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“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”
And so Charles Dickens modestly introduces us to his enduring ghost story of Christmas, ‘A Christmas Carol’. His ambiguous hope that neither the book, nor its haunting presence, would be easily laid down, or exorcised, has been realised more than he can possibly have imagined. Apart from the Nativity, it’s hard to think of a more seasonal yarn.
A Christmas Carol is short, a novella, which apparently only took about six weeks to write. The idea behind it was partly to generate much-needed cash, because Dickens’ book sales were not going well at the time. Despite that, he insisted on an expensive binding with illustrations by John Leech, several in colour, and apparently paid for a good part of the publication himself. This was because his publishers, Chapman and Hall, were not enthusiastic about what they viewed as a slightly risky, novel, project for its time – a Christmas story. Published on 19 December 1843, the first edition of 6,000 sold out by Christmas Eve and, as far as I can make out, ‘A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story For Christmas’ hasn’t been out of print since. It is a much a part of our Christmas as turkey and stuffing, has been translated into most languages and adapted for I don’t know how many film, theatre and TV productions. The book gives so much more than any audio-visual production can ever do. That said, it is hard to beat the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim. The trailer for the 2019 BBC TV adaptation suggested something fashionably, but gratuitously, gritty – utilising all the special effects the budget would run to and promising, in a slow and husky faux American whisper, “Tonight you will not sleep.” Episode 1 was dreadful.
So what’s the real story of A Christmas Carol? We know it is a warming parable of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” of Dickens’ wondrous pen. But it is rather more than that. Firstly, the title and structure are clever. Traditionally, a ‘carol’ is a joyous song, not necessarily religious, or a round dance with singing. Anyway, it is something uplifting that brings people together. Dickens could have called his little book, ‘A Christmas Tale’, or similar; but that would not have had quite the same meaning. He doesn’t give us chapters, either; ‘A Christmas Carol’ is broken up into five staves. The word ‘stave’ has many meanings. In this context, it refers to the musical stave, the five lines which the notes are written on in music, each line and space between representing a different musical pitch. In A Christmas Carol, the staves each tell their own discrete story, or phase; but when the five are combined, a unified, harmonious, work emerges.
Stave One introduces us to Ebenezer Scrooge and reveals his miserly, cruel, and, frankly, nasty character. It is a foggy Christmas Eve. We see Scrooge, a misanthropic money-lender, in his chilly counting-house, famously dismissing the seasonal greetings of his nephew with, “Bah! Humbug!” and rejecting an invitation to Christmas dinner; telling gentlemen collecting for the poor and needy that those who can’t go to prison or the workhouse had better die “and decrease the surplus population” and deriding his underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit for celebrating Christmas. Dickens makes it clear from the outset that Scrooge’s equally usurious partner, Jacob Marley, was dead. Dead as a door-nail (or, if you prefer, a coffin-nail). We learn that Marley died seven years ago this very night. And Marley’s ghost, condemned to walk the earth for eternity because his spirit did not go forth in life, as every person’s should, visits Scrooge to offer his old collaborator a chance and hope of avoiding Marley’s fate. Scrooge will be haunted by Three Spirits. Like wishes, spirits come in threes.
Stave Two describes the visit from the first of the three spirits, the androgynous shape-shifting Ghost of Christmas Past. The spirit shows Scrooge his school, reminding the old skinflint of his lonely childhood away from home and how he lost himself in tales like Ali Baba; his love of his young sister, Fan; his joy at a simple Christmas party put on by his first employer, Fezziwig. The spirit also reminds Scrooge that Fan died and had a child, the nephew that Scrooge had rejected earlier. Finally, he shows the old miser his former sweetheart, Belle, who has married and has a daughter as beautiful as her mother, forcing the by now distraught Scrooge to face up to what he has lost.
