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Shadows on the Snow: A Christmas Story

Introduction to Shadows on the Snow: A Christmas Story. by B. L. Farjeon

Introduction to Shadows on the Snow: A Christmas Story. by B. L. Farjeon.

I. Farjeon's Biography

Benjamin L. Farjeon was supposedly born on 12 May 1838 in London, England (Sorrell). He did not come from an affluent family; they were poor and Jewish. His parents, Dinah Levy and Jacob Farjeon, ran a second-hand clothing business for a living. Benjamin L. Farjeon was one of five children, all of whom did not receive much of an education (Sorrell).

Farjeon spent most of his life working in literary jobs. His first job was a "printer's devil," which is more commonly known as a compositor (Sorrell). Farjeon worked this job on the Christian paper the Nonconformist. It has even been said that on his way to work one day to his "printer's devil" job, Farjeon passed a second-hand bookshop and stopped to read an open book - the owner saw him and said that he could visit the bookshop anytime to read. Farjeon spent his first wages from the Nonconformist on a book of German legends from this very bookshop, called Select Tales from Musaeus. (Reed 27) Farjeon’s version of this book is actually part of the Farjeon Collection at the Dunedin Public Library, along with a copy of Shadows on the Snow, more of Farjeon’s works, and the works of his children.

Farjeon had a disagreement with his father – over an unspecified religious matter – causing him to leave England in 1854. He eventually made his way to work on the New Zealand goldfields. He took a steerage passage to Melbourne first on the Ocean Wave., and went to the goldfields in Victoria. He continued with writing during the voyage, producing several copies of a handwritten newspaper that was named the Ocean Record. (Sorrell). While in Australia, Farjeon diverted his work away from writing for a time, spending a month working as an accountant in Melbourne before working at the goldfields. However, it was in the goldfields where he started creating newspapers for each camp, and he used his experience in writing newspapers to advance to the new fields in Otago. In 1861, Farjeon went to the editor of the Melbourne Argus and got a job as the paper’s New Zealand correspondent (Sorrell).

Farjeon’s work with newspapers continued when he arrived in Dunedin, where he started working for their weekly newspaper, The Colonist. After a brief spell, he was transferred to a newer press: the Otago Daily Times. Julius Vogel edited this paper and the joint proprietor was William Cutten (Sorrell). Across his employment, Farjeon became the business manager, sub-editor, contributor, and frequent compositor. In November of 1864, Cutten ended his partnership with Vogel and so Farjeon then became Vogel’s new partner. However, in March of 1866, Farjeon and Vogel sold the Times on the condition that they were kept on as manager and editor.

A newspaper article from Oamaru in 1891 gives contrasting information about Farjeon’s early career in Dunedin. The Oamaru Mail wrote that Farjeon actually started the Otago Daily Times himself as the first daily paper in the colony. The newspaper states that Farjeon not only edited the paper but he also wrote most of it, and sometimes helped to set it up, and deliver it to the subscribers (Oamaru Mail). Fajeon involved himself in the social life of Dunedin, becoming significantly well known and on his way to a successful career as a result. He "donated to the Otago Benevolent Institution, supported the Princess Theatre (Sorrell)", bought some allotments in Walker (now Carroll) Street (Reed 24), and "was a founder, member, and treasurer of the Garrick Club (Sorrell)." Alongside these particular organisations, Farjeon did have a general support for the arts and literature (Reed 24). Farjeon also "joined Vogel in multiple speculative mining ventures in 1865 and 1866 (Sorrell)".

Dunedin is also where Farjeon’s literary career started. Although he was doing very well working for newspapers, "Dunedin made him a well-known nineteenth century New Zealand author (Sorrell)." Farjeon’s children became authors too, and so there is a whole collection dedication to Farjeon, his children, and all their works in the Dunedin Library (Sorrell). Although Farjeon’s sudden move to London could be considered risky – due to his career safety in Dunedin – the move proved successful: Farjeon became established as one of the most popular novelists of his time. London was where he met his wife, Margaret Jefferson. They got married on the 6th June 1877 at the Register Office, Hampstead. The couple had four sons, one of whom died in infancy, and a daughter, Eleanor Farjeon. Their daughter, Eleanor Farjeon, became a children’s author and contributed significantly to English literature and an invaluable Farjeon Collection, which exists in the Dunedin Library (Reed 27). This collection also includes literature from some of Farjeon’s sons. Benjamin Leopold Farjeon died at Hampstead on 23 July 1903 (Sorrell).

