CHRISTMAS, DICKENS, AND THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS
Over Thanksgiving, we went to see the movie, THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS. It’s a charming movie, in the vein of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, though not as good, but then again, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE was written by Tom Stoppard. And not as good doesn’t mean the movie’s not very good. It is.
THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS is the story of how Dickens came to write A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and in the course of it you see large chunks of CAROL, the circumstances under which he wrote it, and the childhood events which informed his Christmas classic, particularly the time he spent working in a blacking factory, desperately trying to earn enough money to get his parents and little sister out of debtor’s prison while living BY HIMSELF in a frigid garret room.
That trauma infuses his work, from DAVID COPPERFIELD to NICHOLAS NICKLEBY and OLIVER TWIST–and, of course, A CHRISTMAS CAROL. And the movie does a good job of showing you how it does.
What it DOESN’T show you is how Dickens made the jump from freezing urchin to successful author, complete with nice family, big house, and international fame–an almost magical transformation. It doesn’t answer the question: how did he manage to survive the nightmare and avoid the fate of all those other boys and sink into the mire of poverty, illness, and crime like they did? What saved him from that?
There’s nothing to show you how he got from one to the other or how he managed to not only survive his ordeal, but also to come out of it a kind and compassionate person.
There’s obviously a scene missing, and I’m not talking about one that shows how a relative died two years later and left the family an inheritance which got them out of jail and Charles out of the blacking factory and back in school. I’m talking about the one that shows what sustained him during that dark time, what kept him from succumbing to bitterness and despair and made it possible for him to spring back once the nightmare was over.
There’s a brief hint in the movie (when he gives the little Irish serving-maid his copy of ARABIAN NIGHTS to read), and it’s echoed by the CHRISTMAS CAROL’s characters who haunt his study, but it’s not explicit enough for people who aren’t steeped in Dickens knowledge.
So what’s the scene? It occurs in that barren garret room Dickens lived in, and you can find it in DAVID COPPERFIELD, Dickens’ most purely autobiographical novel:
“My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time . . .”
The scene occurs again in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Past shows him his younger self, left all alone at school during the Christmas holidays:
“…a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be…“Suddenly a man, in foreign garments: wonderfully real and distinct to look at: stood outside the window, with an axe stuck in his belt, and leading by the bridle an ass laden with wood.
“‘Why, it’s Ali Baba!’ Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. ‘It’s dear old honest Ali Baba! Yes, yes, I know! One Christmas time, when yonder solitary child was left here all alone, he did come, for the first time, just like that. Poor boy! …‘There’s the Parrot!’ cried Scrooge. ‘Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is! Poor Robin Crusoe!…’”
It was books–and imagination–that rescued Charles, that kept him company in his loneliness, protected him from hopelessness, and kept him from giving up, that made it possible to believe in a way out and the possibility of a better life even when none seemed possible, and it’s too bad that’s not in the movie.
But it’s a really good movie about a great man, and I highly recommend it.
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I also recommend watching A CHRISTMAS CAROL in one of its myriad forms (at last count there are over fifty). My favorites include:
–Mr. Magoo’s (with songs by Broadway composers Jules Styne and Bob Merrill)
–THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (which is recommended by London’s Charles Dickens Museum as being the most faithful to the book–except for the fact that there are two Marleys and a rat)
–SCROOGED (especially Carol Kane’s demented Spirit of Christmas Past)
–THE TWILIGHT ZONE’S “Carol for Another Christmas”
–BAH, HUMDUCK! A LOONEY TUNES CHRISTMAS CAROL with Daffy Duck as Scrooge)
Or you can read the original CHRISTMAS CAROL. It’s full of delights and surprises, starting with the title, which is, in full, A CHRISTMAS CAROL IN PROSE, BEING A GHOST STORY OF CHRISTMAS IN FIVE STAVES. There are several scenes which never make it into the TV versions, such as the Cratchit’s older daughter, sent out to work and already ruining her eyes with close work in poor light, and the part where the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to all the far-flung corners of the globe to show him Christmas in lonely country cottages and at sea.
