The Charles Dickens pieces collected as Christmas Stories (1871) have been a ragbag. They vary in length, tone, quality, and purpose. Some are co-written, often with Wilkie Collins. Dickens wrote enough great books that it is worthwhile to scrounge around in his scraps, as I have over the last few years, but I acknowledge that some of these stories have not been too valuable. I just check them off the Dickens list.
One might ask why I am reading Christmas stories in September. I had to read 400 pages of them before it sunk in that they have nothing to do with Christmas. The two I read recently do have ghost stories, so they have that connection to English Christmas.
These two, “Doctor Marigold” (1865) and “Mugby Junction” (1866),like the two “Mrs. Lirriper” stories of 1863 and 1864, are actually quite good. Dickens was on a little roll. All four are easy to recommend as minor but genuinely pleasurable Dickens.
In “Doctor Marigold” the pleasure is all in the voice, just as with the “Mrs. Lirriper” stories. The “Doctor” is actually a traveling dealer in used goods (”a Cheap Jack”)– Doctor is his first name. The story is inconsequential as fiction, sweet and sentimental as a moral tale. A child dies in her father’s arms in an affecting scene; a deaf and dumb girl replaces the lost daughter. That is all fine. But this is the good part:
I am at present a middle-aged man of a broadish build, in cords, leggings, and a sleeved waistcoat the strings of which is always gone behind. Repair them how you will, they go like fiddle-strings. You have been to the theatre, and you have seen one of the wiolin-players screw up his wiolin, after listening to it as if it had been whispering the secret to him that it feared it was out of order, and then you have heard it snap. That's as exactly similar to my waistcoat as a waistcoat and a wiolin can be like one another.
Now that is literature, making a waistcoat and a wiolin as like one another as possible. Marigold’s Cockney accent, as you can hear, reaches thirty years back to the great Sam Weller from The Pickwick Papers (1836). Perhaps Dickens was giving himself an anniversary present.
Marigold amusingly compares himself to a politician on the hustings. He sells from his cart a watch, a pair of razors, and “a frying-pan artificially flavoured with essence of beefsteaks to that degree that you've only got for the rest of your lives to fry bread and dripping in it and there you are replete with animal food,” while the politician from his cart promises “abolition of more malt tax, no malt tax, universal education to the highest mark, or uniwersal ignorance to the lowest, total abolition of flogging in the army or a dozen for every private once a month all round, Wrongs of Men or Rights of Women--only say which it shall be, take 'em or leave 'em, and I'm of your opinion altogether, and the lot's your own on your own terms.”
Marigold, or perhaps his creator, is a natural satirist, always showing how “the Cheap Jack customs pervade society.” He is a lot of fun to read, regardless of his subject.
The story has four short chapters. The third is the ghost story, completely unconnected to Doctor Marigold’s tale, narrated by the foreman of a haunted jury. Don’t ask me. It’s not bad.