Say what you will about Dickens. Say his prose can be turgid and was so obviously paid by the word. Say he was at various times sentimental, crude, dull, trite, and a bit pervy. You won’t be wrong. But we all love A Christmas Carol, don’t we? Especially the Muppet version… Err, I mean, especially the original text read en famille of a Christmas Eve, right?
Don’t worry, even on the Literary Helpdesk we are not that good. Christmas Eve is for panic-wrapping presents and peeling vegetables. And watching A Muppet Christmas Carol for our bit o’ culture.*
(Seriously, Gonzo as Dickens is probably the most insightful biographical portrayal going. And if Catholics had spirit animals, mine would be Emily Cratchit as portrayed by Miss Piggy. Plus you get double the Marleys for your money. I love it.)
But the thing is, A Christmas Carol — the original text without Muppets — is a quick and pithy read, especially by Dickensian standards. And a worthwhile one. We all know the story of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge being transformed by the Spirit(s) of Christmas. And though the name of God is scarcely uttered and the Infant Christ a very minor figure indeed, there is something almost sacramental about Dickens’ pious Christmas tale. The negation of Puritanism – which tries to scrape goodness from the grit of human toil without allowing the human spirit to rise and ennoble its fleshy underbelly – will always look sacramental if it retains the aspiration for goodness (or nihilistic if it denies even the stunted spiritual aspirations of the Puritan ethos).
The connection between joy and charity is one that many stories try to show, but few do it as well as Dickens’ story of Scrooge.
Dickens, like many authors, tends to be at his best when he is semi-autobiographical. His concern for the poor – both the stretched and teetering-on-the-brink families like the Cratchits and the poorest of the poor who were in danger of dying of hunger, disease, and exposure – no doubt came from what he witnessed and experienced as a boy when his family were forced by reduced circumstances to move to Clapham, a poor district of London.
When his father was thrown into debtor’s prison, twelve-year-old Charles was forced to leave school to work in a factory to help support his family. A family inheritance eventually allowed Dickens senior to pay off his debts and leave prison, and Dickens junior to return to school for a time, but the experience left him bitter at having had his childhood prematurely snatched from him. The flip side of this bitterness was a deep compassion for the poor that runs through many of his books. However melodramatic his stories can be, as far as portrayals of Victorian poverty go, we must allow Charles Dickens a good measure of credibility.
It is not only the strong polemic on the treatment of the poor that makes A Christmas Carol a delightful read.
The moral message you will get from any film version. What is often missing from the screen is the wonderfully vivid portrayals of family life to be found in the visions of the Spirits. There is so much more to it than the rather mawkish figure of Tiny Tim with his pious catch-phrase – God bless us every one! – and the generally saccharine portrayal of the Cratchit family. In Victorian literature we might expect to see children drawn with exemplary calm and obedient behaviour, unless they are there to serve as a warning to other aspirant malefactors. Not so for Dickens.
Hustle and bustle is what he writes well, as when Scrooge is taken by the Ghost of Christmas Past to the home of his old flame, Belle, who has since married another. The union has been undeniably fruitful:
“The noise in this room was perfectly tumultuous, for there were more children there, than Scrooge in his agitated state of mind could count; and, unlike the celebrated herd in the poem, they were not forty children conducting themselves like one, but every child was conducting itself like forty. The consequences were uproarious beyond belief…”
If, like me, you wondered which poem is referenced, I can tell you it is Wordsworth’s “Written in March”:
The cattle are grazing. Their heads never raising; There are forty feeding as one!
Unlikely behaviour in cattle, and inconceivable in children.
Such tumultuousness was a thing with which Dickens was no doubt well acquainted. He and his wife Catherine Hogarth conceived twelve children. Ten were carried to term, nine survived infancy, and eight lived to adulthood. This is not to say Dickens was a model husband and father. He found infants delightful, but lost interest in his children as they grew older, and very publicly expressed his disappointment in all of them as they grew up.
To Dickens – a man who had pulled himself out of poverty – lack of ambition was unacceptable in his offspring. Between this shared trait and their various individual sensitivities, neuroses, and weaknesses, he found little to value in the children as they matured. As is more commonly known, he kicked Catherine out of the family home after twenty years of marriage, permanently separated their children from her, and took up with an 18-year-old actress.
Sure, Catherine got her own house and a settlement, but still: What a Dick(ens).
Suffice it to say there would have been uproar and agitation aplenty in the Dickens household. In any case, no parent will struggle to fancy the Wordsworthian inverse: every child conducting itself as forty. Families are experiencing even more togetherness than usual this year: I think the estimate of 120 children occupying my house at the moment sounds about right.
So, you may not be able to persuade the rugrats you have at home – no matter how many, they are legion – to sit still and listen to a calm and touching family read-aloud of A Christmas Carol, but if you do wade in yourself, you will find a reminder that the chaos is a part of the joy. Ever was it thus. It is no sign of parenting failure, or modern decay. Call it the Spirit of Christmas and call it a day.
And if it all gets to be too much, put on A Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s culture.
*The adults might move on to the George C Scott version come evening. A worthy classic.
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