Right from the start, I have to say that The Cricket on the Hearth is not vintage Dickens. You get the sense that he was writing it with one half of his famously active mind whilst the other was reading letters, entertaining visitors or daydreaming about the theatre. An objective, somewhat cynical appraisal of Dickens’s five Christmas books would probably see them as increasingly commercial and derivative of his original festive hit, A Christmas Carol. That may not be fair – after all, I’ve only read two of his Christmas stories – but Cricket is clearly weaker than Carol in all respects and relies heavily on tropes developed in its more famous predecessor, down to the curmudgeonly, soon-to-be-reformed miser.
For the natural historian, though, there’s a fascinating entomological curio at the heart of the tale. The word cricket sits proudly in the title and would clearly have been expected to evoke something in Dickens’s audience. In the opening scene, told with typical Dickensian exuberance, a house cricket engages in a singing competition with the whistling kettle upon the fire. Their duet is the comfort of home given voice. Mrs Peerybingle, the good-hearted (though perhaps simple-minded) mistress of this particular home, loves the cricket and its song. The Scrooge figure in this narrative, a toymaker by the name of Mr Tackleton (known as ‘Gruff & Tackleton’, Gruff being the name of his deceased business partner – echoes of Scrooge & Marley), stamps on his, of course:
“Bah! What’s home?” cried Tackleton. “Four walls and a ceiling! (Why don’t you kill that cricket; I would! I always do. I hate their noise.) There are four walls and a ceiling at my house. Come to me!”
“You kill your Crickets, eh?” said John.
“Scrunch ’em, sir,” returned the other, setting his heel heavily on the floor.
Alas that the attitude of society today is almost certainly closer to that of the unreformed, insect-stomping Tackleton than that of his friends. Has this cultural shift happened gradually as our houses become more hermetically sealed against invertebrate intruders? Or was Dickens not reflecting the prevailing opinion of insects? It’s hard to believe such a savvy public figure as Charles Dickens would have picked a leftfield example. Crickets must, to many, have served as a kind of household god, and they would have echoed the sentiment of post-enlightenment Tackleton:
“Friends, one and all, my house is very lonely to-night. I have not so much as a Cricket on my Hearth. I have scared them all away. Be gracious to me: let me join this happy party!”
“To have a Cricket on the Hearth, is the luckiest thing in all the world!”
I’m fascinated by the idea of welcoming an insect to share our home as an emblem of luck. Today insects are more often seen as dirty or disgusting, to be cleaned up and got rid of at all costs. Whilst Acheta domesticus, the House Cricket, apparently remains widespread in the UK, it is fair to assume most of us are not fortunate enough to have one as a roommate. I’ve never seen a house cricket, and I don’t imagine the image of a cricket singing by the fireplace would be as universally recognised as it must have been in Dickens’s time (since he attempted to sell a story with it). Our houses are undoubtedly tidier, cleaner and safer than they were in the mid-19th century but perhaps a little sadder without so much as a cricket on the hearth.