Wherein we are introduced to Dickens’s five Christmas books (the first of which, A Christmas Carol, is the tenth read of our Dickens Chronological Reading Club 2022-24), along with the accompanying travelogue Pictures from Italy; with a glance at the context of Dickens’ life at the time–and other considerations. Finally, we have an overview of the whole of the reading schedule from 20 December through 6 February; with a look ahead to the coming week.
Yo ho, Ebenezers! Today we’re embarking on a magical journey through the Christmas books of Charles Dickens!
“Old Fezziwig laid down his pen, and looked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of seven. He rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself, from his shoes to his organ of benevolence; and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice:
‘Yo ho, there! Ebenezer! Dick!’”
But first, some quick links:
- General Mems
- A Christmas Carol: A General Introduction
- The Other Christmas Books
- Pictures from Italy
- Adaptations and Additional Media
- Reading Schedule
- A Look-Ahead to A Christmas Carol (20-26 December, 2022)
- Works Cited
Rach recently chatted about The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge with our dear #DickensClub member, Deacon Matthew, on his beautiful podcast on seminary life, faith, and literature. The latest segment, on Barnaby, can be found here, and begins at approximately 34 minutes in. Look out next week for a three-way chat on A Christmas Carol with Deacon Matthew, Boze, and Rach! We agreed it was “our best yet!”
If you’re counting, today is day 351 (and week 51) in our #DickensClub! This week we’ll be reading, appropriately, A Christmas Carol, our tenth read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for any thoughts on A Christmas Carol, or use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us. Heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship, The Dickens Society, and the Charles Dickens Letters Project for retweets, and to all those liking, sharing, and encouraging our Club, including Gina Dalfonzo, Dr. Christian Lehmann and Dr. Pete Orford. Huge “thank you” also to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such a marvelous online resource for us, and to The Charles Dickens Page and The Victorian Web for such fantastic background information and illustrations.
And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here. If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.
A Christmas Carol: A General Introduction
What is the measure of a person’s life? Is redemption possible for someone whose own foolish choices have shattered his or her chances at happiness? What do we owe to each other?
Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol, one of the five or ten most beloved, adapted, celebrated books ever written, grapples in a nimble and profoundly entertaining fashion with these and other questions. Political and moral issues are never far from the surface of Dickens’s text, but are handled with such a light touch that many readers (or viewers) don’t even notice, so captivating is the story and so emotionally gripping is the arc of Scrooge’s transformation. As Rach was recently saying, the story is so archetypal that it almost seems to have an existence independent of Dickens, as if he was merely transcribing an ancient tale. Doctor Who paid homage to this feeling by suggesting in a 2010 episode (entitled “A Christmas Carol”) that the story exists in every world, wherever the midwinter festival is celebrated. Russell T. Davies, himself a Doctor Who showrunner, said, “Just how brilliant was Dickens in coming up with that? It’s now replacing the Nativity as the Christmas story. What a man!”
A Christmas Carol is significant not only as a treasure of world literature and culture; it marked a critical turning point in Dickens’s life. His last few books—Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, American Notes—had not been successful, and the last book in particular had provoked a public backlash in the United States. There was a growing sense that Dickens’s well of creativity had run dry, that he was spent as an author, that the early success of Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and The Old Curiosity Shop had been a mere fluke and that now, at the advanced age of thirty-one, the sun was setting on the career of the Inimitable. Needing to pay off debts to his publishers Chapman & Hall, and hoping to salvage his reputation as a storyteller, he pitched to them the idea of a Christmas novella—an idea without much precedent at the time, given the relatively low esteem that Christmas had in the English imagination prior to Dickens, and therefore a risky proposition financially. If the book had failed, Dickens’s career would have been as dead as a door-nail.
The book was written in six weeks, Dickens only occasionally interrupting the flow of work to finish a number from the concurrent Martin Chuzzlewit. In the flush of inspiration, as Peter Ackroyd has noted, Dickens drew upon not only the major social issues of the day—the prisons, the workhouses—but also his own most formative griefs and recollections—reading alone in a decaying building (the schoolroom which Scrooge visits standing in for the blacking factory in which he was forced to work at the age of twelve), his love for his sister Fan, the terraced house in Bayham Street, Camden Town that becomes the home of Bob Cratchit and family, the adult Dickens and his often Scrooge-ish preoccupation with being paid what he was owed. “Some of his earliest memories are here fused together,” writes Ackroyd, “creating such an entirely new shape that it is perhaps pointless to look for the various scattered ‘sources’ of which A Christmas Carol is made up. It is enough to say that much of its power derives from the buried recollections which animate it.”
The book’s ubiquity can make it difficult to detach the story from the cultural detritus surrounding it. As you read it again this Christmas, pay close attention to how Dickens’s faith informs his perspective—his concern for the destitute and forgotten, his hope for redemption in even the most miserable lives, his sense that the most cruel judgment is to die alone and unloved. Notice, too, how A Christmas Carol plays almost like a piece of orchestral music as Scrooge journeys from stage to stage—the bleakness of his childhood slowly giving way to the light of Christmas morning as he walks alongside the Second Ghost through the thronged streets of London. Revisit “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” from the Christmas number of Pickwick Papers and note how Grub seems to anticipate Scrooge, and the goblins the ghosts, suggesting that Dickens attempted several variations on this story before inscribing it in its most perfect form. Observe how the gentleman in a white waistcoat in Oliver Twist, who prophesies with a grim relish that young Oliver will be hanged, turns up here in the form of a ghost who wishes to assist a starving mother and her child, and cannot.