Stave Three sees the second spirit, the larger-than-life Ghost of Christmas Present, unreliably joyful, and like some great pagan Green Man, take Scrooge on a journey. They see the dirty snow-clad streets of London at Christmas, full of vibrant cheerfulness, shop windows brimming over with exotic goods and innumerable people taking their dinners to bakers’ shops to be cooked (because only the very rich had ovens). All the while, the spirit sprinkles good humour from the torch he carries. They visit Bob Cratchit’s house and watch while the clerk’s family enjoy their simple feast. Scrooge is much taken by the Cratchits’ lame son, Tiny Tim, and asks whether the little boy will live.
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “In the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”
Scrooge is whisked through the night to witness countless Christmases, countless people coming together in good spirit to mark the time of year. They visit the homes of miners, who labour in the bowels of the earth; they witness two lighthouse keepers, miles off-shore high above wave-lashed rocks, toast each other with their grog; and then they’re suddenly at Scrooge’s nephew’s house. Here, the old man becomes animated watching folk enjoy themselves and begins to realise what he’s missing. They go on to visit many homes, hospitals, jails, almshouses; Scrooge’s perceptions widen. At the end, the Spirit dramatically reveals a boy and a girl from beneath its robes “Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish.” Dickens’ description of these two children is powerfully shocking.
“This boy,” explains the Spirit, “Is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy…”
Stave Four, of course, is devoted to the lessons offered by the last of the spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. If Scrooge was already having a bad night, this visitation would round it off a treat. Though evidently powerful, and certainly disturbing, neither of the first two spirits initially appears to be particularly terrifying; but the third one certainly is. Dickens describes it as tall and stately, shrouded (appropriate choice of verb) in a deep black garment from head to foot, save for one outstretched hand. It never speaks, but first directs Scrooge to eavesdrop on a conversation between men that Scrooge recognises regarding an unnamed man who has died. The men are callously indifferent to the death. Next, Scrooge and his spirit guide arrive at the foul den of a rag and bone man, old Joe, a dealer in almost anything, rags and refuse of all kinds. Arriving there is a trio of undertaker, charwoman and laundress, each of whom submits a collection of personal items plundered from a recently departed man for old Joe to purchase. No respect is shown for the deceased. The items include the dead man’s blankets, taken from under the body, and best shirt – apparently removed from the corpse. The Phantom takes Scrooge to a room in which the unknown dead man lies, but Scrooge cannot bring himself to look at the face. He beseeches the Spirit to show him someone who feels any emotion from the man’s death, and is taken to a couple whose reluctant reaction is gladness, because they will now have longer to repay the money they had borrowed. Next, Scrooge is conducted to the Cratchits’ house, where Tiny Tim has died. Finally, Scrooge is taken to a churchyard where he discovers what the reader already knows; the identity of the dead man is revealed on a neglected grave – EBENEZER SCROOGE.
Stave Five is the Happy Ending, where a reclaimed Scrooge finds confirmation that the events depicted by the Ghost of Christmas Future have not happened. He discovers that it is Christmas Day (“The Spirits have done it all in one night.”). He buys a huge turkey for the Cratchits, spends Christmas with his nephew, gives Bob a pay rise, became a second father to Tiny Tim (who did not die) and turned into “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”
So, there you go. A Christmas Carol is a good old story of redemption. Scrooge was not fundamentally bad, he just went badly awry and needed to be shown the light. Or be frightened into it. He was a product of his past and circumstances, as all of us are. Dickens is telling us to take a look at ourselves. But he was of course also offering us a pithy social commentary. The squalor of urban poverty in 19th century Britain is hard for most of us in the 21st century west to comprehend. Dickens was appalled by poverty and injustice, particularly when it came to children. It is a recurring theme in his writing. A Parliamentary report on child labour in 1843 (quite rightly) shocked him – as did the conditions in Manchester when he travelled there in October that year to support an educational charity. It is said these events particularly inspired A Christmas Carol. Incidentally, Friedrich Engels was in Manchester at the same time, but his ‘Condition of the Working Class in England’ was not published until 1845. Dickens does not offer any solution beyond treating fellow human-beings decently, but he did draw on personal knowledge. When he was 12, his father was imprisoned in Marshalsea debtors prison in Southwark and the young Dickens was forced to work in a shoe blacking factory. The experience chronically scarred him.