II. The Literature of Farjeon

Shadows on the Snow was written quite early on in Farjeon’s literary career; it was published in 1865 and was considered to be Farjeon’s "first successful novel (Sorrell)." However, the first of his works was The life and adventures of Christopher Congleton, an unfinished novel that appeared in serial form in the Otago Witness during 1862 and 1863. This novel cannot be given too much credit for his success since it was published anonymously. Shadows on the Snow was next. This novel appeared under his author name of Benjamin Leopold Farjeon as well as Grif: a story of colonial life, which appeared after Shadows in 1866. Both were published by William Hay, simultaneously written and typed up by Farjeon in his Times office, and also illustrated by Nicolas Chevalier, a long-standing friend of the Farjeon family. While Shadows was still popular and contributed to Farjeon’s name, it was actually Grif that made Farjeon known as a novelist. The novel was revised and reprinted multiple times.

Several of Farjeon’s novels were published in Dunedin papers. These were Jessie Trim and At the sign of the silver flagon and a story, ‘Jackass Flat.’ They were published in the newspapers between 1874 and 1880 after Farjeon had already gone back to London.

Shadows was published in Dunedin in 1865 by William Hay. While it can be viewed online, there is a physical copy in Wellington in The Alexander Turnbull Library for viewing in the Reading Room only.

Farjeon’s literary career then continued with his success at writing his own plays that were performed at the Princess Theatre. Three of the most popular performances were satirical burlesques called The Golden Fleece, or the Loves of Jason and Medea from 1864, Faust from 1865, and Guy Fawkes from 1867. Another of Farjeon’s more popular plays was a three-act drama called A Life's Revenge in 1864. It was "set in revolutionary France and loosely based on Wilkie Colins’ story ‘Sister Rose (Sorrell).’" After writing plays, Farjeon continued to write stories. These included other "sentimental" Christmas stories such as Blade-o’-grass (1871); three decker novels (many with working class settings) such as Joshua Marvel (1871) and The Duchess of Rosemary Lane (1876); and "sensational" fiction; Great Porter Square: a mystery (1884) and The Mystery of M. Felix (1890) (Sorrell).

Shadows on the Snow: A Christmas Story was the first novel to be written, printed, bound, and published solely in New Zealand. William Hay, a bookseller in Princes Street in Dunedin, published it and it was sold cloth-bound for 5s and 2s 6d paperbound (Reed 18), "a worthy example of printing in that period" at 129 pages long. Nicholas Chevalier illustrated the novel. He was a young Swiss artist and a son-in-law of Sire David Wilkie. While settled in England, he visited Australia and New Zealand in the 1860s, spent time in Otago, and became friendly with Farjeon (Reed 18). About ten years after the publication of Shadows on the Snow, and eight years after Farjeon’s return to London, the book was republished by Tinsley Brothers in a volume entitled Christmas Stories, which also included Blade-o’-Grass (Reed 26).

Farjeon had a deep admiration for Charles Dickens. The extent of this admiration will be discussed further in this introduction, but it is important to mention now that Farjeon actually dedicated Shadows to Charles Dickens "with feelings of deep respect and admiration, this humble production of a young colonial author." Shadows was sent to Dickens in the hope that it would be accepted for serial publication in his weekly periodical, All The Year Round. It is possible that Farjeon contributed other articles for All The Year Round, but if so, they have not been identified (Reed 21). In Farjeon’s Preface of the novel, he recognizes the lack of literary production in the colonies of New Zealand and others surrounding the influence of Christmas. His goal was to use Shadows as a way of creating a relationship between residents in the Colonies and their homelands.

