Sunday, December 3, 2017

K.A.C. 2017 - T - 22 ...

     Welcome back! Our third tale of Christmas Spirits by Charles Dickens concerns a husband, a wife and a chirpy little cricket who is more than it seems. Entitled 'The Cricket On the Hearth (A Fairy Tale of Home)', it was originally published in 1845 as his (now-expected by the public) annual Christmas tale. 

     Following in the tradition of 'A Christmas Carol' and 'The Chimes', 'Cricket' is a cautionary tale of the season, a tale of not running to judgement without all the facts and a tale that involves the interjection of supernatural assistance. In 'Carol', it was the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future; in 'Chimes', it was the Goblins of the Bells and here it comes in the form of fairies who put things right.

John and Dot
     The main story concerns John Peerybingle, a middle-aged, successful carrier of goods, and husband to his pretty, much younger wife Dot. They have an infant boy (never named) and a good life. They are devoted to each other (modern sensibilities reading this might say too much so) and to their friends, including a poor toymaker, Caleb Plummer and his blind daughter, Bertha, who live in a run-down hovel in the meanest conditions. Caleb spins fantasies about their life for his daughter so she doesn't find out the truth. They are employed to make the toys (and paid a pittance for them) by the miserly Mr. Tackleton (nicknamed in the novella "Gruff and Tackleton" by all and sundry), the Scrooge-like figure of this tale, to Caleb's Bob Cratchit.

     The fact that the Plummer's get by at all rests on the the assistance of the Peerybingles, as Dot and Bertha are good friends, and whenever they come to visit, she and John make sure to bring food and goods for them. They also do not spoil Caleb's fantasy to his daughter and play along with it for her sake.

Caleb and Bertha
     In addition to the hardship of their life, Caleb also had a son Edward, whom, when grown, had traveled to South America to seek his fortune, but whom they've never heard from and is feared dead.

     The final members of the story are May Fielding, Dot's best friend, and her opinionated, shrewish aunt Mrs. Fielding, a cantankerous type who has to have a say about everything and everybody (oddly enough the most disagreeable character in the whole story, far outweighing miser Tackleton). Did I say say final members? My mistake: there is ONE more character, and though she is the comic relief of the tale, she is my favorite member of the human cast: Dot and John's nursemaid for their baby, the outrageously-named Tilly Slowboy. 

     She has a heart of gold, a disjointed body that goes every which way and a way with children that today would have her before a Child Services board in a heartbeat. She may be more than a little mentally deficient, with the running joke of the story being Tilly's almost preternatural ability to mishandle the baby (who, thankfully for the tyke, takes after his father and is made of strong stuff). Here is Dickens' introduction of her:

Tilly Slowboy and Boxer
     "Don't let the dear child fall under the grate, Tilly, whatever you do!"
     It may be noted of Miss Slowboy, in spite of her rejecting the caution with some vivacity, that she had a rare and surprising talent for getting this baby into difficulties: and had several times imperilled its short life in a quiet way peculiarly her own. She was of a spare and straight shape, this young lady, insomuch that her garments appeared to be in constant danger of sliding off those sharp pegs, her shoulders, on which they were loosely hung. Her costume was remarkable for the partial development, on all possible occasions, of some flannel vestment of a singular structure; also for affording glimpses, in the region of the back, of a corset, or a pair of stays, in colour a dead green. Being always in a state of gaping admiration at everything, and absorbed, besides, in the perpetual contemplation of her mistress's perfections and the baby's, Miss Slowboy, in her little errors of judgment, may be said to have done equal honour to her head and to her heart; and though these did less honour to the baby's head, which they were the occasional means of bringing into contact with deal doors, dressers, stair-rails, bed-posts, and other foreign substances, still they were the honest results of Tilly Slowboy's constant astonishment at finding herself so kindly treated, and installed in such a comfortable home. For the maternal and paternal Slowboy were alike unknown to Fame, and Tilly had been bred by public charity, a foundling; which word, though only differing from fondling by one vowel's length, is very different in meaning, and expresses quite another thing."

