A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens (1843), Amazon, London
98 pages, £4.00.  ISBN: 979-8747073869

I have never read anything by Charles John Huffam Dickens.  Shame on me – what an education system!  Nor am I a big reader of fiction.  But this year I booked seats to see A Christmas Carol by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon.  So with two weeks to go, now is the time for me to read the book and get ahead of the play’s plot.

Chapter 1  Who is this legendary money-changer Ebenezer Scrooge?  According to Dickens, ‘Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!  A squeezing, wrenching, grasping scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!’

It is the end of December, and when his cheery nephew Fred passes by to wish him ‘A merry Christmas, uncle!  God save you’ the miserly Scrooge famously replies, ‘Bah!  Humbug!’  And ‘every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.  He should!  Keep Christmas in your way, and let me keep it in mine.’  Thus, the man is revealed and the scene is set.

When two ‘portly gentlemen’ approach Scrooge for a Christmas donation for the poor, they explain, ‘We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.  What shall I put you done for? asks one.  ‘Nothing!’ Scrooge replied.  ‘You wish to be anonymous?’  ‘I wish to be left alone’, snapped Scrooge.  Yes, we get the picture, Dickens – Scrooge is truly a ghastly, self-centred man.

One day, after work at his counting-house, Scrooge leaves for home.  As he was about to unlock his front door, he notices its large knocker, yet in that knocker he sees the eerie face of Jacob Marley, his business partner, who had died seven years previously.  Ghostly bells ring throughout the house together with the heavy clank as Marley dragged a set of chains.

The tormented Marley was on a mission.  ‘I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate … doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me!’  Marley described the misery of the venal life, ‘Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.  Yet such was I!  Oh! such was I!’, wailed Marley.  He told Scrooge, ‘You will be haunted by Three Spirits.’  ‘Without their visits you cannot hope to shun the path I tread.’  ‘Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One.’  The shaken and fearful Scrooge ‘went straight to bed, without undressing, and fell asleep upon the instant.’

Chapter 2  So, as the bell sounded ONE the next day, ‘Scrooge found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor.’  ‘It was a strange figure – like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man.’  He introduced himself, ‘I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.’  And the journey into Scrooge’s past began.  First, to the countryside of his childhood, then to see his friends, old and young, including his little sister, Fan, who addressed him as ‘Dear, dear brother.’  By contrast, the starkness of his own solitary childhood figure made Scrooge weep.

It got worse.  The Ghost took him to meet old Fezziwig to whom Scrooge was once apprenticed together with his friend, Dick Wilkins.  It was Christmas Eve and Fezziwig took them off to the Fezziwig Ball – dances, forfeits, cake and negus.  Herein was more of Scrooge’s former life.  A fair young girl in a mourning-dress and another ‘beautiful young girl’.  ‘And yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them.’  Yes, Scrooge did once have a warm and tender heart.  But these shadows of things past were too much for him.  To the Ghost he said in a broken voice, ‘Spirit!, remove me from this place.  I cannot bear it.  Leave me!  Take me back.  Haunt me no longer!’  And so ‘he sank into a heavy sleep.’

Chapter 3  It was Christmas morning.  The Bell struck One, but no expected Phantom appeared.  That rattled Scrooge.  He went into the next room.  ‘Come in!, exclaimed the Ghost.  ‘Come in! and know me better, man!’  ‘I am the Ghost of Christmas Present’, said the Spirit.  ‘Look upon me!’

They stood in the city streets amid a sheet of snow on the roofs.  ‘There was an air of cheerfulness abroad.’  The poulterers, the fruiters and the grocers were about to close.  ‘But soon the steeples called good people all, to church and chapel.’  ‘For they said, it was a shame to quarrel upon Christmas Day.  And so it was!  God love it, so it was!’

Enter Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit.  His house was full of good tidings and cheerful people and gentle ribbing and goose and pudding.  And on Bob’s shoulder was Tiny Tim, his crippled son.  ‘Alas for Tiny Tim, he bore a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame!’  As they sat to eat, Bob proposed, ‘A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears.  God bless us!’  ‘Which all the family re-echoed.’  ‘God bless us every one!’ said Tiny Tim, the last of all.’

‘Spirit’, said Scrooge, ‘tell me if Tiny Tim will live.’  ‘I see a vacant seat,’ replied the Ghost.  ‘If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.’  At these words, Scrooge was deeply affected and ‘overcome with penitence and grief.’  Yet Mr Cratchit even has a word of thanksgiving for Mr Scrooge, ‘the Founder of the Feast’.  The mention of the name of Scrooge the Baleful in front of the Cratchit family put a dampener on their party, but only temporarily.  Indeed, they were soon again ‘happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time.’  Here was unaffected joy – ‘Scrooge had his eye upon them.’

The Spirit then hastened Scrooge onto the bleakest of moors.  Even there was ‘a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire.’  Then onto the sea and two lighthouse men, ‘joining their horny hands over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas.’  Then to a ship on ‘the black and heaving sea.’  ‘But every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought.’

And then, while in solemn contemplation of the lonely darkness, Scrooge heard his nephew Fred’s, unmistakable hearty laugh, Ha, ha!’  ‘He said that Christmas was a humbug.  As I live!’ cried Scrooge’s nephew.  ‘He believed it too!’  ‘His wealth is of no use to him.  He don’t do any good with it.  He don’t make himself comfortable with it.’  Fred continued, ‘I am sorry for him.  Who suffers by his ill whims!  Him always.’  ‘I was only going to say that the consequences of his taking a dislike to us, and not making merry with us, is, I think, that he loses some pleasant moments, which could do him no harm.’

