Sunday, 21 December 2008

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you expect too much of Christmas


There are times, trudging through the supermarket aisles, when it is tempting to mutter Scrooge’s curmudgeonly manifesto: ‘every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.’ But such is the enduring influence of ‘A Christmas Carol’ – a story that has done more to mythologize a seasonal ideal than any other since the Bible – that it also celebrates a message of goodwill: ‘a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely…” Scrooge is redeemed at Christmas, and so, by implication, are the rest of us, in joyful happy endings.

Yet 17 years after the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’, Charles Dickens published a far darker account of the season in his serialised novel, ‘Great Expectations’, beginning in December 1860. It opens on a bleak Christmas Eve, when the orphaned Pip is sitting beside his parents’ graves, and it is here, surrounded by the dead, that he encounters an escaped convict, Magwitch. Having stolen some food for the starving man, Pip endures a miserable Christmas dinner, expecting yet another punishment from Mrs Joe, the bullying older sister with whom he lives; and though the feast she serves is plentiful, it is ruined for Pip by the goading he receives alongside the roast fowl and pudding.

Indeed, the dinner-table conversation should serve as a warning of how not to talk to one’s family on Christmas Day. After grace, Mrs Joe says, ‘in a low reproachful voice, “Do you hear that? Be grateful.” By the time Pip has been compared to a piglet deserving of slaughter by the butcher’s knife, all possible glad tidings have been swallowed up in gloom.

‘Great Expectations’ offers something more complicated than a happy ending, rather like most of our lives, and our Christmases; but it is also a reminder that even if Christmas does not – cannot – live up to our expectations, it should contain small acts of kindliness, as well as a very large meal.

13 comments:

oxford-reader said...

I shall keep all this in mind come Christmas day. It's sometimes hard not to start an argument!

Juxtabook said...

Shamefully I can't remember if it is this meal or another, not even if it was in teh film but the book, but in one of them there is a,lovely moment when Mrs Joe is gving Pip a verbal going over and Joe gives him another ladleful of gravy, and the worse Mrs J gets the more gravy Joe ladles onto Pip's plate. Joe is obviously unable to express his solidarity with words; I thought this the most sweet and hilarious gesture.

Gondal-girl said...

Great Expectations has a big Australian connection - the original Miss Havisham lived here ( Dicken's son was out here apparently to 'toughen up). Magwitch is a convict ( having escaped back). Peter Carey explored this theme in Jack Maggs...so think of us in the heat with out hot roasts!

Justine Picardie said...

Yes, the gravy is in the book! It's a lovely gesture of silent solidarity. As for Miss Havisham -- I'll post more tomorrow, but there was a lady in tattered white in Dickensian London who was supposedly the model, too...

Gondal-girl said...

Ooh would love to hear about her, I am sure there is more than one Miss Havisham that inspired the story...she is such a bridal archetype, think I saw a book on Amazon inspiration of Miss Havisham / tattered bride clothes, will have to re-find, very curious ( and not a look one can pull off easily I am sure)....

Phil said...

Hi Justine, just had to send you this link
enjoy
Px

http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2008/10/im-feeling-ok-i.html

Justine Picardie said...

Phil -- how lovely to hear from you. Fame at last! Where are you?

Rob Hardy said...

What larks!

Happy Christmas from the American Midwest!

Phil said...

Hi again Justine. email me at phil.craig@furnacetv.com and I can send you some of the rather amazing links and quotes about the song that i found yesterday when i should lhave been Xmas shopping
Px

BrontëBlog Adm. said...

Happy Christmas to you and to your family, Justine!

Cristina.

Primrose said...

That is fascinating to hear that there are other Miss Havishams! I live near the cemetery in Sydney where the lady is buried who was meant to have inspired the character!

simoncadbury said...

MERRY X-MAS EVERYBODY!!!

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