Plus, the writing’s fabulous:
“Scrooge! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”
“The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already–it had not been light all day–and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighboring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air.”
And it’s got the best first line ever!
If you already know A CHRISTMAS CAROL by heart, you might want to read my short story, “Adaptation” (in the collections MIRACLE and A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS ), which has the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come fallen on hard times and forced to get jobs in an American department store.
Or you can read one of Dickens’ OTHER Christmas stories. A CHRISTMAS CAROL has so thoroughly taken over that people are always astonished to discover it was only one of several Christmas stories he wrote. I’d recommend “The Chimes,” which bears an uncanny resemblance to another Christmas classic, “The Cricket on the Hearth,” and “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain,” which stars a grim chemistry professor and a wish with unintended consequences.
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After we saw the movie, I wanted to know more about the particulars of Dickens’ life, so I went online to see what I could find out–and was promptly horrified. Not by Dickens’ history, which was harrowing enough, but by the literary critics who wrote about it. Many of them were dismissive of his sufferings as a child, and some were downright contemptuous.
“He may only have worked there a year,” one sniffed, and others suggested that he exaggerated the harshness of the conditions. Still others criticized “the self-pity that permeates many of his works,” and their ridiculous “fairy-tale plots” and happy endings, calling them mere wishful thinking.
One even accused him of harboring a childish belief that if he had died or turned bad, “it would have served the grownups right.”
Who ARE these people? In the first place, he didn’t exaggerate anything–he really did work ten-hour days in a place full of toxic fumes, rats, and a cruel dog-eat-dog attitude among the boys who worked there.
In the second place, a year (if it was a year–some historians say it was closer to two, or two and a half) is an eternity to a child , even if it’s a year with a definite cut-off date, which this wasn’t. People who were put in debtors’ prison hardly ever got out, and he had no reason to think his awful servitude wouldn’t go on forever and ever.
I’d like to see how well those same critics would have done if their parents had been hauled off to prison when they were twelve and they’d been sent to work in a filthy, disease-ridden place to work exhaustingly long days and then go home to a cold back attic where they lived by themselves, and see how THEY did, and how much “self-pity” they had. (Note: Self-pity is when you feel sorry for yourself even though nothing’s happened to make you feel that way, not when you really are a victim.)
When Dickens said he might easily have died or turned into a criminal for all the care that was taken him, he was telling the simple truth. It was a miracle it didn’t happen to him.
Trust me, Dickens’ experience was every bit as nightmarish as he depicted it–and it was very nearly worse. After his newly released father pulled him out of the factory and sent him off to school, his mother argued strenuously that he be sent back to the factory. He never forgave her.
As for the ridiculous “fairy-tale” endings, if they really happen to you, then you get to write about them. That’s the rule. And Dickens’ life was full of surprising reversals and unexpected deliverances. Including the writing of A CHRISTMAS CAROL.
As I said before, who ARE these people?
Well, of course we know who they are. They’re Scrooge and his cohorts, completely lacking in compassion, asking, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”, saying that the poor had better “die and decrease the surplus population.” People with no compassion or heart–and no imagination, who can’t imagine what it must have been like for poor Charles!
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Christmas is no time for ranting, which is why Dickens, who’d originally intended to write a political pamphlet railing about children and poverty, decided instead to write A CHRISTMAS CAROL, which did far more good than any op-ed could have. Donations to the poor skyrocketed, a Boston factory owner gave his workers free turkeys and the day off, and charitable “Tiny Tim” campaigns sprang up everywhere.
So I’ll close with an admonition to “keep Christmas” like the converted Scrooge did and some words from the man who invented Christmas himself:
“Christmas is a time in which, of all times in the year, the memory of every remediable sorrow, wrong, and trouble in the world around us, should be active with us not less than our own experiences, for all good.”
“I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time…as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely and to think of the people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures found on other journeys.”
“Many merry Christmases, many happy New Years. Unbroken friendships, great accumulations of cheerful recollections and affections on earth, and heaven for us all.”
So, in the words of Dickens, “A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to the world!” from me. And, as Tiny Tim would say, “God bless us everyone!”