     I seriously wonder if JRR Tolkien hadn't read this story and had Tilly in mind when it came time to write the dialog for Gollum, as she sounds EXACTLY like him (and, having said that, once you read this tale, your mind is GUARANTEED to read her words in that voice) - case in point:
     "Did its mothers make it up a Beds, then!" cried Miss Slowboy to the Baby; "and did its hair grow brown and curly when its caps was lifted off, and frighten it, a precious Pets, a sitting by the fires!"

     But aren't we forgetting someone, you ask? Not at all: we've saved the best for last, the titular character of the tale, the Cricket. The Cricket is introduced at the very beginning of the story, living in the Peerybingle's hearth and always joining in whenever the kettle is put on - as soon as it begins to whistle, the cricket starts to sing and play along with it until it's taken off the fire. As John arrives home after a long day of deliveries, we get this exchange:

     "Heyday!" said John in his slow way. "It's merrier than ever to-night, I think."

     "And it's sure to bring us good fortune, John! It always has done so. To have a Cricket on the Hearth is the luckiest thing in all the world!"

     And so it would seem, as the Cricket seems to be the touchstone of the Peerybingle's good fortune, as well as a happy companion to Dot during John's long hours away. She goes on to her husband interpreting its different chirps and songs and he good-naturedly agrees with her.

     As they are unloading his cart for the next day's deliveries, two items out of the ordinary are brought in: one is an old man, a stranger who John met on the road and, given the severity of the weather, brought home with him. The other is a wedding cake: it turns out miser Tackleton has asked May Fielding to be his wife. She was originally affianced to Edward Plummer before his unfortunate disappearance and now must face her future - either alone or with Tackleton. She is honest about her lack of feeling towards the man (who sees it himself as more of a business arrangement), but lacking any other option (and in the repeated badgering by her maiden aunt) has agreed to the appointment.

     Time goes by and the elderly stranger lives with the Peerybingles for awhile as the nuptials draw near. Dot seems ill at ease around him, which Tackleton notices and files away. Trying to make May see him in a better light, he suggests they all have a dinner party together: the Peerybingles, the Plummers and themselves. Not surprisingly, it doesn't go well, as May deliberately 'pokes the bear', making jibes about her husband-to-be; her aunt holding court about all and sundry, and more. Tackleton is understandably upset by May's behavior and more than a little jealous over the domestic bliss John and Dot have. 

     He starts insinuating that Dot may NOT be the wholesome, devoted wife John takes her for: after getting a warning about what would happen to people who talk like that about his beloved, Tackleton backs off (it's established early on that John is a huge, strong man - he'd have to be, in his line of business). As Dot is making up a bed for the stranger, John is sitting beside the hearth, thinking of what he's heard and seen, when the true nature of the Cricket makes its first appearance:

     "And as he soberly and thoughtfully puffed at his old pipe, and as the Dutch clock ticked, and as the red fire gleamed, and as the Cricket chirped, that Genius of his Hearth and Home (for such the Cricket was) came out, in fairy shape, into the room, and summoned many forms of Home about him. Dots of all ages and all sizes filled the chamber. Dots who were merry children, running on before him, gathering flowers in the fields; coy Dots, half shrinking from, half yielding to, the pleading of his own rough image; newly-married Dots, alighting at the door, and taking wondering possession of the household keys; motherly little Dots, attended by fictitious Slowboys, bearing babies to be christened; matronly Dots, still young and blooming, watching Dots of daughters, as they danced at rustic balls; fat Dots, encircled and beset by troops of rosy grandchildren; withered Dots, who leaned on sticks, and tottered as they crept along. Old Carriers, too, appeared with blind old Boxers lying at their feet; and newer carts with younger drivers ("Peerybingle Brothers" on the tilt); and sick old Carriers, tended by the gentlest hands; and graves of dead and gone old Carriers, green in the churchyard. And as the Cricket showed him all these things—he saw them plainly, though his eyes were fixed upon the fire—the Carrier's heart grew light and happy, and he thanked his Household Gods with all his might, and cared no more for Gruff and Tackleton than you do."

     By the way, the Boxer mentioned above is John's dog, who goes with him on his deliveries and is the terror of the neighborhood ... well, neighborhood cats, at any rate.

     After viewing Dot becoming more flustered by their boarder, Tackleton keeps a close eye on the pair and announces to John that his 'loving wife' is cheating on him. John doesn't believe it for a second until Tackleton takes him to his own counting-house to show Dot and the 'elderly stranger' together, he with his wig and other accoutrements off and exposed as a young man, instead. John is left reeling and hurt.

