Unwrapping Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

Published

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Emily Hay
Books Columnist

“It may interest you to know that it isn’t only in the financials that Dickens somewhat resembles the pre-reformed Scrooge: he also seemed to find it impossible to practice that compassion that he so preached.”

Do you wail when shops put out their Christmas stock in October? Do you despair when Christmas adverts flood the airwaves from November on? Do you despise the spend spend spend attitude which comes with modern capitalist Christmas? In the midst of the shopping-mania December brings, do you find yourself wishing to be transported back to a simpler time, a holiday season which wasn’t so much about the presents, but about the Christmas cheer and the spirit of giving? The world of the Dickensian classic A Christmas Carol, perhaps?

Unfortunately, my friend, I have to tell you I’m here to burst your rather naïve bubble on that front.

The tale of old miserly Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by four spirits one Christmas Eve who warn him to change his miserable, selfish ways lest he be forever damned is well known by almost everyone who celebrates Christmas. From The Muppets to Donald Duck, everyone is familiar with at least some version of this classic tale. It’s synonymous with the season as we know it and is often used to illustrate the “true meaning” of Christmas as generosity, love and family as opposed to the commercialised buying extravaganza that our modern society has turned it into. As Scrooge changes his selfish ways to help the Cratchits and reconnect with his own family so too are we urged to remember that the season isn’t really about the money and the presents.

Only in the Victorian period does the celebration of Christmas begin to morph from its purely religious origins into the cultural, secular holiday we see it as today. Alongside Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bringing the German Christmas tree tradition into Buckingham palace, A Christmas Carol is seen to be one of the biggest instigators of the beginnings of popular Christmas celebrations as we know them. Despite the novel’s undoubtedly Christian undertones, Dickens is credited as the father of our modern, secular Christmas celebrations. And I hate to break this to you, but that also means he’s sort of complicit in those financial aspects you claim to so detest.

By 1843 Dickens was facing financial difficulties; his latest serially-published novel, Martin Chuzzlewhit, was a bit of a flop in terms of sales. Good old Charlie really needed his next book to be a financial success, and with the upsurge in Christmas celebrations at the time, he saw an opportunity to capitalise on the season’s growing popularity. So, in December 1843 A Christmas Carol is published to widespread acclaim, selling out seven editions in only six months. From then on Dickens starts publishing new Christmas-themed novellas every December, as well as adding in opportune Christmas-centred chapters in any of his novels which was being serialized in magazines at the time. Essentially, Dickens invents our cultural favourite: the Christmas special, but more importantly he is also one of the first people to sell us Christmas.

So, for all intents and purposes a non-commercialised Christmas has never really existed. I’m not holding this against Dickens — a gal’s got to eat after all — but it’s just a tad ironic how a book preaching the non-monetary aspects of the season basically invented the financial free-for-all we all know and love today. The moral of the story may not be about the money, but the physical book almost certainly was — although even after all that it never made the money Dickens wanted. With this in mind, it may interest you to know that it isn’t only in the financials that Dickens somewhat resembles the pre-reformed Scrooge: he also seemed to find it impossible to practice that compassion that he so preached. The fact that he once had a poor woman arrested only for swearing on the street shows him as pretty much the antithesis of the social justice ideals he preached in his writing.

Alas, his behaviour towards his own family was even more reprehensible. Despite the plots of his novels consisting almost exclusively of the woes of abused children, Dickens was perhaps not quite cut out to be a father himself. He resented his ten children for the interruption they posed to his writing and the financial strain they put him under; even writing of his youngest son Edward when he was born “on the whole I could have dispensed with him”. Fatherly love at its finest. To make this worse he also blamed his wife Catherine Thomson Hogarth for the birth of their ten children which brought him so much unhappiness, as if he didn’t have any part in it himself, and then proceeded to have an affair with a woman 27 years younger than him. The list of atrocities against his unfortunate wife goes on even in their later separation, including failing to tell her of the death of one of their children. But, of course remember his immortal message — that Christmas is indeed a time for family.

Dickens and A Christmas Carol have permeated the Christmas season year in, year out, they are as inescapable as tinsel and trees in shop windows or festively packaged chocolate at the end of every supermarket aisle. Yet, perhaps Dickens should have taken a look at his own life before preaching reform on his general readership. So, the next time someone tells you not to be a Scrooge this holiday season maybe, just maybe, let them know that the great Charles Dickens himself was one first.