Now there was music and forfeits and party games, like blind-man’s buff, that even Scrooge could not resist joining in, and visits to all sorts of charitable institutions, hospitals, jails, alms-houses and so on.  Finally, the Ghost revealed two abject, wretched children from under his robe.  Scrooge was appalled.  The Spirit explained that the boy was Ignorance and the girl was Want.  The Bell struck twelve.  The Ghost was gone and Scrooge remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley – ‘You will be haunted by Three Spirits.’

Chapter 4  Enter the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, a dark, tall and stately figure with nothing but an outstretched hand – it filled Scrooge with a solemn dread.  Yet Scrooge was maybe turning for the better.  He declared, ‘I hope to live to be another man from what I was.’  The Spectre lead him to a meeting of business men discussing the death of a fellow man and similarly to another two men and a meeting of those who had plundered and stripped the meagre bits and pieces of the dead man’s goods to sell for profit.  Yet Scrooge was not present in any of these future scenes – he ‘hoped he saw his new-born resolutions carried out in this.’  The thought of death caused him to shudder.  ‘Spirit!  I see, I see.  The case of this unhappy man might be my own.  My life tends that was, now.’  ‘Spirit!’ he said, ‘this this is a fearful place.  In leaving it, I shall not leave its lesson, trust me.  Let us go!’

Back at the Cratchit’s house, all became quiet, very quiet.  Peter was reading from a book, the Bible.  ‘And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them’ (Mark 9:36) came to Scrooge’s mind.  The possibility of Tiny Tim’s death again moved Scrooge deeply.  The scene was as if Tiny Tim had already died, but this was a visit by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and therefore that was a possible, rather than a certain, event – it was raised, but was not (yet) realised.

The Phantom lead to other places and eventually to Scrooge’s house and office.  ‘Let me behold what I shall be, in days to come!’ he entreated.  But ‘the furniture was not the same and the figure in the chair was not himself.’  Onward to a churchyard.  The Phantom pointed to one grave.  ‘Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE.’  Down on the ground Scrooge implored the Spirit, ‘Assure me that I may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life!’  ‘I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.  I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.  I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.  Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!’  Scrooge clung onto the hand, but it shrank and disappeared.

Chapter 5  The very next day Scrooge ‘scrambled out of bed … so glowing with his good intentions.’  He declaimed, ‘A merry Christmas to everybody!  A happy New Year to all the world.’  ‘What’s to-day?’ he asked of a passing boy.  ‘Why, CHRISTMAS DAY’ the boy replied.  Scrooge told him to go and buy the prize turkey hanging up in the nearby Poulterer’s.  ‘I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s whispered Scrooge rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh.’  And he hired a cab to deliver the huge bird.  He went to church.  Being out in the streets with others gave him so much pleasure and happiness.  But even that was capped by visiting and eating dinner with Fred, his nephew, and the happy family.

The very next Day Scrooge was determined to beat Bob to the office.  And he did.  And for Bob’s late arrival at work he feigned giving him … no, not the sack, but a raise and ‘a merry Christmas, Bob!’ as he clapped him on the back.

And Scrooge did more.  He became a second father to Tiny Tim, a good friend, a good master, a good man.  Some laughed at the alteration in him, but ‘his own heart laughed: and that was quite good enough for him.’  From now on Scrooge ‘knew how to keep Christmas well.’  ‘May that be truly said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’

Conclusions  Yes, A Christmas Carol is a clever ghostly novella, but it is also a powerful moral story.  The theme is simple – when the miserable and miserly Scrooge is faced with his true nature, he is convicted by his own wretchedness and he aspires to make amends.  And what better time to experience such redemption and assume a new life than at Christmas?

Dickens, the sort of nominal Christian, is meagre on drawing out the Christian parallels in his story.  They may have been obvious to a Victorian readership, but twenty-first century readers are largely ignorant of such biblical truths.  Yet Scrooge’s change in character and outlook and purpose are central motifs of historic, orthodox, biblical Christianity.  After all, what is Christmas?  Yes, it is cattle, hay, shepherds, food, light and presents.  But in truth it only exists to mark and celebrate the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity.  It is God sending his only begotten Son to redeem a rotten, sinful world.  Christmas is therefore about being reconciled to God.  Christmas enables men and women to be recreated and transformed from bad to good, from corrupt to righteous, from sinful to sinless.  That is the allegorical legend of Scrooge.  It is a metaphor for Christian conversion.  And along the way, Bob Cratchit, his son Tiny Tim, and Scrooge’s nephew Fred, are his evangelists, those good influencers who direct him to turn and to lead the good life.

Yes, overall I enjoyed this book.  Dickensian English is verbose English.  It is so very different from that tight style of scientific, non-fiction literature that has been my bread and butter for over half a century.  Such diversity can be mind- stretching and this book was fun.  For instance, Dickens is famous for his lists.  Try this one, describing Scrooge’s transformed room.  ‘Heaped on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, suckling pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth cakes, and seething bowls of punch …’  See what I mean?  Dickens can read like a thesaurus.

Why is Dickens still so popular?  What is it about Boz?  Is he really a master of character portrayal?  Certainly, his personae are fully believable, fully 3-D.  He skilfully provides sufficient information to encourage the brain to wander a little and fill in the gaps.  And is he the great Victorian communicator of social sensibilities, such as poverty, greed and avarice?  Yes, grime and gratitude were central refrains of life in 1843, just as they are in 2022.  In many ways, the Victorian A Christmas Carol is a good fit for the new Carolean age.  After all, what has a 180 years of human endeavour actually achieved?

So, Merry Christmas!  God bless us, everyone!

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