I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
Charles Dickens, December, 1843.
Though Charles Dickens was arguably at the height of his fame in 1843, when he wrote A Christmas Carol, at the time he was also suffering financial difficulties due to the lack of success of his novel Martin Chuzzelwit. Originally he had planned to write a pamphlet entitled An Appeal to the People of England, on Behalf of the Poor Man's Child, inspired by the Children's Employment Commission Report1 which was to have outlined the plight of the vast underclass of London. But after his pleas to the commissioners of the report went repeatedly unanswered, Dickens abandoned this idea and realised that a well-written story would have more impact. The result, A Christmas Carol, in prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (to give it its full title) was eventually published on 19 December, 1843.
The story begins by telling the reader that Jacob Marley has been dead ('as dead as a doornail') for seven years. His business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, is the meanest man in London. He hates Christmas and dismisses it with the word 'Humbug!'. He pays his clerk a very poor wage and resents giving him Christmas Day off. He believes the poor to be 'surplus population' who deserve their poverty through their own deficiencies.
So it is that on Christmas Eve he receives a visit... from the ghost of his business partner.
Marley has harsh words for Scrooge, but his visit is Scrooge's last chance for redemption. He has arranged for Scrooge to be visited by three spirits to show him the error of his ways: The Spirit of Christmas Past shows Scrooge episodes from his own history that have shaped his character; The Spirit of Christmas Present is a guide and teacher who shows Scrooge how the act of celebrating the birth of Jesus makes people more human; and The Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come is the harbinger of doom for Scrooge - for even though he has learnt many lessons he may not be allowed to live long enough to put them into practice...
When A Christmas Carol was written, the gap between rich and poor was immense. Among the poorer classes the average life expectancy was 22, and half of the funerals in London were for children under ten. There were a large number of employers like Scrooge who made huge amounts of money, but paid their employees only the most basic of minimal wages.
Scrooge was paying Bob Cratchit 15 shillings a week, which was about half a 'living wage'. His daughter Martha would have made a lot less, but the family could only just survive on the two incomes. When Peter (who was probably about 12) started working, the five shillings and sixpence he would bring home might allow the family to buy occasional 'luxuries' like new shoes. Scrooge professes not to know about the plight of the poor, but he dismisses Bob's wish for a Merry Christmas by commenting that he can barely support his family for the rest of the year let alone spend extra at Christmas.
For those in an even worse position than the Cratchits, the situation was almost hopeless. 'Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?' asks Scrooge. There were many of both in Dickens' time which simply punished the poor for their poverty. Dickens felt very strongly about this as his own father was sent to a debtor's prison when Charles was a young child. Workhouses were shelters for those who could not support themselves, where they did hard work for a little food and a place to sleep.
The owners of the workhouses fed the poor enough food to keep them working, but kept the bulk of the money given to them by the government. It was a system that suited both sides, so there was little incentive for reform. Dickens saw the social divide as a situation that could become extremely volatile and dangerous. The Spirit of Christmas Present 'protects' two children representing ignorance and want. These children represented the lack of education and money that afflicted the poor. Dickens believed that unless something was done, the poor would eventually revolt.
The main character is of course Ebenezer Scrooge. He has no redeeming characteristics at the start of the book, but he is not a pantomime villain. He is immediately a flesh-and-blood creation, but one who represents the pitiless creed of business. His preference for money over humanity is as clear and relevant today as it was two centuries earlier.
When Scrooge meets the ghost of Jacob Marley he is not prepared to believe in his existence, because it does not obey the rules of logic that have shaped his life. Even after he is convinced of Marley's reality, he cannot believe that a good businessman can be punished for his neglect of other men and women. To Scrooge, business is an honourable pursuit entered into by honourable men.
Scrooge changes gradually during his time with the spirits, but he does not instantly repent. When The Ghost of Christmas Past shows him his own self as a youth, he is inclined to blame other people or the harshness of the world for his mistakes. It is the awareness that he gave up the chance to find true happiness with his fiancée that first convinces him to look at his life in a new way. He realises that money has not made him happy in the way that she would have done.
The Ghost of Christmas Present is a marvellous character. He is indeed the representation of all that is good about Christmas. The throne made up of Christmas food and the torch that sprinkles Christmas cheer over the poor and needy are symbols of Christmas that still resonate today. However when you read Stave Three2 closely it is clear that the bulk of the work Dickens had done on his proposed pamphlet on the Children's Employment Commission Report has ended up in the words of this spirit.
In contrast to The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, who is mute and takes a form akin to the Grim Reaper, The Ghost of Christmas Present is a teacher who uses Scrooge's words against him, especially when he tells Scrooge that Tiny Tim is part of the 'surplus population'. Scrooge is shown the value of human kindness; especially in a world where so many people suffer poverty and mistreatment. The spirit takes him to Bob Cratchit's house to show poor people enjoying Christmas because of its central message. He visits a mining village where people suffer danger and ill-health for pitiful wages. Every place he visits represents the effects of poverty.
The visit to Scrooge's nephew shows richer people celebrating in a Christian way. Everyone except Scrooge and his ilk celebrate Christmas in a way that enriches their lives. The Ghost only walks on the Earth for the 12 days preceding Christmas, but in those 12 days mankind learns how to live in a charitable and forgiving manner (in an aside, Dickens laments the fact that they cannot remember the spirit's lessons for the other 50 weeks of the year).
Scrooge's nephew, Fred, is the other mouthpiece chosen by Dickens. His appearance at the beginning of the novel sets out the battle between business and common humanity. His speech is a passionate defence of Christmas in an age of increasing commercialism, as he outlines the ways in which Christmas does him good and invites his uncle to share this marvellous time with him. When he talks of that time of year 'when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely', he distils the essence of Christmas into one phrase.
Bob Cratchit is not considered important enough to warrant a name in Stave One, but the Cratchit family Christmas is a central part of Scrooge's change of heart. When he is brought face to face with the effects of his meanness he finds it deeply unsettling. Mrs Cratchit speaks for a silent majority when she rails against Bob's description of Scrooge as 'the founder of the feast'. Peter Cratchit will lose the chance of an education thus starting the cycle of poverty all over again. Tiny Tim is the representative of the children who die before their time because no-one cares about their plight. Its power as a piece of social polemic is enhanced by the words of the spirit before and after.
The Effects of the Novel
On its release in 1843, this book caused a sensation. It alarmed the business classes, who saw their creed being laid open to scathing criticism. The poor (or at least those few who could read) saw Dickens as their champion, while the social reformers saw the book as a powerful ally in their battle against vested interests. In America, a mill-owner read it and immediately declared that the following Christmas his factory would shut down on Christmas Day for the first time.
Dickens found himself feted as never before, and read A Christmas Carol to huge audiences both in Britain and America. Even today people discover this book for the first time and marvel at its wisdom and power.
There have been many different film, TV, radio and stage versions of this marvellous book. In 1993 the Post Office in the UK issued a set of stamps to commemorate the 150th anniversary of publication. Public interest in this book never seems to wane, and every year it makes us open our own shut-up hearts freely and thankfully.
Even 160 years later the impact is still strong as we see echoes of our own divided world. On a lighter note this book invented many of the details that make the 'perfect Christmas' that we aspire to today.