Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body Joseph Addison, English Essayist, Poet, Dramatist and Statesman. 1672 - 1719

'Clarice's Book Page' is the 'reading room' of the 'Elizannie' page at:

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

A Christmas Carol

Over on the Elizannie blog a look at Dickens' story from the sociological point of view has taken place, but lots of literary comments had to be left out, so here I am attempting to re-dress the balance!

A Christmas Carol was written in 1843, and it touched readers' hearts then and continues to do so today, although now it is not just through the written word but through stage and film adaptations, audio versions via CD and radio. Many people know the story of how a miserable man - Scrooge - who did not have any feelings of humanity or kindness towards others was shown the error of his ways by the Ghosts of Christmas and by the end of the story not only is filled with the spirit of Christmas Goodwill but became a better human being altogether.

First of all let's start with a Trivial pursuit question! How many ghosts are there in A Christmas Carol? Most people answer three: The Ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas future/yet to come. However the 'official' answer in quizzes is four - including Marley of course. But when Marley leaves and Scrooge looks out of the window he sees many ‘spectres’ outside. And don’t forget the ghostly hearse going up the stairs as Scrooge enters his house!

Although nowadays we think of a 'carol' as being a Christmas song, the definition of the word is a song of joy or praise. So the title A Christmas Carol must signify a joyful song about Christmas or the Christmas ideal. By the end of the story this certainly becomes true. The ‘Carol’ imagery is carried on throughout the story, with staves used instead of chapter headings. This was definately an interesting/unusual literary device for the time. [Something that Dickens’ friend Wilkie Collins - and other authors in other ways - would later do in a different way by laying out one of his novels like a play in ‘Acts’] But almost revolutionary for an author like Dickens to do this in 1843.

Let's look at the three Christmas Ghosts a little more closely:

· The Ghost of Christmas Past
Sounds somewhat like a candle which at the end their ‘trip’ together Scrooge snuffs out. It was a Christmas custom to light a candle on Christmas eve. This Spirit shows the reader the reason for Scrooge's actions but does not excuse him
· The Ghost of Christmas Present
A representation of Father Christmas*. Victorian Father Christmases were dressed in any colour robes. This ghost shows Scrooge what he is missing by his actions but also offers a warning in the shape of the two children: Ignorance and Want – Dickens’ warning about the effects of the squalid conditions of the Industrial Revolution and exploitation of labour could have on the very poor
· The Ghost of Christmas Future
An awful warning and also reminiscent of Old Father Time. And in fact he foretells Scrooge’s unmourned and lonely death unless he mends his ways.

There are a lot of Dickens' autobiographical details in the story. Because the young Dickens experienced so much hardship and poverty during his early life, his writing about social inequalities is often based on his own past. It could be that the Cratchit’s house is modelled on the small house at 16 Bayham Street in Camden Town where Dickens lived at the age of ten and the six Cratchit children mirror Dickens' brothers and sisters - Tiny Tim may be based on Dickens' youngest, poorly brother who was known as “Tiny Fred”'. Dickens was a pupil at Wellington House Academy, Hampstead Road, London which may be the model for the school Scrooge went to. It is set in
a little market-town . . . with the bridge, its church, and winding river.
Johnson in “About ‘A Christmas Carol’” (Dickensian 1931) identifies this description as referring to Strood, Rochester, and the river Medway, where Dickens spent part of his childhood. Johnson also noted that Dickens erased the word “castle” from the original manuscript, an apparent reference to Rochester Castle. [Michael Patrick Hearn, The Annotated Christmas Carol, 88] Like Scrooge, Dickens had a sister called Fan[ny]

