It’s the time of year when I search out my battered copy of A Christmas Carol and get myself into the Christmas spirit, via Dickens’ three Christmas spirits. There’s always a moment when I think I’ll never find it again, because it never seems to be in the same place twice, and I go round the entire house searching bookshelves, and drawers filled with bits of string, rubber bands, old batteries and leaking pens wailing, ‘I must find the Carol, I must find the Carol’, like I’m the Ghost of Christmas Lost and Found.
But no need to panic, because if my Carol ever permanently disappears, to the same place that the missing socks go to, then the telly is a very good substitute. I’m currently gorging myself on The Muppet Christmas Carol, a musical featuring such gems as: ‘Oh, there goes Mr Humbug, there goes Mr Grim’, starring a very good Michael Caine being……well, Michael Caine. And A Christmas Carol, the 1984 George C Scott, stand-out performance version. And Scrooged , the very, very good, black comedic, Bill Murray version, and anticipating the annual dragging out of the ancient Alastair Sim one; not to mention the Albert Finney, Jim Carrey and Patrick Stewart interpretations.
Why the plethora of filmic Scrooges?
Because in 1843 Dickens wrote possibly the first example of a motion picture screenplay – without the benefit of knowing about moving pictures, special effects, stunning camera angles, storyboarding, computer animation and the rest of it – because movies weren’t invented until 50 years later! (that pertinent fact deserves an exclamation mark) and even then your average film was just a minute long. Yes, not only was Dickens a top author-type bloke, he was also a time travelling, prescient genius.
This whole book is a gift to film. The rapid and seamless transitions from scene to scene, in a blink of the eye. The ghostly door knocker. The servants’ bells ringing away without anyone to ring them. The sound of Marley dragging his way up the stairs. The Ghosts. The time travel. The spooky graveyard. The aerial shots over the miners’ moors, the storm at sea, the rooftops of London – it’s all a cinematographer’s dream.
The Carol is also a 90 page work of art. A distillation of the trials and triumphs of being a part of this troublesome thing called the human race. A tale of hope, where for many there was none. A tale of hurt, loss, fear and redemption, all tied up in a sparkly Christmas bow.
It’s a book I never fail to go back to, every single year, which means it’s a classic; that rare happening in literature, when a book becomes something more than a collection of words on the page. Those words and characters jump off the page, escaping into the real world, taking on a life of their own; becoming so real that you’re in danger of forgetting that somebody invented them.
And Dickens was no stranger to inventing fantastical literary characters – he was so brilliant at it that almost every character you meet in his lengthier novels is unforgettable; being either full of Dickensian idiosyncrasies or exhibiting behaviour verging on the grotesque, as though Dickens viewed the human race through a distorted lens, or the wonder-filled eyes of a child; homing in on the absolute fundamentals of what it is to be human.
This striking, literary ability culminated in the invention of Scrooge, when Dickens was just 31 years old and, even more striking, he wrote the Carol in just six weeks. Dickens wrote 90 pages of flippin’ timeless, brilliant English Lit. in 42 days, when it took yours truly two days to come up with this rubbish.
And the name ‘Scrooge’ is made-up words at their brilliant best – you just know that old Scrooge will screw you over. It ranks alongside all the other brilliantly mad names Dickens came up with: whoppers like Mr Wopsle, Noddy Boffin, Uriah Heap, Edwin Drood, Serjeant Buzfuz, Canon Crisparkle.
Like most Victorian writers, Dickens never used one word when 103 would do and never more so when he first describes the scrimping, scrounging Scrooge:
“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows and on his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”
Apart from being a wondrous example of olden days, over the top writing we really get that Dickens’ omniscient narrator hates old Scrooge, in fact he seems to lay the whole, ‘this bloke is really, really someone you do not want to know’ thing on a bit thick; which was a very clever thing to do when Scrooge later starts turning cartwheels, turning into the world’s number one nice guy.
Scrooge is so inwardly cold that he’s virtually a living corpse, with his shrivelled up cheeks, blue lips and ‘stiffened gait’, like rigor mortis has already set in. And he not only looks like the living dead, he behaves like your average zombie too; feeding off the poor around him, separated from human emotion and looking so much like he’s starring in his own horror movie that even the dogs run away:
“Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”
The fact that Scrooge looks dead mirrors the fact that he’s dead inside. Has shut himself off completely from his ‘fellow-travellers’, preferring a life of isolation, completely set in his ways. Dickens really wants you to think that Scrooge is an odious old git, but there are days when I can see where the old miser is coming from.
