‘A Christmas Carol’: illustration by John Leech
The conversation overheard in the changing rooms at Everton Park swimming pool this week spoke volumes about the continuing presence in the popular consciousness of Dickens’s best-known and most popular story. Spoke, too, of the renewed relevance of the message and social critique at the heart of A Christmas Carol, and of the anxieties that twist through lives hereabouts.
‘We’ve decided, our lot, this year, we’re not buying each other Christmas presents.’
‘Don’t get me wrong, we’ll celebrate – get the food and drink in. But we decided that there’s no point in spending a lot when there’s nothing we really want; and none of us has much money to spare.’
‘I know what you mean. I said to the wife – ‘How’s about if I go down to Matalan and get you one of those cardigans you’ve been wanting. They’re one-third off this week, and wearing one of those, we can turn down the central heating and save on the gas’. She says, ‘Bah – humbug”
My re-reading Dickens project has reached an appropriately seasonal point with the Christmas Books. During the 1840s, and beginning with A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote five books for the Christmas market, plus several more Christmas stories in the succeeding two decades. They have forever linked Dickens’s name with Christmas and contributed to the view of many readers that they contain the essence of Dickens: cheerful, benevolent and morally idealistic.
Re-reading A Christmas Carol was a joy, but I must admit that I found the others heavy going. Though I found things to enjoy in the characters and political satire of the opening chapters of The Chimes, the others I read – Cricket on the Hearth and The Haunted Man – seemed dated, especially in their overwrought supernatural effects.
This was the first time I had read A Christmas Carol since childhood, but the story has remained fresh in my memory through various film and stage adaptations that I’ve seen – especially when our daughter was a child. Re-reading it now, I was struck by how much of its imagery and phrases have burrowed into popular consciousness. Perhaps only Shakespeare and Dickens have done this.
Here’s a novel of which most people know the opening and closing words – from ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’ to ‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!’ To be ‘a scrooge’ has entered the language, while the exclamation ‘Bah! Humbug!’ and the characters of Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, Marley (‘dead as a doornail’) and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present Future remain vividly ever-present.
‘I am the Ghost of Christmas Present’. Illustration by John Leech from the first edition, 1843
In his Dickens biography, Peter Ackroyd writes of A Christmas Carol that ‘this powerful Christmas tale, which has achieved a kind of immortality, was born out of the very conditions of the time’. Here is a story of redemption in which the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the two allegorical children, Ignorance and Want, exclaiming as he points to Ignorance, ‘Most of all, beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased’.
Dickens’s interest in education as the key means of alleviating poverty illuminates his novels, journalism and public speeches. In 1843, not long before he started to write A Christmas Carol, Dickens had made his first visit to one of the Ragged Schools then being established – charitable schools dedicated to providing religious instruction and a rudimentary education for destitute children. He visited the squalid ragged school in Saffron Hill, an area considered to be the worst in London – a place of filth and disease and every kind of vice. Here were children steeped, in Dickens’s words, ‘in profound ignorance and perfect barbarism’. Dickens broadly supported the work of the ragged schools, though he disapproved of introducing religious doctrine at the expense of a practical education which would help the pupil become a self-sufficient member of society. He believed that the legions of ‘doomed childhood’ would, if they were not properly instructed and their wants alleviated, rise up one day and tear down the very edifice of 19th century civilisation. As he wrote some time later, ‘side by side with Crime, Disease and Misery in England, Ignorance is always brooding, and it is always certain to be found.’
Within a few weeks of this visit, Dickens had started work on A Christmas Carol, in which, as Peter Ackroyd puts it, ‘the themes of selfishness, money, greed and the commercialised society which results from them are conveyed in condensed and fantastic form’. In abbreviated form, he writes, the book blended Dickens’s central social concerns – the effects of industrialism, the ragged schools and the children of the poor, and his own past:
All these things came together, and flowed towards the little book which now emerged … into the light of Dickens’s imagination. […] For in A Christmas Carol he returns to his childhood and relives it. Not just in the sense that this Christmas story is strangely reminiscent of the tales and chapbooks which he had read as a child … but also in the more important sense that, for the first time in his published writings, the whole nature of Dickens’s childhood informs the little narrative.
