The Cricket on the Hearth (1845) is the third of the five Christmas books published by Charles Dickens. He described it as “quiet and domestic […] innocent and pretty.” It’s chapters are called “Chirps”, like the “Quarters” of The Chimes and the “Staves” of A Christmas Carol.
The scene is a country cottage. John Peerybingle, a carrier of goods and chattels, lives with his young wife Dot, their baby, the nanny Tilly Slowboy, and a mysterious old stranger with a long white beard. A cricket constantly chirps on the hearth and acts as a guardian angel to the family, at one moment assuming a human voice to warn John that his suspicions about Dot having an affair with the mysterious lodger are wrong.
The life of the Peerybingles is contrasted with that of Caleb Plummer, a poor toymaker employed by the miserly Tackleton. Caleb has a blind daughter Bertha and together they live in squalor in a “little cracked nutshell” of a house. Bertha’s literal blindness to her surroundings parallels the figurative blindness of the main plot, in which Dot’s innocent secrets make her husband John suspect she loves another.
Caleb also has a son, Edward, who travelled to South America and was thought dead. Tackleton is on the point of marrying Edward’s sweetheart, May, but she does not love him. In the end, the mysterious lodger is revealed to be none other than Edward, who has returned home in disguise and who marries May hours before she is due to marry Tackleton. Tackleton’s heart is melted by the Christmas season, like Ebenezer Scrooge, and he surrenders May to her true love.
In his biography Dickens (1990), Peter Ackroyd comments:
“It is a pretty enough tale, and perhaps most affecting still for its portrait of a blind girl whose father has over the years created for her a wonderfully bright and luxurious world in which she believes she lives; no one was better at such effects than Dickens. Once again, as in all of the Christmas Books, he employs the tones of his own voice as if he were reading aloud to his audience, as if he wanted to come close to them, to take them by the arm and show them such sights as the spirits had once shown Ebenezer Scrooge. And once again, as in the other Christmas stories, the theme is concerned with a dreadful prospect which is at the last minute snatched away, a ghastly fear which is raised only to be dispelled on the last page.”
The fictional portrayal of Bertha echoes Dickens’s description in American Notes (1842) of Laura Bridgman (1829-89), whom he met on a visit to the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston. She is known as the first deaf-blind American child to gain a significant education in the English language. Unfortunately, Dickens represents Bertha as tragically removed from the world of courtship, unwittingly perpetuating a stereotype about blindness and femininity that lingered long into the 20th century.
Dickens is not known to have written many poems, and most of them are children’s verses. It is a delight, therefore, to find one masquerading as prose in The Cricket on the Hearth . Mrs Peerybingle is awaiting the return of her husband John and she has set the kettle to boil on the hearth:
“It’s a dark night, sang the kettle, and the rotten leaves are lying by the way; and, above, all is mist and darkness, and, below, all is mire and clay; and there’s only one relief in all the sad and murky air; and I don’t know that it is one, for it’s nothing but a glare; of deep and angry crimson, where the sun and wind together; set a brand upon the clouds for being guilty of such weather; and the widest open country is a long dull streak of black; and there’s hoar-frost on the finger-post, and thaw upon the track; and the ice it isn’t water, and the water isn’t free; and you couldn’t say that anything is what it ought to be; but he’s coming, coming, coming!”