It was the best of times

In a crazy sort of way it’s so good to be past the holidays. After half-a-dozen versions of A Christmas Carol on TV, you just want to go back to work. There’s the original from 1938, the one we remember from ’51 with Alastair Sim, Scrooge with Albert Finney and Sir Alec Guinness made in 1970, the 1984 version with George C. Scott, as well as Bill Murray’s Scrooged and Patrick Stewart’s 1999 effort. I won’t bore you with the cartoon productions, but I bet you saw some of those airing over last couple of weeks.

Charles Dickens, who wrote the Christmas classic, wrote quite bit more if you remember your high school reading assignments. In his A Tale of Two Cities, the worlds in which his characters lived, on opposite ends of the social spectrum, mirrored what was going on in America during Dickens’ time as a writer. The much-touted literary great visited our young country in 1842 with his wife even though he was known for being outspoken in his support for the abolition of slavery. Tale, although written 17 years after his visit, still beat the drum of equality, a theme always present in his writing.  

“It was the best of times and the worst of times,” Dickens wrote as an opening to A Tale of Two Cities. But he could have written the same line in reference to his trip to the U.S. and, along the way, Chesterfield. His home city of London was quite sophisticated compared to America , which was still under construction. And what he wrote about his short tour of a plantation in Chesterfield wasn’t too flattering. Dickens wanted to see what a slave’s life was like, and he got a taste of it in Chesterfield, although he visited the Manchester District, which became part of Richmond in 1914.

While visiting Washington, D.C., Dickens decided to come down to Richmond and Chesterfield. He wrote in his usual descriptive style in his book about the trip, American Notes.

After a few days in Richmond he crossed the James into Chesterfield to visit a plantation that is only described as the “falls plantation.” “I visited a plantation or farm, of about twelve hundred acres, on the opposite bank of the river,” he wrote. “Here again, although I went down with the owner of the estate, to ‘the quarter,’ as that part of it in which the slaves live is called, I was not invited to enter into any of their huts. All I saw of them, was, that they were very crazy, wretched cabins, near to which groups of half-naked children basked in the sun, or wallowed on the dusty ground. But I believe that this gentleman is a considerate and excellent master, who inherited his fifty slaves, and is neither a buyer nor a seller of human stock; and I am sure, from my own observation and conviction, that he is a kind-hearted, worthy man.

“The planter’s house was an airy, rustic dwelling, that brought Defoe’s description of such places strongly to my recollection. The day was very warm, but the blinds being all closed, and the windows and doors  set wide open, a shady coolness rustled through the rooms, which was exquisitely refreshing after the glare and heat without. Before the windows was an open piazza, where, in what they call the hot weather - whatever that may be - they sling hammocks, and drink and doze luxuriously. I do not know how their cool rejections may taste within the hammocks, but, having experience, I can report that, out of them, the mounds of ices and the bowls of mint-julep and sherry-cobbler they make in these latitudes, are refreshments never to be thought of afterwards, in summer, by those who would preserve contented minds.

“There are two bridges across the river: one belongs to the railroad, and the other, which is a very crazy affair, is the private property of some old lady in the neighbourhood, who levies tolls upon the townspeople. Crossing this bridge, on my way back, I saw a notice painted on the gate, cautioning all persons to drive slowly: under a penalty, if the offender were a white man, of five dollars; if a negro, fifteen stripes.”

Sometimes I consider the changes we’ve gone through since Dickens’ time and we still have a lot of work to do in conquering inequality, in race, class and economics. It is indeed the best of times; we have so many things, gadgets for making life so easy, nice cars for carrying us anywhere we want to go and most of us have a roof over our head. But it’s also the worst of times, as home ownership has become a difficult goal, incomes are not increasing as fast as expenses, and retirement and even healthcare options have become out of reach for many. We Americans love to beat our chests around the world about democracy and equality, but do we really have it here at home, or is that a question that’s just too hard to ask?


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