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CHARLES DICKENS did not invent ‘traditional’, old fashioned Christmases of course, the kind that many of us still enjoy revelling in today (and so beloved of greetings card manufacturers): that particular garland rests more fittingly on the noble brow of Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert.
His wholesale import of the age-old German Christmas, complete with feasting, merriment and the lighted tree itself, hung with sugar plums and barley sugar canes were readily embraced by the new, romantic era, ushered in by its new Queen with her young family.
But it was Dickens, that literary genius and social commentator of the Victorian age who not only promoted Christmas in this form, he did so by creating his immortal morality tale, A Christmas Carol.
Having lived and worked in Devon as a young newspaper reporter, he returned to the county at the height of his fame to give one of the first ever public readings of this perennial classic in August, 1858 at the Royal Public Rooms, in the heart of the City of Exeter.
He afterwards wrote to his sister-in-law that the good people of Devon packed the place to the rafters and he wished that he had been able to book the venue again.
“We had a most wonderful night at Exeter. I think they were the finest audience I have ever read to. I don’t think I have ever read, in some respects, so well, and I never beheld anything like the personal affection which they poured out upon me at the end. It was really a remarkable sight, and I shall always look back upon it with pleasure.”
The reporter from the Flying Post was impressed by the great man’s performance, as well he might.
“Mr. Dickens possesses great dramatic ability, wonderful powers of facial expression, and a rich sonorous voice, of which he is a perfect master–changing it from the rough tones of Scrooge to the sweet and delicate key of Tiny Tim with an easy and remarkable facility.”
Yet here, more than a century and a half after A Christmas Carol when that crowd streamed out into the High Street, laughing and crying in turn at the end of the performance, it still seems an extraordinary way for such a story to begin.
“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.”
Extraordinary that is until, we are reminded of the novel’s subtitle, often dropped by publishers in later editions “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.”
Devon’s winter weather in the early and mid-1800s, like most of the rest of southern England was extreme. Sheep on Dartmoor were still being dug out of snowdrifts as late as April on successive years in the 1830s. Stagecoaches and their unfortunate passengers had to be rescued from monumental snowdrifts: roads were made impassable and rural communities were sometimes cut off for weeks at a time.
In 1814, when Dickens was just two years old, the Thames had frozen over in London and its citizens marked the event with The Great Frost Fair which saw coaches travelling on the frozen river between the City and Westminster whilst an elephant promoted a circus by being walked to and across the ice at Blackfriars.
It has been suggested that these and similar weather related events during his formative childhood years – before his father was torn away from the family and thrown into debtors prison – made a deep and lasting impression on him that manifested in many of his writings: particularly in the Pickwick Papers and most pointedly in A Christmas Carol itself.
Was the book then really an invocation of his childhood of Christmases with his family? Many believe that it is.
Dickens quit his life as a reporter in 1834, bid farewell to his drinking companions at the Turk’s Head tavern next to Exeter’s Guild Hall and left Devon for London, to write full time . But he came back to the county often, and married Catherine Hogarth, a pretty, Scottish lass then living in Exeter and the daughter of his one-time newspaper editor. Dickens was 24 and she just 21.
It was 1836, the same year that he had published his first literary success, The Pickwick Papers. (The character of The Fat Boy is based on a potman at The Turk’s Head).
Within a few years he had become an international literary celebrity but although the couple had 10 children the marriage was not a happy one. Nevertheless, Catherine found time, between her confinements, to write her own best-seller – a cookery book – which in an age of long book titles was called What Shall we Have for Dinner? Satisfactorily Answered by Numerous Bills of Fare for from Two to Eighteen Persons.
Catherine Dickens died on 22 November 1879 aged 64 and was laid to rest in Highgate Cemetery in London with her infant daughter, Dora, who had died in 1851 aged nearly eight months.
Charles John Huffam Dickens preceded her on 9th June 1870, aged 58. His grave is to be found at Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey but his greatest monument of course is his literary work.
Of these, A Christmas Carol remains the most popular, internationally. As a book it has never been out of print.
On television it has appeared scores of times and in various guises since it was first transmitted by a New York tv channel, WABD, on 20 December 1944.
There have been 22 film versions since the first one-reeler attempted to tell the tale in 1901. That is if you include The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) with Michael Caine as Scrooge and Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit.
But to the arguably sublime from the wonderfully ridiculous, the last words on this subject must surely go to the great man himself.
“If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”
The Voice of the Book itself
But here, finally, is Charles Dickens himself, speaking to the reader in the voice of one of the key characters of the tale. Fred.
Fred? You will remember (or might care to know) that Ebenezer Scrooge had a sister, called Fran, who had died in childbirth, bringing this, her only child into the world.
Having tried, unsuccessfully to persuade his uncle to join him and his wife to share Christmas dinner with them, Fred tells the unrepentant old miser:
“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 people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!’”