If A Christmas Carol is a ghost story and The Chimes is a goblin story, then The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens is a fairy story. It opens with a lengthy description of how “The kettle began it!” — though just what the kettle began, or how the writer is so certain that it was begun by the kettle is never exactly revealed. (Unless it is just the competition between the kettle and the cricket, in which case, what is not revealed is why this is so important, or what the significance of it is.) The story revolves around the pretty, cheerful, good little Mary (called Dot) Peerybingle and her good, but decidedly not clever, husband John. He is quite a bit older than his young wife, and this fact is used by the villain of the story, the churlish Mr. Tackleton, to create havoc between them. Mr. Tackleton is himself, old and ill-favored as he is, about to marry a beautiful young woman. Knowing that his fiancée has no love for him, he thinks that Dot cannot possibly love her husband. Of course, a misunderstanding occurs and, equally a matter of course, is cleared up, and everyone lives happily ever after.
‘Heyday!’ said John, in his slow way. ‘[The cricket’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! …. This has been a happy home, John; and I love the Cricket for its sake!’
‘Why so do I then,’ said the Carrier. ‘So do I, Dot.’ (Chirp the First)
Working for the surly Mr. Tackleton is the impecunious Caleb Plummer. Caleb is a terrible, or, rather, an accomplished, liar. But don’t let that fool you into thinking he is a bad character, as Dickens obviously intended him to be a model of selfless love. He is, as has been stated, very poor, and his employer does not treat him well. He lives with his daughter Bertha, who is blind. I say they live together, but, according to Dickens, Caleb lived in a poor, meagre dwelling, but “his poor Blind Daughter [lived] somewhere else – in an enchanted home of Caleb’s furnishing, where scarcity and shabbiness were not, and trouble never entered. Caleb was no sorcerer, but in the only magic art that still remains to us, the magic of devoted, deathless love, Nature had been the mistress of his study; and from her teaching, all the wonder came.”
Apparently he too had a cricket on his hearth and that spirit (for “all the Cricket tribe are potent Spirits”) “had inspired him with the thought that even her great deprivation might be almost changed into a blessing, and the girl made happy by these little means”. That is to say, he was inspired to lie to his daughter, teaching her to believe that their home is snug and pretty, that he is well and warmly clad, and that Tackleton is a kind and generous benefactor. He is very successful in persuading her of the latter, actually straitening himself to buy her gifts that he claims come from his employer. He is so successful, in fact, that his daughter falls in love with Mr. Tackleton. Oops. She’s pretty cut up when she learns that he is to marry May Fielding, and Caleb begins to realize that he may have been cruel instead of kind with his “innocent deception”, as Dickens calls it. But, as Abraham Lincoln is said to have observed, no man has a good enough memory to make a successful liar, and Caleb lies so much that sometimes he cannot tell whether something is true, or is one of his own fabrications. He should have followed Mark Twain’s advice, “When in doubt, tell the truth.”
So, back to John and Dot. John, who is a Carrier, brings home an old man who stays the night. His coming troubles Dot and causes Mr. Tackleton to become suspicious of her. At a picnic (indoors, for this story takes place in January) at the Plummers’, Tackleton detects Dot alone with this “old man” who is, apparently, not really old, but a young, handsome man in disguise. Tackleton looses no time in revealing the apparent state of affairs to John Peerybingle, who, upon seeing the young man’s arm around his wife and her embracing him, doesn’t say anything to his wife, but becomes jealous. Thankfully, the cricket on the hearth begins to chirp and a bunch of fairies appear to him and remind him how good his wife is and how pleasant and loving and cheerful she has made his home. “Is this the light wife you are mourning for? …. Is this the wife who has forsaken you? …. Is this the wife who has betrayed your confidence?” (Chirp the Second). So, instead of being angry, John comes to the conclusion that Dot has done no wrong, but that she must not love him and that he did her a wrong in marrying her, so much older than she as he is. He sorrowfully tells Tackleton that he has decided to send her back to her parents, and thereby releasing her as best he can from the yoke of pretending to care for him, blah, blah, blah.
And then it all comes out. The disguised young man is none other than Edward Plummer, the son of Caleb, who was supposed dead. He is a friend of John’s and is in love with May Fielding. Dot assured him that May still loves him, and undertook to sound her for Edward. Edward and May are reunited and marry, and Dot and John are restored to each other. Caleb undeceives Bertha, confessing his numerous lies (“The eyes you have trusted in have been false to you.”), and she generously forgives him, despite the painful realization that almost everything she has trusted in has never existed. Unlike A Christmas Carol’s Scrooge, Mr. Tackleton is such a soft nut that he is melted without any ghosts. When he sees everyone else so happy together, he bewails the fact that he doesn’t even have a cricket on his hearth: “Friends, one and all, my house is very lonely to-night. I have not so much as a Cricket on my Hearth. I have scared them all away. Be gracious to me: let me join this happy party!” (Chirp the Third) — Pretty generous for a man whose fiancée just married another, much younger, man.
What really annoys me about this story, besides Caleb’s duplicity, is this: John Perrybingle should have given his wife a chance to clear herself before giving all those sickening, sentimental speeches to Tackleton. Caleb and Bertha wouldn’t believe ill of Dot — why could not her own husband who loves her much more dearly at least give her the chance to explain her behavior. Dot had openly declared her love for her husband and her joy in their home together. In suspecting Dot of loving another, or even of not loving him, John accuses her of being a thorough hypocrite and liar. Also, Dot should have told her husband the truth the moment she discovered that he suspected her of something so serious. As it is, she just runs off in tears and cries all night without going anywhere near her husband. In short, instead of acting like the kind, generous, sensible people they had been portrayed as heretofore, John and Dot decide to become maudlin and theatrical.
Any story where the climax comes from a forced misunderstanding annoys me. The Cricket on the Hearth surpasses The Chimes in actually having a story and some likable characters (aside from their misunderstanding, John and Dot are an adorable couple, along with their baby and funny little servant girl, Tilly Slowboy). Besides these characters, however, it has little to recommend it, and I will probably never read it again.
“But,” to conclude with the viewpoint of May Fielding’s mother, “let us be genteel, or die!” (Chirp the Second).
I read The Cricket on the Hearth from February 7 – 8, 2013.
Book cover of The Cricket on the Hearth
John, Dot, and Baby by Harold Copping
Bertha and Caleb by Harold Copping
Mark Twain postcards
Fairy and Cricket by Fred Barnard
Frontispiece of The Cricket on the Hearth, illustrated by Fred Barnard
Tilly Slowboy by H.M. Brock