In The Visitors, Adeliza’s father brings her ‘a special gift, a particular book he likes’. It is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Liza is transported; ‘I never knew there were voices like this.’ She is amazed by the complex world of character and consequence dreamt up by Mr Dickens. ‘Only now do I understand why Father sits so long with a book in his hand. He is a time-traveller.’
I happen to share my character’s admiration for Dickens. I had read A Christmas Carol as a child and re-read it almost every Christmas since. But I had read few other Dickens novels. When I was pregnant with Poppy, I set myself the joyous task of reading all of his work. Poppy arrived before I quite achieved it, but I did work my way through most of them. I was fondest of David Copperfield, haunted by the intricacy of Our Mutual Friend, and considered Great Expectations as his masterpiece, the most perfect in the power of its imagination and patterns of imagery. Yet I still came back again and again to A Christmas Carol. My partner Simon began buying me different editions of the book each year, and I have a fine collection now. There is something inexplicably magical and timeless about the story of the old miser and his redemption. When I came to choose a special book for Liza, knowing she had her own spirits to fathom, I chose Mr Dickens’ ghostly classic. But there was more to it than that; a remembrance of the extraordinary complexity – even in this little book – of Dickens’ power of imaginative description. I wanted Liza to feel the sweep of his mind, how he conjures many lives and many worlds with such a delicate and yet illuminating touch.
One passage in A Christmas Carol which glows with this quality is the sequence where the Ghost of Christmas Present transports Scrooge across England to see Christmas celebrated by people in all manner of situations, from miners to lighthouse keepers to sailors. It begins:
And now, without a word of warning from the Ghost, they stood upon a bleak and desert moor, where monstrous masses of rude stone were cast about, as though it were the burial-place of giants; and water spread itself wheresoever it listed – or would have done so, but for the frost that held it prisoner; and nothing grew but moss and furze, and coarse, rank grass. Down in the west the setting sun had left a streak of fiery red, which glared upon the desolation for an instant, like a sullen eye, and frowning lower, lower, lower yet, was lost in the thick gloom of darkest night.
It is a stunning piece of writing. The clarity of the description and rhythmic use of repetition – I can see that sun sinking down broodily below the horizon – to the personification of playful liberated water captured by ice. Dickens goes on to describe Scrooge led by the Spirit to a humble hut: spookily ‘passing through the wall of mud and stone’, they see the miners’ families celebrating Christmas as they have done for generations; rushing on beyond the land out to sea, to another far more ancient tradition, of ‘the thundering of water, as it rolled, and roared, and raged among the dreadful caverns it had worn, and fiercely tried to undermine the earth’; this time the water is personified as an angry and jealous destroyer. Scrooge, even the great Spirit, and we readers, flying along with them on their coat-tails, are shrunken and insignificant beings beside this mighty swathe of nature and time conjured by Dickens. There is more lovely detail to come, as he imagines ‘storm-birds – born of the wind one might suppose, as sea-weed of the water’ and sees two lighthouse keepers wish each other Merry Christmas, ‘the elder…with his face all damaged and scarred with hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship might be’. Even the most minor of characters in Dickens’ books are treated to the dignity of a proper realisation. I can picture that old keeper with his craggy face singing his hearty Christmas song.
We fly onwards over the sea to a ship and such a strange and yet warming image of their lonely passage is invoked:
They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it.
How succinct is homeward hopes with its comforting alliteration. So, even here in this curious and wonderful descriptive passage which seems to sit oddly with the rest of the London-bound story, the most fleeting of characters from a sea captain to the frost on the moor is given the breath of life by Dickens. It has been said of his writing that he creates caricatures, outrageous coincidence and twisted plots, a kind of cartoon version of life – but this is to overlook the extraordinary range and depth of his characterisation, his descriptive power and the huge freedom of his imagination. It feels as if he is indeed our Ghost of Christmas Present, we hold on to his mighty sleeve and he takes us off to faraway places and extraordinary people, turns to us and says, ‘Look. Do you see?’
It is this quality that captured my character Liza, and has done the same to me. And why no Christmas is complete for me without a re-reading of this stunning classic, simple in its message, yet complex and beautiful in its rendering.
Rebecca Mascull’s debut novel THE VISITORS will be published in hardcover and as an eBook by Hodder & Stoughton on 2 January 2014. Visit Rebecca’s website, follow her on Twitter, and like her Facebook page for more information.