III. Summary of Shadows on the Snow

The novel is set out into three parts. Part I is called, "How the Shadows Appeared at Warleycombe, and What They Said and Did." This section of the novel is set in Devonshire (now Devon), England. Stephen Winkworth, a very disagreeable character, is standing at his door before he was to spend Christmas Eve with his friends and neighbors at Warleycombe Lodge, the house of his childhood friend, Reuben Harrild. Before Stephen goes to the party, the novel introduces William Fairfield and Doctor Bax, both of whom are on their way to the Christmas Eve party. William is described as being "daring, impulsive, and ambitious" (Farjeon 4), and therefore not suited to the "life of a small country farmer" (4). The three discuss William’s engagement to Reuben Harrild’s daughter, Laura, who is the reason William is staying to live in the countryside. Stephen’s untoward attitude starts to be revealed when he gives William a strong warning about being betrayed by Laura. Stephen’s daughter, Alice, then comes into the story and the reader finds out that she is maimed and deformed. The reader can understand that Alice’s pain is translated onto Stephen’s temperament as emotional pain while she wishes that they could all be joyous at the Christmas celebrations. Also it is Stephen’s fault that Alice is deformed after the angry rage he went into after his wife cheated on him. Part I continues at Warleycombe Lodge with all the festivities, and more characters are introduced who are all mingling. At the party, William talks to Laura about his past desire to sell the farm to Stephen Winkworth and work on the gold colonies for the excitement. They are standing at the window watching the snow, when William notices the "shadow of a man" (25), but Laura begs him not to go outside to question him and then hurries out of the room. After Stephen Winkworth tells William that he saw Laura with the shadow of another man, William decides to go out into the snow to see for himself. This is when he began to see an infinite number of snow-shadows including the shadows of Faith, Doubt, and Remorse. William is shown what his life looks like when he keeps faith, what it looks like if he continues to be doubtful, and then the shadows warn him about the remorse he will feel if he continues on this path. However, William sees Laura meet the shadow of a man, and so sells his farm to Stephen and leaves England to work on the goldfields in New Zealand for the betrayal he feels.

On describing the shadows of Faith, Doubt, and Remorse that appear before William, and show him his fate pertaining to each shadow, the reader is reminded of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future that appear before Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. It is the "shadows" and ghosts that spark turning points in the lives of the main characters. The shadows lead to William Fairfield leaving England to work in the goldfields in New Zealand, and the ghosts lead Scrooge to be a better person. Then we also have the comparison of Stephen Winkworth having a similar harsh countenance as Ebenezer Scrooge and the deformed daughter of Stephen Winkworth plays a similar role to that of Tiny Tim. Stephen Winkworth’s daughter has the same positivity, especially around Christmas, as Tiny Tim did in "A Christmas Carol". The difference is of course that the daughter is not dying of an illness and is instead dwarfed with a hunchback. (Stephen Winkworth does not care for Christmas at all, much like Scrooge does.

Part II is called, "The Shadows in the Snow Ranges." This section takes the reader to a tent pitched in a gully in the Otago goldfields. The reader is briefly introduced to the group of four diggers, which includes William Fairfield. A brief explanation is provides for William’s being there; that he felt so betrayed by his belief that Laura had been cheating on him, that he sold his farm to Stephen Winkworth and took off to the Otago goldfields. While there is a snowstorm keeping the group in their tent, Cornish Tom tells them all a story about his past experience working as a gold digger with Cranky Bill. Cornish Tom tells the group about Cranky Bill’s wife and daughter, and how he had to leave them to work on the goldfields. The story continues with Cranky Bill having to bring his daughter with him after his wife died, and so Cornish Tom joined him in finding work by travelling to different gullies. Cornish Tom tells them about the conflict they had with Teddy the Tyler, their neighbor at a gully they had settled at. Cranky Bill’s daughter, Lizzie, eventually goes missing. Both Bill and Tom search over two days for her, before they find her having fallen to her death in a hole. During the storm and the telling of the story, the group is interrupted multiple times by what sounds like cries for help out in the gully. After Cornish Tom has finished telling the story, they decide that three of them should venture into the storm to attempt to trace a way to the next gully while William stays behind to look after the tent. As he waits, William hears more cries for help. He goes into the storm where he finds the bodies of two dead men. He soon realizes that one of these men is Laura Harrild’s brother, after finding a photo of Laura on his person. William found a letter from Laura that explained that it was her brother she was with on the previous Christmas Eve at Warleycombe Lodge, and that she had not betrayed him. William realizes the significance of the snow shadows on that night, and resolves to travel back to England.

Part III is called, "Christmas Again at Warleycombe." This part of the novel is set at Warleycombe Lodge on the following Christmas Eve to Part I. Laura is reminiscing about William, wishing that he had never left. The guests at the party are there again, as they were from the preceding year. The reader finds out the guilt that Stephen Winkworth feels, since he knows the true reason for William Fairfield leaving the previous Christmas Eve. Laura then tells her father the reason that William had left, and that she had been with her brother, Arthur, that night, to seek Reuben’s forgiveness for him. During the conversation at the party among the guests, it is brought to attention that a group of forty men died in the snow on the Colonies in New Zealand. Laura instantly feared for William and Arthur. Stephen’s guilt ensues as he witnesses the constant pain that Alice is in. Alice then pulls her father aside, and asks him about the little he has talked of her mother. This is the moment that Stephen feels the most pain. He is reminded of how Alice’s mother deceived him, and the anger that he felt as a result caused him to maim his own daughter. The story then continues with the return of William Fairfield, as well as Arthur, after having been saved by William in the snow before he died. William vows to always have Faith in Laura, and will continue to banish Doubt forever.

