The Chimes—Charles Dickens

[I read this 1844 novella in two halves. I wrote about the firs half before reading to the end.]

19 November 2019
The First and Second Quarters
Compared to the (justly) much better known A Christmas Carol, published the year before, this is an oddity. There is the darkness of Scrooge’s world, but little of the dark humour that makes the earlier novella so hugely entertaining. There’s little enough entertainment of any kind in The Chimes—if anything, its wintry humour serves only to lower the temperature. Dickens seems to have set the dial to Arctic… which we know he must be doing in order to warm things up in the third and fourth sections. The good-hearted main character has already thawed out a wandering labourer and his orphaned niece at his fireside—but otherwise it’s been pretty thin stuff so far. All the prosperous characters seem to be personifications of the Poor Law, and all the poor ones are the salt of the earth. This is Dickens on auto-pilot.

He’s still Dickens, of course. The book opens with some droll observations about, among other things, sleeping in church—how we laughed—and some drolly languorous verbal perambulations to remind us that it’s his company we’re in. The first sentence has this, for instance: ‘I beg it to be noticed that I confine this observation neither to young people nor to little people, but extend it to all conditions of people: little and big, young and old: yet growing up, or already growing down again….’ Which is Dickens also serving notice on any unwary reader who might assume that this ‘Goblin Story,’ as its subtitle has it, is for children. There’s a near-reprise of the playful gusts of wind that play around Pecksniff’s front door at the opening of Martin Chuzzlewit, his most recent full-length novel—but, inevitably, given a darker hue: ‘the night-wind has a dismal trick of wandering round and round a building of that sort, and moaning as it goes; and of trying, with its unseen hand, the windows and the doors; and seeking out some crevices by which to enter.’

The building is the church whose eponymous chimes are the story’s chorus. The hapless 60-year-old man standing outside, not in, and during the day, not the night, is Toby Veck. He’s one of Dickens’s holy innocents, incapable of ill-feeling towards anyone and therefore easy prey to characters with an axe to grind. In The Chimes, they grind their axes on him. By the halfway point I’ve reached, he’s in a bad way. Toby, or ‘Trotty’, is a ticket-porter, a messenger licenced to deliver letters for a small fee. It’s New Year’s Eve, and things have been quiet lately. And chilly. The chimes cheer him up, giving him a reason to trot from the church door from time to time to listen from a way off, then trot back slightly less frozen than he was. Good old Toby. The chimes talk to him, kind of, usually giving him enough of a boost to carry on. He needs it, because being a 60-something errand-boy doesn’t pay well.

What a good job that he has a loving daughter, Meg. Unusually, she brings him out a hot dish of tripe and vegetables to eat. She’s not just celebrating the end of the old year, she’s got some news. She and her fiancé Richard have decided to tie the knot the very next day, after delaying for three years to wait, vainly, for better times. She’s another character we recognise from Dickens’s stock, the implausibly lovely, sunny, selfless young woman. Her explanation of why she and Richard are going to get married is an essay in good sense. She knows they aren’t well-off enough, but, oh, imagine looking back on the life not lived, the happiness deferred forever, simply because it was never the right time.

However. By now, Toby has gone to sit on the doorstep of the house owned by one Alderman Cute, who happens to be leaving just as Toby is about to finish his last forkful. It’s the arrival of the bad guys—Cute, preceded by his equally unsympathetic footman and followed by two of his unlikeable acquaintances. Cute’s name, of course, could not be more ironic. He is fond of reading the underclasses sanctimonious lectures about how they have brought their own misfortunes on themselves and promising to ‘Put them down.’ (The capital letter is his.) But he is proud of his common touch—he knows the lower classes, knows how to get them on his side, as he demonstrates to the ever more miserable Toby, Meg, and Richard. He considers them all feckless, a view fulsomely backed up by one of the friends. He’s the shabby-looking political economist Filer—no irony there—and he seems to have been reading Malthus and the like since birth. How can they dream of getting married? And Cute takes up the theme, describing the misery of their future lives if they do. Meanwhile there’s the other friend, a more prosperous-looking gent in blue, whose only contribution is to lament the passing of the old times when the lower classes were in rags, and shoes were unheard of.

