A Minor Carol: The Battle of Life by Charles Dickens

The Battle of Life - Part the First

An illustration from the original publication of The Battle of Life (albeit with modern markings in the background…).

It is not a well-known fact that Charles Dickens`s writing of Christmas stories did not end with the composition of his famous Christmas Carol. On the contrary, the success of that story led him to write four more “Christmas books,” each of which has at its heart a similar and seasonally appropriate message about the supreme importance of kindness and love, shown forth in a typically Dickensian tale and often incorporating a touch of the supernatural. Two of these tales–namely The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth–have gained some measure of popularity among readers of Dickens.

Yet for some reason Dickens’s 1846 offering, dramatically entitled The Battle of Life, does not generate much discussion. There are perhaps good reasons for this; on a first reading, The Battle of Life is not as immediately nor as richly rewarding as Dickens’s full-length novels. Although it is, for many reasons, hard to admit, a certain unbridgeable gulf separates the readers of the present from the readers of every other century. Of course there are moments, occuring more frequently in great works than in minor ones, when any reader must be touched, or intrigued, or moved, whether the writer was born in 1934 or 964, because that writer speaks in a way or of a subject unbounded by space and time.

Still, there are fashions in thought, in feeling, in subject-matter and in sentimentality which each generation will have to itself alone. The reverent devotion which many people today pay to their pets, for instance, would reduce a considerable number of our ancestors to laughter. Yet there are also things loved by those ancestors which leave us cold. One of these things is the lavish sentimentality which positively drips from the pen of otherwise great writers, including Charles Dickens himself. And painful as it is to admit it, The Battle of Life is maimed by the large streak of implausible altruistic behavior forming the main plot. The impossible goodness and sweetness of the two sisters about whom the story is built is rather silly, or at least is not developed enough to bear the weight of the tale as a whole. It is true that there is the possibility that the weakness of the plot was noticed by Dickens’ contemporaries, or even grated on Dickens himself. Quoted in Eleanor Farjeon’s 1954 introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of the Christmas book are Dickens’s own prefatory words to the original collection:

The narrow space within which it was necessary to confine these Christmas stories…rendered their construction a matter of some difficulty and almost necessitated what is peculiar in their machinery…My purpose was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good-humour of the season justified, to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land.

That last-mentioned and worthy purpose is certainly what is chiefly aimed at in The Battle of Life. The tale takes place in a little town built upon an old battlefield, where an unnamed but bloody conflict once took place; and the futility and waste of that fight is set against the eternal value of invisible victories won in the souls of its main characters. In fact, the idea of life as a battleground figures prominently in the tale, especially through the various conceptions of life held by several of the principal figures. One of the story’s most interesting scenes is near the opening, when contrasting views on the world and human existence are discussed. Against Doctor Jeddler’s conception of the world as “a gigantic practical joke; as something too absurd to considered seriously, by any rational man,” and the lawyers Cragg and Snitchey’s view of life as a battle for survival won by the craftiest, we are given the comical servant-girl Clemency’s two treasured mottoes, the familiar and reassuring “Do as you would be done by” and its companion piece, “Forgive and forget.”

In the course of the tale, these two mottoes emerge as the guides which must be followed; but the path which Dickens takes is altogether too fraught with melodrama to be altogether palatable. In the dichotomy between the comedic touches which enliven the story and the heavy narration which moves the main plot forward can be seen a compact illustration of the main problem which readers of Dickens face. Those main plots, undergone by the nominal heroes and heroines, are of the especially sensitive kind that are of incident and mystery all compact; once unravelled, they lose much, if not all, of their interest. But the little asides, the bits of unexpectedly picturesque description, the flashes of insight or the delightful comedic passages which dapple the pages of gloom with spots of brightness have a charm that stays with the reader long after he has learnt (and forgotten) why exactly the daughter of the house leaves her ancestral mansion in the dead of night on the very evening her betrothed is returning to her after an absence of three years.

The Battle of Life - Part the Second

Melodrama reigns supreme in this engraving, yet there is a charm in the drawing which offsets the hackneyed scene, something which might also be said about the tale itself.

Such at least is the conclusion one comes to after reading The Battle of Life, for that tale’s pleasures are found in passages which have little to do with the main purpose of the story. Dickens’s words (cited above) concerning the constraints of space in the Christmas tales are perhaps best corroborated by his first setting up and then largely abandoning the image of the physical battlefield and its evolution over time; the descriptions of the battle and its aftermath open the tale and form a truly magnificent piece of writing, which is partially quoted below:

Once upon a time…a fierce battle was fought. It was fought upon a long summer day when the waving grass was green. Many a wild flower formed by the Almighty hand to be a perfumed goblet for the dew, felt its enamelled cup filled high with blood that day, and shrinking dropped. Many an insect deriving its delicate colour from harmless leaves and herbs, was stained anew that day by dying men, and marked its frightened way with an unnatural track…

The Seasons in their course, however, though they passed as lightly as the summer clouds themselves, obliterated, in the lapse of time, even these remains of the old conflict; and wore away such legendary traces of it as the neighbouring people carried in their minds, until they dwindled into old wives’ tales, dimly remembered round the winter fire, and waning every year…An old dinted corselet, and a helmet, had been hanging in the church so long, that the same weak half-blind old man who tried in vain to make them out above the whitewashed arch, had marvelled at them as a baby.

There are other passages of equal beauty and power or commensurate charm in the story. The two lawyers, Snitchey and Cragg, are written with a typical flourish and provide a fine opportunity  for Dickens to show how pathos and comedy can exist together (as is also shown in the character of the elbow-jabbing Clemency). Nor does Dickens omit his characteristic criticisms of the judicial profession–indeed, it is here that he makes some of his best (and most humorous) use of the war images which were introduced in the tale’s first lines.

And so it is for these and other incidental pleasures that one should approach The Battle of Life. Its solid and admirable message is one which is certainly appropriate to the season, but it is the inimitable Dickensian voice that breaks into song here and there amid the darkness which will give readers the gladness and delight which are also apt at this time of the year.

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