The women in A Christmas Carol are unusual for Dickens, who often had a ‘silly’ woman in his novels who probably represented his mother, Elizabeth Dickens – think of Mrs Nickleby, Dora Copperfield, Bleak House etc although these are often balanced by a strong woman like Agnes Copperfield, Betsy Trotwood etc. But in A Christmas Carol the woman are quite pro-active: Fan, Belle, Mrs Cratchit all speak up for themselves. Even the laundress and the cleaning women have a certain something! Victorian readers would have picked up ‘hints’ about the ‘interesting condition’ of Mrs Fred:
‘Scrooge’s niece was not one of the blind–man’s buff party, but was made comfortable with a large chair and a footstool’
‘Dear heart alive, how his niece by marriage started. Scrooge had forgotten, for the moment, about her sitting in the corner with the footstool, or he wouldn’t have done it, on any account.’
The children in A Christmas Carol are more typical of the 'Dickens' type of child', although like Rose in Oliver Twist, Tiny Tim does not die. However Tim is like many ‘too good to be true’ children in Dickens novels who do usually die: Paul Dombey, Little Nell. Tim is rather like Oliver Twist in that he seems to have an almost angelic streak. Dickens is playing up to the Victorian ‘ideal’ that children were born good or bad, and Tim – again like Oliver Twist and Paul Dombey – seems to have been born able to spout words of pious wisdom!

Bear with me here, because I am going to talk about another little quirk of mine: Evidence of Time Travel in the story! The chronology of the story does not ‘work’ if we try to be sensible! Scrooge and Marley don’t part until 2 o’clock on Christmas morning and the first Ghost is not ‘due’ until one o’clock the next day [Boxing Day], the second at one o’clock on the 27th and the third at midnight on the 28th. Scrooge does say
‘Couldn’t I take ‘em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?’ hinted Scrooge
However Scrooge awakens at two o’clock and then at all the other times and finally awakes on Christmas morning, crying
‘It’s Christmas Day!’ said Scrooge to himself. ‘I haven’t missed it! The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like.’
Another ‘hint’ for time travel: When the Ghost of Christmas past takes Scrooge to see himself as a child at school we read:
“The panels shrunk, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell”
This is the sort of 'effect' which suggests the image of 'unbuilding' of the apartment which surrounds Scrooge, taking it back in time in fact. This effect has been used in other novels and films, particularly by H. G. Wells in The Time Machine (1895) and in film versions of that book.

For modern children, there are also suggestions of super hero qualities in the Ghosts' interactions with Scrooge because they have the power to:
  • Look through walls and roofs
  • Change the future if not the past
  • Circle the earth
  • Do all these things in one night moreover!!!

There are so many Film/TV Versions of the Novel, nearly 100 at last count. I should be [but I am not] ashamed to say that I own about 6o, the earliest [version not the film] dating from 1901. There are of course also many audio/cassette versions and some can be downloaded from the internet and put on mp3 players.

Of course dramatisations often either show scenes that are not in the original or omit ones which are:

Not in the original story:
· Scrooge eating with the Cratchits: he didn’t and that would have ruined the scene on Boxing Day when Bob turns up late for work and Scrooge pretends to sack him!
· In the Alastair Sim version he is shown dancing with his housekeeper on Christmas morning – lovely thought though this is it didn’t happen! No housekeeper in the book! The whole point is that up until the spirits visit, Scrooge is alone. In the 1935 Seymour Hicks version a housekeeper is also shown [Athene Syler] bringing in his breakfast and again that is an ‘invention’.

Omitted from the original story:
· Scrooge is not often shown eating alone in a tavern/coffee house on his way home from work on Christmas Eve. The Seymour Hicks version shows this.
· The couple who are not to be evicted because Scrooge has died are often omitted
· When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows the grieving Cratchits it is often not made clear that Tiny Tim has only just died and is in fact still not yet buried and additionally this is not the same year that we are ‘seeing’ the grave stone etc of Scrooge – remember the Time Travel elements!