     We move to the final part of the story here, with John and Dot at home. She can feel he is out of sorts with her and gets more and more nervous for the cause - finally, crying, she goes to bed, leaving him alone and brooding with his dark thoughts.

     Speaking of dark, for a Christmas story, this one goes WAY dark here - the more John plays over what he saw, the more morose he gets, to the point of getting down his gun and starting to the room to murder the stranger for destroying the happiness of his home. He literally has the gun in full upswing to batter the door down when the deus ex machina (well, in THIS case, Gryllidae ex machina) kicks in: the Cricket starts to chirp and breaks his concentration. 

     As Dickens writes: 

     "No sound he could have heard, no human voice, not even hers, could so have moved and softened him. The artless words in which she had told him of her love for this same Cricket were once more freshly spoken; her trembling, earnest manner at the moment was again before him; her pleasant voice—oh, what a voice it was for making household music at the fireside of an honest man!—thrilled through and through his better nature, and awoke it into life and action.
He recoiled from the door, like a man walking in his sleep, awakened from a frightful dream; and put the gun aside. Clasping his hands before his face, he then sat down again beside the fire, and found relief in tears.

The Cricket on the Hearth came out into the room, and stood in Fairy shape before him.

"'I love it,'" said the Fairy Voice, repeating what he well remembered, "'for the many times I have heard it, and the many thoughts its harmless music has given me.'"

"She said so!" cried the Carrier. "True!"

"'This has been a happy home, John! and I love the Cricket for its sake!'"

"It has been, Heaven knows," returned the Carrier. "She made it happy, always,—until now."

"So gracefully sweet-tempered; so domestic, joyful, busy, and light-hearted!" said the Voice.

"Otherwise I never could have loved her as I did," returned the Carrier.

The Voice, correcting him, said "do."

The Carrier repeated "as I did." But not firmly. His faltering tongue resisted his control, and would speak in its own way for itself and him.

The Figure, in an attitude of invocation, raised its hand and said:
"Upon your own hearth——"

"The hearth she has blighted," interposed the Carrier.

"The hearth she has—how often!—blessed and brightened," said the Cricket; "the hearth which, but for her, were only a few stones and bricks and rusty bars, but which has been, through her, the Altar of your Home; on which you have nightly sacrificed some petty passion, selfishness, or care, and offered up the homage of a tranquil mind, a trusting nature, and an overflowing heart; so that the smoke from this poor chimney has gone upward with a better fragrance than the richest incense that is burnt before the richest shrines in all the gaudy temples of this world!—Upon your own hearth; in its quiet sanctuary; surrounded by its gentle influences and associations; hear her! Hear me! Hear everything that speaks the language of your hearth and home!"

"And pleads for her?" inquired the Carrier.

"All things that speak the language of your hearth and home must plead for her!" returned the Cricket. "For they speak the truth."

     Saying this, the fairies of the ENTIRE HOUSE come forth to plead Dot's innocence: they stream from the walls and the floor, from the clocks and the kitchen implements, from the cart outside and from every single article in the house and they proceed to show him a series of visions of Dot's love and devotion to him, in every way. The vision proceeds throughout the night, leaving a broken, changed man to face the dawn. 

     With the approach of morning, Tackleton arrives. Being that it is his wedding day, he is cheerful, yet worried that John might have done something rash during the night. Upon checking, however, the stranger is gone and John avers that he laid no finger on the man. He also tells Tackleton his decision to annul the marriage and let Dot leave, after seeing her with the younger man and coming to the (wrong) conclusion that he had taken her away from her home at too young an age and how she had been loyal to him, a middle-aged carrier, but how she really wanted to be with a lover her age, instead. The fairies have shown her to be blameless and to have brought no shame on his household, but he loves he so much he will give her her freedom - and he warns Tackleton that NO ONE is to talk against her regarding his decision. Tackleton, deciding not to push his luck any further, agrees and leaves to get ready for his wedding.

     A thoroughly miserable Dot has heard all this and is bawling her eyes out, causing Tilly to go into histrionic hysterics:
     "Ow, if you please, don't!" said Tilly. "It's enough to dead and bury the Baby, so it is if you please."

