Reading the Collections, Week 42: A Christmas Carol
My earliest exposure to this seminal work of Dickens was a film adaptation notable for being performed by a cast of singing muppets. Since then I’ve seen straight adaptations, parodies, and films with the same DNA.
Which is to say that A Christmas Carol falls in to the category of popular pre-20th century fiction (along with Frankenstein, Treasure Island, Dracula) that I feel I know – through adaptations, parodies and general permeation of our popular culture* – even though I’ve never actually read the original. Despite being one of a growing number of men who rarely reads novels I’ve decided to change that this Christmas – having been promised that it’s shorter than you’d think.
We have several copies of A Christmas Carol in Special Collections – most included as part of Christmas Stories, or part of collections of Dickens’ complete works. I decided to go for an 1880 edition – somewhat later than the original 1842 publication date, but still feeling to me authentically and ‘Dickensianly’ Victorian.
The initial charm comes from the period advertisements on the wrapper that create a sense of time and place before even starting on the novel itself – we’re talking brain salts, electropathic belts for curing hysteria, a plea to buy matches made in the East End, and varieties of polish sounding not too dissimilar to the kind Dickens himself had to stick labels on when he worked in a blacking factory aged 11.
The first thing I noticed about the text itself is that chapters are described as staves – this confused me at first, but the clue is in the title – this is a Christmas carol, a crowd-pleasing piece with a moral lesson, and each section is a new verse.
It’s easy to read – I think I have mostly avoided Dickens because of his reputation for long books written in a verbose style, but A Christmas Carol isn’t like that at all. It’s very tightly put together and I was happy to read the thing over the course of one night.
I also had the misconception that it would be dry, or unfunny, or that any jokes in it would be stale and unamusing by this point – but again I was wrong. It’s funnier than I expected – albeit in a groaning, Christmas cracker way – starting with an extended joke about whether door nails should be considered deader than coffin nails, and ending on a weak pun about Scrooge abstaining from spirits. My favourite was another weak pun made by Scrooge when confronting Marley’s ghost:
“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
The edition I read is illustrated sparsely but effectively with cartoonish engravings by Frederick Barnard. You get the sense that by the date of publication, certain images from the book were already iconic, and the sight of Scrooge in his night cap was already well-established and immediately recognisable.
Aside from being funny, I also found it genuinely scary and gruesome, in a way that most of the adaptations made for family viewing dare not be:
At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear in-doors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!
The story itself was very much as I expected and not so different from the versions I have come to know – though I was surprised at how little the Cratchitts and Tiny Tim actually feature on the page. It is, of course, a testament to Dickens’s skill as a writer that characters that are only really sketches seem to be fully realised, and that the imaginary death of a character with only a few lines of dialogue has an emotional punch. I was amused (and grateful) for the clarification at the end of the novel that Tiny Tim isn’t actually dead, for those not paying full attention:
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father
So, having spent a night with the three Christmas spirits, I have seen the error of my ways and will forevermore recommend actually reading the works of Charles Dickens – I gather he has some other novels that might be worth a look too.
*This Christmas’s flagship BBC drama Dickensian essentially takes this as its starting point, not being based on any particular novel but assuming the British viewing public has some sense of what Dickens is all about.
Digital Archives Officer