Serendipity: Marley’s Ghost

Tiny Tim with Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol

In honor of Christmas, I will excerpt a brief scene from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, representing the first moment when Ebenezer Scrooge realizes that something is not quite right. He sees, instead of the usual door knocker, the face of his dead partner Jacob Marley. (I know I was a little hard on Dickens in a post I wrote last week, but I think that this particular story is not only one of his best: It has influenced the way that Christmas is celebrated across the West.)

Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, that Scrooge had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the city of London, even including—which is a bold word—the corporation, aldermen, and livery. Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley, since his last mention of his seven years’ dead partner that afternoon. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change—not a knocker, but Marley’s face.

The Door Knocker Transposed into Marley’s Face

Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.

As Scrooge looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again.

To say that he was not startled, or that his blood was not conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger from infancy, would be untrue. But he put his hand upon the key he had relinquished, turned it sturdily, walked in, and lighted his candle.

He did pause, with a moment’s irresolution, before he shut the door; and he did look cautiously behind it first, as if he half expected to be terrified with the sight of Marley’s pigtail sticking out into the hall. But there was nothing on the back of the door, except the screws and nuts that held the knocker on, so he said “Pooh, pooh!” and closed it with a bang.

What the Dickens?!

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

It was bound to happen sooner or later. After many decades regarding him as a great writer, I seem to have suddenly fallen out of love with Charles Dickens. It happened while re-reading David Copperfield, one of my hitherto favorites of his. All of a sudden, early in the book, I just didn’t feel like continuing after Mrs Copperfield married the cruel Edward Murdstone.

Shortly thereafter, I started reading Wilkie Collins’s No Name, which I found enthralling. Where Dickens puts together a series of humorous or tragic character sketches, Collins has a rogue hero named Captain Horatio Wragge who is a mixed scoundrel, but one who seems to have a good heart. And his tall, slightly retarded wife Matilda is a compassionate portrait of a disabled woman of the 19th century.

I will try reading Dickens again—probably either The Pickwick Papers or Bleak House; but I feel that somehow I have thrown in my lot with his competition. Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope are, to my mind, better writers of fiction. Though perhaps not quite so deft with memorable character sketches.

Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)

Interestingly, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were not only close friends, but partners who co-wrote some works and who had a marked influence on each other. It was Dickens who won all the fame, but Collins who singlehandedly invented the detective novel (The Moonstone) and who retained in his work much of the edginess which has become more popular today.

In his major novels, Collins seems to distrust marriage, seeing it almost as an existential stepping off into the void. He himself was never married, though he had a lifelong relationship with Caroline Graves and her daughter from a previous marriage.

If you are interested in learning more about Collins, there is an excellent website dedicated to his life and work.