John Matthews: Christmas Blog PostBy
As part of our 12 Days of Christmas, we’re bringing you some of your favourite authors talking about what Christmas is to them…in whatever form they like! We’re also bringing you their books at only £1!
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We’re often reminded that one of the key elements of Christmas is that it’s a season of goodwill and good cheer to all our fellow men. The season not just to be merry but kind in spirit too; and by that I don’t mean an extra case of beer or whisky, but acts of kindness of the soul.
In writing an historical thriller series, one ‘spirit’ I felt close by my shoulder throughout was indeed Charles Dickens. Not only as one of the leading Victorian authors, but also because he was one of my heroes; and not solely due to his writing ability. If that was the case, then John Fowles or Dennis Lehane would have been higher on the ‘hero’ list. It was because through his writing, Dickens was such a champion of social justice.
He made Victorian society more aware of the plight of child chimney sweeps and child labour in general; of work houses, debtor’s prisons and the terrible inadequacies and injustices that took place in orphanages at the time. Much of this indeed was written from Dickens’ personal experiences; he had himself spent some time in an orphanage and his father had been in a debtor’s prison for a spell. Whether through his writing or it coinciding with an uplift in Victorian ‘social conscience’, in the late 1800s the number of charities for the poor increased ten-fold.
Showing by example the same shades of social injustice of this era helped me greatly in writing ‘Letters from a Murderer’. I felt that many previous books featuring ‘Ripper’ victims had not shown them in a particularly kind light. Little or no empathy was developed for them; often the main focus was on the gore and brutality of the murders, almost as if having chosen to be street prostitutes they had automatically exposed themselves to such risk.
Through Ellie Cullen and her commune I wanted to bring home to readers that often for women of that era there was little choice; it was either work the streets of let your kids starve. Once that more noble cause has been identified, reader empathy for Ellie and her commune starts to grow, and Jameson and Argenti too have ‘soft spots’ for those less fortunate or might have fallen from grace. Jameson’s own mother was committed to London’s Bedlam and Argenti’s sister had been a showgirl and prostitute.
Of course, the prospect of kids ailing or starving was something Dickens played on heavily in Oliver Twist, but perhaps none more so than with ‘Tiny Tim’ in a Christmas Carol. Here in Dickens’ perennial Christmas favourite, he stabbed readers’ hearts with a spit-roast stave at the prospect of this poor crippled boy facing yet another lean Christmas. And as Scrooge gets a view of that through his ‘Ghost of Christmases Past’ visions, his conscience too is stabbed to (for once in his miserable life) do the right thing.
With the gift of that same ‘Scrooge-like’ hindsight, and knowing as we do how Victorian attitudes changed through that era, it makes me wonder whether indeed Dickens used Scrooge as representative of that changing mode of Victorian thought regarding social injustice. Or is that just me, as a writer, trying to tie up all the loose ends and add due perspective as once again we approach the season of goodwill.