“—there are not, I say, many people who would care to sleep in a church. I don’t mean at sermon-time in warm weather (when the thing has actually been done, once or twice), but in the night, and alone.”Charles Dickens, The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In
Picture yourself strolling at night along the storefronts of an old town. The winter air bites a little, but you are adequately bundled up. In fact, the chill adds to your enjoyment of the season. It is dark out, yet all around you are colorful lights in window displays, on manicured tree branches above the sidewalk, and twinkling in the night sky. You are immersed in the mirth and warm feelings of Christmas!
Then, in the distance, you hear the sound of bells echoing down from a church tower. You stop and listen. They add their own sonic charm to the season, but also something else—something haunting. They remind you of Time, and how as every second passes you have less of it. The bells, in their hourly emanations, remind you of your mortality.
This year, I reread one of Dickens’ Christmas novels: The Chimes. We are all probably better acquainted with A Christmas Carol. Still, The Chimes has its magic. A less accessible story perhaps, but full of the same heart, the same unflagging compassion for the poor and destitute. The protagonist is a man named Toby Veck, a courier who trots the streets of old London delivering messages to and from members of the ruling class. Think of him as a walking-talking texting service for the well-to-do.
“A weak, small, spare old man, he was a very Hercules, this Toby, in his good intentions… He delighted to believe—Toby was very poor, and couldn’t well afford to part with a delight—that he was worth his salt.”
Life is filled with anxiety for this Dickens protagonist. Toby has a daughter who hopes to marry soon. As any father might, Toby balks at this, even though the suitor is a decent enough fellow. Their tender conversation is interrupted when Toby finds himself scolded by a zealous municipal leader. Having insulted both Toby and his daughter, this alderman then employs Toby to deliver a letter to a member of parliament. This even more powerful man belittles and marginalizes Toby with a cruel paternalism.
One other thing to know: Toby is a bit of a news junky, gawking at the cruelties perpetrated by high and low during the holidays. Though he has a good heart, all these circumstances weigh on the man.
“It seems as if we can’t go right, or do right, or be righted,” said Toby. “I hadn’t much schooling, myself, when I was young; and I can’t make out whether we have any business on the face of the earth, or not. Sometimes I think we must have—a little; and sometimes I think we must be intruding. I get so puzzled sometimes that I am not even able to make up my mind whether there is any good at all in us, or whether we are born bad. We seem to do dreadful things; we seem to give a deal of trouble; we are always being complained of and guarded against. One way or another, we fill the papers. Talk of a New Year!”
I’ll spare you a full synopsis of this Dickens holiday novel. Suffice it to say I find it more triggering than A Christmas Carol. In particular, The Chimes depicts suicidal ideation and deals with actual suicide. In the last year, two people I have been privileged to associate with ended their lives. In years further past there have been others I knew who met this tragic end. As characters in the novel considered their worst possibilities, it all hit home to me. The Chimes seems to speak as compellingly for our time as it does of Dickens’.
By way of spoiler, The Chimes ends triumphantly—with a Dickensian flourish of true nobility and generosity. The novel’s supernatural bells, like the ghosts in A Christmas Carol, provide grave late-night instruction to Toby as he stands alone atop a church tower. He learns a hard but worthy lesson, soon heading home to reconcile with his daughter and others. Okay, not much of a spoiler. After all, it is a Christmas story. Here is Toby’s takeaway, which can be of worth to all of us.
“I know that our inheritance is held in store for us by Time. I know there is a sea of Time to rise one day, before which all who wrong us or oppress us will be swept away like leaves. I see it, on the flow! I know that we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the good in one another. I have learnt it from the creature dearest to my heart. I clasp her in my arms again. Oh, Spirits, merciful and good, I take your lesson to my breast along with her! Oh, Spirits, merciful and good, I am grateful!”
I’ll conclude with a borrowed lyric and my sincere wish for each of you readers: May your Christmas and the year to come—ultimately—be merry and bright!