The book is written with lots of allusions to light and dark/fog/shadows and looking into and out of scenes – in and out of windows and behind curtains for example. Thus it is very ‘filmic’ as it were - and although we know that Dickens loved theatricals and wasn’t averse to the odd bit of acting himself it is odd to think that he knew nothing about what a gift A Christmas Carol would be to film-makers. It has been filmed almost constantly since 1901. Sadly I own lots of versions... Rather than subject you all to a long dissertation on the relative merits of teach, here are just a few of my subjective comments!:
o Best: Patrick Stewart 1999/ Muppets 1992 [where Dickens – played by Gonzo the puppet - is the narrator!]
o Worst: Brer Rabbit's Christmas Carol/ Carry on Christmas 1969
o Genre: Ballet/Opera and apparently a County & Western version called Skinflint: A Country Christmas Carol (1979) (TV) which hardly anyone has ever seen…..
o Animated: ‘Themed’ include: Mr Magoo, The Flintstones, All Dogs, Jetsons, Mickey Mouse and others
o Puppets: The Muppets, Sesame Street
o Quirky: Scrooged, An American Christmas [set in the 1920]s, Ebenezeer [a western with Jack Palance].
o Feminist’: Where Scrooge is female [Mostly American] with Ms Scrooge; Ebbie 1995; A Diva’s Christmas Carol; A Carol Christmas; A Bad Girls Christmas special
o The Disney 3D version, really good special effects but no use to those like me with neuro problems who are not allowed to watch 3D films.....
o A 'time travel'/sci fi version with Dr Who
o Some subvert the idea: It’s a Wonderful Life, Black Adder’s Christmas Carol
o There has even been an Easter ‘sequel’: An Easter Carol which was made an animation made in 2004

The context of the times in which any version has been made can show in that adaptation.
Although I have been talking about the effect of A Christmas Carol continuing throughout our society across the years, the film versions show a reverse in the sense that what was prevailing at the times when a film adaptation was made often affected the way that adaptation was made. To illustrate, just a quick example from a few of the many films adaptations, some of which will certainly be shown over the new few weeks at a TV channel near you! Please note that titles such as ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘Scrooge’ may change/be interchangeable depending which side of the Atlantic one is on!

Scrooge [1935]: The ‘Sir Seymour Hicks version’
This was filmed at the time of the depression and the hunger marches and there is a scene where the poor/unemployed are looking through a window into the ‘other world’ of the rich at a function which could be somewhere like the Mansion House, where there is dancing and feasting. When the loyal toast is sung, those inside and outside sing ‘God Save the King’ - an attempt to show the 'unity' of the two groups. At Christmas 1935 King George had been ill for nearly a year and died in the January of 1936.

Scrooge [1951] aka A Christmas Carol – USA: The ‘Alec Guiness version’
This film was made at a time of optimism, at the time of things improving after a World War unlike the previous film which was heading toward a world war. Rationing was still about and that is reflected in the fact that food is not focused upon at all in any of the scenes as in the last film. But this was a time also of events like the Festival of Britain and Scrooge’s excitement and optimism at the end reflect that. The humour is quirky. It added in several scenes not in the book including a 'new' employer – Jorkins played by Jack Warner – who ‘poached’ Scrooge from Fezziwig and almost ‘taught’ Scrooge bad ways; the death scene of Fan, Scrooge’s sister and added to the school scene by claiming that Scrooge and Fan’s mother had died in childbirth with Scrooge when in fact Fan was the younger child. As said before, the housekeeper is fictitious – but all the more fun because she is played by Kathleen Harrison!

Scrooge [1970]: The ‘Albert Finney musical version’
This version was trying to capitalize on the success of Oliver! but kind of missed the boat – it has been said that the only good song is ‘Thank you very much’. In a lot of ways the musical does connote late 69s/early 70s musicals. It is not the only musical version but I do prefer that of the Muppets! Albert Finney is excellent as Scrooge although he seems to have based Scrooge on Albert Steptoe [if you remember him...] – but the fact that he is too young [34] for the part does shine through. Originally Rex Harrison [it was not that long after his success in My Fair Lady] was going to take the part but he had to rest on doctor’s orders. One wonders how different the film would have been with him as Scrooge. Richard Harris also rejected the part.

There is a definite ‘Swinging 60s’ zeitgeist in the Ghost of Christmas Present sitting on a magnificent pile of food and in the crowd scenes when Anton Rogers leads the singing of ‘Thank You Very Much’ on the death of Scrooge and actually dances to it on Scooge’s coffin [bad taste!] An extra scene of Scrooge going to hell is very sci fi orientated [2001 Space Odyssey inspired?] with a wonderful Alec Guiness as Marley’s ghost. ‘Thank You Very Much’ becomes good taste when Scrooge dubiously decks himself out as Father Christmas at the end and gives away wonderful Christmas Presents to the Cratchit family and then goes out in the street and destroys everyones’ debts!

