Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.So begins one of the most popular and long-lived novellas in English literature.
|A Christmas Carol, front piece and title page (1843)|
If you have read biographies of Dickens, or if you perhaps had the good fortune to catch Roy Dotrice’s 13 part 1976 Masterpiece Theatre presentation chronicling the life of Dickens, you already know that many of the characters in A Christmas Carol were drawn from Dickens’ own life. Characteristics of Ebenezer Scrooge were taken in broad brush from Dickens father, a man whose moods swung often from joy to darker visages, who was in and out of debtors prison, and with whom Charles Dickens had a life-long love/hate relationship. Fan, Scrooge’s fragile sister, bears the same name as Dickens’ equally fragile sister, and her son Henry, a sickly child who died young, is almost certainly the model for Tiny Tim. Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, is also the name of Dickens’ younger brother, a spendthrift of whom Dickens largely disapproved.
|A page of Dickens original manuscript|
Although expenses related to Dickens’ decision to self-publish (tricky then as it can be now) resulted in less of a return than the always over extended author had hoped for, the little book was nonetheless an immediate commercial success. The first run of 6000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve of 1843 and a second press run was immediately begun . Since then Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has never been out of print.
The success of A Christmas Carol inspired Dickens to write four additional Christmas tomes published between 1844 and 1848: The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain. Each of these was published just before Christmas in succeeding years, and each involved a similar theme – redemption of the spirit in the context of the yuletide holiday. But none matched the success of A Christmas Carol.
So, what was it – what is it – about A Christmas Carol that struck the right chord? Well, at least back in 1843 some of the success of the book can be attributed to rather remarkable timing. Stated another way, the little book was a product of its times.
In the early 1800s Christmas had been more of a somber affair in England. It was a day barely observed, when businesses remained open and commerce continued to flow. That fact makes more understandable the grudging question Scrooge poses to Cratchitt: “You will want all day tomorrow, I suppose?” Scrooge, after all, had presided over his business in years when a Christmas holiday from commerce was hardly the norm.
But by the 1830s times were changing, and the Yule had begun its transformation into a joyous year-end celebration.
Evidence of this transformation abounds. In 1841, for example, Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert, German by birth, introduced a tradition from his homeland and the first Christmas trees appeared in England. 1843, the year A Christmas Carol was published, is also the first year that Christmas cards were widely exchanged in England. The singing of Christmas carols, suppressed in England since the Protestant Reformation and the Calvinist aversion to "nonessential" religious customs, also enjoyed a resurgence in the 1830s as wassailing took hold in England. All of this was in place when A Christmas Carol first appeared in the bookstores of London in December of 1843.
blanketed in a blizzard that continued for five days and reportedly left snow drifts of 12 to 40 feet in the city.
And beyond all of this is the moral of the story, which, as Dickens had hoped, captivated his readers. In 1843 England -- beset with its poor houses, debtors prisons, and child labor -- the hope of individual and societal redemption that lies at the heart of A Christmas Carol fell on sympathetic ears. Dickens was not the only Englishman appalled by these conditions, nor was he the only one hoping that society would begin to move toward a more charitable approach toward poverty and its ravages.
So a joyous Christmas story, set in a snow-bound England, and telling a tale of redemption, of throwing off miserly ways, of embracing human kindness and charity, was one that the reading public readily embraced.
|Alistair Sims in the 1951 movie. Perhaps the finest Scrooge|
Not only is the book universally read, it is equally universally performed. Think of the actors who have played Scrooge over the years – Reginald Owen, Alistair Sims, Basil Rathbone several times (he also played Marley at least once), Frederic March, Ralph Richardson, Cyril Richard, George C. Scott, Albert Finney, and Patrick Stewart. The story even resonates when Scrooge is played in a stretch – by Mickey Mouse, Mr. Magoo, Jim Carrey, Tim Curry, or by Kelsey Grammar (in an operatic version, nonetheless), or by Henry Winkler (in a western version), or by Marcel Maceau in a mime version, or by Bill Murray (in a jaded Hollywood setting), or by Michael Caine (performing opposite the Muppets), All of them, and others, have looked out at us and expounded on burying revelers with a stake of holly through their hearts. All of them have muttered about blots of mustard, crumbs of cheese, and underdone potatoes. All of them have snarled “humbug,” a word that did not exist until Dickens penned it. And each of them, every one, has been blessed and redeemed in the end.
I read Dickens A Christmas Carol every year, and (at least for me) it always works.
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. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!