Monday, 17 December 2012

Reading Group Report: Edward Lloyd's 'The Christmas Log' and Victorian Christmas Stories

Led by Sarah Lill (Northumbria)

Northumbria University, 10 December 2012.

Our December reading group focused upon a short story by Edward Lloyd, whose festive title, ‘The Christmas Log’ soon proved to be deceptive in both tone and intent.  In contrast to the Dickensian Christmas story involving goodwill to all men, members found themselves reading an altogether different tale centred upon inheritance, illegitimacy and a desire to gain wealth.  The story concerns the efforts of a rich elderly gentleman to judge whether the beneficiaries of his will are worthy of their inheritance, a test which they fail miserably.  In contrast to Dickens’ emphasis upon Christmas as bringing out kindness and morality amongst all social classes, we thus considered why it was that Lloyd focuses instead upon their immorality, greed and selfishness.

An early observation was that there is little evidence that this is a Christmas story at all, with the title seeming anomalous to the plot.  Sarah was able to shed light on this by commenting that Lloyd often recycled successful stories that earned him profits, and that unlike Dickens, he wrote primarily from a pecuniary, rather than moral perspective.  Furthermore, it was suggested that Lloyd was more journalistic in intent, as opposed to Dickens’ preoccupation with being a great writer of novels.  However, despite the differences we observed between Lloyd’s and Dickens’ agendas, we could not help but wonder whether Lloyd’s attempt at a Christmas story was a deliberate marketing ploy to compete with the well-established Dickensian yuletide tale.

We found it interesting that Lloyd had a longstanding feud with Dickens, after plagiarising many of the latter’s works, and even managed to win a legal battle on the grounds that only ‘the stupidest of people’ could confuse the two writers.  By the late 1840s Lloyd’s interest in producing fiction was secondary to his attempts to establish a newspaper for the working classes.  Nevertheless, we discussed the ways in which he forged an identity as a writer, and to what extent his techniques were meant to subvert the wholesomeness of Dickensian Christmas stories.  It is perhaps no coincidence that it was during the 1840s that contemporary concepts of Christmas were born, such as the practice of giving gifts, Christmas trees and Christmas entertainment.  We considered whether Lloyd could be seen to capitalise upon these developing traditions, as ‘The Christmas Log’ seems to belong in music hall culture, and the rising phenomenon of the Christmas show.

In addition to discussing the way that Lloyd’s story fits into changing notions of Christmas, we also considered the extent to which the narrative, with its caricatures of unpleasant protagonists, outcast orphans and lone moral voice, belongs to an older Christmas tradition.  In particular, we related the plot to the telling of Christmas ghost stories, and considered whether in this context, the story is as alien to Lloyd’s usual tales of horror and criminality as it initially appears. We also wondered whether stories like it were intended to appeal to a wider social readership than Dickens’ writing, especially in terms of the way that a working class reader could enjoy the downfall of the social-climbing Jarvises, and the triumph of the orphan Marianne.  In this respect, we considered whether Lloyd’s work could be read as containing a moral message, and whether the theme of good punishing evil at Christmas time simply worked in a different way in his writing.

We found it significant that this is Lloyd’s only known Christmas story, a fact explained by his financial ambitions, and that his publications were steered by their ability to make a profit.  Nevertheless, we identified Lloyd’s commitment to developing an unusual literary style, which cannot solely be attributed to these monetary motivations.  In particular, there seems to be a distinctive journalistic tone to his published works that recalls his efforts to reach a working class readership.  We were interested by the fact that Lloyd hired others to write for him, yet at the same time, seemed to exercise an extensive creative influence over the works he published.  Certainly, his founding of mock newspapers with thinly-disguised attempts at delivering genuine news, implies that he was concerned not only with the medium in which he published, but also the content and form that his writing took.

Overall, members enjoyed reading an unconventional Christmas text, and discussing the wider issues it raised in relation to Victorian readership, society and print culture.  Although Lloyd would later distance himself from his early identity as a writer of fiction, we found this tension between his stories and his journalistic ambitions to be a rich and rewarding discussion point. 

Leanne Stokoe, Newcastle University.      


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