The best seasonal Dickens novels (that aren't A Christmas Carol)

Scrooge and Co weren't Charles Dickens' only Christmas cast. If you're ready for a different tale, here are four alternatives to try

December 14, 2018
An advent celebration of Dickens in Zagreb. Photo: PA
An advent celebration of Dickens in Zagreb. Photo: PA

Sick of the same old Dickens classic each year?

Understandable if you are. Even a fine tale of redemption can grow wearisome after the 85th time.

But you needn't resign yourself to A Christmas Carol once again. Dickens wrote four other yuletide novellas from which to choose: The ChimesThe Cricket on the HearthThe Battle of Life and The Haunted Man.

Though all of these titles enjoyed popularity in their day, none of them made the lasting impact of Dickens' initial Christmastime offering—the one with which we're all familiar (perhaps more than we wish at this point) and the one which redeemed not just Scrooge, but Dickens as well.

After a triumphant beginning, his career had flagged—until the 19 December 1843 publication of the Carol, which immediately began to delight a public that, likely without even knowing it, was starving for a story of holiday goodwill and personal transformation.

Owing to this tale, Dickens has continued to enjoy a superstardom that, if ever appearing to wane, regenerates each holiday season with the inescapable TV and stage adaptations of what is arguably the English language's most treasured work of fiction.

Of course, such widespread adoration can easily result in overexposure. And if you're completely Scrooged out by now, here are your other Dickensian Christmas options...

The Chimes

Appearing in print nine days before Christmas 1844, The Chimes involves the Scrooge-like spiritual transformation of an elderly misanthrope.

And as happened with the CarolThe Chimes was selling tens of thousands of copies basically as soon as it saw print. In fact, several stage adaptations were already underway within mere weeks of the book's arrival.

Aside from achieving such popular appeal, Dickens had a particularly lofty ambition with The Chimes. According to John Foster, an early Dickens biographer, “he was to try and convert Society, as he had converted Scrooge” to show beneficence to the destitute.

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Though the novella succeeds in stressing the intrinsic value of even the most downtrodden human lives, it's in many ways a bleak tale that conveys a sense of trapped futility engulfing the vast lot of underprivileged lives in the 1840s (also known as the “Hungry Forties”). Readers seeking a less merry and more sobering post-Carol work might wish to start here.

The author himself was certainly a fan of his second Christmas novella: In a letter dated 5 November 1844 he wrote, “I believe I have written a tremendous book, and knocked the ‘Carol’ out of the field. It will make a great uproar, I have no doubt.”

The Cricket on the Hearth

Appearing in print five days before Christmas 1845, The Cricket on the Hearth involves an old miser along with a struggling craftsman, his blind daughter, and his son who was presumed dead after having ventured to South America but has actually returned home in disguise.

This novella, which Dickens wrote in six weeks, was a commercial triumph and spawned numerous stage adaptations for almost a century.

One notable detractor was Vladimir Lenin, who stormed out of the theatre because he was so disgusted by the story's “middle-class sentimentality”, as related in an essay by George Orwell.

In fairness to Lenin, others criticized The Cricket on the Hearth for excessive sentiment. But the upside of this novella is that it returns the reader to the sense of Christmastime merriment and familial warmth so palpable in parts of the Carol. For this reason, many readers might wish to consider this work as an initial post-Scrooge destination.

The Battle of Life

Appearing in print six days before Christmas 1846, The Battle of Life involves a widowed doctor, his two daughters, and their suitors. The story takes place in a village that once was the scene of a historic battle and evidently serves as a metaphor for the conflicts people face over the course of their lives.

This work is unique among Dickens' five Christmas novellas in that it includes no overt mention of religion or the appearance of any supernatural phenomena.

The Battle of Life is the least-recommended of Dickens' Christmas titles. Indeed, the reviews were emphatically negative—surprisingly so, given the author's clout at that juncture.

According to the Times, “of all the bad Christmas books” in circulation, this one was “the very worst.”

As Norman Page details in his A Dickens Companion, even one of Dickens' friends wrote to him to convey that this wasn't among his finer endeavours.

So The Battle of Life is probably not the best title with which to launch your post-Carol reading. And if you must omit one part of the Dickens yuletide quintet, this work would be the prime candidate.

The Haunted Man

Appearing in print six days before Christmas 1848, The Haunted Man involves a long-time Chemistry professor who holds a serious grudge over perceived injustices in his past. After receiving a visit from a ghostly likeness of himself, the old professor eventually agrees to surrender his begrudging sentiment.

He ultimately gains the understanding that painful memories needn't only be a source of bitterness; they also can make one a more thoughtful and complete human being.

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Though The Haunted Man enjoyed commercial popularity, it would be its author's final Christmas novella.

Writing for The Victorian Web, Philip V. Allingham remarks how “Dickens could have gone on until his death turning out Christmas Books adhering to the tried and true formula, and the public would have continued to snap them up in the tens of thousands.”

But Dickens, to his credit, clearly had other projects in mind, as he proceeded to pen such classics as David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities.

Meanwhile, his Carol accrued enough cultural cache to impact Christmas itself, recharging the holiday with an emphasis on benevolence and charity.

Exponentially less prominent are his four post-Carol Christmas works. But there is no etched-in-stone rule that a less famous work must be an inferior specimen. Moreover, the obscurity of the four other novellas needn't doom them as no fun.

Indeed, you might derive greater enjoyment because they are more obscure and have remained, for most readers, unexplored terrain.

Even if your Christmases must have a Dickens tale, you can make merry sans Scrooge, if only for one yule.