Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Inspirations of A Christmas Carol

Article author: Alwyn Ash

This novella, first published by Chapman & Hall in December 1843 (and illustrated by John Leech), features the greatest miser of them all: Ebenezer Scrooge.

A Christmas Carol was written in early Victorian Britain, at a time when people were beginning to embrace forgotten Christmas traditions. It is, perhaps, the story that brought industrial capitalism to the nineteenth century, and should partly be credited for restoring festivity and merriment to both Britain and America, following the introduction of the Christmas Tree to Britain in 1841 by Prince Albert. The first Christmas Card, in 1843, and a revival in Carol Singing helped to make festive a special holiday.

The novella met with instant success and critical acclaim. It was pronounced "a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness."

But let us not forget that, although it had shown us a glimpse of festivity and fun, A Christmas Carol also delved into the deep dark world of poverty, despair, sadness and, finally, death. It was a reflection of life as it was, the soul of London at both its best and worst. Yes it could reward the rich, embrace them with warmth and prosperity while at the same time swallow up those who had met with far less fortunate times. In the novella Scrooge demonstrates no pity for these poor wretched people: "Are there no prisons?" he asks when the opportunity presents itself for him to contribute something to a fund which has been set up to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. This cold response was Scrooge's typical view on life, and the people who sank were of no concern to him.

A Christmas Carol by Dean Morrissey
The Greenwich Workshop

But, as we later discover, this miserable man (who pronounced: "I don't make merry myself at Christmas") was to change his ways, thanks to the intervention of four ghosts, one of them an old friend...

Inspiration for A Christmas Carol no doubt originated from Dickens' own upbringing. A writer at heart, his life turned upside down in 1824. John Dickens, his father, was jailed and Charles was forced to take lodgings nearby, pawn his prized collection of books, leave school, and accept employment in a blacking factory (see fromoldbooks.org for more info). It was a world far removed from what the young man expected - Charles was deeply intellectual and felt uncomfortable in these new surroundings. His father's eventual release from jail did not change matters, however. Life in the factory continued, humiliation for someone who believed to be destined for greater things.

It is quite clear that Charles both loved and hated his father, a psychological conflict that quite likely manifested itself in the character he would later create: Scrooge. It was during this period that the young man began noticing the impoverished lives of men, women, and children in London. Years later Charles Dickens visited many areas affected by poverty, and witnessed first hand children working in appalling conditions. In 1943 he called upon workers and employers to join together to combat ignorance with educational reform. Now was a time for action.

A Christmas Carol was born. Charles felt that the best way to spread the message and highlight poverty and injustice was to write a deeply-felt Christmas narrative. It was an idea that became one of his best works and did, in some way, manage to change some lives in the following years. It is interesting to note that in his Pickwick episode The story of the goblins who stole a sexton (Chapter 29 - January 1837), the author writes a tale similar to that of A Christmas Carol. Indeed, it is accurate to say that the latter was firmly based on the former. And do you notice how the five chapters are labelled as "staves"? An ingenious reference to the title of the novella. i.e. music notation.

Young Charles Dickens painted during his 1842
visit to Boston by Francis Alexander

It took Charles six weeks to write this fantastic tale - he began in October 1843, completing the final pages in December. A decision was also made by him to publish the novella at his own expense, choosing a percentage of the profits rather than a lump sum; a feud with his publisher over the meagre earnings on previous novel Martin Chuzzlewit led to this decision. It was a chance that resulted in disappointment; high production expenses cost him dearly and he was left with little profit. A Christmas Carol may not have been a great profitable experience but it remained a huge artistic success.

In 1844 the author engaged in court proceedings after literary pirates Parley's Illuminated Library broke copyright. He sued and won the case, however it was not to be a good day for Charles: a hollow victory - as it turned out - the firm simply declared bankruptcy, leaving him to pay court costs of £700.

Highly disappointed with these troubles and a lack of decent revenue for publication of the novella, the man who had gained favourable recognition and respect decided to spread the message of his Carol through public readings, the first being in 1853. A grand performer, his stage theatricals were an immense success and he continued to perform the story of Ebenezer Scrooge time after time, until his death in 1870. There is no questioning his passion and commitment to the tale, a man who understood the true meaning of Christmas and wished to share that vision with his readers and audience: a family-centered festival of generosity, in both heart and soul. Seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and warmth of spirit.

And as Tiny Tim once said: "God bless us, every one!"