Liverpool Mechanics Institution in 1841
I’m going to deviate here to observe a local connection to Dickens’s concern for educational reform: in 1844, weeks after A Christmas Carol had been published to great acclaim,becoming the most successful book of the season, on 26 February 1844, Dickens gave a lecture at a soiree at the Liverpool Mechanics Institution – another example of his commitment to the cause of human improvement and rational education.
An artist’s impression of the Soiree addressed by Dickens on 26 February 1844
In his speech, Dickens spoke of how, in 1825, ‘certain misguided and turbulent persons proposed to erect in Liverpool an unpopular, dangerous, irreligious, and revolutionary establishment, called a Mechanics’ Institution’. Its primary purpose was to provide educational opportunities, mainly through evening classes for working men. Lectures were also provided covering topics ranging from Arctic exploration to Shakespeare and philosophy. Now, he continued:
Here it stands triumphant, its enemies lived down, its former students attesting, in their various useful callings and pursuits, the sound, practical information it afforded them; its members numbering considerably more than 3,000, and setting in rapidly for 6000 at least; its library comprehending 1 1,000 volumes, and daily sending forth its hundreds of books into private homes…
One of the features that had particularly impressed him, he said was
That regulation which empowers fathers, being annual subscribers of one guinea, to introduce their sons who are minors; and masters, on payment of the astoundingly small sum of five shillings annually, in like manner their apprentices, is not the least valuable of its privileges and, certainly not the one least valuable to society.
The blue plaque that records Dickens’s readings at Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution
Dickens added that he derived great pleasure from a proposal to establish of a girls’ school in connexion with the institution.
This is a new and striking chapter in the history of these institutions; it does equal credit to the gallantry and policy of this, and disposes one to say of it with a slight parody on the words of Burns, that
It’s ‘prentice han’ it tried on man,
And then it taught the lasses, O.
That those who are our best teachers, and whose lessons are oftenest heeded in after life, should be well taught themselves, is a proposition few reasonable men will gainsay.
That girl’s school was opened in 1844 under the name Liverpool Institute High School for Girls. It was housed in Blackburne House, a merchant’s mansion across the street from the Institution which now offered evening classes, lectures, a library and a boys’ school – the future Liverpool Institute for Boys grammar school whose pupils would include Paul McCartney and George Harrison (later, too, an Art College would be established on the site, and its most famous student would be one John Lennon; today the building houses LIPA – Liverpool Institute for performing Arts). As for the girls’ school: it was one of the first in Britain which was open to the public and established exclusively for the education of girls. For the past 25 years Blackburne House has pioneered training courses for women, in non traditional areas of work such as Information Technology and senior management.
The building that has served as the Mechanics’ Institution, Liverpool Institute, the School of Art and now LIPA
Before the publication of A Christmas Carol, Dickens had taken control of every aspect of the book’s appearance. The result was a handsome volume, bound in red cloth, with a gilt design on the cover. Inside were four full-colour etchings, with another four black and white woodcuts. The book was an immense success. Dickens was just 31 years old: this youthful portrait was made when he was in Liverpool for the Mechanics’ Institution address.
Dickens’s portrait, made for Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution in 1844
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol during October and November 1843, at the same time as he was writing Martin Chuzzlewit. In the novella Dickens compresses and crystallizes the theme he was exploring in the longer novel – the social ramifications of selfishness. As Jane Smiley observes in her study of Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge completes the moral journey in one night which takes the old and young Martin Chuzzlewit many years and several thousand miles of journeying.
These were troubled times for Dickens – his wife was pregnant with a fifth child, Chuzzlewit was not proving a success, and he was beset with family obligations and money worries. Little srprise, then, that A Christmas Carol is preoccupied, as Ackroyd succinctly expresses it, with money:
Miserliness as a vice. Generosity as virtue. How people obtain money. How people exert power over others because of money. How money can be an aspect of cruelty. How money can destroy a family. How the want of money is oppressive. How the greed for it is a form of unworthiness, a form of human alienation.
The Christmas Books have certain features in common: seasonal settings, supernatural agents and spiritual conversions, along with an intimacy of tone and colloquial style, as if the storyteller is sitting beside you. But reading the Christmas books together, it is clear just how precise, understated and non-melodramatic is Dickens’s writing in A Christmas Carol compared to the others. Because the tone of the writing and the gestures of the characters are understated, the supernatural elements of the story – the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future – flow convincingly from the narrative and succeed in conveying the tale’s essential ideas, whereas in The Chimes the chiming church bells and their goblins seem awkwardly unbelievable: there simply to drive home Dickens’s satirical attack on the utilitarian view that poor people – with their joyless, wasted lives and propensity to do evil – are simply a burden on the rich and would be better off dead.