     "Will you bring him sometimes to see his father, Tilly," inquired her mistress, drying her eyes,—"when I can't live here, and have gone to my old home?"

     "Ow, if you please, don't!" cried Tilly, throwing back her head, and bursting out into a howl—she looked at the moment uncommonly like Boxer. "Ow, if you please, don't! Ow, what has everybody gone and been and done with everybody, making everybody else so wretched? Ow-w-w-w!"

     From this point on, it's hell bent for leather to the end. First Caleb and Bertha show up, having heard some inklings of what Tackleton had suggested, and upon hearing Dot's innocence, are much relieved. Caleb decides this is the time to end his own charade and tells Bertha the truth about their situation - part of which being he had also lied about Tackleton being a kind and generous man. Bertha is heartbroken by this turn of events, but bears up well.

     During all this, a carriage containing a young man arrives, the same young man who portrayed the stranger at the Peerybingle's home: none other than Caleb's long-lost son, Edward, who had returned secretly, bringing Dot into his confidence, upon learning of May's nuptials. With Tackleton waiting at the church, the young reunited lovers run off to get married first, leaving him at the altar.

     A HUGE party breaks out, with overflowing food and drink and local musicians roused to accompany the dancing. Dot makes John dangle for a LONG while as she has all the explanations brought forth; then when she can not bear to see him miserable any longer, she rushes to his arms.

     A thoroughly confused Tackleton arrives, sees and hears the update and goes away more confused than ever. He does, good-naturedly (and rather abruptly) change character and sends along the wedding cake for them to enjoy. Even more surprising, he returns to the party and pleads to be part of the company - he has had a revelation and wants to make things right, for Caleb and Bertha, for Edward and May, for everyone he may have slighted. What works for Scrooge in his Christmas redemption comes off as forced here, but be that as it may, that's where the tale ends.

     Well, almost. With the kettle going, the musicians playing and the company dancing and jolly, the last bit is left to another music maker:

     "Hark! how the Cricket joins the music with its Chirp, Chirp, Chirp; and how the kettle hums!"

     If you're intrigued enough to read the full story, you can find the link to it here:

     Like 'A Christmas Carol' before it, 'Cricket' was an instant hit upon publication, spawning a number of play (and later film) adaptations. The best-known (and at the same time strangest) film version is the Rankin-Bass animated TV Christmas special from 1967. Why strangest? Well ... take everything you've read above and toss it all out. Main characters? Out! Supporting characters? Out! Cricket in the house of the Peerybingles? OUT! 

     Instead the story is re-imagined with Caleb and Bertha (the toymaker and his blind daughter) as the main characters (voiced by the father and daughter team of Danny and Marlo Thomas). In this version, Bertha goes blind from depression (!) after receiving news her lover was lost at sea. The evil boss they work for decides to make Bertha his wife, to the family's dismay. However, they are helped out of their predicament by Crocket the Cricket (voiced by Roddy McDowell) , who brings a mysterious stranger to their house and sets things right. 

     It's an odd mixture of live action, TV-quality animation and murals with narration (in order to save money). All this in 49 minutes, INCLUDING seven (count 'em!) songs! But don't take my word for it ... settle in and watch it yourself! 


      Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention that many houses have a 'lucky cricket' of their own that the owners keep on their hearth to attract luck and good fortune the year round. They are usually made of brass or cast iron, such as this fellow to the right. You can find him here: 

     There are many variations of the 'lucky cricket' available, so search around and find one that appeals (or perhaps 'chirps') to you! And it's not just homes that have them. Stretching the point just a little, but keeping it all in the same family, here in New England one of our main tourist attractions is Old Sturbridge Village. Care to guess what the village logo is? Yes, I hear you say, it's a grasshopper, not a cricket (I DID say the same family - perhaps I should have said the same genus). The Village's description of WHY this merry critter is on their log says:


Why is the Village's logo a grasshopper?
According to ancient folk belief, the grasshopper was not born but emerged directly from the earth itself. As a rural museum the Village was likewise "sprung from the soil." In 1956 - ten years after its official opening - the Grasshopper was adopted by Old Sturbridge Village as a fitting symbol.

     I prefer to believe it all points back to luck.


     Coming Tomorrow: The next of the Dickens Christmas Books - The Battle Of Life!

No comments:

Post a Comment