As I rush on into old age, I’m finding that most people are a sort of annoyance, like those pop-up ads or junk mail. I can do without the hassle, I think more and more; why should I care about other peoples’ problems? And that was exactly the feeling the young Dickens wanted to tap into.
In 1843 the wealthier members of Victorian society took a very dim view of the Poor, going with the premise that if you were poor it was your own fault, you uneducated idiot – seemingly blind to the fact that there was no free education or welfare system available, and that it was hardly your fault if you happened to have been born on the wrong side of the tracks. One particularly Hitler-esque view was that the Poor had no right to be on the planet, being that they made no useful contribution to society and chose to live in not very nice hovels, spreading disease everywhere and knocking back Gin in industrial quantities; so wouldn’t it be rather nice if they just spontaneously combusted (spontaneous human combustion was big back in the Victorian day) or were eradicated like a cockroach infestation, thus decreasing ‘the surplus population’.
The Rich of course were oblivious to their own habits of knocking back a few, whilst idling about on a chaise longue watching the Poor do all the dirty work.
This attitude enraged Dickens. Dickens knew that many people born into poverty would, with access to education, clean homes and good nutrition be the equal of, and probably surpass, those born into wealth. He knew this because he’d experienced life on the wrong side of the tracks himself; his father going to debtor’s prison, his mother forcing him to work in a blacking factory, 14 hours a day, when he was 12, to make ends meet and then moving the rest of the family into the prison with his father, leaving Dickens to work and fend for himself, alone on the streets. This experience scarred him for life, not least because he discovered that being a smart, sensitive, anxious kid didn’t go down too well with the flea-ridden, blacking crowd.
He would live in fear of poverty for the rest of his short life (died at 58 – stroke), hence the recurring theme on how crappy life is, if you happen to be poor, that runs throughout his novels. When his father was eventually released, Dickens’ mother very kindly suggested that her beloved son, Charlie boy, stay in the nightmare factory rather than continuing his education.
Despite this rotten start in life Dickens became the greatest writer in English Lit history. Oh, and he never forgave his mother.
Anyway, so Dickens set out to try and change the Victorian view that everybody should look after number one; instead suggesting they spread the wealth around a bit for a change. And the way he did that was to embody the cold and hard ‘I’m alright Jack’ spirit of the age into the character of Scrooge, and to epitomise the downtrodden masses in the Cratchit family; that impossibly perfect bunch of starving, hovel dwelling saints, who somehow manage to overflow with happiness and love in spite of the fact that there’s 8 of them squashed into a 4 roomed house – and no loo. This depiction flew in the face of Dickens’ own experience of his time spent hanging around with the great unwashed, but he was determined to represent the Poor in a heavenly and angelic light.
And he decided to shove all these heavenly attributes into the fragile little body of Tiny Tim. He knew how to pull at the heartstrings of your average Victorian parent, as poor children tended to not last very long in an age of child labour, typhoid, cholera and cramped conditions. The spectre of Tiny Tim’s imminent demise may as well be the fourth invisible Christmas Ghost in the Carol.
Luckily we’re spared the sickly sweet, child-death that Dickens usually goes in for; the kind that led Oscar Wilde to allegedly remark:
“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”
Good punch line, but the acerbic Oscar was here conveniently forgetting the sentimental rubbish he wrote to his lover/nemesis Lord Alfred Douglas.
Dickens’ attempt to give a voice to the Poor in the Carol was a massive success, so much so that in some homes the Carol almost replaced that other greatest story ever told (the Bible) as the most important book in the house (not difficult considering what a yawn the word of God generally is) and Victorians everywhere divvied up their cash for the Poor at Christmas time. It was such a big hit that it went viral, causing people to share it around and then it hit YouTube parody terrority, as people plagiarised it all over the place, on the stage and in copycat books, causing Dickens to practically invent the ‘Intellectual Copyright Law,’ – as if he hadn’t done enough brilliant stuff already.
This is a perfect, consummate, flawless, quintessential, superlative book (as Dickens himself might have said.) Scrooge, the festive anti-hero, may be the epitome of miserly evil but we’re all capable of going there, of closing up our hearts, of becoming set in our ways, of missing what’s really important, because we’re all victims of our pasts and our present.
And if that happens, then being given the opportunity to make a change is the best kind of Christmas present out there.
I’m going to end this lengthy and riveting post with the heartwarming sight of Batman’s butler, and a bunch of muppets, warbling on about how great Christmas is, whilst dishing out lots of lovely presents.