Consider the opening of A Christmas Carol:
"Marley was dead: to begin with."
That's how Dickens begins the story.
The sentence has become so familiar to us that it's easy to overlook just how bold an opening that is!
Who is Marley?
And doesn't it sound as if we are joining a conversation that started a few moments before we opened the book? A conversation that might have gone something like...
"I'm going to tell you a remarkable story!"
"Oh, what's so remarkable about it?"
"Well, you see, the thing is Marley was dead: to begin with..."
Not only that, but as you read the opening sentence, paragraph and page you discover that this character who is introduced without any introduction is not only dead but is also not the story's chief protagonist, that honour going to Marley's "sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, his sole mourner", Mr Ebenezer Scrooge!
Dickens' used the same 'mid-conversation' style in a couple of his later 'Christmas Books'. Consider, for example, the opening of A Cricket on the Hearth:
The kettle began it!"The kettle began it?' Began what? We are instantly intrigued!
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.
Similarly, there is the audacious opening of The Haunted Man:
Everybody said so.
Far be it from me to assert that what everybody says must be true. Everybody is, often, as likely to be wrong as right. In the general experience, everybody has been wrong so often, and it has taken, in most instances, such a weary while to find out how wrong, that the authority is proved to be fallible. Everybody may sometimes be right; "but THAT'S no rule," as the ghost of Giles Scroggins says in the ballad.
The dread word, GHOST, recalls me.
Everybody said he looked like a haunted man. The extent of my present claim for everybody is, that they were so far right. He did.
"Everybody said so."
Everybody said WHAT? About WHO?
It is literary tricks like this that make Dickens such a ruddy genius...
There we are in the noisy, overcrowded room of of Life, merrily (or, possibly, angrily) nattering away to others and taking no particular notice of what Mr Dickens is saying in the corner over there, until, all of a sudden (in a momentary lull in the conversation) we catch hold of a phrase – "Everybody said so..." or "The kettle began it..." or, perhaps, "Marley was dead: to begin with..." and we have absolutely no choice but to stop whatever we are saying or doing and listen to the story he has to tell us!
You can still book tickets for A Christmas Carol and the Conjuror here.
DON'T MISS! The new British Library exhibition, A Hankering After Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural which is on show in the Folio Society Gallery until 4 March, 2012.
Images: Scrooge and the Three Spirits by Sol Eytinge; 'The Magician Dickens Invoking the Spirit of Father Christmas' by Kyd (Jospeh Clayton Clarke) from a 1905 edition of The Dickensian.