Toby, a simple soul, had earlier been musing on how he and people like him are always to blame for everything. The newspapers are full of crimes and violence, proving that the world would be a much better place without the poor… and so on. As I said, this is Dickens on autopilot and, as I also said, by the halfway point all the sympathetic characters are miserable. But before we reach that point, Dickens adds another ingredient, as unsubtle as the rest. Cute has asked Toby to take a letter to another gent—oh dear—concerning a ne’er-do-well he wants to Put down. The other man is a Justice—Dickens milks the irony of the title to the full—‘Sir Joseph Bowley, Member of Parliament’ no less. And the letter he sends back is that he’ll agree to do it. People who wander into the parish expecting charity and doing nothing in return deserve what’s coming to them. Being Put down.

But guess what? Toby accidentally encounters the man, carrying his sickly niece, an orphan. And all he ever wants is good honest work so he can provide for her, not wander from pillar to post trying to keep body and soul together. Toby throws stones at him and tells him to be off… except he doesn’t, obviously. What he does do, equally obviously, is take them both home, and secretly use the sixpence he was paid for delivering the letter—less than the going rate, as it happens—to buy enough food for a simple meal for the wanderers. It’s a cosy scene—except Meg has clearly had second thoughts about the next day’s wedding plans, and Toby is becoming more and more depressed by the state of everything. There seems to be so little a man like him can do….

The chimes, near to where they live, sound uncharacteristically loud that night. Toby decides to go and check them out and listen to what they have to tell him—and it’s nothing good, obviously. He goes to the door to the belfry—and discovers, for the first time ever, that it’s open. Up he goes, up a winding stone staircase at first and then up wooden ladder to where the bells rest quietly. But something strange is afoot. ‘Halloa!’ he calls, and is answered by it echo. And then… how does the ‘Second Quarter’ end? ‘Giddy, confused, and out of breath, and frightened, Toby looked about him vacantly, and sunk down in a swoon.’

What’s going on? It’s going to be about those goblins, isn’t it? Time to find out, I suppose.

25 November
The Third and Fourth Quarters
Yes, an oddity. But I need to fill in a couple of details from the end of the Second Quarter, to do with the wandering labourer and his niece, and to do with what the Chimes say to Toby. The working man is Will Fern, and he has been unable to find the ‘friend’ in this parish that he had been looking for. He has already been in trouble with the law, and we know how Cute and Bowley want to Put him further down than he is already. The niece is Lilian, and Meg treats her with great tenderness from the start. Lilian responds as though she’s found a new mother.

After that, the chimes that call Toby are very specific. ‘Again, again, and yet a dozen times again. ‘“Haunt and hunt him, haunt and hunt him, Drag him to us, drag him to us!” Deafening the whole town!’ He tries to dismiss them: ‘Fancy! Fancy! His remorse for having run away from them that afternoon! No, no.  Nothing of the kind.’ That afternoon, Toby had been at the end of his tether following his encounter with Cute, Filer and the other gent. Then, the Chimes had echoed them. ‘Put ’em down, Put ’em down!  Good old Times, Good old Times!  Facts and Figures, Facts and Figures!  Put ’em down, Put ’em down!  If they said anything they said this, until the brain of Toby reeled.’ He had run away from them, but he can’t do that now. They won’t stop, and he follows their command that he come to the open belfry door.

But the Third Quarter doesn’t start with Toby, or not exactly. Dickens feels he needs to prepare the hapless reader for the Gothic fantasy he’s about to launch Toby into, and opens it with this: ‘Black are the brooding clouds and troubled the deep waters, when the Sea of Thought, first heaving from a calm, gives up its Dead.  Monsters uncouth and wild, arise in premature, imperfect resurrection…’ and so on. There’s a clue in that ‘Sea of Thought’: we’re at liberty to understand that this might not necessarily be reality we’re seeing—and, in fact, what we get is much more like Ebenezer Scrooge’s misadventures with his final visitor, the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come. Except, all but the final few pages of The Chimes are an even darker vision of the future than Scrooge has to endure.

