Tuesday, 6 December 2011


Studying the text (once again) of Charles Dickens' famous "ghost story of Christmas" in preparation for David and my performance of A Christmas Carol and the Conjuror at the British Library Conference Centre (Friday 9 December at 6:30 and Saturday 10 December at 2:30), I have been marvelling anew at Dickens' daring and bravado!

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!

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.
"The kettle began it?' Began what? We are instantly intrigued!

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.


scb said...

Wonderfully insightful reflection on the master's art, Brian! Amazing "hook sentences".

If I didn't have half a continent to cross, and then an entire ocean, I'd be there, quite possibly on the 9th AND the 10th.

My own annual re-reading of A Christmas Carol cannot hold a candle to you and David. How I wish I could be there!

Boll Weavil said...

You're absolutely right as ever Mr B... although I'd never thought of it before. As we've often said, Dickens works on so many levels. The more we read 'The Carol', the more it gives us.You're observations are more remarkable when we realise that Dickens did reflective openings with equal intensity. In 'Tale of Two Cities' he gave us probably one of the most well-known openings to a book with his 'best and worst of times' and,lest we forget,one of the great endings also in the same volume with "It is a far better thing I do" etc... genius indeed !

Suzanne said...

You have made me want to re-read Dickens' Christmas stories, so I have started with the Chimes, working my way through the other tales to culminate with A Christmas Carol... if I can wait that long reading the others! Such genious writing!

SharonM said...

Yes, SCB put it very well. And I'd be with her on both dates as well if I were able.

Anonymous said...

The bicentenary would be a golden opportunity for a new edition of "The Unsung Story". Fingers crossed! (RGP)

Brian Sibley said...

Well done, Suzanne! Happy reading!

RGP – Well it would need a new publisher and I'm not sure quite who would take it on...

Brian Sibley said...

Meant to say (to Boll): yes, A Tale of Two Cities is one of not just Dickens' best opening and closing paragraphs but in the whole of literature!

Roger O B... said...

...and if you are sated with Dickens over Christmas you can tune to Radio 4 Extra on Christmas Eve for the traditional rebroadcast of Penelope Keith reading The Twelve Days of Christmas written by an almost as legendary writer.

UNPRALL: To steal the praline from the bottom layer of the Xmas Selection chocolate box.

Brian Sibley said...

Oh, no! Not that old thing – again!! ;)

scb said...

Thank you, Roger O B -- I've been hoping to be able to hear "And Yet Another Partridge" again this year!

I love it!