‘The Chimes’ – Charles Dickens’ New Year’s ‘Carol’

Detail of 1845 frontispiece illustration by Daniel Maclise for ‘The Chimes’. (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Charles Dickens’ most famous contribution to the reinvention of Christmas as we know it is, of course, A Christmas Carol, which we pointed out last week is the most frequently adapted work in all of English literature.

But the story of Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t Dickens’ only story about the holiday. In fact, after the success of A Christmas Carol (whose financial reward Dickens felt had been stolen by copyright infringers), Dickens went on to write annual seasonal stories almost every year for the next quarter of a century, and the first five are known as The Christmas Books.

The second book, The Chimes, written in 1844, interests us today because, although it’s about the Christmas season, it’s specifically about New Year’s. The full title is: The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In.

“In important respects it is plainly an imitation of the Carol, but Christmas as such is not featured in it, nor is the word Christmas uttered,” writes David Parker in Christmas and Charles Dickens. “The Chimes is a kind of supplement to the Carol. It shows what his achievement in the Carol could inspire Dickens to.”

The parallels between the two books are glaring. The Chimes centers on the visions of Trotty Veck, an old man who ekes out a meager living by picking up delivery jobs at his local church, whose bells have an almost spiritual hold on him. On New Year’s Eve, he is particularly discouraged during encounters with the local gentry, whose unfeeling criticisms of the poor echo the writings of callous Victorian social theorists.

Dickens reading ‘The Chimes’ to his friends, including philosopher Thomas Carlyle, and artist Daniel Maclise, who drew this sketch, 1844. (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Veck, who has just taken in a poor vagrant and his daughter because one of the local magistrates is threatening to send him to the poorhouse, begins to despair of his own position and doubt the worth of his very existence.

The sentiments of another character – “Another year is nearly gone and where is the use of waiting on from year to year, when it is so unlikely we shall ever be better off than we are now?” – begin to weigh heavily on Veck.

That’s when he’s visited by the spirits of the chimes and given a chance to see what would have happened to his family if he himself had lost his life on New Year’s Eve. As you can imagine, things don’t turn out well: among other misfortunes, his daughter ends up as a prostitute and tries to drown herself to escape her misery.

The Chimes, even more than A Christmas Carol, reads like a direct antecedent of It’s a Wonderful Life. The point that we all influence each others’ lives is made explicit by The Chimes’ narrator at the novel’s conclusion: “So may the New Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you!”

And, as in all of Dickens’ works, greed, insensitivity, and social injustice are the true obstacles to happier new years, although The Chimes seems to be more directed against specific social problems and attitudes of the time than A Christmas Carol.

“I am in great hopes that I shall make you cry, bitterly, with my little Book,” Dickens said, and when he read it to a group of friends who knew – and shared – his outrage at England’s Poor Laws, one of them wrote, “There was not a dry eye in the house.”