Dickens's 'Christmas Carol' spurred holiday spirit in 1843 -- and still does today

Humbug? Hah! Scrooge, voiced by Jim Carrey, carries Tiny Tim (Gary Oldman) in a new film version of "A Christmas Carol." A Dickens biographer says the author "stamped his image on" the holiday.
Humbug? Hah! Scrooge, voiced by Jim Carrey, carries Tiny Tim (Gary Oldman) in a new film version of "A Christmas Carol." A Dickens biographer says the author "stamped his image on" the holiday. (Disney/imagemovers Digital Via Associated Press)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009

One hundred and sixty-six Christmases ago, the prodigious Charles Dickens gave the world the gift of a little book, bound in salmon brown and gilt, and with eight illustrations. "A Christmas Carol," for a modest 5 shillings, became an instant hit. Today, we can't imagine a Christmas without it.

Within the embroidered prose style of his day, Dickens delivered a fairy tale that on one level scared us silly and on another touched something deep in our souls to do better for each other.

Indeed, one observer said the story "prompted more acts of beneficence . . . than can be traced to all the pulpits of Christendom." Another called it "a new gospel."

Dickens "is referred to as the man who invented Christmas but he didn't exactly do that," said Michael Slater, who has written a new, acclaimed biography of the novelist. "It's the same year, 1843, that the first Christmas card is recorded. There was definitely a revival of Christmas, and Dickens with his little story incorporates so many different aspects of the festive season. He stamped his image on it."

"What he did," said actor, author and Dickensian Simon Callow, "was to make Christmas about now."

Dickens was in his early 30s and already a superstar author when he penned "Carol," which was inspired by his outrage at a government report on the use of child labor in coal mines. With its publication, "he became an institution," said Callow.

But where did this story of redemption come from, and where did it lead?

It was traditional to tell ghost stories at Christmas, said Slater. And Dickens, with vivid memories of Christmas as a child, had long been drawn to the holiday as a subject years before he wrote "Carol," which was one of five "Christmas Books." And as the editor of various periodicals in his career, he routinely published Christmas-themed editions at this time of year.

Six years before, in "The Pickwick Papers," there is a scene where a misanthropic gravedigger named Gabriel Grub -- after hitting a boy with a lamp for being too merry -- is visited by goblins and taken into their world. Here he is shown the image of a once-happy family suffering the death of a child and other horrors before he returns a better man.

"Dickens must have had that in his mind when he wrote 'A Christmas Carol,' " said Slater.

It is "Carol" that has most endured, he said, because it is the best of his Christmas tales.

"It's extremely dramatic, has a very strong story line and above all it has this amazing character of Scrooge," he said. "There's no character in any of the other Christmas books that's anywhere near as imprinted on the public's imagination as Scrooge. And with Tiny Tim, it's a very strong and bold opposite."

Callow said most of the other books were written out of seasonal duty, but "Carol" was fueled by Dickens's sense of outrage at the treatment children. "On the manuscript he signed himself 'Charles Dickens' and he underlined it 20 times, and he went out and would party because he was so certain he had struck the blow he wanted to strike," said Callow, author of "Dickens' Christmas." In addition, "it was one of those glorious things that a writer dreams of, it all came together. The metaphor and the human figures coalesce so perfectly."

Slater said Dickens fans might want to become acquainted with his last Christmas book, "The Haunted Man," in which, along with the autobiographical "David Copperfield," Dickens "faces up to his past" -- and his feelings about his past -- "and works through them."

In "The Haunted Man," the character Redlaw agrees to have his memory of all his past wrongs and sorrows erased, but when this happens he loses his human kindness, and this curse spreads to all he meets. Eventually, he persuades the phantom to return all his memories, good and bad.

"It doesn't have the humor of the 'Carol' but there's something very powerful in it," said Slater. "It's a very Victorian idea that you can't feel real compassion for other people unless you yourself have suffered."

Like Scrooge and Redlaw, Dickens had his own demons, but unlike his protagonists, they never left him. When he was 12, his spendthrift parents sent him to do menial work in a boot-dyeing factory. He worked behind a street-level window in central London, where the teeming populace could watch him. His shame ran deep. His father removed him after more than a year, against his mother's wishes. Dickens never forgave her.

In middle age, his increasing unhappiness with his wife, Kate, led to a nasty public separation that added to his woes.

"He was very prickly, very much on his guard against people exploiting him, and that sense of victimhood disastrously became to be focused on his marriage," said Slater. "Dickens behaved sometimes with great unkindness, even cruelty, to his wife, for example. But he also did many acts of extreme charity," he said. "A novelist must find within himself or herself the characters, if they are going to bring them to life."

Dickens spent the last 12 years of his life performing his works before large audiences. It was lucrative work, but physically draining. He gave his last reading in America in New York in 1867. His last performance was in London in March 1870, just a few weeks before his death. On both momentous occasions, he read "A Christmas Carol."

"He had quite an extensive repertoire," said Slater. " 'A Christmas Carol' was by far and away the most loved and popular of the readings, not just at Christmastime."

In his book, Slater records Fyodor Dostoevsky's report of meeting Dickens. The Russian novelist wrote that Dickens "told me that all the good simple people in his novels . . . are what he wanted to have been, and his villains was what he was, or rather what he found in himself."

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