So, I am fighting a fever on Christmas Eve, and decided to conserve my energy (I apologize for future snark, ‘cause I have a feeling there will be a lot of it…), crawl into a warm place, and finish listening to the Audible version of “The Christmas Hirelings.”
This is the free holiday story they’ve given out this year, and I think I have to give props to Audible for choosing this one. It’s beautifully done.
Though I don’t think it was chosen for the reasons I will elucidate, with a Trump shutdown in play and the rich congresscritters nestled snug in their beds, visions of tax writeoffs dancing through their heads…
If you haven’t read or listened to this, it was written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. I think I heard it’s a response to A Christmas Carol though I can’t find the reference. In any case, I’m going to compare it to that other timeless Christmas story. I’m also getting heavily into spoilers, so be warned, not that it requires a lot of brainpower to figure out.
First the review. If you haven’t read this, and you have a membership to Audible, I recommend you download it. Again, nothing against Audible, for choosing a really good, entrancing novel from 1894, and special praise to Richard Armitage, who I could literally listen to for days on end. So I have to say I really enjoyed listening to the book.
I gave it four stars, even though the story is another matter. Really well done, but good lord it did NOT age well compared against A Christmas Carol. I’m going to bring the Victorians into this later, just wait.
The main premise (not a spoiler) is that a rich, old, prideful lord who somehow attracts pleasant, well-meaning folks to his house (probably the breakfast), gets a proposition from some dude who, as far as I can tell, is homeless but lives at everyone else’s house because his Charisma is like +8. He generally does seem to be a good person, we find out later.
So he floats this idea that lord grumpypants is down and out this Christmas season, and what he really needs is a boatload of 4-6 year old children to make him feel better. I know that does it for me. But not just any children! We can’t have ones that are too well-to-do, and definitely not the shivering orphans on the street. No that bunch can go die. It will clean up the place a bit (I kid you not).
So let’s take away some doting children from their parents, right at Christmas, and shove them in a drafty castle with a guy who literally could not care less if they live or die. It’ll be fun! And there’s a wager. Fine? Fine.
Off the homeless +8 charisma-haver goes, searching for some children to steal from their parents. He’ll arrange it all. From here on out are some spoilers, but I figure if you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably reading on. If not, go listen to the audiobook and come back. It’s only 4 hours long.
(again, it’s really well performed and produced. Nothing against Audible or Richard Armitage. That man can narrate my Facebook page. My spouse literally dreamed about him last night, taking her to Target.
So we descend into a couple chapters of backstory and learn Lord Grumpypants was not always bad. He had two daughters by his first wife, she died, and he let them run free, because Victorians thought it was either brain or brawn. If you had too much of either they would fight like luchadores dating the same person.
So the girls grow up wild, until Lord Grumpypants’ (LGP) sister steps in, and calls it off. They need education. I like her already, but she does go a bit overboard on the brains side. And the girls grow up.
Back to the main story. The older daughter is dead, you know. Wait, you didn’t know that? Well, LGP really didn’t like her as much as his younger daughter, so that’s ok. She is never mentioned again, save for a reference he had two daughters. The other one married a Common Man, of all things, so she is Never Spoken Of. And LGP is all by his lonesome (not entirely without fault).
But that’s fine! Charisma-master has stolen three wild children from their mother! Money can really buy everything! They are introduced, with the expectation that LGP will see them about 2 minutes a day, so save his old tired nerves. I mean, I have to sort of agree, but he did want them. Maybe the best time for that complaint was BEFORE they got here?
The children are: Moppet, Lassy, and Lad. Like really? They don’t even get names? Alright, we learn later there is a SUSPICIOUS REASON but for goodness sake, call them by other real names at least.
They play around the house, and of course the youngest one (who is high on the brain side of the brain/brawn scale) takes to LGP immediately, evidently determined to get some good out of missing her 4th ever Christmas with her mother.
Lad and Lassy are–wait—no one cares? Ok, no one cares. Three children are really too many, after all. Let the servants take care of them. They pop in from time to time to make sure we haven’t forgotten they’re characters.
