrong and the poor always right—to exaggerate the selfish hollowness of the one, and to endow the other, if not with more virtue than as a class they may have, with a sentiment and elevation of thought they are not very likely to possess. The next recipe is, not to offend by es- sential novelty—to present what is in substance familiar to the mind, (and in The Chimes it is familiar by means of the narratives of penny-a-liners,) relying for effect upon novelty of form and man- ner. Sometimes this is accomplished with graphic power and truth—as in the first meeting of Fern and Toby Veck; sometimes it partakes too much of the melodrama—the elevation on the stretch, the sentiment strained, the force laboured by an iteration and sound of words, impressing the reader with an idea that the author was writing for effect rather than from feeling. The follow- ing passage towards the end of the dream, descriptive of the last day of a distressed outcast, possesses this mixed character, espe- cially towards its close.
“She dressed the child next morning with unusual care—ali, vain expenditure of care upon such squalid robes !— and once more tried to find some means of life. It was the last day of the Old Year. She tried till night, and never broke her fast. She tried in vain.
“She mingled with an abject crowd, who tarried in the snow until it pleased some officer appointed to dispense the public charity (the lawful charity—not that once preached upon a Mount) to call them in, and question them, and say to this one, Go to such a place,’ to that one, Come next week ‘; to make a football of another wretch, and pass him here and there, from hand to hand, from house to house, until he wearied and lay down to die, or started up and robbed, and so became a higher sort of criminal, whose claims allowed of no delay. Here too she failed. She loved her child, and wished to have it lying on her breast. And that was quite enough. ” It was night—a bleak, dark, cutting night, when, pressing the child close to her for warmth, she arrived outside the house she called her home. She was so faint and giddy, that she saw no one standing in the doorway until she was close upon it and about to enter. Then she recognized the master of the house ; who had so disposed himself—with his person it was not difficult—as to fill up the whole entry.
“Oh!’ he said, softly, ‘ you have come back?’
“She looked at the child, and shook her head.
” ‘Don’t you think you have lived here long enough without paying any rent ? Don’t you think that, without any money, you’ve been a pretty constant customer at this shop, now?’ said Mr. Tugby.
“She repeated the same mute appeal. ” Suppose you try and deal somewhere else ? ‘ he said. And suppose you provide yourself with another lodging? Come, don’t you think you could manage it ? ‘
“She said, in a low voice, that it was very late. Tomorrow.’
” ‘Now, I see what you want,’ said Tugby, and what you mean. You know there are two parties in this house about you, and you delight in setting ’em by the ears. I don’t want any quarrels ; I’m speaking softly to avoid a quarrel: but if you don’t go away, I’ll speak out loud, and you shall cause words high enough to please you. But you shan’t come in. That I am determined.’
“She put her hair back with her hand, and looked in a sudden manner at the sky and the dark lowering distance. ” ‘ This is the last night of an Old Year; and I won’t carry ill-blood and quarrelling, and disturbances into a New one, to please you nor anybody else,’ said Tugby, who was quite a retail friend and father. I wonder you an’t ashamed of yourself, to carry such practices into a New Year. If you haven’t any business in the world but to be always giving way, and always making disturbances between man and wife, you’d be better out of it. Go along with you.’
“Follow her! To desperation!’
“Again the old man heard the voices. Looking up, he saw the figures hovering in the air, and pointing where she went down the dark street. “‘ She loves it l’ he exclaimed, in agonized entreaty for her. ‘Chimes! she loves it still!’
“Follow her!’ The shadows swept upon the track she had taken, like • cloud.
“He joined in the pursuit ; he kept close to her ; be looked into her fr saw the same fierce and terrible expression mingling with her love in her eyes. He heard her say, ‘Like Lilian! To be changed like Lilian !’ and her speed redoubled. ” Oh, for something to awaken her. For any sight, or sound, or scent, to call up tender recollections in a brain on fire. For any gentle image of the past, to rise before her.
” ‘I was her father! I was her father!’ cried the old man, stretching out his hands to the dark shadows flying on above. Have mercy on her, and on me! Where does abe go? Turn her back. I was her father!’ “But they only pointed to her, and she hurried on ; and said, ‘To despera- tion! Learn it from the creature dearest to your heart.’
“A hundred voices echoed it. The air was made of breath expended in those words. He seemed to take them in at every gasp he drew. They were every- where, and not to he escaped. And still she hurried on ; the same light in her eyes, the same words in her mouth—’ Like Lilian ! To be changed like Lilian!’
“All at once abe stopped. “‘Now, turn her back!’ exclaimed the old man, tearing his white hair. My child! Meg! Turn her back! Great Father, turn her back!’
“In her own scanty shawl she wrapped the baby warm. With her fevered hands she smoothed its limbs, composed its face, arranged its mean attire. In her wasted arms she folded it. as though she never would resign it more. And with her dry lips kissed it in a final pang, and last long agony of love. ” Putting its tiny hand up to her neck, and holding it there, within her dress, next to her distracted heart, she set its sleeping face against her— closely, steadily, against her—and sped onward to the river.
“To the rolling river, swift and dim, where winter night sat brooding like the last dark thoughts of many who had sought a refuge there before her— where scattered lights upon the banks gleamed sullen, red, and dull, as torches that were burning there to show the way to death—where no abode of living people cast its shadow on the deep, impenetrable, melancholy shade!
“To the river! To that portal of eternity her desperate footsteps tended with the swiftness of its rapid waters running to the sea. Ile tried to touch her as she passed him, going down to its dark level : but the wild distempered form, the fierce and terrible love, the desperation that had left all human check or hold behind, swept by him like the wind.”