IV. Christmas and Goldfields as a Genre

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol contributed to many Christmas traditions in the nineteenth century that are still prevalent today. Christianity was an integral part of Christmas celebrations in England during the time of Dickens and Farjeon; the holiday had "an exclusive claim over English culture" and therefore over "national identity (Persell)." However both authors managed to write Christmas literature that would honour how Christmas brought people together. Farjeon was the first to write fictional literature about the goldfields, and so he used this alongside the Christmas part of the novel to write about a connection between people, their families, and their home. Interestingly, the mention of any form of Christianity surrounding Christmas is scarce in Shadows Dickens and Farjeon were writing new kinds of texts with their Christmas novels; firstly because Christmas literature at the time was rare, and secondly because they diverged away from discussing the religious part of Christmas and appealed more to working-class citizens and the importance of Christmas to these people.

Farjeon began working in the goldfields of Australian and New Zealand around the time that New Zealand experienced a small ‘gold rush.’ During the early 1860’s, there was a discovery of extensive gold deposits in the townships. These frontier settlements were places "where culture took root" rather than being "consumed by hedonism and greed." Libraries were being rapidly set up and supplied reading material after these discoveries. The men digging on the gold fields were often working in small groups in areas that were very isolated. These diggers, along with the "merchants, tradesmen, publicans, professionals, and officials" there as part of the colonisation process, felt the desire to remain connected to the homes they had left behind. Literature in the form of books, periodicals, and newspapers, helped them to feel the connectedness to their homelands (Traue 41). It was a valuable time and place for a writer to be working on the New Zealand goldfields. In the wake of the rush, the townships expanded in terms of settlement. The first newspaper, the Tuapeka Recorder, was established in February 1865, followed by two more newspapers in May 1866 and February 1868 (Traue 41). With the establishment of the goldfields, the parameters of literature expanded and Farjeon became part of this change by writing about the goldfields in Shadows on the Snow.

It is written in the Preface to Shadows on the Snow that Farjeon thought it a shame that Christmas in the Colonies was allowed to pass without any circulating literature discussing the influence of the holiday. Farjeon’s goal in writing Shadows on the Snow - as outlined in the preface - is to create a connection between the residents of the Colonies with their homelands. This stresses the importance of Christmas to someone like Farjeon, who had moved away from his homeland and family, and who could relate to anyone who had moved away to work on the goldfields. Farjeon was the first writer to publish fictional literature about the goldfields. Working on the goldfields is discussed in Part I of Shadows on the Snow when William talks to Laura about his previous wish to work as a gold digger. However, the whole of Part II is dedicated to William’s time on the goldfields. Cornish Tom is telling the other diggers about his past experience working with Cranky Bill. Farjeon uses this to demonstrate the value of stories for the gold diggers. The storytelling is a way for the workers to feel connected as friends and connected to the land. Part II of the novel also brings William together with Laura’s brother. This way of William finding out the truth, that Laura had not betrayed him, is very representative of William feeling linked to England while he is on the other side of the world.

V. The Influence of Charles Dickens

Shadows on the Snow shows Farjeon to be a fan of Dickens, both in his Christmas sentimentality and in his tendency to imitate Dickens’ writing. As mentioned previously, he dedicated the first run of Shadows Shadows to the British author. He sent a copy to Dickens upon its completion, and in the winter of 1866, a letter in reply was received. Dickens wrote, "I cannot on such evidence (especially when you describe yourself as having written ‘hurriedly’) form any reasonable reliable opinion of your power of writing an acceptable colonial story for All The Year Round".

This letter is the reason that Farjeon left his writing career in Dunedin and continued it in London. Dickens only sent a "mildly encouraging reply," but it was enough – combined with Farjeon’s "impulsive" nature – for him to leave New Zealand suddenly (Sorrell). Farjeon’s daughter, Eleanor, writes that it seemed very much in her father’s character to do this in a heat of excitement (Farjeon 25-6), despite the attempt from his friends and business associates to persuade him not to. Reed writes, "If he had been contemplating a wider field for a literary career, the letter from Dickens, though non-committal, gave him, he thought, the encouragement he needed (Reed 24)." Towards the end of 1867, Farjeon announced his plan to move to London. Through his literary lifestyle there, Farjeon did actually become a "widely known prolific and popular author (Sorrell)".