Best of all, Dickens approaches a peak of his descriptive powers in this book (as he had done in the Dingley Dell scene in Pickwick—Christmas awoke something nameless and secret in him). At times his language approaches Shakespeare, as in his descriptions of London in winter, which evoke the unnaturally chilly winters of the 1810s when he was a child, and which he always remembered:
“It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already—it had not been light all day—and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.“
Or the description of the men at sea and the miners in the bowels of the earth, which so often gets excised from screen adaptations:
“Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea—on, on—until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.“
Dickens is no sentimentalist, however, which explains much of the story’s enduring power. It was Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim who most powerfully engaged the novelist’s sympathies; it was the twin phantoms, Ignorance and Want, who became the book’s central metaphor; it was the hope of stirring the hearts and stoking the guilt of those in a position to improve the fortunes of their less privileged neighbors, that drove him to compose a Christmas classic.
The Other Christmas Books
When A Christmas Carol proved successful—it became the bestselling book of the season, and went through multiple printings—Dickens the businessman realized there was money to be made in the printing of holiday-themed books. In short succession there followed The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man. Though none of them would prove to have the enduring power of his first Christmas book (Dickens’s own predictions to the contrary), The Chimes is notable both for its origins—Dickens’s rage at the case of a poor woman condemned to death for drowning her infant child in the Thames—and for its remarkable opening passage, in which Toby Veck walks along the London streets against a fierce wind.
“And a breezy, goose-skinned, blue-nosed, red-eyed, stony-toed, tooth-chattering place it was, to wait in, in the winter-time, as Toby Veck well knew. The wind came tearing round the corner—especially the east wind—as if it had sallied forth, express, from the confines of the earth, to have a blow at Toby. And oftentimes it seemed to come upon him sooner than it had expected, for bouncing round the corner, and passing Toby, it would suddenly wheel round again, as if it cried ‘Why, here he is!’”
Pictures from Italy
As we did with American Notes, I would like to make a personal appeal to the readers of this blog to check out Pictures from Italy. Rach and I recently read it aloud together and were dumbstruck by the creative fury of Dickens’s descriptions, his endless lists, and his unfailing sense of fun. Whereas the first travel book occasionally got stuck in cul-de-sacs of political and social commentary, his Italian travelogue is pure joy. The chapter introducing the Goblin of Avignon, whom Dickens encountered in the Palace of Popes and who has a habit of shouting, “Voila les oubliettes! Les oubliettes de l’Inquisition!” with a sort of deranged glee, is a personal favorite.
Adaptations and Additional Media
Rach, Chris & I recently contributed a post for Dickens December showcasing some of our favorite Dickens-adjacent Christmas media.
There are several hundred film, radio, and TV adaptations of A Christmas Carol of varying quality, but we would both like to recommend the criminally neglected 1970 musical Scrooge starring Albert Finney and Alec Guinness. It’s been mandatory viewing in both Rach’s home and mine since we were kids and become an indispensable holiday tradition. The songs (by Leslie Bricusse, of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) are irrepressibly catchy, the characters (particularly Tom the Hot-Soup Man) are indelible, and the script is weird, inventive, and steeped in Dickens. (Kenneth More’s Ghost of Christmas Present owes more to the goblin in “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” than he does to Dickens’s original ghost.) It’s one of the few adaptations that depicts Scrooge in hell, and likely the only one featuring a crowd song-and-dance number on Scrooge’s coffin.
|Week One: 20-26 December||A Christmas Carol||This is the beginning of our sequence of Christmas Books and Pictures from Italy. As reluctant as we were to break up the sequence of Christmas Books with Pictures and Dombey, it was between that or going out of chronological order.|
|Week Two: 27 December 2022-02 January 2023||The Chimes|
|Week Three: 03 January-09 January 2023||The Cricket on the Hearth|
|Weeks Four, Five and Six: 10-30 January, 2023||OPTIONAL: Pictures from Italy||Since we won’t have a break until after this sequence, Pictures from Italy is an optional work and can be used as an additional break, or to catch up.|
|Week Seven: 31 January-06 February, 2023||The Battle of Life|
A Look-Ahead to A Christmas Carol (20-26 December 2022)
Friends, this week we’ll be reading A Christmas Carol in its entirety. If you’d like to read it online for free, it can be found at The Circumlocution Office, or downloaded at sites such as Gutenberg.
There are so many fabulous audiobook versions, too! Patrick Stewart, Frank Muller, Hugh Grant, Simon Prebble, Anton Lesser…
Here’s a free unabridged reading by the marvelous Simon Prebble (who has also–brilliantly!–read books such as The Pickwick Papers and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell):
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Davies, Russell T. and Benjamin Cook. Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter. Random House, 2010.