The term “Dickensian” always connotes a kind of plumminess. There is richness in this prose, and richness in the depth of the characters. Even the villains and sad sacks who fund their own misery have a way of doing your soul good.
Of course, we all look to Ebenezer Scrooge at this time of year. That premier skinflint made his debut in 1843, having been conceived in the mind of Charles Dickens while he walked upwards of twenty miles into the Victorian night of his London, the principle seat of his art and a character unto itself in his fiction.
But what you might not know is that nearly a decade before, Dickens had drafted a proto-Scrooge, another character also visited by representatives from the land of spirits who took exception to his wastrel attitude regarding Christmas.
This character was a sexton—meaning, for those who haven’t watched enough old horror films, that he dug the graves at the local church—and he came to life in The Pickwick Papers, Dickens’ first novel, published in 1836.
First novels can be wonderful things, and the best possess an abundance of one of art’s great qualities: energy.
There is so much energy in The Pickwick Papers, even though it’s evident that Dickens is figuring out a lot of things as he goes along: plot lines peter out, characters flit into what’s tantamount to a collage narrative and offer up some insight and then are never heard from again. Basically, the members of the Pickwick Club tell each other ripping yarns. Some are true, some maybe not so true, but that’s their specialty, their main reason for hanging out together.
Dickens was writing at a great pace, trying to keep with the demands of serial publication, and one abettor to his cause was his love of ghost stories. He loved terror tales ever since his nursemaid, Mary Weller (to whom we owe a great deal, it turns out), indulged the boy by trying to frighten him out of his wits with her ghost stories. The members of the Pickwick Club tell each other several, but the one that paid out later is one you see anthologized sometimes as “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton.”
Right from the title, this is funny; we steal objects, usually. In novels, and fright stories, those are things like a bejeweled dagger, secret papers of the king, a blazing ruby. But a person? Neat.
It is Christmas Eve, and Gabriel Grub, in what will become the Dickensian tradition of having the names of characters mirror their core components, is going to work at the church graveyard. He is “a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself,” but he does love making holes to stick bodies in the earth; and while he might not consort with you, he’ll pop you in the face or box your ears, as he does to a young lad who has the misfortune of careening too fast around a snowy corner and running smack into the sexton, who also has a bottle of spirits jammed into his back pocket. Because, as you likely know, if you’re digging holes in the earth to hasten the process of turning flesh to soil-matter on Christmas Eve, it’s best to get drunk while doing so. (For modern purposes, let’s just say that this is the kind of guy who would be jacked to the gills on Fireball.)
Grub laughs as he enters the graveyard over having frightened the boy, puts his rump on the flat headstone that is his favorite to have a drink upon, and starts laughing some more over the joke he makes about a coffin being a Christmas box indeed. Christmas boxes were hot items at the time, despite being, you know, just a gaudy box. He hears sounds and thinks it’s the echoes of footfalls, hopes it’s the echoes of footfalls, going so far as to say, aloud, “It’s the echoes.” To which a voice answers, “It was not.”
As if to pull up a bar stool, a goblin has taken a seat on the tombstone next to the one upon which Grub sits while draining his potent potables. The goblin has boots that curl at the toes, a dangling cloak, a collar made of enormous peaks, a broad-brimmed sugar loaf hat festooned with a single feather. He is a dandy of the underworld, but a fun dandy. The goblin asks Grub what he’s doing there and what he’s drinking. Grub freaks out, thinking that the goblin might be policing the bootleg liquor trade from which he acquired his spirits, but he says it’s Hollands, a gin precursor. By this point, a mini-army of other goblins has arrived to see this Christmas Eve scene. They also have a last minute Christmas wish.
“I’m afraid my friends want you, Gabriel,” remarks the Goblin, as he thrusts his tongue into his cheek, something he does repeatedly, extending the parameters of his head, which terrifies Gabriel. Turns out they’ve been watching this guy, Jacob Marley-style! And they don’t like what they’ve seen! The goblins enjoy communicating in the style of singers at a Baptist church gone way, way wrong. Very call and response. Lead goblin says one thing, the others boom out their agreement in a series of bad juju mimetics.
“Who drinks Hollands alone, and in a churchyard, on such a night as this?” said the goblin.
“Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!’ exclaimed the wild voices again.
Grub says he thinks he’ll take his leave, the goblins laugh, and then proceed to leap about the headstones, surmounting them, doing somersaults off of them, with one champion surmounter in particular—clearly the big goblin recruit for this sport—wowing Grub, who is then whisked away, under the earth, passing the very holes he had dug.
Up to this point, the goblins have been frightening but ingratiating wits. Once beneath the earth, they become more vicious. The Hollands is dispensed with, and liquid fire from a goblet is poured down Grub’s throat, after which the goblins take turns kicking him, with the chief-leaper-of-headstones, who is especially pliable, delivering the most contusing blows.
There’s this little hell cloud that floats around Goblin Land, and the king of the goblins—a nastier, smaller version of the Ghost of Christmas Present, turns this cloud into a kind of viewfinder, showing Grub heartrending scenes—an aged couple at their last Christmas, but still deep in love—precisely to illustrate how much he sucks. The ideas that would reach full-flowering in 1843 are there, in the manner of tiny acorns. What isn’t there is the richness of style. If you read A Christmas Carol this year, note the depth of its voice. There is more voice in A Christmas Carol than there is in Ulysses. That is why, when you notice a film version playing on the TV as you walk by, you can complete the line that some actor has started. But there is energy in this idea, and, besides, it need not be fully-fermented for the purposes of The Pickwick Papers, a robust book that is a collection of potent and piquant asides. From the margins is built the center. Perhaps it goes thusly with all of us, to some degree, as we navigate adulthood?
As it is, Grub is restored to his graveyard, “an altered man.” He doesn’t run down to the poulter’s to buy a farm-fed goose. Nope—he steals away in the night. He’s seen enough of this place. He cannot return to this churchyard to work. I very much like what happens next. We don’t know, exactly, what has become of Gabriel Grub. Just that he has gone away. His spade and bottle are found on the grounds, and it is brilliantly, if somewhat inaccurately, deduced that he was forever whisked away by goblins. Or else on the back of a fiery chestnut horse with one eye. There’s some debate.
But then he turns up back in the town, ten years later, “a ragged, contented, rheumatic old man.” The town people think he’s rheumatic because he downed the Hollands and then fell asleep on a cold tombstone one lonely Christmas Eve. There is a concluding joke about not being in your cups while alone on that night, but what matters is what happened offstage.
Grub lived a life, we seem encouraged to believe, that was one of quiet happiness, quiet dignity. He didn’t need to save a family and its little crippled boy. He only needed to find his own way, his own path, one which led out of one town, and on towards a citadel of basic human decency.
As far as Christmas homecomings go, it’s not splashy, but the goblins were always the hail fellows of this story, and Gabriel Grub the sire. Of many things—of Ebenezer Scrooge, of well-needed reminders.