Everyone knows A Christmas Carol. It’s about as famous as the story of Christ’s Nativity itself. Even those who have never opened a book know at least the outline of the story. No matter how frequently it is derided for its tweeness or for its alleged sentimentality (usually by those who haven’t read it), its popularity, some hundred and seventy years after its first publication, seems as great as ever, and it continues to be loved by readers of all levels of sophistication. It has been filmed for both the big screen and the small countless times, and appetite for further adaptations doesn’t seem to have dampened. Every Christmas, theatrical adaptations appear on countless stages. Everyone from the Carry On team to Blackadder to the Muppets to the scurrilous (but nonetheless very funny) Viz magazine has parodied it, confident that their intended audience would pick up the reference. Its themes and motifs turn up in all sorts of unexpected places. If you turn to, say, Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illych, the opening scene presents us with a group of businessmen who mention in bored and unconcerned tones the death of someone they had known: this scene is taken directly from the fourth part of A Christmas Carol, in which former colleagues of Scrooge speak in similarly unconcerned tones about Scrooge’s death. Or consider Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries, at the start of which the protagonist has a vision of his own funeral; as the film progresses, we see marks of Dickens’ novella all over it: in both cases, a miserable old sod is redeemed after revisiting his own lost past.
That so many people know about the story without having read it is, of course, a tribute to the power of Dickens’ work; but it also means there are a great many misconceptions about it. It is still regarded as essentially “twee” – which, I see, is defined as “affectedly dainty or refined”. I suppose it can’t be denied that Dickens is often whimsical in this work, and, to certain readers, that whimsicality may well appear “affectedly dainty or refined”. But those who actually do read it are often taken by surprise by its emotional power; and, as with those who come to Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life with similar preconceptions, they are taken by surprise by how dark so much of it is. It is true that the novel ends in a mood of joy – and, this being Dickens, the joy is presented in a whimsical manner rather than with the seriousness of a Schillerian Ode. But the joy has been hard-earned. Before we reach that joy, we have to glimpse into the abyss.
It is towards the end of the third part that we are prepared for what is to come. The Spirit of Christmas Present reveals two children under his robes. But these are not by any means cute, Disneyesque children:
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
‘Spirit, are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.
‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.’
There is so much to comment upon in just this one passage. Amongst other things, very few writers would use the adjective “menacing” where the adverb “menacingly” would seem the more obvious choice (“…and glared out menacing”), but Dickens had a superb ear: that sentence, he knew, had to end strongly with a stressed syllable. The rhythms and the sonorities of this passage could hardly be improved upon. And the effect, even out of context, is, for me, chilling.
And then, immediately, we are with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come. He shows Scrooge a dead man, and then takes Scrooge into what is effectively Hell. This is a world from which all feelings we like to imagine as human are missing. The woman who used to clean in the dead man’s house has robbed the dead man of everything – even the shirt off his back – and, in this dark place grimed with more than merely physical filth, she attempts to sell them. Scrooge, at the stage of his education, can feel the absence of what should be sacred, and he recoils at it. Does no-one have any feelings for this man who has died? In reply, the spirit shows him people who had been debtors to the dead man, and who, despite knowing they shouldn’t, are merely relieved by the death of their creditor. But this is not what Scrooge wants to see. Does no-one feel any tenderness?
It is at this point that we are taken to what, I think, lies at the heart of the story. We are shown the Cratchits mourning their dead child. Some have accused Dickens of being sentimental in this passage: I think such people are too embarrassed by naked emotion: this passage is, for me at least, the most convincing depiction of grief I think I have come across in fiction. And it is by no means placed in the story gratuitously: Scrooge needs to see for himself how deeply human beings can feel for each other. He needs to see that even the pain they feel marks them out as human.
In Michael Slater’s recent biography, we are told that Dickens was a man enthusiastic reader of Wordsworth. This does not surprise me. Wordsworth had spoken in The Prelude of a community of the living and the dead:
One great society alone on earth:
The noble living and the noble dead.
Wordsworth had also depicted in his poem “We are Seven” a child who insists that he and his siblings make seven, even though several of his brothers and sisters are dead. Here, the Cratchits’ child is dead: but he remains nonetheless one of the family. No – this is not sentimentality: this is a true depiction of true emotions, and something Scrooge – and all the other Scrooges of this world – need to witness. There is nothing “dainty” about this, and certainly nothing “affected”.
(I also think Dickens had taken from Wordsworth the Rousseau-esque idea of the essential innocence of childhood, of corruption only appearing as one becomes older: Scrooge as a child had been quite innocent; it was only as he had started to become older that corruption had set in. And if he is to be reformed, he must first be given a glimpse of his childhood state.)
The last part of A Christmas Carol is, of course, pure joy. But it has been earned. It has been hard-earned.
A Christmas Carol seems to me the greatest of modern myths, and it resonates as powerfully as any myth of any period. It is difficult to imagine a time when people won’t know the story of how Scrooge was reformed. For me, it is essential reading for this time of year. Dickens wrote four other Christmas Books, of which three are very fine (The Battle for Life is the sole failure). But none matches this, one of the greatest masterpieces, I think, of a very great writer.