A Christmas Carol had just as strong a political message: with its attack on those who spurned the poor and the unemployed it takes its place alongside other pieces of radical literature of the period – notably Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt‘ and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Cry of the Children‘.
With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread –
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”
“Oh, Men, with Sisters dear!
Oh, men, with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
Stitch – stitch – stitch,
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.
(Reading that again in 2013 pulls one up sharp. They don’t sing the song of the shirt in this country any more; now the song is sung far away, only occasionally drifting into earshot.)
Go out, children, from the mine and from the city –
Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do –
Pluck you handfuls of the meadow-cowslips pretty
Laugh aloud, to feel your fingers let them through!
But they answer, ” Are your cowslips of the meadows
Like our weeds anear the mine?
Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows,
From your pleasures fair and fine!
“For oh,” say the children, “we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap –
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep.
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping –
We fall upon our faces, trying to go;
And, underneath our heavy eyelids drooping,
The reddest flower would look as pale as snow.
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring,
Through the coal-dark, underground –
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem was written in the same year that Dickens came to Liverpool to address the Mechanics’ Institution, at a time when government investigations had exposed the exploitation of children employed in coal mines and factories. Like Dickens in A Christmas Carol, she directed her attack towards those who denied the facts, or were unmoved. Two years earlier, in June 1842, Dickens had fired off a fiery letter to the Morning Chronicle supporting Lord Ashley’s Bill to bar women and girls from working in the mines.
While there may not be child labour in Britain today, similar attitudes towards the unemployed and working poor were on show the other day in the Commons debate on food banks:
Times are tough and we all have to pay back the £1.5 trillion of personal debt, which spiralled under Labour. We are all trying to live within our means, change the gear, and ensure we are paying back all the debt that we saw under Labour.
– Esther McVey, Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions
There was laughter from the government benches, and Ian Duncan Smith and his colleagues walked out of the debate. Some attitudes remain unchanged from those castigated by Dickens a century and a half ago.
Jacob Marley’s ghost appears to Scrooge in John Leech’s illustration for the first edition of A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol displays in concise form what has been called ‘the enigmatic mixture of radicalism and conservatism’ in Dickens. Scrooge may be a rich man, but Dickens is concerned with his moral failings, rather than his class position. When Scrooge is visited by Jacob Marley’s ghost, Scrooge reminds him that he was a good businessman. Marley responds that his business ought to have been mankind, and that the choices that he made did not make him happy. Dickens suggests that the origins of our attitudes to others lie in childhood experiences, and that the possibility of change must come from within the individual:
I wear the chain I forged in life….I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.
So, for Dickens – in both his personal life and his novels – the solution to social division and injustice lies in philanthropy, rather than political movements or government. At the novella’s conclusion Scrooge is redeemed through charity and benevolence; the solution lies within the individual, rather than in collective action:
“A merry Christmas, Bob,” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year. I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob. Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”
Trotty Veck: illustration by John Leech for the 1844 edition of ‘The Chimes’
I was enjoying The Chimes, up to the point where the bells and goblins enter the story. Like A Christmas Carol, the story concerns the conversion of the protagonist by a supernatural agency. Trotty Veck is a good-hearted ticket porter (wearing badges, or tickets, they were licensed by the city of London to carry goods, documents and messages) who waits for custom, day in day out, beneath the bells that ring out every quarter-hour from the steeple of a church.
The opening chapters (or ‘chimes’) provide a vivid character portrait of Trotty Veck, as well as presenting a sharply topical political satire directed against heartless magistrates, smug politicians and bone-headed political economists of the Utilitarian variety. It’s entertaining stuff, but lost me at the point where Trotty ascends the bell-tower to be confronted with his moral failings. It was not just the mechanical nature of the bells as a device, but also a sense of puzzlement as to why it was Trotty being confronted with his failings – rather than the blinkered and uncaring figures of authority Dickens satirises in the opening pages.