But before that, yes, there are goblins, hundreds of them: ‘dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells.  He saw them leaping, flying, dropping, pouring from the Bells without a pause.  He saw them, round him on the ground; above him, in the air; clambering from him, by the ropes below…’ then, after another hundred-odd words of frantic description, ‘riding downward, soaring upward, sailing off afar, perching near at hand, all restless and all violently active.’ He can see also how they are precursors of the BFG: they mess about with people asleep in their beds. ‘He saw them soothing people in their dreams; he saw them beating them with knotted whips; he saw them yelling in their ears; he saw them playing softest music on their pillows…’ and the rest of it. You never know where you are with goblins. They’re like something from a Disney fantasy.

But they don’t actually do very much to advance the story beyond that clue about them messing with people’s dreams. Instead, this book has its own versions of Scrooge’s Spirits, this time of the Bells. Cue more fantastical descriptions, of the ancient-looking spirits that hover inside them, and of the little Spirit of the Chimes, whom Toby recognises as the child he carried earlier that evening. Except, the spirits tell him, that was nine years ago, just before—before what? The spirits show him: ‘The tower opened at his feet.  He looked down, and beheld his own form, lying at the bottom, on the outside: crushed and motionless.’ Scrooge had had to piece together the truth of his own death from clues, but these guys don’t believe in beating about the bush. He’s dead, and he’ll just have to get over it.

And what we get from now on isn’t at all as engaging as what we saw in A Christmas Carol, because in the earlier novella Dickens had used a much lighter touch—until, that is, the ten or twelve pages making up that dark vision of the future presented by the final Spirit. In The Chimes, it’s more hellish altogether, starting off darkly, and getting worse and worse. By way of the magical kind of scene-change we recognise from Scrooge’s nocturnal journeys, the little Spirit of the Chimes takes Toby to a garret room. He recognises Meg, older and more care-worn now, working at some of the piecework sewing she does for a pittance. But who’s with her, now almost grown and doing the same work? ‘In the long silken hair, he saw the self-same curls; around the lips, the child’s expression lingering still.’ It’s Lilian, of course, and—’See! In the eyes, now turned inquiringly on Meg, there shone the very look that scanned those features when he brought her home!’ There’s obviously mutual affection built up over years, and here they are still together, working. This is all right, isn’t it?

Obviously not. They’re working too hard, and Lilian is worrying about Meg as much as Meg is worrying about her, as she ruefully admits. ‘There is little cause for smiling in this hard and toilsome life, but you were once so cheerful.’ What can Meg say? ‘Do I make our weary life more weary to you, Lilian?’ The dour little scene carries on, and it becomes clear that Meg, as usual, will be working late into the night. In fact, this is the first of several visits Toby is forced to make by the ‘figures’ in the belfry he returns to from time to time. But before that, we think—if we haven’t been paying attention—we might be in for a treat as the Spirit takes Toby to a New Year’s Day party. But…

…this is no reprise of Fezziwig’s in A Christmas Carol. This one is given in honour not only of the day, but of the birthday of Sir Joseph Bowley’s wife. Unlike Fezziwig’s, this party offers no joy. This isn’t a community coming together, it’s the gentry patronising the lower classes to within an inch of their lives. Toby is troubled, because he can see no sign of Richard despite looking, hard. Instead, just out of jail, again, Will Fern arrives, uninvited. But he isn’t noisy about it, he’s scrupulously polite. ‘My Lady, you was born on this day along with a New Year.  Get me a minute’s leave to speak.’

She agrees, and he soon gets into his stride. ‘Gentlefolks! Look at me! You see I’m at the worst.  Beyond all hurt or harm; beyond your help; for the time when your kind words or kind actions could have done me good … is gone.’ This is the starting-point for a long defence of the itinerant worker. How does it go? ‘See how your laws are made to trap and hunt us when we’re brought to this. I tries to live elsewhere. And I’m a vagabond. To jail with him! I comes back here. I goes a-nutting in your woods, and breaks—who don’t?—a limber branch or two. To jail with him!’ Five minor misdemeanours and five more jail sentences later, it’s ‘To jail with him, for he’s a vagrant, and a jail-bird known; and jail’s the only home he’s got.’

