Andrew Lambirth

An ideal Christmas

Andrew Lambirth on John Leech, artist friend and travelling companion of Dickens, whose pictures help illuminate the novelist’s work

Andrew Lambirth on John Leech, artist friend and travelling companion of Dickens, whose pictures help illuminate the novelist’s work

Christmas approaches, and my thoughts turn, with reassuring inevitability, to Dickens. As the nights draw in and the winter winds blast across the fields of East Anglia, the counter-urge is for the comfort of a good book, to be read preferably by the fireside in a snug armchair. Dickens is the high priest of cosiness, forever creating situations in which the fire and wine within are contrasted with the cold and storm without. In his novels, hearth and home are crucial images of goodness, comfort and continuance, and nowhere more so than in his first and greatest festive story, that indisputable classic, A Christmas Carol.

Dickens, always an intensely visual writer, sets the scene: ‘The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that, although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.’ In the cold darkness is the pale glimmer of Scrooge’s mean fire over which he huddles and eats his gruel. Evidently, he has yet to honour his fireside. Here, as a prologue, he is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his deceased partner, who appears dragging a chain of money boxes.

Marley has come to save Scrooge. To this miserable old sinner’s home is brought a drama in three acts as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come visit him and show him scenes that he finds inexpressibly moving. The shadows of the past and of the future overwhelm his ingrained misanthropy. The miser is thawed and his moral regeneration achieved: rejoicing breaks out in his heart, and the selfish, avaricious killjoy is replaced by that generous celebrant of life, the Dickensian figure of an ideal Christmas, in which all the world becomes an extended family and feelings of benevolence are engendered by an awareness of one’s own good fortune and comfort.

Although Dickens drew unforgettable pictures with words, from the start his books were accompanied by a range of illustrations by some of the best graphic artists of the day.

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