They have a nice Christmas and all the little girls and boys get presents! How many, you ask? Like 20 or something. These are “cottage children,” who I guess are allowed, for Christmas, in the house their parents supply with income. They will surely someday become the new group of backbreaking labor LGP sits his fat ass on.
Well, things go on, and little Moppet is such a darling girl. Can’t LGP just keep her around? No, she does have to be returned to her mother eventually. I mean, let’s not be cruel.
Aaaaand then she gets pneumonia, which is a Really Bad Thing, though children bounce just like rubber balls when they’re thrown a hard knock! She’s close to death, and so help me God, if she died I would throw my phone against the wall.
But she doesn’t. Again, I have to interject that the story, even by today’s standards, is very well plotted and written. It held my attention. I commend Audible and Richard Armitage on the production.
So, by this time, LGP has figured out the three are his grandchildren (GASP!). The mother (the daughter in exile) is called because Moppet is on death’s door and killing a kid you stole from her (widowed) mother over Christmas is Bad Sport (Hrmm Hrmm, don’tcha’know).
Of course the child finally makes LGP get the stick out of his butt, only because he really can’t see the child again without some interaction with her mother. I GUESS he can put aside his wounded pride and the grudge he’s been holding for 5 years. Geez, LGP.
You might see where I start to have problems with the plot of this story. Of course everything is resolved, LGP and his daughter and his grandchildren live together for ever after, and Charisma-drifter is a fast friend, his mooching lifestyle guaranteed.
Oh yeah, and LGP was gracious enough to even give his daughter 250 pounds a year to live on, when he happened to read the husband died. But she couldn’t ever talk to him until now. This was one of the final nails in the coffin for the story for me.
(End Review, now some commentary)
Let’s take A Christmas Carol as a contrast. We know Scrooge is a Bad Man—it’s in his name. But through the book we start to see him start to become a better man, and by the end he is resolved, and helps out those lesser than him. Also, and this is key, the story takes place at the very beginning of the Victorian Age.
The Christmas Hirelings, alternately, takes an idle bet with a bored rich white guy, steals children, tries them out to see if they’re as terrible as everyone says, then grudgingly takes back his daughter, estranged for little reason (the second daughter, with no husband, wouldn’t inherit anyway).
So he’s a better man in the end, right? Hell no. He still thinks any other children are vile little things, especially the ones from poorer families. Should have grown up rich instead!
And Lassy and Lad—wait, remember them? No one else does either. LGP still thinks they’re a bother, and the boy is promptly sent off to a boarding school so LGP doesn’t have to deal with him.
There is no redemption in this book. LGP is coerced and tricked into giving his pride a rest, and it only works because a 4yo child almost died under his watch. He’s happy now, so that’s fine. His daughter wasn’t even in on the trick. The Charisma-man did it all, though she does benefit through EXTREMELY BAD CONDITIONS.
What does a person have to do to rise in society? Especially when pushed down, randomly, by an old pouty lord with ill will.
Which brings me to my thesis (1550 words later, yeah sorry/not sorry):
Victorian Society Was a Dumpster Fire. Welcome to my TED talk.
I mean, they’re regarded as the bedrock of our society. They influenced EVERYTHING, and erased a lot more, like LGBT rights, freedom in dress habits, gender conformity, religious persecution, colonization and persecution of other people, etc… They even made circumcision a thing for almost all American people with penises. (Spoilers: It’s because of cereal. Yep.)
What would our society have been like if the Victorians had kept their prejudiced and bigoted opinions to themselves? I know it’s impossible to separate that from their society, and I love Steampunk as much as the next person, but was it worth it?
Over a hundred years of climbing back up the ladder if equal rights. It’s influenced British and American government, and is still touted as a reason for prejudiced behavior. “They did it, and as far as we know it was always this way, right?”
My hope is that a new movement is rising. I know it’s a dark time, but the leaps and bounds we’ve seen in personal rights, equality of money, and killing racism are hopeful. There is a REALLY long way to go, I know, but I have hope.
And I guess that’s my message for you, whatever end-of-year festivals you celebrate: Have Hope in this dark time. As one firmly in the White Male Bucket, I will use my wealth, privilege, and “social default status” to bring equality to our society where I can. Happy Holidays.