Why should sentiment cause us embarrassment? It never embarrassed Dickens
By Herbert Rothschild
In each of the first two Decembers that Relocations was published in the Daily Tidings, 2014 and 2015, I wrote a column about what kindled the holiday spirit in me. The first was the music of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” The second were the lights outlining downtown Ashland and the memory their first sight prompted of the lights lining the Champs Elysee. Both that music and those lights are inextricably associated with family members I love.
And now, at last, after four disheartening years of the Trump presidency, the demise of the Tidings, and the advent of Ashland.news, founded on the back deck of our home last year and launched this January — a reason for me to look back on 2022 with pleasure despite accelerating ecological collapse — a third column in that vein.
This time Charles Dickens.
For decades during and after he lived, millions read Dickens’ work “all the year round,” which was the name of a periodical he founded in 1859 and edited until his death in 1870. In it, he serialized novels, including some of his own best-known, such as “A Tale of Two Cities.” I read Dickens all the year round. I’ve read all his novels at least once, some twice or more. Now, though, it’s only during the winter holidays that millions once again attend to him.
In 1972, when I spent a sabbatical year in Santa Cruz, my children were 9, 10 and 11. We went to the Dickens Fair in San Francisco, only in its second year. They loved it. I loved it. Forty-two years later, Deborah and I went. Fezziwig’s Warehouse had moved into the Cow Palace. Remarkably, I loved it all over again. Maybe that was because the household in which I was living, though different, was again filled with love.
“Unabashed sentiment” is one of those ready-made phrases that George Orwell warned will do our thinking for us unless we take responsibility for our thoughts, which entails taking charge of the language we use to express them. It’s a phrase often applied now to Dickens’ work. But why should sentiment cause us embarrassment? It never embarrassed Dickens. Why should we be quick to conceal it? Dickens never was. And never more so than in his five Christmas stories, which he wrote and published annually beginning with A Christmas Carol in 1843.
The dominant sentiment in his Christmas stories is love of the sort perhaps best expressed by the Hebrew word chesed, which in the King James translation of the Psalms, where the word occurs 30 times, appears as lovingkindness. And the characters in Dickens’ work–all his work–who most need lovingkindness are children.
The Spirit of Christmas Present leads Scrooge through myriad households and then almshouses, hospitals and jails, where even there the spirit of Christmas has gladdened hearts. At the end of his stay, though, the Spirit shows Scrooge two children, “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. … Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them to shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters so horrible and dread.” The boy is Ignorance. The girl is Want.
That’s sentiment. If it embarrasses us, that’s because it’s a true and terrifying condemnation of our collective deficiency, which is exactly what Dickens intended it to be.
And here, from “The Cricket on the Hearth,” his third Christmas novella, is its antidote: “The first time I heard its (the cricket’s) cheerful little note, John, was on the night you brought me home — when you brought me to my new home here; its little mistress. … Its chirp was such a welcome to me! It seemed so full of promise and encouragement, It seemed to say, you would be kind and gentle with me. … It spoke the truth, John, when it seemed to say so; for you have ever been, I am sure, the best, the most considerate, the most affectionate of husbands to me. This has been a happy home, John.”
That’s sentiment, too. And if it embarrasses us that Dickens would have a wife speak that way to her husband, let’s remember the violence that husbands could wreak with impunity on their wives and children back then, and did, and still do. People in child-protective services and Deborah, who is a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children in the foster care system, are daily witnesses to that true and terrifying condemnation of our collective deficiency.
Feelings don’t abash children. They are open to all of them — love and hurt, delight and disappointment, security and fear, pride and shame. We become self-protective as we grow, some of us by necessity sooner than others. Experience teaches us that our feelings are our points of vulnerability. Teenage male culture is an especially severe instructor in this regard. Yet, all of us adults risk emotional atrophy because, like muscles, emotions require regular exercise.
To engage with Dickens is to strip down to a minimum of protective covering and exercise our feelings. The holidays are a good time to do that. All the year round is even better.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at email@example.com.