The explanation for this lies in the extreme topicality of the story. Trotty is convinced that poor people are naturally wicked, influenced by a newspaper article about a young woman who tried to drown herself and her child. Dickens’s readers would have immediately understood this to be a reference to Mary Furley, a destitute young woman sentenced to death in 1844 for infanticide after her desperation not to return to the workhouse led to a failed suicide attempt in which her illegitimate child drowned. The case provoked great public debate in the months before Dickens wrote The Chimes, and he was one of several prominent figures who condemned the sentence, which was eventually commuted to transportation.
Who turns his back upon the fallen and disfigured of his kind; abandons them as vile; and does not trace and track with pitying eyes the unfenced precipice by which they fell from good—grasping in their fall some tufts and shreds of that lost soil, and clinging to them still when bruised and dying in the gulf below; does wrong to Heaven and man, to time and to eternity. And you have done that wrong!
For Dickens the Malthusians and the Utilitarians were ‘the maggots of the time’, eating the heart out of the present. In The Chimes he pillories those who believe – in the words of the political economist and friend of Alderman Cute – that ‘the poor have no earthly reason to be born’. Here’s Filer:
‘A man may live to be as old as Methuselah,’ said Mr. Filer, ‘and may labour all his life for the benefit of such people as those; and may heap up facts on figures, facts on figures, facts on figures, mountains high and dry; and he can no more hope to persuade ’em that they have no right or business to be married, than he can hope to persuade ’em that they have no earthly right or business to be born. And that we know they haven’t. We reduced it to a mathematical certainty long ago!’
Alderman Cute and his friends: illustration by John Leech, 1844 edition
And his friend, Alderman Cute:
‘You see, my friend,’ pursued the Alderman, ‘there’s a great deal of nonsense talked about Want—“hard up,” you know; that’s the phrase, isn’t it? ha! ha! ha!—and I intend to Put it Down. There’s a certain amount of cant in vogue about Starvation, and I mean to Put it Down. That’s all! Lord bless you,’ said the Alderman, turning to his friends again, ‘you may Put Down anything among this sort of people, if you only know the way to set about it.’ […]
Then there’s Sir Joseph Bowley, wealthy Member of Parliament and self-proclaimed ‘friend of the poor’:
‘Your only business, my good fellow,’ pursued Sir Joseph, looking abstractedly at Toby; ‘your only business in life is with me. You needn’t trouble yourself to think about anything. I will think for you; I know what is good for you; I am your perpetual parent. Such is the dispensation of an all-wise Providence! Now, the design of your creation is—not that you should swill, and guzzle, and associate your enjoyments, brutally, with food; Toby thought remorsefully of the tripe; ‘but that you should feel the Dignity of Labour. Go forth erect into the cheerful morning air, and—and stop there. Live hard and temperately, be respectful, exercise your self-denial, bring up your family on next to nothing, pay your rent as regularly as the clock strikes, be punctual in your dealings (I set you a good example; you will find Mr. Fish, my confidential secretary, with a cash-box before him at all times); and you may trust to me to be your Friend and Father.’
In the story, Trotty encounters Will Fern, a poor countryman; Dickens gives Fern this little speech:
‘Now, gentlemen,’ said Will Fern, holding out his hands, and flushing for an instant in his haggard face, ‘see how your laws are made to trap and hunt us when we’re brought to this. I tries to live elsewhere. And I’m a vagabond. To jail with him! I comes back here. I goes a-nutting in your woods, and breaks—who don’t?—a limber branch or two. To jail with him! One of your keepers sees me in the broad day, near my own patch of garden, with a gun. To jail with him! I has a nat’ral angry word with that man, when I’m free again. To jail with him! I cuts a stick. To jail with him! I eats a rotten apple or a turnip. To jail with him! It’s twenty mile away; and coming back I begs a trifle on the road. To jail with him! At last, the constable, the keeper—anybody—finds me anywhere, a-doing anything. To jail with him, for he’s a vagrant, and a jail-bird known; and jail’s the only home he’s got.’
The Alderman nodded sagaciously, as who should say, ‘A very good home too!’
Alderman Cute’s response is a reminder of the brilliant passage from A Christmas Carol in which two collectors of charitable contributions for the relief of the poor call at Scrooge’s door:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.
These days, with Christmas seemingly hollowed-out of all meaning bar rampant consumerism, it’s easy to be tempted, like Scrooge, into asserting that ‘Christmas is a poor excuse every 25th of December to pick a man’s pockets’. However, as Scrooge’s good-hearted nephew observes:
There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say … Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round-apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that-as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!
Amen to that!