One of two short stories by Charles Dickens that appeared in the Christmas number of Household Words in 1852, A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire. The story was later published by Chapman and Hall in Christmas Stories (1859), a volume that included all the Christmas numbers of Household Words from 1850 to 1859.
After a brief introduction, the story is handed over to the “poor relation,” who begins the first round of stories to be told around the Christmas fire. He opens with a confession that he is not what the family supposes him to be, recounting what everyone believes is true: that he is “nobody’s enemy but my own,” ruined by being too friendly in business, too trustful in love. Sixty years old, he lives on a small allowance in a lodging and spends most of his days wandering through the City of London, visiting offices and countinghouses until he returns, alone, to his room. While he spends most of his time alone, his happiest days are those spent with his cousin’s child, Little Frank. The child is like the poor relation, easily ignored and quiet, and the old man likes to walk with him and see the sights since they “understand each other.” He awaits the sad time when Little Frank will go to school and when he himself will die, leaving behind for his small friend only a little miniature of himself.
After recounting this “general impression” of his life, the poor relation goes on to reveal that “this is all wrong” and that, in fact, he lives in a castle. The balance of the story skillfully interweaves what everyone believes has happened to the poor relation with what he now claims to be true. When he was disinherited by his uncle for choosing to marry a poor girl, he was not, as his relatives believe, rejected by this woman for a wealthier man; instead, he insists, he married her and raised a family and that his first grandson “is so like Little Frank, that I hardly know which is which.” Instead of being swindled by a business partner he trusted too much, he maintains, they had a “prosperous and happy partnership” that resulted in the marriage of their two eldest children. He ends the story by declaring that he does not know what loneliness is and that he always has some child or grandchild visiting to keep him company. As the story closes, one of the group listening begins to ask about the poor relation’s “castle,” and the man reveals to all that his castle “is in the Air.”
The structure of this story follows the framework of Dickens’s early Christmas stories, in which each tale is told by one person sitting around the fire. This structure suggests “Dickens’s continuing obsession with the narrator-story relationship,” as the stories revealed their narrator’s characters while also “gaining effect from their particular teller” (Glancy, 60). The substance of the story demonstrates Dickens’s belief that the Christmas season could be used for moral purposes and his almost obsessive insistence on childhood innocence and morality. Little Frank’s relationship with the old man idealizes a bond that nurtures the child and accepts him for who he is. The poor relation models the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity and still remain hopeful, all the while dreaming of a world where humans are compassionate and where capitalism coexists with benevolence.
Dickens, Charles. Christmas Books, Tales and Sketches. Garden City, N.Y.: Nelson Doubleday, Inc., 1956.
Glancy, Ruth F. “Dickens and Christmas: His Framed-Tale Themes,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35 (June 1980): 53–72.
Jordan, John O., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.