A Christmas Carol is divided into Staves and has ghosts, The Chimes is divided into Quarters and has goblins, The Cricket on the Hearth is divided into Chirps and has fairies. The Battle of Life by Charles Dickens, on the other hand, is divided simply into three Parts and has no supernatural agents.
Once upon a time there were two lovely sisters who had lost their mother. The elder, Grace, took on a somewhat motherly role to the younger. The younger, Marion, was the most beautiful. Both sisters fell in love with the same young man, Alfred. Alfred fell in love with Marion. Grace, being the sweet, good woman that she was, never let on that she loved Alfred, but forwarded the match between him and her sister. Nevertheless, Marion discovers that her sister is in love with Alfred. Alfred leaves on a journey. When the time comes for his return, Marion decides to sacrifice herself for her sister, so she runs away and pretends like she is married. Alfred suffers greatly, as do Grace and the girls’ father, Doctor Jeddler. Eventually Alfred falls in love with Grace and marries her. Lest her sacrifice be unacknowledged, Marion comes back after six years and tells her sister that she always loved Alfred and that she only pretended to be married so that Grace would marry him. Eventually Marion marries as well. She marries a young man who fell in love with her long ago, but was too profligate to be an appropriate match. Marion’s sacrifice for her sister touches his inner nature and, inspired by her noble example and tried by adversity, he reforms, and coming back in the nick of time, sees the reconciliation of the Jeddler family, and, as stated, eventually marries Marion. And they all lived happily ever after. The End.
My opinion: Stupid story. Sentimental muck. Marion means to be noble and kind by her drama-queen flight, but she causes a lot of people to suffer — including the sister her sacrifice was for. Grace’s affection for Alfred is also melodramatic. When she was a little girl, according to her father, she was “a busy, quiet, pleasant body; bearing with our humours and anticipating our wishes, and always ready to forget her own” (she sounds rather like Esther Summerson in Dickens’s Bleak House) and never “positive or obstinate … even then, on any subject but one” (Part the Second). And that one? “Nothing would serve you but you must be called Alfred’s wife; so we called you Alfred’s wife; and you liked it better, I believe (odd as it seems now), than being called a Duchess, if we could have made you one.” Eeew! Since the book is subtitled A Love Story, I suppose love must be a theme, and several kinds of love are touched upon: romantic love, sisterly love, sacrificial love. However, nothing worthwhile is said about any of them.
The book is called The Battle of Life because the Jeddlers’ home is located in a field where a battle took place hundreds of years ago. Before he goes on his journey, Alfred gives a speech about the quiet victories and great sacrifices of self that occur on the battle-field of Life — “not the less difficult to achieve, because they have no earthly chronicle or audience – done every day in nooks and corners, and in little households, and in men’s and women’s hearts” (Part the First). Obviously, this is also a theme of the book.
As for being a Christmas story, Alfred comes back from his journey during the Christmas season and Doctor Jeddler has a big Christmas party ready to welcome him back (Marion spoils the party by running away just moments before Alfred arrives), but, other than that, there is no mention of Christmas.
If anyone, without having read them, wonders why none of Dickens’s other “Christmas” books became as popular Christmas fare as A Christmas Carol, I’ll tell you. First off, they are not set during Christmas, or even the Christmas “season”. And, then, they are boring, sentimental rot. I guess they were just meant to get people into the mood of love and good-will — and, of course, they were published at Christmas time.
The only thing I liked about The Battle of Life were the lawyers, Messrs. Snitchey and Craggs. There were sensible, kindly, amusing, and a bit eccentric, without being meddling or sentimental. They were not enough to redeem the story, however.
This post is part of the Dickens Project that “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I are doing. You can read Sophie’s post here: ‘The Battle of Life’.
I read The Battle of Life from February 8 – 9, 2013.
The original illustrations do a good job of capturing the sentimental tone of this soppy tale.
Vertical banner artists (top to bottom): 1) Richard Doyle, 2) Richard Doyle, 3) Richard Doyle, 4) Richard Doyle, 5) John Leech, 6) Daniel Maclise, 7) Richard Doyle, 8) John Leech.
Single illustration: Messrs. Snitchey and Craggs with Michael Warden, by Fred Barnard.