A Christmas Carol (1843)
Penguin Classics, 92pp
The timing could not have been better. I finished reading Barnaby Rudge five days before Christmas and the next fictional work Dickens published chronologically was A Christmas Carol, on the 19 December 1843: I read it for the first time on Christmas Day night 2009.
Now, I have seen film versions and TV versions and variations on this story countless times: that evening, on British television, was yet another version with Catherine Tate’s Nan character as Scrooge and David Tennant as a truly camp Ghost of Christmas Present, and in cinemas was a 3D version starring Jim Carrey. Unlike the previous Dickens novel I knew from cinematic adaptations (Oliver Twist), A Christmas Carol contained no surprises. Not every version has been faithful to the original story, but having seen so many, I knew each and every detail of this story. And yet, the magic and power of Dickens’s prose, and the truly wretched nature of Ebenezer Scrooge, meant that reading it, it was still as powerful. I felt overwhelmed when at the end Scrooge throws opens his windows and this famous exchange takes place:
“What’s to-day!” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.
“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.
“To-day!” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”
Why Christmas Day! Scrooge is redeemed and the story has its happy ending. There is more to it than first appears: A Christmas Carol has its roots in Dickens’s visit to a Cornish tin mine early that year, where he saw children working in appalling conditions. He read a recent government report, the Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission dated February 1843, and considered writing a pamphlet publically deploring the nature of employment of children – he gave a talk in Manchester on the subject – but the pamphlet was put on hold as he worked through his anger in prose: A Christmas Carol was the result.
The idea was not new to Dickens. In The Pickwick Papers, there is one episode where Mr Wardle relates the tale of Gabriel Grub, a prototype Scrooge, who is visited by three goblins and shown the error of his ways. He worked on A Christmas Carol quickly – completing it in just six weeks: all this while his wife was pregnant, and he had been paid poorly for Martin Chuzzlewitt, which was by the end of 1843 over half completed, having started in January of that year. (Chuzzlewitt would be completed in July 1844, which is why I am placing it after A Christmas Carol chronologically.) The impact of this work was immense – every publishing run was sold out instantly, and public readings of it often moved people to tears. One factory owner, so moved, closed his factory on Christmas Day and gave every employee a turkey as a gift.
The impact upon government legislation was what Dickens wished for most: he got his wish. In 1834 the government unveiled a New Poor Law and it seemed British protection of the poor was moving in the right direction. The New Poor Law, as historians will testify, was however an unmitigated disaster, with it having to be replaced just four years later with the Poor Law Board which hoped to remove all the abuses of the system that the New Poor Law had allowed.
A Christmas Carol remains to this day one of Charles Dickens’s most popular works of fiction. Its plot and its message are known to people worldwide – and as it inspires charity in others 166 years after its first publication then Dickens novella must be considered one of the finest works of fiction known to man.