. Every year, one of my Christmas traditions is to read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I wait till my decorations are up,switch off my phone, and settle down with my copy, in hand tooled green leather, with original illustrations. I cry and laugh and end up utterly in the Christmas mood.
If you’ve only ever seen an adaptation, I urge you to read it – there’s so much that never makes the movies.
It was first published on 19th December 1843 – the original ‘hitting the shelves in time for Christmas!’ best seller. Dickens had not had much success with his previous novel – Martin Chuzzlewit – but everyone loved Christmas Carol. Even inveterate Dickens-haters loved it. It has never been out of print. It’s been adapted to film, stage, opera, ballet, Blackadder, The Muppets, and that bizarre thing with Jim Carrey (personally, my favourite adaptation was Patrick Stewart’s one man stage show – though I am very fond of the Muppet’s version). It is credited with creating Christmas as a happy, jolly, family centred holiday, rather than a sombre, religion centred one. (Queen Victoria should also bear some of the credit for that, for introducing Christmas trees, and so on). It changed lives, shaming the rich into giving to the poor. It had a political message, in warning of the dangers of Want and Ignorance. It is, in the end, the ultimate Christmas story.
There’s two different theories as to Christmas Carol came about. One is that Dickens wrote it to highlight the plight of the poor, and shame cruel landlords and factory owners into taking better care of the poor. The other is that he scribbled it as a quick money spinner.
I think the truth is a mixture of this. He was short of money. He did want to make money fast. (As it happens, A Christmas Carol did not make him as much money as he hoped). He also had had the idea of writing a pamphlet or a story about the suffering of the poor caused by the rich at some time. He had also been heavily influenced by Washington Irving’s description of an English Christmas. Six weeks before Christmas, all these strands came together in his head, and he created A Christmas Carol. The last words were written literally days before final publication.
The speed shows. The language is colloquial, such as the small boy saying ‘Walk-ER!’ in disbelief – (nowadays he’d say ‘Yeah right!’ or ‘pull the other one mate!’). In a rewrite, the language would have been made more timeless. There are a few awkward plot points – why do the spirits say they’ll visit him over three nights, then do it all in one night? I suspect that would have been smoothed over in a rewrite. The characters feel real, even little Tiny Tim (annoying in most adaptations) has an air of fragile reality. It feels as if Bob Cratchit, and Fezziwig, and nephew Fred and Scrooge himself, even the boy in the street, were ripped from life – no time to do them over, to create examples of the virtues and vices as Dickens often did with his characters. It’s a first draft, and it shows.
And it’s wonderful. I cry every time. I’m moved every time. When Dickens did public readings of his work, this was his most popular (followed by the death of Nancy from Oliver Twist). A factory owner saw a stage adaptation of Christmas Carol, and was so moved, he not only closed his factory on Christmas Day, he sent every worker a turkey.
So is there a lesson for writers in this? How about that it’s often the work we scribble down in a hurry, that we take straight from that dark deep pit in our soul where our inspiration hides, that we don’t have time to smooth over or redo that works best? That often it’s not the work we sweat and pore and plan and rewrite over that works, but that quick money spinner? Or is it that cometh the hour, cometh the story – sometimes, it just all comes together in perfection. Or is it a lesson in mixing inspirations?
It could,and probably does mean all those things. But I also like to look at it as just a damn good story. I love the shiver down my back at the perfection of the phrase ‘misanthropic ice’. I love the ‘look behind you’ feeling when I read about the hearse preceding Scrooge up the stairs, and all the bells ringing at once. I love the descriptions of Christmas, from the happy homes to the miners in the ground, to the sailors at sea. I love the memories of my own childhood, when Dickens talks about the fairytale characters that populate Scrooge’s lonely holidays. And most of all, I love the end, when I laugh and cry all at once, when I cheer when I read the line ‘And Tiny Tim – who did NOT die’.
So I urge you to read A Christmas Carol this Christmas – not just as writers, but as readers.