A Christmas without Charles Dickens and “A Christmas Carol” seems unthinkable, and therefore it’s appropriate that this Penguin Books edition of “A Christmas Carol” is introduced with the famous anecdote of a child in London responding to the news of Dickens’s 1870 passing by crying out, “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?” The great British novelist’s influence on how people around the world think about the Christmas holiday has been that comprehensive, and remains just as strong today as it was when “A Christmas Carol” was first published in 1842.
As Michael Slater of the University of London points out in a perceptive foreword, Dickens associated his writings about Christmas with the importance of memory, including the remembrance of loss; additionally, Dickens achieved the neat trick of linking the holiday with Christian ideals of charity while avoiding any overt expressions of religious ideology that could be mistaken for sectarianism. That recipe for tempered holiday cheer has been charming readers for over 170 years now.
What makes this edition of “A Christmas Carol” a particularly good present for any thoughtful reader, and God bless us every one, is the way in which this edition situates “A Christmas Carol” within the larger context of Dickens’s writings about Christmas generally. The presence of these other writings reminds one that “A Christmas Carol” was neither the first nor the last time that Charles Dickens wrote about the Christmas holiday.
This Christmas collection proceeds chronologically, and begins with a brief 1835 newspaper sketch titled “Christmas Festivities.” The sketch is relatively general in nature, but looks ahead to “A Christmas Carol” in Dickens’s assertion that “That man must be a misanthrope indeed in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas” (p. 1) – a descriptor that could remind many readers of one Ebenezer Scrooge. The story that follows, “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” is one that you may already have if you are a Dickens fan who owns a copy of Dickens’s first novel, “The Pickwick Papers” (1837), in which the story appears as Chapter 28. In its depiction of a mean-spirited sexton named Gabriel Grub (good Dickensian name, that) whose abduction by goblins late one Christmas Eve results in dramatic changes to his life and character, one sees a foreshadowing of the basic plotline of “A Christmas Carol.” This first of Dickens’s ghost stories of Christmas is followed by what is described as “A Christmas Episode from Master Humphrey’s Clock,” the 1840-41 periodical for which Dickens was author and sole contributor. This concise episode looks ahead to “A Christmas Carol” in the way it depicts its narrator observing a lone diner in a tavern at Christmas, befriending him, and helping him to move forward from the paralysis of grief with which “His mind was wandering among old Christmas Days” (p. 22).
And then there is “A Christmas Carol” itself. I have read it a number of times before, but a number of facets of the story stood out to me this time. First is the story’s brevity – 85 pages, in this edition. No wonder some of the “stand-alone” printings of “A Christmas Carol” have had to resort to expedients such as large type fonts and wide margins in order to extend the story to something seeming more like modern book length. The story’s brevity has no doubt also contributed to the manner in which generations of filmmakers have been drawn to it; the Internet Movie Database lists over 200 “Christmas Carol” movies and TV episodes, including versions that feature the Muppets, Mr. Magoo, Mickey Mouse, the Smurfs, Barbie, the Flintstones, Dora the Explorer, Bugs Bunny, and the Jetsons, not to mention episodes of “The Love Boat,” “Family Ties,” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.” Indeed, it’s amazing that “A Christmas Carol” has survived all that so-often-uninspired adaptation.
It survives because it’s a great story, one that draws its characters quickly and economically. On my first reading of “A Christmas Carol,” many years ago, I was not over-optimistic at the story’s beginning, particularly when the narrator requires the whole first paragraph to inform the reader that Jacob Marley is dead, and the entire second paragraph to expatiate on the possible reasons for the existence of the phrase “dead as a doornail.” But from that point forward, the story moves forward like Yuletide gangbusters.
I found Scrooge to be more human and more believable than the cartoonish caricature of many of the adaptations. One mistake that many of the movies make is to depict Scrooge, in the evening before his hauntings begin, as making his dinner from gruel. In fact, however, Scrooge has already taken “his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern” (p. 41), and is eating the gruel only because he “had a cold in his head” (p. 43). How many busy businesspeople today, here in this Christmas season of 2013-14, took a melancholy dinner in a melancholy tavern tonight – Applebee’s, maybe, or Ruby Tuesday – and followed it up with their own favorite head-cold remedy, purchased perhaps at CVS or Walgreens? Perhaps there is more of Scrooge in all of us than many of us would care to admit.
Dickens scholar Slater’s notes for the story are also helpful. I learned, for example, that when Dickens uses the phrase “the wisdom of our ancestors” early in the story, he is poking fun at Tory phraseology and policies of his time. Similarly, in the famous scene when the Ghost of Christmas Present opens his green robe to reveal two hideous children, a boy named Ignorance and a girl named Want, Dickens is looking squarely at England’s endless delays in establishing a system for public education. At the same time, in looking at all these subtle features of the story, I do not want to neglect Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – all those features that have helped “A Christmas Carol” to live for generations of readers. It is a great story, pure and simple.
The subsequent Christmas stories and tales in this volume show that Dickens continued to return to the Christmas holiday as a subject, if not always with the same degree of success that he achieved in “A Christmas Carol.” The novella “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain” (1848) engages an interesting philosophical concept – that it is our memories of sorrow and loss that make us capable of compassion – but it is neither as concise nor as successful as “A Christmas Carol.” There is much that is interesting in the story’s account of the chemist Redlaw, who willingly accepts a phantom’s offer to relieve him of his sad memories, only to find that he has lost all that is good in his humanity, and that his malady of emotional death spreads to everyone he encounters – but it’s slow-paced and generally grim, like much of “Dombey and Son” (1848), the novel that Dickens was working on at the same time.
“A Christmas Tree” (1850) is a delightful essay in which Dickens evokes powerfully the way in which the ordinary toys and decorations of Christmastime can be strongly evocative of multiple layers of memory. “What Christmas Is, as We Grow Older” (1851) is a somewhat somber examination of how the meaning of the Christmas holiday changes, in some ways, and remains consistent in others, as people we love go before us and leave us to observe Christmas without them. And “The Seven Poor Travellers” (1854) provides a striking look at a Christmastime visit to a hostel in Dickens’s hometown of Rochester in Kent; founded by the bequest of a 16th-century nobleman, the hostel provides one night’s lodging to six poor travelers. Dickens makes himself a seventh of these poor travelers, and arranges a Christmas evening’s entertainment for them.
“A Christmas Carol” is the centerpiece of these Dickensian Christmas tales, as it should be; but this very fine volume shows where “A Christmas Carol” came from, and where it fits within Charles Dickens’s literary treatments of the holiday that would forever after be identified with him. Writing this review on the eighth day of Christmas ("eight maids-a-milking"), I encourage you to make this edition of "A Christmas Carol" a part of your future holiday celebrations.