"Christmas Eve" with the Spirits; Or, the Canon's Wanderings through Ways Unknown. With Some Further Tidings of Scrooge and Tiny Tim is one of the lesser (least?)-known responses to, obviously, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. It's not a parody of A Christmas Carol; instead, it rereads ACC in Anglo-Catholic terms, setting out a model of clerical activism clearly derived from the Tractarian politics discussed elsewhere by S. A. Skinner. (In case you're wondering, the novel is about as good as the stuff I usually read for a living. My longtime readers will know whereof I speak.)
This rather formless novel consists of Canon Matthews' visions on Christmas Eve, in a dream sequence that begins in his Cathedral, then spirals into the worst aspects of urban London--instead of sugar plums, the Canon winds up with drunks, workers in various stages of homicide and suicide, and prostitutes dancing in his head--before culminating in the glorious sight of a happily rusticated and dying Scrooge, attended by a happy and healthy Tiny Tim. (Somewhat alarmingly, Tiny Tim calls Scrooge "Granny.") Before this vision, the Canon was that most evil of evils: a Broad Churchman, someone who "doubt[s] received belief" (36). This doubt takes the form of an exercise in extremely basic Biblical criticism, in which he points out a mathematical error (an obvious attack on J. W. Colenso). As we soon discover, the Canon has many other failings, including contempt for the crucifix (21), inadequate attention to the sacrament of communion (23), non-existent zeal (25), and opening the church only on Sundays (27). The Canon's contempt for a "Higher," more sacramental mode of worship leads him to reject the implications of what Skinner calls the "incarnationalist motif" (142) of the earlier Tractarians; instead of recognizing Christian fellowship by guiding his parishioners to repentance through sermons and other pastoral care, the Canon lets them all go to Hell in their own fashion. In effect, Matthews has chosen Mammon over God, like the ghost of the Bishop he encounters early on in his vision. This despite the visiting Spirit's promise of God's absolute mercy, which apparently may even extend to suicides (58).
Instead of Past, Future, and Yet to Come, the single spirit offers the Canon horrid dreams of London vice. The core set pieces--the drunk, the suicidal prostitute, the desperate working man--are all recognizable Victorian tropes (the first two, in particular). The suicidal prostitute draws on the "Bridge of Sighs," both in the text and in the accompanying illustration, the latter of which also bears some resemblance to Found Drowned (see L. J. Nicoletti for further discussion). Similarly, the unfortunate effects of alcoholism had already cropped up in such paintings as Robert Braithwaite Martineau's The Last Day in the Old Home. In a more unusual moment, we meet an ex-workhouse resident, whose experiences have left him with nothing more than a brutal hyper-individualism and a thoroughgoing respect for hard cash (the very model of Thomas Carlyle's Mammon-worshipping England). The novel's picture of London is entirely bleak; says the narrator, sourly, "it was a truly glorious picture of civilization to anyone who, filled with the pride of his century, might have visited it" (65). Outside the closed-off, sacred space of the cathedral, the metropolis has collapsed into a nightmare of financial, moral, and sexual perversity, redeemable only by a clergyman willing to take responsibility for his congregation's lives.
Scrooge's and Tiny Tim's brief and sentimentalized appearance moves the action to the pure countryside ("[t]he world comes not here" ), while appropriating Dickens wholesale for an Anglo-Catholic argument. Scrooge becomes the apotheosis of the life lived on Anglo-Catholic terms: redeemed by his later life of humility and charity, praising God for his mercies, and dying with Tiny Tim's "'God bless us every one'" in his ears (84). His brief retelling of A Christmas Carol as his deathbed testimony turns into a model of the sinner coming to repentance through pastoral intervention--here, obviously, a very fantastic form of pastoral intervention, but the Spirits stand in for the entirely absent clergy. Therefore, we can hardly be surprised to hear, at the end, that Canon Matthews has been transformed from a rationalizing Broad Churchman into a powerful model of the Anglo-Catholic preacher, taking on "hard hearts" and "dark consciences" and disdaining all public fame for his charities (89). One wonders what Dickens would have thought.