This close to Christmas Day (and having promised to do so already), I felt I had to dedicate my final post of 2011 to perhaps the definitive Christmas ghost story – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is extremely difficult to find anything new to say about a story like this, which has achieved an iconic status that very few others have ever done. Characters like Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim and of course the Three Ghosts, are easily identifiable, while Dickens’ themes of regret, redemption and remorse (to mention only those beginning with an ‘r’) remain timeless. What I would like to emphasise is that, whilst A Christmas Carol certainly ends on an uplifting note, it is in many ways one of the darkest pieces that Dickens ever wrote. Dickens’ sources for the story include the humiliating experiences of his childhood and his sympathy for the poor, which is why it is sometimes viewed as an indictment of 19th century industrial capitalism as much as it is a modern fairy tale.
The idea for A Christmas Carol famously came to Dickens when he was in Manchester where, sharing a platform with Disraeli and Cobden, he had spoken of his conviction that the social problems of the country could be answered only by education. Looking down upon the ‘bright eyes and beaming faces’ of his audience, he became determined to write a moving, affectionate story with a happy ending that would demonstrate how the conversion of one man from miserable selfishness to generosity of spirit at Christmas time might represent a change of heart in society as a whole and demonstrate the possibility of joy in the hearts of all those who had long since lost the innocence of what Dickens called that ‘better world’ of childhood, when Christmas was a time of magical wonder and contentment. Christmas had no bigger fan than Dickens. Every year his house was filled with ‘such dinings, such dancings, such conjurings’, so Dickens himself reported, ‘as had never taken place in these parts before’. When his children were little Dickens played with them in the garden, told them stories in the evenings as he sat in his rocking chair, sang funny songs, rehearsed plays with them in the schoolroom and gave them marvellous parties. Yet there was a dark side to all of this jollity.
Dickens’ daughter Katey wrote after his death that she wished someone would correct the general view of her father as ‘a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch’. She remembered his gaiety, but she saw too how much he changed as he grew older. By the mid-1840s Dickens had hit the first bump in the road of his career as a professional author. Not only were sales of his novel Martin Chuzzlewit disappointing, it was also widely criticised, among other things, for its portrayal of American stereotypes. Dickens’ relationship with his wife was also starting to fall apart and some years later, in 1858, he separated from her after falling in love with a young actress named Nelly Ternan (although they never divorced). Even when his children were older and he himself had grown increasingly unhappy with the tensions of his inner life, he would always endeavour to throw off his cares at Christmas, which continued to be regarded by him as a time of particular significance. This and the relative failure of Martin Chuzzlewit quickened Dickens’ determination to make A Christmas Carol a success. He certainly achieved his goal – as well as gaining critical acclaim, the novella was an instant bestseller and has never been out of print since its first publication in 1843.
Yet, despite the fact that A Christmas Carol was such a success and has been credited with restoring the Christmas holiday to one of merriment and festivity in Britain and America, some element of Dickens’ unease and uncertainty at the time appears to have made it into the novella. As well as being a pleasingly sentimental parable of redemption, A Christmas Carol is an effective attack on the selfishness of the early Victorian businessman who loses his humanity in his striving for financial gain. In one particularly memorable part of the story Ebenezer Scrooge spies two children, a boy and a girl, apparently hiding within the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present and asks who they are. He is told that they are ‘Man’s children’, that the boy is Ignorance and the girl is Want. ‘Beware them both,’ says the spirit, ‘…but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased’. This scene reflects the fact that Dickens was keenly touched by the lot of poor children in the middle decades of the 19th century. In early 1843, he toured the Cornish tin mines, where he saw children working in appalling conditions. The suffering he witnessed there was reinforced by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several London schools set up for the education of the capital’s half-starved, illiterate street children. Dickens wrote extensively about the plight of these children in his pamphlets and journalistic writings but none of these was as effective or reached a wider audience than A Christmas Carol.
The success of A Christmas Carol, coupled with his genuine love of the festive season, led Dickens to write several more ‘Christmas books’ – The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man – which explored similar themes but were nothing like as popular. It mattered not, however, for the novella’s success also reinvigorated Dickens’ career as a writer of longer novels and after it he went on to write an unbroken series of classics which were to cement his career as perhaps the greatest and best-loved of all English authors of fiction. I could not possibly talk at such length about the story without leaving you with A Christmas Carol (click to read!). I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has followed the blog in 2011 and I should also mention that Ghost Cities will now be going on hiatus until the New Year. The blog will certainly return in 2012 but until then, have a very Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year!