The nature of Scrooge is interesting. He and his kind are products of barely regulated market forces, coupled with a psychopathic disregard and empathy for others. However, you must admit that pre-reformation Scrooge was no hypocrite and lacked the deceptive urbane sophistication of many of today’s unscrupulous profit-mongers. He paid his taxes, but did not pay lip-service to insincere customer care or social policies. You might even argue that Scrooge didn’t know any better; and, anyway, he reformed didn’t he?! His soul was not corrupt; Scrooge had felt love and compassion and just needed to be reminded of it – albeit the reminder was a rather hefty nudge. Actually, notwithstanding Scrooge’s undeniable unpleasantness, there is simultaneously something faintly comical about him.
You could argue that this is because Scrooge has become a caricature, but I see it as a feature of Charles Dickens’ superb writing. His lightness of touch and humour, despite the subject matter, is endearing. When Scrooge is confronted with the ostensibly terrifying vision of his dead partner, who offers him a chance and hope of salvation through being visited by three spirits, Dickens has his character say, “I – I think I’d rather not.” It is hard to read through A Christmas Carol without a smile putting in the occasional appearance. It is a book that any of us would have loved to have written. Thackeray opined that, “It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness.”
So it’s both a redemption story and social comment. But it is also a ghost story. Ghost stories, especially Christmas ghost stories, were popular in Victorian Britain. And Dickens loved them. In fact, he wrote rather a lot of them, including ‘The Story of the Goblins who stole a Sexton’, which features a kind of prototype Scrooge. Allegedly, the tradition of Christmas ghost stories is far older than Dickens. Moreover, the veil between this world and the next is thin on Christmas Eve. (Where’s the husky mid-Western whisper voice-over when you need it?) The fact is that A Christmas Carol is a ghost story and Marley & Co should be terrifying. But, somehow, they aren’t. Oh, I accept that they could be – especially with a generous FX budget and make-up to rival the worst imaginable zombie movie. Indeed, I remember a TV production of it when I was a child that stimulated a nightmare vision of a man with a wig and a blue frock-coat appearing at the foot of my bed. But, really, the story is more of a fairy-tale, where the underlying unpleasantness is camouflaged so that it doesn’t dominate.
Having established that A Christmas Carol is a redemption story, a ghost story AND one that offers social comment, perhaps we should remind ourselves that it is also very much a Christmas story too! Dickens has been accused of being the man that invented Christmas, and there’s considerable truth in that. He adored Christmas – his daughter, Mamie, wrote that “it was a time dearer than any other part of the year, I think. He loved Christmas for its deep significance as well as for its joy.” In A Christmas Carol, the author uses the time of year to emphasise all of the novel’s themes. The Victorian Christmas brand we recognise today was in the process of being launched in the 1840s. 1843 was also the year of the first Christmas card.
It should be clear by now that A Christmas Carol is one of my all-time favourite reads. It is a beautifully crafted piece – and is particularly good when read out loud. It also, appropriately, reminds me of my own Christmas past, before I became the lovable, irascible, curmudgeon I am today. Long ago, when a callow youth, an inspiring English teacher put on a production of A Christmas Carol and, clearly desperate, cast me as both Bob Cratchit AND Marley’s Ghost. I was awful, but still have happy memories of coming off stage as Bob and changing costume while someone painted my face white and several others attached chains round my shoulders covered in sheets to dampen the noise. If this makes no sense to you, then for heaven’s sake, read the story. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, of course, as Scrooge might have told you before he got scared witless by three visiting spirits.
Almost finally, fans of A Christmas Carol may need to accept that they are admirers of the unashamedly cheesy and uplifting Christmas movie genre. The message of hope, redemption and goodwill to all that Dickens popularised in A Christmas Carol recurs in other seasonal favourites, along with anything that evokes childhood or a sense of looking back and forward – “at this time of the rolling year,” as Marley’s ghost neatly put it. Think of much-loved Christmas movies such as ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘Miracle on 34th Street’, ‘The Grinch’ and ‘The Bishop’s Wife’. Any other ideas?
In any event, just remember – it’s not too late for you to repent and become a better person. I’m certainly giving it some thought.