Book Review: A Christmas Carol

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Arthur Rackham, Christmas Carol

On Christmas day I took a break from my current history obsession (a much needed break, as I am in the throes of reading about the dark ages when all of Europe seemed intent on butchering all the rest of Europe) and reread A Christmas Carol. I had forgotten how wonderful Dickens is and how especially wonderful A Christmas Carol is, both in its message and its writing.

What was interesting was to learn that Dickens considered A Christmas Carol and the rest of his Christmas books (The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, The Chimes, The Haunted Man) all to be rather sketchy things dashed off to make money:

“I never attempted great elaboration of detail in the working out of character within such limits [of space], believing it would not succeed. My purpose was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good-humor of the season justified, to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land.”

Would not succeed? There isn’t an author alive today who wouldn’t happily sell his mother into slavery and his soul to the devil to be able to create characters half as colorful and memorable as Scrooge, Tiny Tim or any of the Cratchit family, the spirits who haunt Scrooge, including Marley, or even such ancillary characters as old Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig. Yet Dickens apparently considered them barely limned.

Part of what makes them all so memorable for the reader is their kindness, their loving humanity, their good humor, their capacity for forgiveness, which is another way of saying what makes them memorable is the spirit of Christ within each of them, which is, of course, what Dickens was trying to express.

But another part of what makes them all so memorable is the skill of Dickens’ writing, the visual aspect that Dickens manages to convey so charmingly. Consider his description of the beautiful, nubile daughter of Scrooge’s lost love, playing with her much younger brothers and sisters:

[She] soon beginning to mingle in the sports, got pillaged by the young brigands most ruthlessly. What would I not have given to be one of them! Though I never could have been so rude, no, no! I wouldn’t for the wealth of all the world have crushed that braided hair, and torn it down; and for the precious little shoe, I wouldn’t have plucked it off, God bless my soul! to save my life. As to measuring her waist in sport, as they did, bold young brood, I couldn’t have done it; I should have expected my arm to grow round it for a punishment, and never come straight again. And yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price: in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest license of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value.

If that doesn’t make you fall in love, you have no heart within you. And that is just the briefly seen, unnamed daughter of a barely named lost love! The narrator, obviously, is Dickens himself, and I suspect Dickens, like all writers, was guilty of falling somewhat in love with even the least of his creations, and passing that love on to his readers.

(I do have to admit that much of the visual power, for me, also comes from the illustrations almost as much as from the words. Dickens’ work was most associated during his lifetime with the illustrations of Hablot Knight Browne—known as “Phiz”—first and foremost, George Cruikshank, John Leech, Robert Seymour, and Fred Barnard, and to a lesser extent with George Cattermole and S. L. Fildes, but the edition I read this past Christmas day was a late printing [1948] of the Arthur Rackham edition first published by William Heineman in 1915. Arthur Rackham, as immortal as Charles Dickens, is one of the most evocative artists ever when it comes to capturing the alluring innocence and grace of young girls teetering on the brink of womanhood, and his children all inhabit the wonderland somewhere between fairies and flesh-and-blood. His painting of the happy battle between the oldest daughter and her boisterous young siblings is a masterpiece of high-spirits and beauty, chaos and grace.)

A Christmas Carol was the first of the Christmas books, written in part for mercenary reasons, and in part to revive his own flagging self-confidence. Martin Chuzzlewit hadn’t sold as well as he had hoped, and Dickens was apparently going through a variety of personal crises, not least of which was a case of what we would today call writer’s block. A Christmas Carol swept that block away like a flood bursting through a ruptured dam: Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, A Child’s History of England, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, not to mention a host of lesser works, editing a weekly magazine, multiple public readings and tours, all took place in the twenty-seven years between A Christmas Carol and his death in 1870. What other writer has ever produced that many enduring masterpieces in a lifetime, let alone less than three decades?

While A Christmas Carol was very well received when it was written, acclaimed by Thackeray as a “…national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness…” it appears that The Cricket was somewhat more popular during Dickens’ lifetime, and though I may be misinterpreting a childhood memory of Eleanor Farjeon’s (herself an author of children’s stories and of the hymn Morning Has Broken, made into a popular song by Cat Stevens), I don’t think it became anything other than a popular literary hit. The Cricket on the Hearth was adapted for the stage as early 1845, while A Christmas Carol had to wait until after the turn of the century. Since then, of course, it has made up for its late start and has been adapted for stage and film and radio in countless productions and variations and misinterpretations ranging from the unspeakable to the delightful.

But none of the many theatrical adaptations, not even the best of the best, equal the book. The reason, primarily, is because none of them make full use of the main character, who is Dickens himself. It is Dickens who takes us by the hand and leads us through Scrooge’s past and present and possible future; it is Dickens who leads us through the lives of the characters with whom Scrooge interacts, past and present; it is Dickens who leads us through London, through glimpses of rural England, from inland farms and villages to a ship at sea, much as the spirits lead Scrooge. And of all of it is done with Dickens’ unique capacity for showing us the worst of humanity even as he presses home the point that there is far more good than evil in the world, always—yesterday, today, and tomorrow. To paraphrase an author I read once (and can’t remember now), when Dickens gives us a pill, he concocts it out of spices and sugar.

It is that rare capacity for hope and Christian charity and goodwill, even in the face of evil and despair, that makes Dickens so unique among authors, that makes his voice so compelling in each of his tales, and that dooms any adaptation of his work that does not make use of his most singular voice.

Consider the following:

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humor.”

God bless us everyone.

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