A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells. He saw them leaping, flying, dropping, pouring from the Bells without a pause. He saw them, round him on the ground; above him, in the air; clambering from him, by the ropes below; looking down upon him, from the massive iron-girded beams; peeping in upon him, through the chinks and loopholes in the walls; spreading away and away from him in enlarging circles, as the water ripples give way to a huge stone that suddenly comes plashing in among them.
Everyone knows A Christmas Carol and maybe A Cricket on the Hearth, but Dickens’ other three Christmas books, while popular in their day, seem to have lost most of their cultural currency. I’ll admit I’ve never gotten all the way through The Battle of Life, and while I remember liking The Haunted Man, it didn’t make a very deep impression on me either. I do, however, have very vivid memories of The Chimes. Its vision of a goblin haunted church tower whose age-old bells ring disturbing phantoms of the future into the mind of poor old Trotty Veck is not easily forgotten.
You see, Trotty Veck is a ticket-porter, a sort of licensed messenger, who day-in and day-out waits for commissions near the church. It’s bells set the pace of his life. His daughter, Meg, is engaged to marry a young blacksmith. They’re poor, very poor indeed, but seem to find happiness in one another. Things only begin to look glum when Trotty is hired to deliver some messages for Alderman Cute and MP Sir Joseph Bowley. In their presence Trotty is harangued about the state of his finances and Meg is discouraged from marrying. In a bit of a state over his encounter with the upper classes, Trotty is inexplicably drawn to the church and it’s bells. The strange and terrible visions he finds there—of death, suicide, alcoholism, and prostitution—convince him to ignore the advice of pompous blowhards like Cute and Bowley and simply live for his and his daughter’s own happiness.
It’s really a New Year’s tale rather than a Christmas one. The symbolic use of the bells marking time may seem a bit heavy-handed in the abstract, but Dickens actually works wonders with it, twisting it into some of his most poetic and imaginative writing. The characters are as bold and broad as you would expect of Dickens, with Trotty being particularly appealing and Cute and Bowley particularly loathsome. I’d say it’s nearly as good as A Christmas Carol, though it does lack the redemptive narrative power of a converted villain.
So if you’re one of those readers who opens up A Christmas Carol every December, don’t forget to carry on and read The Chimes as well. It’s available free from Project Gutenberg for iPad, Kindle, Android, or whatever—and if you like you’re holiday traditions a little more, well traditional, you can grab our hard copy of The Christmas Books from the fiction section.
Review by Matthew