The impulsive decision that Farjeon makes here is a comparison worth making between him and William Fairfield. Both Farjeon and William Fairfield made impulsive decisions in leaving a country suddenly; New Zealand for Farjeon and England for William Fairfield. Sir George Fenwick even described Farjeon himself as "of the quick, alert, restless type, of rather short stature, with beady black eyes." This was written in a brief memoir about Farjeon (Sorrell). Eleanor Farjeon described her father as "exuberant, impetuous and extravagant. His mood (when it wasn’t irascible) was overflowingly generous (Sorrell)".

A newspaper article from the Oamaru Mail written in 1891 contradicts Shadows being the novel that Dickens wrote in response to. The article claims that Farjeon’s story, "Grif" is the novel that he sent to Dickens, producing comments "saying how highly he appreciated it, and asking him to send his next story, with a promise to read it himself, and not to hand it to any of his assistants for this purpose." The article then writes that Farjeon did not send Dickens another story, and it was this Dickens letter that made Farjeon decide to leave the colony and return to England to devote himself exclusively to the writing of fiction (Oamaru Mail). Records from the Nineteenth-Century in both England and New Zealand are conflicting, but we do know that a letter existed, prompting Farjeon to continue his literary career back in his homeland.

Tinsley refers to Farjeon as "an author who, had he never read a line of Dickens, and relied entirely upon his own undoubted ability as a portrayer of character in fiction, should have become an author of more than ordinary standing. But he saturated his mind so much with Dickens’ matter that the master hand was often visible in the work of the idolizer (Reed 27)." Shadows on the Snow bears a heavy resemblance to Dickens in the context of Dickens’ style of writing, not just the subject matter. His Dedicatory Preface expressing his ardent devotion to "the Great Master of Christmas Literature" proves his intense admiration.

Dickens was the most popular writer in nineteenth-century English literature, and the only one who had written a successful Christmas story. He wrote accurate accounts of poverty and the struggle that people went through during the industrial age in a "society that emphasized worth ethic and money above all else (Grande 44)." Farjeon captures this aspect of Dickens in his own writing of Shadows with the pressure that Stephen Winkworth put on William Fairfield to work in the colonies because he would earn more money by doing so. Stephen says to William, "Besides, what better would a young man have than a pocketful of money, and a new land to go to, where, with but common prudence, he could multiply it by ten in a few years (Farjeon 33)?" Stephen is suggesting that William sells him the farm so he has money before he goes to make more on the goldfields. Stephen’s belief is that this is what would make William successful because, "Had you fulfilled your bargain, you, might have been a happy man (Farjeon 33)".

Dickens and Farjeon both took the idea of human redemption to use in their respective Christmas stories instead of going into the Christian traditions. "By simply focusing on one man’s self-discovery on the path to becoming a better person, Dickens superimposed his secular vision of Christmas on the public (Grande 44)." For Dickens, it was about inspiring hope in what seemed to be his most villainous characters, like Ebenezer Scrooge. The first instance of sympathy from Scrooge comes after the arrival of Marley’s ghost, where Scrooge sees "his longtime friend… weighted down by chains (Grande 45)." The ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future show Scrooge memories and tragedies from his childhood, such as the death of his beloved sister, Fan, which changes Scrooge’s perspective. "The proof of the ongoing transformation of Scrooge is not related to going to church, but the fact that he both learns to bond with his estranged nephew, Fred, and shows great generosity to the Cratchit family (Grande 46)." Scrooge’s journey is one of spirituality.

The focus on money and work ethic during Nineteenth-Century England is a central theme to both novels. For Dickens, this theme is used as a way of redemption for Scrooge. Scrooge values wealth and money greater than almost everything; at the start of the novel he views Christmas as a time when you spent a lot without getting paid. Once the ghosts realign his attitudes, his redemption manifests when he gives money out to the poor. It highlights the unequal distribution of wealth that existed at the time. Dickens is appealing to a working-class audience specifically.

Money is still a common topic in Shadows on the Snow; it is the reason for Cranky Bill’s constant travel to different Colonies in Cornish Tom’s story, and Stephen Winkworth is very eager about the financial benefits of William selling the farm to him to work on the goldfields. Stephen’s redemption then stems from returning William’s farm to him when he arrives back in England. However, William’s redemption comes from the return to his homeland. Farjeon similarly utilizes the theme of money – significant to Nineteenth-Century English – alongside his goal to create a connection between people and their home, to offer up a representation of redemption that imitates Dickens.

An article from the West Coast Times, written in 1866, provides detailed commentary about Shadows on the Snow and the influence that Dickens had on the story. Go to for your information: West Coast Times, West Coast Times, Issue 129, 15 February 1866 https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/WCT18660215.2.11.


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