It is the story of a miserly gentleman who eventually finds redemption, and it was a huge bestseller in its day, but Charles Dickens’ festive story The Cricket on the Hearth is far less well-known than its predecessor A Christmas Carol. Now the Charles Dickens Museum in London is hoping to bring new attention to the tale, with the first display of some of the sketches drawn to illustrate it.
The tale, which was published in 1846, is the third of Dickens’ five Christmas books. It tells of John Peerybingle and his wife Dot, who have a cricket in their home that brings happiness to the family. The toy-maker Tackleton, a malicious old man who “despised all toys; wouldn’t have bought one for the world”, convinces Peerybingle that Dot has cheated on him, but all finally ends well.
“We’re very keen that everyone knows that there are other Christmas stories by Dickens,” said Emily Smith, curator at the Dickens Museum. “A Christmas Carol is so well-known, and the others are a bit underappreciated, despite the fact that they sold very well when he published them. They were really popular during the 19th century, but they have lost that connection today.”
The museum is currently displaying John Leech’s sketches for The Cricket on the Hearth for the first time. “‘It’s quite a lovely, homely romance story, that was also extremely popular. It’s quite fairytale-like,” said Smith. “John Leech was an illustrator who worked with Dickens primarily on his Christmas books, so his most famous images are the ones for A Christmas Carol. In 2019 we had a donation of these lovely sketches, and we’ve now got on display a lovely collection of three of them from The Cricket on the Hearth.”
Dickens wrote his five Christmas books in the middle of his career; A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, The Chimes in 1844, The Cricket on the Hearth in 1845, The Battle of Life in 1846, and The Haunted Man in 1848.
“All of them sold very well, which is also why Dickens continued to write them; people were not only enjoying them, but obviously, for him, it was a bit of a business venture as well,” said Smith. “The Chimes is set on New Year’s Eve, so that’s a lovely one to think about bringing in the new year, and The Haunted Man is actually really good. It’s about the haunting of someone called Professor Redlaw, who is given the power to make people forget their own stories. So it’s kind of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before it became a thing.”
Lucinda Hawksley, an author and great-great-great-granddaughter of Dickens, agreed. “It’s interesting to me that the other Christmas books have all fallen out of currency as it were, even though they were so widely known in their own time. Each was even more popular than the last,” she said.
For Hawksley, A Christmas Carol remains the best of the lot, because it was written with “such passion” by her ancestor. “He was originally writing a government report into child poverty, but then he thought no one was going to read it, and it wouldn’t have an impact. After going to Manchester, and staying with his sister, he witnessed a level of poverty which was even worse than in London, families just starving on the streets, and he felt very powerless to do anything. So on his way back to London, he came up with the idea of turning it into a work of fiction. It was an amazing story that was written to bring about change.”
Hawksley’s favourite of the remaining four books is The Haunted Man, which she said was “similarly written from the heart about a character who is suffering over the death of his sister”; Dickens’ own sister Fanny had also died that year. “The fact he was really struggling with depression shows, in The Haunted Man,” she said. “When he was writing A Christmas Carol, he was very stressed and anxious, but with The Haunted Man, he was genuinely suffering from depression. And I think that comes across in the writing style.”
Dickens then went on to write David Copperfield and Great Expectations, and his Christmas stories faded away. “I think of all his Christmas stories, A Christmas Carol was the one that stayed with everybody the most, because the plot is kind of the original idea. A lot of the other Christmas stories that he writes are based around the same sort of idea, with a moralistic tone to them. The first time he does that is A Christmas Carol, and that’s seen as the original,” said Smith. “But the others are also definitely worth reading – and they were written by Dickens to be celebrated in the same way as A Christmas Carol, to be read with your family over the Christmas period, around the fire, and probably to be read out loud.”