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Household Words, Volume XIV

1856 Christmas

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Publicised 25/12/1856.
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OTC status: Corrected

For general remarks on the extra Christmas numbers, see note to The Seven Poor Travellers.
Dickens conceived the idea for The Wreck of the 'Golden Mary' before writing the Christmas number for 1855, but felt he needed more time to develop the idea properly and so postponed the story for a year. The Wreck of the 'Golden Mary' is far and away the best conceived and most cunningly integrated of the Christmas stories written to this date. Dickens himself felt that this was true. In a letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts dated 9 December 1856, he called The Wreck of the 'Golden Mary' 'the prettiest Christmas No we have had.' The subject of the number - a first-person account of a shipwreck, a terrible ordeal at sea in open boats, and finally a rescue - was one which Dickens was superbly equipped to render, involving as it did a kind of lore that had enthralled him and that he had continued to pursue from his earliest reading days.
The Wreck of the 'Golden Mary' was divided into three major sections: 'The Wreck' by Dickens (with a concluding segment by Wilkie Collins); 'The Beguilement in the Boats' - a section composed of 'The Armourer's Story' by Percy Fitzgerald, 'Poor Dick's Story' by Harriet Parr ('Holme Lee'), 'The Supercargo's Story' by Percy Fitzgerald, 'The Old Seaman's Story' by Adelaide Anne Procter, and 'The Scotch Boy's Story' by the Rev. James White; and a final section, 'The Deliverance,' by Wilkie Collins. For the first time, the storytelling interlude grew naturally out of what came before and what went after, and formed a subordinate and yet functional part of the whole. Dickens had seen to this himself. 'I find,' he wrote to Wills on 13 November 1856, 'the Narrative too strong (speaking as a reader of it, not as its writer) to be broken by the stories. I have therefore devised with Collins for getting the stories in between his Narrative and mine, and breaking neither.' And then he added, 'I never wrote anything more easily, or I think with greater interest and stronger belief.'
Earlier, on 1 November 1856, he had written to Collins and suggested they 'walk through the fallen leaves in Cobham Park.' 'I can then explain,' he continued, 'how I think you can get your division of the Christmas No. very originally and naturally. It came into my head to-day.' Later, in a letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts (9 December 1856) he praised Collins for the way in which he 'got over the great difficulty of falling into my idea.' 'When [Collins] read the Wreck he was so desperately afraid of the job, that I began to mistrust him. However, we went down to Gad's Hill and walked through Cobham Woods, to talk it over; and he then went at it cheerfully, and came out as you see.'
As usual, Dickens also gave attention to the link passages throughout the Christmas number, especially to the introductions, conclusions, and bridges which surrounded the stories in 'The Beguilement in the Boats.' Collins may have written some of the introductory paragraphs (not included below) in 'Poor Dick's Story' and 'The Scotch Boy's Story,' linking the storytellers with the framework, but the rest of the material is almost certainly by Dickens, and in one important instance there is corroboration of this fact. The Rev. R. H. Davies had written to Dickens asking about the poem which concludes 'Poor Dick's Story,' and Dickens had replied (24 December 1856) that 'I am myself the writer you refer to.' The poem (given the title 'A Child's Hymn') has been included in editions of the Collected Works, but the passage in which Dickens embedded it, and the introduction in which he anticipated it, have not. The only other portion of the Christmas number included in editions of the Collected Works is 'The Wreck.' 'The Wreck' is by Dickens, but its concluding segment, entitled 'All that follows, was written by John Steadiman, Chief Mate,' is by Collins. However, the final paragraph of this segment (which introduces the storytelling section, 'The Beguilement') is probably by Dickens. Ironically, though editions of the Collected Works include the seg-ment by Collins and attribute it to Dickens, they omit the final paragraph by Dickens.
Dickens probably wrote the following hitherto unidentified and uncollected passages of The Wreck of the 'Golden Mary': the concluding paragraph of 'The Wreck'; the opening paragraph of 'The Armourer's Story'; the introduction to 'Poor Dick's Story'; the conclusion to 'Poor Dick's Story'; the introductory sentence to 'The Supercargo's Story'; the introductory sentence to 'The Old Seaman's Story'; the opening paragraph after the rescue (the first paragraph after the typographical break in 'The Deliverance').

Harry Stone; © Bloomington and Indiana University Press, 1968. DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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