‘The Holly Tree’ by Charles Dickens

This is perfect example of a not-so-great story laying siege to a young man’s mind. I first read it as a teenager in New Zealand, during a balmy Christmas holiday. I longed for the frigid joys of home and the prodigious, obliterating quality of snow.  The narrator is leaving London in a huff, thinking his fiancée loves another (this also struck a chord) heading North to Liverpool and a life of exile in America. The account of leaving London in a stagecoach at five in the morning in the pitch dark and bitter cold and gradually disappearing into a blizzard is Dickens at his descriptive best. The hot glass of purl (no idea, sorry), being ‘built up with straw to the waist’ to keep warm, and the rhythmic thrum of the wheels of the coach and the horses hooves seeming to play the chorus to ‘Auld Lang Syne’, still haunt me, especially if I’m driving North. Then there is the arrival at the eponymous Holly Tree Inn and the slow realisation that they are likely to be snowed in for days with insufficient reading material. Dicken’s brilliant solution to this is to have the narrator entertain himself by reminiscing over inns he has visited (“That was a good Inn down in Wiltshire where I put up once, in the days of the hard Wiltshire ale, and before all beer was bitterness”) and the wild stories he’s heard therein (“Upon which one of the dark men wrung the parrot’s neck, and said he was fond of roasted parrots, and he meant to have this one for breakfast in the morning”). Being snowed in. Pub stories by the fire. Quaffing “julep, sling or cocktail”. My sense memory fires up every time I read it. There’s even a neat and happy ending. 

First published in Household Words, Christmas Edition, 1855 and republished in Christmas Stories, Chapman & Hall, 1894 and available to read here

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