IN 1843 when Charles Dickens first had the idea of writing a Christmas book, he once again hit on something that would make his already extraordinary fame even greater. He had never been successful with short stories, but these short novels in the form of a story told at Christmas suited him perfectly. Into them he poured his intense feelings about childhood, the past, social injustice, and his own personal religion. With them, he experimented in plots and themes he would develop in the full-length novels that followed.
The success of his first, ``A Christmas Carol,'' ensured that the Dickens Christmas book would become an annual event. The next two, ``The Chimes'' and ``The Cricket on the Hearth,'' were equally popular.
Then, as was characteristic in Dickens's career, his publishers' and his public's expectations became an exhausting burden. The last two Christmas books, ``The Battle of Life'' and ``The Haunted Man,'' were written at great personal cost, and their titles suggest something less than Christmas cheer.
He finished ``The Battle of Life'' in 1846, but he wrote earlier that year, ``I fear there may be no Christmas book!'' He was also writing a major novel, ``Dombey and Son,'' and keeping several projects going at once was no longer as easy for Dickens as it once had been. ``The Battle of Life'' sold well but was badly reviewed and, like its successor, is almost never read today. The year 1847 was devoted to ``Dombey and Son,'' and when the Christmas of 1848 was approaching, Dickens had begun ``The Haunted Man'' but was almost ready to give up: ``I think of taking him down to Brighton next week for ten days or so and putting an end to him.''
He did manage to finish the book on Dec. 1, crying ``his eyes out'' for the last three days he worked on it. The cause of all this emotion was not hard to identify: As in ``A Christmas Carol,'' childhood memories are a major theme, but this time, Dickens had recently written the beginnings of an autobiography that he found too painful to continue. ``The Haunted Man'' was about a man who was a prisoner of his memories, and the book deserves looking at again for what it reveals about its author.
The plot is less significant than the story's premise - that to be able to forget sorrow would be a blessing. A learned but solitary scientist is visited by a spirit in the form of his double, who taunts him with bitter memories of his past, then offers him a Faustian pact: In return for getting rid of his own memories of sorrow, he will have the power to destroy the unhappy memories of others. Predictably this power becomes a destructive one, and the scientist sees the lives around him threatened and damaged by his use of it.
Recognizing that to be without memories is no longer to be human, he begs the spirit to rescind the bargain. The memories of those around him are restored, and although his own are not, he learns like Scrooge to reconnect himself with humanity. The words ``Lord! Keep my memory green!,'' inscribed under an ancient portrait which his kindly neighbors decorate annually with holly, become the refrain and the moral lesson of the story.
The parallels between the author and his main character are obvious. The scientist's study - ``the inner chamber, part library, part laboratory'' where, ``surrounded by his drugs and instruments and books; the shadow of his shaded lamp a monstrous beetle on the wall,'' he sits ``motionless among a crowd of spectral shapes raised there by the flickering of the fire upon the quaint objects around him'' - could be Dickens in his own study surrounded by the characters he is conjuring up.
The memories Dickens had been resuscitating in his fragment of an autobiography were, in part, his days as a boy in the blacking factory when his family was in debtors' prison and he felt totally abandoned. He gave his own feelings about his parents to the haunted man: ``My parents, at the best, were of that sort whose care soon ends, and whose duty is soon done; who cast their offspring loose, early, as birds do theirs, and, if they do well, claim the merit; and, if ill, the pity.'' Dickens had never admitted the blacking factory episode to anyone, even his wife - now it was surfacing and he would soon turn it into fiction. But first he, like his ``haunted man,'' had to forgive the past.
The plot calls for the scientist to forgive a dying man who had wronged him long ago before he can learn that ``Christmas is a time in which, of all times in the year, the memory of every remediable sorrow, wrong, and trouble in the world around us, should be active with us, not less than our own experiences....'' Only after this is he able to reach out and help others, including a young abandoned child.
Dickens's phenomenal memory provided him with the alchemy that could reach and touch a common core in his readers. His Christmas books could always make contact with our own Christmas memories, but he takes the reader into a deeper place than mere remembrance. In the midst of Christmas preparations, in the warmth of the family circle, Dickens asked his readers to remember the poor, the lonely, and most of all the children who have been excluded from our celebrations.
Dickens never wrote another Christmas book after ``The Haunted Man,'' although he continued to write stories in the Christmas issue of his magazine, Household Words. But he was about to take his own most haunting memories and exorcise them in ``David Copperfield.'' ``The Haunted Man,'' one of his least-read books today, prepared the way for perhaps his most universally loved. ``The Haunted Man,'' despite its shortcomings, teaches that memories - even the bitterest ones - enrich our lives and connect us with others.
Once again the poor little boy inside the rich, world-famous author had demanded to be heard with his message, ``Lord! Keep my memory green!''