A Christmas Carol [1984]: The ‘George C. Scott version’
Filmed in Shrewsbury at a time when Merchant Ivory films were the vogue so it is ‘costume drama’ at its most intense – but is it Victorian ‘grubby’ enough? Made during Thatcher’s Britain, there is a reminder when we see the homeless of how for the first time for many years there was an increasing homeless population on the streets of our big cities. Does Scott’s Scrooge represent an 80s yuppie perhaps? The director, Clive Donner, was the film editor on Scrooge (1951).

Scrooged [1988]: Bill Murray
Probably to everyone’s disgust, this would be in my top two of the adaptations, but tying with the Muppets. [I am not sure about my number one. Probably Patrick Stewart] It portrays the 'tread on the others' business world of the 1980s yuppies and the Scrooge character as a businessman who cares more about success than his family and friends.

A Christmas Carol [1999]: The ‘Patrick Stewart version’
Although there are slight changes to the beginning – instead of saying ‘Marley was dead’ we are shown Marley’s funeral and the singing of Silent Night is an anachronism but does it matter because it is such a good adaptation! Stewart is a Dickens expert and put on a one man show of A Christmas Carol a few years ago in London to very good reviews. It is probably the most accurate and thoughtful and I personally love the scene on Christmas morning where Scrooge is trying to laugh for the first time in many years.

Produced in 1999 it seems to be trying to be presenting the book in a faithful way – but also saying that although we may be 156 years on from the original book but we still have unemployed and those who need charities to help them through their problems. No longer workhouses perhaps but still jails. Still ‘two nations’ the rich and poor? At the end of Scrooge’s visit to the Cratchit’s during Christmas Present, Tiny Tim starts singing “Silent Night” so the sentimental feeling of the original story is still there in bucket loads.

A Christmas Carol be read on two levels? On one level as almost a fairy tale about a rich, selfish man who eats the wrong sort of supper, has a nightmare which is real enough to make him realise that he is wasting his life and the riches he is amassing and could lead a better and happier one helping others and when he wakes he does. The other level is a deeper warning about how laissez faire economics can eat away at society from within and whilst killing off ‘expendable parts’ in the form of ‘surplus population’ something more precious and vibrant – happiness and innocence – will also be lost unless the selfish giant [to borrow from the future yet to come, Oscar Wilde] becomes less selfish a sterile and unloving, uncaring society will develop. Is this the reason that the story is still popular – because deep down we all know that we cannot afford to forget it? Charity is not just good for those who receive it, it is good for the giver too?

Lastly, please look at the punning word play in the last paragraph on the two sorts of spirits – alcohol and ghosts! So Dickens rounds off with a joke. The story may be about serious stuff and morals but is light-hearted too:
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!
Yes, God Bless Us Every One!

*Our red faced, jolly ‘Santa’ dressed in red robes trimmed with white fur is actually an invention of the Coca Cola company

A Christmas Carol is sometimes adapted/used for campaigning purposes as in:

Some little quotes and paragraphs of this blog may also be found in Elizannie's
Well we are twins!

The picture above is from the original 1843 illustrations and shows the Fezziwig ball. The original illustrator of the story was John Leech had become an artist to support himself after the bankruptcy of his family forced him to abandon the medical studies in which he had excelled in anatomical drawing. He joined the staff of Bentley’s Miscellany in 1840, and was the chief cartoonist for Punch from 1841-1861: approximately 3,000 drawings of his appeared in Punch during this period. Although most famous as an early Victorian satirist for this work, he also made extensive contributions to periodicals such as The Illustrated London News and produced drawings and etchings for numerous novels, short stories and children’s books. As well as those for A Christmas Carol, his best known book illustrations are found in the hunting novels of Surtees. [This information on Leech from