The working people at the party are moved by his plight, but Bowley and the rest of the gentry definitely aren’t. This is a divided society, and Dickens seems to be telling us that if we want easy solutions we should look elsewhere. In A Christmas Carol, perhaps? Well, no, because this little morality tale is about the conscience of the individual. It’s all focused on Toby, and the way he definitely hasn’t been thinking about why the lower classes might become law-breakers. Festive it isn’t—and it’s time for another scene-change: ‘another moment showed him that the room and all the company had vanished from his sight, and that his daughter was again before him, seated at her work…’

…and things are worse. There’s no Lilian, and Meg is plying her lonely, chilly trade alone by the sort of guttering candle-light that will ruin her eyesight soon. Somebody arrives, bringing something—it’s Richard, at last, but so changed by hardship and drink he’s almost unrecognisable. He’s brought money, but nothing that he’s earned. It’s from Lilian, and Meg refuses to take it. It’s clearly not been earned legitimately, and we realise the ‘him’ that Meg mentions is the man who is keeping Lilian and paying her for her services. It’s come to this, and it hasn’t reached the worst yet. Over the next few scenes, as the bell-spirits insist that Toby is forced to see what can happen to the best people in the world if never offered the opportunities to better themselves. Even Meg.

Earlier in the book, Toby had been shocked that a woman had drowned her own child, albeit out of sheer desperation. Toby takes this as proof of the incorrigibility of the poorer classes, and we come to realise that this lack of understanding has brought this torture on him. Step by miserable step, he is forced to witness Meg reaching that point herself. First Lilian dies in her arms, supposedly of a broken heart. Next, she tries to bring Richard round to some better course of life, by becoming his wife. It works for a while, but not long. By the time Richard finally dies of the drink and harsh conditions she hoped she could save him from, she is the mother of a tiny girl. She can now earn very little, but she does what she can to provide for the tiny child, going hungry herself in order to let her eat. But… her landlord, no more than a lowly employee of Bowley’s in the earlier chapters, has had enough of her living in her room without paying. He throws her out and, soon—what?

The voices from the belfry can be heard, even in this virtual world his daughter languishes in. ‘Follow her! To desperation!’ And he really does have to follow her to the moment of crisis. ‘To the River! To that portal of Eternity, her desperate footsteps tended with the swiftness of its rapid waters running to the sea. He tried to touch her as she passed him, going down to its dark level…’ but he can’t touch her, of course. And, as she makes to do exactly what that other young mother had done all those years ago, he finally understands. ‘He fell down on his knees, and in a shriek addressed the figures in the Bells now hovering above them. “I have learnt it!” cried the old man. “From the creature dearest to my heart! O, save her, save her!”’ They don’t let him off easily but, eventually, he can feel the texture of her dress as he reaches for it, and can hold her in his arms. Phew.

He addresses the Spirit of the Chimes, and the others. ‘“O Spirits, merciful and good, I am grateful!” He might have said more; but, the Bells, the old familiar Bells, his own dear, constant, steady friends, the Chimes, began to ring the joy-peals for a New Year….’ And guess what. It’s the same night as when he went up into the belfry. Meg is still his lovely daughter, Lilian is still a little girl, and you can probably guess what happens in the remaining four or five pages. Meg hadn’t been weeping because they had had second thoughts about the wedding—she’s sewing her wedding dress as he finds himself back in their living-room—but because of all the sorrows people have to live through. And Will, miraculously, realises that the kind-hearted widow from the shop where Toby is always given credit—she’d married Bowley’s employee in his dream and made the man’s fortune—was the friend who had been waiting for him. There’ll no doubt be more wedding bells before you know it.

And Toby? Never mind him, dear Reader, because this is about you. ‘Had Trotty dreamed?  Or, are his joys and sorrows, and the actors in them, but a dream; himself a dream; the teller of this tale a dreamer, waking but now? If it be so, O listener, dear to him in all his visions, try to bear in mind the stern realities from which these shadows come; and in your sphere—none is too wide, and none too limited for such an end—endeavour to correct, improve, and soften them.’

OK, there are another three or four lines after this, about the New Year being a happy one. But never mind all that. You’ve been told what you need to do, so there’s no excuse.