In my searches for images of Christmases past I came across the photograph of Figure 1. It shows a group of London children, with delighted faces, carrying holly and mistletoe. The picture was from 1915 so both Edwardian and during the First World War. In that context there is a lot going on – poor children, grubbily dressed, both still with happy faces.So it isn’t a charming little image of Christmas in the “good ol’ days,” but rather a rawer image of Christmas past.
To me it is most reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars.
“At this moment there was a loud ring at the bell, and I could hear Mrs. Hudson, our landlady, raising her voice in a wail of expostulation and dismay.
“By heavens, Holmes,” I said, half rising, “I believe that they are really after us.”
“No, it’s not quite so bad as that. It is the unofficial force—the Baker Street irregulars.”
As he spoke, there came a swift pattering of naked feet upon the stairs, a clatter of high voices, and in rushed a dozen dirty and ragged little street…. There was some show of discipline among them, despite their tumultuous entry, for they instantly drew up in line and stood facing us with expectant faces. One of their number, taller and older than the others, stood forward with an air of lounging superiority which was very funny in such a disreputable little scarecrow.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Sign of the Four (1890)
As a result, we can see this as a kind of triangle of fiction and reality. Conan Doyle is writing fiction, but describing what he sees and what is familiar. The photographer is making a social statement, projecting what he perceives to what we see. And finally we, as viewers of the image, complete the triangle. We relate it back to the fictional characters that are part of the collective thought of generations of Sherlock Holmes readers. And we recognize, through Dickens, that life was not always so lovely.