Just why is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol still the most potent of all festive tales?
PUBLISHED: 08:33 24 December 2016
We take a special look at one of literature’s most enduring festive offerings and just why it remains so relevant today
There can be few people who have experienced the build-up to Christmas without some reference to a work of literature which has soaked so deeply into popular culture it’s now part of the festive season’s traaditions.
Because A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a classic of remarkable proportions; from our use of phrases derived from it (the character ‘Scrooge’ has become a by-word for being miserly, ‘bah humbug’ a familiar refrain for those not getting in the spirit of the season) to the sentiment of the story of redemption.
There have been TV, theatre and film productions on an almost annual basis and its take on Victorian Christmas - from which so much of our festive traditions derive - remains potent.
Ironic, too, that as Dickens used the novella to highlight poverty and injustice, it perhaps remains as relevant today as when it was first published back in 1843.
Then bearing the grand title of A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas, it has never been out of print since.
And given the author’s long history in the county - he spent much of his childhood in Chatham, spent holidays in Broadstairs and spent his final years living, working and ultimately dying, at his home at Gad’s Hill Place in Higham.
Steve Martin, from Gravesend, is the honorary general secretary of the Dickens’ Fellowship.
He explained: “Dickens actually wrote many Christmas ghost stories, both before and, on the success of his most famous A Christmas Carol, almost one for every Christmas for the rest of his life.
“Some of the stories were written specifically for Christmas editions of the magazines he was editor of or involved with.
“Dickens had an idea he had a winner of a Christmas ghost story with The Carol and published it as a book.
“First runs published made almost no profit due to Dickens’ exacting demands and insistence on the quality of the materials and colours used to produce the book.
“Arguably, if you include money made from later editions and his readings of The Carol, it was his biggest money earner.”
And it was those closest to him who were first to hear the tale - straight from the author’s mouth, as Mr Martin explains: “For many years he gave private readings to his friends and family of his latest works to get their reactions. This developed into amateur charity and fund raising public readings, including The Chatham Mechanics Institute, from Christmas 1853 and his first professional readings in the spring of 1858.
“Dickens performed A Christmas Carol during his first public reading; it was a mainstay throughout his reading career and even performed during his farewell reading tour in the spring of 1870. It was in fact his second most performed reading.
“Dickens had a shrewd business brain and with lots of outgoing expenses, he quickly realised he could earn more money from public readings than writing books.”
The story of A Christmas Caorol itself may be set in the capital, but it harks back to his own harsh life in Kent.
Mr Martin said: “Whilst The Carol is set in and around London many think that Scrooge’s childhood experiences are based on Dickens’ formative years spent in Chatham.
“It could be argued that when Scrooge was left at school over holidays while all the other pupils went home was based on his childhood experience.
“With mounting debts, his father John was posted from Chatham Dockyard Navy Pay Office to London. Whilst the rest of his family moved to London, young Charles was left at school to finish the term before joining them.”
A certain house near Gravesend was of major interest.
Mr Martin went on: “Dickens first saw Gad’s Hill Place at Higham, that he later came to own, in 1817 at the age of five. He would often walk there with his father John from Chatham and admire the house. His father set him a lifelong challenge by telling him ‘If you were to be very persevering and were to work hard, you work hard, you might someday come to live in it’.
“It is thought that Dickens describes the house in Christmas Carol as ‘a mansion of dull red brick, with a little weathercock surmounted cupola on the roof, and a bell hanging in it’. Hall Place in Bexley also makes this claim but, as I am a tour guide at Gad’s Hill Place, I am sticking with the claim.
“The story A Christmas Carol is said by some scholars to be based on his earlier ghost story in The Pickwick Papers in 1836 called The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton.
“There are many similarities between the two Christmas ghost stories. There is also a school of thought that the cavern into which the sextant was dragged into by the goblins is the one below St Mary’s Church in Dock Road, Chatham. The Dickens family, including a young Charles, attended church there on Sundays and you could see his childhood home from the window. His sister is thought to be buried there and he also took names from the gravestones for use later as characters in his books.
“I like many versions of The Carol including the 2009 version starring Jim Carrey and The Muppet Christmas Carol, but my all-time favourite is the 1953 black and white version titled Scrooge staring Alastair Sim.
“Even a military veteran like myself can be moved by the scene where Scrooge wakes up and finds he has not missed Christmas and has time to change.”
So, why is it still so popular today and relevant?
The Dickens expert said: “It is said that Dickens reinvented or reminded us all what the spirit of Christmas is all about. He did it in a non-religious way and its themes can be found in many cultures and religions so it has worldwide appeal.
“Many versions and adaptations of the story have been and are still being written based on The Carol. I was recently asked to look a new version of the original manuscript, located in the Morgan Library and Museum in New York and give my opinion. The left hand page is the original manuscript and the right hand page the translation. Believe me you need the translation as Dickens handwriting is not at all easy to read and there are an unbelievable number of changes and corrections. Of particular interest to me was the description of Gad’s Hill Place, yes there were changes but they were crossed out in such a way that they are illegible to me.
“Professor Malcolm Andrews, editor of The Dickensian and emeritus professor of Victorian and visual studies at the University of Kent is currently reviewing the book for The Dickensian.”
He concluded: “The lessons The Carol reminded people of when it first came out are still meaningful today. The Carol reminds us that long term profit and monetary growth are not the be all and end all and to enjoy the journey. I for one am more inclined to dig a little deeper into my pockets for charity at this giving time of year. It teaches that rewards do not have to be monetary, there is always time to change and it is never too soon to start.
“You only have to look at Brexit and the US elections to see the need for change, forgiveness and reconciliation with offended groups and mankind is everyone’s responsibility. It is such a shame that the spirit Dickens reminded us of is not pursued all the year around.”