- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2007

Charles Dickens (1812-70) was the most ebullient of all the great Victorians. Throughout a remarkable productive career nevertheless cut short by his early death, Dickens exuded positive energy and a crusader’s zeal to right wrongs wherever he found them: in workhouses where exploited youths wasted their stolen childhood (as had Dickens himself, forced to labor for the family his indolent father declined to support); in a tangled legal system that blithely swallowed up fortunes, imprisoned the luckless and destroyed their families; in a preening religiosity that cherished principles more than people.

From “Oliver Twist” and “Nicholas Nickleby” to “Bleak House” and “Little Dorrit” and beyond, the keen-eyed reporter found the universality embedded in the particulars of the life around him and, through sheer force of will, made himself both the consummate storyteller and the conscience of his age.

Those of us who love Dickens and know his major works well have much to be grateful for: A recent flurry of publications make much of this prodigy’s “lesser” work available once again. With a single glowing exception — the story that incarnates the holiday spirit — there are no masterpieces here. But there’s more than enough humor, pathos and sheer inventive power to compensate.

Barnaby Rudge (Everyman’s Library, $25, 920 pages) is the book most Dickens admirers skip: the “other” historical novel (considerably less engaging than “A Tale of Two Cities”), whose subject is the “No Popery” (i.e., anti-Catholic) riots of 1780, and whose unconventional eponymous protagonist is a mentally unbalanced young man perpetually accompanied by his pet raven Grip.

Peter Ackroyd’s knowledgeable “Introduction” probably makes more claims for the novel than a reading of it will sustain. But the book’s unruly mixture of sentimental contrivance and dramatic intensity makes it, at odd moments, quite readable.

The core of the narrative is the public uproar over, and violent rejection of, the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, and in the best pages it must be allowed that Dickens puts on a bloody good show. Furthermore, the book’s larger actions are skillfully mirrored by several deeply conflicted personal relationships (notably, those between fathers and sons).

And the characters comprise a spectrum ranging from Gothic intensity in the borderline supernatural figures of Barnaby and Grip to romantic inanity in the star-crossed lovers Catholic Emma Haredale and Protestant Edward Chester. Paternal locksmith Gabriel Varden is annoyingly saintly.

Yet his daughter Dolly, a minx with a mind of her own, is one of Dickens’ most likable women. And in the judgmental humbling of anti-Catholic fanatic Lord George Gordon, we glimpse the genius for characterization of extreme temperaments refined in the later masterpieces “Great Expectations” and “Our Mutual Friend.”

“Barnaby Rudge” is a grind, but if you’re an inveterate Dickensian, by all means read it. The same must be said for two recent rediscoveries made by the ever enterprising Hesperus Press, which offers stories originally published in the magazine that the indefatigable Dickens created, edited and wrote for: All the Year Round.

Mrs. Lirriper (Hesperus Press, $25, 288 pages) is a lightweight but very agreeable serial narrative, set in the boarding house run by its indomitable title character. Its stories — the work of Dickens and eight of his frequent collaborators (one of whom was estimable novelist Elizabeth Gaskell) — are those invented by Mrs. Lirriper and her longtime lodger and friend “the Major,” for the amusement and edification of a child abandoned by its mother.

Only Dickens’ own contributions, which precede and follow his collaborators’ contributions, are of more than passing interest. But Mrs. Lirriper — a kindhearted widow and an endless fount of garrulous neighborliness and homespun wisdom — is virtually impossible to resist.

Mugby Junction (Hesperus Press, $12.95, 132 pages, paperback) is more substantial. It presents tales heard and gathered by a traveler (Jackson) who appears at a railroad station in the English Midlands en route to a place (he knows not where) at which he hopes to begin a new life. Mystery is thus of the essence from the opening paragraphs, which are crammed with brief, cryptic stabs of dialogue and description that instantly evoke feelings of disorientation, fear and loss (e.g., “Lamp waved … Shriek from engine. Train gone.”)

Plausible reasons for such emphases are discussed in scholar Robert Macfarlane’s “Foreword,” which recalls the 1865 train accident that Dickens survived (several fellow passengers did not), but which haunted his imagination thereafter.

And in fact the editor-author himself dominated this set of tales, penning four of eight (the remaining four the work of collaborators, among them that formidable Victorian writing machine Amelia B. Edwards). Sentimentality and melodrama predominate, but there’s one memorable exception: Dickens’ own terrific ghost story “The Signalman,” in which a mysterious stranger’s recurring appearances precede railway disasters.

Ghosts and spirits of course figure importantly in the “Christmas Books” that Dickens published during the years 1834 to 1838. A handsome new edition of these novellas, A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books (Oxford University Press, $25, 496 pages), is a mixed bag, weighted down by a treacly account of a coldhearted rationalist’s conversion to conviviality (“The Battle of Life”) and a promising structure of dream visions (“The Chimes”), which collapses into bathos when its stubborn protagonist finds his humanity by learning to sympathize with London’s outcast poor.

“The Cricket on the Hearth,” in which a morose toy maker and an indigent artist separately acquire capacities to feel compassion and forego comforting falsehoods, is at least an ambitious and intriguing failure. And in “The Haunted Man,” an arrogant “sage” is brought to solidarity with his “inferiors” through the agency of a “Phantom” that functions as a wily doppelganger — in a narrative that echoes the form and theme of the best of all possible Christmas stories.

“A Christmas Carol” is far too universally known and loved to require analysis, or even summary. Generations have succumbed to its charm, and resistance is futile.

Christmas comes but once a year, you say? Humbug. Fill your shelves with Dickens, great and small, and even your inner Scrooge may consent to tolerate benevolence, heartiness and relentless good cheer. He’s a writer for all seasons.

Bruce Allen lives in Kittery, Maine, and writes regularly for the Boston Globe, Raleigh News & Observer, Kirkus Reviews and other publications.

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