In context. 1844 and 2017 2017
Dickens wrote The Chimes in the ‘hungry forties’ when Chartism was at its height. There were riots, rick-burnings, rampant prostitution in London and the potato famine in Ireland. Dickens focused on these issues and the pressing necessity for a middle-class change of heart and the development of a social consciousness to address the so-called ‘Condition of England’. He wanted to use his second Christmas Book to strike a blow for the poor. He felt a feistier and sterner story was needed; a Christmas war song rather than a Christmas Carol.
It tells the story of Toby Veck, a London messenger who, brow-beaten by all the rich, pompous do-gooders he meets, comes to believe that he and poor people like him have no right to exist in the world. Even the bells of his local church seem to have lost their ‘fancy’ and music to him. Reading yet another newspaper story of a poor mother driven to kill herself and her infant child, he exclaims that his kind really are intruding upon the world and ‘born bad’.
Hearing him, the goblins and spirits of the chimes undertake to show the depths of despair to which his own family might sink in a world without faith; they teach him that we must trust and hope and never doubt the good in one another. He learns his lesson just in time for the chimes to ring in the New Near and return his family and friends to him.
As well as entertaining, The Chimes’ biting satire was intended to effect real political change. It addresses issues of homelessness, vagrancy and self-respect in which If he was alive to day Dickens would be clamouring for a capitalist change of heart to address our present ‘Condition of England’ and of the wider world.
In a recent BBC article, Claire Tomalin, author of a new biography on Dickens, points straight to The Chimes to prove that Dickens is talking about what matters in our modern society.
“The ‘hungry forties’ background to A Christmas Carol and The Chimes, for instance, was a period of recession, unemployment and starvation – you don’t need to look far for contemporary relevance.”
The parallels are striking. In the 1840s, Britain experienced two ‘bubbles’ and a financial crisis with widespread company failures. These events occurred shortly after the introduction of the Bank Charter Act, a major reform of the monetary system which exacerbated all these crises. Has there subsequently been another time where the role of monetary policy has been as questionable as now; where ordinary people, once again, are suffering crippling hardships because of banking practices and the greed and lack of social consciousness within financial institutions and political systems? There are now ‘New Chartists’ all over the world, taking to the streets and using our new social media to demand a fairer society.
It was a time of riots and rick-burnings and there was rampant prostitution in London. Dickens highlights these issues to argue for a vital change of heart and the development of a social conscience amongst the middle and upper classes. The Chimes strikes a blow for the poor exchanging the more saccharine elements of A Christmas Carol for poverty, civil unrest, prostitution and infanticide. It is a feistier and sterner story – a Christmas War Song rather than a Christmas Carol.As an appeal for charity and mirth, it resembles A Christmas Carol, albeit sterner and feistier. If the more familiar text is a Christmas carol, The Chimes is a Christmas war song
Dickens’ characters are no more fantastic than the political economists of the day. McCulloch advised working men to tighten their belts and have fewer children; Nassau reminded workers that they were better off than primitive savages. The character of Alderman Cute in The Chimes is a bitter parody of Sir Peter Laurie, a London Alderman who was determined to ‘put suicide down’ amongst the poor. The parallels between the 1840s and today are striking. If Dickens were alive he would cry out for the need to address the present ‘Condition of England’ and of the wider world. The biting satire of The Chimes was intended to effect real political change.
Dickens on “The Chimes” :
“If you had seen Macready last night, undisguisedly sobbing, and crying on the sofa as I read, you would have felt, as I did, what a thing it is to have power.”
“I believe I have written a tremendous book and knocked the Carol out of the field.”
“It has a grip on the very throat of the times.”
“Christmas comes but once a year – which is unhappily too true, for when it begins to stay with us the whole year round we shall make the earth a very different place.”
John Forster, Dickens’ friend and biographer:
“They (the poor) had always been his clients, they had never been forgotten in any of his books, but here nothing else was to be remembered … he had come to have as little faith for the putting down of any serious evil, as in a then notorious city alderman’s gabble for the putting down of suicide. The latter had stirred his indignation to its depths. When he came therefore to think of his new story for Christmas time, he resolved to make it a plea for the poor … He was to try and convert Society, as he had converted Scrooge, by showing that its happiness rested on the same foundations as those of the individual, which are mercy and charity not less than justice.”